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Breaking Travel News interview: Cathal O’Connell, chief executive, bmi regional

Breaking Travel News interview: Cathal O’Connell, chief executive, bmi regional Cathal O’Connell took over the leadership of bmi regional in 2012

When British Midland International was finally subsumed into International Airlines Group, owners of British Airways, in 2012 it was by no means clear that offshoot bmi regional would be able to make it on its own.

Yet a little over a year later the airline has established itself as a niche carrier, offering scheduled passenger services across the UK and Europe.

As chief executive Cathal O’Connell explains to Breaking Travel News: “The hardest task we faced at the offset was telling people we still exist. With International Airlines Group taking over bmi, there is a misconception bmi regional is no longer in operation. However, this is obviously not the case.”

Perhaps airline passengers could be forgiven for their mistake.

bmi baby, a smaller subsidiary in the BMI stable, could not be saved and was closed down on September 10th 2012.

In contrast, canny management and investment from Sector Aviation Holdings, a private company operated by the Bond Family behind Bond Offshore Helicopters, saved the larger bmi regional.

A new airline was born, with new management, a new owner and a significantly increased network; up from 11 to 23 routes in summer 2013.

But it was not easy, with bmi regional having to undergo a period of incubation while BMI was incorporated into International Airlines Group.

The entire infrastructure that was used – offices, IT services, call centres, and everything else that was needed to run an airline – was provided by BMI.

Following the sale, bmi regional had to rebuild all of these facilities, which is what the airline worked on for the first six months after its move until its re-launch as a standalone company in October last year.

“We needed to identify what systems we needed, who we could acquire those systems from, and what staff we would need in order to make those systems run effectively.

“Over time we developed a completely new infrastructure,” continues O’Connell.

“We now have a new headquarters at East Midlands Airport, while operations and engineering remains in Aberdeen; having created 100 jobs over the past year, in addition to saving 300 which were on the block following the sale to IAG.”

What emerged is now a materially different operation from the one that was acquired a year ago.

This summer bmi regional operates 450 flights a week to eight countries, flying 18 aircraft - all Embraer 145 or Embraer 135 jets – and operating out of a series of regional bases, at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, East Midlands Airport and Bristol.

Routes are also now focused on point-to-point services after being recalibrated away from feeder traffic needed for the former BMI parent.

“The hangover from the bmi Group meant bmi regional was offering flights to Star Alliance hubs, including Frankfurt, Brussels and Copenhagen, which no longer made economic sense to the new carrier,” adds O’Connell.

“All of our European routes were operating as feeder routes to Star Alliance members.

“When we left Star Alliance the economics, not to mention the need, for these routes, disappeared.”

So where to fly now?

“We asked ourselves, now have these aircraft what can we do with them that makes more sense than what they are doing now?” continued O’Connell.

“We recognised the aircraft we had were suited to very high frequency routes, so we looked at various markets and established those which were underserved.

“We were looking for those which initially had a strong business demand, those with major companies which require the links bmi regional could provide.

“We then examined the leisure opportunity on the same route, and where these two combined we considered a route; a whole range of opportunities.”

A good example would be Airbus, which has a major facility in Bristol, which requires connections to Hamburg and its facilities there.

Both Bristol and Hamburg are also established tourist destinations, making it a viable route for bmi regional. 

The carrier also has a fairly significant, and growing, non-scheduled service carrying VIPs, music groups, and sports teams to destinations around the country.

But O’Connell is also quick to point out this is now low-cost carrier cherry picking routes.

“We offer both business and economy fares – all catering onboard is free, as well as baggage carriage – the airline remains a full service carrier.

“We offer the services flag-carriers offered a few years ago, and in many cases services people have forgotten about.

“We aim to take the hassle out of travel,” he explains.

bmi regional also owns the rights to the BMI brand, and could revert to that name, but this is not on the agenda at present.

Growth instead is coming from new routes and improvements to the onboard offering.

bmi regional is working on healthy options for onboard eating for example, maximising the experience for passengers.

“We have also put in place a marketing campaign which tells people, yes, we do still exist,” jokes O’Connell.

“We have also changed perceptions. Yes, we are a business airline, but we also offer leisure services.

“We have more new routes in the pipeline, not just departing from the UK, but also within Europe.

“We now fly into the major airports, but less for connections – our passengers now tend to be flying to their destinations, rather than toward an onward flight.

“That said, looking at codeshare agreements with global carriers to offer more opportunity to our passengers.

“This is good for us, and for them, offering regional airports to international passengers.”

Just a year in bmi regional has established itself as a viable carrier, no mean feat in troubling times.

With competition getting tighter all the time it might be a bumpy ride yet, but the carrier is certainly pointed in the right direction.

More Information

For more information and to book tickets with bmi regional head over to the official website.