Simon Calder: HKA might win the day, but it will be a long haul

The man who pays his way

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Considering they had just stepped off a 6,000-mile, 14-hour flight from the South China Sea to Sussex, the first passengers to emerge from the International Arrivals at Gatwick on Thursday morning looked in excellent shape.

Malcolm and Gaylene Williamson, who live in Hong Kong, had every right to exude well-being. They had just enjoyed the first all-business-class flight between Asia and Britain, just launched by Hong Kong Airlines.

"It was nice not to have the crowds to deal with," said Gaylene. The brand-new plane, an Airbus A330, is kitted out with just 112 seats. As it happens, I arrived at Gatwick on the same type of jet three weeks ago, but one configured by Monarch for charter flights – and therefore in the company of 357 other passengers.

Given the state of aviation, the new venture looks brave indeed. As usual, the aviation summer season will begin on the last Sunday of March. Traditionally, this marks a sharp increase in the number of flights. But a combination of expensive fuel and feeble demand has sent the process into reverse. On the other side of the "seasonal boundary" on 25 March, China Airlines' non-stop service to Taiwan's capital, Taipei, will be abandoned, while Qantas says: "Unprofitable flying between Bangkok/Hong Kong and London will be eliminated."

Yet, apparently, just what the world needs now is a daily non-stop business-class service from Gatwick to Hong Kong.

The basic product on the Hong Kong Airlines link is called "Club Classic". It bears a strong resemblance to 1990s business class. The £1,880 return fare buys a big "cradle seat" and lots of legroom. Seating is six abreast, in pairs, with a few solo seats at the back of the plane.

As in life, so in aviation: some business passengers are more equal than others. For around £1,000 more, up to 34 passengers can opt to travel in "Club Premier". This approximates to "first-class minus", with flat beds. Even in these (very) posh seats. you'll still save a good £1,000 on the existing rivals from Heathrow: Air New Zealand, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and – until the end of the month – Qantas.

With so many premier-league airlines competing to Hong Kong, you can understand the Australian airline's decision to quit. But BA is adding three extra flights a week on the route.

Is there room for everyone? Unlike the upstart, the established airlines can tune prices across three or four classes. For much of the year, premium passengers bankroll the operation. Earnings from premium economy, business and first-class passengers sustain the airlines.

At times posh passengers are in short supply: Easter, July and August, Christmas and both Western and Chinese New Year. Happily for the airlines, these business troughs coincide with peak demand for economy class. Fares soar, and some leisure passengers are tempted to upgrade and fill the empty seats in front.

Hong Kong Airlines is betting on there being enough of an appetite for business-only jets to pay some mighty bills. Mr and Mrs Williamson said: "We'll definitely use it again if the times work." How many others will join them? While the market settles that issue, look for exceptional offers on both HKA and its rivals Another air fares war has begun.

BA's OpenSkies thinking remains clouded by doubt

Almost everyone who has started a business-class-only airline has lost a fortune. One exception: the shareholders of L'Avion, which began flying from Paris to New York in 2008. Within weeks of British Airways starting a rival service, named OpenSkies, the founders sold L'Avion to BA for an astonishing £54m.

Had BA waited a few months, L'Avion may have fallen over anyway as demand dwindled and costs soared. OpenSkies struggles on, but has cost BA tens of millions of pounds as one business plan after another has failed.

Originally, the airline was supposed to fly from six Continental cities to New York. But it expanded beyond the French capital only once, to Amsterdam. The route lasted less than a year. A link from Paris to Washington DC was also tried and axed.

Now the cabins are to be reconfigured yet again: after starting with economy, premium economy and business classes, OpenSkies switched to business-only. From 19 June, it will return to Plan A. So there are other winners in the business-class business: the makers and fitters of aircraft seats.