Categories
Airlines

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:

WP_20150930_030

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.

WP_20151111_004
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.

WP_20151112_009

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.

Categories
Airlines

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’.

Categories
Luxury Holidays

Back on the Road Again

It has been a while, but I have fallen in love with travelling again.

That might be a funny thing to say for someone who loves travel products, but a number of circumstances of the last few years has meant it has been curtailed somewhat. Thankfully health issues are now behind me, and I now feel confident to be ‘back on the road again’.

I took the conscious decision five years ago that I wouldn’t go on any more industry ‘fam trips’ unless it was an extraordinary opportunity. In fact, I haven’t been on a ‘fam trip’ since 2010 and even then it was somewhat of a mistake.

Instead I am funding my own trips, setting my own agenda wherever I go! Over the last couple of years that has been curtailed to just the Formula One Barcelona Test, a short trip in the summer and a Christmas Market.

Things are changing though, and I have finally got the confidence to travel again. It started with the wonderful short trip to Turin – coming home on the final British Airways 737 flight. I travel to Brussels next month for a concert, then on to another German Christmas Market in Dresden.

Shortly afterwards, I am sampling the Club Europe product on British Airways with a couple of days in Venice just before Christmas. After New Year in heading to Nice in early January, and then back for the Formula One Barcelona test at the end of February.

So that’s a busy winter! It doesn’t stop there, with a short trip to Valencia, for May Bank Holiday Weekend.

Travel is certainly back on the agenda, and all my thoughts will be posted exclusively here.

Happy travelling!

Categories
Luxury Holidays

Virgin Holidays – Just another Ryanair

Look, I have been an independent travel agent for the past eleven years. Yes, we have our favourites, but being independent comes with the great advantage that I can match the right product for the right client – be it with a mass-market vertically integrated tour operator or a small Aito specialist operator.

I can’t confess to being a big seller of Virgin Holidays, the Indian call centre put me off many years ago, but they have always been useful for a certain demographic of client and that’s great. I wouldn’t turn away any business, even if I did have to price match against a 10% online discount. But it’s the brand people are looking for.

Yes, Virgin is one of those brands which people relate to and understand in travel. The reality though being that the ‘Virgin’ brand is just a franchise, and each individual part is separate from another. You only have to look at the three Virgin branded airlines around the world, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Australia to see how poorly they work together. All individual in their own right, with no continuity of product.

The most common misconception is Virgin Holidays is ‘Virgin Atlantic Holidays’ – that really isn’t the truth, many other tour operators get the same allocations on Virgin Atlantic flights, and are often cheaper if you are clever. There are other choices, and there will always be other choices – just look at what happened with BA Holidays.

To be told that Virgin Holidays want to ‘own their customer’ is wrong, you can’t own a customer. You can earn their loyalty, but in the end everyone has a choice.

The rhetoric sounds alarmingly like Ryanair, who have long held a dislike to agents pushing people to book directly to get a ‘better service’. In reality it is because they are able to sell more products directly to customer, with a likely hood they would be able to bite. Us agents tend to bypass this, and sell our own additional products if required – more often than not because it is better.

It really isn’t a great loss. We have some great tour operators with whom we work with, and have a close and special bond with. Not only are they competitive on price, but able to give the choice needed for a customer to make an informed decision from a range of different carriers or products. Those operators also support us, and give us the same pricing as you will find online.

Booking with a professional travel agent is still the only way to get unbiased and honest advise when arranging your holiday.

Categories
Adventures Luxury Holidays

Surprise and Delight

For someone who only ever seems to talk about travel and the aviation industry, you would wonder what role entertainment would have in our world. Well, actually there is a lot – after all they are still selling a product, just the same as a travel agent, tour operator, hotel, airline or cruise company. It’s about how you grow and nurture your ‘fans’ which will ultimately feed your success.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Delta Goodrem for nearly 13 years, December 2002 to be exact when I saw Born To Try performed on Neighbours for the first time. It was so refreshing at the time to see such an authentic song written and performed, that it was hard not to fall in love with it.

The album of which it came from – Innocent Eyes, was a game changer in Australia, Delta’s homeland. It held position for half the year on the album chart, and had an unprecedented five number one singles form it, making the album one of the highest sold ever in the country. The UK didn’t quite reach that level, but we did have a string on singles within the top ten.

The next album, Mistaken Identity was brought over to the UK once again, and charts her recovery from cancer, a difficult subject to put into a whole album and never had the acclaim the first album did, apart from a duet with partner to be, Brian McFadden. The relationship, which lasted seven years nailed her leave from the UK, and the last performance here was in 2005.

During that time I followed what she was up to, and although I near met her a couple of times in both London and New York, was never able to one thing or another. Shortly afterwards she retreated to the Australian market, also living in LA with her songwriting partner Vince Pizzinga.

Two further albums were released in Australia, and neither did as well as Innocent Eyes. They moved in a slightly different sound, chasing a more electronic and dance inspired theme.

This summer saw the release of a brand new single, Wings, which was written after going on tour with Ricky Martin in Australia. Written with the help of Australian ‘hit makers’ DNA, it was her first number one in Australia in nearly ten years.

So there we are, up to the current day and you might be thinking where is the element of surprise and delight? Well…

It was just ten days ago that I heard Delta could be coming back to the UK. I didn’t know in what capacity, but as she is going to be doing Cats in Australia it would make sense that she would at least come over and see Andrew Lloyd-Webber who wrote the musical… To be honest, I think most of us ‘fans’ who had been there since the beginning had given up hope of any UK performance, so a visit here was certainly a surprise.

Last weekend, it was announced she would be playing G-A-Y in London on Saturday night. The first gig in the UK since 2005, although a rather low key entrance back into the UK scene.

As she arrived, more news trickled out about what was happening over the week, including ‘something’ which would happen on Thursday. Sunday turned into Monday, and it was announced there would be a ‘secret show’ in London and you had to enter for a place via Twitter – talk about ‘delighting’ those remaining loyal UK fans.

Needless to say I got a ticket, and needless to say from the Terms and Conditions that it would be an intimate affair with just 50 pairs up for grabs. When the venue came down you really had to make a double take – it was an art gallery on the Fulham Road, not really what would expect!

Making sure I was there in good time, and with help from people who I met online – I was at the front of the queue. That meant I was at the front in this tiny room. She came on stage at just about 8, and started with a medley of songs not even released in the UK.

Well, that didn’t stop the crowd though who were clearly all fans to start with, and many like me who had been there from the very beginning. Even with songs which weren’t released here everyone was singing every word. The connection was there, even if it was just her with her guitarist Dolce and a drummer.

WP_20151008_012

Then came some old hits including Born to Try, Innocent Eyes, Not Me Not I and Lost Without You off the Innocent Eyes album, along with new songs You and You Alone and the single Wings.

As a fan you couldn’t have hoped for anything more, an acoustic set in an intimate setting as the return to the UK.

To top the evening off, she came back after the set and met every single one of us, chatting as if you were a long lost friend. We had the opportunity to have photos taken and anything we wanted signed. To be given that amount of time is unprecedented. I later found out that she put the show on herself for the fans – there you go, knowing how to surprise and delight your closest fans to make then even more loyal.

Think about that in business, what can you do to surprise and delight your clients to make them even more loyal to your brand. You might not have had ten years away, but there is always something you can do which is not just discounts or promotions to bring an emotional connection to your core base of customers.

I would have never have believed you last weekend if you said that I would be going to an small show and meeting Delta within a matter of days. So, do something different and memorable to capture those who might fly away…

Categories
Adventures Airlines

Farewell to BA’s Baby Boeing

Maybe it is me getting sentimental in my old age, but this week has been emotional, British Airways flew the 737-400 commercially for the last time.

It might not mean anything to most people, to most a plane is just a plane and it gets you from a to b, but there is more to it than just that.

British Airways has been flying the 737 or the ‘Baby Boeing’ since the late 70’s to replace the HS Tridents. Firstly with the 737-200’s which were used in Manchester, Birmingham and Heathrow, before being moved down to Gatwick.

In the early 90’s British Airways received their next batch of 737’s, this time the 737-400 series, now known as the ‘classic’. More fuel efficient and accommodating 149 passengers, they were put on flagship routes from London’s Heathrow Airport.

When the 737-200’s were ready to retire at Gatwick in the early 2000’s, the 737-400’s were moved down to Gatwick to be replaced with newer Airbus models at Heathrow.

When I was young, I remember these aircraft flying alongside Concorde and I still consider both aircraft types the most elegant ever flown, even if they were not the most practical. Spending a lot of time at airports in my youth, it really holds a special place in my heart.

Knowing that, I wanted to make sure I could experience flying on it one last time. I combined two things I wanted to do for a while, and booked a trip to Amsterdam – flying with easyJet from Luton on the outbound, and British Airways on the 737-400 on the return into Gatwick. With many in the fleet leaving or already departed, I knew that it wasn’t 100% certain to be on it, although luckily I was.

Even though these aircraft are 22 years old, from the inside you would never know. Yes, some of the overhead panelling is a little dated and the overhead lockers a little smaller than one is used to, but really you would never know the difference.

So back from Delft and Rotterdam, British Airways then quietly announced that the final flight would be from Turin on the 30th September. Yes, that’s my day off! Book it tonko!

I decided to make a day out of it, flying down on the Irish harp from Stansted in the morning, although many on the flight had decided to go there and back on the same plane – something I have never attempted. Yet again, I knew things were not set in stone and it could change, but thankfully it didn’t.

12052362_914340175267858_281550098615946384_o

12030390_914339888601220_4473735468606876171_o

12015035_914340225267853_1356558684586876523_o
Images via Satoa Handing, Turin

Having secured seat 6D, I knew that they were going to be the convertible business class seats you used to find on British Airways. Flying in economy you knew that you would get the 34 inch seat pitch, where can you say that in European short haul flying now.

Before departing the crew made an announcement over the PA system. The Captain, Christine Scott introduced herself and explained it would be the final commercial flight for the aircraft type and in fact her commercial flying career after serving 19 years on the 737-400. Alongside her was First Officer Gill Tunley, who is due to move to the 747-400 next month. In the cabin, it would also be Cabin Manager Karen’s final flight on a short haul aircraft.

It was a really enjoyable flight, and what a great atmosphere. Even getting a rapturous round of applause as we landed on the tarmac at Gatwick.

With the aircraft type now out of use for British Airways, you could take what you like off the aircraft – and yes I took two safety cards. Not only that, but you could visit Christine and Gill on the flight deck (See Image!). I thought it would be a great idea for Christine to sign my safety card, I’m going to get it framed now, while Gill took the photos. She also mentioned that she would be taking up gliding in her retirement. I also had a brief word with Karen, who did a great job serving those in business class!

The next day Captain Scott flew the final aircraft (G-DOCX) to its retirement home in the Californian Desert, Victorville – often known as the aircraft boneyard. Flying with it’s sister ship G-DOCW they flew in tandem the whole way with stops in Reykjavik and Goose Bay in Canada, where they had a crew rest stop. Friday, flying on to Chicago Rockford and onwards to Victorville, arriving at around 11pm BST.

So there we have an end of an era and while I know that the industry moves to bigger and better things, it just doesn’t have the same character instead inflicting tighter legroom for all with generic seats and fixtures.

Thank you to Christine, Gill, Karen and the rest of the crew for making it a truly special day.

You can listen to the ATC at Gatwick Approach here:

Categories
Luxury Holidays

A good travel agent doesn’t have to be a homeworker

I am a travel person, and you could say I have always been a travel person. When I did my first work experience in a Thomas Cook Shop over fifteen years ago, the teacher who later became my head of sixth form was so impressed at my knowledge that he encouraged me to forge a career in travel, even if that meant missing out on university. At the time that was unusual, everyone was going to university and I was almost sat on the sidelines, but some good fortune meant I was able to find an apprenticeship with an independent travel agency in my local area.

Knowledge has always been my prize possession. That doesn’t have to mean that you have direct knowledge, for instance having travelled to a particular resort or hotel, but you are able to have deep knowledge on how the system works. I have been following the aviation industry for the best part of 25 years (and yes I am not much older than that, I started young!). It has seen considerable change over that period, from a time where there was no such thing as a ‘low cost airline’ to nowadays where we thing nothing of jetting off to somewhere for a quick break. However, the systems and processes behind the growth hasn’t changed, as that is quite true of a travel agent too.

As a travel agent we do get some flack. The most common being has the internet not killed you off yet, and my response is why should it? If they knew and trusted a good travel agent they wouldn’t be asking me that question. Its all about relationships and people trusting either your opinion or knowledge. Don’t knock it until you try it, and you might be surprised.

High street travel agents, at least the good ones are not going anywhere either. Sometimes I’m felt to feel inferior to those who work from home with the belief we only work during office hours with a restricted portfolio of operators to work with. That in reality isn’t the case, you are either a good travel agent or not, it doesn’t matter where your office is.

There has been many a time replying to a clients email at 10pm at night, reassuring about a query or a problem, or just talking to them at a time which is convenient for them, which might not be the usual office hours. I also hand deliver tickets if required, and email the hotels ahead of time for those where I have a contact to make sure the clients are made to feel at home.

All of this is very simple, and ‘delights’ clients. With modern technology anybody can do this anywhere, be it by email, text or even Skype to be as flexible as possible, and you have to make the right contacts.

I’m proud I work in a high street agency and believe me when I say the good ones can really make a difference when organising and booking your holiday.

Categories
Airlines

Swiss goes stylish with new 777-300 for long haul

Swiss have unveiled their new long haul product, twinned with the imminent arrival of the Boeing 777-300, the new flagship aircraft of the carriers fleet.

Starting in January, the carrier will receive the first of nine 777 aircraft and will be the largest in the fleet seating 340 passengers in a three class configuration.  Seating eight in First Class, sixty two in Business Class and two hundred and seventy in Economy. The cabin interior has been totally redesigned and shows of an elegantly Swiss interior with natural shades and wood featuring throughout the aircraft.

05_SWISS_B777_First_Class-1000x625

On trend featuring private suites at the front of the aircraft, there is seating for 8 in a four abreast configuration (1-2-1) in First Class. New features includes a private wardrobe while the 2m private suite has been designed with quietness in mind. Storage has also been increased, as well as an extra toilet for the 8 guests.

02_SWISS_B777_Business_Class-1000x625

Business Class is a revision on the previous version, designed specifically for Swiss. The seat looks like a mini version of the First Class seat, and still has a bed which is over 2m long. The difference is the privacy, with a tighter configuration, and a number of the seats also still don’t have direct aisle access.

01_SWISS_B777_Economy-1000x625

Although it looks good, Economy is the most disappoint product with the airline heading to a now standard tight configuration on the 777. A 3-4-3 layout on the new aircraft now puts it in line with Air France, KLM, Emirates and Air Canada. Nice touches though include a help yourself kiosk for snacks, and WiFi throughout the aircraft.

This really is one stylish aircraft, and despite the tight configuration in Economy will be one to watch out for. Certainly a good alternative to the Middle Eastern carriers.

Categories
Airlines

High Flying Virgin

What a great breath of fresh air the ITV documentary on Virgin Atlantic was, quite unheard of over the last 20 years with the UK aviation. Instead of seeing crowds of people moaning about missing their flights or problems occurring at airports, or draconian measures when employing staff as seen British Airways, this was a true good news story bringing new life into a well loved brand.

Reaching 30 is a great achievement for such a small airline, and much like Ryanair have punched above their weight at time in order to change the industry. It has been achieved in different ways, Virgin Atlantic pride themselves on offering a better product than the competition, and battle the establishment, especially at Heathrow. Despite being opposed to the BA/AA tie up, it has now teamed up with Delta Airlines to protect their position on their most profitable market, that of the USA.

Ryanair did it a different way, bringing in a lower cost to operate, and therefore bringing the cost of flying down. This had fed through to these more established airlines, even though Ryanair is 30 as well today. In the first episode we saw the build up to the launch of their first 787, which will replace the less fuel efficient A340-600 and 747-400’s, ordered in a day when they believed ‘four engines 4 long haul’. That left them in a difficult position when the fuel price went through the roof, and the 787 is the first step to realigning the business to one which is profitable.

What came across yesterday was the positivity throughout the company. That wasn’t just from the top, but from the cabin crew and background staff, not all in the public eye. Compare that to the recent documentary on British Airways by the BBC and it looks sour and draconian in comparison.

The pressure to increase profits brought in the new and unpopular Upper Class Suite on the A330, the aircraft employed by the airline to bridge the gap during the delays caused on the 787 programme. It was too small, too narrow and the four abreast seating didn’t work on a similar cabin width to the A340 which only has 3. With the new seat shown on the episode, costing several hundred thousand pounds that it has been reversed on the 787. Listing to the public in what they want is a necessary part of any successful business.

It’s great that we can have such positive, forward thinking and emotionally compelling companies broadcast on television. A real breath of fresh air.

Categories
Airlines

Looking at flyBe – Simplifying the Confusion

Flybe have had some difficult times over the last couple of years, but according to the reports announced last week the financials look to be on the up, but that still doesn’t take away from the sometimes disorganised way the airline has to route planning and bases in the UK.

The story really starts with the sale of the slots flyBe had at Gatwick Airport to easyJet. It had a decent route network from the UK’s second largest airport to points around the UK including Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Belfast, along with a couple of seasonal French routes. With charges going up at the airport, the airline wanted out and sold the slots to easyJet who have taken over many of the routes. Combined with a network wide restructure of routes which saw flights from Luton to the Isle of Man and Jersey it looked as if there would be a complete withdrawal of the London market.

This combined with expensive aircraft from Embrear, and yet more on order meant that the losses were growing. Although they now call themselves a regional airline, at the time they really didn’t know what they wanted to be – they were stuck between a low cost airline and a regional carrier, doing neither very well. This is going to change with the shift towards the Dash 8 prop aircraft, which will rule out the more ‘low cost’ routes, in favour of supporting their core regional network.

Creating a superhub at Manchester was a good idea after the absorption of BA Connect, enabling flyBe to fill aircraft connecting onto a long haul network. A similar, but smaller hub has also been set up in Birmingham given their presence at the airport.  Other bases have also been set up in Aberdeen and Bournemouth.

With a purple rebrand comes a return to London. A base in Southend thanks to Stobart Air providing a franchise type operation to the continent with some surprising routes to Germany, France and the Netherlands. Then along comes London City, arguably more suited to the ‘regional airline’ operation, but still high cost. The routes were different to Southend though, concentrating on the UK regional markets of Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Exeter and Dublin.

With tough competition on the Dublin route it was dropped, along with a reduction of flights to Exeter – somewhat of a surprising choice in the first place following the reduction of flights to the South West. Following the train problems in the regional, flyBe reinstated the Gatwick to Newquay meaning another London entry point for the airline, now looking even more confused than ever. To make things even more confusing, given the connections to the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), another London base was opened at Stansted, with even more UK regional routes which were not opened at London City.

With EMB190’s still in the fleet, their internal codename of Project Blackbird saw two of them allocated to Cardiff, again some more UK regional routes, combined with a couple of leisure – not really a regional offering.

The airline themselves have confirmed that at times the market at London City has been challenging, but they already increasing rotations to Edinburgh, which seems to be the most successful route from the airport. Oddballs though include a weekend only Amsterdam –  going up against both Cityjet and BA with much high frequency.

The future looks to be set for them at London City, and their development will depend on the survival of Cityjet. A number of their routes have been dropped recently and would be a good fit for flyBe including Dresden and Nuremberg in Germany. At Stansted they are never going to win on these types of routes against Ryanair, who will always win on their cost base and has seen a retreat of easyJet to Southend, Luton and Gatwick rather than competing at the same airport.

It looks quite simple if you take out some of the clutter. London City is going to be premium, high frequency UK and near continent routes. Stansted is going take those routes which are more price sensitive and not always need the premium traffic – Newcastle and Isle of Man, while Southend with Stobart Air (assuming the association continues) will focus on smaller markets on the continent.

Remember although the airline might talk up low cost, that really means a low cost structure within the airline, and not always low cost tickets to the consumer. This really is now a ‘regional’ airline.