Making a success of a low-cost long-haul airline isn’t easy. Laker Airways famously failed back in 1982, while the new wave of 21st-century pretenders has fared little better. Primera, which briefly offered flights from two UK airports (Stansted and Birmingham) to Boston, Washington DC and New York, went under in 2018. Iceland’s WOW air, which had 17 transatlantic routes at its peak, ceased trading in March (though a West Virginian heiress is hoping to relaunch the brand). Norwegian is still in the sky – but, lumbered with a mountain of debt, doubts linger about its long-term future.
Beyond the budget long-haul pioneers, the last few years have seen the collapse of Monarch, Flybmi, Air Berlin and – most recently – Thomas Cook. Factor in the economic uncertainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, and it hardly adds up to an environment conducive to the launch of a new airline.
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It was unveiled in 2016 – so why hasn’t it launched yet?
Telegraph Travel reported on Singh Judge’s plans three years ago, when his airline began crowdfunding for the £5m it said was needed to launch.
Put off, perhaps, by those claims to put both “people” and “planet” before “profit”, things have moved pretty slowly. Indeed, the FlyPOP news feed since 2016 has been largely devoted to celebrating key Indian holidays.
But in June it announced the opening of a new corporate HQ at Stansted, the Essex airport from where it plans to fly to Amritsar and Ahmedabad. A sign that flights could soon start? Perhaps.
“It has been a tough road,” admitted Singh Judge, “but the final funding is now imminent.” The target figure is now £12m, after which he says the Civil Aviation Authority will grant a license to operate. All being well, it is targeting a launch date of June 1, 2020.
Why Amritsar and Ahmedabad?
Amritsar has one big draw: its spectacular Golden Temple, the most sacred place in Sikhism. Every day as many as 50,000 pilgrims – and a few curious travellers – are fed for free in its dining halls, in what has been described as a tradition that will “restore your faith in humanity”. Even fewer tourists make it to Ahmedabad, the bustling former capital of Gujarat once known as the “Manchester of the East”. Instead, FlyPOP is targeting what it calls the VFR market (visiting friends and relatives) and wants to schedule flights accordingly with family-friendly departure times.
And it hopes to expand quickly. Other destinations on its radar include Kolkata, Pune, Goa and Cochin, the Pakistani cities of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Sialkot, Sylhet (Bangladesh), Colombo (Sri Lanka), and Kathmandu (Nepal). It also wants to open bases in New York and Toronto to provide connections for more of the South Asian diaspora.
But has it been gazumped? Air India recently announced a new service, to launch on October 31, connecting Stansted with… Amritsar. Whether there’s room for two airlines on the same route remains to be seen, but Stansted has a troubled relationship with long-haul flights. Several, mostly to the US, have come and gone in recent years, while in 2008 Air Asia X’s route from Essex to Kuala Lumpur was switched to Gatwick after only a year and later scrapped entirely.
Tell me more about this worthy “POP-osition”
It all sounds very noble. “FlyPOP’s intention is to pay to offset its carbon footprint… while also focusing on our everyday operations to ensure no excessive [use] of precious resources,” it says. “FlyPOP is committed to giving to charity over the long term – that way the needs of people are always placed over those of pure profit.” This includes a “Buy One, Give One” initiative that will see one meal offered to the homeless every time a meal is sold on a flight.
What will passengers get?
A similar offering to the likes of Norwegian can be expected, with “unbundled” fares that allow passengers to choose whether to pay extra for hold luggage, meals and more legroom.
It will stick to a single aircraft type, the Airbus A330. Standard seat pitch will be 31 inches, with a handful of “extra legroom” seats and even a “SkyBed” service for a bit of basic luxury.
As for a colour scheme, POP appears to favour something rather bright (see above) – anyone for a game of Twister?
And the price? Return fares of between £350 and £750 have been promised – Singh Judge says it will track prices to ensure it is always 30 per cent cheaper than the competition.
So will it work?
Singh Judge is certainly confident. “The big difference between us and the low-cost long-haul carriers that have failed is the VFR market,” he said. “This is what underpins Ryanair’s business model, and it is what will make us a success.”
The Irish carrier is clearly a source of inspiration. Singh Judge has called himself the “Sikh Michael O’Leary”, a reference to Ryanair’s outspoken CEO, and has even enlisted the help of Ryanair’s former director of operations, Charlie Clifton, to help cut costs. What happens when Ryanair-style cost-cutting meets free meals for the homeless remains to be seen – and whether FlyPOP can replicate even a fraction of the Irish airline’s success on the long-haul stage is far from certain.
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