Darwin Airline: the small Swiss regional airline that is taking on Europe

Taking over Europe from tiny Ticino. Picture: Darwin Airline

Taking over Europe from tiny Ticino. Picture: Darwin Airline

It sounds like an unlikely name for a Swiss airline, but if you travel to the beautiful canton of Ticino, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, you are entering Darwin Airline's territory.

But to think of Darwin Airline as just a Swiss regional airline would be misleading (why it got this name so apparently non-Swiss, would be a topic for another blog post, in the meantime you can also this other article about Swiss regional airlines) .

Although it continues to operate four flights a day between Lugano and Zurich, Darwin Airline, under the leadership of CEO Maurizio Merlo, has outgrown its home base and it is currently in the middle of a frantic expansion process that has seen it open new bases, not only in neighbouring Italy (in Ancona and Bolzano/Bozen) but also in places as diverse as Cambridge, in the UK, Leipzig, in Germany. In total 26 routes covering 9 different countries.

The fleet is doubling in size, from six to twelve aircraft (Darwin Airline operates an all-Saab 2000 turboprop fleet, each with capacity for 50 passengers) and so is the number of passengers transported, from 250,000 in 2012 to an estimate of 500,000 for 2013. Although load factors, at 47%, remain quite low, figures for the first quarter of 2013 show an increase in the number of passengers of 88% over the same period of the previous year, which makes the scenario of doubling passenger numbers sound very plausible. 

Darwin Airline relies also on partnerships with larger airlines in many of the countries where it operates, for example, Swiss (on its Zurich flights), Alitalia, Air France, CSA in the Czech Republic and Belle Air in Kosovo.

I found quite interesting the fact that Darwin Airline is also opening a base at Cambridge airport, in the UK, that will see flights to Amsterdam, Paris, Geneva and Milan. Although, obviously, the amount of traffic Darwin Airline can move at Cambridge will be quite small in absolute numbers, it is bringing life to a additional air gateway in a South-East of England that lives immersed in seemingly eternal airport capacity debate.

Darwin Airline's plans are ambitious indeed, but if it succeeds it is going to be an interesting case study of how an independent loss-making airline turned itself around to become a pan-European regional player linking third-tier airports (such as Cambridge or Lugano) to major air hubs (like Amsterdam or Paris)  while cooperating with larger carriers across the airline alliance blocks.