London's business-class-only link to Hong Kong is to be axed after just six months – providing more evidence that insufficient numbers of airline passengers are prepared to pay a premium to avoid the riff-raff.
Hong Kong Airlines launched the luxury flight from Gatwick in March. But this week the company said flights would end on 10 September. A statement blamed "the continuing weak economic outlook in Europe". In recent weeks, many flights on the route have been cancelled.
The aviation consultant, John Strickland, said: "It reflects the highly competitive nature of the Hong Kong-London market, one where there is substantial capacity from established players and not enough premium traffic to support the dedicated business service of a newcomer."
Cathay Pacific alone has four flights a day each way between Heathrow and Hong Kong, offering business travellers flexibility. It competes with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand from Heathrow, a route with two million passengers annually.
Hong Kong Airlines' service was launched with much fanfare in March, using new Airbus A330 aircraft configured with just 112 seats – 78 in "Club Classic", roughly between premium economy and business, and 34 in "Club Premier", with lie-flat beds.
Fares were set to undercut rival carriers, at less than £2,000 for the cheaper class and £3,000 for the top grade. But many seats have flown empty, and the schedule obliges an aircraft to stand idle on the ground at Gatwick for 15 hours between arrival and departure.
It is the second time a Gatwick-Hong Kong venture has failed; Oasis Hong Kong Airlines went bust four years ago after flying the route from Sussex to the Far East for 18 months. But unlike Oasis, Hong Kong Airlines is still very mch a going concern, and no passenger with a forward booking will lose out. They will either be rebooked on Air New Zealand, BA or Virgin, or given a full refund. Juliette White, from Jersey, is booked to fly with Hong Kong Airlines from Gatwick in October. She said: "I'm hoping for a replacement ticket on another airline. I do not see me getting a business-class flight as cheaply if I have to rebook."
Yang Jian Hong, president of Hong Kong Airlines, said: "Our plan is to re-deploy the three specially equipped, all-business-class A330s which currently service the London route to charter flights."
Five years ago, when economies were thriving and fuel prices were low, three new business-class-only airlines arrived on the world's prime long-haul route, London-New York. Maxjet, Eos and Silverjet all burned through millions of pounds before running out of cash and closing down. Only BA's niche London City-New York service, operated by an Airbus with only 32 seats, has survived – along with OpenSkies, the BA subsidiary connecting Paris with New York.