Should I fly with new airline Star1?
Jim McGeever wonders whether a new airline with only one plane to Vilnius is a risky booking
Sunday Times travel expert Richard Green responds: I think it was Richard Branson who quipped at the time of Virgin Atlantic’s maiden flight - when he too had just the one plane - that the airline would either have the best airline safety record in the world, or the worst. He had a point of course, but all worked out well for Virgin, which now has almost 40 aircraft and an exemplary safety record.
Since Lithuania’s national carrier, FlyLAL went bust in January; there has been a rush to fill the gap on the popular route from London to Vilnius. First past the post is indeed Vilnius-based Star1 Airlines (www.star1.aero), which has just started flying four times a week from Gatwick to Vilnius and charges from £120 return. Air Lingus (www.aerlingus.com), which already flies from Dublin to Vilnius, is next, and plans non-stop flights from Gatwick to Vilnius from September 10th, with fares from £92 return. However, if you are looking to book with any airline that has just one or two aircraft to its name, it is worthwhile buying some peace of mind by finding out what kind of planes they are (you don’t want aging Russian-made turboprops), how old they are (less than 15 years is preferable), and if it’s a second hand fleet, then one careful owner like Lufthansa is better than it having been pass-the-parcelled from one West African state to the next.
In the case of Star1, it is kicking off with one second hand Boeing, a 737-700 series. The type first flew in 1998 and Star1’s particular plane started its career with a Colombian low cost airline called Aeries (www.aires.aero) and then spent seven years with the German charter airline, Hamburg International (www.hamburg-international.de). So far so good – and incidentally Virgin’s first jumbo came from Aerolineas Argrentinas.
It’s also useful to know if the airline is part of a larger airline group, for example the new offshoot of a large well-established airline, and Star1 it isn’t. Instead it is the new name of a two-year-old airline that operated smaller planes on charter routes. Still, even that is better than no experience, but it does mean that it will be susceptible to the curse of the tiny airline, in that if there is a technical problem, then there’s no slack in the fleet, in fact there is no ‘fleet’, and a delay can run and run without a spare aircraft to step in with. Star1 says that it is expecting another Boeing to join the fleet by the end of the summer, but that won’t make a lot of difference.
The decision as to whether you should fly Star1 depends on your attitude to risk, not safety of course, which should be fine with Star1, but to delays and the like. If you are travelling alone and have the time, I’d say it is well worth trying out Star1, with the family on a weekend break, perhaps not. And don’t forget that if none of us try out these new airlines in their early days, it means a vote for keeping the status quo - Ryanair and Easyjet in total control of the low cost skies.