The last independent low-cost airline in Europe has just gone bankrupt. And now?

The situation in Romania was quite chaotic two weeks ago, at least as far as air transport is concerned. Blue Air, citing the freezing of all its bank accounts by state autarky, canceled all its flights between the afternoon of September 6 and the 12 of the same month.

While accounts were unblocked the next day, sales for dates after the cancellations were reduced so much that, on the 9th, Blue Air said it would not resume flying until October 10th.

Whether they actually resume their flights or not, the damage is done; most of its fleet has already been returned to lessors and, according to Planespotters.net’s fleet database, only five 737s remain.

Before sinking, this fleet had fourteen aircraft spread over five bases. Of these, Turin in Italy, Cluj-Napoca and Iași in Romania had aircraft based which; Bacău, Romania, had two; and Bucharest saw the rest.

– Advertising –

This effectively meant that Blue Air was in second place in the competitive Romanian market, in an honorable position ahead of Ryanair and even the local national carrier TAROM — just behind Wizz Air.

And in doing so, it survived in the market as the last independent low-cost carrier (of considerable size, at least) in Europe.

Naturally, Bucharest was the airline’s stronghold. With nine planes based there, they flew to major cities, mostly serving the Romanian diaspora – in a financial statement during its COVID-19 bailout, the airline said that segment made up 70% of its customers .

Thus, the airline held 17.7% of the capacity (by number of seats) of Otopeni airport in the last full month of Blue Air’s operation, according to Cirium’s Diio Mi application.

Among the other bases, the most affected by the interruption is Bacău, where Blue Air held 61.7% of the local seat capacity; the city is followed by Iași (18.6%), Cluj (11.6%) and Turin (4.8%).

Naturally, Cluj and Turin will face less impact, especially due to the size of these cities, but Bacău, Bucharest and Iași should struggle more, as Blue Air is a major player in both cities.

Also, as Ryanair and Wizz Air offered ‘rescue fares’, Wizz sped up, adding five planes to its Bucharest base – one of which arrived, the airline said, less than a week after the shutdown from BlueAir.

Naturally, Blue Air’s return, subject to their own future cash flow conditions, will be even more difficult.

This is because Ryanair and Wizz are known to be very protective of their own markets – let alone those they dominate – so for Blue Air their rebound will only be more difficult now that they have left both ULCC capture what was their position.

To better understand the size Blue Air will face if they resume flights, we can take a look at the numbers. And while Ryanair and Wizz usually released their quarterly results as a public company, the public didn’t get a better understanding of Blue Air’s accounts situation until they were bailed out, as they needed to open their accounts.

Now, because Blue Air operated ACMI for a group of carriers, it skewed their cost results; but because their revenue has been broken down into fare revenue, easements and “other” revenue, one can obtain their average revenue per scheduled passenger. The results are quite surprising.

In the year that went from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019, Blue Air was actually profitable, after years of losing money. While Ryanair and Wizz achieved margins of between 10 and 15%, Blue Air (in the months it broke even) achieved it up to 5%.

In fact, that year Blue Air managed to charge passengers far more than Wizz and Ryanair. The fact that their net margin per passenger was lower therefore shows that their weakness was ultimately based on their cost base.

This week’s Cirium Diio Mi data shows a much more down-to-earth network for Blue Air, with exactly 500 flights scheduled for October – last week it was more than three times that figure.

With November still showing an unrealistic schedule (for at least five planes), let’s dive into their October schedule. The map only displays segments with two or more operations.

Blue Air’s planned network for October, according to Cirium’s Diio Mi. Map created with the Great Circle Mapper.

Naturally, Blue Air does not want to move away from what worked before – the restoration of the Romanian diaspora.

Even now, in fact, their network seems overly optimistic, with three planes based in Bucharest and one each in Bacău, Iași and Turin; keep in mind that the Planespotters.net database says there are five planes left in their fleet.

Of these five aircraft, two are very old 737-500s, which naturally do not measure up to the A321neos and 737 MAX 8200 that its competitors could use. It has only 120 seats, compared to 239 and 197 respectively for its competitors. The much higher fuel consumption of an aircraft two generations older means it will be difficult to compete with other LCCs.

And then there is the issue of scale; Blue Air will restart much smaller than it was before; if he barely made money with more than ten planes, the challenge will be even greater with five.

Finally, his suppliers are now asking for money in advance, as they acknowledged in a press release a few days ago.

“The reimbursement of all sums due to passengers […] depends essentially on the restart of operations and commercial activities of Blue Air and […] another critical factor is a cash injection from one of the two investors we are in discussions with,” the airline added.

Blue Air still hasn’t restarted sales for the October 10 target date and it seems more clear that if those investors don’t show up soon with fresh cash, the last independent LCC in Europe will be gone for good.

Mary I. Bruner