Dig deep for a flight to the northern sky
Like it or not, London is the world centre of aviation, with more flights to more places than any other city in the world. British travellers – or at least those who live within reasonable reach of the capital – can fly off to far-flung locations at almost a moment's notice.
For last-minute trips to Europe, our key short-haul airlines, including easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch and Ryanair, are expert at extracting substantial fares. Sharp price rises close to departure ensure seats are available for people who simply have to fly at short notice, and keep fares down for travellers who commit well in advance.
Going long-haul, though, ferocious competition means you can usually bag a bargain just a few hours before departure.
On Monday this week I checked fares from Heathrow for same-day departures going west, south, east, and north, returning a week later.
Heading west, airlines are cashing in on strong transatlantic demand, but a Virgin Atlantic/Delta combination would get you to Toronto via New York for a flat £500 return (the fare to New York alone, incidentally, was £687).
Southbound, Qatar Airways offered Nairobi at £464. Per mile, though, the best value was east: Bangkok and back on Oman Air for £399.
This midsummer weekend, though, the most appealing destinations involve going north. An obvious target is Reykjavik, where the sun sets briefly just after midnight and rises three hours later. Impulsive travellers would pay Icelandair £466 for the three-hour hop from Heathrow, a couple of pounds more expensive than Kenya.
Closer to home, there is one part of the UK where the sun will be over the horizon for 19 hours a day this weekend: Shetland. The cheapest deal I could find involved flying with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Edinburgh, and onwards on Flybe to the Northern Isles squeezed the fare down to £436. A last-minute 600-mile trip to Shetland costs more than a flight to Thailand, 10 times further. And fares may rise when Virgin ends domestic flights in September.
Shetlanders angry about the high level of fares have launched a Facebook campaign entitled "Islanders against Flybe & Loganair's excessive prices". Flight arrangements in the far north of Britain are tangled: Flybe, the UK's main regional airline, sells tickets to Shetland on its website, and the planes carry its colours, but the services are operated by Loganair of Glasgow.
In the last financial year, Loganair made a profit of £10 for every passenger flown. Ryanair's margin was just under a fiver a head. But Europe's biggest budget airline flies as many passengers in two days as Loganair does in a year.
The "load factor" on Loganair is around 65 per cent, meaning one out of every three seats flies empty on average. That's not a bad performance for a niche operator in a thinly populated area. But easyJet and Ryanair fill nine out of 10 seats. That suggests plenty of scope for fare cuts to fill the many empty spaces being shuttled around the Highlands and Islands.
As a business, Loganair is clearly doing a lot right, extracting a premium from oil business employees whose firms are happy to pay top dollar for convenience. But there is a hunger for lower fares. If punitive last-minute prices were augmented by tactical offers, empty seats – and hotel beds in the islands– could be filled.
British Airways knows how to do it. On Thursday, BA was selling last-minute city breaks from London to Barcelona for £120, including flights and two nights' accommodation.
As you may have read in last weekend's Independent on Sunday, "sniffer mice" at airport security checkpoints could help identify explosives. Inevitably, it triggered a succession of dreadful puns. And here they are. Regiments of rodents may fly on CheesyJet from Hamsterdam to Ratwick, on Ratar Airways from Singapaw to Karacheese or on Micelandair from Mousetricht to Minnie-apolis (thanks to the BBC's political reporter, Paul Scoins, for that one). Mice will steer clear of Kathmandu, Katowice and Qatar, and avoid the eastern half of the Hungarian capital, known as Pest. Two Sicilian airports, Trapani and Catania, are worth avoiding, as is Cat Island in the Bahamas – code CAT.Reuse content