27 MARCH 2017


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Article from BTNews 27 MARCH 2017

COMMENT: Scotland to Heathrow. Is this the first step for the new runway?

The introduction today of services between Scotland and Heathrow by Flybe, Britain’s third largest airline by passenger numbers, is a major breakthrough for passengers, and the airport too. Or is it?

For Heathrow, it is a clear demonstration of its willingness, within the rules, to help new entrants into the hub. With its share price last Friday evening at just under 44p (market cap £95m), for Flybe it has to be a gamble. It came to the market in December 2010 floating at 295p, valuing the company at £215m. Chief executive Saad Hammad went in October 2016, to be replaced by industry veteran Christine Ourmières-Widener in January of this year, the airline in the meantime run by its chairman Simon Laffin, ex-Safeway and a property expert.

Heathrow is not the only current bet by the Exeter-based carrier. At the same time, it is stepping up its London City Airport service to Amsterdam from once a week to four times every weekday, with reduced services at the weekend, adding 50% overall capacity to the route. CityJet is very much established to Amsterdam and for KLM Cityhopper it is to and from its home base, with all the benefits that it accrues. Each now operates four times daily. Flybe has also announced its partnership with Loganair will terminate in October 2017.

Following the failure of Virgin’s Little Red, there will once again be competition on the Scottish Heathrow routes and travellers will now not only have a choice of airlines, but of terminals. The central area, with the interconnection of T2 and T3, gives a far better public transport offering than T5, and of course is quicker to central London. Instead of just two airlines, British Airways and Iberia, the public will have a pick of more than 81 carriers serving 194 destinations in 82 countries. Even T4 is much nearer and easier to access.

But perhaps the most important step forward is for the country. 

Flybe’s introduction to Heathrow is the first tangible step forward towards the airport’s third runway. Flybe’s new routes might not have been considered without the knowledge that in the fullness of time, as a Heathrow resident, the airline will hope to come to the fore in offering a whole series of domestic routes not possible at present.

In the past, it has made noises to set up a base at RAF Northolt, six miles north of Heathrow, introducing routes to airports not having current slots at Britain’s main airline hub, including Durham Tees Valley, Liverpool, Newquay, Prestwick and the Channel Islands – perhaps even Plymouth and Carlisle. 

While adding greatly to the airport revenue, the Ministry of Defence, together with the private jet operators using the facility, have resisted. The campaign was led by Flybe board member Air Marshal Sir Timothy Anderson. With the airport closing in about a year’s time for a 12-month £40m runway refurbishment programme, there is still a fine chance it could be opened up for scheduled services with the biz jets not coming back. Quieter aircraft, no movement/air traffic changes and these scheduled rather than ad hoc. And much more money for the Treasury.

Today, Flybe is Britain’s third largest airline in terms of passenger numbers and the biggest independent regional operator in Europe. It has an operational fleet of 77 aircraft, employs 2,650 staff with perhaps another 10,000 dependent in some ways on it. Its last half-year results (September 2016) showed a turnover of £383m and profit after tax of £13.4m.

For the Scottish routes, the airline plans to use Bombardier Q400 commuter aircraft. On the plus side for passengers, it is only 78 seats against 168 on a BA domestic Airbus A320, but it is slower and has limitations with onboard locker space and hold capacity. Flybe will have to use third-party handling and engineering. Clients will have to use a bus transfer rather than an airbridge at T2. But the fares will be cheaper.

Business Travel News flew out on the first Flybe service to Aberdeen yesterday (Sunday 26 March) and will report on the airline’s maiden inbound service from the granite city next Monday.

PS: The Editor in Chief was on the very first evening Flybe service from Heathrow to Aberdeen last night (26 March). It was uneventful with the coach transfer from T2 very easy using tunnels to the apron and the Q400 having its own four steps up to the aircraft.  With the day's final flight you get 50% off whatever sandwiches are left. He says the Q400 is a neat 2+2 seat aircraft, but always try for a seat at the back.  It is much quieter.  Years ago the BEA Vickers Vanguards had First at the rear, also a turboprop. The seats are very comfortable with 30 inch pitch, 17 inches wide and recline.   On this flight there were 53 passengers and 40 on the one down to London. Only one toilet, at the front.  Good range of drinks and refreshments.  The airline waited for very late clients at the gate but got away only a few minutes late and landed 20min early.  Deplaning was slow.

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David Learmount, UK

Useful comment on what it feels like flying turboprop. Many of today's may never have tried it. I love it myself.