20 FEBRUARY 2012

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16 March is bmi day for British Airways

See BRANSON ON THE WARPATH

British Airways should know by Friday 16 March whether owner IAG has gained approval with its bid for bmi, the Lufthansa-owned former British Midland Airways.  The European Competition Commission has posted the date on its website.

A bmi takeover would boost IAG's share of runway slots at Heathrow Airport to about 52% from the current 43%, still less than the dominance of some continental airlines at their home airport.  From a BA point of view it would allow for route consolidation, the slots realised opening up possibilities for more frequencies and new destinations, particularly to China and India.  Against the move is the loss of competition on UK regional routes, with the potential to push up fares and limit transfer traffic to Virgin Atlantic and other carriers not commercially friendly to British Airways.  bmi’s pulling of the Glasgow route is sited as an example.

Last year, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia blocked the merger of Greece's Aegean Airlines and Olympic.

If British Airways succeeds in its bid BAA will have to reconsider the long term tenancy of airlines in the new Terminal 2.  BA will clearly want to move any solo bmi routes it acquires either into T3 or T5. www.baa.com

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Branson on the warpath

In his strongest outburst yet Sir Richard Branson has attacked the proposed British Airways takeover of rival bmi.

“This takeover would take British flying back to the dark ages.  For years pioneering airlines have fought to provide consumers with more choice and lower fares.  This move will see British Airways unravel all of this progress made.

When British Airways was left the only operator on the Glasgow to Heathrow route in 2011, fares paid by Scottish travellers rocketed by 34% in six months.

BA has a track record of dominating routes, forcing less flying and higher prices. 

This merger will see BA holding more than half of all take-off and landing slots at the UK’s only major international hub – an airport that has had much needed growth plans forcibly frozen.

It is vital that regulatory authorities, in the UK as well as in Europe, give this merger the fullest possible scrutiny and ensure it is stopped.”

What Sir Richard failed to mention was that bmi regional operation has in the past been a valuable contributor to Virgin Atlantic’s hub at Heathrow.  British Airways says that on the Continent its competitors control far more of the slots at their home European gateways. www.virgin-atlantic.com

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Flybe announces brand new route from Stockholm Bromma to Oslo

Bromma, Stockholm’s downtown airport just 5 miles from the city centre, is to be linked from 22 May by Flybe Nordic to Oslo with up to 22 flights per week. 

This moves Flybe one step closer to realising its ambitions to becoming the largest regional airline in the Scandinavian and Nordic region, linking all key business cities.  It was in August 2011 that the British airline was able to confirm the arrangement with Finnair to invest in Finncomm, a local regional carrier.  Flybe is now the largest international airline flying from the airport, threatened with closure in the 1980s with the expansion of Arlanda, 25 miles outside the city.

Currently Flybe Nordic flies from Bromma to Copenhagen (Denmark), Tallinn (Estonia) and Oulu and Vaasa in Norway.  The airline operates 15 ATR aircraft and a pair of Embraer 170s.  The biggest operator at Bromma is Malmo Aviation. www.flybe.com

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Hilton Garden Inn at Birmingham

Hilton has announced the opening of a Garden Inn at Birmingham’s prestigious Brindleyplace development.  The former Mint Hotel is located in the heart of the city centre within close proximity to the National Indoor Arena, International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall.  In the coming weeks, two additional former Mint properties will also join the Hilton Garden Inn portfolio, in Glasgow and Bristol.  Already open are hotels in Aberdeen and Luton.

Hilton Garden Inn Birmingham Brindleyplace features 238 rooms all with Apple iMac computer which functions both as a TV and computer, mini-refrigerators, floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as a newly refurbished fitness centre with Precor equipment.  The hotel also offers meeting space for up to 120 people in its six flexible conference rooms, all of which benefit from natural light and provide the latest in audio-visual technology.  Complimentary wi-fi access and a 24-hour business centre is provided.

Dining options include a continental-style brasserie, Bank, which has views over the city from its terrace and relaxed fine-dining restaurant, Edmunds – open to both hotel guests and non-residents.  In addition, guests of the hotel will be able to enjoy the 24-hour Pavilion Pantry, which stocks a range of healthy snacks and drinks. http://hiltongardeninn.hilton.co.uk

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Lisbon now for Emirates

Emirates is to fly to Lisbon on a daily basis from 9 July as it continues with its quest to connect with every European capital and important city.  The date is just six days after it launches flights to Barcelona in neighbouring Spain.

Emirates will serve Lisbon with a Boeing 777-200ER aircraft offering First, Business and Economy Class cabins.  The Portuguese capital becomes Emirates 31st European destination.  It will be the only Middle East-based carrier operating into Portugal.

Portugal has a population of around 10m, of which nearly 2m live in Lisbon and its suburbs.  It is estimated there are some 200m Portuguese speakers around the world, making it the third most spoken European language globally, according to Visit Portugal.  The airline serves many of Portugal’s former colonies and spheres of influence, the countries where Portuguese is heard, including India, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Hong Kong – gateway to the former enclave of Macau.

With a fleet of 169 aircraft, Emirates now flies to 121 destinations, having recently launched Dallas, Lusaka and Harare.  Services to Seattle start on 1 March and to Ho Chi Minh City from 4 June.  From August Amsterdam gets an Airbus A380. www.emirates.com

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No.1 Traveller expands

Airport lounges continue to expand and improve in quality.  No.1 Traveller says it is preparing for its busiest year yet by creating additional seating capacity at three of its pay-on-entry airport lounges in the London area.  New arrival for the operator is Hong Kong Airlines who has chosen the lounge for its daily service to Hong Kong which will be introduced in March.

No.1 Gatwick in the North Terminal will increase capacity by 30%.  In the South Terminal capacity is also planned to expand by 40% with an additional 1,000sq ft, making space for a new business area, games table and Snug.  Seating capacity at No.1 Heathrow in Terminal 3 will increase by 10% and a second treatment room will be added to its Travel Spa, which recently received a ’four bubble’ review by the Good Spa Guide.

All upgrades are expected to be completed prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

No.1 Traveller opened its first lounge in the UK at Gatwick’s South Terminal at the height of the recession, in April 2009.  In May 2011 the ‘super-lounge’ concept at Gatwick‘s North Terminal was launched, a 10,000sq ft facility, incorporating a fully-tended bar, bistro, business centre, mini-cinema, games room and family room. www.no1lounges.com

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The Classic Aircraft Trust

Some of Britain’s greatest aircraft that heralded in the jet age have been saved for the nation through the generosity of Jersey-based businessman and enthusiast Mike Collett.  Mr Collett’s collection, which includes a former world record holding English Electric Canberra, Gloster Meteor and De Havilland Vampire, all flyable, would have achieved well over one million pounds in auction in the United States.  Mr Collett has donated in total some 10 aircraft to the newly created The Classic Aircraft Trust (CAT) which plans to keep them all in the air.

Tim Skeet, Chairman of the Trust explains:

“There are numerous examples of Britain’s early post-war aircraft sitting in museums but very few that remain airworthy.  This new Trust has been set up to ensure that we can raise funds efficiently to secure the future of the few aircraft we have left.  It has taken years to get the Meteor T7 back in the air and our aim is to try and ensure that it and the rest of the fleet can be flown.

The jets are expected to be seen at airshows all around the country this year. www.keepthemflying.co.uk

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AND FINALLY: Night Caledonian

From “annoyed of Edgware”

"I have to be off at Perth,” I said to the attendant.  “I sleep very well on trains and have been known to miss my stop.  Be very firm with me whatever I say in my confused state.”

The next morning I woke up at Inverness!

Extremely annoyed I found the man and gave him a piece of my mind.  It was not very pleasant.

After I left, somebody asked the attendant,

"How could you stand there and take that kind of talk?"

"That's nothing!" he replied.  "You should have heard the guy I put off at Perth!"

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Aviation industry to press Government for bold policy

The three leading trade associations in the aviation sector have come together to call on the Government to be bold when it launches its consultation on aviation policy next month.

In a joint statement released today, ADS Group (Aerospace, Defence and Security Industries), AOA (Airport Operators Association) and BATA (British Air Transport Association) representing over 2,800 aviation manufacturers, airports and airlines respectively, say:

“As the Coalition Government recognises, the UK’s economy needs to compete in both established and emerging markets.  This requires excellent aviation connectivity right across the country, ensuring the UK has both vibrant point-to-point airports and sufficient world-class hub capacity.  This means prioritising a favourable planning and regulatory regime and developing a bold aviation policy, permitting new airport capacity where required.  To ensure there is no further erosion of the UK’s competitive position, the Government must set a clear timetable for these measures to be put in place, as part of a new aviation policy.” www.adsgroup.org.uk www.aoa.org.uk www.bata.uk.com

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Air Australia grounded

Founded in 1991 as Strategic Aviation, Air Australia has gone into the local equivalent of administration/Chapter 11 and stopped flying.  Some 4,000 passengers were affected.  In recent times it has specialised in charter and holiday flights.  Based in Brisbane, in 2009 it took over OzJet, another low-cost operator, at that time in trouble.  As of last week Air Australia was operating three Airbus A320 series and a pair of Airbus A330-200s

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have offered to help out stranded passengers bringing them home at the same price as they paid Air Australia.  They then should be able to claim back airfare and in some cases extra expenses under their insurance and credit card arrangements.

Newly appointed administrator Mark Korda spoke to a hastily organised press briefing.  "Overnight the company was unable to refuel its planes in Phuket.  The directors appointed us at 01:30 this morning and the boys have been working throughout the night to deal with what's a very difficult situation.”  He called for immediate expressions of interest from potential buyers. www.airaustralia.com

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Cathay puts on sale its new Premium Economy experience

A brand new “Premium Economy Class experience” is being introduced by Cathay Pacific Airways on 1 April

Passengers can now book seats on selected Hong Kong flights to/from Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver and New York.  In May the Premium Economy cabin will become available on the London route.

The “Premium Economy experience” features a more spacious cabin than Economy with between 26 and 34 seats per aircraft.  Seat pitch will be 38 inches – six inches more than Economy Class – and the seat itself will be wider and have a bigger recline.  It will have a large meal table, cocktail table, footrest, a 10.6-inch personal television and an in-seat power outlet.  Passengers will also benefit from priority check-in at dedicated counters and precedence on boarding before Economy Class passengers.  The baggage allowance increases from 20kg to 25kg and passengers will be welcomed aboard with juice and champagne, and enjoy an enhanced onboard meal selection.

Additional markets will come online later in the year including Adelaide, Los Angeles, Melbourne and San Francisco in August, Frankfurt in September and Brisbane and Mumbai in October. www.cathaypacific.com

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Gatwick wins Atlantic Airways

Faroe Islands flag carrier Atlantic Airways is moving its summer UK schedule to Gatwick Airport, from where it will operate an extended 2012 season.  Hardly the biggest win for the south London airport since it was sold off by BAA.  Nevertheless the move from Stansted, its home since 2000, is significant. 

The airline will operate a twice weekly BAe 146 service from late May to mid-September, plus flights at Easter.

Chief Executive Magni Arge said: “We are delighted to be able to move our UK operations this year to London Gatwick, which is the preferred London airport for both our Faroese customers and for our UK outbound market.”

Passengers from the UK land at Vágar Airport, built during World War II by British military personnel stationed on the islands as part of the UK’s “friendly occupation”. www.atlantic.fo

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IAG Chairman at the LSE

Antonio Vázquez, Spanish Chairman of the International Aviation Group (IAG), made a presentation last week to the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain at the London School of Economics (LSE).

He outlined the history of IAG and offered much confidence for the future.  No significant British Airways executives appeared to be in attendance.  Asked by AERBT regarding the new Heathrow – Madrid ‘shuttle’ from T5 he agreed that the Economy Class products were different (Iberia’s ‘Economy’ is much more basic than British Airways) and said that was something they would monitor.  He praised Vueling, 45% owned by Iberia.  A question regarding the possible acquisition of TAP Portugal was fielded by Mr Vázquez with a grin.  “I’ve nothing to say.”  Likewise with the bid to purchase bmi from Lufthansa.  “It is out of our hands,” he said.

Mr Vázquez was critical of progress with the European ’single skies’ development.  “There will be major fuel savings and also in terms of the environment once this is implemented.  Progress is very slow.  Only five countries are putting any emphasis in fulfilling the project”.  With regard to the Iberia Express “low-cost” operation he seemed very confident of its success pointing out it was entirely removed from Iberia, a new set-up with new staff. www.iairgroup.com

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Mid-town Holiday Inn New York

IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group) has announced the opening of the new-build Holiday Inn New York City Midtown.  The 20-storey hotel features just 120 guest rooms, small by New York standards, and a rooftop lounge with a spectacular view of the City skyline.

Centrally located at 30 West 31st Street, the new US$52m property is just a short cab ride from the three major airports serving the metropolitan area; a short walk to Times Square and the Empire State Building; near Broadway theatres and Madison Square Garden; and by dozens of restaurants and night life locations.  Penn Station is less than half a mile away, or a 10-minute walk, and Grand Central not that much further.

For business travellers, the hotel is located near major corporations such as Reuters, Morgan Stanley, Condé Nast and Credit Suisse.  A business centre and high-speed wireless internet service throughout the hotel adds convenience in addition to the 24-hour fitness centre and concierge services.  A full service restaurant is provided.  Standard Holiday Inn guest room accommodation features comfortable queen- or king-sized beds, a sitting area with a lounge chair, 32-inch television, cable television, hairdryer, coffeemaker, iron and ironing board. www.holidayinn.com

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Park Lane Hilton unveils a fresh new look for the 27th floor

Having re-vamped the suites on its 26 floor, London’s Hilton on Park Lane has undertaken a restyle of the highest rooms, those one up on 27. Each of the five sumptuous suites has been dressed with lavish furnishings and unique artwork making them the ideal choice for anyone looking for extra opulence, exclusivity and comfort.  The renovations are part of an ongoing refurbishment plan that has seen a multi-million pound investment into the property over the past two years.

The 27th floor has a quintessentially English style and unique features include a carved mahogany four poster bed in one of the three Clarence Suites, the unusual hexagonal shape of the Balmoral Suite, an impressive dining area for up to 12 guests and the marble and gold finish of the Presidential Suite.  Each of the five suites features a connecting room, with the Presidential Suite offering an optional butler service for the ultimate luxurious touch.

Guests staying in the Presidential Suite can enjoy breathtaking views of Hyde Park from the comfort of their very own private lounge balcony.

Starting at around £1,219 a night, excluding VAT and breakfast, the suites already proved to be extremely popular amongst Middle Eastern, Chinese, British and American guests. www.parklanehilton.com

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Volotea is a new Spanish low-cost airline

With Greg Brenneman, one-time President and COO of Continental Airlines as Chairman, Volotea has been created as a European Barcelona-based low-cost airline.  Volotea has already taken delivery of a 125-seat Boeing 117 twin jet (MD80/MD90 series) and plans to be in operation by the time of the Easter holidays.

Under a multi-year arrangement Boeing Capital Corporation will begin additional deliveries in March.  The number of aircraft involved in the deal was not disclosed.  In a comprehensive customer solution, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services will provide operational manuals and its Maintenance Performance Toolbox product. 

"Volotea's goal is to forge new and efficient air connections between Europe's small and mid-sized cities currently not well served by direct flights.  We see the 717’s capabilities as the best solution for us in filling this need, and we see the partnership with Boeing as the right one for our success," said Carlos Munoz, Volotea's founder and CEO.  www.volotea.com

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COMMENT: Keep them flying in Britain

The name Mike Collett, Chairman of Air Atlantique, may not be familiar to the average business traveller or even many aviation buffs.  The quiet, tall Yorkshireman, now 68, a Jersey resident for many years, is in fact Britain’s largest collector of vintage jet aircraft that actually fly.  He is a passionate in his belief that planes need to be flown and that the country’s aviation heritage should be kept in the UK and not sold abroad (where they would fetch a great deal of money).  The Classic Aircraft Trust (see below) is his way of dealing with this problem.  His wife Mandy is a retired British Airways 747 Captain. 

Mr Collett’s history is fascinating and spans the years that his collection covers.

Born near Doncaster, Mike was brought up with the noise of Britain’s V bomber force taking off in masses from the local RAF airfields.  He is a former Chairman of Doncaster Rovers (he still sits on the Board) and helps out financially from time to time.

The Air Atlantique Group started as an air taxi operation in 1969 under the name of General Aviation Services, based in Jersey (Channel Islands).  The Air Atlantique name was adopted in June 1977 when freight charter flights were launched with Douglas DC-3 aircraft.  At one time or another nine DC3s were operated, two DC6, and eight Lockheed Electras.  He still has a small financial interest in West Atlantic, the Anglo-Swedish cargo airline, Europe’s largest regional freight operator.

The Group moved to its present base at Coventry Airport in December 1985 and for a period actually owned the airport.  Between then and the late 1990s it expanded its operations to create pilot training facilities, aircraft engineering shops, survey and aerial reconnaissance work and other aviation-related activities.  Mike tried passenger operations at various times including scheduled services from the Channel Islands as Air Corbiere and Atlantic Express.

Britain’s post-war aircraft heritage is represented by some fine static displays such as Duxford and Brooklands, and the National Museum of Flight near Edinburgh.  Dedicated military flying is well symbolised by the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army historical activities, Hurricanes and Spitfires fly by the score, and the unique Vulcan in the Sky project is in many ways awesome.  Mike Collett’s belief is that planes should fly, that pilots should be trained to handle them, and engineers learn of their idiosyncrasies.

The creation of The Classic Aircraft Trust (TCAT) follows in the tradition of preserving the nation’s industrial and technological heritage. It is part of building  Britain for the future. It is very much to be applauded.

Malcolm Ginsberg
Editor in Chief

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Border control changes at UK airports

The much criticised (and often delaying) biometric IRIS system of monitoring passports is being quietly withdrawn at British airports.  According to the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) it now only remains for single lanes at each of Heathrow’s terminals.  Not only was the system slow but it was difficult to use by spectacle wearers who had to pass through and push buttons without wearing their glasses.

The IRIS identification system, which has cost the Government £9.1m to date, will be replaced eventually by facial-recognition electronic gates (e-gates) and biometric passports, a spokesman for the agency said last Friday.  The self-service iris-scanning scheme is now closed to people who have not already enrolled in it.

"We are phasing out IRIS and will be replacing it with other types of gates that non-EU passengers will be able to use," the UKBA said in a statement.

With the IRIS scheme, which officially launched in 2006, the agency hoped to speed up border checks for frequent travellers such as business people.  The current scanners will be finally phased out after the 2012 London Olympic Games. www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk

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Eastern Airways launches executive charter service

Now firmly established as the UK’s second largest regional airline, between Flybe and Loganair, Humberside-based Eastern Airways has introduced a new enhanced charter product aimed at corporate customers, international companies, blue chip organisations, sports teams, the music industry and private clients.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, Eastern Airways launched its range of bespoke charter products to charter brokers at the TAG Executive Centre Farnborough Airport. 

For the new operation the cabin crew have been specifically trained in the hospitality sector to deliver the Platinum and Gold onboard services tailored to suit each client's needs and also in a variety of languages, including English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Polish.   

A uniform specifically introduced for charter services has also been unveiled to differentiate the private charter service from Eastern Airways scheduled services.  The airline operates 15 BAe Jetstream 41 (29 seats), Bombardier Dash 8/300 (50 seats), three 135/145 series (37-49 seats) and eight Saab 200 (50 seats) which are mainly used on scheduled services. www.easternairways.com

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Heathrow Terminal 5 Premier Inn

Premier Inn, the UK’s largest budget hotel chain, has opened its largest airport hotel yet with over 400 rooms at Heathrow Terminal 5.  On the Bath Road, about one mile from the terminal complex, the site includes a Costa Coffee shop, Thyme restaurant and an outdoor eating area.  And for those guests with electric motors who need to top up their vehicle, the hotel also has electric car charge points.  A bus service is provided.

Each room caters for up to two adults and two children (aged 15 and under) and includes an en-suite bathroom; a king size bed; remote control TV with Freeview; tea/coffee making facilities, and a spacious desk area with wi-fi internet access.  The site will also offer the All You Can Eat ‘Premier Breakfast’ – which, from just £8.50, is the perfect way to start your day. www.premierinn.com

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Lion Air in astonishing 380 Boeing aircraft order

Jakarta-based Lion Air has finalised a firm order for 201 Boeing 737 max aircraft and 29 Next-Generation 737-900ERs (extended range).  The agreement, first announced last November in Indonesia, also includes purchase rights for an additional 150 planes.  This deal is the largest commercial order ever in Boeing's history by both dollar value and total number of aircraft.  It is valued at US$22.5bn.

The 737 max is a new engine variant of the world's best selling commercial aircraft and is due to make its first flight in 2016 with deliveries starting one year later.  It features the CFM International LEAP-1B engine claimed to give a 10-12% fuel burn improvement over present aircraft and a 7% operating cost per seat advantage over what it calls “tomorrow's competition”.

Lion Air is Indonesia's largest private airline established in 1999.  It currently operates around 70 Boeing 737 aircraft, but is on the European Union’s banned list. www2.lionair.co.id

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Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts in major global growth

Following the announcement of an opening in Paris, Zurich-based Mövenpick has confirmed 11 new projects in nine countries bringing the company’s total number of operating and planned hotels worldwide to 100.

The upscale company now has 69 hotels in operation, 31 in development of which nine will open this year.  It has no connection with the splendid ice cream producer sold to Nestlé many years ago but is still available at the hotels.  

The Chinese property at Hainan, to be launched in 2013, has 380 rooms.  Chifeng (Inner Mongolia) is the site of a 350-room hotel targeted for 2015.  The company’s entry into Bangladesh focuses on a 280-room resort at Cox’s Bazar, the longest beach in the world at 124kms South East Asia will see openings in Jimbaran (Bali) in 2014 and a 250-room resort will be based on Pantai Pandak Beach (Malaysia) set for 2015.

From April 2012, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts will take over a 298-room upscale Red Sea property in Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt).  There is a new hotel in Marrakesh for 2014.  Tunisia sees a project in the desert oasis of Tozeur for next year whilst on Djerba island a 255-room hotel is undergoing a multi-million-euro refurbishment. www.moevenpick-hotels.com

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Route closures

Royal Jordanian has announced that it is to suspend operations to five destinations “in order to reduce the operating costs brought up by the soaring fuel prices and to offset the decline in tourism to the region” says the flag carrier.  Services to Brussels, Munich and Al Ain would cease March/April whilst the suspension of services to “two other destinations in the Gulf area”, would be announced at a later date.

Gulf Air is dropping four more routes – Damascus, Athens, Milan and Kuala Lumpur – as it continues to wrestle with Bahrain's political situation, high fuel prices and low passenger numbers.  Services to Damascus will stop from 2 March while flights to Athens and Milan will cease 12 March, and Kuala Lumpur from 25 March.  Entebbe and Geneva have already ceased.

Qantas is to withdraw from the loss-making Sydney – Mumbai and Auckland – Los Angeles routes, and reduce capacity on a range of routes including Sydney – Bangkok, Sydney – Perth and Melbourne – Perth by using smaller aircraft.

The latest route cuts are in addition to its previous announcement to cancel the Hong Kong – London and Bangkok – London services from next month.

AERBT makes a plea to airlines to tell us of route closures. www.oag.com

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ON TOUR: Fort Kochin – the gentle Indian introduction

Jane Stanbury has been off on her travels again.

Italian travel writer Nicolas Conti famously said in the Middle Ages, “If China is where you make the money, Kochin is surely the place to spend it”.  Fort Kochin, marks the near central coastal point of Kerala, India’s most southern state on the western side.  This tiny area has played a vital part in international trade since Roman times and was once an integral route between China and Europe.  Today Kochin has come full circle returning to its original status as a key Indian trading point. But don’t look for a fort.  It does not exist.

In recent years, Ernakulum, the industrial region, has expanded upwards and outwards and neighbouring Vallarpadam island now proudly boasts India’s largest port.  A new container terminal, opened in 2011, is capable of handling the latest generation of sprawling super tankers.  On completion of its three phases it will become India’s logistical lynchpin.  This further strengthens Kochin’s position as the commercial capital of Kerala and one of the state’s most cosmopolitan cities.

However the old Fort area continues to quietly languish on the shores of the Laccadive Sea (where the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet) with one sleepy, disinterested eye cast towards the urban development.  International tourism now occupies what was once the dominion of European nations.  The Portuguese began trading in the early 1500s and ruled until the Dutch ousted them in the early 1680s.  They reigned until 1795 when the British took over.  Fort Kochin finally became Indian following the nation’s independence in 1942, yet much of the colonial history remains paying homage to the diversity of European cultures and providing a fascinating living museum for visitors.

At the most northern point of the island relics of the earliest visitors to Kochin can be found in the form of Chinese fishing nets.  Nets are carefully strung on teak wood and bamboo poles and are dunked via an ingenious cantilever system into the water.  It’s a grown up version of a rock pooling net that catches whatever swims by.  Said to have been erected by traders from the court of Kublai Khan in the late 1350s, these emblematic symbols of Kochin are raised each night around dusk.  Immediately a haphazard fish market appears featuring red snapper, kingfish, squid, the most enormous prawns and other exotic breeds.  Entrepreneurial types have set up barbeques nearby on Vasco de Gama square so the freshest of fish meals become possible. 

Walking south through the Fort area later colonialism is prevalent.  Princess Street retains its old world charm dominated by European style residences.  The colonial history has resulted in a remarkable array of architecture exemplified by magnificent villas and bungalows lining the mildly shabby streets.  The curiously named Loafers Corner leads on to the oldest Portuguese house sporting typical European glazed windows and balcony cum veranda characteristic of its time.  It was reputedly once the residence of Vasco De Gama.  His remains were laid to rest in the grounds of St Francis Church before repatriation to Portugal.

Whilst grave spotting is not on most tourists’ agendas one of Fort Kochin’s must-sees is the Dutch Cemetery which overlooking the sea salutes the hundreds of Europeans who left their homelands to colonise far-flung locations.  Access is allowed by a single employee of the Christian Church of South India which now runs the small but mystical graveyard.  The enthusiastic retainer guides you to huge tombs reserved for the elite and diminutive stones for the children.  Major Generals from the British fleet lay alongside Dutch merchant traders and Portugese aristocracy.  The tombstones are completely weathered but there is something enthralling about a burial site representing so many cultures.

In stark contrast to the walled graveyard the imposing church of St Francis welcomes visitors to explore its mixed history.  Originally built as a Catholic house of worship in 1503 by the Portuguese it is thought be the oldest European church in India.  The timber and stone structure was renovated by the Dutch who converted it to Protestant usage, until the British changed it to an Anglican church.  These days it is home to the Church of South India.  Curiously the church flanks the Parade Ground, once the marching ground of the litany of military occupants, these days, like many of the scorched open wastelands, the ground is used by the local schools for running, playing and of course cricket. That’s when the goats aren’t chomping on the stubbly grass.  Like the surrounding streets the parade ground is lined with piles of dirt.  Keep your country tidy is not a notion to have reached India.

The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth and was built in 1568. 

Ambling along the potholed streets and alleys the constant chants of the auto-rickshaws, colloquially known as tuk-tuks offering tours of the city can be wearisome.  Enterprising drivers take an innovative approach and “Helicopter Sir” certainly caught our attention.  These ubiquitous three-wheeler vehicles are a common means of transport for the locals, but can seem like a hair-raising option for the tourist.  In fact the vehicles are incredibly stable and for less than 70 pence an hour the drivers will take you on a tour of the Fort area, out to the wider regions of modern Kochin, and should you wish on to the urban sprawl of the industrial area of Ernakulum.

Whilst the relaxed nature of Kochin lulls you into Indian life, a comfortable hotel is still vital and one of the best in town is The Tea Bungalow.  Offering a welcome haven from the dusty sun-soaked hubbub outside, this boutique property, which was once part of the Brooke Bond estate, is celebrating its centenary.  Transformed into a charming boutique hotel over the last decade the eight rooms divided between two colonial houses are individually designed.  All feature a contemporary blend of traditional India and modern amenities.  The courtyard pool is a welcome sight after a hard day exploring or lengthy excursion to one of the Kerala backwater villages.  However the highlight has to be the food. The chef has spent the last 11 years at a 5-star hotel in Dubai and it shows.  Like the heritage building, the Café du Mahé menu seamlessly blends traditional Indian dishes with popular modern international dishes.  Homemade samosas and Malabar curry (a fish-based curry typical of the area) sit alongside pasta with freshly cooked prawns or stuffed chicken breasts.

Fort Kochin is a gentle introduction to the Indian continent.  There is a certain familiarity in the ghosts of colonies past and the preservation of its beauty belies its real importance to 21st century Indian commerce.  With near 100% literacy, over 40 newspapers in the state alone, and an endless hunger for modernisation, Kerala will undoubtedly become a major player in Indian economics.  It should pay homage to its ancestry and preserve Fort Kochin for the future as there is no better way to begin exploration of one of India’s most beautiful states.

GETTING THERE

Fly Emirates to Fort Kochin www.emirates.com – competitive rates and a superb site for booking multiple destination sectors.

Stay at The Tea Bungalow – www.teabungalow.in

Travel with www.keralaconnections.co.uk – what they don’t know about Kerala isn’t worth knowing

Jane Stanbury   jane@emeraldmedia.co.uk

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