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Article from BTNews 19 SEPTEMBER 2022

ON THE SOAPBOX: Richard Cawthorne *

Richard Cawthorne was Editor of Business Travel News from 2015 until February 2020.

Previously he had held the same post with the then ABTN (Air & Business Travel News), appointed by new owners when the founding Editor/Publisher, John Pointer, sold out.

A long-time aviation and travel enthusiast, Richard started his journalism career as a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich and was subsequently appointed air correspondent before venturing into the world of travel.

His appointments since have included Deputy Editor of the then BEA News; Senior Press Officer, British Caledonian Airways; US Editor, Travel Weekly, and Editor, Travel GBI. He has lived and worked in New York, Jamaica, the Seychelles and Australia and is now based in Hertfordshire.

Here he reflects on 50 years in travel.

"Aviation has a history not only of innovation but of dealing with its challenges. It faces one now and it’s all to do with the cost of airfares. As fuel costs go up fares must increase, but how much can the market stand?

With Britain still dealing with the aftermath of Covid and a soaring upsurge in the cost of living, is this the time for fares, especially in Business Class, to be showing a continued upward spiral? The pent-up demand for travel released by the easing of the pandemic may turn out to be a false dawn as potential passengers face more and bigger claims on their incomes.

I claim a special interest. It took BTN’s Editor-in-Chief Malcolm Ginsberg to remind me I am approaching my Golden Jubilee in travel. I hadn’t noticed; the 50 years have flown by (sorry). They have been a half-century of remarkable achievement. On 17 December 1903 Wilbur Wright coaxed the brothers flimsy machine into the air for a controlled 12 seconds. Since then, we have seen the arrival of the jet engine, package holidays, old-time pioneers like Freddie Laker and new ones like Michael O’Leary, Boeing’s 747 and the Airbus A380, commercial supersonic flight, the long-range non-stop, Richard Branson among others promising commercial space travel, and doubtless more to come.

New technology and features have arrived to make the passenger journey more streamlined, safe and enjoyable, including using facial recognition at security and customs, and utilising apps, not just for ticketing but a host of other experiences including airport shopping and in-flight entertainment.

The support industries, notably hotels, have kept pace. As aircraft have grown, so have the buildings where the passengers sleep, eat and drink and, if they are business travellers, hold their meetings. Business travel has benefited too. Even with video calls and other digital short cuts, many people still prefer where possible to meet face-to-face and apparently without stopping on the way.

For evidence of the last point, look no further than Qantas and its pioneering London – Perth direct service, the first stage in its Project Sunrise plan for a network of long-range non-stop flights. The route is 14,000km and around 16hr 30min. Not only is it regularly fully booked in Business Class, travellers are prepared to pay – I was quoted £6,213 return last week for flights in October.

It would take a poor airline manager not to spot the potential. But, and it is a large but, how long can it last? Qantas has been talking about adding Sydney to London and New York non-stop as the next steps in Project Sunrise with flights over 16,013km, and taking 20hr plus. The market is already being softened up, with rumours of Business Class fares for the New York service of £18,000. Watch this space.

Having been born and lived in Norwich, surrounded like much of East Anglia by air force, I have always taken an interest in air travel but for whatever reasons the former RAF St Faiths (NWI) in Norwich has never taken off (sorry again) as a commercial airport. You could once fly (in a Piper Navajo) from NWI to LHR. OK, the population of Norfolk is sparse (200,000), but the nearest full service airports, Birmingham (150 miles) and Stansted (90 miles), are some way from Norwich. KLM supports Amsterdam and Loganair Aberdeen with scheduled services but in a good year the airport moves only half a million passengers, the bulk of them on holiday flights in the summer.  

I worry for the UK’s regional airports. Their decline began even before the pandemic.  Cardiff is nationalised, Southend has lost much of its traffic and Doncaster could be closing. Bournemouth and Exeter struggle on, while Newquay (or Cornwall if you prefer – and effectively nationalised by the local council) meets all the guidelines (it’s 250 miles from London with poor road and limited rail services) but seems to struggle.  Teesside once handled nearly one million passengers and is now owned by the Tees Valley Combined Authority and driven along by a local mayor (Ben Houchen) but still seems to struggle with numbers, with only 150,000 travellers passing through in 2019.

For the future, I would like the smaller airports to be treated as national assets.  Southend is east London, and south Essex and should be supported not just as a local landing strip. Southampton is part of AGS Ltd, together with Aberdeen and Glasgow airports. Here, the numbers were down before the pandemic and the demise of Flybe has not helped. Should the burden of any losses be carried by the Southampton unitary authority boundary and the Borough of Eastleigh?”

Well done Malcolm.  It’s been fun working for you.  With the creation of London City Airport you worked with some imaginative people.  There is still time for an Elizabeth Line station by the airport. Local politics and aviation do not mix.  See the last two paragraphs!"

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

David Starkie, UK

Taking airports into public ownership is the slippery slope to profligacy. I remember the MD of Luton telling me when it was first run by private enterprise, how astounded he was at the over-manning and unnecessarily high wage rates. Small airports on the Continent often publicly owned are less enterprising nor as efficient as their UK counterparts.

John Armitage, London

Well done whoever produced this week’s issue. Nicely balanced.

John Hepworth, United Kingdom

I was with Autair at LTN in the mid 60s with flights to BLK,CAX,DND,MME.Joined Ar Anglia early 70s NWI North Sea Oil/Gas got going so NWI/HUY/LBA/MME and ABZ got going as a result.That commercial activity has reduced and likewise those airports.I was involved with early LCY carriers and the rise of Banking at Canary Wharf got LCY going.