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!


A350 is the Dream, not the Dreamliner

Having flown on the 787 ‘Dreamliner’ just over a year ago, I have constantly raved over its ability to walk off the aircraft at your destination feeling completely refreshed. There is a but though…

Yes, I flew with Norwegian to New York, so we are not talking a mainstream carrier here, but they do all offer the same configuration of 3-3-3 nine abreast layout in Economy. On the outset you might think this is OK, but when you delve a little closer, it could just be one of the worst experiences on any aircraft, let along long haul.

The first thing you notice is the very narrow seats, yes extremely narrow. Given that it is a long haul flight they feel narrow, and this isn’t just a short hop to the continent on Ryanair or easyJet. I was sat in an emergency exit row, and I think that this was even more noticeable given the non-moveable arm rests. Space is a really important thing when travelling long haul in economy, but for me the 787 isn’t the perfect dream.

At 6 inches wider and with more vertical side panels than the 787, Airbus’ A350 is slowly being brought into service by a number of airlines around the world. Those 6 inches are going to make all the difference to the economy passenger, with the same nine-abreast 3-3-3 layout. That is nearly an extra inch per seat, something you will notice. It also pulls away from the trend of the 777 of going to 10 breast seating, another of the grim configurations facing the travelling public you might not immediately notice.

I can’t wait to try out the new A350 as it promises everything the 787 ‘Dreamliner’ did, but does it just so much better. This could be the ‘dream’.


A Squeeze of Orange?

The European aviation scene is an interesting one at the moment with a lot of movement between the big players. There are those who are going to miss out, and those which could potentially make large capacity gains, leaving just three of four groups.

With the ever increasing attempt of creating a more ‘upmarket’ image Ryanair are really the ones to watch. They have an extraordinary amount of aircraft on order, not just to replace the current fleet, but to add it making it the largest carrier in Europe. The assault at going upmarket is going to spill over into serving primary airports, something their business plan has avoided over the last 20 years.

We have already seen this happen in some markets, they already have some slots at Amsterdam, as well as Barcelona El Prat, Madrid, Brussels, Copenhagen, Milan Malpensa, Rome Fiumicino, Athens and Lisbon. It is not co-insidental that easyJet also operate from all of those airports and have bases in the majority of them. This challenge is only ever going to increase from Ryanair, but its not just them, there is also some serious challenges now by IAG owned Vueling, who are also muscling in on historically easyJet bases.

easyJet have always been strong in the UK market. They first set up camp at Luton airport in the mid-90’s, and then expended to Gatwick, before buying Go which gave them other bases at Stansted, East Midlands and Bristol. Another purchase, this time BA franchise partner GB Airways gave them a stronger hold at Gatwick and Manchester, with FlyBe slots at Gatwick enhansing their portfolio. So, yes, easyJet have a strong position in the UK, especially at Luton and Gatwick.

Abroad, easyJet has had mixed sucess. They have long held their base at Geneva which is very sucessful, as is Paris. There have however been some failures: Madrid was closed as a base, so was Rome recently and East Midlands which was a difficult market.

The recent base closure of Rome is an interesting one, where both Vueling and Ryanair deceded upon them forcing easyJet out. It also saw the end of the much heralded at the time Linate to Fiumicino shuttle which they won rights for, only to be closed shortly afterwards. Making the case that the aircraft were better off at new bases Venice, Naples and at their historic Italian base in Milan Malpensa it isnt going to be an ‘easy’ ride there either – especially at Milan, where Ryanair is trying hard to compete head to head.

It is not just abroad though where the challenges are being felt. You just have to look at the first ever easyJet base at Luton. They really do have the upper hand at the airport, complimenting Wizzair who operate to eastern Europe extensively. With a low cost wing opening, Copenhagen had been hoping it would attract low cost carriers to the airport with incentives to fly there. It worked and both Ryaniar and easyJet set up a Luton to Copenhagen schedule – from nothing to a crazy 8 flights per day between them. The fares are extremely low and seem to be attracting passengers, although it cant do anything for the yield for either airline, sometimes you can get seats for £20 return.

Despite going up against Monarch on some sunshine routes from the beginning, it is now Vueling who are getting in on the act up against easyJet coming to their home turf. Not only that, but the three routes already announced are all going toe for toe against the orange airline. This summer IAG-backed Vueling will operate twice a day to Amsterdam and Barcelona, with a six time a week service to Zurich. One would assume further routes are planned to link their bases – maybe Rome or Madrid could be on the cards for the winter. Air France and KLM backed Transavia will be operating Luton to Paris Orly this summer, going up against easyJet’s Charles de Gaulle service.

It is going to be tough for easyJet where they don’t already have the upper hand to compete with the ever unstoppable Ryanair, and Vueling – the newcomers on the scene with big backers. It doesnt have the cost per seat advantage Ryanair has to have low prices, doesnt have the same number of aircraft on order, and doesnt have the distribution channel IAG can provide Vueling.

Gatwick will remain strong given their slot position, although a number of routes have already been dropped given competition from other London airports – notably in Germany including Cologne and Strasbourg.

At airports like Milan Malpensa, Amsterdam, Lisbon and Zurich, they are a lot more exposed to advansing airlines.

It is going to be an interesting couple of years, but surely a lack of ambition won’t derail one of the most iconic airlines in European aviation.

Airlines Luxury Holidays

When being independent isn’t independent

There are great advantages to being an independent travel agent, with what I believe is the impartiality you are able to give to customers including the widest breadth of product possible to cater that need, desire or recommendation.

Yes, it is quite right to be specialist – maybe cruise, activity, touring, it doesn’t matter, but that is not going to be right for everyone and even within those genres there is choice. Personally there maybe favourites, that might be quite true and naturally you would sell those companies who fit your requirements sometimes more than what suits your client. You might have favourites due to the relationship with a representative or loyalty to another member of staff, and those relationships matter.

The ability of selling small niche tour operators is extremely important, as they have the knowledge that we don’t have in highly specialist areas – especially to destinations or experiences off the beaten track. Although they are important to fill a gap in the market, it isn’t the whole market – and there are still many people out there who are looking for a standard package holiday – with great impartial service.

Being independent doesn’t always mean you can sell what you want, but instead sell what your customer wants.


Upgauging and Densification

There is a trend in the aviation industry at the moment. How can we get more people on our aircraft?

There are two easy answers to that one, either fitting more people into the same space or having larger aircraft.

We have seen this on long haul – no longer is it all about the legroom, but the seat width. Emirates, really the pioneers of this even with its ‘luxury’ tag started putting 10-abrest on the 777, when most other airlines had settled on 9. A raft of carriers has followed suit including KLM, Air France, American, Air Canada and now Swiss. Other aircraft types are not immune either from the tight space in Economy, with the 787 now seen with common 9 abreast seating, and even the A380 demoed with an astonishing 11 abreast.

This does nothing for the passenger experience, and in some cases the passengers health. It could also explain the upsurge in Premium Economy, giving more legroom and a wider seat, along with more ‘upgraded’ features such as meal and beverage options.

Short haul isn’t immune either, with airlines once again trying to get as many seats onboard an aircraft as possible. The first step we have seen with British Airways and the new Pinnacle seating across the Airbus short haul fleet, bring their aircraft just two rows from a full ‘charter’ configuration. Helped in part by a new thinner and lightweight seat, it has also seen a dramatic decrease in legroom for those passengers in Club Europe, who no have the same as Euro Traveller (economy).

The next step, as announced at the end of the year, is that the smaller A319’s will be slowly phased out in favour of larger A320’s and A321’s, providing more seats on each aircraft. Here we area predominately talking about Heathrow where slots are more difficult to obtain, especially on major trunk routes with multiple rotations. Any extra slot that is suitable for long haul development will be looked at.

The British Airways fleet at Gatwick is really a different animal. Some would say it is the ‘runt’ of the litter, given casts off from the big brother up the road at Heathrow. It has recently taken delivery of the ex-bmi A319’s which don’t have containerised holds for baggage and have a higher density cabin any way, and leased A320’s mainly coming from low-cost airline WizzAir or TAM in Brazil. These are even higher density catering the mainly leisure routes Gatwick caters for, and therefore competing against the likes of easyJet, Norwegian, Monarch and its own sister brand Vueling.

With these new aircraft deliveries, the difference between the IAG airlines will be made even smaller. They will have the same engines and avionics, the cabin will the same – apart from the seats and a few other small changes.

This then brings the question of the ‘Space Flex’ interior. Vueling has already committed to this, and do actually have a couple of aircraft flying the configuration. It is the latest space saving method of getting more seats on the aircraft. It involves moving the toilet at the very back of the aircraft and moving them into the rear bulkhead (where you would currently find a galley – and therefore reducing space for the cabin crew which wont be popular on long flights). If you are going to mix and match the aircraft across the currently four airlines – then you would imagine that British Airways would have the same.


The race to get more seats on the aircraft isn’t just something IAG are doing, it has already been started by the low cost airlines – Ryanair committing to a 200 seat 737-8MAX and easyJet will be getting 186 seat A320’s next year as well, including retrofitting their existing fleet.

We are now in a time of, if you are travelling – be it in Economy or Business, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you are going to be paying for less space. The race to the bottom as really taken hold and is sad that it has gone this far.

Airlines Luxury Holidays

Dresden Christmas Market – My Favourite So Far!

Dresden isn’t exactly one of the easiest places to get to, although has long been on my list for visiting the Christmas Market.

Last year I went to Nuremberg, and that was a toss up of going there or to Dresden. At the time there was a direct flight from London City to Dresden with CityJet, but since their restructure the route has been dropped. It has been operated over the years by several airlines including British Airways from Gatwick and Lufthansa from Heathrow, but currently it isn’t served by an airline to the UK.
That left me with two options, I could fly indirect and for that my choice would be British Airways to Dusseldorf changing onto Air Berlin for the second hop, or to fly into an alternative airport and take the train.

With a look at the flights, I decided to use my home airport of Luton to fly to Berlin Schoenefeld (and what is due to become the new Berlin airport) and take the direct train from Berlin to Dresden which would take just about two hours, arriving mid afternoon – perfect for going to the Christmas Market in the evening.

My hotel of choice was the Swissotel, a 5* hotel in the centre of the old town and just across the road from the largest and most famous Christmas Market in Dresden. Really, you couldn’t get a more perfect location. Not only that, it was a superb hotel. The staff were some of the best I have encountered anywhere around the world, so accommodating and making sure that every guest had everything they wanted. I certainly would like to stay again, and I have never been to the same Christmas Market twice.

The market was excellent, with a great range of stalls and much more so than other I have seen in Munich and Hamburg. My primary reason for going is to get Stollen for Christmas, and as Dresden is the home of Stollen I wasn’t disappointed. There are more Stollen outlets here than possibly all the other Christmas Markets put together. Sometimes there are just one or two, but here there were at least six, and maybe even more.

The thing I like when I travel is to find something unexpected, and once again this happened in Dresden. I have no idea who this is, but he performed a great rendition of Nella Fanastia – I’m sure the proper music video they were filming will be online soon!

I’m going again next year, it really was that good!


Finding the pinnacle

Until this year it had been a long time since I had travelled frequently with British Airways, but this year has seen me renew my assoiciation with the national carrier.

It started with the determination to fly on the 737-400 before the type was retired. I had wanted to do this for a while, for one reason or another it wasn’t possible. A trip to Delft was the ideal opportunity to fly on the age old aircraft, flying from Amsterdam to London’s Gatwick Airport.

What you have to remember with the older aircraft is that they were still flying around with the former generation interiors, with large leather seats and the convertable business class at the front – a concept which has since been dropped.

Instead we have a new concept, which has been rolled out over the majority of the Airbus short-haul fleet, and a new seat ‘Pinnacle’.

If you sat the front of the old 737’s you would have noticed the expansive legroom:


Yes, flying short haul in Europe could have given you more legroom than most long haul carriers – a whopping 34 inches. Pure luxury if you ask me, and the airline seems to think so to. The new Airbus interiors have substantially reduced legroom at the front of the bus, and therefore for the Business customers too, to a more normal 30-31 inches.

The seat is OK. Yes, it looks very luxurious in dark blue leather with fine detail stitching with the familiar British Airways wings retaining the previous generation look, but it just isn’t the same. Combined with the reduction in legroom, the thinner seat seems less comfortable and might not be what you would want on a five hour maximum flight to somewhere like Sharm El Sheikh or the Canaries.


However, this is the way of the industry. British Airways has to counter the advances of easyJet and Ryanair by adding more seats to their aircraft in order for them to lower the airfares. }

To an extent it has worked, you still have the premium feel, just with less legroom and for the majority of the routes you fly to in Europe which take no more than a couple of hours it is just fine. When you start pushing the boundaries, that is where the problems are going to start.


In the Interest of Safety

We don’t have events like this happen very often anymore. With more evidence suggesting that the Metrojet aircraft was brought down by an explosive device, we have to look once again how such an event was allowed to have happened, and in that interim there is bound to be some disruption as we revert to a safety first attitude.

While the UK has been relatively safe over the last twenty years, we have a strict and robust security presence at all our airports. It has now become routine practice not to take sharp objects and the more recent rule on liquids.

Unfortunately those rules are not followed everywhere. Reports have come out of Sharm El Sheikh over the last week of being ‘fasttracked’ through security, with people taking large bottles of water, light ‘pat downs’ and inconsistent screening. It certainly doesn’t sound up to the standards of Western Europe.

The same can be said for where you hold luggage heads too. It is now common practice to screen luggage heading into the hold, but it doesn’t look like that has happened in Sharm, with reports of baggage handlers being asleep on the job.

Heading home without your luggage isn’t something which everyone is going to be happy with, but it is necessary evil if it means that everyone coming home is going to be safe. It should only be a short term measure, but it at least shows how seriously it has all been taken.

Who knows what the future will bring, but I for one can see British or EU airlines being restricted by the British Government on destinations they can fly if the standard of security at airports is not up to standard. The threat of IS on western aircraft now looks to be real, so this could just be the start of a new aviation crisis.

Whatever happens, no matter how inconvenient at the time remember ‘it’s in the interest of safety’.