Mint to the Core…

It should come as no surprise that JetBlue are launching service to London, the worst kept secret in the airline and travel industry, after several years of speculation.

Yes, I did call it that the announcement would be small, forced by the need to convert orders to the A321LR from the regular neo, along with regulatory filings which would have have given the game away. I thought originally it would be October 2020, but the announcement of 2021 came with no surprise to me at least, after all they have to get the aircraft to start with…!

Despite rumours flying around of Amsterdam, Paris, Dublin and even Manchester, it was clear even before the announcement that the initial spokes across the pond would be limited. Yes, it was just London – for the moment.

There also brings the question of airport. Some believe it has to Heathrow. I don’t take that stance, although it would be nice, and even JetBlue’s Joanna Geraghty confirmed that London will be seen as an O&D market for the airline. Heathrow is airport for transfer traffic, so unless some amazing slots become available, they will have other options.

Gatwick is just as good option for a traveller, with a fast rail link into London. Long haul is growing, in part thanks to the rivalry between British Airways and Norwegian, and coming soon the Virgin Atlantic/Delta partnership. It shouldn’t be seen as Heathrow’s waiting room or a substandard alternative, there are merits regardless. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Luton or Stansted were not in the frame either.

If you read the press release, Mint is mentioned eight times. It is very clear that they are targeting the price conscious business traveller, a market currently underserved to New York and Boston. Price conscious travellers are taken of with Norwegian in Economy and Premium – along with all the major airlines matching their a la carte offering, although there has been little change on the Business Class product.

Oil prices and the global slowdown brought down the original slew of airlines attempting to change premium travel across the Atlantic. British Silverjet took on American competition from Eos and Maxjet to win over customers with prices from £999 per person return. JetBlue’s play with Mint comes in a similar fashion. Challenge in the incumbent with something different.

So we wait for 2021, which is a long way off still and I’m sure there are more parts to the story – especially here in London…

Airlines Luxury Holidays

Cheaper doesn’t mean better

People often ask me why they should book with a travel agent, when booking online is cheaper. Its the same as people asking me if I do ‘deals’, in which my response is no, I ‘do’ holidays. Neither is it the case that travel agents should be cheaper as there is so much more than the average person sees from the outside, and very rarely do you hear someone say I want a ‘better’ holiday. Cheaper doesn’t necessarily buy you financial protection. Its’s all well and good saying that a credit card would cover it, but there are instances where that just isn’t possible. What about that villa you have seen online where you have to pay them by bank transfer, or the instance where your flight has been cancelled or diverted and you are stuck with prepaid accommodation? Financial protection doesn’t sound exciting, but its there for your safety and security with travel one of the leading industries in keeping their customers money safe. We have ABTA financial protection, along with alternatives such as TTA or ABTOT, ATOL and the regulations bound by under the latest version of the Package Travel Regulations. Cut corners by getting a holiday cheaper when booking directly with a hotel doesn’t buy you any protection apart from your credit card, and even then its only about your money, not your experience. Surely that’s better? Cheaper doesn’t buy a trusted person at the end of the phone or email, accessible 24 hours a day – especially when you need them the most. We care, we care about you, your family and your travelling companions, so if there is a problem we will always be there to sort it out in partnership with our tour operator partners. We only select the partners with whom we work with on their service. Yes, that might mean we are more expensive than something which is online, but when things go wrong – and yes things outside of all our control sometimes means things go wrong, then we can sort it, and sort it quickly. Cheaper doesn’t always get you what you really want. Many travel professionals have been doing this for a long time and have a huge wealth and depth of knowledge, coming up with ideas you might have never have even considered. You only get that by strong relationships and knowing your every need. When you’re looking at something online, you’re only looking at what you think you like with nobody of experience guiding you. Cheaper doesn’t get you your own personal assistant when travelling. Someone who will help with visa forms, printing boarding passes and checking-in online. Maybe there is a flight time change and you need to change the times for car parking at the airport, or lounge or maybe even the airport you depart from. Surely nobody would turn down the offer of making going away easier? Cheaper doesn’t get you small added touches, polishing your travel experience. That might be chauffeur transfers from home, or a lounge, It might even mean securing an upgrade at a hotel through our extensive contacts in the industry, or getting the best view of any room at the hotel. Its just not possible to replicate as an individual. Sometime cheaper just means cheaper. How many buy the cheapest iPhone possible, only to find out they have run out of storage in six months? How many book a flight at 6am in the morning, only to get to the airport and complain as to why the flight is so early? How many complain with the view of the hotel room when just booking the lead-in room?A travel agent might not always be cheaper, but what we can do is make your holiday better. In the end, doesn’t everyone want a better holiday?


My take on flyBe/Virgin/Stobart – ‘A little less convolution, a little more action please’

It has been a few days since the announcement that a consortium which includes Virgin Atlantic and the Stobart Group disclosed they are to purchase flyBe. While not unexpected following a bid last year, the price they are expected to pay is and there in lies a problem.

Flybe have been in trouble for a while. It can be traced back to the early 2000’s when they held ambitions to expand from their regional UK routes, reaching the at the time blossoming low-cost airline route with routes to major holiday destinations. As part of that, an expensive order for Embraer aircraft following which signalled the start of the downfall.

British Airways offloaded their loss-making BA Connect network to flyBe, minus the Crown Jewels of London City, which failed to turn them around. A promise of an independent regional airline, able to do their own deals with international airlines in Europe (sound familiar?) to feed traffic onto their network hasn’t worked, while the original set of Gatwick slots were sold to easyJet to aid expansion at their biggest base.

Previous management tried to stem the losses. ‘Project Blackbird’ saw the most expensive Embraer 195’s in part-financed deals with regions including Doncaster and Cardiff, while the aircraft could be phased out – ironically some ending up with Stobart.

However, the last few months have been difficult taking the airline to the edge, forcing the consortium to take immediate action. Such expediency has taken shareholders by surprise, with the flyBe board accepting the takeover without shareholder approval at a substantial discount. It wouldn’t be surprising to see legal action from some of the biggest stake holders, threatening the future of the airline further. Give the situation, they have little to lose. A further sale of slots at Gatwick, after FlyBe moved their Newquay route to London, were placed in the hands of IAG.

The future is interesting if a solution is found. A rebrand under the Virgin Atlantic banner is expected, despite the brand being known for predominantly long haul travel. The last attempt at domestic flying ended badly with their ‘Little Red’ programme from Heathrow to Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, promising ‘Stiff Competition’, but in reality they couldn’t keep it up.

FlyBe have promised no changes to their network before the start of the winter timetable at the end of October. It is clear however substantial changes to the network will take place, with Virgin Atlantic keen to feed their long haul network and Stobart keen to expand services at their owned airports – primarily London Southend.

At present, that value is not easily found. Virgin Atlantic just have six routes out of Manchester for example, where flyBe are already a partner for transatlantic rival Thomas Cook. Flybe only have 2 (soon to be 3) routes out of Heathrow, in a different terminal to which both Delta and Virgin Atlantic operate out of. Not exactly ideal for easy connecting traffic. Without substantial changes in either network, I can’t see how that adds value – especially one with a carrier flying 80 aircraft.

I believe there will be four pillars to the restructuring. 1) How Virgin Atlantic can benefit – either by connecting traffic or brand awareness. 2) How Virgin Atlantic’s owners and partners can benefit. 3) How to facilitate Stobart’s aviation ambitions. 4) Setting boundaries in which they know how they can compete profitably.

When looking at Virgin’s partners, KLM and Air France, the airline already has a substantial network to both bases, including a codeshare agreement in Paris. It wouldn’t be surprising if this was expanded. They could also help in shaping the fleet, either swapping Embrear aircraft, or introducing new aircraft types depending on the capacity needed.

Stobart will also want something out of the deal, with expansion likely at Southend despite both easyJet and Ryanair taking up residency. A long awaited link to London for Carlisle, which went on sale only to be withdrawn is still on the table, along with a possible deal to run Teeside Airport (pending a vote shortly). How the current franchise deal with Aer Lingus works out will be interesting.

‘Odd ball’ unprofitable routes/and or bases will likely be cut to concentrate on the core flying. Cardiff, Norwich and Doncaster-Sheffield could be vulnerable, along with more marginal regional flying from Exeter, Southampton and Birmingham. The future of London City, given Stobart will want to promote their own airport in Southend could also be under threat.

I can’t say that I think this is a marriage made in heaven, I have reservations on how it can be made a success after several failures. Translating the Virgin Atlantic brand will be highly interesting, and just how much influence the Stobart Group will have on the shape of the operation.

Its certainly not going to be an easy ride, and expect more surprises to come…


The next shift in keeping costs low

There has already been a backlash following the ‘cuts’ imposed by British Airways, likened to the kind of service you would get with a low-cost carrier, but in reality, it is an airline keeping a competitive advantage in multiple markets.

Yes, the shift to buy-on-board food on domestic and European flights for those in economy wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. I had a different view at the time, with the belief that the opportunity to purchase something from a wide menu is better than a cup of tea and a biscuit. That is a view that I still hold, and although the menu has now been ‘enhanced’, a term that BA loves which effectively means degraded, is still something that offers choice.

The other shift has been towards densification of aircraft, that is putting more seats in the same amount of space, and that is something that a customer notices. It not always legroom though, the common metric touted, but as we will see at Gatwick on the 777 fleet, putting an extra seat in the row. The move from a 3-3-3 configuration in economy to a 3-4-3, along with more World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) seats and the removal of First gives the airline a cost base they can effectively compete with Norwegian (low-cost long haul) out of Gatwick. The same is happening in the short-haul fleet, with many of the A320’s now flying with 174 seats, just 6 short of the standard dense configuration.

So those are things you notice, but there are plenty of other ways an airline can save money, sometimes without you even noticing. Over the years thanks to Ryanair pioneering mandatory online check-in to save money (taking out the need to have banks of staff waiting to print a boarding pass), people have now been conditioned that this is the just standard practice now, even for the mainstream airlines. Taking that a step further is what easyJet is calling ‘Auto Bag Drop’ or ABD for short, where if you are travelling with a piece of hold luggage, you will be able to check it in yourself at the airport, reducing staffing levels even further. EasyJet currently has the largest in Europe at the moment, and British Airways inherited their smaller version when they moved terminals in January at Gatwick. This ‘automation’ is going to be rolled out at Heathrow as well with 24 new bag drops.

As seen as a trial over the summer, automatic boarding gates at Heathrow for domestic flights are to speed up the boarding process. According to the British Airways presentation at the Capital Markets Day, there are a total of 9 gates which reduce boarding times by a third. As long as they strictly enforce the boarding system of Club/Executive Club/Families and disabled on first, I can’t see there being too many complaints, but I’m sure there will be some from the back. They announced that this will be shortly rolled out to international flights as well soon.

Digital is also an important part of ‘automation’, encouraging customers to do more through technology. A new app and website are going to allow customers to have greater control over their booking with improved ways to cancel, rebook and upgrade – which will assist the company in times of crisis such as mass cancellations through weather or strikes. As I have found myself, the new system will even rebook a flight for you if your original flight is cancelled, allowing airport ground staff to concentrate on customer service and not firefighting.

Not all automation will be seen from a customer’s point of view though. A new ‘Mototok’ push-back system replaces the old truck style vehicle, and they are trialling a new robotic baggage system, all designed around the dispatch of an aircraft more efficient.

The use of technology to improve the experience, while lowering cost at the same time is a nirvana for airlines. The more which can be automated or streamlined, and increase efficiency is a win for all concerned. This really isn’t something to be scared about this time but embraced as the new way of travelling through airports and air travel.


The UK deserves a ‘challenger airline’

Britain has a history of small challenger airlines, beating against the door of the establishment and opening new markets. We have seen these come and go over the years – British Caledonian/Caledonian, British Midland, Air UK and Air Europe, all household names at points in time. In several industries, most notably in banking, new challengers are appearing with a fresh outlook based upon service and technology to suit the ever changing needs of the consumer.

The gap between ‘low cost carriers’ and the ‘legacy airlines’ is shrinking. While LCC’s are concentrating on network coverage and growth, along with costs, legacy airlines are scaling down to meet the new expectation of airfares. The has left a gap in the market, for people who are willing to pay a premium for quality, but with the efficiency and service of a younger challenging brand.

The ‘downgrading’ of British Airways on short haul has alienated many of its loyal following, who now compare their experience to easyJet. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many see differently and should be providing those extras – even if it is just a cup of tea and a biscuit in economy. Recently, the IT nightmare showed how fragile they can be when there is a problem, without the resources to sort it out.

What I would suggest is what we have seen in the US, a number of airlines born in the ‘low cost’ era have bucked that trend, albeit with various levels of success to show that you can create a brand and airline which customers love, and come with little baggage. The first, Jetblue has enjoyed success on the east coast at bases in Boston and New York built upon less densely configured aircraft (although this is changing), decent customer service and product which resonates with customers. The other being the now Alaskan owned Virgin America whom have enjoyed a loyal following in the bay area, the trendy interior and innovative website and product offering appealing as a viable alternative to the mainline carriers on trunk routes.

Europe doesn’t have an airline which resonates as positively, with negatively still surrounding the previous and more basic offering by easyJet and Ryanair, and the push back of cutback at mainline carriers.

Can such an airline exist though? It would need low costs and slots at important airports – something which easyJet and Ryanair have been busy gobbling up over the last few years, along with other airlines such as Vueling and Norwegian. That is to say it isnt impossible, especially if it was born out of a merger or takeover, with a fresh and different view of how people travel today.

So the question is, can you do premium on the cheap??


Behind the Scenes at Thomas Cook Airlines

Those who know me would say that I wouldn’t miss type opportunity to look around the facilities of an airline. So, that is exactly what I did, thanks to Thomas Cook Airlines at Manchester Airport, the main base of the airline in the UK.

You might think that it really isn’t a ‘proper’ airline, stuck in the 80’s and 90’s of the traditional ‘charter airline’, but think again, Thomas Cook Airlines is no longer a charter airline, but one that fits the need of all leisure travellers – either on long haul or short haul across their net work.

Their operations base at Manchester Airport is a hanger, located opposite the main terminals and is one of the largest in Europe. Able to accommodate multiple long haul, such as the Airbus A330, or short haul aircraft such as the 757 or A321, it is one of the airlines main technical bases across its sister carriers – Thomas Cook Scandinavia, Thomas Cook Belgium and Condor in Germany.

Fully integrated with the sister airlines, they are able to switch aircraft and crews across the fleet and share commercial advantages such as slots at airports and maintenance facilities.

An impressive sight, when I visited in early December there were three aircraft inside, a 767 which has just come off lease and was being prepared to go back to the owner (lessor), and two 757’s, one of which was Condor. An A330, which I had hoped to have seen had just left, ready for a departure to New York.

The airline is currently in the middle of refurbishing their short haul fleet, predominately the A321 with new slimline, lighter seats than previously which give more legroom throughout the cabin. Having tried the new seat, it is very comfortable and comparable with many other airlines. Less depth than British Airways’ new Pinnacle seat, and more comfortable than the new easyJet seat, with an emphasis on comfort given the increasing sector lengths to the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands.

In addition to the new seats, a new wireless IFE (In Flight Entertainment) system is going to be introduced shortly on short haul, where customers will be able to stream movies and content to their devices in flight, along with purchasing items from Airshoppen (Duty Free), or purchasing food and snacks.

On long haul, the premium push continues and a change of direction from relying on traditional package holidays. Replicating its sister airline in Germany – Condor, Thomas Cook Airlines now offer leisure orientated scheduled flights with a strong emphasis on their Manchester base. These have expanded and now include New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Caribbean. A new route has also just started from Gatwick to Cape Town.

A refreshed Economy cabin includes IFE at every seat, while a new Premium cabin aims to compete with the popular Premium Economy cabins of the mainstream airlines. A larger seat, with more legroom along with other added such such as a larger baggage allowance.

A popular element of their onboard experience are the meals designed by celebrity chef James Martin. This isn’t just a branding of a meal, as you see in some ready meals, but he is involved from the concept to the final product, even tasting them onboard where you taste buds are reduced anyway.

In cooperation with LSG, a major airline catering provider, the meals are available on all short haul flights, but only on the outbound (ex-UK) as it isn’t possible to replicate it with outside suppliers in different countries.

A new innovation, and the first airline to do it in the UK, when flying with Thomas Cook Airlines you will be able to reserve duty free on non-EU flights through ‘Airshoppen’ an online store up to 7 days in advance, where it will be delivered directly to your seat onboard. It will also be possible to reserve on you outbound flight, to be ready on your inbound if you are travelling 7 nights or more.

Looking around the facility it is a really slick operation, and is the main operating base in the UK looking after engineering and operations. Taking care of everything from routine maintenance, to repairing aircraft after an incident such as a bird strike it is all under one roof.

Upstairs is the operations department, there to ensure the smooth day to day running of the airline, making sure all the crews and aircraft are in the right places at the right time. That isn’t a easy job and they have an army of staff to make sure this happens. To aid this, they have two aircraft on standby – two in the Canaries in the Winter, and two at Manchester in the summer, aimed at minimising delays if there is a problem with an aircraft.

This isn’t a charter carrier any more, this is a full fledged carrier to match easyJet on short haul flights, and the likes or Norwegian on the long haul. Impressive definitely, but remaining affordable for the leisure traveller.


Post ATOL fiasco, Monarch should stick to its roots – Leisure

Monarch Airlines has a fantastic brand, extremely well respected in the UK as being a quality carrier to the sun. Yes, that is right, as an independent airline the biggest asset is the brand, one which is looked upon by the public as one of the better leisure carriers for their yearly break.

A lot has changed over the last few years, especially for the airline which has downscaled to make a profit by leaving long haul and charter flying behind to concentrate on the newer ‘Scheduled’ side of the business. First it was called Monarch Crown Service, before being expanded to Monarch Scheduled later becoming the all encompassing airline it is today. Over that period it has specialised in routes to the sun from UK airports, especially the Canaries, Span, Portugal, Turkey and Egypt. A few of those markets have had their troubles this year, which hasn’t helped the situation, but it is the area in which the airline in known for.

Under the current ownership (Graybull Capitol), another trend has appeared, that of low-frequency city routes as a ‘low cost airline’, heavily served by more specialist carriers. The recent addition of Luton, Birmingham and Manchester to Stockholm on a less than daily basis against Norwegian is brave, while Gatwick and Manchester to Zagreb is interesting against WizzAir.

By the nature of the airline, it just can’t operate these routes to the best of its ability, thwarted by the number of the aircraft in the fleet and the higher cost compared to Ryanair or Wizzair. These are just a distraction, and the focus should be on what the airline is known for, and more importantly emphasise quality which could include a few changes.

British Airways has enjoyed success at Gatwick airport, appealing to what they describe as ‘Premium Leisure’, but that is only Gatwick and there is scope for that to be rolled out across the UK. Monarch is the perfect carrier to do that with bases in Luton, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds Bradford. Although Ryanair has already shown that the lowest price always wins, which in some cases is true, there is scope for a more premium offering on leisure routes.

At the front of the aircraft are already extra leg room seats. Why not turn those into a more ‘Premium Economy’ version of BA’s Club Europe, offering the extra legroom along with maybe a free drink or snack and maybe some extra luggage. The same goes for down the back of the bus, with more flexible luggage allowances and the expanded option of online check-in.

There are clearly holes in the route map of Monarch, with areas not exploited on the ‘Premium Leisure’ market, which could also tie into the tour operation nicely. Upmarket destinations like Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica. On the longer side of the network, The Gambia is emerging as a hotspot in travel once again, along with Cape Verde which has almost been exclusive to TUI in the UK, and is ripe for an independent to emerge. It would also solve some of the destination issues in winter, with the Canaries almost maxing out in capacity this year.

So, keep costs low… While appealing to the market which don’t mind paying a little extra for quality (and refuse to fly on EasyJet or Ryanair), and expand in markets which have little competition.

The trade wants Monarch to prosper, but first it needs to innovate and listen to the public.


It’s Virgin mate, but not as you know it!

It is well know that the invention of low cost airlines over the last 20 years has severely dented the power of full service airlines in Europe. Those weaker ones including Malev, Sabena and Swissair have disappeared, some to be replace by versions, some not.

Those which have been left have found a survival of the fittest, with the low cost airlines, especially Ryanair driving down costs and lowering fares. Those airlines have to compete and the compromises are clear – you only have to look at the likes of British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa to see this.

There is a new battle though, and one which is going to change the industry yet again – the invention of the Low Cost Long Haul airline. At first it was rubbished as not feasible, and Air Asia tried and failed to make a London to Kuala Lumpur route work, but the tide is now turning. Not able to increase utilisation to the same extent as short haul – the long haul model is very economy centric, but still with a premium offering. More nimble and effeceint than previous carriers, they are able to offer lower fares, and also drop complicated rules, such as staying a Saturday night to get a cheap fare to America.

That is causing a problem for the network carriers, as their prized profit making parts of the business are being eroded. Norwegian has been the pioneer of this in Europe after a rocky start taking on brand new 787’s, but Lufthansa is following with Eurowings – again facing problems, and other players such as WestJet in Canada and Air Asia and Scoot in South East Asia.

A Low Cost Virgin isn’t something new, in fact the very roots of the airline were to compete like Freddie Laker in the 70’s, although the product going upmarket has meant competing against the likes of British Airways, American and United.

Little is known so far about the offshoot of the main airline, but rumours have suggested a fleet of ex-Delta A330’s will be based at Gatwick on leisure orientated roots, possibly only featuring Economy and a revised Premium Economy cabins. This would put the carrier right up against Norwegian who has had a head start and could see new routes opening to the Caribbean and Indian Ocean.

Even if this doesn’t see the light of day change is coming, and it needs to keep up, even if that means going downmarket.


Revisiting Monarch

The rebirth of Monarch Airlines by Greybull Capitol has seen the airline move from one which is loss making, to one which is now making a little money. I speculated eighteen months ago that the model wasn’t viable and it was more valuable to another airline or broken up, and that view on my part has not changed.

Once again we see reports that the airline could be sold again, with a number of ‘suitors’ waiting in the wings, possibly in the short term for slots at Gatwick Airport which are becoming scarce, especially in the peak slots in the morning – something which would be highly prized by a number of airlines.

Initially HNA, the parent company of Chinese airline Hainan was said to be interest. They wouldn’t be able to own the whole airline due to EU ownership rules – although lets see what happens on the referendum as to what happens with that one. You would think that with HNA behind them, who were also interested in holding a stake of Virgin America, that the airline would operate nearly as they do now.

Then you have other theories, the most notable being easyJet. You can understand why easyJet would want to buy them. They are active in nearly all their bases, and hold prize slots at their fortress hub at Gatwick, the biggest part of their network. It would only strengthen their presence at the airport – but as we have seen recently their advantage is being eroded.

Their Gatwick route structure has been dented with a reduction in German routes to Cologne and Dusseldorf, along with Strasbourg and Moscow, not helped by rival Ryanair muscling in on primary airports from their Stansted base. Even if easyJet had the slots you would have to wonder what they would do with them.

As I suggested last time, I still consider British Airways the best fit for Monarch. BA is really a London centric airport, and getting more slots at Gatwick will be a bonus, especially if they want to expand their point-to-point long haul operation. Short haul is also doing well against fierce competition with a more leisure focus. Although it could happen, many onlookers think it will be unlikely.

Whatever happens over the next few months, it could spark the end of the Monarch name in British aviation.


With A Little Personality

Travelling can be somewhat of a dreary affair, almost like reading from a script its the same thing over and over again. You notice this the more you travel and when something hits you out of the ordinary, it really does add to your overall experience.

Having travelled with easyJet for many years, it used to be the case it was like travelling with a family. It was an atmosphere that was filled with humour and fun, and with the move to go upmarket it has been sadly lost.

Returning to British Airways has been a revolation, bringing both personal service and human touches which do add to the customer experience – this is either in Club or Economy, I travel in both and appreciate the merits of both.

This week while travelling back from Seville, I had one of those moments. It is not often I record the speech of one of the pilots before take off, but this one was an exception, and I’m sorry I didn’t catch the whole thing as it was extremely funny – here covering all the points but didn’t sound like a machine reading from a script!

So here he is – First Officer Tom Andrews livening up the troops pre-take off!