Flybe’s CEO talks to BBT editor Paul Revel about a host of aviation topics from Concorde to NDC
Calling me from Flybe’s headquarters in Exeter, CEO Christine Ourmieres-Widener is upbeat about business when she talks about the airline’s financial performance.
The results for the half-year to September 30, 2017, show group revenue up more than 9 per cent year-on-year – but she’s even got a positive view of the 47 per cent drop in profits, down to £8.4 million, because it’s in large part down to a one-off investment in a new digital platform.
Ourmieres-Widener sees this as key to the airline’s future. “We’re seeing some evolution and flexibility in the distribution model,” she says, pointing out that early last year Flybe was one of the first airlines to implement IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) standard.
“As a regional airline we want to have more flexibility and to have distribution on a number of channels that are expected by our customers. That is one of the reasons we are heavily investing in our digital platform.”
So, she says, while the airline will be working more this year with TMC partners, “Our business travellers have even higher levels of expectation in operational excellence, they are more aware and they want us to stay connected with them, they want to be part of the story.”
This means being able to deliver real-time updates on anything that could affect their journeys. “That’s why our biggest investment is in technology, and this is something definitely growing year after year.”
Ourmieres-Widener took up the role of CEO at Flybe in January 2017. The airline operates 210 routes and flies from 33 UK airports.
The aforementioned technology investment involves migrating all systems to Amadeus’s Altea platform this year, including departure control. Ourmieres-Widener says on-time performance is a vital area for Flybe’s large regional network.
“On more than 70 per cent of our network, our competitors are rail and road. So our differentiation should be through our reliability and on-time performance – we need to deliver this promise. And when you consider our average flight duration is 59 minutes, you realise how important it is for us to be on time.”
She is also pleased to report that the strategy of reducing fleet size is reflected in the results, with improvements in load factor, passenger yield and revenue per seat, which is up 8.8 per cent year-on-year.
A fragmented market
This may all be good news, but there’s no doubt the European short-haul market is tough, with bankruptcies of Alitalia, Air Berlin and Monarch making headlines in 2017. What’s next for European aviation? “It's a very challenging market,” Ourmieres-Widener says. “Flybe is the largest regional carrier in the UK and Europe, so we have a scale impact on how we manage the business that some other players don't have.
“In the market you have 55 per cent of capacity operated by five big groups, and the other 45 per cent operated by more than 100 AOC holders. So it’s still a very fragmented market; consolidation is definitely on its way.
“And it will be a very challenging time because of the level of fuel prices and because of uncertainty with Brexit, so I think it is very important for any airline to have a good financial position.”
She adds that Flybe’s stable financial situation allows it to “face the headwinds, and we need to prepare for them – because the airline industry has to show resilience, there’s always something happening!”
She points out that Flybe operates 53 per cent of all flights within mainland Britain, and is the largest scheduled airline by movement at ten UK airports – this, she says, “gives us a sound business model – we don’t want to be anybody else, we want to do better at what Flybe’s good at.”
Feeding long-haul operations
Big players in the market such as Ryanair and Easyjet say feeding long-haul services is a big deal for them. I ask Ourmieres-Widener how important this strategy is for Flybe.
She cites 11 codeshare agreements with global carriers including BA, Emirates and Singapore Airlines. Plus, she says, “We launched another significant hub in March 2017 at Heathrow – the new services from Edinburgh and Aberdeen significantly increase our capacity to feed long-haul. But it’s not only Heathrow – at Manchester, Amsterdam and Birmingham we are feeding long-haul operations for many carriers, and we think this strategy is very successful.”
As evidence, she points to more than 40 per cent growth in revenue from interline and codeshare traffic.
A natural evolution
Ourmieres-Widener studied aeronautics before working as an engineer at Air France.
“I had a background in mathematics and physics, so aeronautics was a natural evolution for me,” she says. The Air France maintenance department was “an opportunity for me to realise how passionate I am about aviation, I worked on Concorde, a legendary aircraft, and the A320, which was then a new technology solution and cockpit configuration.”
She then moved to the commercial side and rose through the ranks at Air France, and was later CEO of Cityjet.
“I’m very lucky, in each role I've experienced new things, I always learn something and I work with fantastic people. I think it’s important in our industry to have an opportunity to understand how each component is contributing to the success of a business.
“But it’s still a very male-oriented industry,” she adds. “So it’s even more important to perform and deliver. It’s complex, more regulated than other industries, and safety is always a top priority. It’s 24/7 – I’ve got used to never switching off my phone – but every day is a new day with something different, something more difficult, something exciting.”
Before joining Flybe as CEO in January 2017, Ourmieres-Widener was chief global sales officer for American Express GBT. Prior to that she was CEO at Cityjet (2010-15) becoming the first female CEO of an Irish-licensed airline. She has a Masters degree in Aeronautics from the Ecole Nationale Superieure of ENSMA, and an MBA from Essec Business School.