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Simon Calder: The strewth about BA’s loyalty scheme

The man who pays his way

You have shopped assiduously at the right supermarket and service station, used the optimum credit card and amassed a couple of hundred thousand Avios points – enough for a flight to Australia in style in 2013. That’s the good news. The bad news begins when you check availability via the British Airways loyalty scheme’s online map (bit.ly/AvMap).

First, BA will fly you anywhere you like in Australia, so long as it is Sydney. The airline’s network no longer includes Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. Next, when would you like to travel? Paying cash, more than 66,000 date combinations between London and Sydney are open to you between New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve next year. But Avios collectors are not exactly spoilt for choice. When I researched the story about the first year of BA’s new reward currency (see page 9), I discovered there is only one combination open to anyone seeking a Club World seat to Sydney and back. You must fly out on 20 August and back on 22 October. (Both are Tuesdays – the quietest day in air travel.)

Strewth, you might say (particularly if you are Australian): BA must be making a mint on the London-Sydney link, the so-called “Kangaroo route”. In fact, the opposite is the case.

After dropping five of its Australian destinations, and reducing its twice-daily Sydney 747 to a single Jumbo, BA is now downsizing to a 777. The smaller plane means that, over the course of a year, there will be 28,000 fewer seats to Australia and back. And that helps to explain why there is no choice about when you can spend Avios for a luxury trip Down Under.

On the Gulf course

Virgin Atlantic and Qantas also fly daily from Heathrow to Sydney, via Hong Kong and  Singapore respectively. But Qantas is about to abandon its long-standing city-state hub in South-east Asia for a different enclave in the Gulf.

From 31 March next year, the Australian airline’s double-daily departure from Heathrow will stop at Dubai, not Singapore. Qantas has torn up its decades-old deal with British Airways, and is forming what it calls “The World’s Leading Airline Partnership” with Emirates – which, until now, has been the formidable foe of every other carrier linking the UK and Australia.

Emirates flies non-stop from Dubai to all the Australian destinations that BA has ever served (except, pre-empting pedants, Darwin – the Northern Territory capital used to be a refuelling stop). With connections from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow as well as Heathrow, the vast majority of the UK population is within a two-hour drive of a one-stop service to all the major cities in Australia (with apologies to Canberra and Hobart).

Twenty years ago, the “default” airlines to Australia were BA and Qantas. A decade ago,  Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were equally competitive. But now Emirates has become the automatic choice for most Australia-bound passengers – a position challenged mainly by its Middle Eastern rivals, Etihad and Qatar Airways. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha were once those dusty desert airports where you had to stop in the middle of the night to refuel; now, they are the transit lounges for the whole eastern hemisphere.

Could the switch to a smaller plane indicate BA is soon to throw in the towel to Sydney, and concentrate on more profitable destinations? Certainly not, says a spokesman: “The change to a 777 is because the operating costs are much more efficient.” The service also moves to BA’s main Heathrow hub, Terminal 5, making it more attractive to transfer passengers. But as Peter Woodrow, a former BA lifer who writes the Air ’N There blog, told me: “The London-Sydney route has high economy/low premium demand. BA’s aircraft are configured high premium/low economy. It must therefore be highly likely that, before long,  BA will bite the bullet and cease serving Australia. Operating end to end just isn’t worth the candle.” Get booking for that 20 August seat to Sydney.

Kiwi fruitlessness

New Zealand is also getting harder to reach. BA long ago abandoned both Auckland and Christchurch, leaving Air New Zealand as the only airline connecting the opposite ends of the world. At present, Air NZ is also the only airline that can take you right around the planet: fly out from Heathrow via Hong Kong to Auckland, and back via Los Angeles, to take full advantage of the jet stream and the airline’s excellent service. But from March, the Oriental option ends. The Hong Kong route, says the airline, shows no sign of making a profit “in the foreseeable future”.