Fly Atlantic is the newest airline announcement, aiming to offer low-cost fares from its base in Northern Ireland, utilising the operations of Belfast International through to North America, with the east coast of the United States and Canada targeted, in addition, to flying onwards to European destinations. Andrew Pyne is at the helm, a driving force for the company.
Launching an airline from the ground up is no easy task. However, Andrew Pyne comes equipped with a host of experiences. Working at airlines worldwide has enabled him to bring all that experience and knowledge to Fly Atlantic. When asked how the airline came about, he said:
“I was working on a project in Cyprus called Tus Airways and restructuring that airline, transitioning from operating pretty old Fokker aircraft to bringing in A320s. When Covid struck, pretty much as we were right at the most critical point of that transition, changing equipment and the business plan, the ramifications of the lockdowns in Cyprus were severe for the airline industry. The island was closed down for some time. So we couldn’t do much more work on the Tus Airways project. So I relocated to the UK in 2020 to look at other opportunities, and it was at that point that the concept came back into my head of looking at an airline that built on the strengths of the Wow Air model but also addressed some of the weaknesses of the Wow Air model.”
Fly Atlantic’s core foundation is built on looking at other airlines that have operated a similar model and ensuring that where those areas fail, Fly Atlantic can benefit. Andrew mentions that throughout late 2020 and well into 2021, alongside 2022, the focus was on identifying a business model that would work and where a suitable base of operations would be.
Belfast International was eventually selected as the priority. A decision that came following analysing Wow Air, who dealt with the critical problem of flying into an expensive airport, Andrew for Fly Atlantic wanted to fix that immediately.
Questions had arisen over why Belfast was selected as the home for Fly Atlantic when other potential options were available. Andrew directly compares his experience with WOW Air to Fly Atlantic and the differences by saying,
“I think what Belfast has, what generally Northern Ireland has, is a much bigger catchment population. So, for example, Iceland is 350,000 people, whereas here in Northern Ireland, we’re 1.8 million. So it’s a much bigger home population. Also, of course, we’re sitting in a position where we can serve two fundamental markets – the North American island market and the North American-UK market.”
In addition, political support is something the airline received. On top of that, Andrew mentions a final point departure tax. If you’re flying from Britain in the UK mainland, you’re looking at an over 80-pound departure tax for long-haul flights. Whereas out of Northern Island, he says you’re not paying this tax. So you’ve already built an essential advantage over London, Manchester or Glasgow.
Branding is a fundamental part of any airline. It represents who and what the airline is. Andrew could dive deeper into the livery while also exploring its simplicity. He mentioned that while this is an important area to a business, it causes sparks at the board level and can result in people getting highly emotional over decisions. He cautiously says that people shouldn’t read too much into the livery and that it might be tweaked before finally rolling out on their first aircraft, however saying.
“The Fly Atlantic livery, I like it very much. There are two focuses. First, you could interpret livery as a New York skyline, so the transatlantic element is certainly there. Then you can also interpret it as a series of digital codes, indicating a cutting-edge new type of airline. I don’t want to be prescriptive about how you should solve it. I think it’s down to the individual.”
Andrew hints at a destination that will not be a shock to many that Fly Atlantic is exploring for its transatlantic network, New York. However, the simplistic branding and name, Fly Atlantic, was also critical for Andrew. While words were thrown around for the airline, Fly Atlantic truly stuck, says Andrew, and once selected, there was no looking back.
Fly Atlantic will join many other airlines that have attempted transatlantic operations at a low cost. With that comes challenges; Andrew gave an outline for his route network, and while not finalised, they’re well and truly underway with the fine-tuning of initial destinations with their aircraft.
“I want to be quite guarded in what we say about the rest of the network. And I think the obvious point is we don’t want to reflect on the competition where we’re going to operate at this stage, nearly two years from a launch. So in broad geographical terms, we’ll be focused on the North East quadrant of the US, and we will be focused on Eastern Canada. No plans to go to the West Coast. And we will be looking at, in terms of feeder network, a lot of points in the rest of the UK, but also Central Europe, Eastern Europe, right way down to places like Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Cyprus.”
Andrew is cautious about revealing network decisions, citing the pandemic as a critical reference that many things can change at a moment’s notice. What they envisage now as a network might not entirely be what they have in two years when they’re ready for launch.
Fleet will be hugely important for Fly Atlantic’s launch. The airline is currently looking towards the Airbus A321neo or Boeing 737 MAX for their operations. However, Andrew tells me that at this point, it would seem like the A321 is truly the best option for what they’re looking for. Andrew partially explained the process.
“Right, we’re going to go for narrow-bodied, single-aisle aircraft,” then the options come down to the Max or the 321 Neo. It comes down to those two aircraft types, so evaluate which works better for the network. We’re keeping our options open. I think the plan has been lean towards the 321 up until now. There may be an option to switch to the Max. We’re evaluating that.”
Why narrow-body aircraft? Andrew compares the failed WOW Air, which flew with the Airbus A320 family and Airbus A330s. However, it was the larger wide-body aircraft that was their underdoing. Having a mix of aircraft was a flaw at WOW air, and for their wide-body aircraft and business plan, they often found themselves struggling to find ways to operate the aircraft.
Concerns for Fly Atlantic are how they’ll sustain market demand year-round. They’re an airline that is adopting a similar, but not identical, model, Andrew tells me to the currently fly Icelandair, Norse and PLAY. However, all airlines flying the transatlantic market uniquely feature the same problem, and that’s coping with demand during low points of the year. Andrew comments on concerns regarding sustainability year-round, saying
“I mean, you’ve got to look at taking some of the aircraft off the North Atlantic in the winter season and using them in other markets and looking at what we would call in the business ACMI operations. So you put those aircraft out to other operators to fly, for example, sunburn operations in North America or wherever. So that’s just one example. So matching capacity to demand is a big challenge. It’s a big challenge in every market.”
Andrew says that while his model can be compared to existing airlines that struggle, it’s not entirely the same, referencing the catchment of Northern Ireland and how they’ve already benefitted thanks to a larger community. He also mentions how the airline will use new-generation aircraft with a base that provides a cost advantage over others.
Belfast, as touched on, will be the home for the airline come 2024. However, questions have arisen over whether the facilities at the airport are up to date. Andrew comments on the airport’s facilities
“I think that the airport needs investment. We’ve spoken to the airport about what needs to be fixed. I think the airport has been very responsive on that, and they have plans to build stuff and improve the infrastructure to the point where we can make this work from day one. I mean, the airport estate is huge, and it does provide scope for developing, dare I say, a new terminal in time, a separate terminal for Fly Atlantic. It has space for creating a maintenance facility and a training centre. We’ve been looking at a green technology centre that might be developed here. So there’s plenty of room to expand, and I think it has enormous potential.”
2024 for Fly Atlantic is rapidly approaching, and a lot still needs to be done, aside from the obvious firming of aircraft, which Andrew insists they’re close to, in addition to finalising a network and communication with airports.
Andrew is looking towards growing their team. 95% of the team will be Northern Ireland recruits, with Andrew insisting that he wants to build a local group of people. However, a challenge is instilling the core values and creating a corporate culture for the airline moving forward.
While having a team can be great, Andrew’s goal for Fly Atlantic is to make the most of its resources. He doesn’t want to have 100 employees in an office with the most unclear of what they need to do.
So it all comes down to optimising every area of the business and implementing cost-saving measures to be sustainable in the long run, taking on positives from WOW Air but also exploring the negatives and how, as an airline, they can change them.
Fly Atlantic is Ireland’s one of the newest airlines to be announced in the industry. The ambition is to offer low-cost flights from their hub in Belfast, with likely the A321neo by 2024.
In addition, the airline will look to current and former ones on the market and explore ways to take the good and dissect the bad from these carriers to curate a memorable experience and an airline that is sustainable for decades to come.
You can visit Fly Atlantic’s website for more information.