Heathrow or Gatwick? At least someone has made their mind up!

Garuda have become the latest of many airlines to move from Gatwick to Heathrow. There is a well-established pattern for foreign airlines to test the waters on the UK market at Gatwick and then, as soon as they can get slots, move to Heathrow. Better transport, a wider and wealthier catchment area and connections all over Europe and the rest of the world make Heathrow the aim for any airline flying to the UK.

Gatwick appears to work well for budget and leisure flights but that is it. Even the airlines who are succeeding at Gatwick at the moment, do not want a second runway because they fear they will have to pay for it.

The logic for a third runway at Heathrow is overwhelming but what would happen if the government took the easy option and decided in favour of Gatwick? No airline would willingly give up their position at Heathrow. Reduced charges at Gatwick probably would not tempt them either since they do not at the moment. If existing airlines at Gatwick were faced with higher charges to pay for the runway they might be forced to move all or some of their flights to Stansted or even Luton.

The pull of Heathrow is so strong that the only way to break it would be to close the airport completely. Clearly that s not going to happen.

Garuda know what they are doing – we must hope the government does too.


What has gone wrong with Virgin Atlantic?

The water cannon salute is a traditional gesture made by airports to mark the first, or sometimes, last flight by an airline or a type of aircraft. It happens several times a month around the world without incident. Unfortunately, the most recent salute went wrong when fire crews welcoming a new Virgin service from Atlanta to Manchester (which replaces flights by their shareholder, Delta) pressed the wrong button and covered the aircraft in foam rather than water.

Cue much amusement around the world. 

True, the incident was not funny for the passengers hoping to travel on the aircraft who were delayed overnight but it is hard not to see the funny side. It is like watching a man drive his brand new Mercedes into a car wash and having it flooded because he had forgotten to close the windows. You really shouldn’t laugh but…

In the old days, Virgin Atlantic’s over-active PR people would have been sure to join in the fun. When everyone else is laughing at you, the only sensible option is to join in. We would have expected a few witty one-liners at the very least.

Instead, the most Virgin Atlantic could do was to dispute the fact that the flight was cancelled. According to them, it was merely delayed overnight for the operating crew to take the legal minimum rest. And that simply begs the question as to why they did not immediately replace the aircraft and crew with another aircraft and crew from Heathrow.

In the same circumstances, we imagine even the normally straight-laced US airlines would have found something amusing to say. But Virgin, once the airline that was so eager to put the “fun” back into flying is a very different airline today. 

The new Greece?

A country where the flag-carrying airline has suffered a long series of on-off strikes from different employee groups. At the moment, the pilots are on the second day of a three-day strike called at short notice – the twelfth in the last couple of years.

Last week two of the country’s airports suffered serious delays as ground staff walked out. A number of other airports have also had similar strikes in the last few months, including one at the country’s leading airport which lasted several days.

A new airport has still not been opened leaving it years behind schedule and billions over budget. Now there are suggestions that some of the problems are not just down to technical ineptitude but corruption as well.

And the country’s currency is sinking on world markets.

But it is not all bad news. At least the trains are still running since last week’s strike was called off. The issues which have dogged the railway system for the last eighteen months have not been resolved, just pushed into the long grass and are almost certain to lead to further strikes or threats in the near future.

The country, of course, is Germany.

The Greeks have been striking much less in the last couple of years but, sadly, they seem to have exported that particular talent to Germany. Bild is known for its anti-Greece headlines – maybe it is time they did a comparison graph of strike days in Germany compared to Greece.

Sadly, at the moment, booking a ticket for future travel with Lufthansa is a lottery. If you want a reliable airline, maybe you would be better off travelling with Greece’s main airline, Aegean.


Boris and Heathrow (again)

The press is full of Boris Johnson putting himself forward as the candidate for Uxbridge and commentators  questioning how he can square this with his apparent desire to close Heathrow (which employs so many Uxbridge residents) and build a new airport in the wilds of the Thames Estuary.

For a man of Boris’s intellectual athleticism this is unlikely to prove a problem.

When he became Mayor, Boris had a problem with Heathrow. At that time, general public opinion in London appeared to be against Heathrow, so Boris had to join in. He surely knew that the plans for “Boris Island” would come to nothing. Even if it had been viable, the British hate huge public projects such as that. By backing the totally new airport, Boris had it both ways. He appeared to be following public opinion by opposing the expansion of Heathrow and he was making a very strong case for London to have one major hub airport. 

So, he knew very well Boris Island would not work, he also insisted London should have one major airport. He even said several times that “Heathrow was the obvious answer” but then huffed and puffed with reasons why Boris Island would be better.

Sooner or later, he will come out of the closet and admit to being what he actually has been all along – a supporter of an expanded Heathrow.



Gatwick’s Image Problem

I have to admit I find landing at Gatwick Airport a miserable experience. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Gatwick but what really depresses me is the almost traditional announcement from the cabin crew welcoming passengers to “London Ga’wick”.

Can you imagine French airline staff mispronouncing the name of a French airport? Listen to a Greek steward or stewardess rapidly enunciate every syllable of Athens Eleftherios Venizelos as a sort of macho challenge to foreign passengers to do better. And no German airline employee would dare mispronounce any German airport name.

The fact that airlines operating at Gatwick tolerate their staff calling it “Ga’wick” is as much a throwback to the lazy, couldn’t-care-less culture of 1960′s Britain as the brutal architecture of the South Terminal and the unlovely railway station. Britain has moved on but Gatwick feels stuck in a rut of mediocrity.

The best chance you have of landing at Gatwick and being welcomed to the airport correctly is if you arrive on a foreign airline.

Sadly, the lack of care starts at the top. Stewart Wingate, the CEO of Gatwick, was interviewed on BBC Breakfast last week. He gave out the usual story that Gatwick is increasing its longhaul flights and is a real rival to Heathrow, carefully ignoring the fact that the growth is actually coming from shorthaul budget flights, and he kept referring to the airport as “Ga’wick”.

No company will let a CEO near a television camera without media training. Whoever trained Mr Wingate clearly neglected to persuade him to pronounce the name of his airport correctly. How can a company have someone as its CEO who does not know there is a “t” in his company’s name? Aviation is an international business. If we do not use English correctly, who will? 

Major airports do not always welcome foreign passengers in the best possible way but most of them at least know what their name is.

Gatwick’s campaign to build a second runway and be treated as an equal of Heathrow is probably doomed to failure anyway but it cannot be taken seriously until customer-facing staff, and its executives, have been taught to pronounce its name correctly.

EasyJet to Heathrow? – It’s not going to happen!

Whatever easyJet’s CEO Carolyn McCall has been telling the Daily Telegraph, it is highly improbable that the airline is going to move its Gatwick operation to Heathrow. Much more likely is its consolidation of its Gatwick services all under one roof at the North Terminal. The airline already operates 45% of flights out of the airport, but they are currrently split between the North and South terminals. A move to the North Terminal would require  British Airways to shimmy over to the South Terminal to be next to LGW rivals Virgin Atlantic.

Why Qatar Airways’ all-Business London flight won’t last

Much excitement this week from some publications about the announcement that Qatar are to start an all-Business Class flight from Heathrow in the Spring. Maybe it will be a huge success but we have a couple of serious doubts.

Firstly, whilst the idea of an all-Business Class flight sounds rather glamorous, the reality is that it is unlikely to be as comfortable as Business Class in a wide-bodied jet. The seats will probably have to be an adapted and slightly smaller version of the ones used on the wide-bodies. There is also less room to move around whilst catering and entertainment might not be as lavish as on the big jets. All-Business flights on narrow-bodied aircraft work reasonably well on a handful of routes where demand is very limited or the airports can’t handle the bigger jets (BA’s service from London City to New York is an obvious example) but have limited appeal elsewhere.

Secondly, Qatar appear to be charging a premium for this flight – about £550 return on the dates we looked at. The evening flight departs just twenty-five minutes after the normal wide-bodied service. Is it really worth paying more for a service that might not be as comfortable?

The third reason is probably the killer though. Qatar were on the verge of paying Cyprus Airways $20 million for a pair of slots at Heathrow a few weeks ago. The deal fell through because someone made Qatar a better offer. So, let’s say they have bought the slots for this new flight for $17 million. It is going to take a very long time to pay for that operating aircraft with just 39 seats. 

At a guess, the launch of this service is a bit of an experiment and a slot-filler. Maybe the flight will be a massive success and it will be retained but, more likely, Qatar will use the next few months to try and arrange a swap with another airline so they can get slots that work better with their existing flights and then the all-Business flight will be quietly dropped.

For an airline that is about to take delivery of some A380′s, it really does not make sense to pay just under $20 million for a slot to fly 39 passengers a day from one of the world’s busiest airports.

What does “free internet” mean?

The other day I was travelling through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and tried to use the new “free internet” deal they offer throughout the building. 

You have a choice of paying for a premium service or having an hour of basic internet without charge. 

The first time I tried to use it, it took ages to log on to the system and, when I did, I could only see the list of emails in my inbox but I struggled to open them. I tried again, in another part of the terminal where the signal was obviously a little better. This time I could open the emails – albeit slowly – but opening an attachment proved impossible. It took me nearly the full free hour to work out that the deal was useless. 

I might add that this was during a quiet time of day so goodness knows what it would be like when the airport is busy. To be honest, the offer of free basic internet seemed rather a scam, largely designed to encourage people to pay for the expensive superior service.

Countless surveys show that free internet is a major priority for travellers. Hotels and other companies are trying to match the demand and the offer of “free internet” is now much more common than it used to be.

But there is no point in offering it at all if it does not work.

The hotel group, IHG, made a big announcement last year that they would be introducing free internet for guests from this year. The deal was actually more restricted than the headline suggested and seems to have been reduced still further but, even on the limited basis, there have been complaints that the internet system in some hotels cannot cope with demand.

A major problem is that there is no proper definition of a minimum standard. How many hotels have you seen advertise “free internet” and then state the average speed?

The minimum requirement nowadays should be that any internet coverage is sufficient to watch videos without freezing. If a more basic service is offered, such as at Schiphol, it should be capable of opening emails and any standard website without difficulty.

Hotels do not specify the average or maximum temperature of the hot water they provide in the bathrooms. Guests merely assume that there is sufficient power in the system to cater for their needs. Is it unreasonable to ask that when they offer internet, free or otherwise, they actually state what they are offering?

The London airport Boris really wants

The preliminary report on London’s airports is due to be published in the next few days. Rumour suggests that it will not be taking up the plan for the new airport, somewhere in the Thames estuary, that has been actively promoted  by the Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson is said to be apoplectic and determined to fight any plan to increase Heathrow.

The novelist Will Self described Boris Johnson as “an enigma wrapped in a whoopee cushion. I can accept the whoopee cushion bit but I don’t think Mr Johnson is at all enigmatic. He is simply a – very clever – Machiavellian politician.

As London’s Mayor there was no way he could support development at Heathrow because there is such a large group of people in west London who are opposed to it. These people seem unaware of the damage that the possible closure of Heathrow would do to their local economies. The economic benefits of Heathrow stretch from the areas around the airport where the staff live right the way through to Hammersmith and the West End where international corporations have built offices for easy access to the airport.

The plan for “Boris Island” was a very smart diversionary tactic He surely knew that the British aversion to big projects made this a non-starter but by pushing for it he was able to make two important points. London needs one major hub airport with several runways and expanding Gatwick and Stansted will not help.

So, knowing full well that his plan did not stand a chance, he was able to make the argument for a major hub airport with the inevitable logic that if Boris Island was rejected, the only possible solution would be expansion of Heathrow.

In interviews, he has even said that expansion of Heathrow is the obvious solution and would be much cheaper before going on to extol the virtues of the mythical Boris Island.

It is interesting that the London Evening Standard has pursued a similar line in its editorials. It cannot possibly support expansion of Heathrow and yet, they have been at pains to point out the serious downsides of all the other options.

Heathrow needs three – ideally four – runways. If it only gets one extra, then they really should not be allowed to increase traffic by very much at all. A “spare” runway is essential back-up to stop the dreadful delays that come after the most minor problems with the two over-used existing ones. Even if they add two new runways, traffic should not increase by very much. Bigger aircraft, and especially quieter aircraft, could ensure that noise levels do not increase – and might even diminish.

Hopefully, Boris will get the result he really wants – and be able to deny any responsibility for it.

Heathrow – the solution

London needs more hub capacity. Piecemeal growth at various airports (a new runway here and there) won’t work. Every capital city needs one principal airport where major airlines can concentrate their services most effectively.

Expansion of Heathrow is the obvious solution. There is space to create a four-runway airport there. It would be one of the cheaper options available and can be achieved fairly quickly. The only stumbling block is public opposition. Successive governments have run scared of upsetting the residents of west London, and the wealthy areas further out, who have been vocal in their objection.

If a new airport has to be developed elsewhere, the economic impact on the area around Heathrow could be devastating. Of course, Hounslow, Feltham and the other districts immediately close to the airport would be hardest hit because they supply so much of the labour to the airport. However, the impact would be felt in the wealthier areas as well – Richmond, Windsor, Chiswick and even Fulham have a huge economic benefit from being close to such a major airport. All you need do is count the number of major international corporations who have their UK offices in the “Heathrow corridor” to see the huge potential loss if a new hub were developed elsewhere.

Yet local residents seem oblivious to this. Even in Hounslow, which depends heavily on the airport, around 50% of the local population appear to object to airport expansion.

A few weeks ago, Birmingham Airport made a publicity splash by announcing plans to build an extra runway and become a major alternative hub to London. The reaction in the local media was strangely positive – all those extra jobs and investment seemed very tempting. Maybe locals did not take the plan very seriously – the Birmingham Airport CEO is rather a publicity junky and too keen on making grandiose statements about future plans that hide the rather mundane current growth.

However, there is an important fact here. Everyone seems agreed that they want jobs, investment and economic growth. A major new airport will drive that.

The only thing that is holding back growth at Heathrow is public opinion. Maybe it is time for a simple question to the few million people that live in the broader Heathrow area. Do you want it or not? 

If the answer is negative, there are other areas that do. They should be given the chance – and if west London turns into an economic backwater, as the old docklands did, then so be it.