Debonair was founded in 1996 by Franco Mancassola and on its first day of operations offered all passengers free flights. Initial destinations from Luton were Newcastle, Copenhagen, Mönchengladbach, Munich, Barcelona and Nice. The latter two destinations were in direct competition with EasyJet. The Newcastle and Copenhagen flights were dropped, with new destinations of Rome, Paris Pontoise, Madrid and Perugia added. From the beginning, Debonair tried to be a more upmarket version of the traditional budget airlines and in 1998 introduced ABC (short for "Affordable Business Class") on some of its routes.
It floated shares on the Easdaqstock exchange in July 1997 and raised £25m. The Debonair business concept of offering budget airline travel, whilst keeping the frills (free drinks and snacks) associated with national carriers, was not a financial success. On 1 October 1999 the airline ceased operations due to financial problems.