Finding Its Niche – The History of bmi regional

On February 16, 2019 British regional airline flybmi ceased operations. With a fleet of 14 Embraer ERJ-145s, plus three of the smaller ERJ-135s, the airline had established a niche operation, flying to 25 destinations across the UK and Europe. 

Its demise also saw the final nail in the coffin of one of the most iconic airline names in British aviation – British Midland Airways (BD).

Embraer ERJ-145 G-RJXA now flies with Loganair. (Photo: Bene Riobó, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whilst flybmi may not have had such a long history as its former parent, the carrier could trace its history to the late 1980s and a small Scottish airline Business Air.

Business Air

Business Air was set up by Ian Woodley and Graeme Ross. Operations commenced on August 15, 1987 with a pair of Embraer E110 Bandeirantes. These were used initially to provide charter services for the oil and gas industry from its main base Aberdeen (ABZ). 

A pair of Embraer EMB110 Bandeirantes were used to commence services.

Following the collapse of fellow ABZ based commuter carrier Air Ecosse, Business Air took over many of the its former routes. 

A pair of Quick Change (QC) Saab 340s were acquired in 1991. This allowed the airline to operate scheduled passenger services during the day, and mail and freight flights at night. Its second scheduled service to Esbjerg (EBJ) became its first international route.

The arrival of the Saab 340 coincided with a smart new livery. The airline would go on to operate 16 Saab 340s.

Major investment came in 1992, when Lufthansa (LH) and Crossair (LX) took an interest in the carrier. This led to codeshare agreements on numerous routes from Aberdeen. 

British Midland had already begun to utilise Business Air, wet-leasing a number of its Saab 340s when their own capacity at London Heathrow was excessive. 

In November 1994, Business Air joined the jet-age, acquiring a single BAe 146-200 (G-GNTZ). The type was delivered from partner carrier Crossair and utilised on London City (LCY) routes.

G-GNTZ pictured with Lufthansa titles. The type was utilised for codeshare flights for the German flag-carrier. (Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons)

Bases stretched across the UK, including Aberdeen (ABZ), Edinburgh (EDI), Glasgow (GLA), Leeds (LBA), Manchester (MAN) and East Midlands (EMA).

‘British Midland Commuter’

In May 1996, the carrier was purchased by British Midland parent, Airlines of Britain Holdings (ABH). This holding company owned BD and its regional affiliates Loganair (LM) and Manx Airlines (JE), with the latter two known as British Regional Airlines (BRAL).

Initially, Business Air retained its identity and most of its services. It also provided extra wet-lease flights for British Midland from East Midlands Airport (EMA).

But in March 1997, the group was disbanded to avoid conflict of interest. BRAL wanted to concentrate on its franchise business with British Airways (BA). Meanwhile, BD wished to step up its competition with BA and strengthen its links with Lufthansa (LH) and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).

This led to Business Air being rebranded as British Midland Commuter.

Business Air’s 340s were quickly painted in the new owners iconic livery. (Photo: Ken Fielding via Wikimedia Commons)

In April 1998, the carrier looked at upgrading its Saab 340s with the larger Saab 2000s. Three were expected to join the fleet on its new flagship Manchester (MAN) to London Heathrow (LHR) service.

Instead, the Saab’s were sidelined for the Embraer ERJ-145. The airline placed a $200 million order for 15 of the 49-seat jets in November 1998. Deliveries commenced in May 1999.

In February 2000, ‘Commuter’ began operating flights from Munich on behalf of Lufthansa CityLine. This followed the demise of Europe’s forgotten low-cost pioneer Debonair, who had previously run the services. Five BAe 146s were based at Munich, operating 14 European routes.

G-CLHA was an ex-Debonair example. All five 146s wore this hybrid livery with ‘Operated by British Midland Commuter on Behalf of Lufthansa’ titles.

bmi regional is Born

At the dawn of the new millennium, British Midland was in the process of restructuring. Plans were afoot to reenter the long-haul market, and the airline looked at cutting costs to make this happen.

‘Commuter’ was cut free and allowed to operate under its own steam, with its own board of directors, taking the decisions away from British Midland’s Donnington Hall HQ.

Its parent also shifted its operations away from the UK regions, focusing instead on Heathrow. This provided an excellent opportunity for the regional offshoot, which would take up all of mainlines former routes outside of LHR and EMA.

In February 2001, British Midland was rebranded as British Midland International (or bmi for short). The airline unveiled a new colour scheme, and British Midland Commuter was soon rebranded as bmi regional.

bmi British Midland rebranding video.

With new management in place, bmi regional created its own unique business model. This saw passengers treated to complimentary in-flight service, fast track airport security and check-in for its high-yielding business passengers.

Flight across the UK and Europe were timed with high-frequency dependable morning and evening departures. At weekends, where business passengers were less likely to travel, its Embraer jets flew charters for football teams and corporate-sponsored events as well as wet-lease operations for other airlines. This included two which flew for Brussels Airlines (SN).

bmi regional adopted the same livery as its parent.

Storm Clouds Gather

But storm clouds were gathering at bmi regional’s parent. Losses were mounting, and owner Lufthansa announced they would be putting the carrier up for sale in September 2011. Despite interest from Virgin Atlantic (VS), it was BA owner, the International Airlines Group (IAG), who announced they would be purchasing the airline on December 22, 2011 for £172.5 million.

However, the deal did not include bmi regional nor the airlines low-cost subsidiary bmi baby. But while the latter would eventually cease operations on September 9, 2012 an unlikely white knight would swoop in to save bmi regional.

Five of the smaller 37-seat ERJ-135s were operated by bmi regional, including this example (G-RJXK) pictured in the Star Alliance livery. (Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons)

A consortium of Scottish businessmen, including former Business Air chief’s Ian Woodley and Graeme Ross plus Robert Sturman, came together to take over the company. Known as Sector Aviation Holdings, the consortium became the new owners on May 10, 2012 for £8 million.

Gaining Independence

Operations continued for mainline bmi and Lufthansa until October 28. The following day bmi regional was fully independent, its BD IATA code replaced by BM. On the same day, its first new routes were inaugurated from Manchester to Antwerp and Bristol to Aberdeen.

“We believe the introduction of these new routes alongside maintaining our existing services demonstrates a clear statement of our intent to develop the business,” Ian Woodley said at the time.

15 years after setting up Business Air, Ian Woodley was back at the helm. (Photo: bmi regional)

In August 2015, bmi regional and Loganair were brought together as part of a new regional airline group. A new holding company, known as Airline Investments Limited (AIL), acquired the shares of bmi regional. Both carriers would operate independently, but the tie-up would provide natural efficiencies and economics of scale, utilising the synergies of similar route structures and aircraft types.

By 2017 the airline was flying high. Management focused on business passengers, offering point-to-point flights and establishing itself as a leading pan-European regional airline.

Indeed, intra-European flights were operated from Munich, Germany (on behalf of LH) and later Stavanger, Norway. Continuing its historical links with the airport, Munich (MUC) would become bmi regional’s biggest base as it moved to make (MUC) its European hub. The airline quickly became Germany’s third-largest regional airline by the number of seats.

BM also established a new hub at Birmingham Airport (BHX), with three new routes to Graz, Nuremberg and Gothenburg.

Despite selling bmi in 2012, Lufthansa continued its ties with bmi regional until the carriers demise. (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

Fleet renewal plans were also underway. There was even talk of larger aircraft to boost capacity on more popular routes. The airlines, then Commercial Chief Jochen Schnadt said: “We definitely see an opportunity for six or more larger aircraft in a reasonably short period of time.”

Brexit Woes

But further storm clouds gathered in the shape of the UK’s exit from Europe – ‘Brexit.’ As 50% of bmi regional’s flights were outside of the UK, it was crucial that the carrier would be able to operate efficiently in a post-Brexit world.

In July 2018, a final rebranding took place with the airline becoming simply ‘flybmi.’ This matched the company’s newly redesigned website.

Speaking of the “new” identity, the company said: “The simplification of the brand and logo to flybmi retains investment in the current name and visual identity, which still references the rich history of the legacy flybmi brand whilst appealing to a broader European audience reflecting the refreshed vision for the company.”

The airline was rebranded as ‘flybmi’ in 2018. (Photo: flybmi)

Sadly, the new name would not be around for long. On February 16, 2019 the airline abruptly ceased operations. The company blamed the uncertainty over Brexit as contributing to its demise. Speaking at the time, a spokesperson said that the “Current trading and future prospects have…been seriously affected by the uncertainty created by the ‘Brexit’ process.”

Another British airline to fly off in to the sunset. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For over 30 years, the regional operator had grown into a much-loved niche airline. Unfortunately, management could not find further financial support, and flybmi became another casualty of the cut-throat aviation market.

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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