The spokesman for the airline wanted to make one thing very, very clear: Air Antwerp is a totally new airline with no connection to a previous carrier that flew the same London City Airport–Antwerp route.
Yves Panneels, in a telephone interview, said the Belgium-based carrier was founded by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which owns 25 percent of Air Antwerp, and CityJet, an Ireland-based aviation firm that specializes in the ACMI/wet lease segment of the industry, which owns the other 75 percent.
“It has nothing to do officially with VLM Airlines [which previously operated the route],” Panneels said. “They (VLM) stopped their activities last year and since then, no one was operating on the route to London City. The two shareholders were convinced there was a market on this specific route.”
Air Antwerp, which began operations on September 9, currently operates three round-trip flights between London City and Antwerp Monday through Friday and one round-trip flight on Sunday. Its fleet consists of one Fokker 50 turboprop that seats up to 50 passengers. Panneels said the flying time between the two airports is about 50 minutes. It has 15 employees and has a code-share arrangement with KLM.
Panneels said the airline’s current partners have good reason to feel confident about the new route. London and Antwerp have long-standing commercial ties, especially in the areas of finance, the diamond trade, ports and logistics. “And don’t forget that Antwerp is the second-largest petrochemical center in the world after Houston, Texas,” he said. “We always say that Antwerp is the financial capital of Belgium.”
Air Antwerp’s ability to fly between the relatively compact airports of London City and Antwerp gives it a distinct advantage over other carriers that utilize more congested and distant airports, both in London and Europe. Plus, London City is located closest to London’s financial district.
“We offer very good value for money because, for businesspeople, the most important thing is the time that they’re gaining, the travel time,” Panneels said. “You have a very short check-in time in Antwerp, so most people come 30 to 50 minutes in advance and they can hop on the aircraft.
“Compare that with traveling to London on the Eurostar [high-speed train service]. First, you have to take a regular train from Antwerp to Brussels. Then you have to be at the Brussels terminal 30 minutes before the train departs or you won’t be allowed to board. Then there’s the train ride itself. So, the train travelers lose from three to four hours of business time in London,” he said. “Most passengers are not interested in working on a plane or a train. They’re interested in dealings and discussions with their business partners. We have a lot of passengers who go and come back on the very same day. Others leave Monday morning and come back Friday night.”
Air Antwerp believes it has found a profitable niche by catering to corporate clients. So far, Panneels said, the airline is happy with its performance.
“When the airline first started, our CEO (Johan Maertens) said that within a couple of months we’d be at a break-even point. That’s also the feedback we get from a lot of passengers — that they were so happy that we were once again flying that route because before, they had to take the Eurostar or find other ways to reach London, which were a lot more time-consuming,” he said.
Maertens, who was hired to run Air Antwerp by KLM and CityJet, is a former executive with the Lufthansa Group.
Although he could not offer specific passenger figures, Panneels said, “We see that even now, load factors are very satisfactory and we’re very happy with how the route is performing, and also operation-wise. We’ve had no major difficulties. And while we only have one aircraft, we have a backup that is available.”
Pannells pointed to the airline’s codeshare agree with KLM as another advantage for the carrier.
“A lot of corporations in the north of Belgium have contracts with KLM, so of course it’s easier to fly a codeshare route. Plus, passengers get to acquire additional frequent-flyer miles,” he said.
Looking forward, Pannells said the United Kingdom’s possible exit from the European Union could actually be a boost for the airline.
“There have always been very, very tight economic links between Antwerp and London over the centuries,” he said. “If there is a Brexit, we expect even more travel between the two cities. People will have to make more arrangements than ever before.
“We are following the situation very closely. We’re confident, and people from the airport itself are confident because there will always be travel. What will change? Well, there are passport controls already in place because Great Britain is not a member of the Schengen zone [which allows free passage across borders by member countries], so basically nothing much will change. Maybe some things will change customs-wise, but otherwise not; we even expect more corporate travel,” according to Panneels.
Given the recent rash of bankruptcies and other financial woes that have hit European airlines in recent months, some might approach the launching of a new airline with some trepidation.
But, Panneels explains, Air Antwerp started off with an immediate advantage. “This was not a market you have to develop. The demand was already there.”
Panneels characterized the current state of the aviation industry in Europe as dynamic.
“We see that certain companies are facing difficulties, but other companies are growing,” he said, “so we believe for companies such as us, we are niche operators — a niche that cannot be filled by an Airbus or Boeing operator because the aircraft are simply too big for the airports we fly to. There will always be a market for niche operators, and of course, that goes for every airline that has to keep costs as low as possible.”
While Panneels agreed that the staffing level was small, “it works,” he said. “We’re focusing on what we’re good at.”