Andrew Pyne is not just a prolific airline entrepreneur, but someone who has made enormous contributions to the development of the low-cost airline model in a diverse range of countries and regions.
He is currently busy with his latest project, a low-cost, long-haul startup airline that will connect Europe and North America through a hub in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
In the latest instalment of our Executive Spotlight series, Pyne revealed some interesting details about this new carrier, and shared some fascinating insights about his long international career as an airline executive, consultant and entrepreneur in places as diverse as China, Russia, Vietnam, Cyprus, Iceland, the Maldives, Cambodia, Laos and the United Kingdom.
Although some of these projects were relatively short-lived, they were transformational in their respective markets, often giving people in those countries their first taste of low-cost air travel.
But it has not always been plain sailing, with shareholder feuds, a global pandemic, and even political revolutions sometimes getting in the way.
In a wide-ranging and frank conversation, Pyne dissected successes and failures, and shared how he is applying what he has learned to his new venture.
From pilot dreams to airline entrepreneur
Pyne has long had a personal connection to the world of aviation. His father was an airman, a Second World War Royal Air Force veteran who later worked for British European Airlines (BEA), and Pyne has always had a strong interest in flying. He even dreamed of becoming a helicopter pilot at one point.
But this was not to be. Pyne joined British Airways as a graduate and stayed there for several years, before moving to Hong Kong to work for the administration of the former British overseas territory. After Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, he rejoined the aviation industry by joining local carrier, Cathay Pacific.
Those were the early years of the low-cost airline industry and Pyne saw an opportunity to bring the model to the region. However, this was not without difficulties, since there were powerful and well-entrenched incumbents ready to defend their turf.
Nevertheless, Pyne managed to launch what would become his first airline, Viva Macau, in the special autonomous region and former Portuguese colony of Macau, just across the bay from Hong Kong.
He said: “In 2004 I had the crazy idea of starting a new airline because I could see that low-cost airlines were coming to Asia. My first approach was to suggest to Cathay Pacific that we set up a low-cost airline, but the idea didn’t get much traction, so I left Cathay to do it on my own.
“I think I can claim to be the founder of Viva Macao. I had the idea and I put in my own money initially to get it rolled out. It finally launched in 2007, so it took quite a long time to get it flying. That was quite an education for me.”
At one point Pyne had 100% ownership of Viva Macau, although he progressively diluted his stake as new shareholders came in and he eventually ended up exiting the company.
“Viva Macau is a rare occasion in which I managed to sell at the right time!” he joked, before adding that “it was a great learning experience and I look back to my Viva Macau time with great affection.”
Bringing the low-cost airline concept to Russia
Pyne then received a call from one of the most prominent players in the global low-cost airline scene, US-based Indigo Partners, a private equity firm with a portfolio of low-cost carriers which includes Wizz Air in Europe, Frontier Airlines in the United States, Volaris in Mexico, and JetSmart in Latin America.
Indigo Partners had partnered with Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest banks, to replicate the firm’s successful business model in the Russian market with a brand-new low-cost carrier called Avianova.
“Doing business in Russia has never been easy, even before recent events, but I think we inspired something revolutionary in Russian aviation,” Pyne said. “I am very proud of what we achieved.”
He explained how Avianova introduced many practices to Russia that are now standard procedure for low-cost airlines everywhere.
While segments of the Russian aviation establishment were not keen to see disruption, Avianova soon became popular among passengers that had previously endured long journeys by train across the width and length of Russia.
Bitter disputes between Russian and American shareholders put an end to the Avianova project. Pyne and his management team were forcefully evicted from their offices and a new management team reporting to the Russian shareholders was established.
He explained how shaking things up made them quite a few enemies in the country. “We certainly upset a lot of people,” he said, adding that he did not want to “speculate about what happened”.
However, he said that these developments were not welcomed by the Western aircraft lessors, which pulled their assets out of the country. This led Avianova to suspend operations and, ultimately, sparked the demise of the carrier.
Setting up new airlines in Asia and Europe
Pyne remained in Russia for another two years as a consultant, providing advice to airlines such as VietJet, a Vietnamese low-cost carrier (LCC), which it helped set up a subsidiary in neighboring Thailand.
Then the opportunity arrived to move back west again.
Several investors were intent on relaunching Cyprus Airways, the flag carrier of the Mediterranean island, which ceased operations after going bankrupt in 2015. This project would eventually become Colbalt Air, a brand-new carrier that launched in 2016, but within what Pyne referred to as “a few weeks after starting operations” he resigned.
Pyne’s next project was on another island, but in a far more northerly latitude, as he joined WOW Air, the Icelandic low-cost airline in early 2017.
He said: “I was officially the strategic advisor to the board, which meant doing many different things, such as looking for new potential overseas bases, evaluating the possibility of launching new routes to Asia, [and] looking at the strategic direction of the airline.
“I really enjoyed my time there, although it got to a point where I had one vision and Skúli [Mogensen], the CEO, had a different vision, and he was the boss, so we parted ways in good terms after a year or so.”
The Icelandic experience was to play a major role in inspiring Pyne’s latest Northern Irish project. But before that, the airline executive headed back to warmer climates.
In September 2017 Pyne left WOW Air to become an advisor to Mega Maldives, with the mission of raising capital to restructure the ailing airline, which was mainly focused on carrying leisure traffic from China.
Pyne also noted how this was a market that he had been instrumental in helping develop through his first airline venture, Viva Macau. “I had gone full circle,” he said.
As in the case of Cobalt Air, he found capital for Mega Maldives in China, although this time it was not internal disputes, but politics that got in the way. Before the deal could be formalized, a serious political crisis and a series of riots engulfed the Indian Ocean archipelago and the prospective investors got cold feet.
Despite Pyne’s best efforts, the funds did not arrive on time to save the airline and Mega Maldives was wound down.
Pyne remained in Asia, working next on two simultaneous new airline projects in Cambodia (MJ Airlines) and Laos (Lao Central Airlines) and soon found himself commuting between the respective capital cities, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. While Pyne said that these were “two pleasant countries to work in” each project faced its own set of challenges.
In 2018, a new opportunity knocked on Pyne’s door. He was offered the chance to move back to Cyprus and work on an entirely new project: restructuring a regional airline called TUS Airways, which had been in dire straits for quite some time. During the following two years Pyne worked to stabilize and turn around TUS Airways.
Then, just as things were beginning to head in the right direction, Pyne found himself facing the harsh effects of an external, unexpected shock and the COVID-19 pandemic brought the airline to a halt.
However, against all odds TUS Airways survived. But Pyne had already set his sights on his next airline venture, Fly Atlantic.
Establishing Fly Atlantic
Fly Atlantic is a startup airline that aims to link Europe and North America using Belfast as an intermediate hub.
While Pyne acknowledged both the highly competitive nature of the North Atlantic market and the similarities with the business model traditionally deployed by Icelandic carriers, he said he sees an opportunity for a new entrant to do things a bit differently.
He added: “Iceland has a long history as an intermediate harbor across the Atlantic and we’ve kind of consciously borrowed from that model but tweaked it to give it a Northern Irish flavor.”
Not only did his experience at WOW Air play a role in the conception of Fly Atlantic, but so did the COVID-19 pandemic, which served as a springboard for the new project.
“Fly Atlantic started to take shape during the period of enforced inactivity that was the pandemic. It gave me the opportunity to think about new ideas,” Pyne explained.
He started thinking about this new project in the summer of 2020 and by 2021 he was already building a team, talking to airports and other players in the industry, as well as scouting locations for the airline’s future base.
Although WOW Air ceased operations in 2019, Pyne said he believed its basic business model based on transatlantic low-cost travel remained valid. The proof can be seen in how the Icelandic LCC remained profitable for a number of years before it had to close down.
So, what does Pyne think went wrong? While the idea was sound, he noted, the execution may have been more problematic.
But he said he has learned from what happened to WOW and believes Fly Atlantic will be in a much better position to avoid the same issues.
Pyne highlighted the fact that Belfast’s catchment area, including the northern counties of Ireland, is over three million people, which makes it 10 times the size of Iceland’s.
He added that Northern Ireland is currently leaking 900,000 passengers a year that travel to and from North America through other airports, such as Dublin, London, and Amsterdam. Capturing some of this traffic can, on its own, be a solid foundation for Fly Atlantic’s business. But the startup also aims to have a feeder service bringing in passengers from other parts of Europe. Pyne mentioned cities like Lyon, Hamburg, Bilbao, or Bologna, which currently have no (or limited) North Atlantic services.
Pyne hinted at the possibility of opening other bases if everything goes according to plan, although for now Fly Atlantic’s deal with Belfast International is, he said, the startup’s “secret weapon”.
He added: “In this battle for the North Atlantic they are a very supportive airport, with very attractive charges.”
Pyne did not rule out the idea of supplementing Fly Atlantic’s own feeder operation through partnerships. He added that he was currently involved in ongoing discussions with another startup in the UK called Lakeland Airways about providing ATR services into Belfast International from a potential network of about 20 points in the UK and Ireland.
Lakeland’s turboprops could fly into airports such as London City (LCY), where the 737 MAX or Airbus A321s cannot land, and provide connectivity to and from points like Jersey, in the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man, which have significant traffic flows across the Atlantic due to business and financial services links.
Even easyJet, which already has a significant presence at Belfast International Airport, could potentially become a partner. Pyne also mentioned digital booking platforms such as Kiwi.com or Dohop, where technology facilitates flight connections between independent low-cost carriers.
Although Pyne noted that “ultimately, you need your own feeder network tailored to your transatlantic flights in terms of time, connectivity, pricing, and so on.”
“I think partnerships are great,” he added, “but they don’t obviate the need to provide your own feeder network.”
So, what sort of numbers are we talking about when it comes to the fleet and the expected volume of passengers? Pyne shared some of his projections.
And when it comes to aircraft choice, matters seem clear. “It will be either the A321 neo or the [Boeing 737- ed. note] MAX 8, we have prepared business plans catering to both aircraft types,” Pyne revealed before sharing some additional details about his fleet growth strategy.
The airline entrepreneur said he also counts on the attractive economics of narrow-body aircraft to defy the competition from legacy carriers.
“Aircraft like the A321neo or the 737 MAX will give us a significant unit cost advantage over the widebodies currently flying on the main North Atlantic routes, like the 787s or 777s,” he explained.
It is not just about lower fuel consumption. The versatility of narrow-body aircraft for both transatlantic and European operations is one of the reasons Pyne said he envisages one of the highest aircraft utilization rates anywhere in the industry for his future fleet.
He said: “We’d be looking at around 17-something block hours a day […] that kind of utilization, which, of course, will be industry-leading for the aircraft types we’re considering.”
Pyne revealed that at the time of our interview he was already in conversation with investors to fund the launch of Fly Atlantic. However, he admitted that it is probably not the best time to try to raise funds.
Pricing would remain the main draw to fly transatlantic via Belfast, particularly when Fly Atlantic faces competition from airlines offering a similar proposition. These include PLAY, another low-cost carrier based in Iceland, and Aer Lingus, based just a couple of hours drive south of Belfast and across the border in Dublin.
“I was going to say there’s room for everybody in the market, but I’m not sure that’s true,” Pyne said. “What determines ultimately whether or not you win that particular struggle is your underlying cost. So, we’re rigorously focused on getting our CASK [cost per average seat kilometer, a measure of how much it costs to fly one passenger over one mile – editor’s note] down!”
Pyne said he is confident that Fly Atlantic will be able to deliver the lowest cost in the North Atlantic market, but he appeared rather more concerned about the effects of seasonality.
Demand falls significantly during the winter months in the North Atlantic market, and airlines often struggle to fill capacity. This is a concern that was also raised by Norse Atlantic Airways president, Charles Duncan, in a recent Executive Spotlight interview with AeroTime. Shortly after the interview, the Norwegian carrier announced a number of winter routes to leisure destinations in the Caribbean and Thailand.
Pyne explained that Fly Atlantic will also offer a small premium cabin. The reason for deviating from standard low-cost practice? The potential strength of business traffic driven by Northern Ireland’s numerous business links with North America.
However, travelers will need to wait a couple of years before they are able to try out the new service. Pyne confirmed that Spring 2025 appears to be the most likely launch window for the new airline.
Reflecting on the past, present, and future of the low-cost airline industry
Is there a universal low-cost airline playbook? Or has Pyne noticed differences as the model has been successively tested in various regions of the globe?
This is a topic that Pyne had much to say about, given his experience working with different flavors of low-cost airlines all over the world.
Before wrapping-up our conversation AeroTime asked Pyne about the evolution of the low-cost airline concept during the last couple of decades, particularly considering, as he pointed out, a number of operators have deviated from the original low-cost airline practice.
How have two decades of low-cost airline development shifted public perceptions and expectations about air travel? And does he see scope for further innovation?
Pyne highlighted the fact that the airline industry is facing several challenges that were not present 20 years ago, but this may play to Fly Atlantic’s advantage.
He also said that he sees scope for innovation when it comes to the personalization of the passenger experience, not just when it comes to bundling or unbundling services, but also in using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to give passengers a greater sense of empowerment.
We could not conclude our conversation without touching upon what is fast becoming one of the central topics in aviation right now (and one could even say that it is becoming existential for the industry). We are talking about sustainability, of course.
Pyne indicated his willingness to get Fly Atlantic engaged on this front from the outset.
“We need to make flying socially acceptable to a new generation,” he said. “There must be genuine progress, rather than greenwashing and this is an area of innovation and technology we are keen to get involved with.”