Vueling and Spanair: two different strategies to develop Barcelona into an airline hub

A few weeks ago I presented my vision of Barcelona airport as at potential Mediterranean hub. But are there any airlines able to turn this idea into a reality?

Actually, the chances of this happening, although small, have never been better, as there are currently two airlines aiming to develop a hub-style operation at BCN: Vueling and Spanair, however each of them has its particularities.

Spanair MD-83 EC-GVO with the city of Barcelona in the background

Spanair MD-83 EC-GVO with the city of Barcelona in the background

On one hand, Vueling started as a pure low cost play, although its model has been going through an hybridisation process that has seen it progressively adding more of the features of a network airline. On the other hand, Spanair's troubled existence as a conventional full-service airline, took a radical turn when a group of investors supported by the Catalan government purchased it with the mandate to develop an international hub out of Barcelona.

Spanair is actively marketing itself as "Barcelona's carrier", the only one able to take Barcelona to the first division of European airports. Spanair's latest marketing campaign, Jo Crec en Barcelona (which means "I believe in Barcelona" in Catalan language) goes in this direction. But how does this translate in terms of network development?

Until now most of Spanair's growth, which has been constrained by the carrier's delicate financial situation, has been aimed at leveraging its Star Alliance links, new routes and frequencies between Barcelona and Germany and code-sharing with Singapore Airlines, as well as developing some niche markets out of Barcelona with routes to North Africa and the Sahel (Algiers, Nador, Banjul, Bamako and the, now abandoned, Tripoli).

This niche market strategy would fit well with the concept of a Star Alliance South-Western European hub, by offering a diversified and unique route network and channeling traffic through Barcelona, however, given Spanair's weak European network outside Germany, it remains unclear to me what traffic is going to feed these specialty routes other than a limited domestic Spanish demand and some spillovers from Star Alliance's main hubs in Central Europe.

In my post about the Mediterranean strategy I pointed at the need to achieve some critical mass by linking those cities that are within easy reach from Barcelona and are somehow underserved buy their own flag carriers. And this is what Vueling seems to be doing. This airline, partly owned by Iberia, is strengthening its network by opening routes from Barcelona to a number of airports in Southern France (Bordeaux, Toulouse) and Italy (Genoa, Pisa) in addition to a very strong Spanish and European network, at the same time it is enabling connections between different flights and feeding Iberia's new transatlantic services at Barcelona (to Miami and Sao Paulo). Does this mean the hub status for Barcelona is getting closer? yes and no, in a way the seeds of a potential Mediterranean hub are being planted, but at the same time, Barcelona is still far from enjoying the sort of coordinated waves of arrivals and departures, network reach and feeder frequencies that even secondary hubs have.

Vueling A320-200, EC-ICS, landing at BCN

Vueling A320-200, EC-ICS, landing at BCN

Another question is whether is there enough space at BCN for two airlines aiming to make it its hub, particularly when factoring in the increasing competition from Ryanair...maybe developing a hub would require combining Vueling's European reach with Spanair's niche network...but this is another story!