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COMMENT: No winners in this dispute

There can be no clearer indication of the state of affairs between the warring parties in the current British Airways dispute than the contrasting statements issued at the end of the week on what happens next.

BA said flatly: “We remain ready and willing to return to talks with BALPA.”

BALPA’s version: “BA did not respond to our latest proposals.”

It’s the same old story – waiting to see who will blink first. Meanwhile, it’s the passengers who suffer.

For an organisation that puts much store in image, BA cannot have been happy to see Wednesday’s summary in the communications industry’s bible PR Week under the headline ‘Striking pilots largely winning PR battle against British Airways’.

Conversely, passengers interviewed on TV have responded to claims that pilots’ pay is allegedly around £90,000 by questioning what BALPA is arguing about. One side is perceived as an unfeeling fatcat corporation, the other as a collection of overpaid fliers out to make as much money as they can. No winners there.

It is worth remembering in these matters that those outside the negotiations cannot know what is happening inside. It is in neither side’s interests to reveal tactics publicly. The downside of that is no one can trust any information that does emerge since it has probably been tainted by whoever has the biggest axe to grind.

The public statements have been predictably contradictory. As BA began cancelling flights ahead of the next strike on 27 September, BALPA said it had set a gap between the first and second periods of strike action “to give BA time to work with us to settle this dispute”. 

The statement continued: "We had today been exchanging new ideas to do that via ACAS and so it is irresponsible and inconsiderate to its customers that BA has pulled out and decided to start cancelling flights now, just to save money on compensation. BA did not respond to our latest proposals before cancelling these flights.”

BA on its website said: “Further industrial action by BALPA, the pilots’ union, is planned for Friday 27 September. We remain ready and willing to return to talks with them.” The airline said as a result of the threatened action, it had “reviewed our flying schedule”. Passengers travelling on impacted flights had been emailed.

Expanding its argument, BALPA said BA had cancelled flights now, two weeks before the next planned strike, because if it had to cancel them with less than two weeks' notice it would be obliged to pay passengers up to €600 each compensation under the EU law 261.

BA said cancelling flights now would prevent the sort of chaos seen in the initial 48hr strike at the beginning of last week when the airline was forced to cancel flights at the last minute. It also noted rival airlines had taken advantage of that situation and increased fares. 

As of last night, stalemate appeared to reign. The net result is passengers are bound to be lost as they turn to other airlines, shareholders too - which will include pilots - and of course aircrew as it begins to hit them in their pockets. It is true that until the dispute is settled there are no winners. To use an idiom (with a twist) "while the fur flies, there can be no resolution".  

(See also Flights axed ahead of new BA strike in this issue).

Air Antwerp arrives at LCY

The Fokker 50 maybe an old aeroplane. The twin-engined turboprop first flew (as the F27) in 1958. It still offers a very comfortable ride, with a tidy cabin offering good legroom, a firm table and decent size overhead bins for up to 52 passengers.

Of the 794 built (F27=586, F50=208) some 88 are thought still to remain in airline and military service, the latest user new Belgium airline Air Antwerp, a single-plane operation between the Belgium port city and London City Airport (LCY).

The carrier, partly owned by KLM and CityJet, started flying last Monday (9 September) with a three times week-daily service, plus single return flights on Saturday morning and Sunday evening. Flight time is 50min and clients are offered tea/coffee, gin, beer and soft drinks plus Flemish biscuits.

Speaking at a press conference to introduce the route, Johan Maertens, CEO, and formerly with Lufthansa, said: “In the past few months, a small team has worked extremely hard to obtain the Air Operator Certificate.

"Exactly one month ago – a bit faster than we had expected – our AOC landed in my mailbox. The important Antwerp – London City route is back and it generates a wide interest!”

Air Canada Ottawa – Heathrow upgrade

Non-stop Ottawa – Heathrow flights operated by Air Canada are being upgraded next spring to a Boeing B787 Dreamliner service featuring the carrier’s Signature cabin, with fully lie-flat suites, plus a new Premium Economy cabin.

The Dreamliner is configured with 255 seats across three cabins and will enter service from 29 March 2020, replacing Air Canada’s 211-seat two-class Boeing B767-2300ER.

Vice-president network planning Mark Galardo said: "Our passengers love the Dreamliner, especially the revolutionary design which improves on-board air quality and combined with our new cabin and other amenities mitigates jet lag. 

“As a result, passengers arrive better rested to hit the ground running for either business or pleasure. The aircraft also gives us the additional option of Air Canada's Premium Economy cabin." 

Elsewhere, Air Canada is suspending its summer seasonal service between Ottawa and Frankfurt with the last flight being operated on 24 October this year.

Passengers between the two points next summer are being referred to a new seasonal service provided by the Canadian carrier’s Star Alliance partner Lufthansa, which will begin operating on 16 May 2020 and end on 24 October 2020.

Airport expansion wins more backing

New polling released last week shows local support for the expansion of Heathrow remains strong with more residents in 16 of the 18 parliamentary constituencies around the airport backing the programme rather than opposing it.

The polling results were released as Heathrow’s statutory Airport Expansion Consultation closed. The airport said the 12-week event had been its largest and most innovative consultative exercise to date.

It involved holding more than 40 local meetings supported by an extensive publicity campaign encouraging 2.6m households in the footprint of the airport to have their say on the expansion proposals.

The meetings were open to local residents, MPs, councillors, community groups and members of the public and designed to explain Heathrow’s proposals and encourage attendees to share their feedback.

Airport officials said following the close of the consultation, Heathrow would analyse the feedback and use it to shape its final plans for expansion and then submit this as part of its application to the Planning Inspectorate in 2020.

This in turn would kickstart the approvals process. The decision on whether to grant a development consent order (DCO) would then be made by the transport secretary following a public examination period led by the Planning Inspectorate.

(See also Heathrow’s busiest day in this issue).

Aviation Club ticket deadline

Today, Monday, is the last day to apply for tickets for this month's Aviation Club lunch. The event is on Thursday (19 September) at the Institute of Directors in London. Guest speaker is Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths, discussing the life and times of one of the world’s aviation hotspots.

Griffiths has spent more than 40 years in the travel and aviation industry, joining Dubai Airports as its first CEO in October 2007 with responsibility for the operation and development of Dubai International and latterly the country’s second airport, Al Maktoum International, also known as Dubai World Central (DWC).

This is destined on completion to become the world’s largest facility of its kind, with an ultimate capacity of more than 160m passengers and 12m tonnes of cargo a year.

Before moving to Dubai, Griffiths was managing director of Gatwick, having joined the then owner, the British Airports Authority (BAA), in 2004.

Before that, he spent 14 years with the Virgin Group, working closely with Sir Richard Branson as a board director at the group’s travel arm, embracing the commercial activities of Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Trains.

BA chief to address Air League

Members and guests of the Air League attending the 2019 Sir Andrew Humphrey Memorial Lecture will have plenty to discuss, with the guest speaker being British Airways chairman and CEO Álex Cruz. 

Taking place in an anniversary year for BA against a background of strikes and technical problems, the lecture – titled ‘A Vision for the Next 100 Years’ – is at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on 11 November.

The league is marking its own 110th anniversary this year and the lecture will be followed by a celebratory dinner with Cruz as guest of honour and industry leaders able to engage with the next generation of young aviation and aerospace professionals.

Several other leading aviation and aerospace organisations are also celebrating significant milestones this year and the league says it is therefore anticipating a broad range of industry colleagues attending the dinner and lecture.

BA’s celebrations this year are to commemorate the world’s first daily international scheduled flight between London and Paris, launched in August 1919, and the development of Britain’s air transport industry in the 100 years since.

The 1919 service was operated by the UK's first airline, Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. It was to be followed that October by KLM, still with us today.

Drone attack falls flat

Authorities at UK airports remained on alert at the weekend for further drone attacks after a much-publicised threat to paralyse Heathrow due to start on Friday failed to take off, with protesters claiming their signals were being jammed.

At least 10 people were arrested, including two caught inside the airport perimeter fence. The Heathrow Pause group behind the action said it was planning to continue attempts to disrupt flights.

Heathrow and police refused media questions on measures they might have taken to stop the protesters’ drones from working, but an expert told the Mirror technology exists which can jam signals between operators and drones.

In a statement on its website on the planned first day of the action, the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby.

“We’d like to reassure you that we will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”

It added: “We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer.”

Duty free on comeback trail

Travellers between the UK and EU will be able to sample duty-free shopping again if there is a no-deal Brexit in what chancellor Sajid Javid said last week was a response to travel industry requests for the reintroduction.

The system stopped when the EU Single Market was introduced but if the plan goes ahead, people travelling to the EU will no longer have to pay UK excise duties on cigarettes and alcohol.

The government added people travelling back from the EU will still be able to bring back unlimited amounts for their own use, if they pay duty in Europe

The move will apply in UK ports, airports and international train stations. In one example given by the Treasury, a bottle of wine purchased in Heathrow duty free on the way to the EU could be up to £2.23 cheaper.

At the point of leaving the EU, people can continue to purchase and bring home unlimited alcohol and cigarettes in Europe if they pay duty on it there – as happens now.

People will now also have the alternative option to buy limited amounts of duty-free alcohol and cigarettes at duty-free shops in Europe, meaning a traveller could save more than £12 on two crates of beer.

EasyJet sets passenger record

Rounding off a record period for airports and airlines, easyJet carried more than 332,000 passengers on Friday, making it the busiest single day in its history. It involved more than 1,972 flights across the carrier’s network.

The figure compares to last summer’s peak summer travel day on 14 September, when 330,000 customers checked in. This year’s big day saw in the UK alone more than 171,000 passengers flying to or from easyJet’s UK airports on 1,038-plus flights.

UK country director Neil Slaven said Alicante, Faro, Malaga, and Palma were the most popular destinations, with passengers taking the opportunity to fly off on late summer breaks.

He added: “We are seeing high demand across our network, peaking on Friday, with more and more people choosing to fly with us and we are pleased that this year is set to break records again.

■ Luton Airport has also been setting a record, with more than 5.3m passengers passing through in June, July and August, an increase of 7.3%. Top destination was Amsterdam, with 198,000 passengers.

(See also Heathrow’s busiest day in this issue).

Embraer world first for Azul

Brazil’s largest carrier Azul has taken delivery of the world’s first Embraer 195-E2 aircraft at its main facility in São José dos Campos. The company is due to receive a further five of the aircraft from Embraer before the end of the year.

The aircraft was delivered by Dublin-based leasing company AerCap Holdings, the launch lessor customer of Embraer E2s, with 50 E190-E2s and E195-E2s owned and on order. It has placed 47 of the 50.

The 195-E2s ordered by Azul are powered by Pratt & Whitney GTF engines and seat 136 passengers, 18 more than the E1 model and 30 more than the current E190-E1. 

Configured with no middle seat, the 195-E2 also has premium extra legroom seating streaming live TV and individual power outlets. Onboard wi-fi is reported to be coming to the model soon.

Embraer, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday, is finding its aircraft are popular in the regional marketplace and also growing in popularity with mainline carriers – easyJet is currently wet leasing an E190 from German company WDL Aviation (BTN 15 July).

United Airlines has also placed a firm order for 20 Embraer 70-seat E175s, with an option for a further 19.

Flights axed ahead of new BA strike

British Airways began cancelling flights on Friday ahead of another strike by pilots due to take place on 27 September. Thousands of passengers received emails offering them a full refund or the option to rebook on an alternative date or airline.

Under EU rules, airlines must give at least 14 days’ notice of flight cancellations or become liable to pay compensation but BA said its decision was “to give customers as much certainty as possible”. 

The airline, which was bit by a 48hr stoppage last week, added: "We are very sorry BALPA's actions will affect thousands more travel plans. We urge them to call off their strike and return to negotiations.

The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) called the decision to cancel flights before the next proposed strike “irresponsible and inconsiderate to its customers” and said the airline had done so to avoid the compensation rule.

The union said on Thursday: "BALPA set a gap between the first and second periods of strike action to give BA time to work with us to settle this dispute with their pilots. We had today been exchanging new ideas to do that.”

"Passengers who will be affected by these cancellations should know we have given BA multiple opportunities to work with us so we could call off this action."

Grab and Go at Southend

Hungry passengers travelling through Southend Airport can now pre-order food from The Navigator and Giraffe Stop in the departures lounge to take away ahead of their flights with the arrival of the Grab airport app.

The system works in real-time – once passengers place and pay for their orders, they receive a confirmation and then a notification when it is ready to be picked up, plus an estimate of when the food will be ready, so it is kept warm for their arrival at the restaurant concerned.

Owned and operated by Stobart Aviation, Southend has just been named the best London airport by Which? for the sixth time. Stobart CEO Glyn Jones said: “We are continually working to improve the experience our passengers have and I am sure this latest development will prove incredibly popular with people who really appreciate the unique, simply easier airport experience we are offering.”

Grab commercial director Avi Robinson added: “We’re delighted to partner with London Southend Airport and The Restaurant Group to broaden our growing list of UK airports providing our Grab & Go pre-order service.

“The concept is all about convenience so we look forward to making each customer’s journey through the airport a little more fun and a little less stressful.”

Heathrow’s busiest day

A record 262,000 passengers travelled through Heathrow to give the airport its busiest day to date on 4 August. The figure contributed to the 7.7m total number for the month, 0.1% up on last year.

Making the point the airport is currently “capacity constrained”, officials said Africa saw the most growth in August, up 6% compared to 2018, with the market continuing to benefit from a new route to Durban and bigger aircraft on flights to Nigeria.

Domestic flights were also up 2.7%, with more passengers using services to Newquay, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, while more than 126,000 metric tonnes of cargo made its way through the UK’s largest port by value. The top markets for cargo growth were Africa (+4.2%) and the Middle East (+1.8%). 

CEO John Holland-Kaye said: “We are continuing to invest in future-proofing Heathrow with the airport continuing to be a testbed for ground-breaking technology like our new CT scanners (BTN 2 September).

“This is to ensure our passenger experience remains world class as numbers continue to grow. Using new technology and innovation as we deliver expansion will also demonstrate our global leadership on sustainable travel.”

(See also Airport expansion wins more backing and EasyJet sets passenger record in this issue).

Hotel booking sites clampdown

People booking hotels online can now do so with more confidence following a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) probe of the sector, the government announced on Friday.

The authority said it had secured changes from most hotel booking sites operating in the UK, with 25 agreeing to amend information displays and signing up to CMA principles for complying with consumer protection law. 

The firms included big brands like TripAdvisor, Airbnb and Google, plus major chains. The principles include not giving a false impression of a room’s popularity and always displaying the full cost of a room.

The announcement comes after the CMA took enforcement action against six companies – Expedia,, Agoda,, ebookers and trivago – for “serious concerns” over issues including pressure selling and misleading discount claims.

The authority noted all six firms formally committed to clean up their sites and had now made the agreed changes.

CMA CEO Andrea Coscelli said: “Major websites and hotel chains have agreed to clean up their act if they’ve been using misleading sales tactics, and have signed up to sector-wide consumer law principles on how to display information to customers.

“If we find any sites fail to make the appropriate changes or if we become concerned people are being misled, we will not hesitate to take further action.”

Loganair keeps up the pace

Six routes starting next year, including new destinations and additional connections linking airports across its route map, have been unveiled by Loganair hard on the heels of launches at Aberdeen and East Midlands (BTN last week).

The line-up includes Glasgow – Cardiff, the first time it has connected the two cities, and Aberdeen – Haugesund, Loganair’s first route serving the southwestern Norwegian airport and its third in Norway.

The Aberdeen – East Midlands service in the earlier announcement is part of Loganair’s strategy of growing its presence at both airports after being welcomed as East Midlands’ newest operator.

The Aberdeen – Brussels route is being given an optimised schedule via Newcastle to reduce journey times significantly compared to current travel options.

At Newcastle, Bergen becomes the airline’s fourth service from the northeast airport and third from Bergen, and there is a summer seasonal service to Guernsey.

Loganair followed up the announcement by revealing its largest ever summer operation so far for 2020, with tickets now on sale for travel until the end of next August.  

In addition to the new routes, the new schedule includes improved timings and more seats on a host of existing Loganair routes including many to and from the Highlands and Islands.

London Infrastructure Summit

Commonly known as White Hart Lane, officially the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new Spurs home was the impressive venue for the London Infrastructure Summit last week. As if to celebrate the event, the rebuilt White Hart Lane London Overground station was open, a gateway to the arena less than 5min away. 

From an air transport point of view, a session called “London airports – maximising the opportunities for growth” was invaluable, with Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and London City all represented at the highest level.

Before BTN’s Malcolm Ginsberg could even ask a question, LCY CEO Robert Sinclair made his point regarding the absent Elizabeth Line station. "It is a missed opportunity for Crossrail just 150 yards from London City Airport," he said.

Gatwick’s Stewart Wingate was in bullish mood. “We’ve doubled the number of long-haul destinations to 65 in the past few years."

Heathrow’s executive director for expansion Emma Gilthorpe, dealing with a question on costs, said major infrastructure projects were “very challenging to deliver” and that details were “pinned down” far too early in the process. 

“We’re sitting in this fantastic piece of infrastructure today that took many years to deliver”, she said. “I think I’m right in saying it wasn’t quite on time and on budget – and that’s no criticism to Spurs or to the people that delivered it!”

Pegasus aims for digital transformation

Details of a “digital transformation” being undertaken to enable his airline to become one of the top three in the world in terms of technology were outlined by Pegasus Airlines’ CEO Mehmet Nane at the 2019 World Aviation Festival.

Pegasus launched the programme last year and had already achieved some global firsts with more in the pipeline, Nane said, with projects incorporating a variety of technologies ranging from the Internet of Things (IoT) to Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

In one example, a chip ID project launched in February jointly with Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport allowed domestic passengers who check-in online to proceed directly to their flights without having to obtain a boarding card, eliminating the need to queue.  

“We plan to implement this on all domestic flights departing from Sabiha Gökçen Airport by the end of 2019, allowing our domestic guests to fly ‘paperless’, using only their own ID cards or passports,” Nane added.

On the Pegasus fleet, Turkey’s youngest and one of Europe’s youngest, he said: “As of last month, we have received all nine A320neo aircraft due this year and should receive our first new A321neo this month and the second in the last quarter.”

Radisson Red heads for London

Planned new openings in London next year and Tallinn in 2023 have been announced by the Radisson Hotel Group for its Radisson Red brand as part of a continuing global expansion programme.

A London Greenwich property will be the first to bring what is described as the group’s upscale, lifestyle select-service hotel brand to the capital, joining other UK Radisson Red hotels in Glasgow and Liverpool.

Radisson executive vice president and chief development officer Elie Younes said: “Radisson Red is for those who wish to stand out of the crowd and it now lands in London. Opening in 2020, it perfectly blends business and play around the O2.”

The Tallinn introduction will mark the group’s third hotel brand and fifth property in the city, alongside Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson and will give Radisson Red a presence in all three Baltic capitals.

The Radisson Blu brand has also been setting the place with a newly-redeveloped property in Prague and completion of a major renovation project in Stockholm (BTN 1 July). 

The Prague property has 160 guestrooms and suites while the newly-reopened Radisson Blu Royal Viking Hotel in Stockholm has had a multi-million-pound refurbishment.  It is one of several Radisson upgrades in an extensive renovation and investment programme in the Nordic region.

Strategy focus for Airlines 2050

Future strategy for the UK aviation sector will be under the microscope at the Airlines 2050 conference taking place on 17 October at the QEII Centre in Westminster. The event is organised by Flight Global with Airlines UK, the UK Board of Airline Representatives (BAR UK) and IATA.

Bringing together key players driving UK aviation and overseas airlines operating in the UK, the landmark event is designed to bring together leading industry and government figures to address both the most pressing and the most farsighted issues in play.

In the view of the organisers: “In the context of ongoing technological, political, regulatory and social development, Airlines 2050 will shape the UK aviation agenda for the coming months, years and decades.”

Speakers listed to attend include UK aviation minister Baroness Vere, Emirates Airlines president Sir Tim Clark, British Airways chairman and chief executive Álex Cruz and Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss.

Also expected are TUI Airways managing director Dawn Wilson, easyJet UK country director Neil Slaven, IATA chief economist Brian Pearce and UK Civil Aviation Authority CEO Richard Moriarty.

Topics include boosting competitiveness in UK aviation, future-proofing the UK’s global aviation hub status and achieving a more diverse, inclusive and resilient industry.

Virgin A350 enters service

A month and a day after its delivery from Airbus, Virgin Atlantic’s new A350-1000 (below) – named Red Velvet – entered revenue service last week between Heathrow and New York JFK.

The aircraft is the first of 12 A350 set to join the Virgin fleet, with the airline planning to operate most of them on premium destinations such as New York and Los Angeles. Five are configured for leisure destinations such as Florida and the Caribbean. 

As the fifth operator of the A350-1000, Virgin joins an exclusive club of other operators that includes launch operator Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways and British Airways.

With 336 seats, the aircraft is second in capacity only to the Boeing B747-400 and has the second greatest number of Upper (Business) Class seats, 44, one fewer than the Airbus A340-600. 

After the aircraft proves itself on JFK, Los Angeles will become the next Virgin A350 destination, although the airline has so far not set a date for the launch (BTN 19 August).

Meanwhile, Virgin is busy planning its new daily Heathrow – São Paulo service, which it said last week will begin on 29 March. The 11hr 5min flight will be operated by the Boeing B787-9 Dreamliner.

Wow Air comeback plan

Moves to revive Icelandic low-cost carrier Wow Air, possibly within a few weeks, were being reported in Iceland last week after a US-based investor came forward. Wow collapsed earlier this year (BTN 1 April), leaving passengers stranded.

Reports in the Icelandic press in July said Wow Air assets were being bought up by an unnamed source, including the airline's product and logo, domains, booking systems, software, sales computers, uniforms, and most of its spare parts and tools.

US-based businesswoman Michele Ballarin was then identified as leading the initiative through a company called US Aerospace Associates. Local press said it would be an Icelandic company with 49% US ownership.

Further details were made public on Friday, when Ballarin gave a statement and press conference, broadcast by the Visir website, confirming the new owners putting in up to US$85m (about £67m) to revive Wow Air operations over the first two years.

Ballarin said the plan would be to start with two aircraft, which the company already had, on flights between Keflavik and Washington. The fleet would increase to four by next summer, eventually increasing to about 10-12.

The company would operate initially under a US AOC but would apply for an operating licence in Iceland in due course.

ON TOUR: Across the Everglades

Alligators, a river of grass and miles of white-sand beaches – on a tour of "the other Florida", BTN editor Richard Cawthorne crosses the Sunshine State to arrive at the Gulf of Mexico coast.  

For visitors to Florida expecting nothing more than Mickey Mouse, film-themed thrill rides and roller-coasters, the first sight of Fort Myers Beach can be a shock. White sand as far as the eye can see, low-key resorts and a touch of British seaside atmosphere are convincing reminders there is more to the Sunshine State than cartoon characters and a surfeit of hamburger bars.

To sample the Fort Myers area, BTN settled in at the Outrigger Beach Resort, an informal, friendly and efficient example of Florida beachfront living placed strategically on Estero Boulevard three miles from the town centre and four miles from the action at Times Square.

Considered the heart of Estero Island’s downtown, Times Square is full of shops and restaurants with outdoor dining, street performers and is next to Fort Myers Beach Pier, regarded as the best place to watch the sunsets for which the area is renowned. It is also within easy driving distance of the local big city, Fort Myers itself.

Fort Myers and surroundings marked the end of a return visit by BTN to Florida to catch up on developments away from the theme parks. The resort is on the western side of the state alongside the Gulf of Mexico and was reached via a leisurely drive from Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic side.

Our chosen route was through the heart of the Everglades along US41, aka the Tamiami Trail because it links Tampa in the west at one end with Miami in the east at the other. It is also one of two roads vying for the picturesque title of Alligator Alley.

The name has all but been taken over by part of the I95 interstate highway named on maps as the Everglades Parkway which links Fort Lauderdale and Naples, but old Florida hands prefer US41, which still has more character even after recent upgrades.

The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, a river of grass covering more than 20,000sq km that edges infinitesimally slowly from north to south and houses numerous rare and endangered species including – especially – alligators, the similar but different American crocodile, the manatee and the rarely seen Florida panther.

The best way to take in this World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve is at the Everglades National Park. It’s near the community of Homestead but you’ll probably need a satnav or at least a good map. As with many places in Florida, once visitors are off the beaten track, they are soon in the wilderness.

Entrance to the park is $30 per vehicle for seven days and there is no overnight accommodation other than camping facilities. Hotel and motel rooms are available in the nearby towns including Homestead, Florida City, Everglades City and Chokoloskee as well as Miami.

Gator Park inside the national complex is an easily-accessible way to sample the traditional visitor pursuits, including the genuinely thrilling airboat rides through the swampy landscape and alligator wrestling at the wildlife show.

Back on the road, the Miccosukee Restaurant at Mile Marker 36 on US41 is a convenient lunch stop with a varied menu ranging from gator bites to beef stew. BTN had the tuna salad and roast chicken, both very acceptable. Watch out for the signs by the stream outside warning visitors: “Wild alligators – do not feed or entice.”

Arriving at the Outrigger resort, we were handed the keys to Room 207 overlooking the famous beach in time to relax at the outdoor Tiki Bar, with food brought out from the Deckside Café. The room also came complete with kitchen, making self-catering an option, along with plenty of local restaurants including the boisterous Salty Crab.

If your taste is toward more refined dining, lunch at the Veranda in downtown Fort Myers is an excellent choice, possibly combined with a tour of one of the area’s main attractions, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates nearby. Prolific inventor Thomas Edison and motoring magnate Henry Ford kept winter homes on adjacent sites beside the Caloosahatchee River and between them have left a large collection of memorabilia, an historical museum and 21-acre botanical garden for the benefit of the generations that followed them.

Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach boast many other family attractions as well as being the western gateway to the Everglades. The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Babcock Ranch Eco Tours and Everglades Day Safari are among options for further exploration back in the wilderness. Back on dry land as it were, the Calusa Nature Centre and Planetarium and IMAG children’s history and science museum are both good half-day trips for families.

For many visitors, another main draw is the enticing island life awaiting on Sanibel and Captiva, two offshore communities reached by causeway and inhabiting their own Caribbean-like bubble but with US-style facilities including upmarket resorts, restaurants and shopping.

Sanibel is notable for the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge occupying most of the northern half of the island and the second most visited attraction of its kind in the US. The tram tour is a must. Neighbouring Captiva offers a treat of a different kind, a trip on Captiva Cruises’ good ship Lady Chadwick to an even more secluded island hideaway, Cabbage Key. The Cabbage Key Inn, former home of US writer Mary Roberts Rhinehart, is renowned for the autographed dollar bills covering the walls. At last count there were believed to be 70,000. Any that fall off are donated to charity.

The trip is just one of the offers from the cruise company, which has been providing beach and shelling outings, island hopping, dolphin adventures and sunset cruises on the Gulf of Mexico for more than 30 years. In turn, Captiva Cruises is just one of Florida’s “non-theme-park” attractions BTN sampled on this trip. Once you have had your taste of Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World and the rest, there is, to coin a phrase, a whole world waiting out there.

BTN’s itinerary was created by Vero Beach-based destination, hotel and travel industry enabler Sunlark Associates, which specialises in Florida and the Caribbean.

AND FINALLY: Cathay with a fizz

Does anyone else think the latest reshuffle at Cathay Pacific has a touch of – ahem – froth about it?

As reported last week, the airline’s new chairman following the retirement of John Slosar is to be Patrick Healy, who joined Cathay's parent company Swire Group in 1988, rose to be managing director of Swire Coca-Cola and will now also be chairman of that company. 

Will the airline be bubbling with joy? 

Can we now, in the words of the classic 1960s TV commercial, expect things to go better with Coke?