19 MARCH 2012

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A New Strategy for UK Aviation

The 2012 Transport Times conference “A New Strategy for UK Aviation” could not be better timed (18 April) coming shortly after the Government’s consultative document is published.  Keynote speaker is Theresa Villiers, Minister of State for Transport.  The emphasis will be on hub connectively, now a separate part of the review.

The one day programme features some of the most important and influential people involved in the British air transport scene including Maria Eagle MP, Shadow Transport Minister; Bridget Rosewell, Chair, Volterra Consulting; Katja Hall, Chief Policy Director, CBI; Baroness Jo Valentine, Chief Executive, London First; Chris Gadsden, Head of Regulatory Affairs, easyJet;  Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive, ABTA; John Morris, Head of Government and Industry Affairs, Birmingham Airport and Keith Brown MSP, Scottish Transport Minister, who is expected to talk about Heathrow connectivity with regard to Scotland.  Colin Matthews, Chief Executive of BAA, is the final speaker.

The venue is One Great George Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3AA. www.transporttimesevents.co.uk

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Airline statistics published by Innovata

Innovata, the Atlanta, Georgia, based rival to Britain’s OAG has published a statistics report which shows the size of the worldwide airline industry and its vibrant state. 

At the end of February 2012 Innovata offered 834 airlines on its database of which 767 operated under their own designator.  In the first two months of the year 11 airlines were added or re-installed including five start-ups and Innovata recorded 13 IATA code or airline name changes.  During the same period 10 airlines either ceased operations, suspended services or merged.

Innovata says it designates 108 airlines as low-cost carriers and 114 who are considered as dedicated cargo and truck operators.  Currently almost one in 10 flights are pure cargo.  The flight data company say that 251 airlines offer wide body flights and that one in eight carriers file route and schedule changes daily. 

The company is putting much emphasis on its ‘Flight Maps’ product which are now available in 15 languages with the latest in Arabic.  It allows carriers to dynamically display their entire route networks and hubbing potential, and airports to show destinations served by direct and connecting flights, along with airlines operating each route. www.innovata-llc.com

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Bright light headset by Finnair

Finnair has become the first airline in the world to introduce a bright light headset into the cabin. According to Finnair a bright light headset is a device that brings wellbeing by channelling bright light into the brain via the ear canal.  It stimulates passengers and helps them adapt better to jet lag and the fluctuation of the circadian rhythm.

Valkee bright light headset is a product of an innovative Finnish design company called Valkee.  The device increases the amount of light received by the brain to a natural level when there is not enough light.  It provides a safe and natural way to charge oneself, and it is easy to carry due to its small size.

FInnair says that the device comes into its own on long flights, where the need to adjust to a new time zone often causes natural challenges.  The pilot service will be offered to passengers in Business Class on the route between Helsinki and Shanghai for a period of one month (from end of March until end of April).  The device itself will be added as a sales item in May.  It could be available from day one on the new Helsinki – Chongqing route which starts 9 May. www.finnair.com

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Emissions can be reduced says lobby group

Sustainable Aviation, an alliance of leading UK aviation groups, has published a report explaining how the aviation industry and governments can achieve the international goal of halving net CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

The report comes against a background of rising aviation demand, and the forthcoming publication of the UK Government’s Sustainable Aviation Review. Passenger numbers are expected to more than double by 2050 and air freight activity, vital to the UK’s trade with emerging markets, is likely to increase more than seven-fold.

The report calls upon the aviation industry and Government to take steps to ensure the emissions goals are met while satisfying rising demand for air travel including the provision of research and development support for new generation aircraft and engine technology. Improved air traffic management is also highlighted as is the need to incentivise the production of sustainable fuels. Governments should prioritise reaching an agreement on a global carbon emissions deal and make it happen.

Matt Gorman, BAA’s Director of Sustainability, and the current Chair of Sustainable Aviation, said: “This report shows that UK aviation can achieve economic growth to 2050 without a substantial increase in absolute CO2 emission by implementing a series of simple measures.” www.sustainableaviation.org.uk

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Kingfisher cuts international routes

The crisis at Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines has deepened with the airline culling its entire international network as it attempts to overcome its current financial problems.  The airline, which was on the verge of joining the oneworld global airline alliance earlier this year, has faced major operational problems over the past week as many of its pilots have again failed to turn up for work after allegedly failing to be paid.  The problems were further compounded by the impounding of one of the airline’s Airbus A330-200s at Heathrow, at the start of the week.


Kingfisher says its international operations are “bleeding heavily” and it has already started to retire some of its Airbus A330-200s from passenger service.  “Positive and immediate action is being taken on all fronts to cut costs,” it said in a statement. 

 

This week it has cancelled Delhi to Hong Kong and Kolkata with Bangkok and Dhaka. Gone is Mumbai to Hong Kong, Heathrow and Singapore.  Later this month it will close its routes from Bangalore to Dubai; Chennai to Colombo; Delhi to Bangkok, Dubai and Kathmandu; Mumbai to Dubai and from Tiruchirapalli.  This will leave just a single international service between Delhi and Heathrow, but you cannot book after 10 April 2012. www.flykingfisher.com

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New Era for Heathrow Express

 

Prior to the introduction of revitalised trains in April Heathrow Express has unveiled the result of a £16m investment well in advance of the London Olympics where it will play a vital role in transporting competitors, the Olympic family, and visitors to and from central London.  Now in its 15th year it has carried 60m passengers since its launch.

 

Stepping into a 'New Era' which will see a new brand, corporate colours, staff uniforms and a refurbished higher specification rolling stock.  The project, which has taken three years from commission to roll out, was borne from extensive customer focus group and staff research.

 

With partners including Siemens, Designhouse, Interfleet, Axminster and No Uniform the project has been steered by the senior management team at Heathrow Express, the final stages overseen by Managing Director Keith Greenfield who joined from BAA in November 2011.

 

Heathrow Express was launched in 1998 and carries an average of 16,000 passengers a day, between Heathrow and Paddington. It is the fastest rail link from central London to the airport, taking just 15 minutes to and from Heathrow Terminals 1 & 3, 25 minutes to Terminal 4 and 21 minutes to Terminal 5.  The new train launch is due 26 April. www.heathrowexpress.com

 

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Vietnam Airlines aims high

On 9 December 2011 Vietnam was linked for the first time by air to the UK.  Vietnam Airways, the National carrier, now flies from Gatwick on two days per week to both Ho Chi Min City (Saigon SGN) and Hanoi (HAN). 

“If we are successful in expanding the network and strengthening our position, we’ll be number two after Singapore Airlines,” Chief Executive Officer Pham Ngoc Minh told a small international media group in Hanoi last week.  On order are Airbus A321s and A350s, plus Boeing 787s.  With an 11% passenger increase last year the state-owned carrier is outpacing Malaysian Air (5%) and Thai International whose numbers dropped by 0.7%.  With around 14m travellers (official figures not published yet) it has overtaken Malaysian (13m) and is closing in on both Singapore (16.9m) and Thai (18.4m) although in the airline business numbers by themselves mean little.

Mr Minh said it was early days for Gatwick with the route now operating at 60%.  The airline’s London, Victoria, office expects an 80% load factor for the peak mid-summer period with between 60/70% originating from the UK.  Very competitive fares to Sydney and Melbourne are a feature with a 48-hour visa-free stopover allowed. www.vietnamair.com.vn

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CRUISE NEWS MARCH 2012

This month’s ship review: Insignia by Oceania

Cruise news update


A TRAGEDY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A DISASTER – THOUGHTS ON CONCORDIA

On the evening of Friday 13 January tragedy struck the Italian cruise liner Concordia, owned by Costa Cruise Lines, part of the Carnival Corporation. 

At this point we will not apportion blame.  That can be left to a Court of Enquiry.  Strangely enough it is 100 years since an accident at sea gained such media coverage, and that was Titanic.  Cruising is safe and to be recommended for a fine all-inclusive holiday.

Seven are missing and 25 are confirmed dead and bookings at Costa have fallen by 80% to 90% on the previous year.  How long will it take to recover?  We do not know.  Rebranding is an option, with the 1996 example of the fatal ValuJet crash in the Miami Everglades.   ValuJet became AirTran and is now part of Southwest.  Costa will have to change the distinctive funnels and likewise come up with a new name.

Over the years the aviation industry has had to contend with many a predicament and is well geared up to deal with each emergency.  Clearly this is not the case with the cruise business.  With very few Americans on board the US media did not wake up to what was happening near Giglio until several days after the event.  Chairman Micky Arison was rumoured to have told his ten operating cruise companies not to make any comment at all.  It was a Costa matter and Costa functions as an autonomous division of Carnival.  Costa should deal with it. He was probably right.

But where the industry really went wrong was in London, effectively the European centre for cruising and very much involved with the Concordia cataclysm.  It was a PR disaster.  What should have happed was that industry representatives made themselves available for press, TV and radio interviews and enacted a crisis programme.  It is not easy and involves hard work and knowledge of what you are doing.  Whoever gets in first sets the tone, and TV in particular, strange animal that it is, leads the way.  News and programme slots are usually limited and for the most part balanced views are offered.  With Concordia the technical experts had a field day explaining the possible causes and problems with large ships.  The industry (and it had to be the industry rather than a single cruise line) should have been putting up its own people taking away talking time from the hastily discovered ‘experts’, some with an axe to grind.
 
A single statement offering the standard condolences just was not good enough.

Let us look at two aircraft crashes and a classic example of turning a calamity into at least a PR win.

Pan Am 103 was not the fault of the airline.  Weak security could be blamed but back in 1988 it was unthinkable that a State would attack a civil airliner.  Six weeks later a British Midland Boeing 737 crashed at Kegworth near East Midlands Airport killing 47.  With the Pan Am bomb the airline’s Board chose to make no statement or comment, hiding away in their New York headquarters

The media had a field day.

At Kegworth BMA Chairman Michael Bishop (now Baron Glendonbrook) was quickly on the scene and gaining press sympathy.  Pan Am collapsed in 1991, not because of Lockerbie, but it did not help.  BMA is still with us (just).

But the greatest example of all is Dunkirk, a terrible catastrophe.  Somehow Winston Churchill changed that event into a PR victory.  Clearly one cannot compare Concordia with the English Channel miracle but it does demonstrate what can be done.

Enjoy the Cruise Show which takes place next Saturday and Sunday (24/25 March) at Olympia, West London.  This year 16m passengers will take water borne holidays, according to the Ft Lauderdale-based Cruise Lines International Association.  In spite of Concordia. www.cruisingshow.co.uk

INSIGNIA BY OCEANIA

This must be one of the weirdest reports on a cruise ship offered by AERBT.  Insignia is no longer operated by Oceania Cruises and in April will join Hapag-Lloyd as Columbus 2.  However its two sister ships Regatta and Nautica remain in the fleet and are likely do so for several years at least.  Whilst the experience was Insignia the review is for potential cruisers on Regatta and Nautica.  The ships are virtually identical.

Oceania is a young cruise line founded in 2002 and is owned by New York-based Apollo Management, which also controls Regent Seven Seas and has an interest in Norwegian Cruise Lines.  Regent sits at the top of the luxury market with Oceania tackling a slightly different upscale spot with what it terms is “country club ambiance”.  Smart dressing is very much in order but leave your tuxedo behind.  The 630-passenger Insignia is replaced by the purpose-built Riviera, twice the size and twice the number of passengers.  With her sister ship Marina, introduced last year, Oceania has become a four-ship flotilla.

Some cruise history
In the mid-1990s Renaissance Cruises placed an order for eight identical 30,277 gross ton vessels with Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in France.  R1 was delivered in June 1998 but with the company already under financial strain 9/11 was the final straw and the cruise operator was beached later that month.

However the R class ship concept was right.  Boutique vessels capable of docking in the smaller ports and visiting bays and inlets outside the scope of large cruise ships. 

Once out of the hands of the lawyers all the ships have been kept busy in recent times operating for a number of established cruise companies including Azamara, P&O, and Princess.  However there is no doubt it is Oceania that has set the standard for the others to try and equal.  As a new company into the market it had to offer an outstanding product, and has done so.

The hull is now white, it was dark blue originally, and teak decking laid in the pool area, jogging track and balconies. There was not that much wrong with the original R1, but Insignia is just that bit smarter and sharper than its sister ships operated by competing companies.  It also offers what is termed Concierge Class, larger cabins with Butler service, a bath, Champagne upon arrival and special facilities.  Plus a private lounge.  Everyone gains soft drinks, bottled water, teas and coffees, and 24-hour room service.

Children
Young persons are welcome on board especially during holiday periods where Oceania offers its Club Mariner.  There are special savings for children or 3rd/4th person sharing.  It does depend on the ship and sailing, but as a rule of thumb, it is around 50% off.

We joined Insignia at Valparaiso, the port of Santiago (Chile), after a short stay in the capital.  LAN Chile and the Grand Hyatt were both excellent and to be recommended.  Santiago is a bustling prosperous city with an interesting history and some excellent restaurants.

Boarding could not be easier with priority given to Concierge guests although there was no queuing for anyone. The 17-day voyage was to take us as far north as Lima and south to Puerto Chacabuco and the South American Fiords.  Machu Picchu was visited, the highlight of the trip.

Different cruise lines offer different styles of cruising.  For the most part Oceania, certainly in its European agenda, concentrates on a very high-class touring style schedule, with most days in port and even overnight stays programmed.  Not so for South America.  The sea days are for quiet relaxation perhaps in the Canyon Ranch Spa Club, or for the more energetic the adjoining fitness centre.  The library, high up amidships, is terrific, and there is also a small casino.  Enrichment port lectures also fill the day but it is not a ship for bingo and noisy deck games. Small card schools emerged and tucked under a blanket “Movies Under the Stars” is a pleasant way to catch up with the movies.

Dining
As the new kid on the block Oceania had to be outstanding in a specific area and offer real value.  The dining on board Insignia is exceptional with open meal times and the choice of four restaurants in the evening.  Other than wine there are no supplements to pay and the menus, by chef Jacques Pepin, are varied and interesting. 

The Grand Dining Room seats just over half the passengers at any one time, Americans tending to rush in early, whilst Europeans, and Italians in particular, keeping the staff up late.  No overcrowding.  It is just nice and steady throughout the evening. Caviar is on the menu if that is your taste but if you need kosher or a special diet that is no problem but you do have to advise ahead.  The cuisine is exceptional, and we are told, to an even higher level on Marina and Riviera with Jacques (French) and Red Ginger (Asian) restaurants added.  The those two ships also offer the “Bon Appetit Culinary Center” with professional instruction.  It is part of your package.  On Insignia the alternative dining is Polo Grill, American style steaks and shellfish, and Toscana Italian dining at its best both with set menus and daily changes.  If you really want to relax completely and serve yourself there is the Terrace Café.

Cabins
Although there are exceptions, the six Owners Suites for instance, each of nearly 1,000sq ft, essentially the ship is divided into three sizes of cabin.  Sitting one deck down very conveniently from the pool area and Terrace Café the Penthouse Suites are large balcony cabins, lavishly appointed and around 320 plus sq ft in size.  This is Concierge Class.  Daily newspapers too and tea plus delicious hors d'œuvres in the late afternoon.

The bulk of the staterooms offer a balcony, sitting area and around 165sq ft of space, plenty for a two-week holiday.  They are very comfortable and sitting out on the balcony for breakfast is pure pleasure.  The ship’s wi-fi system copes wherever you are.  There are a number of cabins hidden behind lifeboats and a small number of internal offerings.

Entertainment
There is plenty of excellent live music and social gathering. The show lounge on the R class ships is small and ideal for cabaret and less suitable for extensive stage shows that some lines are noted for. What it lacks in extravagance it more than makes up for with style.  However it seems on the summer European programme, with its busy port visits, all the clients require for the most part is for a fine dinner and then a quiet evening.

Summer Programme 2012
Both Regatta and Nautica will spent the summer in Europe with Nautica off to the Fart East via the Suez Canal in November and Regatta crossing the North Atlantic in September and being based in New York for the St Lawrence, spending time in the Caribbean before a Panama passage and then to South America.  With both ships a whole variety of cruises are offered this summer in Europe ranging from Scandinavia to the Black Sea. www.oceaniacruises.co.uk

Berlitz rates this ship at 1,574.  The similar Azamara Quest (R7) comes in at 1,466 and Ocean Princess (R4) at 1,487.

Cruise news update


AMERICAN CRUISE LINES, which specialises in small ship cruising along the inland waterways and rivers of the United States, is completing a brand new 150-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, at Chesapeake, Maryland.  Staterooms feature large private balconies with sliding glass doors and all of the amenities expected by today’s travellers. 

while maintaining the elegance of classic late 1800s Mississippi riverboats.  American Cruise Lines will operate the authentic paddlewheeler over the entire Mississippi River System, including the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers.  She will also be able to travel at significantly higher speeds than all other Mississippi riverboats, minimizing night travel and making more itineraries possible with longer visits to the river towns.  A number of unique riverboat journeys are planned that take passengers as far north as St Paul on the Mississippi River and as far east as Pittsburgh.  American Cruise Lines offers more than 35 unique itineraries along the inland waterways and rivers of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Mississippi River System and East Coast of the United States, from New England to Florida. www.americancruiselines.com

CRYSTAL CRUISES has pulled off a remarkable coupe, attracting former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and husband astronaut Mark Kelly to cruise with them in Europe this summer.  The inspiring couple, she surviving an assassination attempt last summer whilst he was in space, are boarding Crystal Serenity for a luxury Mediterranean sailing from Lisbon to Rome commencing on 25 July.  Kelly is scheduled to speak to guests about the power of the human spirit, with wife Gabby joining for a special appearance and photo opportunity at end of the presentation. www.crystalcruises.co.uk

RMS ST HELENA is the last supply ship for the British colonies.  When St Helena’s new airport is opened in 2015 she will be retired.  She carries supplies for the island and also 126 passengers and for the balance of 2012 will cruise from Cape Town to St Helena and on to Ascension Island, another British outpost.  And then back stopping once again at the island which was Napoleon’s last home.  You can join the ship at either end (via the Royal Air Force at the northerly stopover), or take the round trip of 20 days. http://rms-st-helena.com

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL will base two ships at Southampton for summer 2013, this for the first time.  The 3,114-guest Adventure of the Seas will join the 3,634-guest Independence of the Seas, which is operating out of the port for the fifth consecutive season. www.rccl.com

SWAN HELLENIC has confirmed that Minerva is back in service following a multi-million pound winter upgrade programme.  Clearly the most obvious is an additional 32 balconies to existing cabins, increasing the number of veranda suites to 23% of all accommodation, a very neat and well carried out engineering exercise.  Also new is a forward facing observation lounge and bar – the Orpheus Lounge – on the top deck, providing guests with expansive panoramic views.  A dedicated internet lounge has been added, but it is chargeable.  Experience has shown that satellite connected internet works well at sea, if sometimes a little slow. There is a new outdoor walk round promenade deck and the old en-suite facilities have been entirely replaced.

VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY is offering its guests the unique opportunity to be part of the 2012 London Thames flotilla to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  But don’t rush as the package sold out within hours of publishing.  With mv Discovery docking in Greenwich on 3 June someone came up with the brilliant idea of allowing guests to board one of two chartered riverboats that will join the official flotilla down the Thames.  Sailing alongside thousands of other boats, the vessels will grace the river against the backdrop of the capital’s most iconic landmarks such as Big Ben, The London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.  Passengers will enjoy a picnic lunch, a glass of champagne to toast the momentous occasion, commemorative goody bags and afternoon tea on-board.  We believe that the company Chairman failed to secure himself a seat, such was the rush. www.voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk 

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COMMENT: Thoughts for the Chancellor - The goose cannot keep laying the golden egg

On Wednesday the Chancellor will unveil the 2012 UK Budget.

There is one thing that can be guaranteed.  A great many people will not be happy with his utterings.  At least in a Coalition the government will only have one party opposing whatever he comes up with.

We endorse a statement published today by more than 25 leading chief executives from aviation, tourism and the unions urging the Government to re-think it’s planned Air Passenger Duty (APD) rise. The CEO’s describe the Government’s planned double inflation (8%) increase in APD - that the Chancellor will confirm in Wednesday’s Budget – as “short-sighted and ill-considered and will place the UK at an even greater competitive disadvantage.”

AERBT would like to ask a question.

No one from the Treasury has yet explained why Air Passenger Duty (APD) is based on the capital city of each country when tickets now often include the mileage of the route, and OAG, the airline industry’s bible, gives this detail for every airport pair.

Perhaps someone can come back and tell us?  Washington is 3,662 miles from London and Honolulu 7,223, both in the same country.  Barbados is in the next band but is 4,205 miles away.  To fly to the Pacific beaches cost £130 in taxes and those of the West Indies £160  (per person).

Back in 1991 Eva introduced Premium Economy followed by Virgin Atlantic.  Initially it was pretty basic but the latest versions, and Air New Zealand is a good example, is a fine product with quality catering and specially designed seats, the pitch just over 40 inches.

And this is the rub.

40 inches is the cut off point.  Premium Economy, Business Class and First all pay the same tax.

Why has the Treasury chosen that figure?  Is the same person responsible for the capital city APD mileage charge?  Or are there two people in the Treasury making crazy decisions.

There is a way out for the Chancellor.  It will only bring a small amount of relief to the industry but at least the Coalition will claim to be listening.

Make the cut-off point 45 inches.  Airlines that have spent a fortune on Premium Economy will then at least have a product that is possible to sell.  The utility carriers (ie what we used to call charter airlines) could re-introduce a product dropped due to a lack of demand.  True it will only be a gesture but at least Government can say that it is helping the industry.  The goose cannot keep laying the golden egg.

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airberlin and the Aviation Club

Last week’s Aviation Club lunch in London (15 March 2012) was intriguing in that the published speaker, airberlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn, pulled out at the last minute replaced by Chief Commercial Officer Paul Gregorowitsch who focused his address on the airline’s new survival strategy, known as ‘Shape & Size.’  The next day airberlin announced a net loss of €271.8m for 2011, a worsening by €174.6m from the previous 12 months.  Revenue increased by 13.7% to €4.23bn and passenger numbers by 1.2% to 35.3m.

 “2011 was a very difficult year for the industry and 2012 is unlikely to be much better,” he stated.  For airberlin to survive, said Gregorowitsch, the airline needed to go for “effective global reach.”  This was being achieved by business and investment partnership with Etihad Airways and entry in the oneworld alliance as from 20 March.  At the same time, the new Berlin Brandenburg airport, due to open in June, would become “a pre-eminent central European hub” providing competitive strength for airberlin and its partners.

Gregorowitsch went on to slam APD (British and German); highlighted the UK’s political uncertainty over airport development; and was in favour of a possible investment partnership between British and German air traffic management companies. www.airberlin.com

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Airport hospitality centre

Phuket International Airport has a new arrivals hospitality centre operated exclusively by Centara Hotels & Resorts who have seven properties on the Thai island.

Located in the arrivals hall at the airport it presents a warm welcome to visitors offering coffee, tea, cold drinks and snacks plus a full time representative providing support and information for travellers and in many cases their handlers too. Transfers can be organised, or a hire car.  Fully comprehensive insurance is a must.

Phuket is about the size of Singapore and lies 530 miles due south of Bangkok, or 1.5hrs flying time.  The Centara properties range from the 5-star Grand Beach Resort and its sister Grand West, both featuring luxury at the top end with water parks and speciality dining, to more modest resorts some with self-catering. www.centarahotelsresorts.com

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British Airways ups Moscow service

It may be a foretaste of the future but British Airways has gone wide-bodied from 26 March on its Heathrow – Moscow Domodedovo route.  It currently competes with bmi whose capacity is likely to disappear if the planned takeover goes ahead.

One BA service daily will be by a Boeing 747-400 in a four-class layout, whilst the other two will be by long haul Boeing 767 aircraft, without First Class. 

To promote the upgrade BA CEO Keith Williams flew to Moscow last week attending a series of events.  At around 4hrs 20mins it is British Airways shortest long haul route.  From Domodedovo, Russian airline Transaero competes whilst Aeroflot also flies to London but from Sheremetyevo, the alternative Moscow airport.

The Moscow upgrade is the only major BA route change for the coming summer.  There are no significant changes at Heathrow (no new routes or suspensions) but Algiers flights will move from there to Gatwick.  At Gatwick the airline is launching flights to Nice, bringing the aforementioned Algiers flight from Heathrow, and withdrawing the Cagliari service.

At London City, BA is launching flights to Mahon, Angers and Quimper.  However, all three begin in May, and not March. www.ba.com

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Four-wheeled carry-on roller bags introduced

Although many of us wonder how we would transport our belongings without it, wheeled luggage has only been available for around 40 years.  Back in the early 1970s it seems the general opinion surrounding travel bags on wheels was that the idea was impractical and would never take off. 

Four-wheeled cabin bags were around from the beginning, so we are told, but it was the type with just two little rollers that really took off.  Now Briggs & Riley, the US company known for its "Simple as that" lifetime guarantee that even covers damage caused by an airline, has introduced a range of four-wheelers that it calls “The Baseline Collection” available in three sizes, 20, 24 and 27 inches high.  The design includes a large gusseted front pocket that opens wide to store travel items, such as a jacket, magazine, newspaper; the carry-on features a pocket that holds up to a 16" laptop.

With the weight of whatever is inside spread over twice as many wheels it is much easier to push around.  Today most airlines (there is one exception of course, based in Dublin) are not bothering to check personal luggage weight.  The biggest problem is lifting the bag into the overhead locker. www.briggs-riley.com/baseline-spinners

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London’s Victoria Station for DoubleTree

DoubleTree by Hilton has announced a fifth London property to join one of the UK’s fastest-growing, upscale, full-service hotel brands.  The DoubleTree by Hilton London-Victoria is conveniently located opposite Victoria Station with non-stop access to Gatwick Airport.  Located on Bridge Place it adjoins the Passport Office and is within walking distance (one mile) of the recently introduced DoubleTree Westminster.

Formerly known as the Hesperia London Victoria, the 225-room hotel is undergoing a multi-phase refurbishment programme.  As with all DoubleTree by Hilton properties it is operated under a franchise license agreement. 

Executive Floor guestrooms and suites received upgraded amenities which includes a private lounge with exclusive check-in and check-out, along with complimentary breakfast in the morning and snacks and beverages throughout the day.  For meetings, conferences and events, DoubleTree by Hilton London-Victoria presents eight meeting rooms and boardrooms, accommodating between 10 and 160 delegates.  Free wi-fi and 24-hour room service is provided. www.londonvictoria.doubletree.com

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Olympic terminal for Heathrow

Work is progressing fast now on the temporary Olympic departures terminal for athletes only at Heathrow.  It is located on the south side of the airport between Terminal 4 and British Airways World Cargo with the entrance on Sealand Road.

The plan is to divert over 10,000 passengers, 37,000 bags and a significant number of coach movements from the main terminals with it reaching its peak on Monday 13 August, the day after the closing ceremony of the main Olympics.

Olympians inbound will go through normal border controls but for departures they will be able to check-in at the accommodation village and then take a coach. 

The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be Heathrow’s biggest ever challenge.  In terms of numbers, with no actual increase in aircraft movements, that will not be the problem.  Arrivals will be spread out over a period but departing participants will be concentrated into a very short period.  The proximity of Westfield shopping centre to the main village might be OK for retailers but is bad news for the airlines. Two bags inbound and five in the other direction is expected from every athlete. www.baa.com

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Virgin Atlantic Announces Return to Mumbai

With Kingfisher Airlines confirming that it has pulled its Mumbai – Heathrow service and bmi long since departed Virgin Atlantic has announced that it is resurrecting its version of the route, which it abandoned in 2009.  Since then passenger numbers have grown on the sector by 9% to more than one million, making it Heathrow’s 12th busiest long haul route.  The service is being launched on the back of the success of the Virgin New Delhi to London and New York route which enjoyed 20% growth in passenger numbers in 2011.  It celebrates its 12th birthday this summer and in particular attracts travellers connecting at Heathrow to the airline’s ten North American destinations.

Steve Ridgway, Chief Executive, Virgin Atlantic Airways said: “Virgin Atlantic is proud to be flying to Mumbai again, linking this wonderful city to our key destinations of London, New York, Boston, Washington and Chicago.  India’s phenomenal growth continues to drive travel to the UK and the USA and we know our passengers are going to love the connections the new flight offers.  

We are passionate about providing a unique service to customers and our new Airbus 330-300 will feature our brand new Upper Class Dreamsuite.” www.virgin-atlantic.com

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AND FINALLY: The last word on noise (perhaps)

Following the AND FINALLY regarding Concorde, Vernon Murphy, now retired but at one time the senior man at various BAA enterprises, tells us that when he was at Gatwick they were still getting complaints about the Heathrow Airlink 18 months after the helicopter service was terminated.  The noise will not go away.

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TV WATCH: British Airways, easyJet & BAA face Lords on landing slot allocations

From 14:45 today (Monday 19 March) the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on the Internal Market will take evidence as part of its enhanced scrutiny of proposals on landing slot allocations that form part of the European Commission’s “Better Airports Package”.  With air traffic expected to almost double by 2030 the Committee want to find out if the proposals are the best way to expand European airport capacity and will probe the witnesses on the potential impact of the regulations.  The evidence session will be broadcast live at www.parliamentlive.tv

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Airline absorbs APD Increase for UK Flights

TAM Airlines, the Brazilian carrier soon to be integrated with LAN Chile, has chosen to absorb the increase in Air Passenger Duty (APD), which takes effect on 1 April, for all its passengers that had booked and paid in advance for their tickets prior to the British Government’s Autumn Statement of 29 November 2011. The Government is insisting on no retrospective discount.

From Heathrow, TAM Airlines flies direct to both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which currently fall into band C for APD, while many onward services to Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, etc, come into the highest band, D.  APD is applied to all flights outbound from the UK.  There is no equivalent tax levied by the Brazilian authorities.

The rate of APD (per person) on flights to Brazil imposed by the British Government will be, as of 1 April, £81 in Economy Class and £162 in all other cabin classes.  The rate for destinations from the UK in band D will be £92 and £184.  When the tax was introduced in 1994 the cost of APD on flights to South America was £10. www.tam.com.br

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BA and bmi – an update

The proposed sale by Lufthansa (LH) of its bmi subsidiary to British Airways could or could not happen with a decision possible by 30 March.  It was due 16 March.  The delay has allowed BA to review its situation and offer guarantees.  Brussels could decide on an in depth review, bad news for everyone.

Life goes on with bmibaby the fully-owned subsidiary, which has celebrated 10 years of operation.  A deal was announced in February with an unknown buyer, completion said to take place within the first quarter of 2012.  Should no sale happen British Airways would seek a price reduction.

Last week’s COMMENT column was given over to the possible sale and the role in the matter by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT).  The decision is now with the European Commission.

What is now clear is that the powers of the OFT are in fact limited in respect of airline mergers with the precedent set years back, the original share deal between bmi and LH in 1999 decided in Brussels.  Likewise Lufthansa’s 100% acquisition of the British airline in the 2009.

Unless the arrangement can be sorted out quickly, cash haemorrhaging might mean the grounding of bmi, with very serious consequences. www.flybmi.com

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CAA issue punctuality figures

According to the UK Civil Aviation Authority in the fourth quarter of 2011, 80% of scheduled flights were on-time, up from 68% in the fourth quarter of 2010.  Average delay also fell from 21 minutes to just 11.  A significant punctuality improvement was seen at all monitored airports.  These results, together with other punctuality improvements in previous quarters, mean that over the whole of 2011, 80% of scheduled flights were on-time, up from 73% in 2010.

On-time performance (defined as early to 15 minutes late) at London airports increased by 13 percentage points to 80% and the average delay fell by 10 minutes to 11 minutes, between the final quarter of 2010 and the final quarter of 2011.  The biggest increase in on-time performance was seen at Stansted, by 16 percentage points to 85%.  Gatwick and Luton had the biggest reductions in average delay (12 minutes).  Heathrow’s improved by 12 percentage points and its average delay fell by nine minutes.  London City’s on-time performance rose by seven percentage points and its average delay fell by six minutes.

In the regions delay fell by seven minutes at Manchester, eight minutes at Edinburgh, nine minutes at Glasgow, 11 minutes at Birmingham and 13 minutes at Newcastle. www.caa.co.uk

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Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to get new airport?

The vital importance of a country’s international airport hub and its future role has been sharply focused in Vietnam.  The country’s thee main airports (Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang ) are now being brought under one operating company.  Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng has attached his name to a plan to start construction of the new Long Thanh International Airport in 2015.  Sited 30 miles north east of Ho Chi Minh City the facility could be operational by 2018 and is planned to eventually have four runways with a capacity of 25m, twice the number handled by SGN last year. 

According to Nguyen Cong Hoan, Director of Planning and Investment for the newly-established Airports Corporation of Vietnam, Long Thanh will handle 80% of international flights and position itself as a hub for the whole of the Indo China region.  At a press briefing in the existing terminal he ducked a question regarding rail connections to Ho Chi Minh City, without a Metro at the present time.  Domestic growth was between 18/20% but on international routes it is currently down to 3%.  The present international terminal was opened in 2007 but feels dated. www.hochiminhcityairport.com Also see ON TOUR

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Luton Airport development – The operators plan

Following Luton Council’s ideas on the development of what is London’s fourth busiest airport (AERBT 13 February), the Spanish-owned operating company LLAOL (London Luton Airport Operations Ltd)  has come up with its own ideas for the way ahead.  The Council plan closes for comment 26 March and sees capacity at 18m.  The LLAOL scheme, which is more detailed, closes  25 April. It says that 16m is the target.

LLAOL’s ideas include duelling the road from the Holiday Inn to the central terminal area, and bringing unused parts of the terminal building back into use.  The front of the terminal building would be extended to create a new entrance foyer with more passenger seating and retail areas on the upper level.  The internal layout would be re-organised to create a more logical route from check in, through the lounge and to the gates.  Arriving passengers will have an easier route too.

Airside improvements include a new southern ‘pier’ and an increase on the number of stands.  Both agree that some form of extended taxiway is needed to increase  runway movements. 

Luton Airport is operated by LLAOL under a 30-year arrangement signed in 1998.  The agreement allows the Council to break the concession on 1 April 2014. www.london-luton.co.uk  www.futureluton.co.uk

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Singapore Airlines offers pilots unpaid leave

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has circulated to its junior pilots a suggestion that they can take unpaid leave for up to two years and look for work with other carriers.  This affects more than 1,000 cadets and first officers.  No Captains are included. 

What the move does show is that even the world's best run airlines, and SIA is one of the best, are being affected by the global economic slowdown.  Jobs in fact should not be a problem with Scoot, a new SIA budget offspring starting up later in the year, and Chinese airlines participating in recent US recruitment seminars organised by Miami-based Pan Am International Flight Academy.

"Between now and 2030 the Asia-Pacific area will need 180,000 pilots.  China alone will need 70,000," said event co-ordinator Steve Turner of WASINC who organised the event on behalf the flight academy.  "It's a real enticement to US pilots currently sitting at the bottom of the career ladder here to look overseas, where the pay is so much better."

WASINC said that another event is planned for next year.  Participating Chinese airlines included Air China, Skymark Airlines, Business Aviation Asia, Shenzhen Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Tianjin Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Chengdu Airlines, Spring Airlines, Okair, and West Air. www.panamacademy.com www.wasinc.aero

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FLYING AT THE FRONT END: Vietnam Airlines from Gatwick

In December 2011 Vietnam was linked for the first time with a non-stop air service to the United Kingdom.  Vietnam Airlines, the national airline, and established in 1996, now flies from Gatwick on

Two days per week to both Ho Chi Min City (Saigon SGN) and Hanoi (HAN).  AERBT would recommend the carrier, but it is in the ‘could do better’ class, the result probably of the Communist management operation under which it is run. 

It is price competitive on routes to Melbourne and Sydney which it is marketing heavily.  £700.00 for Economy; £1,410.00 for Economy Deluxe; and £2,785.00 for Business class (all prices inclusive of taxes). With a 21-22 hour flight time (depending on which direction you are going) it is as quick as you can get to Oz, and you can stopover for up to 48 hours without a visa.  Vietnam is a friendly and fascinating country to visit, spotlessly clean. 

Whilst its heritage goes back as far as the 1950s, Vietnam Airlines is today a very modern carrier with routes all over South East Asia, to Australia, and in Europe, London joining Frankfurt.  Not only does it codeshare with fellow Skyteam members (Paris for instance with Air France) but also with oneworld’s Cathay Pacific and Qantas.  It markets itself as the airline for Indo China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) and offers connections to most cities in the region. 

Vietnam is a one party state and the airline is part of the national transport infrastructure.  The company is overseen by a seven-seat management board, members of which are appointed by the Vietnamese Prime Minister.  It is a fine airline but is deficient in some areas.  Whilst it has the London route to itself it will succeed but if BA or Virgin were to decide that there was sufficient traffic to  compete, it would need to sharpen up. 

GATWICK                                                                                                 

At Gatwick, Vietnam Airlines uses the Number One lounge in the North Terminal, perhaps the best on the whole airport.  The normal gate, 52, is a short walk, but watch the information boards.  It is a silent lounge.

Amenities included in the lounge are a spa, cinema, business centre (courtesy wi-fi) games room and children’s area and there is a complimentary bar (Champagne is charged for).  Also to hand is a pool table. Whilst hot food selection is limited if you want anything more ambitious it can be purchased.  However with the Vietnam departure at noon, and a welcoming meal on board, anything more is not needed.  One advantage is that the lounge is on the ground floor.  A quick visit to the retail area is easy.  If you are in Economy you can pay for the lounge visit, or take out membership.

For reasons of their own at Gatwick Vietnam Airlines boarded Economy Class passengers straight after those with special needs.  Business Class were last, mighty strange as the aircraft used an amidships door, front end passengers turning left. 

ON BOARD

There is a friendly welcome once on board, a wardrobe is provided, and Heidsieck Champagne plus soft drinks offered.  A good selection of London, International and Vietnamese newspapers are made available plus The Economist, Time and social magazines.  Throughout the 12-hour flight there was always staff around with sandwiches, cakes and fresh fruit available.

Vietnam uses Boeing 777-300ERs on the London route with Business Class,  De Luxe Economy Class, and Economy and seating 2+3+2 and 3+3+3. 

The aircraft has a certain vintage feeling to it, offering first generation semi-flat seats in Business Class that are very comfortable but lack storage area.  The deficiencies of the dated cabin system are apparent.  The 10 inch video screen goes into the arm rest and the folding table is a weakness.  Likewise it is a start and go video system.  There is nowhere to store items.  Modern module seats are far better and they do not have to be fully flat. 

The meals, outbound, are clearly aimed at a western clientele.  Lunch on the outbound flight starts with hors d'oeuvres, followed by soup, a choice of three entrée courses, cheese, ice cream cakes and fresh fruit to finish.  Coffee and liqueurs.  You can order in advance vegetarian, kosher and other specialised meals.  Breakfast is needed after a long flight and includes an omelette, chicken sausage and mushrooms plus a cold plate.

No air bridges on landing but a private bus is provided for those in Business Class.  Formalities slowed immigration and readers travelling on the route should ensure they have spare passport size prints.  At arrival the staff are helpful and will capture your image.  For $10.  

THE RETURN FLIGHT

The ‘Orchid’ Business Class lounge is OK but that is all.  With no competition on the route Vietnam Airlines can get away with it but it seems very dated although, just like the terminal itself only just over 4 years old.  There is a selection of uninspiring hot and cold food, and annoyingly, since it sits on an open mezzanine floor below the main terminal complex, open to announcements for both outgoing and incoming aircraft.  Indeed the whole terminal is lacklustre.  A top class international airport architect needs to be brought in.

Where the airline has to reconsider is the Business Class return on-board service.  Take off is around midnight local time with arrival 06:00.  What is on offer is the ‘quick meal’ that some carriers serve as a late night option.  The choice is European or Asian.  The airlines out of Hong Kong offer a full menu selection.  With a 13-hour sector ahead this is needed.  The outbound leg shows that it can be done.  Likewise the breakfast is a cold tray.  There should be no problems with galley space as such a meal is provided inbound to SGN.  No London papers on the return trip, which can be easily organised and would be a nice touch.

Transfer to the aircraft is by bus again with many airbridge gates available.  Business Class passengers get their own mini-coach.  At the other end they are first off, and here Gatwick scores heavily over Heathrow with its many early long haul arrivals.  Vietnam Airlines is just about the first airline to arrive.  Passport control is a doddle.  If you are in the short term parking you can be away within 45 minutes of actually landing.

In summary a fine airline that needs just a little sorting out. www.vietnamair.com.vn www.no1traveller.com

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