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COMMENT: Bye bye to Flybe

COMMENT: Bye bye to Flybe

Tuesday 10 March 2020

COMMENT: Bye bye to Flybe


A former Flybe pilot has shared his memories of the collapsed airline, from touring hangars as a child to flying planes, as he reflected on what it means to lose an iconic part of the island's aviation history.

In recent years, islanders have frequently complained about Flybe - but perhaps now that the airline has disappeared, the key role it played in supporting local air routes will become truly apparent.

As a company with such strong local connections, the airline's departure from local skies has ramifications which go much deeper than short-term travel choices.

In this article for Express, Lee McConnell - local aviation expert and former Flybe pilot - remembers just how important Flybe, or its predecessor JEA, was to Jersey's flying history...

"It's the end of an era for Jersey.

The JEA/BEA/FLYBE Family will be forever in our memories thanks to the founder Jack Walker. The Walker Aviation Group of Lancashire acquired JEA in 1983. Walker also owned a small airline, Spacegrand, which flew routes from Blackpool to Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Airport Runway

Pictured: Lee describes Flybe's collapse as "the end of an era for Jersey".

Ultimately Spacegrand was amalgamated into Jersey European Airways. JEA were forerunners of the current, now defunct Flybe airline. Jack Walker, founder of Walkersteel, had established a base in Jersey.

He had originally founded Spacegrand in 1980 as an air taxi for Walkersteel executives; in 1982 it had contracted with JEA's sister maintenance unit.

Exeter became the hub linking the two route networks and became the company's headquarters when JEA and Spacegrand were amalgamated in 1985 using Twin Otter and then Bandeirante Aircraft. The next year, JEA expanded its capacity with three Shorts SD360 aircraft.

JEA carried 160,000 passengers in 1985; its annual revenues were less than £9 million.

ortackingairfleet.jpg

Pictured: Lee McConnell, now a Director at ORTAC, standing third from the right.

In 1989, the ten-year-old maintenance operation, JEA (Engineering) Ltd, was moved to Exeter, where it acquired Westcountry Aviation Services.

The unit, JEA's sister company under Walker Aviation ownership, was then renamed Jersey European Technical Services. It had 180 workers in 1991 and grew to employ 450 people by 2001 including Jersey-based engineering staff.

JEA, the airline, had 200 employees at the start of the 1990s. Passenger count rose 40% in 1990 to 460,000. The growing airline started the 1990s with a new corporate livery. JEA began flying to London in 1991 from Guernsey and Jersey.

My early memories of Jersey European started in the early 1980s. JEA had just merged with a company called Spacegrand. I had such an enthusiasm for aviation as a youngster I would often go to the Jersey Airport hangar where JEA had a large aircraft maintenance base in the hangar. I would get a tour of the hangar and aircraft by the JEA engineers who where all enthusiastic about the new start-up airline family, led by Jersey resident Jack Walker.

Video: "Everyone was there to get the job done and help to service the community's expectations," Lee remembers of working at Flybe. (MT Aviation/YouTube)

Jack would be really hands-on at the beginning of the company and generated a real family feel about the business. He was passionate about Jersey and cared about giving back to the community that became a huge part of his life. His contribution to the general aviation economy in Jersey together with the connectivity and reliance on the JEA service to regional airports should never be underestimated.

Regional airports have benefited from the birth of JEA's flying for decades. When you think about the cascading benefits to these regional economies to the community - airport hotel staff, car hire companies, air traffic controllers, airline ground staff, etc - the list is long. Job growth and economic opportunity given by local airlines focused on the communities they serve has a profound effect on the economic health and vitality of these local economies, this should never be underestimated by local government and airport authorities.

Many year later I found myself flying as a captain for Flybe at the Jersey base. It was a real aviation family at the Jersey base and the sense of camaraderie was always prevalent.

Everyone was there to get the job done and help to service the community's expectations. The local crew always understood the idiosyncrasies of the islands' temperamental weather - be it fog or wind, the everlasting battle with the elements - local airlines would always come out on top with this due to more localised knowledge and familiarity from the pilots and crew. The cabin crew would always know the local passengers and regulars often ready with their drinks and requests before the question was even asked.

Flybe_blue_islands.jpg

Pictured: Will Flybe's demise create opportunities for other local operators?

Once you get to the larger carriers, the allegiances change and the service level with it. The trouble we have now is that the larger low-cost airlines have such a dominant presence, they might often overwhelm the local carriers, and the model has certainly been under pressure in the last few decades. However, we are seeing a rise and strengthening of local carriers in the sharpe of the likes of Loganair and Blue Islands, these airlines support localised job recruitment.

Jack Walker's legacy is one to be proud of. He set the bar in Jersey aviation, all of the ex-employees feel now the loss of connection with the JEA/Flybe family in its recent demise.

As I look now on social media I can see all of the ex-JEA and Flybe colleagues sharing their many memories and photos of many great times in the airline family history. Perhaps it’s time to ponder and adopt another local Jersey airline to protect our own island community interests once again!

One for the politicians, I guess."

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not Bailiwick Express.

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