The Complete Guide To New Destinations - News & Advice - Travel - The Independent

The Complete Guide To New Destinations

Winter airline schedules start tomorrow, and new routes are being added from airports across Britain


WHY NOW - ANYTHING TO DO WITH HALLOWE'EN?

WHY NOW - ANYTHING TO DO WITH HALLOWE'EN?

No, although anyone applying a close financial eye to the vast range of new scheduled routes may wonder which have a ghost of a chance of success. The reason so many start at once is because tonight is when the clocks go back: the ideal time for airlines to switch from summer to winter timetables.

Traditionally, airlines flying to, from or within the UK curtail their routes during the lean winter months - fewer people travel, and the schedule reductions are to prevent too many flights operating at a loss. But tomorrow, and over the next few weeks, dozens of new routes will be launched by airlines keen to attract you and your cash.

Nine years ago, easyJet and Ryanair unveiled no-frills flying in the UK. The flight opportunities for British travellers have increased dramatically since then. These two giants of European aviation are expanding to new horizons - but there are plenty of new arrivals, too.

WHY SO MANY NEWCOMERS?

In Europe, the main reason is the the amount of cash that Ryanair has been raking in, and the profits made by the venture capitalists who sold Go to easyJet for four times what they paid for it. Aviation is traditionally a terrible business in which to make money, but some of the no-frills airlines appear to have broken that mould - and have tempted investors into the market.

Ironically, the more competition there is, the less cash anyone makes - which is why easyJet has warned of falling profits and Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, has predicted a "bloodbath" among Europe's airlines this winter. He and Ray Webster, boss of easyJet, have been largely responsible for forcing fares down, helped by some spectacular aircraft orders. Both easyJet and Ryanair are acquiring jets at knock-down prices from, respectively, Airbus and Boeing. They have to fly them somewhere.

SO WHERE ARE THEY GOING?

Having secured the most lucrative routes in Western Europe, easyJet and Ryanair are moving east in search of new markets. Tomorrow, Ryanair begins flying between Stansted and the Latvian capital, Riga; meanwhile easyJet is promoting its new flights to Bratislava, Krakow and Tallinn with the slogan "More than just weightlifters". And just as they go east, hungry and cheap Eastern European airlines are moving west. With lower wages, and hence costs, the likes of Smart Wings, SkyEurope and Wizz Air are able to tap into the richest aviation market in Europe: London. Some are taking advantage of their new membership of the European Union to operate flights between other member states. Air Baltic, the Latvian airline, is to introduce flights from Gatwick to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, in competition with Lithuanian Airlines. British Airways joins the fray on the identical route from next March.

The most intense rivalry between any two airports in Europe is about to begin. It is the route between Gatwick and Prague. The appeal of the Czech capital is immense. The city is magical at every turn: a glimpse of the castle from a street corner in the Old Town, the fading façade of an Art Nouveau building, the clatter of a tram as it crosses the Vltava river. The Czech capital contains elements of the quaint, the ornate, the gently crumbling and the hi-tech, all within a compact and low-rise city. And beer is less than 50 pence a pint. Yet whether this is enough to sustain four airlines from Gatwick to Prague is disputable (it would have been five, except that Bmibaby abandons the route tonight because of the tough competition).

Nine years ago, the only air link from the West Sussex airport to the Czech capital was an occasional charter flight using a clapped-out Tupolev jet. The first scheduled service began a year ago, on Bmibaby. British Airways and easyJet soon joined the fray. Now, the route is the most competitive of all from Gatwick, with two new Czech carriers - Czech Airlines and SmartWings - starting services tomorrow and on Monday, respectively. Consequently, fares for travel next month are extremely low. For example, a return flight for travel on midweek dates in November is available for £76 return from Gatwick to Prague - half the fare on the dodgy old charter nine years ago.

DO ALL THESE NEW FLIGHTS START IN LONDON?

Not at all. There is far more room for expansion outside London. Czech Airlines will also begin flights from Glasgow this weekend, adding to its existing services from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted. And Bmibaby is doubling its present daily Manchester-Prague flight. The capital's airports have been filling some gaps in their schedules - typically mid-morning to late afternoon - with European airlines. An example: Germanwings starts flying from Stuttgart to Stansted. In addition, Ryanair is moving in to traditional easyJet territory at Luton with flights to Rome and Treviso (near Venice), starting in January.

Britain's problem is not a national shortage of airports; it is that the the runways and terminals are in the "wrong" places for the heaviest demand. So at last airports outside south-east England are getting access to a wide range of destinations. Some of the routes look unlikely in the extreme - such as Air Berlin's service from Southampton to the German city of Paderborn. Hampshire to North Rhine-Westphalia could turn out to be what, in airline jargon, is known as a "thin route".

Air Berlin is also launching new routes from Manchester to Paderborn, as well as Düsseldorf, Hamburg and the German capital. Germany is a prime target for British travellers - or, more accurately, Britain is a prime target for German airlines. Hapag-Lloyd Express (HLX) starts connecting Edinburgh with Hamburg on 5 December. It is benefiting from Scotland's £95m Route Development Fund; most routes lose money in their early stages, and the Scottish Executive intends to support an expansion of direct flights from the country's airports. In addition, Prestwick has a new flight on Ryanair to Niederrhein (for Dusseldorf).

From 1 November, HLX will connect Coventry with Cologne. This replaces the Birmingham-Cologne link flown by Duo, which went bust earlier this year. As winter deepens, the appeal of Cologne intensifies. The former Roman city on the Rhine is arguably Germany's friendliest, packed with high culture, ambitious architecture and enticing restaurants; its lively Christmas market starts on 22 November. Cologne also has more than its fair share of architecture and culture - and a new high-speed rail link from the airport to the city.

HLX is owned by the giant German travel company TUI, as is Coventry airport itself.

I DON'T WANT TO BE SENT FROM COVENTRY

From January, Bmibaby launches a mix of routes - including Geneva, Malaga and - inevitably - Prague, from Birmingham. Or try John Lennon: Liverpool airport, which was rescued from oblivion by easyJet and now bears his name, is established as the leading low-cost gateway for northern England. Aer Lingus is re-opening its route from the Merseyside airport to Dublin. Besides adding to the intense competition across the Irish Sea, this will provide Liverpool's travellers with easy connections in Dublin to US-bound flights. More improbably, the new Hungarian-based budget airline, Wizz Air, is to launch flights from Merseyside to Budapest, Warsaw and Katowice from 7 December 2004. The link from Liverpool to Katowice, in south-west Poland's rust belt, rivals Southampton-Paderborn as the most improbable new route.

Manchester this winter moves into the aviation big league. It has lots of new flights to places you have heard of - such as Southampton, operated by FlyBE, and Copenhagen on Maersk Air. The Leeds/Bradford-based no-frills airline Jet2 is expanding across the Pennines in December. The new services will link Manchester with Budapest (1 December), Murcia (2 December) and Geneva (18 December). This season, Geneva will have so many skiers arriving from the UK that the airport will be busier than it was before Swissair went bust.

ANYTHING MORE EXOTIC FROM MANCHESTER?

The North-west's leading airport has lost a number of long-haul routes over the years; at various times it offered direct flights to Johannesburg, Sydney and Los Angeles. British Airways lost a fortune on the latter route. But its rival, BMI, is to try again with the American West, with a new link to Las Vegas. BMI is frustrated at being barred (by Anglo-American agreement) from operating Heathrow-US flights, so instead it is expanding from Manchester. Tomorrow sees the inaugural scheduled departure to the Nevada city. It will provide much-needed competition to Virgin Atlantic, which until now has enjoyed high revenues on its Gatwick-Las Vegas flight.

A trip from Manchester to Las Vegas is the closest you can get to a make-believe world. The hometown of indulgence (that's Las Vegas, not Manchester) looks and feels like Toytown for tycoons, and hardly anyone is on the streets until after it gets dark. Ironically, it shares with Phoenix, Arizona, the title of sunniest place in the world.

Manchester is also to get four new links to sunny places where people will aim to top up their tans. BMI starts flying to the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Antigua on 26 and 27 November; they are joined by St Lucia on 13 December. And American Airlines introduces flights to Miami on 2 November, with connections to other Caribbean islands and Latin America.

SHORT-HAUL SUN?

Book on one of easyJet's new Spain-bound flights from Stansted: to Valencia (3 November) and Almeria (11 November). The former is Spain's third city, a cultured and gastronomically distinguished location. The latter is a merry, stylish city, with a disproportionate number of enticing little bars within the core of the Old Town. Better still, it has easy access from the airport to the Cabo de Gata, a remote headland south-east of the city - and the finest location on Spain's entire crinkle-cut Mediterranean coast. From Luton, Ryanair will take you to Zaragoza in northern Spain from 1 December, while Monarch Scheduled is aiming further south with weekly flights to both Gran Canaria and Lanzarote for the winter. Morocco gets a new link, too: GB Airways launches a flight from Gatwick to Fez.

Meanwhile, for some domestic bliss, hop between West Yorkshire and East London. Further evidence, if it were needed, that Britain's road and rail networks are in poor shape: BMI starts flying from Leeds/Bradford to London City.

FRENCH CONNECTIONS?

FlyBE has five new routes to France: Brest, on the far west extreme of Brittany, gets new links from Birmingham, Exeter and Southampton. Cherbourg is connected to Southampton, which will place it in direct competition with the ferries; and Chambéry, ideally placed for the French Alps, wins a new route from Birmingham. Ray Webster, chief executive of easyJet and a keen skiier, is promising easier access to "the Alpine Crescent" of France. In case you were wondering where might be, easyJet says it is the area served by Grenoble airport - one of the gateways that Buzz used before it will take you there from Stansted from 5 January 2005; the airport serving the region, could also find yourself flying to Paris en route to Australia. Air France is stepping up flights to Singapore, from which it offers "code-share" connections on Qantas (ie the Australian airline's existing services are given an AF flight number). It seems likely that the French airline will market flights from a number of UK provincial airports to Australia's largest city.

SURELY THERE'S ENOUGH FLIGHTS TO AUSTRALIA ALREADY?

Not according to Sir Richard Branson. Twenty years after its first flight, Virgin Atlantic has finally won the right to serve Australia. Services from Heathrow via Hong Kong to Sydney will begin on 7 December. Before that, Perth gets reconnected with Britain; Qantas will fly to the Western Australian capital from Heathrow, with a stop at Singapore in both directions. This move has spurred Singapore Airlines to accelerate its swiftest London-Singapore-Perth service to 18 hours, 25 minutes - the fastest-ever link to Australia, made possible with an ultra-quick 45-minute transfer at Singapore. To add to the competition, Qatar Airways - which starts flights from Gatwick to Doha on 26 November - plans connections to Australia.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

WHO'S WHO IN THE AVIATION INDUSTRY

Air Baltic: 0870 60 727 727; www.airbaltic.lv

Air Berlin: 0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com

British Airways: 0870 850 9850; www.ba.com

BMI: 0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com

Bmibaby: 0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com

Canadian Affair: 020 7616 9184; www.canadian-affair.com

Continental: 0845 607 67 60; www.continental.com

Czech Airlines: 0870 444 3747; www.czechairlines.co.uk

easyJet: 0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com

EUjet: 0870 414 1414; www.eujet.com

FlyBE: 0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com

GB Airways: book with British Airways

Germanwings: 020-8321 7255; www.germanwings.com

Hapag-Lloyd Express (HLX): 0870 606 0519; www.hlx.com

Jet2: 0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com

Maersk Air: 020-7333 0066; www.maersk-air.com

Monarch Scheduled: 0870 040 5040; www.flymonarch.com

Qantas: 08457 747 767; www.qantas.co.uk

Ryanair: 0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com

SATA: 00 351 707 227 282; www.sata.pt

Smart Wings: 00 420 255 700 827; www.smartwings.net

Virgin Atlantic: 0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com

Wizz Air: 00 48 22 500 9499; www.wizzair.com

Zoom: 0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

SUMMER IN THE CITIES

Airlines' plans for next summer are well advanced. GB Airways is moving into Manchester next summer with routes to Malta, Funchal, Malaga, Paphos and Tenerife. BA itself will fly from Gatwick to Thessalonika and Split.

A summer fares war is likely at Birmingham: FlyBE is to launch services to Spain and Portugal in March, in competition with MyTravelLite and Bmibaby.

Jet2 continues its expansion from Manchester next year, with new routes to Malaga (an early starter on 4 February), Faro, Nice, Valencia and Venice (all on 19 March) and Pisa (May 26).

From Newcastle, HLX launches flights to Cologne and Munich.

Ryanair expands from Prestwick to Lübeck (for Hamburg), Pisa (for Florence) and Murcia (for La Manga and Cartagena) from 1 March.

Long-haul, Manchester sees new flights from May on Zoom to Vancouver and Toronto, and on Canadian Affair to Montreal, Halifax and Ottawa. Canadian Affair will also launch the first link from the UK to Quebec City, from Gatwick.

Virgin Atlantic expands its leisure routes from Gatwick next summer, with links to Havana and Nassau.

Bristol and Belfast are to get their first transatlantic flights to Newark airport, serving New York, from May on Continental.

In the olden days, when no transatlantic planes were bigger than the 757, the Azores was a familiar stop on flights from Europe. At last, a new direct link on SATA will begin from Gatwick on 5 April.

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