Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Spanish airline industry, in a state of flux

A constant flow of news is coming out of the Spanish airline industry, making it one of the hotspots of the industry in Europe, so I thought about writing this post to summarize what is going on...

One of the most amazing things is that the deep economic crisis that Spain is currently going  thorugh is not enough to deter Spanish airline of the most exciting developments we have seen in last few months is the set-up of "stealthy" Barcelona-based airline startup, Volotea. Little is known about this project so far, except the identity of the founders, the fact that it is going to operate in the short-haul market and that its fleet is going to be composed of Boeing 717s. All these details, that were already advanced in the post I wrote a few weeks ago, have now been confirmed. Some reports in the press pointed also to the fact that it might not restrict its operations to the Spanish market only.

This is certainly an interesting timing to get into Spain's regional market, as the main incumbent in this segment, Air Nostrum is grounding up to 15 aircraft, reducing the number of staff and considering to move its headquarters from crisis-hit Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, to the Basque city of Bilbao.

Air Nostrum operates many regional routes within Spain on behalf of Iberia

At the same time Vueling has announced an investment of €325 million and a major expansion at its Barcelona base, with 5 new Airbus A320 based there and the launch of 23 new routes. This will bring Vueling's total number of cities served from Barcelona to 70, which makes it one of the largest short-haul networks in Europe.

Vueling's recent network expansion strategy is also worth of note, not only from a quantitative but also from a qualitative point of view...I wrote not long ago about how Barcelona could fulfill its hub ambitions by having an airline develop a network linking it to second and third-tier cities around the Western Mediterranean. The aim would be to become the reference hub for this region, in a way similar to what KLM does with its links between Amsterdam and British and Scandinavian regional airports. When I wrote this what I had in mind was more of a regional type of operation (as KLM does) and I still have serious doubts about whether the Airbus A320 is the right aircraft for this type of operation based on thin routes, but Vueling's route map, particularly in France, with additions such as Bordeaux, Lourdes, Marseille, Nantes and Brest, and Italy, with Genoa, Pisa, Verona, its new "connection flight" service seem to fit well with this strategy. Whether this will ultimately lead to the materialization of the much-awaited long-haul hub at Barcelona remains to be seen...

It is also noteworthy that Vueling is finally launching its first UK routes out of Barcelona (it flies already between the UK and several Spanish regional airports), a territory that, until now seemed reserved to the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair (by the way, the Irish airline has finally closed a deal with the Catalan government that will provide for 19 routes being launched or reinstated at Girona airport (GRO), just one hour drive North of Barcelona, BCN).

In the meantime, Barcelona's other carrier, Spanair, is languishing while awaiting its possible acquisition by Qatar Airways. Senior officials from the Catalan government and Barcelona City Council flew to Doha a few days ago to discuss the sale of Spanair to the Gulf carrier. As pointed out in this post, it will be interesting to see how petro-dollars affect the competitive landscape in the European airline industry. These negotiations, however, have not been obstacle for Qatar Airways to cooperate closely with Spanair's rival Iberia, to the point that it will be the only non-Oneworld airline to use Madrid's gigantic T4 terminal. Qatar Airways' passengers will also be able to use Iberia's domestic network for onward flight connections.

And I finish this post, precisely, with Iberia, as it is preparing the launch of its new low-cost airline Iberia Express. In reality, I think this move will be hardly noticeable to the average passenger: Iberia Express will be using the same aircraft and fly the same routes that Iberia already does, plus it will also offer business class. Iberia's on-board service on short-haul economy is already barely different to that of low cost airlines so not much of a change here either. So Iberia Express is more of a way to end a bitter labour dispute and lower operating costs in its short haul operations, a necessity for Iberia considering how entrenched Ryanair and Easyjet have become in the Spanish market, rather than the launch of a truly "new" airline.


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