10 MAY 2010

YOUR WORDS


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Air France mystery

AIR FRANCE may be on the way to solving the mystery of why AF447 crashed into the South Atlantic in June of last year.  Reports from Paris say that the French defence ministry has now analysed sonar readings taken in the first few weeks after the disaster from a submarine.  With these soundings it might be possible to pinpoint exactly where the “black boxes” are.  However this could be as deep as 2.5 miles beneath the surface.  General Christian Baptiste, Deputy Spokesman at the Defence Ministry said at a press conference.  "Does this mean we have found the black boxes?  We are still far from certain," Baptiste said.  "The search zone still equates to an area the size of Paris and we have to find an object the size of a shoebox in seabed terrain which looks like the Andes.”  Air France said the breakthrough was "excellent news".  Speculation about the cause of the crash has focused on possible icing of the aircraft's speed sensors, which appeared to give inconsistent readings seconds before the plane vanished.  www.airfrance.com

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Bangkok airport rail service

BANGKOK SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT, Thailand’s impressive gateway, but plagued with (mostly political) problems since its opening at the end of 2006, is having difficulties in completing a city centre fast rail link.  Whilst physically completed, disputes between the contractor and the airport authorities have meant delays with the service commencement.  Now a trial service has been postponed indefinitely because of continuing civil problems at points in the city centre.  The authorities say that a July date has now been set for the official opening.  The rail service will connect the city air terminal at Makkasan, in central Bangkok, with Suvarnabhumi Airport. www.bangkokairportonline.com

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Business aviation gathers in Geneva

EBACE, Europe’s premier business aviation show, held its tenth annual gathering last week in Geneva.  Gloomy skies and rain did not affect the upbeat mood apparent in the halls and out on the static park, which this year featured 65 aircraft.  EBAA registered 11,000-plus delegates and 436 exhibitors, 4% up on last year.  Business aviation traffic in Europe is increasing again, according to Eurocontrol, releasing data that highlighted year on year growth of 11%.  At the welcome media lunch at the Palexpo venue, EBAA CEO Brian Humphries highlighted considerable progress has been made over the past decade in the industry with the number of business aircraft flying in Europe doubling from 2,000 in the 1990s to 4,000.  Alison Chambers reports in full next week. www.ebace.aero

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Eurostar adds new class

EUROSTAR is to introduce from 1 September Standard Premier – a ‘mid-class’ designed to appeal to not only the more cost-conscious business traveller, but also leisure travellers who want that little bit extra space and service.  The new product will replace Eurostar’s existing Leisure Select class, which has been on offer since 2005.  Eurostar says that this change comes as a result of extensive customer feedback and market research and sees Eurostar’s class offerings move towards a more intuitive structure with Standard Premier complementing the existing Business Premier and Standard classes.  It is pitched between the fully-flexible Business Premier and Standard classes and offers a light meal served at the passenger’s seat.  www.eurostar.com

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London City loses connection

LONDON CITY AIRPORT is to lose its Air Southwest twice daily service to Plymouth and Newquay from 21 May.  Introduced in April 2009 to complement the airline’s long established four times daily flights from Devon and Cornwall to Gatwick, the route has suffered this year from a combination of poor weather and problems associated with the Icelandic volcano eruptions.  In the early days of London City the then incumbent carrier, Brymon Airways, also failed with a similar service , at the time concentrating on both Gatwick and Heathrow.  Air Southwest has an extensive regional network which includes from Newquay and Plymouth to destinations including Bristol, Cork, Dublin, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and the Channel Islands.  For London City, on the plus side Luxair has upgraded its four times week daily flights to a larger aircraft, a 72-seat Bombardier Q400. www.airsouthwest.com www.luxair.lu

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Qatar for the Bombardier C series?

QATAR AIRWAYS CEO Akbar al Baker confirmed at a press conference last week in Dubai that the airline will take delivery next year of six Boeing 787s rather than the two planned.  The airline has on order a total of 60.  Baker also said Qatar's national carrier hoped to conclude talks with Canada's Bombardier over the purchase of 20 to 30 C series aircraft by July in time for a Farnborough Air Show announcement.  Beginning 7 June daily flights to Barcelona will be added to the airline's network, supporting existing scheduled services to the capital Madrid and reinforcing Qatar Airways' position as the only Gulf carrier currently flying to Spain.  Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires will be added later in the month.  The airline also has hotels within its vision with a new project under way at Doha. www.qatarairways.com

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Virgin Atlantic adds new Las Vegas route

VIRGIN ATLANTIC is to add Manchester to its Las Vegas operation in April 2011.  The airline initially introduced Gatwick – Las Vegas as a three times weekly service back in June 2000 and has carried almost 2m passengers on the now daily route.  The twice-weekly service will start in April 2011 and will operate on Thursdays and Sundays using a Boeing 747-400 aircraft.  The flight will be Virgin Atlantic's 33rd from the UK and the carrier's third from Manchester.  BMI previously flew the route pulling out in April 2009 with the withdrawal of its Airbus A330 operation.  As with the existing Las Vegas service a Boeing 747-400 fitted with 14 Upper Class Suites, 58 Premium Economy and 379 Economy seats will be used. www.virgin-atlantic.com

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MOTORING UPDATE by Ted Wilkinson

Mercedes-Benz C180 CGI Sport Blue Efficiency

Ultra Modern and Prestigious Too!


Pioneering, class leading, best in class, bench mark…I hear all these superlatives during numerous new car launches as manufacturers strive to convince journalists and potential buyers that their latest product is stronger in every aspect, including brand image, than the earlier models.

Such is the pace of technological developments, driven on not only to garner greater sales but by a quest to save the planet and save the lives of all who have anything to do with motor cars, that a new car does not remain new for long, the quest to remain ahead of the game is eternal.

In among all this automotive activity is an obvious intent to create product creditability and there is no better exponent than Mercedes-Benz, who has been at practicing the art for over 100 years.

These thoughts went through my mind when testing the latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate that, in company with the saloon version, has remained a top seller in the company’s extensive model array for donkey’s ages.

Clearly Mercedes-Benz has an established pedigree and continues to maintain the status by continually improving on all aspects of its activities without being unduly upbeat.

What is evident is that this model (C-class goes back to 1993) has grown in stature, for size proving to be a more than acceptable 5-seat compact executive car and for the ever increasing range of variants on offer.

Opt for a C-Class and then work out whether you want a more than competent small capacity diesel or petrol engine, something in between or a super car version delivering 272 bhp and bristling with performance enhancing technology.

The common denominator is a finely honed platform, body shell, suspension and running gear that has an abundance of ability to complement any chosen power unit.  Here is an effortless form of driving satisfaction that is synonymous with this company’s products.

I understood Mercedes’ reasoning in providing a petrol powered test car rather than the commonly accepted turbo diesel engine when applied to an estate car as the exercise proved that great advances have been achieved in the efficiency of the petrol unit, this car being an example of the company’s Blue Efficiency technology, a programme embracing both types of popular fuel, hybrid technology, electric power and stop+start systems.

Thus this smallest capacity 4-cylinder 1.8 litre Blue Efficiency engine delivers a highly competitive 156 bhp at 5,000 rpm in a manner that suggest a much larger power unit with at least six cylinders.

Complement this delightful engine with a state of the art 5-speed automatic transmission and the result proved to be a more than satisfying turn of performance with a claimed top speed of 132 mph, more than brisk acceleration to 62 mph in 9.2 seconds and, wait for it, a combined fuel consumption of 38.2 mpg.

Mercedes-Benz has never believed in feeble performing cars and with this test car the performance is all the more creditable when appreciating this an executive class estate car capable of carrying five, at least average sized, adults and as much or possible more luggage than any similar sized estate car.

This prestigious though far from overbearing Mercedes-Benz model provides both a driving character that masterfully combines mechanical refinement with impressive ride and handling qualities plus comfort levels that are hard to beat, especially the driver’s ‘workstation’ that employs both powered and manual seat adjust systems to tailor it to a fine fit.

Of course, there are some established Mercedes-Benz features that have been familiar for years, including the foot operated parking brake and the single stalk for operating both windscreen wipers and headlamp dipping that caused strong comment not so many years ago but have clearly been accepted/appreciated by droves of discerning owners.

I miss not seeing the familiar three-pointed star mascot on top of the bonnet (health and safety, you know!) as it gave a certain air of breeding though cast an eye around the interior and admire the appointments, the quality of material, the tasteful yet logical design and I suggest this is undoubtedly close to a work of art.

For equipment, driver aids, safety aids, lifestyle enhancement, this SE version has a breathtakingly extensive equipment list.  I can fully understand why so many owners or potential owners make the pilgrimage to Mercedes-Benz World situated on the old Brooklands race track in Weybridge, Surrey to find out what the car is all about – there‘s no new car demonstration quite like it! www.mercedes-benz.co.uk/world

This C-Class Mercedes-Benz estate is a worthy example of a car brand that has kept pace with a changing world, combining a priceless reputation with down to earth involvement to provide an extensive and desirable car range.  Easy to understand why customer loyalty is strong, as one owner said to me: “Get bitten by the Mercedes-Benz bug , and it never lets go.”

Rivals include: BMW 3 Series Touring, Alfa
Romeo 159 Estate, Volvo V70,Audi A4 Avant.

STAR RATINGS (out of 10)

Performance 9
Handling 9
Transmission 9
Noise 9
Economy 9
Ride and Comfort 9
Accommodation 8
Styling 9
Brakes 9
Finish 9

TOTAL: 89

 Price from: £26,215 on the road – as tested £32,200

NOTES FROM TED WILKINSON‘S MOTORING DIARY

VOLKSWAGEN: An insight into future economy models from Volkswagen has revealed that a Golf Blue-e-motion electric model will go into production in 2011, powered by a 110 bhp electric motor good for 86 mph and a range of 90 miles.  Between 2012 and 2013 a range of hybrid powered models will be available, including the Touareg 4x4, Jetta saloon, Golf and Passat.

AUDI: An ultra potent version of the Audi R8 has been revealed.  Powered by a 553 bhp V10 engine it is claimed to be the fastest production Audi at 199 mph.  UK allocation is limited the 33 cars, priced at £142,585 on the road.

TRACKER: Motor cycle thieves were caught out when they attempted to steal a £10,000 Suzuki motorcycle from an office parking space in London.  Not only caught on CCTV when loading the machine into their van they were then apprehended by police when the TRACKER device activated.

MITSUBISHI: A new compact cross-over model, the Mitsubishi ASX has been launched.  Competing in the C-segment against VW Golf and Ford Focus the new model is powered by two high efficiency Euro 5 compatible engines, a 116 bhp
1.6 petrol and a 147 bhp 1.8 DiD turbo diesel.  The latter unit is claimed to be the first diesel engine to feature variable valve technology – both 2 and 4-W-D versions are available.

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COMMENT: The British Election

The outcome of the UK election last week seems to have been a complete British fudge, for which sadly we seem to be famous. 

Once again a decision has been put off and nobody is certain of the way forward.

Fortunately AERBT is not a political circular and therefore can refrain from making a real statement of how the situation affects the business travel situation, but one thing for sure, major long term projects such as Heathrow’s third runway, high speed rail, and even Crossrail, will be further delayed, with all the consequences. 

No decision on these ventures is bad news, and expensive.  Instead of being looked at from a purely practical and economic point of view they will become part of Parliamentary horse trading.  Not a good idea.  The quicker another election the better.

Your Editor however feels that he must make a single observation on the whole business. 

In the unlamented House of Commons just past, when confronted with the question of excessive expenses the standard MP’s response was “I acted within the rules,” without any regard at all to the morals of the action.

All will be changed for the new sitting they said.

The current (and unelected) Prime Minister is now in power without a mandate, neither in terms of votes nor the winning of seats.  “I am acting within the rules,” he says. 

Goodbye the promises.  Nothing has changed.  The total lack of ethics is the same, whether it be mere Members of Parliament or the Prime Minister.

Malcolm Ginsberg

Editor in Chief

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Aircraft interiors exhibition

AIRCRAFT INTERIORS EXPO, which takes place at the Hamburg Messe, from 18 to 20 May, is introducing an Innovation Zone together with an Innovation Lounge.  Sponsored by Autodesk the company will be demonstrating its software tools and illustrating the concept with the help of one of its clients – The Envisage Group – which will have a 40% scale model of a futuristic aircraft seat on display.  To complete the picture, the ultra modern First Class cabin interior design that accompanies the seat can be viewed in high definition 3D glory thanks to HoloVis, a specialist in 3D visualisation, which is displaying this concept on its 3D screens.  To gain the full impact visitors will be able to pick up 3D spectacles at one the of the show’s entrances and can then head to the lounge, which is located in Hall B6 at the Hamburg Messe. www.aircraftinteriorsexpo.com

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Boeing talks money

BOEING’S money man (Managing Director Capital Markets Development – Aircraft Financial Services) Kostya Zolotusky was in London last week to talk to the city and brief the media regarding the vital finance side of aircraft sales, both new and second hand.  He made it clear that the markets had stabilised, equity was available and there were no distressed sales.  He claimed that over the last ten years investment in aircraft gave a better return than property.  He also said that with the Airbus A380 no longer being developed as a cargo aircraft the 747-8 would have a longer life span.  Former passenger configured 747s have always made for fine freighters, albeit in small numbers.  However since sales of the series eight aircraft will only ever be in relatively small numbers a much larger proportion of these are likely to be eventually converted. www.boeing.com/commercial

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Continental and United to merge

CONTINENTAL AND UNITED are to merge creating the world’s largest air carrier, sending a powerful message to both domestic and worldwide rivals.  The combined airline will serve more than 144m passengers a year, flying to 370 destinations in 59 countries.  Whilst in recent years United has abandoned New York – London, the busiest long haul international route, concentrating on Chicago, Continental has moved from Gatwick and very effectively promoted Newark New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan, as its hub.  With this merger the pair will overtake Delta, which took over Northwest Airlines two years ago, as the global leader, and relegates American Airlines to third place as far as US carriers are concerned.  Jeff Smisek, Continental’s Chief Executive, will lead the combined company.  Glenn Tilton, Chairman and Chief Executive of United will serve as Non-Executive Chairman of the company until the end of 2012, when he will be succeeded by Mr Smisek.  The deal is expected to complete in the fourth quarter of 2010.  The new airline will be named United Airlines while United Continental Holdings Inc will be the name of the holding company.  The aircraft will be in the Continental livery, logo and colours "with the United name". www.continental.com www.unitedairlines.com

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Gulfstream for London City

GULFSTREAM 150, the mid-size cabin, 3,000 nm range, short runway performance baby jet, flew to London City Airport on Friday 30 April, having secured certification to use the airport’s 5.5º steep approach.  It is the first aircraft in the Gulfstream family to gain its London City ticket and Gulfstream pilots Brett Rundle and Earl Leonard were at the controls.  Speaking at EBACE, Gulfstream CEO Joe Lombardo highlighted 60% of the company’s aircraft sales are coming from international rather than US customers now, highlighting significant interest from the Asia Pacific region where the manufacturer has placed 110 aircraft to date.  “The industry is recovering, albeit slowly,” he said. www.gulfstream.com

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Los Angeles Ritz-Carlton

LOS ANGELES has celebrated the opening of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, the final piece of L.A. LIVE, the US$2.5bn sports, residential and entertainment district, which also incorporates the impressive Staples Center and the notable Disney-sponsored auditorium.  Perched on the upper floors of the 54-storey tower that it shares with both the Ritz-Carlton Residences and sister JW Marriott hotel, the Ritz-Carlton has 123 well-appointed guestrooms, including 14 suites.  The 3,000 sq ft Ritz-Carlton Suite is the hotel's largest and boasts incredible northern and western views.  The luxurious suite includes a piano and entertainment room, media corner, lounge, kitchen and formal dining area. www.ritzcarlton.com

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UK trade body gains new chief

BRITISH AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION (BATA), the trade body for UK airlines, has announced the appointment of a new Chief Executive.  Current incumbent Roger Wiltshire is retiring in July.  Taking up the post is Simon Buck, presently Head of Public Relations for AQA, the largest of the three English examination boards (GCE etc).  Simon joined the Department of Transport as a graduate entrant in 1983 and after holding various roles both in Westminster and the regions, he served as Private Secretary to the Minister for Aviation and also within the Department’s Civil Aviation Directorate before leaving to take up the role of External Affairs Manager at Air 2000 in 1995.  He was subsequently promoted as Group Head of Industry Affairs at First Choice Holidays plc.  He is a Justice of the Peace.  The ten BATA member airlines, representing all sectors of the UK airline industry, are: Air Southwest, bmi, British Airways, DHL, flybe, Jet2.com, Monarch, Thomas Cook, Thomson Airways and Virgin Atlantic. www.bata.uk.com

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World Cup Fever

FIFA WORLD CUP fever is increasing, and the 11 June opening date is getting closer.  As part of the preparations the South African Revenue Services (SARS) has issued a useful illustrated document regarding customs requirements when entering and leaving South Africa.  It all looks very easy and British passport holders do not require a visa.  Most airlines offering in-flight video news bulletins will also carry updates and following AERBT’s revealing that Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean International are offering a on-board service we now learn the that following cruise operators will also offer live matches:  Aide, Cunard, DFDS, Holland America, Ibero, Louis, MSC, NCL, Ocean Village, P&O, Princess, Pullmantur, Residensea – The World, Silversea and Thomson. www.sars.gov.za

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HAPPY TALK: An MP

(somewhat longer than usual – but pertinent)

While walking down the street one day a ‘Member of Parliament’ is tragically hit by a truck and dies.

His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St Peter.  “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem.  We seldom see a high official around these parts, so we're not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the man.

“Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up.  What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven.  Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really, I've made up my mind.  I want to be in heaven,” says the MP.

“I'm sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that, St Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.  The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course.  In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress.  They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people.

They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly and nice guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes.  They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.

Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St Peter is waiting for him.

“Now it's time to visit heaven.”

So, 24 hours pass with the MP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing.  They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St Peter returns.

“Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven.  Now choose your eternity.”

The MP reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

Now the doors of the elevator open and he is in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage.

He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above.

The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder. “I don't understand,” stammers the MP.  “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time.  Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable.”

“What happened?”

The devil looks at him, smiles and says:
“Yesterday we were campaigning.”


“Today you voted.”

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The next luncheon of the Aviation Club of the United Kingdom takes place at London’s Institute of Directors on Wednesday 9 June with guest speaker Paul Griffiths, Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Airports, which includes Al Maktoum International, built to handle 160m passengers, twice that of Heathrow.  Readers might like to know that your Editor in Chief has been elected onto the committee of the club. www.aviationclub.org.uk

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Airline boss in fraud charges

EXCELSIS AIRWAYS founder Victor Bassey  has been charged with fraud.  The Nigerian businessman pledged to restore Teesside's air link with London, claiming he had secured £10m that would give lift-off to a three times a-day service from Durham Tees Valley Airport to London City Airport by the end of 2009.  He is due to appear at Teesside Magistrates’ Court on 13 May to face the charges.  He has been bailed until the hearing.  A spokesperson for Cleveland Police said: “A 49-year-old man has been charged with fraudulent trading, possession of articles for the use in fraud and five offences of obtaining services by deception.” www.excelsisairways.com

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British Airways in court

BRITISH AIRWAYS has been effectively in court with the start of the trial of a current employee and three former executives on alleged price-fixing charges at Southwark Crown Court, London.  BA's head of sales Andrew Crawley, ex-Commercial Director Martin George, ex-communications head Iain Burns and ex-UK and Irish Republic sales chief Alan Burnett are in the dock.  The four men, who deny wrong-doing, are accused of agreeing with Virgin Atlantic to fix fuel surcharge prices between 2004 and 2006.  Virgin executives are immune from prosecution as they blew the whistle on the price-fixing agreement.  The trial is not expected to be completed until September at the earliest. http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/HMCSCourtFinder

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Etihad at Manchester

ETIHAD AIRWAYS, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, has announced it will introduce a premium lounge in Manchester, the third Etihad lounge outside of the carrier’s home base.  The new facility, which will open late this year in the airport’s Terminal 1, is part of a gradual roll out of lounges across the airline's network, and will reflect Etihad’s award-winning style, service concept and high quality look and feel already seen in its lounges in Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt and Heathrow.  Etihad has been operating services from Manchester since 2006 and sees the airport as an easy alternative to Heathrow for connecting flights from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Isle of Man, with its codeshare partners.  In 2009, the airline signed a three-year deal to be the official shirt sponsor and partner of English Premier League side, Manchester City.  www.etihadairways.com

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Kingfisher adds International routes

KINGFISHER AIRLINES has been quick to follow up a major route expansion at the beginning of April (including Heathrow – Delhi) with three further new destinations, from Mumbai to Dubai, and from the Indian capital to both Dubai and Kathmandu.  The Nepal service is being promoted as one of the quickest ways to that part of the world from London, the first leg departing daily at 21:15 and offering a two-class A330, followed by an Airbus A320, also two-class, and arriving 15:25 local the next day.  The Kingfisher domestic network now connects to 61 cities in India. www.flykingfisher.com

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National Ferry Fortnight

NATIONAL FERRY FORTNIGHT has been launched (Saturday 8 May) and runs until Saturday 22 May.  It has come at a very opportune time for the ferry companies who are enjoying a mini-boom due to the volcanic ash problems.  The ferry operators will no doubt hope that the forced use of water borne transfers, mainly to the Continent, will persuade some people to continue with that mode of transport.  Highlight of the fortnight is the introduction of Stena Hollandica to operate between Harwich and the Hook of Holland, at 62,000 tons much the size of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity.  She has capacity for 230 cars and 300 freight vehicles, plus over 500 ensuite cabins.  On board is a children's playroom, a teenager area, a cinema and a Stena Plus Lounge.  There are 12 kennels for dogs www.discoverferries.co.uk

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Union members reject British Airways

BRITISH AIRWAYS cabin crew have rejected the latest pay offer from the airline, setting the stage for a prolonged period of strike action.  The outcome of the vote was announced on Friday (7 May), the news overshadowed by the result of the General Election.  Breaking the figures down 81% of members actually voted and of these 71% wanted action, which translated means that only 57% were actually for strike action.  The Unite union had “strongly recommended” members reject the latest offer, a decision British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh branded as “bizarre”.  The effect of the decision will be bad news for the airline, passengers with a choice of carrier generally speaking opting for the easy alternative. www.unitetheunion.com

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ON TOUR: The Eritrea Steam Railway

Vernon Murphy reports

The railway folk seem to be infiltrating into air transport with Andrew Adonis (as we write)  still in the Cabinet, and Andrew Haines appointment at the CAA should be in the nature of things more permanent.  Vernon Murphy is one that has gone in the other direction, a BAA stalwart who completed his career as Chairman of the short lived Airport Express combining in marketing terms the Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted branded rail links.  Vernon is a rail buff.  Here is his report from Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

Seeking out the last few remaining “working” steam railways in the world (as opposed to steam engines that have been restored to run on either on preserved or tourist lines) usually involves visiting politically “difficult” countries, although China, which for many years has been the last Mecca for enthusiasts, left that category some years ago.  Now the list is just Bosnia, Eritrea, Syria and Zimbabwe, of which Eritrea is in a league of its own.

Travelling to Eritrea from Europe is a simple choice between Egyptair and Lufthansa – whose thrice weekly A340 flights via Jeddah are noticeably empty on the final leg to Asmara.  This is just as well since they put little strain on the small terminal where controls on passports and currency are the most protracted I have ever encountered.

Asmara the capital

Asmara really is a pleasant city – all of 2,400m above sea level which can catch out some air travellers watching the on-board flight progress displays during landing!  It has a clean, safe and well planned air about it with little road traffic and stylish churches and marvellous, if dilapidated, art deco buildings.  These emphasise its history as Italy’s main colonial city until World War II when the Italians were defeated after a hard fought campaign around Keren to the west of Asmara.  The most surprising building for me is an almost restored Fiat Filling Station which for the last few years seems to have been out of commercial use.  The excellent pizza and pasta restaurants also hark back to that colonial era although the expatriate Italian community now numbers only about a thousand.

But it is the shortages that say most about the challenges facing the Eritrean economy.  At least the one brewery has reopened – on my previous visit it had ceased production as the country could not afford to import barley!  Still the local gin is excellent – but don’t expect any tonic and the Intercontinental Hotel (which closed allegedly because it was not allowed to remit franchise payments) has also reopened under new ownership.

All these shortages can be traced back to the devastating borders war with Ethiopia which was the culmination of years of unrest whilst Eritrea was under harsh Ethiopian rule.  This war eliminated Eritrea’s main source of foreign earnings – transporting goods to and from Ethiopia via the port of Massawa.  Government controls since the war are still very evident – all tourists need a permit to leave Asmara and indeed tourism is small numbers.  Outside of Asmara there are the coral reefs around the Dahlak Archipelago and even a graveyard for Russian built tanks but it is the railway from Massawa which attracts the other main group of visitors.

Italy and Eritrea

As part of the Italy’s initial occupation of Eritrea it commenced building the railway to Asmara in 1889.  This took over 20 years mainly because of the challenge once it leaves the coastal lowlands of climbing 2,400 metres over the 100 kms section to Asmara.  But it is the 25 kms from Nefasit to the edge of Asmara which are the most dramatic with 20 tunnels and innumerable bridges/viaducts.  This final section runs through the Devil’s Gate, with a sheer drop of at least 300 metres to the valley below, and has engineering features which, in my view, are even more dramatic than the Darjeeling Himalayan line which is now a World Heritage site.  Later the Italians extended the railway to Keren and onto Agordat, after which their expansionist ambitions towards Ethiopia curtailed plans for the line to be further extended to link up with Sudan railways.

But just as surprising is that the line to Asmara was completely rebuilt after it had been largely demolished by the Ethiopian Derg regime in the late 1970s and the subsequent war – indeed some of the remaining station buildings still show scars from bullets.  This feat is all the more surprising as it was undertaken without outside help and recycling reclaimed materials from the pre-WWII track and rolling stock.  The line was built to 950mm gauge (sometimes nicknamed Italian metre gauge), so all the main rolling stock is Italian including three classic Fiat railcars with Art Deco styling which with a bit of luck can be persuaded to lurch into action.

One train per week

But after all that hard work reopening the line by 2004 there is normally only one train a week.  If sufficient tourists book on the single coach train, it runs on Sundays from Asmara to Nefasit, a quarter of the way to Massawa, where occasional camel trains begin to compete for attention with the railway.

But five or six times a year groups of steam engine enthusiasts take over the line for up to six days at a time and recreate both passenger and freight trains using the five or six locos that can be coaxed into life.  With marvellous co-operation from the railway staff these are event filled days and with the top end of the line frequently above cloud levels drifting up from the valleys some dramatic scenes are captured by the photographers.

However the Eritrean government has plans to reopen the next section to a mine near Keren where a Canadian company is hoping to extract ore containing traces of gold.  Whether the railway track would stand up to moving those kinds of loads is a matter of speculation but it could certainly clip the wings of the steam fans! http://www.eritrea.be/railway.htm

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