24 FEBRUARY 2020

The Business Travel News
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ON THE SOAPBOX: Rob Greyber - president of Egencia

Rob Greyber is president of Egencia, the business-travel platform of the online travel shopping provider Expedia and an exhibitor at the Business Travel Show (B530) that starts at Olympia London on Wednesday (28 February).

As president, he is responsible for overall strategy and operations worldwide and has been with Expedia Inc since 2004. He has spent nearly two decades in technology, having begun his career as a systems engineer at Electronic Data Systems Corporation (EDS). Here, Greyber looks ahead into a new era where, as he summarises, “technology will continue to change our lives”. 

“A new decade has begun, and some key trends have begun emerging that will shape business travel in the years ahead. There will be ups and downs, but this isn’t the first time a bit of economic uncertainty has hit the headlines. The long-term trend for business travel continues to be growth.

But growth doesn’t mean easy. Business growth can still mean challenges for travel managers – how to support growing teams, how to adapt policy to new locations and functions, how to maintain cost discipline.

Building a strong travel culture, thinking about travel as part of how your company operates and not as a budget line item can help organisations to gain a competitive edge. Organisations that do this see corporate travel as a strategic investment that delivers concrete value.

The impact of technology will grow. But the technology itself will disappear. Over the past decade, our cameras, calculators, and calendars have all moved into our smartphones and tablets. This integration of tasks into a continuity of experience won’t stop.

At Egencia, we’re ahead of that curve. With an end-to-end platform that’s always learning and evolving, we’re taking tasks like shopping for the best prices and merging them into a continuity of what happens in the background.

Egencia uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to save you time and money. With real-time data, we continuously monitor airfares, then rebook tickets at lower prices, resulting in millions of dollars of savings for customers. Those savings will double in 2020.

Technology is disappearing, moving more into the background, behind the scenes. Options will be personalised before you see them. And you won’t need to understand machine-learning to reap the rewards.

Business travel is about people. It’s personal, no matter how much technology changes our world. For travellers, this will mean more integrated experiences, spanning the entire trip.

For travel managers, it will mean another step in the exciting evolution of their role in their organisations. Travel managers have evolved from policy publishers to cost controllers and are now emerging as champions of corporate culture.

This cultural impact of corporate travel is here to stay. With the right tools and data, travel managers can refine their programmes and grow their influence in the enterprise.

Knowledge is power when the planet is at stake. Business travellers are considered citizens when they’re on the road or at home. They – and their organisations – want to do business with companies such as Egencia that are mindful of sustainability.

To help business travellers bring their values to work and help travel managers shape their sustainability impact, we’ve added carbon emission reporting for air and hotel to our Analytics Studio.

We’re also working to create reliable sustainability criteria to help understand the choices in the market. To get this right, it will take an industry-wide effort to standardise understanding of fuel efficiencies, renewable energy sources and other factors that can carry trade-offs for a given trip.

From there, we can develop ways for travel managers to create policies that incorporate these new sustainable options into their travel programmes.

Sustainability is a clear starting point for personalising travel options even more with the values that travellers and organisations live by. It’s another way companies are working to increase business travel’s contribution to shaping corporate culture.

Welcome to a new year, filled with new opportunities.  Welcome to a new decade where technology will continue to change our lives at work, at home, and everywhere in between.

We are excited to see what this next decade will hold”.

BTN will be at the Business Travel Show. Starts on Wednesday.

Malcolm Ginsberg, Richard Cawthorne and Alison Chambers will be at The Business Travel Show by Northstar, Wednesday & Thursday 26-27 February at Olympia London. They will be pleased to meet old friends, visit exhibitors and perhaps contribute from the floor at the various briefings. Contact BTN via

Abu Dhabi terminal opening nears

An opening date for the Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport is expected to be announced this year as work nears completion and details of the planned premium lounge emerge.

The 742,000sq ft terminal has been hit with delays to its original scheduled opening date in 2017 but officials say final testing and commissioning is under way and once operational the facility will revolutionise travel in Abu Dhabi.

The airport handled 21m passengers last year. The new terminal will be able to handle up to 45m. It will also feature the new lounge, the construction and management contract for which has just been awarded.

Work on the 3,500sq m facility will be carried out by a joint venture between National Aviation Services and Airport Dimensions with access once completed offered to all independent travellers, regardless of airline or class of ticket.

Abu Dhabi Airports chief executive Bryan Thompson said: “Our partnership with NAS and Airport Dimensions represents an exciting development for the future passengers of the Midfield Terminal.

“The new lounge will provide an unparalleled customer experience, with NAS’ regional knowledge invaluable in bringing the project to completion allied with Airport Dimensions’ expertise in lounge design and management.”

Bombardier to focus on business aviation

The flagship Global 7500 corporate jet moved to front and centre of Bombardier of Canada’s portfolio last week following the sale of the company’s rail programme to French manufacturer Alstom.

The business aviation segment is the only remaining part of the Bombardier empire after the company sold off the rest as part of a drive to reduce its debt burden, estimated at US$10bn.

Chief executive Alain Bellemare described the latest transaction as “a transformational deal for Bombardier,” adding: “It marks the end of our turnaround and the beginning of a new and bright chapter for the company.”

Deals agreed by Bombardier include selling its turboprop aircraft business to Longview Aviation last year, as well as divesting its regional jet operation and a wing plant in Northern Ireland.

The company’s exit from the commercial aerospace field was completed two weeks ago when Bombardier relinquished its remaining interest in the C Series, now known as the A220, to Airbus (BTN 17 February).

The Global 7500, claimed to be the largest and longest-range corporate jet, will now be the chief focus of Bombardier’s activities. Deliveries started in December 2018 and the company says it is now increasing production.

Brussels Airlines North America growth

Lufthansa Group and Star Alliance member Brussels Airlines is boosting its North America presence from the end of next month with seasonal flights to Montreal and an increase in frequency for its Washington Dulles service.

Belgium’s home carrier is launching a five-a-week summer operation from the end of March to the end of October to Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.

And with the remaining aircraft capacity in winter, the airline is increasing its offer to Washington Dulles, which has now become a year-round service as of last Thursday, after being a summer-only destination.

From 29 March, the frequency of the service will increase from a four-times-a-week to a daily operation using the Airbus A330-200 with 22 seats in Business Class, 21 in Premium Economy and 212 in Economy Class.

Lufthansa Group vice-president of sales for the Americas Frank Naeve said: “North America continues to be one of our most important global regions and Brussels Airlines’ increased flight capacity clearly reflects the group’s strong commitment to the US market.

“We are pleased to offer our customers an enhanced connectivity between Europe’s capital city and the capital of the United States, which also increases travel options to and from our African and European destinations.”

Comair in spotlight at Aviation Club

An African success story will be the focus of the Aviation Club UK on 11 March, when the guest speaker will be Comair Group CEO and former head of Comair Airlines Wrenelle Stander.

She was appointed in December as part of a restructuring at South Africa-based Comair, which operates scheduled services on domestic routes as a British Airways franchisee and as a low-cost carrier under its own Kulula brand.

Working for most of her career in what she acknowledges is a male-dominated business, Stander has more than 25 years’ experience in the aviation and energy industries, 15 at executive leadership level.

Previous jobs include periods as managing director of the Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company (ATNS), one of only three women worldwide to hold such a position; deputy CEO of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and director general at the Department of Transport.

Comair operates within South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean islands and the group continues to form partnerships with industry leaders in travel reward and recognition programmes.

It holds a special place in aviation having achieved 72 years of uninterrupted profitable operations, and has been officially recognised as one of South Africa’s top employers for 2020.

Emissions breakthrough for Heathrow

A reduction in carbon emissions from airport buildings and infrastructure by 93% compared to 1990 was declared by Heathrow last week as the airport announced major achievements in climate protection.

Chief executive John Holland-Kaye said Heathrow had become one of the world’s first major aviation hubs to become carbon neutral for its infrastructure and the first to target zero carbon by the mid-2030s.

The remaining 7% of airport infrastructure emissions, including those from heating, will now be offset through tree-planting projects in Indonesia and Mexico certified through the Verified Carbon Standard.

Contributing to further carbon savings, this year Heathrow will be focused on ramping up improvements to sustainable transport links and ensuring it meets its target to transition all its cars and small vans to electric and plug-in hybrid.

Marking the milestone, the airport also announced a further investment of £1.8m for 2020 to kick-start UK nature-based carbon-saving projects such as the restoration of natural UK carbon sinks including peatlands, woodlands and farming soils.

These projects have been estimated by the Committee on Climate Change to have the ability to help save 43 megatonnes of carbon annually by 2050, if significant investments are made.

High-speed rail success

With the introduction of Virgin Cruises (see in this issue), BTN took the opportunity of using the Southeastern London – Dover service which, with the 140mph Javelin train, whisks you from London St Pancras in just 1hr 4min. By comparison, Charing Cross – Dover Priory by more traditional locomotion is 1hr 53min.

Less mobile passengers will be delighted to note that the arrival (and departure) from Dover is on the same platform, allowing for direct street access.

Introduced just over 10 years ago in September 2009, the Javelin trains, which serve a number of Kent stations, are Britain’s first, and, as things stand, only high-speed service. They use much of the Eurostar infrastructure. The trains call at Stratford International and its excellent interface with the DLR, the route to Woolwich Arsenal also serving London City Airport.

The Southeastern service has now carried more than 100m passengers.

The popularity of Javelin has led to significant growth in passenger numbers, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 11% – more than double that on the rest of the Southeastern network.

With an unrivalled average delay per train of less than 5sec on Southeastern’s Highspeed service, and overall passenger satisfaction at 92% – one of the country’s highest ratings, it has proven itself to be best in class.

KLM to add Premium Economy

One of the last major airlines to fit a Premium Economy cabin, KLM, has confirmed it will add the product to its long-haul schedules as soon as it can acquire the necessary certifications and refit its aircraft interiors.

The decision brings KLM level with its partner Air France and North Atlantic joint venture allies Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic. The Dutch carrier so far has offered what it calls an Economy Comfort option whereby passengers pay for extra legroom.

KLM has long been considered a hold-out against the trend to Premium Economy – British Airways introduced it 20 years ago – but has acted after reporting last week what it called “relatively good results” for its 2019 anniversary year.

CEO Pieter Elbers said revenues increased by 1.7%, rising to more than €11bn, a new record while the KLM Group also broke a second record by carrying more than 44m passengers – 35m for KLM and 9m for Transavia.

KLM’s operating income amounted to €853m with a margin of 7.7%, but owing to higher fuel costs and a challenging cargo market, this was lower than what was achieved in 2018.

Locke's Broken Wharf sets date

The second London property and fourth in the UK in a collection of design-led aparthotels from pioneering hospitality brand Locke opens next month on the Thames at London’s Millennium Bridge with the 113-room Locke at Broken Wharf.

Designed according to the company “for travellers for whom a bed and shower in a shoebox isn’t enough”, it is minutes from both Cannon Street and Blackfriars on the north bank stretch of the river path.

Two more London openings in Bermondsey and Dalston are planned later this year, in addition to projects in Dublin, Munich, Berlin, Lisbon and Copenhagen, building on the success of Locke’s existing hotels in East London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

The company, part of edyn Apartments, says it takes its cue from the demands of the contemporary traveller,  blending the advantages of a high-end lifestyle hotel with the space and flexibility of an apartment.

Complete with views of Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe, the new property’s social spaces include an all-day restaurant, bar and a co-working area featuring a cultural programme spanning wellness, fitness, art and music.

The rooms are generously sized with high-spec kitchens with guests able to choose between a short stay in a Locke Studio, average size 29sq m, or one of the larger premium River Suites, average size 33sq m, for a longer-term visit.

Middle East flight problems

Qatar Airways continues as an award winning airline in spite of a small caucus of Arab states banning overflying their territory. 

In June 2017, just before the IATA summit, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an air, sea and land blockade on their Gulf neighbour.  This still remains in force with Qatar Airways aircraft having to (expensively) re-route.  Flights from Doha to those countries have also been suspended with a major loss of passenger numbers.  How this will affect the FIFA World Cup in 2022 remains to be seen?

In the meantime Saudi Arabia has allowed the Emir of Qatar access in a Qatar Airways liveried aircraft for a security summit. 

Oman has taken a more pragmatic approach and in 2018 welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat.   The Jewish state is still not recognised in that country although border officials will turn a blind eye to passport holders with Israel stamped on them.  Israel is recognised by both Egypt and Jordan, and hence no flight problems. 

In recent weeks Sudan has allowed an Israeli registered aircraft to use its airspace.  Qatar has a fairly enlightened attitude and if you have an Israel stamp on your passport you should be OK.  With its sophisticated airport software Israel, for the most part, does not stamp passports.

More havoc as virus rages on

The inaugural IBTM Asia Pacific gathering scheduled for 13-14 April in Singapore was called off last week in response to the coronavirus crisis while other imminent trade shows in less sensitive regions are going ahead.

Organisers of this week's Business Travel Show (BTS) in London and next month's ITB Berlin say the events are still on and they are “well prepared” to deal with cases, while stepping up advice and precautionary measures.

BTS has recommended delegates from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the past 21 days do not attend the event.

Elsewhere, 32 Britons and Europeans from the infected cruise ship Diamond Princess (below) landed in the UK on Saturday on a repatriation flight and entered quarantine after spending more than two weeks trapped on the ship off the coast of Japan.

Among airlines, BA has suspended flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai until 19 April. Virgin Atlantic has suspended Heathrow – Shanghai operations up to 29 March.

Qantas, which has suspended its two direct services between mainland China and Australia (Sydney – Beijing and Sydney – Shanghai) until 29 March, has now also temporarily cut flights across Asia in response to a drop in demand due to the outbreak.

In a report last week, it estimated the net profit impact so far of coronavirus at $100m–$150m (about £51m–£76m).

Muscat debut for JW Marriott

More upmarket hotel accommodation has arrived in the Omani capital via the Marriott International group with the opening last week of the JW Marriott Muscat.

It follows the opening of the 5-star Royal Tulip Muscat (BTN last week).

Set in the heart of Muscat’s new business hub within the sultanate's largest urban development project, Madinat Al-Irfan, the hotel is an integral part of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) precinct.

Directly linked to the centre and with 304 rooms and suites, it also provides access to key city landmarks including Muscat Old Town, the Royal Opera House, Old Souq and Mattrah Corniche.

The property features 2,500sq m of meeting and event space with natural daylight and equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technology and access to the tailor-making “Events by JW” service.

This offers organisers multi-lingual and experienced event planners and tailored menus. The hotel also houses the largest Executive Lounge in Muscat and is the first to have an exclusive lounge for airline crew.

JW Marriott vice-president and global brand leader Mitzi Gaskins said: “The debut of the brand in Muscat marks an exciting milestone for us in the Middle East and Africa as we continue to grow our footprint and deliver our luxury experience.”

New 5-star London hotel

Due to open on 25 June, Leicester Square’s The Londoner is set to become a major addition to the capital’s hotel portfolio. The 5-star property has 350 rooms and suites.

Costing more than £300m, the new hotel covers a site the size of a football pitch but is limited to eight storeys, with a rooftop Japanese restaurant, bar and patio. It has seven levels underground, including a swimming pool, gym, two screening rooms, hair and nail salon plus barber shop and what is claimed to be the largest ballroom in the UK. 

The Londoner is a member of the prestigious Preferred Hotels & Resorts' Legend Collection and joins the May Fair Hotel, and Edwardian, Hampshire and Bloomsbury hotels as part of businessman Jasminder Singh‘s 12-strong Edwardian Hotels group.

In charge of the project is Charles Oak, well known as the general manager of the May Fair, and with this project for more than two years. 

“We are nearly there”, he said, “Interior-wise, the hotel is virtually complete. The stunning façade is about to be revealed at this most famous of all the capital’s squares. You can see London from every room, and with a staff-to- guest ratio of two to one, we will offer the highest standards. I can’t wait to open.”

Newquay names managing director

London City Airport (LCY) aviation director Pete Downes has been appointed managing director at Cornwall Airport Newquay. He will join on 4 May, in time for a period of significant change for regional air services.

Recent network developments at Newquay have included new routes to Aberdeen, Newcastle, Glasgow, Gatwick and Amsterdam from this spring, and the retention of a summer service to Heathrow (BTN last week).

Downes began his transport career at FirstGroup before joining Bristol Airport, where he was head of aviation. At LCY, he is credited with driving route development and airline growth, delivering passenger numbers of more than 5m a year.

Cornwall Airport Newquay chairman Tim Jeans, one time managing director of Monarch Airlines, said: "Having eight airline partners flying to over 20 destinations, including two global hubs, Cornwall Airport Newquay is a vibrant regional airport proudly serving the South West of England.

“As we reach more destinations by air than ever before from Cornwall, Pete is ideally placed to boost the future of the airport and the vital role it plays to connect visitors and businesses with our region."

Jeans added: “We are in a strong position and Pete will bring his experience and knowledge to continue this strategic growth and enhance our contribution to the Cornish economy.”

Qatar snaps up a quarter of IAG

More than a quarter of British Airways’ parent International Airlines Group (IAG) is now owned by Qatar Airways Group after the Middle East company last week increased its shareholding from 21.4% to 25.1%.

Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker said: “Our investment to date has been highly successful and the announced increase in our shareholding is evidence of our continued support of IAG and its strategy.

“Qatar Airways continues to consider opportunities to invest in airlines and support management teams that share our vision to enhance travel opportunities for airline passengers across the globe.”

The Qatar move comes less than a month after IAG, a Spanish-registered company whose shares are traded on the London and Spanish stock exchanges, removed a cap on non-European Union investment imposed as part of Brexit preparations.

IAG is one of the world’s largest airline groups, with 573 aircraft flying to 268 destinations and carrying some 118m passengers annually. As well as BA, it includes Aer Lingus, Vueling, Iberia and Level, and has made a €1bn bid for Air Europa.

Please see "Middle East Flight Problems" in this issue.  Both IAG and Qatar Airways are part of a combined oneworld stand at the Business Travel Show (stand B150 on the right as you enter the exhibition hall.)

Ruby Lucy open for business

The “Lean Luxury” approach to business travel pioneered by Munich-based accommodation provider Ruby Hotels has arrived in London with the opening on the South Bank of the company’s first UK property.

Previewed in BTN last year, the new 75-room hotel – called Ruby Lucy – forms part of an ambitious expansion plan for the company for 11 new units, including a second London property, by 2022.

Ruby Lucy’s interior design is a special feature, with the company saying it has been inspired by the South Bank’s bustling fairs and markets, entertainment and theatre scene, with a carnival theme running throughout the hotel.

A 3min walk from Waterloo station, Ruby Lucy rubs shoulders with some of London’s top cultural gems and offers rooms ranging from a cosy ‘Nest’ at 14-15sq m to the expansive ‘Loft’ at 21-23sq m) plus a 24hr bar.

All guest rooms showcase Ruby Hotels’ sleep-scientist-approved formula for a peaceful night’s sleep, with full soundproofing, blackout curtains, high-quality linen and extra-long and wide custom mattresses.

As with the group’s other properties, Ruby Lucy follows the “Lean Luxury” philosophy of a top location, quality fittings, and special design offered at an affordable price by what founder and CEO  Michael Struck says is “cutting out the superfluous and focusing on the essential.”

Stansted Mumbai service takes off

The first direct link to India’s largest city from Stansted took off last week with the launch of Air India’s new three times a week service to the financial capital Mumbai. 

It is also the airline’s second long-haul route from Stansted within a few months.

Previewed in BTN in January, the Mumbai service joins Air India’s Amritsar route which began last November and is already said to have proved to be extremely popular with passengers from across London and the east of England.

The Mumbai service is being operated by a 256-seat Boeing B787 Dreamliner and will operate initially until the end of the winter flight schedule.

Stansted chief commercial officer Aboudy Nasser said: “The launch of this new service to Mumbai is a fantastic addition to Stansted’s route network and a real vote of confidence in the airport and the catchment area we serve.

“Some 200,000 people from our region already travel to India’s economic hub every year but now they have the added convenience of flying from their local airport and saving valuable time and money by avoiding other London airports.

“That’s one reason we expect this service to be very popular with passengers as we continue to build our successful and growing relationship with Air India.”

Subscription flying by Etihad

A travel solution called TravelPass to be launched later this year and aimed initially at corporate and frequent travellers is being developed by Etihad Airways in partnership with Norwegian technology developer Braathens IT.

The partners say it provides a subscription-based way of allowing Etihad to offer frequent fliers “complete flexibility and ease” with their regular and recurring travel arrangements.

Customers can purchase a TravelPass for a set number of trips or a particular travel period instead of purchasing flights one by one.

The airline said it believed subscription-based travel was “good news” for the aviation industry as it gave passengers the choice between prepaid and pay-as-you-fly options, leading to flexibility, ease of booking and cost-efficient travel management.

Etihad chief commercial officer Robin Kamark said: “TravelPass technology offers a revolutionary booking experience for corporate and frequent clients who will also be enrolled into the Etihad Guest frequent flyer programme.

“By simplifying the travel process to a few clicks, passengers have a seamless transaction through a platform that holds all the details in one place, gives the flexibility to change bookings without fees and the choice to pay later.”

Braathens IT CEO Svein Therkelsen added: “Etihad is going to take sophisticated digital personalisation very far, everything from ease of use to customisation.”

Trains upgrade for airport express link

A new fleet of trains complete with fast on-board wi-fi, at-seat USB power, HD televisions and Business First carriages is due to arrive in June for the Heathrow Express service which connects the airport non-stop with Paddington Station in London.

Details were given by director Les Freer after the company was named by passengers for the fourth year in a row as the best rail service in the UK with a 96% overall satisfaction rating from 28,000 participants in the Transport Focus 2019 survey.

The result puts Heathrow Express 2% above any other operator in the country and 14% ahead of the national average. Speed and reliability were the most significant results, scoring 98% and 95% respectively.

Freer said: “We’re immensely proud to be named top in the National Rail Passenger Survey for the fourth time running.

“To be rated so highly by our customers who continue to enjoy our fast, frequent and reliable service reflects the work of our expert team to deliver industry-leading customer service.”

On the re-equipment programme, he added: “The new fleet will help us continue to deliver the same Heathrow Express experience for years to come.”

Travelodge plans 20 more London hotels

Two hotels opened in London in one week and 20 more coming to the capital over the next five years is keeping up the momentum at Travelodge, which says it is actively seeking opportunities in more than 100 London locations to meet demand.

The company says the expansion programme, which so far has boosted its portfolio to 589 hotels, including 77 properties in the capital, will create more than 500 new jobs and could represent an investment of £350m by third-party investors.

The two newest hotels, including the first Travelodge in Beckton and the second in Dagenham within 12 months, between them represent an investment of £22m by third-party investors and have created 55 new jobs.

The 113-room Beckton property is a key part of the newly-completed SEGRO Park Newham and features an on-site restaurant called the Bar Café and a dedicated business floor featuring the company’s premium SuperRooms.

London Dagenham East Travelodge, with 78 rooms, has been built in partnership with Barking & Dagenham Council and Be First, the council’s regeneration organisation.

Travelodge UK development director Tony O’Brien said: “London is a world-class destination for business as well as leisure travellers and there is a desperate need for more good-quality, low-cost accommodation, especially across the boroughs.”

TUI returns to Sharm El Sheikh

Egypt’s top resort moved back into the international travel spotlight last week as TUI resumed flights to Sharm El Sheikh from Birmingham and Gatwick airports.

Flights from the UK were halted in November 2015 after a bomb attack on a Russian aircraft. The resort, at the bottom of the Shai Peninsula with 35km of coastline, year-round dry climate and the warm waters of the Red Sea, has 11 resorts in the TUI programme, with more hotel announcements said to be in the pipeline.

TUI says the destination is especially popular with couples and families looking to lap up the local culture while taking in the attractive scenery and with those seeking watersport activities such as scuba diving and snorkelling in the noted coral reefs.

UK & Ireland director of product and destination experience Mark Hall said: “We’re delighted to be back and featuring a destination that has proved a strong favourite with travellers.”

Birmingham Airport aviation director Tom Screen added: “Having the Sharm El Sheikh service resumed is great news for Midlands travellers. TUI has recognised demand for the destination, for both winter and summer.”

Virgin Voyages and its airline

Virgin Atlantic Airways (VS) and its Virgin Holidays offspring appear to be the big winners after Virgin Voyages introduced Scarlet Lady, its first cruise liner, at a stormy Dover last weekend. VS flies daily Heathrow – Miami this summer.

Scarlett Lady, at 110,000 grt, maximum 2,700 adult passengers (18 plus) and 1,160 crew, can be considered a medium-size holiday ship. 

For summer 2020, she will be based at Miami offering a series of five-night cruises (not including Havana sadly). The Beach Club on the Bahamas island of Bimini, where there will be a tender operation, is on all schedules . 

With the 2021 arrival of sister ship Valiant Lady and its initial Mediterranean programme, the stopover is replicated with an overnight call at Ibiza, the ship's boats again being used, part of the “fun experience” as company president Tom McAlpin put it, pointing out that 80% of his team have been recruited from other cruise lines. “They were attracted to our ground-breaking offering.” 

For 2021, Valiant Lady will offer seven-night cruises from Barcelona, and Virgin Voyages has stolen a march on its competitors with the use of the World Trade Centre terminal, a short walk to the city centre. By next year, will Barcelona be on the Virgin Connect route map?

Initially aimed at the 30-60 age market, Virgin Voyages is an innovative addition to the expanding cruise market. Two further ships are planned.

A full review of Scarlet Lady is planned for next Monday, which just happens to be our March cruise review.

(See also High speed rail success in this issue).

ON TOUR: Stopover Madrid

A programme to encourage long-haul travellers to extend Madrid stopovers from one to six nights, with special deals on hotels, transport, dining, entertainment and other services has been launched by Iberia and the city council (BTN 10 February). The Stopover Hola Madrid package aims to attract more visitors, strengthening Iberia’s Madrid hub and driving demand for Iberia’s long-haul flights. BTN investigates.

Iberia’s “Stopover Hola Madrid” (SHM) offers passengers the chance to turn a layover into an exploration of Spain’s capital, spending one to six nights in the city at no additional cost to the price of their ticket. There are special offers and exclusive discounts on accommodation, transport, shopping, catering, leisure and cultural activities. If you have the time, it’s a gift.

Like any capital city, Madrid can be overwhelming but SHM participants can pick up a free guide 48hr before arrival with information about local transportation, climate, sightseeing, dining and the rest via the biduzz app. Once in Madrid, they can hire a “Biduzzer” expert personal guide through the app, who can provide insider information about places to go and things to do, from the best choices on a menu to the best seats in a theatre.

Another deal gives SHM visitors free transportation – on reaching the arrivals area, you can pick up free public transportation cards valid for two days on all municipal buses and the underground Metro. Other options are to choose a transfer on Alsa, the Spanish subsidiary of the UK’s National Express, or to hire a car from Avis. Both companies offer discounts to SHM customers. To facilitate communication, the Holafly company offers discounted data cards for customers’ phones.

After that, it’s just a question of sorting out which of Madrid’s many attractions to see in whatever time is available. The dedicated SHM website is a valuable asset in itself and there is more information on the tourist board website, including a list of what are considered the top 10 best places to see.

Front and centre for many visitors is the Prado Museum, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year and one of the world’s leading art galleries, boasting works by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Rubens and Hieronymus Bosch, among others. It is also the crown jewel of one of the city’s most popular tourist itineraries, the Paseo del Arte, or Art Walk, the start of which is marked by the Cibeles Fountain, one of Madrid's most renowned icons.

The Prado's walls are lined with masterpieces from the Spanish, Italian and Flemish schools. Possibly the best known are Velázquez’ Las Meninas and Goya’s Third of May, 1808, but the collection has 8,600 paintings and more than 700 sculptures, so a little forward planning is recommended on what you want to see before stepping into the museum. If you are short on time, the Prado's website suggests three itineraries of 1hr, 2hr or 3hr covering the most important masterpieces.

If you’re doing the Art Walk, two more museums await, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia. The first contains another large collection of more than 1,000 works tracing the history of European painting from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century. Italian primitives, the German Renaissance, 19th-century American art, Impressionism, German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism are the most widely represented schools and movements.

The obviously more modern  architecture of the Reina Sofía houses Madrid’s Spanish contemporary  art museum, opened in 1990 and showcasing paintings by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Juan Gris as well as one of Spain’s most famous artworks, Picasso’s Guernica. Be prepared – it’s another huge collection, with more than 22,400 works.

Second only to the Prado for many visitors is Madrid’s Royal Palace, although it’s not often appreciated it is the biggest in Western Europe. The building was inspired by sketches made by Bernini for the Louvre in Paris and is in the form of a square looking out over a large courtyard with galleries and a parade ground.

It has more than 3,000 rooms plus the renowned Main Staircase, designed by Sabatini with more than 70 steps, and the Throne Hall, featuring a ceiling painted by Tiepolo. Other must-sees include the Hall of Halberdiers, which Charles III turned into the Guards Room; the Gasparini Room, with 18th century decorations, and the Royal Chapel, which is home to a collection of string instruments made by the legendary Antonio Stradivari.

A feature of the palace is the Changing of the Guard, held every Wednesday and Saturday, and the Solemn Change, which takes place on the first Wednesday of each month.

For a complete contrast, Madrid offers an hour or so at El Rastro, said to be the most popular and traditional market in the city. It has been held for than 250 years from 09:00 – 15:00 every Sunday and bank holiday, in the area that used to be occupied by the tanneries next to a slaughterhouse.

It consists of more than 3,000 stalls, from the curious to the welcoming and enigmatic spread across a network of streets centred on Cascorro Square and Embajadores Street, passing through the Ribera de Curtidores and adjacent squares.

And finally in this brief review of Madrid’s treasures, one for sports fans – the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where visitors can go behind the scenes of Real Madrid, explore the club museum and even step into the players' changing rooms. Named after the club’s legendary president who headed Real Madrid between 1943 and 1978, the 81,000-capacity stadium was opened in 1947.

The tour takes visitors round the club’s most iconic spots and shows them the stadium the way the authorities see it, from the Presidential Balcony; from the players' perspective, from the pitch itself, and from the coach’s viewpoint, sitting in the heated ergonomic seats in the bench area. In the dressing rooms, visitors can have a photo taken next

AND FINALLY: TfL goes 'back to the future'.

Transport for London last week unveiled west London’s first all-electric double-deck bus (as opposed to electric trolley bus) route as part of its plan to ensure all London’s buses are zero-emission within five years.

The vehicles on Route 94, which runs between Acton Green and Piccadilly Circus, offer quieter, smoother journeys as well as free-to-use USB charging points and new safety features, TfL said.

The company added tackling the twin dangers of air pollution and the climate emergency are key priorities, with latest plans calling for 2,000 zero-emission buses in London by 2025.

The electrification of the 94 route follows the 43 and 134 routes in 2019, and brings the current total of electric double-deck buses in the capital to 280.

(See also False news from Transport for London, BTN 9 September 2019)