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News & Advice

All change at the airport

As the clocks go forward this weekend, the airlines mark the new season with extra destinations – while others quietly get the chop, says Simon Calder

The beginning of, er, British Summer Time marks the traditional "seasonal boundary" between winter and summer schedules. Many new services start up, which the airlines are very keen to tell you about – and some long-running services are permanently grounded, which they tend to keep quiet about. That is why you need this guide to the main changes for British travellers.

The Norwegian way to the Med

For anyone planning to fly from the south side of London to the even more beautiful southern Mediterranean, the most intriguing news is that the low-cost airline Norwegian is establishing a new base at Gatwick. The carrier will serve destinations in Portugal, Spain and across the Med including Alicante, Barcelona, Faro, Malaga, Nice and Split in Croatia (which also gets a new link with Monarch from Birmingham in May).

Initially, Norwegian will base three Boeing 737s, carrying 186 people each, at Gatwick. Later in summer, and in the winter, more routes will follow to the Spanish islands.

Some observers have expressed amazement that anyone would take on the UK's biggest budget airline, easyJet, at its main base – with British Airways, Monarch and Ryanair also very active between Gatwick and the Med. Five years ago, Aer Lingus tried something very similar, before retiring financially hurt. But Bjorn Kjos, chief executive of Norwegian, says: "We are able to compete. You should always be able to fly on a lower cost with 186 seats than 155 seats [the approximate capacity on easyJet's A319 aircraft]. It's much easier to expand today than it was four or five years ago." Norwegian.no is well worth visiting: unfamiliar newcomers must price aggressively to win business.

Spain gains

Besides Norwegian's provision of about 20,000 extra seats a week to the Med, there are other reasons to be cheerful among travellers bound for Spain. British Airways is deploying one of its Gatwick-based Boeing 737s to make a daytime flight to the Canaries and back: five days a week to Tenerife South, the other two days to Lanzarote. The link means that, after five years, business class is once more available on flights between the UK and the Canaries.

BA is also bringing back flights between Heathrow and the Mallorcan capital, Palma, with Ibiza following on 27 April and Granada starting from London City in July. At the other end of mainland Spain, easyJet is connecting Gatwick with Santiago de Compostela. It could be that demand is higher coming back – the historic Galician city is the end of Europe's main pilgrimage route, meaning that more people fly out of Santiago than in.

Long range losses

BA drops Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Virgin Atlantic is suspending flights to Tobago for the summer. BA returns to Colombo, but the flight from Gatwick pauses en-route in the Maldives.

No-frills battles

The two big-hitters, Ryanair and easyJet, continue to expand. Many easyJet Mediterranean arrivals are at the other end of the Med: Kalamata in the Peloponnese of Greece, and the Greek island of Mykonos, join the network from the airline's main base, Gatwick. Looking north, in May easyJet will park its tanks on Norwegian's lawn with the launch of a Gatwick-Bergen service.

Ryanair is starting its usual motley range of routes this week. Edinburgh gets links to Béziers, Bologna, Corfu and Marseille; Bournemouth gets connected to Rhodes, Bristol and Chania in Crete; Liverpool with Zadar in Croatia; and Manchester with Beauvais, one of the airports that Ryanair claims is actually "Paris". At Stansted, Ryanair is adding the Greek island of Kos (close to the Turkish coast), with eastern France also getting links: Strasbourg is restored (and will feature in our 48 Hours series next month); and Essex becomes connected with the Jura city of Dole. (No jokes about the parlous state of the aviation industry, please.)

Dubai 1, Singapore 0

For decades the Australian airline Qantas had a busy hub at Singapore, where passengers from the UK could transfer to half-a-dozen Australian cities. But from Easter Sunday the touchdown changes from one city-state to another – Dubai gets the daily flights from Heathrow to Sydney and Melbourne. The reason is that Qantas has decided to forsake its long-standing link with British Airways, and join Emirates – which serves the key Australian cities already from Dubai.

Across in Doha, the city's new airport opens this week, but will get off to a slow start with only budget regional airlines moving in. Expect Qatar Airways to move across to the new facility once the Boeing 787 is back and flying.

No friends in the North

British Airways ditches its Manchester-Gatwick route from Easter Sunday, much to the consternation of travellers in the North-west who rely upon the link to make connections with BA and Virgin's long-haul leisure networks from the Sussex airport. The disconnection also removes a point-to-point link; although London-Manchester trains have got better, from Surrey, Sussex and Kent a flight from Gatwick to the North-west was useful. But just as one Manchester link ends, another begins. As mentioned on page 5, Virgin Atlantic starts a four-times-daily service from Heathrow to Manchester. These services use Virgin's own precious slots.

In April Virgin starts flying from Heathrow to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, courtesy of the European Commission and British Airways. In allowing BA to take over BMI, Brussels insisted on "remedy" slots being given away to a rival airline. Virgin won that contest, but arguably the real winner is Aer Lingus, which Virgin has contracted to shuttle to and from Heathrow on its behalf. It earns perhaps £1m a week, regardless of how many passengers are on board. Virgin Atlantic, which is paying that bill, has to lure passengers from BA planes – and Virgin Trains. Mancunians needing to be in London for a morning meeting will find it cheaper to fly on Virgin (around £121 one way) than to pay £154 – the standard fare for rail arrivals in London before 11.30am.