Simon Calder: If the risks in Libya don't put you off, the fares might
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Friday 04 May 2012
Bums on seats: bluntly, that is the business plan of the airline industry. You publish a flying schedule, then hope that enough people will be prepared to pay enough to meet your costs and perhaps generate a profit. Sadly, this last achievement eluded Bmibaby: the no-frills airline is shutting down this summer.
You deploy the dark art of yield management: adjusting fares over time to squeeze the most revenue from each seat. With this technique you aim to sell the very last seat a few hours before departure to someone who is desperate to travel. It will be a "distress purchase", and therefore they will not object to paying several times the fare that the early-booking cheapskates seized many months ago.
Example: a month today I fly from Gatwick to Athens, on an easyJet flight that I booked in February for £198 return. The fare has risen by £40 so far, and is likely to increase steeply in the week or two before departure.
Yet the pricing for one particular route of the same length (just less than 1,500 miles) breaks this long-established pattern.
On May Day, British Airways flight 898 took off from Heathrow airport, about an hour late. The airline won't tell me how many people were aboard, but I bet it was less than half full. It was the first BA flight to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, since the route was suspended when hostilities broke out 16 months ago.
Until flights were axed, the going rate for an economy seat was around £300 return – much more than the price for a similar distance, say, Athens, but not bad considering the "niche" destination. But today, even if you book six months ahead for the quietest day (Tuesday) in the middle of the lowest-season month (November), the least you will pay is £770 return. That is £100 more than the fare to Hong Kong or Los Angeles and back on BA, and almost enough to fly a family of five to Athens and back.
What's going on? BA recognises that no one will be on that flight for fun. Just a line from the Foreign Office list of reasons to avoid Libya: "There has been celebratory gunfire since the revolution and a number of fatalities as a result of rounds falling from the sky." And the official advice saying "don't go" has the effect of invalidating travel insurance cover.
So who will be on board? This thrice-weekly service is aimed squarely at three constituencies: government officials, charity workers and NGO staff, and business travellers trying to cash in on the rebuilding of Libya.
Tourists need not apply
BA's four busiest destinations from London? The airline wasn't able to tell me, but looking at the frequency and size of aircraft I'd put money on New York being top of the list, followed by Amsterdam, Madrid and Edinburgh. But I was more interested in the airline's least-popular targets, the places that simply aren't aimed at tourists. The best way to identify them: to check the fare-per-mile.
So, I took a spin through the schedules and took an educated guess at which had the least appeal. (The addition last month of BMI made this task easier, since it includes all manner of former Soviet capitals.) The index I chose was minimum November fare divided by distance from London; for a "control" to a mainstream tourist destination, I used that Athens price, which works out at 11p per mile.
The Balkan cities of Pristina and Tirana look a bargain at 13p and 14p respectively; Bishkek is the cheapest ex-USSR oddity at 18p; the three oil destinations of Bahrain, Riyadh and Kuwait are lined up at 20p; Baku, home of Eurovision, is 24p; Luanda, which a former BA boss summed up to me as "gold, diamonds and oil", stands at 28p.
Armenia's capital, Yerevan, piles on the pounds at 31p – but Tripoli is way out of line at 53p per mile.
If this new route is anything to go by, BA's strategy appears to be changing: instead of serving places that almost everyone wants to visit, it appears that there is more money to be made flying to places that almost no one wants to visit.
The next big adventure?
In time, when peace properly returns, Libya has the capacity to astonish visitors, with fabulous classical ruins at Leptis Magna, amazing desert scenery and, most intriguingly of all, hundreds of miles of untouched seashore all within three hours' flying time.
The neighbouring countries of Egypt and Tunisia must be looking over their shoulder at Libya's potential – but for overland tourists wanting some new thrills, Alexandria in Egypt to Tunis, along the shore of Libya, looks a great adventure.
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