12 NOVEMBER 2018

The Business Travel News
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Andrew Bell is chief executive of Regional & City Airports (RCA). In this ON THE SOAPBOX, based on his speech at this year’s Airport Operators Association (AOA) conference, he calls on the aviation industry, alongside the government, to help support its post-Brexit vision of turning the UK’s regional airports into free ports, in order to guarantee the continued success of the sector.

Adopting a post-Brexit free port strategy, which covers regional airports, would ensure a continuous flow of vital goods and trade across the whole of the United Kingdom. Such a measure would provide a much-welcomed business boost to regional airports, many of which currently operate on a marginal basis. Free port status would help ensure their long-term survival and enable greater investment, even opening up the potential for new passenger routes internally and abroad.

RCA owns Bournemouth Airport, Coventry Airport, Exeter Airport and Norwich Airport, and operates Blackpool Airport, City of Derry Airport and Solent Airport on behalf of their owners.

What is clear is that following our departure from the European Union, the UK government should have the ability to establish its own trade and customs policy. This freedom includes the ability to set tariffs, including different duty rates for certain goods, or in certain areas.

Within that there is the option to create ‘free ports’ – where goods entering and exiting a designated zone would not be subject to any tariffs or, if they are, can be offered at a discounted rate. Anywhere can be selected as a free port and Britain’s regional airports offer a compelling case.

Designating regional airports as free ports would also attract new investment into local areas and further the government’s own goal of addressing the geographical imbalance in economic growth.

We have had the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine, so why not the Regional Airports Accelerator? We are already having positive conversations with the government about how they can take a lead on this but I would urge all sections of the aviation industry to come together to support these measures.

Free ports are designed to provide key incentives for domestic and foreign companies’ supply chains. With increased trading activity in the port, an agglomerating effect of economic activity in the area surrounding it begins as businesses shift their manufacturing and distribution operations.

The model already exists in countries all over the world, from the United States through the Middle Eastern city states to the free-trading hub of Singapore. All have already successfully established free ports. Indeed, there are approximately 3,500 free ports operating worldwide, employing 66m people across 135 countries.

The UK currently operates more than 160 ports including air, road and sea which account for 75% of all UK trade. Last year, trade between the EU and UK reached £593bn. The UK was the second largest port sector in EU but, as a member of the single market, it was unable to set its own tariffs against the goods entering and exiting its ports.

Brexit offers the UK government the ability to create free ports at regional airports and unleash their economic potential. According to the Centre for Policy Study’s research on free ports, even applied to just the UK’s biggest Northern ports, the policy would create 86,000 jobs and provide a much-needed boost to the manufacturing sector, as well as boost productivity and wages.

If the free port initiative were applied to regional airports, these effects, already measured for the North, could be expanded to communities across the country. Airports and airlines are seeing an increasing importance in international trade, but there is even greater potential to be realised.

Now is the time for these ideas to be driven forward into reality.

COMMENT: The EUs aerial traffic jam

After a quarter-century of talks, Europe still does not appear able to agree within itself how to sort out aerial navigation. This is the uncomfortable fact lurking behind last week’s call by airline lobbying group A4E for the EU to take “immediate action” to remove what it called European airspace “inefficiencies”.

BTN cannot argue with the call for action – A4E’s plea came as chief operating officers of Europe’s leading airlines, accounting for nearly half a billion passengers a year, met in an A4E forum in Brussels to urge the EU to tackle bottlenecks in the system. Preaching to the converted, it said such bottlenecks had “provoked unacceptable delays last summer, frustrating travel plans for millions of passengers”.

But the history of the situation is enough to make any observer cynical and in the present febrile state of European politics it is difficult to see the A4E initiative making any more headway than much of what has gone before. The faint hope is that a forceful Brexit will help to change the situation. Sometimes it is necessary to show the Brits mean business.

The EU has a plan called the Single European Sky (SES) policy. It is this which has been stalled for a near-unbelievable 25 years, as recalled in a report in the Financial Times quoting an interview with EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc.

The FT report said SES, which aims to create a unified EU air traffic control area to increase capacity and cut disruption, was a priority for the commissioner but “she has found her priorities confounded by uncooperative member states and worker strikes”.

A4E last week did not mention SES by name but slipped in a near-identical new name of its own – the Seamless European Sky vision – and said it was calling for the creation of a future programme which would integrate the different national airspaces under a single operational concept.

Those at the meeting, who as well as airlines included the Association of Air Navigation Service Providers (CANSO), European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) and Eurocontrol, signed up to an A4E “Efficient Airspace Declaration”. Under it, EU member states would “maintain sovereignty of their airspace while cooperating across borders in order to facilitate seamless and more efficient flight operations on behalf of passengers”.

A4E hopes the declaration will kickstart new moves to sort out the situation, with members signing up to a number of pledges including seeing that initial projects from the European Commission’s Airspace Architecture Study and Wise Persons Group are jointly agreed and launched in early 2019.

Other pledges include the Eurocontrol Network Manager implementing a coordinated approach to oversee the operation of the network for summer 2019; and defining and implementing network measures with airlines and providers so there is sufficient capacity for 2019.

The forum also undertook to see that any new regulation is “future-proof” and takes into account current operational and technological advancements.

A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert said: “The reputation of Europe is at stake. Reform of EU airspace must be a top priority for the next Commission and all involved national bodies.

“Passengers deserve an efficient European aviation industry and that can only be delivered with a seamless approach to EU airspace.”

As noted above, BTN agrees. But with a 25-year history of delay, it is hard to be optimistic. One can only hope the weight of A4E combined with the memory of this year’s summer of discontent will – this time – be enough to break the logjam.

But don’t hold your breath.

A Crossrail for Paris

Building new tunnels under a city to connect suburban railway systems is not unique to London, writes Andrew Sharp. The UK capital has Thameslink and Crossrail, while Paris has its regional express (RER) system and is currently expanding it.

Updates on this work were given to BTN at this year’s Smart Metro Congress in Paris along with viewing some of the developments under way, many of which will affect business travellers to the city.

Line E runs from the east of the city through Magenta station to Haussmann Saint Lazare. Magenta is between Gare du Nord, for trains to London, Lille and Brussels, and Gare de l’Est, the future terminus for Paris’ airport express to Charles de Gaulle.

It is being extended westwards under Porte Maillot, adjacent to the Palais des Congres and close to the Arc de Triomphe, to serve the business area of La Defence and Nanterre, a university suburb, then beyond along an existing line.

Trains will run a minimum of 200m apart, every 108sec: those from the western termini will go under the city to Magenta, those from the eastern suburbs will go under the city to Nanterre in the west.

Aberdeen Airport new MD

Royal Military Academy Sandhurst graduate Steve Szalay, who has held a series of senior executive roles within the aviation sector including positions with and ground handling company dnata, has been appointed managing director of Aberdeen International Airport.

Szalay, whose previous roles involved working across a number of airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, will work closely with Aberdeen parent company AGS chief executive Derek Provan.

Provan said: “We have recruited someone who is not only well regarded within the industry but, crucially, has extensive experience of working with an array of airlines, ground handling companies and airports.”

Szalay added: “Aberdeen Airport is a business that plays an important role in supporting the connectivity and success of the North East and is committed to delivering for the Aberdeen region.

“I am looking forward to building further on the success as the airport moves through the third and final phase of its comprehensive terminal transformation programme.

“AGS has delivered an airport that truly matches the ambitions of the city and I’m looking forward to working with my new colleagues, as well as with our city and national partners, to ensure we continue to deliver for our passengers.”

Alitalia debate hots up

EasyJet and Lufthansa were back in the spotlight in the Alitalia debate last week in moves to meet an Italian government deadline for expressions of interest in the bankrupt carrier (BTN 23 July).

EasyJet was said to have made a new bid but said details of its revised approach were confidential and declined further comment. It added: “There is no certainty …  any transaction will proceed and easyJet will provide a further update in due course, if and when appropriate."

Chief executive Johan Lundgren revealed some weeks ago he was still talking to the Italian government with a view to acquiring Alitalia's short-haul operations but the talks were delayed by the Italian elections.

At Lufthansa, group CEO Carsten Spohr told ATWOnline the airline was considering a commercial partnership with Alitalia, but had ruled out a financial investment. “Investing is out of the question for us alongside a state-owned entity,” he said.

He added that “a commercial partnership is on the agenda for the next few months; we know the management team at Alitalia very well.”

Alitalia went into administration last year and was kept afloat by Italian state loans of €900m. The new Italian government has said it wants to recoup the money and find a buyer for the airline by 15 December.

Birmingham unveils masterplan

A new baggage handling area, new road links including a new junction from the M42 and a larger departure lounge are key features of Birmingham Airport’s latest masterplan covering the next 15 years.

The £500m project, unveiled last week, is aimed at taking the airport’s annual passenger capacity to 18m by 2033 – 40% more than the current 13m and transforming it into one of Europe’s leading regional destinations. The airport will also gain a new railway station as part of the HS2 development.

Acting managing director Simon Richards said a second runway was no longer being considered by the airport given the government decision to expand Heathrow and Birmingham would continue with its single runway, which could handle up to 30m passengers a year.

Under the plan, the terminal as well as the larger departures lounge will have more public seating, shops, bars and restaurants and a glazed mezzanine to introduce natural light.

The check-in area on the ground floor will be improved to provide more space and the latest bag-drop technology, plus a new back-of-house baggage sorting area. The airport also plans an increase in aircraft stands from 58 to 69.

Bombardier sells Q400 programme

In a major cost-cutting move which could have implications for Belfast, Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier said last week it was selling its Q400 regional turboprop programme to Longview Aviation Capital for $800m.

Longview is the parent company of Canada’s Viking Air, which previously acquired the rights to out-of-production de Havilland Canada aircraft. Bombardier said the de Havilland trademark was also being sold to CAE for a reported $300m.

The company, which has a large presence in Belfast, said it was also undertaking what it called a “right-sizing” exercise, involving shedding 5,000 jobs worldwide over the next 12-18 months, though it did not say where the cuts would fall.

Bombardier CEO Alain Bellemare said the company “will continue to actively participate in the regional aircraft market with the scope-compliant CRJ while we explore strategic options for the programme”.

A supporting company statement said the actions were part of a strategy designed to focus on growth opportunities in the transportation, business aircraft and aerostructures segments.

The statement added: “Bombardier has launched a company-wide restructuring initiative focused on optimising production and management processes, flattening management structures and further reducing indirect costs.”

Crossrail row breaks out again

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Transport for London were again accused last week of misleading the London Assembly over evidence given on delays to Crossrail.

The Assembly’s transport committee chair, Caroline Pidgeon, the body’s only Lib Dem member, has claimed an omission in a letter to her from the mayor contained “discrepancies” (BTN 8 October).

The row broke out after it was announced Crossrail would be delayed by nine months to allow more time for tests and the committee challenged Khan on when he, Crossrail and Transport for London (TfL) first knew of it.

In a new letter responding to Pidgeon’s initial charge of misleading the committee over the Crossrail timetable, Khan said he had discussed “schedule pressures” with TfL in March.

The committee responded with a statement saying: “[In his letter], the mayor suggested that ‘schedule pressures’ had been repeatedly discussed earlier in the year, while TfL and the mayor apparently did nothing about it.

“In which case, the committee concludes that it was deliberately misleading of them to make public statements about the project being on course.”

A new book on the saga, The Story of Crossrail by Christian Wolmar, is being published later this month. BTN editor-in-chief Malcolm Ginsberg has acquired a copy and will review. Is Silvertown for London City Airport mentioned? All will be revealed.

Dreamliner rival from the East

A possible rival for the Airbus A350 and Boeing B787 has been unveiled by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) in the shape of a prototype of a wide-body long-haul jet developed in cooperation with the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China.

A model of the CR929 was a highlight of the opening of China’s largest airshow, which began in the coastal city of Zhuhai last week. The Chinese partner is a state-owned aerospace manufacturer.

The aircraft is set to make its maiden flight in 2023, UAC president Yury Slyusar said. “Our programme is making progress and is on schedule, currently in the preliminary design and supplier and equipment selection phase.”

The prototype fuselage, which was 22m long, 6.5m tall and 5.9m wide, showed a spacious interior with two rows of First Class seats, three rows of Business Class seats, and four rows of nine-abreast Economy Class seats.

The basic version CR929-600 is projected to carry 280 passengers up to 12,000km (7,500mi) and will be 63.25m long and 19.9m high with a 58m-61m wingspan. The family will also include extended-fuselage and shortened-fuselage versions (CR929-700 and CR929-500).

The $20bn joint venture, the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC), was formed in 2017.

Dubai joins biometric trend

Emirates is gearing up to launch the world’s first “biometric path” to offer its passengers what it says will be “a smooth and truly seamless airport journey” at its hub at Dubai International airport.

The airline says utilising the latest biometric technology, a mix of facial and iris recognition, passengers will soon be able check-in for flights, complete immigration formalities, enter the Emirates Lounge and board simply by strolling through the airport.

The latest equipment has already been installed at Dubai’s Terminal 3 at certain check-in counters, at the Emirates Lounge in Concourse B for premium passengers  and at selected boarding gates.

Trials for the “Smart Tunnel”, a project by the General Directorate of Residence and Foreigners Affairs in Dubai in collaboration with the airline, were launched earlier this month.

Officials claim it is a world-first for passport control, with passengers simply walking through a tunnel to be “cleared” by immigration authorities without human intervention or the need for a physical passport stamp.

Emirates says once its internal tests are complete, it will begin trials for biometric processing at other key customer points at the airport such as at check-in, in the lounge and at the boarding gate, and later in transit areas and for its chauffeur-drive service.

Dublin adds Vienna and Moscow

New services from Austria’s Laudamotion and Russia’s flag carrier and largest airline Aeroflot have added two more major cities, Vienna and Moscow, to the destination line-up at Dublin Airport.

Laudamotion is operating a year-round, daily service between the Austrian capital and Dublin with an Airbus A320 and has become the Irish airport’s fifth new airline customer this year.

Among those joining welcoming celebrations at Dublin was Laudamotion managing director Andreas Gruber, who hailed the increase in connectivity between the two countries and boost to the carrier’s policy of focusing on city shuttle routes.

Aeroflot is also using the A320 for its new daily, year-round Dublin – Moscow service, which marks a return to the Irish capital for the airline, which previously operated the route from 1987–2003.

Dublin Airport managing director Vincent Harrison said: “We are delighted to welcome Aeroflot back and we will work closely with its management team to promote this new route.

“Some 42,000 passengers travelled between Dublin and Moscow last year on indirect flights so I have no doubt this new direct route will be very popular in both directions, further boosting trade as well as tourism between our countries.”

EasyJet dismisses Brexit fears

Suggestions that aircraft would be unable to fly once the UK left the EU if no air services agreement was reached were dismissed by easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren speaking at World Travel Market last week.

“I am confident there will be a deal on aviation,” he said. He added that in a worse-case scenario of no deal, “a bare bones agreement would kick in”.

“The detail of it remains to be seen, but we are assuming bare bones connectivity, nobody disagrees on that,” he said.

The easyJet stance was reinforced by chief operating officer Chris Browne, who said she was hopeful “common sense would prevail” and the “bare bones” of a Brexit deal would be in place by the end of next March.

As a back-up, the company has set up another airline, easyJet Europe, in Austria to protect its flying rights in the EU once Britain leaves.

Browne added: “This means we will retain our flying rights. We are pretty confident we are prepared so that come April Fools' Day we will be able to fly across Europe. It’s our insurance policy.

“I would not want to tell you the amount of work that has gone into our post-Brexit structure … we cannot underestimate the impact this is having on our global workforce. It is very unsettling for our crew.”

Economy Space on Etihad

The number of seats with extra legroom in Economy Class on board Etihad Airways’ widebody fleet is being increased by more than 500% via a new option called Economy Space.

First in line for the change are the airline’s 10 Airbus A380s. They are being retrofitted in a programme due to be completed next month with new seats with an increased pitch of up to 36in.

The number of extra legroom seats on this aircraft type will rise from 20 to 80. A similar programme to modify 12 Boeing B777s and 21 Boeing B787 Dreamliners to take the new seats is due to be completed by the end of next year.

Head of guest experience Jamal Ahmed Al Awadhi said: “We recognise no two travellers are alike. Today’s customers demand more choice and personalisation, so we are reconfiguring the Economy cabin in response to the popularity and demand for extra legroom seats.”

He added: “While many airlines have been squeezing more seats into Economy Class, we continue to focus on providing our guests with products and services that meet and exceed the demands and budgets of different types of travellers.”

Edition arrives in Middle East

The Middle East is welcoming its first example of the style-focused Edition Hotel concept founded by US entrepreneur Ian Schrager in collaboration with Marriott International with the opening of a signature property on the Al Bateen peninsula in Abu Dhabi.

Occupying a prime waterfront site, the hotel boasts an exterior design based on the lateen sails of the traditional dhow boats the region was once renowned for building and features a cavernous five-storey lobby with a curved atrium.

The hotel has 198 guestrooms and suites and 57 residences designed for longer stays. A spa opening shortly with separate zones for men and women will offer seven treatment rooms including two hammams and a couple’s treatment suite.

For fitness enthusiasts, the Abu Dhabi Edition has two purpose-built gyms equipped with free-weights, yoga mats, exercise balls and premium cardio equipment by Life Fitness. The property also boasts two white-tiled swimming pools

For event planners, the hotel offers a 654sq m ballroom with seating for 450 guests and accessible directly  from the hotel or the street. The space also houses a pre-function area, an executive boardroom, meeting rooms and business centre.

El Al joins Northern Powerhouse

In a big news week for Manchester Airport (see also Manchester – Mumbai £400m boost in this issue), El Al Israel Airlines said it will launch a new direct flight between the Northern hub and Tel Aviv Ben Gurion from 26 May next year.

The announcement was made at World Travel Market by El Al vice-president commercial and industry affairs Michael Strassburger. The three-a-week service will be operated by Boeing B737-800 offering Business Class and Economy Class.

Strassburger said the move was part of El Al’s plan for a significant expansion of its roster of destinations in Europe in 2019, with direct flights between Tel Aviv and Lisbon and Nice already announced.

“We are delighted to announce another new route,” he added. “Manchester has a large Jewish community and is a centre of business as well as tourism. It is good news not only for Israelis; we also anticipate carrying thousands of business passengers to Israel.”

Manchester Airport aviation director Julian Carr added: “We are delighted to welcome El Al to Manchester offering the 22m passengers in our vast catchment area more choice and accessibility to this part of the world.”

Finnair joins Premium Economy trend

A new Premium Economy cabin for the long-haul fleet is on the way from Finland’s flag carrier Finnair in 2021 as part of a major investment in onboard improvements which also includes the airline’s domestic and regional ATR turboprops.

In the case of the ATRs, the cabins are being completely overhauled, with new seats, carpets and a refreshed interior. The new look is scheduled to be introduced next year.

Vice-president for customer experience Piia Karhu said: “We see a growing trend of quality-focused travellers who place a strong emphasis on the comfort and convenience of their travel experience.

“Finnair is responding to our customers in each of our key markets with a new Premium Economy class and a fresh Nordic experience on our regional routes, an important part of the Finnair network, with more than 30,000 ATR flights a year.”

Located in its own private cabin, Finnair’s Premium Economy will feature customised designs, more space and an enhanced service offering. Planning is now under way with more details to be released in due course.

Meanwhile, Finnair’s first ATR aircraft featuring the renewed cabin environment is expected to be in operation next summer and all 12 refurbished aircraft will be completed by spring 2020.

FlyArystan bows in

A low-cost subsidiary airline called FlyArystan is being launched by Kazakhstan flag carrier Air Astana in the first half of 2019 with a fleet of Airbus A320s configured to an all-Economy Class of 180 seats.

Air Astana says the new company will operate “a classic LCC model”, following the examples of successful airlines such as easyJet, Indigo, Cebu Pacific and Air Asia on mostly domestic routes but expanding internationally “in the mid-term”.

FlyArystan CEO Tim Jordan said the carrier would initially fly four aircraft, growing to a fleet of at least 15 by 2022, and will operate from multiple aircraft bases in Kazakhstan with more details to be announced shortly.

Like Jordan, a British-Australian national with more than 15 years’ senior LCC experience at Cebu Pacific and Virgin Blue, the rest of the management team has already been appointed and is drawn from Air Astana’s senior local managers.

Air Astana president and CEO Peter Foster said: “FlyArystan is the result of much serious thought and internal business planning, and comes as a result of a rapidly changing local and regional airline business environment.

“We are hoping it will be very welcome to the Kazakhstan travelling public, who will be able to benefit from significantly cheaper airfares on domestic and regional routes.”

Heathrow's Bairs are back

With the festive season not far down the runway, Heathrow last week brought the popular stars of its recent series of holiday ads back into the limelight with another episode in the lives of Doris and Edward Bair.

The couple, who have starred in the airport’s last two Christmas TV promotions, are this year returning to the UK from their Florida home after realising Christmas in the sun is not a match for the traditional British festivities.

Against the soundtrack of the 1980s’ Paul Young classic Every Time You Go Away, the Bairs rush back toward the UK winter, arriving – naturally – at Heathrow, where their story began 50 years ago.

The airport’s chief commercial officer, Ross Baker, said: “Britain’s love for Doris and Edward is overwhelming and has been since we first met them in 2016. It wasn’t a diffciult decision to bring them back.

“For many people, being close to the ones we love is what really makes Christmas special and of course for lots and lots of passengers, it’s Heathrow that makes it possible.”

Icelandair snaps up rival Wow

The battle between low-cost carriers for the transatlantic market took a new turn last week with the Icelandair Group signing an agreement to buy its rival Wow Air for nearly US$18m.

The deal promises to ease reported financial pressures on both carriers. They will continue to operate under separate brands and will have a combined 3.8% share of the market to and from the US and Canada.

Founded seven years ago, Wow Air specialises in low-cost transatlantic services via its hub at Keflavik Airport, but announced recently it would begin cutting some American routes (BTN 29 October). Icelandair was operating similar routes  but with a focus on the business market.

Icelandair Group CEO Bogi Nils Bogason said: “Wow has in recent years built a strong brand and achieved considerable success in their markets, to and from Iceland and over the Atlantic and there are great opportunities for streamlining.”

Wow founder and SEO Skúli Mogensen added: “We’ve begun a new chapter for our airline, which gets the opportunity to grow with a strong backer in Icelandair and strengthen our foundation further in international competition.”

The deal is subject to shareholder approval.

Manchester Mumbai 400m boost

A new link between Manchester and India’s economic capital Mumbai which started last week is set to deliver a £400m boost for northern England in trade, investment and tourism benefits, according to a report released to coincide with the launch.

Attended by aviation minister Baroness Liz Sugg and guests from across the region, the launch follows a sustained push from Manchester Airport and partners driven by increasing economic ties between the two cities.

The study, The Northern Powerhouse and India, describes the North as the “ideal collaborator” with India, with its digital, advanced manufacturing and energy strengths aligning with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s economic priorities.

Baroness Sugg said: “Connections like the one being launched today are key to Britain’s economic future and we are committed to helping build the links we need now, so all areas of the UK can be well placed to make the most of that”.

Jet Airways is flying the new route on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays using an Airbus A330-200, with 254 seats across Première (Business) Class and Economy Class.

Chairman Naresh Goyal said: “We are happy to be the first airline to offer a non-stop, premium service between Mumbai and Manchester, reflecting the importance of the UK as a destination for us.”

(See also El Al joins Northern Powerhouse story in this issue).

Mexico City airport chaos

Investors in Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport at Texcoco said last week they are planning legal action by the end of this month after Mexico’s new president cancelled the $13.3bn (€11.4bn) project following a referendum.

Construction has been under way since 2015. The complex (below) is two-thirds complete and $6bn in bonds have already been issued by the airport’s state-owned operator GACM. It has been Mexico’s biggest public-works project to date.

President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on 1 December and made scrapping the airport one of the planks of his election campaign, is already facing fierce criticism of his decision to honour the outcome of the referendum.

Mexico City’s existing gateway, Benito Juarez Airport, is notoriously overcrowded and business leaders are prominent among those who have criticised the vote, saying it was organised and funded by the ruling party and collected only 1.07m signatures.

Texcoco was designed to accommodate 120m passengers, making it the largest airport in the Americas. Benito Juarez last year handled 47m. Lopez Obrador is now said to favour developing a military base for the new facility.

Lopez Obrador, who won a landslide victory, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform that branded the Texcoco project an “emblem of graft”. Environmental issues added to the criticism.

Norwegian Premium cabin in focus

A new website feature claimed to give passengers easier access to the cheapest Premium fares on its long-haul flights was launched last week by Norwegian.

Designed to highlight what the airline calls its “unmatched” Business Class fares, the Premium Fare Calendar identifies at a glance the most affordable dates to travel in the Premium cabin.

Product features include leather seats with a 9in-10in recline, 11in inflight entertainment screens and more than 1m of legroom. Passengers have refreshments as they step on board and are served a three-course meal.

Sample return fares include £760 to Boston, £790 to Chicago, £860 to New York JFK, £960 to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, £1,128 to Singapore and £1,241 to Buenos Aires.

SVP commercial Matthew Wood said: “We’re now making it easier for customers to take advantage of the lowest fares flying for the best-value premium experience. The calendar demonstrates our continued commitment to improving the online experience.”

Norwegian last month continued its UK growth with the launch of its newest long-haul route between London and Tampa; beginning a third-daily New York JFK service with a new mid-morning departure and resuming seasonal service to Las Vegas.

ON TOUR: Ramon Airport Eilat gets ready

An announcement is expected imminently regarding the opening of Ilan and Assaf Ramon International Airport, Eilat, the brand-new entrance to Israel’s southern gateway, just 12 miles from the city centre.
The airport is named in memory of the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and his son Assaf Ramon, who died six years later when his F-16 fighter jet crashed over the West Bank. The site takes in 2.2sq mi with the terminal covering more than 500,000sq ft. The total cost is put at $530m.
International travel to and from Israel has skyrocketed since the Jewish state and the European Union ratified the Open Skies agreement in June 2013, opening up competition between Israeli and European airlines.
Ramon has been allocated IATA code ETM / ICAO code LLER and is now licensed by the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority, which follows the ICAO guidelines. It will replace the current Eilat Airport, set in the very centre of the city and used only for domestic flights. International services operate out of Ovda (VDA), a military airfield, 40mi to the north.
ETM is run by the government-owned Israel Airports Authority (IAA), which also takes in Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), the controversial Sde Dov Airport (SDV), also known as Dov Hoz, north of Tel Aviv (See BTN 5 November), and several small airports in the north of the country.

Avi Yaniv, our host on behalf of Eilat Airport's managing director Hanan Moscovitz, told us: “The airport is technically finished. All that remains to be completed are the public amenities. We are continually testing the facilities by performing run-ups and training staff.

"The decision remains to be made whether to transfer operations on a single date, or firstly move the domestic flights followed by the international services at a later date.”
Eilat Airport was established in 1949 at a time when the town itself was ready to develop as Israel’s entry port from the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. It has rapidly expanded and now is a city of 60,000 inhabitants and a major tourist resort. It has a good relationship with its Jordanian neighbour Aqaba, and the historical city of Petra is a popular tourist destination. 

The border terminal is being managed by the IAA and 1,500 Jordanians commute into Eilat on a daily basis for work within the resort. Aqaba has its own airport, within sight of Ramon, but for political and practical reasons the concept of a joint aerodrome was never pursued.

The current Eilat Airport really does sit in the city centre, splitting the town in half. Jets land on a regular basis and sitting on your hotel balcony or dining al fresco is not for those who love peace and quiet.  Even the glorious beaches are not immune from the nuisance, either on the flight path or just off it.

Once the airport is closed there are ambitious plans to expand the existing waterways and leisure craft facilities, and develop a large eco-friendly park, hotels and also major entertainment facilities. Eilat in ten years’ time will be totally different and a generation yet to be born will find it impossible to believe they are treading on what was once an airport.
Wizz and Ryanair are the two main airlines currently flying out of Ovda, attracted by the incentive rates offered by IAA. There are a number of seasonal operators including Finnair, Lufthansa, Transavia. All of these will transfer when Ramon opens.
EasyJet, the largest low-cost operator into Israel (TLV) is known to be keeping a watchful eye on the situation. For existing carriers the change will make little difference, but potential airlines will need time to re-route aircraft and market the destination.
A real enigma is El Al (LY), which withdrew from Eilat some years back and finds it impractical to compete on the limited TLV-ETH market against Israeli airlines Arkia (IZ) and Israir (6H).
The solution could be what in airline terms is a W operation, aircraft operating out of Tel Aviv to a major airport, such as Heathrow, down to Ramon, and back the same way, with a crew change at Eilat. The big advantage, besides flying the flag for Israel’s southern resort, is to give connections with partner airlines, known as a codeshare.
ETH moved 1.5m passengers in 2017 and VDA 215,000. A target of 2m customers in the first full year seems obtainable for Ramon but the potential traffic figures are dependent on what happens at Sde Dov.  Its closure could have a serious negative effect. See BTN 5 November

The new runway is 3,600m (11,800ft), capable of taking the largest aircraft and sits 7m below the terminal arrival area. Only line maintenance is available at the present time, although it could be expanded, but no hangarage is planned. General Aviation aircraft will be using the airport and the new professional pilot training academy at ETH will move.
The approach by road from Eilat to Ramon through the Timma Valley on the A90 highway is impressive, with dramatic desert mountains on both sides.  The highway road continues to Tel Aviv 220 miles away, and via the Dead Sea, 210 miles to Jerusalem.  There are plans for a rail link to the centre of Israel but more possible is a tramway to Eilat. The land has been set aside. Occasional flooding is a real problem and Israeli engineers have been clever in moving a wadi that went through the airport site but now drains well. A recent thunderstorm proved that it works!
Entering the large airy building is typical of a modern airport with electronic facilities available and 32 manual check-in desks. The ceiling is birchwood but there is plenty of glass to reduce the necessity of power-consuming lighting during daylight hours.
Everything is environmentally friendly.
You will be watched by “common sense security” before passing through immigration (for passengers departing abroad). If you are an IAA regular, you will have been dealt with by an automated questionnaire. Your luggage would have been given two tags, a first for any airport worldwide. Domestic and international passengers stay mixed with gate collection for duty free and there are the inevitable shops and eating opportunities. Choose kosher Burger King, but up-market dining is also available. The terminal covers 35,000sq m, including a 3,320sq m duty free area.
Ramon features a 3,600m (11,800ft) runway and a current total of 29 apron parking bays, although 30 more are planned. There are no air bridges and the boarding arrangements allow for passengers to make the very short walk straight from the terminal – no need for the nasty staircase gates featured at such places as Luton.

It is straight into the building on arrival, electronic immigration and up an escalator for luggage collection. The public area for meeters and greeters is yards away, as is transport. The landside convenience stores sit between arrivals and departures, a clever siting. There are no airport hotels and the former settlemet about half a mile away is seeing a new lease of life housing airport workers.
In an arrangement between the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Transportation aimed at encouraging tourism, Israel is to waive aviation fees at the Ramon Airport for three years and will offer a large incentive scheme. Currently Eilat is a VAT-free zone. There are no slot problems at an airport which will be virtually 24hr.
Video  The first test flight landed back on 5 September 2017. The facility is now nearly ready. Eilat can then build for the future.


The one thing that is very apparent with the latest development from Lexus of its hugely successful luxury crossover brand is that it is big. Of course it needs to be in transporting seven people and their luggage.

This motor is a real top-quality seven-seater and not just seven basic seats and a tiny space for baggage.

Those looking for a luxury SUV are well catered for, with the latest generations of Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 both bringing fresh offerings to the market, competing with various Range Rover models for dominance. The Audi and Volvo now have hybrid powertrain models available for the first time, but Lexus has more than a head start with various models since 2005. 

Everything about this Lexus is luxury, with a leather interior throughout and even the middle seats offering a warmer. It is the details that count, even with the press kit, a quality production including a USB stick built into the presentation booklet. Most impressive. 

Modern cars are complex pieces of machinery. It is not just a question of putting a key in a slot and driving off. With a week’s loan, normally perhaps 250 miles of town and country driving, trying to learn all the buttons is not easy. The simple driving comes along without any trouble but learning where all the special controls are is a mammoth task best done with a co-pilot who can apply some technical knowledge. 

The Lexus 450 is four-wheel-drive. While for most it is a source of comfort and used only in an emergency, a quick run over a fairly sticky field showed tremendous capabilities. It is a tall car and one does look down on the rest. But saying that, it is easy to get in and out of for the shorter person and there is an electric tailgate.

The sat nav on this car is much the same as that on a five-year old Lexus. That is a big plus if your own car is a Lexus, but the 12in screen now also offers a set-up display with a single panel (full map), two-panel (half map, half information), or three-panel (half map, two information screens) view. Operation is by means of a rotary remote touch controller that is fiddly. There is a head-up display that is contained within the driver’s console, a safety approach to navigation.

BTN is unashamedly a fan of the true hybrid which is self-charging. If you are stuck in a slow-moving convoy, your fuel consumption improves. Amazing. But don’t believe the manufacturer's figures for this car; the supposed 47mpg in town and country came down to 30mpg, still a very good figure for a vehicle that weighs in at 2,250kg and is 5m long.

Lexus has refreshed this fourth-generation RX SUV with two engine options – the 3.5-litre V6 petrol hybrid (also known as the RX450h) and the new-to-the-line-up turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine (the RX200t).  The RX is not the quickest, with a 0-60 of 8sec regardless of the motor, a near-silent cruising speed of 70mph, and a maximum of 112mph.

It is the back end that deserve a lot of interest, extending the length behind the rear axle but still keeping the shape. Although only 110mm longer overall than its predecessor, the RX L makes excellent use of the additional space to ensure everyone on board can travel comfortably and that the third-row seats have easy access. This accommodation, while OK for adult short trips, is really designed for children and here we have a major gripe.

Power operation allows the rearmost seats to be raised at ease and the car has a triple-zone air-conditioning system with independent controls at the back. Kids love pushing buttons. Lexus, please save a few pence and leave out the electrics for row three.

In a short road review, it is impossible to point out all the features, many of which one has come to expect even on less luxurious cars. The steering wheel moves when the ignition is switched off (or on) to give more space getting in or out. The self-folding mirrors are also coupled to reverse and move to compensate when backing up, a small but most useful innovation. You can set the seat to allow two (or even up to four) drivers to press a button for their preferred driving positions. The front passenger has the same luxury.

Perhaps it is the 20in wheels, but the car seemed much happier on the bumpy local roads than one is used to. As a SUV, it is designed as an ‘off-roader’. Being cynical, perhaps that is the answer. 

On the motorway, all the ‘smart’ features come into their own, including the Adaptive Cruise Control, which helps the driver maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front and reverts once clear to the pre-set figure. This also functions as a pre-collision system to detect vehicles and pedestrians on the road ahead.

The Traffic Sign Recognition system uses a front camera to recognise principal warning and command signs, which are then replicated on the multi-information and head-up display, reducing the risk of the driver not being aware of speed limits, lane closures and other important information. There is blind-spot monitoring and also lane assist, which hoots when deviating in any way off the centre of the lane. Sway Warning performs much the same function. One is tempted to switch both off. 

Once you have arrived at your destination, the parking assist monitor comes into its own. But do realise this is a big car and needs a big space.

There are controls for the adaptive suspension and performance settings called “Sport” and “Sport S”, but whether they are used in normal driving is open to discussion. At the end of the day, the RX is a large station wagon and built for purpose. For sporty cars, try a Lexus RC.

There is a wireless smar phone charger, USB points and an electronic key entry system. Decent-size cup holders too, small details that go to make the Lexus RX 450hl L a fine up-market family SUV. With a sunroof and metallic paint, she came in at £55,735. 

Some of the competition

Audi Q7
Jaguar F Pace
Land Rover Discovery
Mercedes GLS
Volvo XC90

STAR RATINGS (out of 10)

Performance 6
Handling 7
Transmission 9
Noise 9
Economy 7
Ride and Comfort 8
Accommodation 8
Styling 8
Brakes 8
Finish 8
TOTAL  78%

AND FINALLY: Would you charter a corporate jet from this man?

Ryanair has announced that its corporate Boeing B737-700, the Michael O'Leary private jet, is again available for corporate/group hire.

According to the press release it is being crewed by “Ryanair pilot and cabin crew professionals”, which sets up the question what is a normal Ryanair flight crew – a bunch of amateurs?

Fine-dining catering facilities are available, no baggage charges, 48in seat pitch and a proper 2+2 for up to 60 passengers.

Don’t blink. It’s true. And you can use an airbridge if available.

The cabin staff really have to be good. Otherwise it’s back to line duties!