Debonair – Europe’s Forgotten Low-Cost Pioneer

The 1990’s were a very different time in the aviation industry. ‘No-frills’ airlines with their cheap fares were still finding their way amongst the legacy behemoths.

Debonair (2G) is one of the forgotten pioneers of the European low-cost boom, operating services from London Luton Airport (LTN) and various pan-European flights between 1996 and 1999. 

Used For - Debonair

Plans for the airline began in 1994 with the intention of launching services from London Gatwick to fill the void left by the collapse of Air Europe and Dan Air. However, delays in securing funding meant these slots were subsequently given to other airlines.

A Colourful Livery and a Colourful Chairman

Debonair was created with what at the time seemed to be the blueprint for budget carriers – a colourful livery and an even more colourful chairman – Franco Mancassola, one of aviation’s most respected characters. After leaving Continental Airlines in 1988, he set up his first airline Discovery Airways in Hawaii, which he sold in 1990 before turning his attentions to Europe.

Used For - Debonair
Franco Mancassola.

Mancassola had a starting capital of £15.7 million, putting in £500,000 of his own money and raising the rest with the help of long-time associate Anthony Silverman, who gathered around 420 private investors, all of which were on strict risk-sharing contracts.

The airline took delivery of three ex-USAir BAe 146-200s from Marshall Aerospace on April 24, 1996 and eventually took to the skies, flying under British World Airlines (VF) operating licence, on June 19. Inaugural routes from Luton to Munich, Dusseldorf (MGL) and Barcelona were given to passengers for free.

Used For - Debonair
G-DEBC started life with Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) in July 1984 before joining Debonair in May 1996.

Mancassola, who became the face of Debonair through the ‘Franco Says’ advertising campaign, stated that his vision for a low-cost airline was different from others. Speaking at the time, he said “Think of the passenger. Keep it simple, keep it affordable, keep it safe, keep it reliable. By providing good and friendly service the passenger will realise that cheap does not mean shoddy. If an airline can achieve these objectives, it will win the loyalty of passengers. It will prosper and it will be satisfying a demand which will grow in the years to come”.

From the outset, Debonair aimed to target business passengers, who would make up over 58% of their passenger numbers. The airline introduced its ‘Affordable Business Class’ or ‘ABC’ in 1998 and created a simple yet effective frequent flyer programme, giving participants a free trip after ten return flights.

The seat pitch was a comfortable 32 inches, and inflight Entertainment systems were installed during late spring and summer 1997. This included facilities for movies, children’s games, and gambling.

Used For - Debonair
One of Debonair’s early advertisements.

Expansion was swift, with the airline adding Madrid and Newcastle to the schedule on July, 10, followed by Copenhagen on August 7 and Rome (CIA) on November 21.

A Pan European Innovator  

While easyJet may have beaten Debonair to the skies by seven months, its orange competition, headed by equally charismatic chairman Stelios Haji-Ioannou, initially focused on UK routes. Debonair meanwhile, decided to turn its attention to continental Europe.

Used For - Debonair
One of the carriers 146s seen taxiing at Luton.

The airline wanted to create an innovative strategy of developing a series of hubs allowing passengers to move between several European cities with the same carrier.

The inauguration of flights from Munich to Dusseldorf (MGL) and Barcelona on July 24, 1996 set Debonair apart from its counterparts, becoming the first UK and first independent EU airline to operate scheduled services between major German cities since the countries re-unification.

In late October 1997, Debonair entered a strategic alliance with Azzura Air. The Italian carrier commenced a new service under a code-share between Milan (BGY) and LTN and on to Rome (CIA). However, the tie-up was short-lived and ended in April 1998 after, Azzura became a franchise partner of Alitalia.

Azzura Air commenced operations in December 1996 and entered a strategic partnership with Debonair less than a year later.

Mancassola planned a further assault on Italy when on February 1, 1998 he announced a deal with the Calabrian Regional Government to provide air services from Lamezia and Reggio to Turin, Bologna, Florence and Rome (CIA). Debonair put two aircraft on hold for over two months in preparation to cover these flights. But the deal never got off the ground. The financial impact for Debonair was severe and they proceeded to sue the region’s government for £30 million to cover the cost.

A wet-lease deal was launched on April 6, 1998 for Air France, with Debonair operating the Brussels to Paris (CDG) shuttle and later adding Brest and Biarritz to the network.

The carrier also continued to expand its German domestic offering, launching Dusseldorf to Hamburg on April 15.

Mancassola attempted to put together a coalition of smaller European carriers in another first. Following a meeting in Munich on July 21, 1998 they declared that they had up to 15 European airlines onboard including Air Malta and Virgin Express.

The coalition would create joint frequent flier programmes and hope to move closer to marketing and maintenance, including fuel, scheduling and even equipment purchasing. Mancassola also looked at pursuing links in North and South America.

AB Airlines was one of the first to get on board when the two started a code-share agreement on July 9, 1998 on AB’s services between London Gatwick, Shannon, Lisbon, Nice and Berlin (SXF). 

Used For - Debonair
AB Airlines Boeing 737.

AB Airlines, Debonair and Futura International Airways also began codesharing on services from Gatwick to Barcelona and Palma during the winter season of 1998.

Swissair introduced an ‘Express’ brand to coincide with the launch of a wet-lease agreement on November 5, 1998. Debonair flew one of its 146s painted in Swissair Express colours between Zurich, Venice and Bologna, operated under a codeshare with Italian carrier Air One.

Used For - Debonair
Debonair painted this 146-200 (G-DEBK) in Swissair Express colours.

Despite growing success, Debonair ceased all German domestic routes in December 1998, following the signing of a £22 million wet-lease deal with Lufthansa. The airline signed a letter of intent to operate five 146s on behalf of Lufthansa Cityline from Munich beginning March 1999, when the previous arrangement with Air France ended.

Used For - Debonair
146-200 (G-DEBE) was painted in this hybrid Lufthansa livery.

Mancassola would also launch a foray into the charter market with services between Lourdes and Catania commencing in February 1999 and on June 1, 1999 launched a thrice-weekly scheduled service from Luton to Perugia, Italy.

Wrong Choice Of Aircraft

Debonair’s first problems became evident less than a year after its inception, with the discontinuation of the Luton to Newcastle and Barcelona to Madrid services in early 1997, citing insufficient demand. 

However, load factors for the 97/98 financial year had risen to 60% and were even hitting over 80% on key routes such as Rome and Barcelona. Passenger numbers also climbed to just short of 600,000 and yields, which were under constant pressure, also showed signs of improving.

Buoyed by this slight change in fortunes, the airline was launched on the EASDQ – Europes version of the US NASDAQ electronic shares dealing system in July 1997, becoming the first UK carrier to seek a listing on the exchange. It raised $38 million in capital, allowing them to lease a further five BAe 146 aircraft to take up its ever-expanding route portfolio.

Used For - Debonair
G-DEBE served with Debonair from August 1996 until the airlines demise.

But it was these aircraft that was causing the airline problems. While other low-cost carriers had focused on Boeing and Airbus’ single-aisle offerings, Debonair had chosen the fuel-thirsty 146, which Mancassola later called a “mistaken choice”, a choice dictated by an initial lack of funds. 

The jets proved unreliable and difficult to source, and those they received were in a worse condition than anticipated. “We had to spend tons of money to get them right,” Mancassola later said, money the airline didn’t have. 

Despite Mancassola earlier dismissing fears of a shortage of146s, Debonair struggled to find new capacity to cover its wave of ‘significant growth’ in Germany and Italy, following the collapse in May 1998 of a deal to take five former Thai Airways BAe 146s. They wet-leased a Fokker 50 (PH-DMC) from Denim Air for three months to cover the shortfall, starting in September 1998.

Used For - Debonair
A Fokker 50 was leased from Denim Air in 1998.

To help with capacity issues, the airline also leased three British Aircraft Corporation BAC-1-11-500s during summer 1998/1999 seasons from British World Airlines and European Air charter. The 94-seat G-AYOP was used for the daily rotation from Luton to Madrid and later to Rome (FCO).

Used For - Debonair
The leased 1-11 was painted in full Debonair colours.

Debonair got early positions on the Boeing 717 In mid-June 1998, with the first planned to arrive in October the following year, although a complete order was never placed for the jet. Mancassola believed that the final shape of the fleet would be around 20 aircraft, divided between the 717 on longer trunk routes and the 146 for shorter city routes.

On January 20, 1999 the first of two 139-seat Boeing 737-300s was introduced on wet-lease from AB Airlines and deployed on services from Gatwick to Barcelona. 

Used For - Debonair
Debonair would go on to operate three Boeing 737-300s.

“Our plan is to have four to five ‘larger’ aircraft in the fleet by the end of 2000,” said Mancassola. “We remain committed to the 146 and that fleet will grow to 16 aircraft.”

Wings Clipped

While Mancassola and his team looked towards the new millennium, the airline’s balance sheet was in poor shape. Debonair reported a further loss for the first quarter of 1999 of £2.2 million, compared to a £1 million loss in the same period the year before.

The harsh realities of an increasingly cutthroat budget aviation market brought Debonair to an abrupt end on the last day of September 1999. Its fleet of 12 BAe 146s and two Boeing 737-300s were grounded; precisely two months after its partner AB Airlines had suspended its operations.

Used For - Debonair
Three of Debonair’s 146s parked up ay LTN after the airlines demise.

Hope that a ‘white knight’ such as Lufthansa, Swissair or even rival Virgin Express may step in and rescue the airline never materialised. Lufthansa immediately announced that they were not interested, and Swissair declined to comment.

The collapse was blamed on Debonair’s decision to operate expensive aircraft from expensive airports, leaving it with a cost base 20 per cent higher than its rivals. Technical issues with its fleet of 146s led to passenger dissatisfaction and they failed to build adequate market awareness or customer recognition.

Mancasola’s dream of setting up ‘The best little airline in the world’ was over. Debonair had tried to appeal to everyone without actually appealing to anyone. It was confused: was it a low-cost airline emphasising reducing costs? Or was it a ‘with frills’ carrier intent to supply higher-end expectations?

Despite its problems, the legacy that Debonair left behind, with its pan-European services and aiming itself towards high paying business passengers was, at the time, an innovative strategy, a strategy that has been taken on by many of today’s low-cost carriers.

Fleet List

RegistrationAircraft TypeNotes
G-DEBZBoeing 737-300‘English Rose’
G-OABDBoeing 737-300
G-OABLBoeing 737-300
G-DEBJBAe 146-100
G-DEBNBAe 146-100
G-DEBABAe 146-200
G-DEBCBAe 146-200
G-DEBDBAe 146-200
G-DEBE BAe 146-200
G-DEBFBAe 146-200
G-DEBG BAe 146-200
G-DEBHBAe 146-200
G-DEBKBAe 146-200
G-DEBLBAe146-200
G-DEBMBAe 146-200
G-WLCYBAe 146-200

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross.

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