Many commercial airlines have suffered drastically during the pandemic but how has the pandemic impacted boutique airlines?
What is a boutique airline?
A boutique airline differentiates from other major commercial airlines and prides themselves on offering customers a unique and personalised approach to air travel. These niche airlines often operate a smaller fleet and fly exclusive direct routes, often to regional and short-haul destinations. In the same way boutique hotels operate, boutique airlines are placed in a separate category of their own. With a strong emphasis on luxury, sophistication and lifestyle branding, many of these airlines are national carriers operating out of select markets. They remain highly competitive by focusing on service and investing in an exceptional on-board product, and focus solely on delivering a seamless arrival-to-destination of convenience rather than prioritising the airport experience.
Before the pandemic, demand for these unique airlines soared. However, the suspension of air travel due to the pandemic has devastated the whole of the aviation sector and boutique airlines have not been exempt from the fallout.
Which boutique airlines have been affected?
French luxury airliner, La Compagnie, is perhaps the most well known boutique airline. By operating such a small fleet, the airline is able to tailor its flights to give passengers the best onboard experience. La Compagnie offers exclusive transatlantic routes that are business-class only flights between France and the US, flying from Paris Orly and to New York. The airline has been badly affected by the pandemic restrictions, with scheduled services coming to a halt in mid-March 2020, seeing a ban imposed on flights entering the US from Europe in an effort to curb the spread and transmission of the virus. In the meantime, the airline’s scheduled flights continue to remain grounded until at least May 2021, with the hope air travel will return when the US border reopens to European travellers.
Middle Eastern airline Gulf Air was one of the few airlines which continued to fly during the pandemic but was temporarily forced to suspend transit air travel to passengers. Yet despite the challenges, Gulf Air has managed to bounce back after providing repatriation flights throughout the rest of last year. In addition, Gulf Air recently added its first Airbus A321neo and A321LRs to enable the carrier to provide a flexible boutique experience on long and short-haul operations, which will be a crucial help to the airlines’ future recovery. The airline has also gone on to invest in a re-modernisation new terminal project at Bahrain International Airport which cost over $1.1bn to build. The airline continues to look ahead to the future by introducing more new new routes which it hopes will attract more and more passengers in the months of recovery following the pandemic.
“Boutique airline is what we called ourselves in 2019. We reckon that we are at the right size to provide our passengers with a unique service. What distinguishes us from the bigger airlines, either worldwide or within around us, is the size. So, we are able to cater for individual needs. We try to have a relationship with the frequent flyer passengers who fly with us, because of the size, we’re able to do that,” added the airline’s CEO, Al Alawi.
Small San Francisco airliner Boutique Air which operates 33 eight-seat turboprop airplanes will begin a daily flight service from El Paso, Carlsbad and Albuquerque following passenger demand. Boutique Air’s fleet offers a truly one-of-a-kind travel experience while carrying passengers to unique cities across the US. However, the pandemic substantially reduced flights and passenger traffic at the El Paso airport by 58% through November, compared to the same 11 months in 2019, but the airline is making a recovery.
Sam Rodriguez, El Paso’s director of aviation, said in a news release that Boutique Air not only provides new flights for the airport, but also will enhance connectivity for this region. The indirect flight to Albuquerque will take about two hours and 20 minutes with a stop in Carlsbad. The direct flight to Carlsbad will take about 40 minutes. The airline has further agreements to connect its flights with United and American Airlines and hopes to continue its openings to other markets to further expand and improve connectivity by serving other major cities.
Scandinavian Airliner SAS identifies as a boutique airline. The airline has been in the process of upgrading its short-haul fleet by replacing one-third of its aircraft with A320neos, continuing to find ways to stand out and remain competitive from the major airlines boasting the biggest cabins and longest routes. SAS is also investing in making things easier on the ground from fast-track capacity, upgrading its lounge and digital tools to assist the passenger, beginning with the booking process and continuing right through the journey. More than 75 per cent of its revenue comes from short-haul travelers who constitute 90 per cent of its passengers. Rickard Gustafson, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines explained: “If the flight is only for an hour, you cannot really have a very different offerings on board in terms of seat pitch or sizes. You have to compete on other things.” For example, SAS prepares a select menu of healthy, locally sourced food onboard for passengers. SAS believes that a smooth airport experience is a crucial part of its service.
The future still remains unclear as to how the pandemic has impacted boutique airlines and the future of air travel. It will be interesting to see what changes in trends arise in the months that follow the pandemic as passengers start to re-build their confidence in air travel once restrictions are fully lifted. Initially, the aviation sector predicted that when air travel returns, the sector could see an increase in passengers opting for shorter flight routes or staycations closer to home and choosing aircraft with a smaller passenger capacity. An international traveller survey also revealed one in three passengers plans to travel less often by air because of Covid-19. Perhaps, when confidence returns, more passengers will prefer to travel in comfort and style and turn the onboard flight experience an extension of their much awaited holiday.
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