Travel: Why do so few want to visit (or leave) Manchester?

Simon Calder On British Midland flights between Heathrow and the north west, six out of 10 seats are empty
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The Independent Culture
FOR ANYONE with an interest in air travel, there can be no better located pub than the Airport Hotel, at the eastern end of the runway in Manchester. The beer garden is reputedly the place where civilians can get closer to commercial aircraft than anywhere else in the world. You can sip Robinson's ale while watching planes arrive from Aberdeen and depart for Dubai. But what you will not be able to discern, even with the near-miraculous powers bestowed by northern beer, is how many passengers are on board.

For a fair guess at that information, you would have to attend, as I did, the International Air Transport Association's conference in Berlin. The world's airlines are currently enjoying a bit of a boom, with excellent "load factors" (ie the percentage of seats actually occupied).

Charter flights to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Florida are taking off virtually full, as anyone who has endured the combination of minimal legroom and maximum payload will recall. A load factor of 90 per cent or more is normal for holiday charters. It is by maximising the use of aircraft that the charter airlines can offer such jolly good value.

Scheduled flights, at least in Europe, are enjoying close to their best load factors ever: around 70 per cent of seats are filled. Should we have a problem with the fact that three out of every 10 seats are empty? No, say the scheduled airlines. In order to give the frequency and flexibility that travellers - particularly premium-class business travellers - demand, you have to offer a wide range of flights. Inevitably, you will not be able to fill every seat of every plane; indeed, to do so would be bad business since then you will not be able to accommodate those passengers who turn up at the last minute and will pay virtually any amount to get on a flight.

Yes, we do have a problem, say bodies as disparate as Friends of the Earth and the government of Norway. The average air passenger consumes about as much fossil-derived energy as a solo motorist. Just as higher car-occupancy should be encouraged, so, too, should greater utilisation of plane seats. The Norwegians have devised a beautifully simple scheme for doing this: airlines have to pay tax for each seat on the plane, rather than each passenger.

Which brings us back to Manchester. That British Midland 737 which just took off for Heathrow: the airline has been boasting that its load factor on flights between Manchester and Heathrow has climbed to 40 per cent. In other words, six out of 10 seats are unoccupied. Why, seemingly, does no one want to visit (or leave) one of our greatest cities?

Whatever the reason, British Midland could cram the contents of two departures on to one plane and still have room for a couple of dozen late arrivals. Or, the airline could use smaller aircraft which use less energy and make less noise. Or, release the precious slots at Heathrow for destinations that attract a few more passengers.

"We're delighted with the load factors," a spokeswoman for British Midland says. "The route's been going for only six months, and it usually takes three years for a route to mature."

NEW YORK's Kennedy airport has once again been voted worst in the world by the long-suffering readers of Business Traveller magazine. As last year, the western end of the world's busiest international air route (the eastern end being Heathrow) came bottom of the heap for almost everything: incoming passport control, customs clearance, duty-free shopping and personal safety. The only bright spot for JFK was that it was beaten for "worst luggage retrieval" by Heathrow. Two other US airports, Los Angeles and Miami, take second and third places overall. The other airports to score significantly badly are Athens, Bangkok, Moscow and Lagos.

THE AUTHORITIES in Saudi Arabia wouldn't brook any nonsense from travel companies. In Berlin last week, a representative of Turkish Airlines was describing the immensely complex task of flying Islamic pilgrims for the annual hajj to Mecca. If a flight remains on the ground at the city's airport for more than two hours, the airline is immediately hit with a fine of pounds 1,500. The same amount is levied if a flight is cancelled within 24 hours of scheduled departure. But, unlike in Manchester, there's no pub at the end of the runway.