Flymaybe. It’s what passengers using Flybe call the troubled British regional and point-to-point airline, riddled with delays and cancellations, failing to provide the required duty of care and with an irregular operations handbook that is demonstrably not fit for purpose.
There are very few airlines that I won’t fly myself and counsel friends and family not to use.
Flybe, because of its self-created reliability and recovery problems — not to mention its rapacious use of baggage sizers to squeeze an extra £50 ($US63) out of passengers at the gate — is one of them.
If you’re going to end up on an eight-hour coach ride, you might as well have planned for that to begin with.
The brand is toxic and needs to be replaced, with a current plan of taking the Virgin Atlantic name.
But it’s important not to damage the long haul brand with this Virgin Domestic/North Sea/English Channel operation.
Apart from a radical rethink of the airline’s operations, which are very much needed, its new owners Connect Airways, notably including Virgin Atlantic, have a wider passenger experience problem: it’s just not very pleasant to fly Flybe.
Most of its aircraft are turboprops: the Bombardier (now De Havilland Canada) Dash-8 Q400 at its previous max-pax capacity of 78 seats, pitched at 30 inches.
On its few (and decreasing in number) Embraer E175s, meanwhile, the airline uses a 29-inch seat pitch: the maximum capacity for this little aircraft that is, in other airlines’ fleets, a comfortable ride.
The interior look and feel of the airline’s planes might well be sold as “Boring Blue”: it’s about as depressing and generic as you can get, and equally as far from the Virgin Atlantic approach of injecting glamour into the cabin, even when its actual hard product isn’t hugely above average.
But how do you turn Boring Blue into something that people actually want to fly?
It’s not unheard of for regional aircraft to be pleasant. Even the US carriers manage to make their Embraers an aircraft of choice, while Canadian airline Porter does a great job with its Q400s.
Porter’s tactic is partly on board, where it has some of the world’s most comfortable turboprops with an admirable level of passenger experience, even while operating an all-economy service.
It has equipped its Q400s with 32-inch seat pitch as standard with 34 inches in the front, offering 74 seats in a much more elegant beige, complimentary beer, wine and snacks, and beverages in real glassware rather than contributing to the world’s plastic waste problem.
But Porter realizes that, especially for short flights, the ground experience is also important.
It provides a gate lounge area for all its passengers with seating, serve-yourself tea, coffee, juice, soft drinks and water as well as free wifi.
This isn’t just a nice-to-have, although it’s certainly nice: it also encourages passengers to head directly to the gate and hang around there before boarding rather than lingering over a beer at the airport bar, browsing the shops or getting stuck in the Starbucks queue.
I liken that to my last Flybe flight at the end of 2018, when passengers were crammed into a tiny departures zone at the end of a terminal at its main Birmingham hub with barely any seating, let alone any actual amenities, with surly staff providing little information and no assistance to passengers.
The options for injecting some Virgin glam into the Flybe experience are many.
A major revamp of its airport operations would be a plus: sprucing up the gate areas and thinking about how to reorganize at minimal cost wouldn’t break the bank.
Onboard, the look and feel of the hard product is an obvious first task, although this will inevitably take time.
On the soft product side, “Café Flybe” menu needs a dramatic shakeup. How about a signature snack and beverage option, even if it’s a juice and water run with a flapjack or muffin?
What about an inexpensive signature cocktail or mocktail? It’s not beyond the realms of the Virgin brand to suggest popping a couple of bottles of inexpensive Prosecco or Cava as an option either.
Virgin Flybe could even take a leaf out of Air New Zealand’s book, offering a range of complimentary options and improved passenger experience during the “Koru Hour” on early morning or evening rush-hour business traveller-focussed flights, with coffee and a breakfast snack in the AM and beer, wine, cider and soft drinks with something savoury in the evening.
The possibilities are there. The question is whether Virgin Atlantic will implement them.