Air Antwerp, the new (very) small Belgian airline

With only 15 employees on the payroll, Air Antwerp is one of Europe’s smallest airlines. Out of pandemic, it operates multiple daily flights between Linking Antwerp and London City. 

London is a world banking place, and Antwerp is the host of a diamond district and one of the largest European seaports. This combination creates a connection between the two cities that can be high yield or at least higher yield than other markets.

This very narrow niche market is Air Antwerp’s first target. 

Not the first to the line

If this liaison has potential, Air Antwerp is far from being the first to try to operate it.

The SABENA was the first to operate it after WWII. It served a BRU-ANR-LHR route and contracted other airlines to run flights with smaller aircraft such as DAT with a Douglas DC-3 of DAT.

In the seventies, SABENA even operated a Boeing 737-200 on the route. London Gatwick was also one of the destinations from the flemish airport. However, SABENA later concentrated its flight to its Brussel hub.

In 1993, VLM took advantage of the opening of a new London airport: London City. The latter is much closer to the City and at spitting distance from Canary Warf, London’s new financial district. These flights were operated with a fleet of Fokker 50. It was the only route operated by VLM for a few years.

The latter could not grow from Antwerp. It found its niche at London City airport with destinations in the British Isles, Benelux, and Germany. The business was profitable but not enough to finance its growth and replacement of its aging fleet of Fokker 50. Initials investors got their money back by selling VLM (then called flyVLM) to the Irish airline CityJet then part of the AirFranceKLM group.

In 2014 a management by out made FlyVLM independent again. However, Cityjet kept the commercialization of the London City to Antwerp route. For that purpose, it contracted a FlyVLM Fokker 50’s to operate the flights.

However, the newly independent flyVLM didn’t last long and was declared bankrupt in 2017. Cityjet then stopped running the Antwerp to London City route and exited the scheduled passenger flights market.

The smooth and convenient airports

Fast forward a few years, and comes the Air Antwerp project. This new airline is a joint venture between Cityjet with 75% and KLM with 25%.

It’s hard not to compare Air Antwerp with the airline that initiated the Antwerp to London City market almost thirty years ago.

Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper

Air Antwerp reiterates the element that made VLM a long-standing operating airline.

First of all, it operates from smooth and convenient airports. Air Antwerp customers benefit from quick and efficient connections to and from the London financial place. Both airports allow passengers to arrive only 30 minutes before departure, making it an appreciated bonus versus other transportation means.

It goes beyond the choice of the first destination. Air Antersp started with a lone Fokker 50, so did VLM in 1993, and this aircraft even operated for VLM amongst other airlines.

Finally, if its CEO was only part of the last iteration of VLM, part of the staff worked for VLM.

Starting before a pandemic

The company was founded in May 2019 and obtained its AOC in July of the same year. The first flights happened in September.

The company, like many, had its share of up and down during the last months. In 2019, the company enjoyed significant load factors as Antwerp to London City customer base route was still there. The future was bright as things evolved as planned.

However, in March 2020, Air Antwerp had to pause its operation as London City airport was closed due to the United Kingdom’s lockdown order. The British airport reopened in June that year but not Antwerp flights.

The company, being focussed on business travelers, only restarted its flights in September. Passenger loads were not as good, and another set of travel restrictions forced the airline to halt its flights once again in November.

Air Antwerp expects to resume its flights to London in May 2021.

What will the future show?

History has proved that this airline route has potential as it was successful for its operators for almost thirty years.

However, London City is now a successful airport with limited opportunities for new entrants. Back in the ’90 and ’00, VLM has plenty of space to find new markets. It’s not the case anymore.

Growth from Antwerp to other destinations proved difficult, and the runway’s length did not help other operators in the past.

Air Antwerp did the easy part of the work by re-lanching a prosperous route. But, what next?

 It will be intriguing to see how they succeed in making other destinations profitable in the long term and how it enables the company to finance its future.

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