Simon Calder: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, Agadir. Wherever next for BMI?
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.
Saturday 30 July 2011
So frequent and plaintive was one airport announcement at Stansted that, years later, I recall it (I hope) verbatim: "Would any passengers booked to fly on Buzz to Rouen please contact the airline?"
Buzz was born in the year 2000 from what used to be the well-regarded Air UK. The no-frills subsidiary of KLM planned an ambitious network from its base at Stansted to key European destinations including Milan, Berlin and Vienna. These routes, like pretty much everything Buzz did, proved fruitless: the airline lost an average of £20 for every passenger it ever flew.
One of the last throws of the dice for the carrier was a network of links from Stansted to provincial French cities – including a twice-daily service to the scene of Joan of Arc's martyrdom.
The road to Rouen proved a costly mistake. Of the modest number of British travellers drawn to the Normandy home of Impressionism, most chose the ferry: no money in Monet, evidently. And les Rouennais were unimpressed by the prospect of a flight to Essex. They failed to show up in their thousands, or even their dozens. So the morning flight to and from Rouen was routinely cancelled, with passengers scooped up by the evening rotation. The airport announcement alerted any stragglers who had not been notified in advance to the news that they would be spending the day at Stansted.
By early 2003, Buzz was burning cash at £100,000 a day. It was swallowed up by Ryanair: the 21st-century version of a burning at the stake. The Irish airline promptly dumped many of the staff and half the routes to France. And Buzz buzzed off into aviation obscurity.
Why might that tale turn out to be topical? Because another airline with a proud heritage and a foreign owner is casting about for new destinations. British Midland International this week announced a link from Heathrow to Agadir in Morocco, starting on 28 October. No doubt the airline, now part of Lufthansa, believes there are enough takers at a £299 return.
For the sake of the airline and its excellent staff, I hope such optimism is well-founded. But BMI already serves the intensely exotic Moroccan city of Marrakech. Nearby Agadir is a pleasant yet unremarkable resort that already has plenty of charter flights. I fear the Agadir route could prove yet another expensive and short-lived experiment, like the links to Tel Aviv and Tripoli. Wherever next: Rouen?
Starting in 1981, British Midland provided the UK with the most competitive aviation market in Europe, challenging BA and other airlines at Heathrow by offering lower fares and better service.
However, in the decade since British Midland was rebranded as BMI, the airline has apparently struggled to find a coherent strategy. The original short-haul network to alluring destinations such as Paris, Palma and Amsterdam has almost disappeared; BMI's long-haul base in Manchester no longer exists; plans to cash in on "Open Skies" with flights to the US never materialised.
BMI's value now resides in its slots at Heathrow: it holds the rights to one in nine arrivals and departures. The airport's radar screens may already show some unusual formations: vultures waiting to pounce.
Buzz flight years: to Bournemouth and beyond!
"Petty cash": according to Ryanair's boss, Michael O'Leary, that was what he paid to take over Buzz. Always take announcements by airline bosses with one of those little inflight packets of salt. Shortly before Floris van Pallandt, chief executive of Buzz, threw in the towel, he vowed: "We are well poised to continue our position as one of the leading low-cost carriers in Europe."
In January 2003, the average Buzz plane flew with fewer than half its seats filled – which is when Mr O'Leary arrived with his small change. The airline was grounded while Ryanair repainted the planes (see above) and decided which routes it would keep.
To its credit, Buzz pioneered some routes that are now flourishing in the hands of other airlines: La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, Toulon on the Med and Bergerac-Dordogne.
Buzz also spotted the potential of Bournemouth airport, and sold thousands of tickets for flights from Dorset to the Dordogne and beyond. But sadly Mr van Pallandt's "unswerving commitment to developing the low cost market through implementing an ambitious growth strategy" proved a promise as empty as the Buzz boss's planes.
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