As the clocks go forward, airline finance directors emerge with a distinct spring in their step. The bean-counters were already feeling chipper because the planned increase in Air Passenger Duty was postponed this week. And the summer season is when demand for air travel soars, as do the amounts that travellers are prepared to spend in search of sun, cities or adventure.
The last weekend in March is when planes are brought out of retirement (or at least mothballs) and crews prepare to work even harder to offer travellers an ever-wider range of choice. Some routes that would simply not be viable in winter are launched or relaunched, while many more see the frequency increased.
The past couple of years have seen some retrenchment – as evidenced by Heathrow slipping to fourth-busiest airport in the world, leapfrogged by Beijing. But looking at Ryanair's plans from Birmingham shows how optimism – and opportunities – are increasing. The airline starts flying to the Spanish islands of Fuerteventura, Ibiza and Mallorca, and – strangest route of the summer – to Kaunas in Lithuania. It is a similar unlikely story from Bristol, which sees a connection with Rzeszow in south-east Poland. As the days get longer, more routes begin, with dozens of new links from Britain planned in April, May and June.
The no-frills revolution began in the British Isles over 15 years ago, placing us way ahead of the rest of Europe. That means the market is more mature, or plain saturated, with little opportunity for growth. There are some new domestic routes opening: easyJet is launching Gatwick-Aberdeen and Glasgow-Jersey services, while Flybe will connect Manchester with City of Derry. But much of the growth this summer is to the eastern half of Mediterranean, to cash in on the perceived demand for Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. Monarch has scheduled flights to Paphos and Bodrum from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester, and from Luton to Corfu.
Whether you seek a simple hop across the Channel or plan to explore Indo-China (Air France has a new direct flight from Paris to Phnom Penh), the summer schedules increase your options. And some even better news: when a new route begins, fares tend to fall.
One reason is that the launch airline is obliged to keep fares low in order to stimulate business. A ticket for any new 700-mile route is likely to cost less on a same-day, same-time basis than an established 700-mile route. A good example is the new CityJet connection from London City to Toulon, where there is plenty of availability for under £200 return even in the peak month of August. For a full-service airline operating from a premium airport to one of the most desirable destinations on the Med (and whose terminal is two minutes from the beach), this is remarkable value.
The other effect: adding new capacity on one "city pair" can diminish demand for rivals. When easyJet starts flying from Manchester to Montpellier in southern France, the new route will draw traffic from Ryanair's existing link between Liverpool and Nîmes, forcing the Irish airline to cut fares (going out on 20 June for a week, this flight has been on sale for £45 return; as always in The Independent Traveller, all fares quoted include unavoidable taxes and charges).
Exciting fares skirmishes can be expected from London to a wide range of destinations. BMI and Royal Jordanian will not join the celebrations at Gatwick tomorrow morning ahead of easyJet's first flight to Amman, with fares typically 30-50 per cent lower than the existing competition from Heathrow.
Between Gatwick and Bologna, easyJet is going head-to-head (and almost hour-to-hour) against BA's existing route. And one of the rare battles where easyJet confronts Ryanair – on an airport-to-airport basis – starts on 16 April between Gatwick and Seville.
Several airlines are starting on the road to Morocco: expect an almighty summer fares war between London and Marrakech. British Airways starts its first non-franchise service from Gatwick to the Ville Rouge. Ryanair is deploying its Boeings from Stansted. BMI, now part of Lufthansa, is launching flights from Heathrow to both Marrakech and Morocco's commercial capital, Casablanca; travellers who invest in an "open-jaw" trip can compare the two cities and take the "Marrakech Express" train between them.
BMI is expanding its network from Heathrow to Norway (Bergen and Stavanger) and the Swiss city of Basel (also with BMI Regional from Manchester). The Swiss capital, Bern, gets reconnected with Britain thanks to a link from London City on Skywork.
The bosses of Britain's airports will also be calibrating their attractiveness relative to rivals. While Bristol and Leeds/Bradford showed strong growth last year, others – including Stansted, Belfast International and Glasgow – showed sharp declines. Travellers living in these airports' catchment areas saw their options shrink during 2010. But unlike an airline, an airport is unable to move its assets around the world in search of more lucrative markets, and so in the months ahead you can expect an aggressive response as airports do deals in order to lure new carriers.
Where does all this expansion leave the planet? Anyone concerned about the impact of aviation – from the noise footprint to the carbon footprint – will be concerned about any increase in the number of flights. Yet the spike in oil prices will help, forcing airlines to scrap inefficient old jets and replace them with more efficient aircraft – and fly them with fewer empty seats.
Manchester: gateway to the world?
Which UK airport serves more destinations than any other? Not Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, but the UK's fourth-busiest airport. Manchester is at the centre of a battle between the "MEB3". This is aviation-speak for the Middle East Big Three, ie Emirates of Dubai, Etihad of Abu Dhabi and Doha-based Qatar Airways. All three are upping their services from Manchester this summer, moves that could see the city become the natural departure point for the Gulf, Asia, Australasia and Africa for the northern half of Britain.
Short-haul opportunities include new links on Bmibaby to Montpellier and to Bilbao on easyJet. The latter has also put on a flight to Palma de Mallorca, though this is already a crowded market. Also from Manchester, Jet2 will be flying to Brive (serving the Dordogne valley) from 16 May.
Falling off the map
The number of planes available to each airline is, of course, finite, and they want to deploy them in the most efficient and profitable way. Therefore a number of routes are disappearing from the route networks in order to free up resources for new links. A typical example is from Manchester to Manston in Kent, for which Flybe is throwing in the towel next week – but the Thanet airport is going to get connected with Belfast City from May, at least tentatively. Three round trips will fly each week, to test if the new link has a brighter future.
The long-established no-frills link from Stansted to Newcastle is ending: easyJet will axe the route because of intensifying competition from East Coast Trains, which from 23 May has an early morning non-stop train from Newcastle to London King's Cross taking just over two and a half hours.
Olympic Airlines has, in various guises, served Athens and Thessaloniki from Heathrow for decades. But the ailing airline has decided to throw in the towel and surrender its slots, leaving Aegean Airlines to slug it out with BA.
Egypt is suffering as a result of the slump in demand following the unrest in January and February. The easyJet route from Gatwick to Luxor, launched with great fanfare only in November, is being reduced to just one flight a week. Jet2 stopped all its services to Sharm El Sheikh this month, and British Airways is ending its brief attempt to compete with easyJet on the Gatwick-Sharm route. Not surprisingly, BA has axed its link between Heathrow and Tripoli for the summer. Further east, Qatar Airways is axing its Gatwick-Doha route at the end of May, switching the aircraft to Manchester – where it will compete with Emirates and Etihad on services to the Gulf.
The star of the schedules this summer is France, with particular honours going to Toulon, the airport located on the coast close to the Provençal town of Hyères. The link from Stansted on Ryanair was restored last month; it will be joined by Liverpool from Monday. CityJet starts flying there from London City on 27 May, and on the same date launches flights from the Docklands airport to Avignon.
Elsewhere, Ryanair is "joining the dots" – starting or bringing back 15 links between a number of the airports it services this summer. Most come into effect tomorrow: Birmingham to Montpellier; Bristol to Bergerac and Limoges; East Midlands to Bergerac and Carcassonne; Edinburgh to Bordeaux and Marseille; Leeds/Bradford to Limoges, Montpellier and Nantes; Liverpool to Nîmes and Bergerac; and Prestwick (Glasgow on Planet Ryanair) to Carcassonne.
Flybe steps up connections between England's South Coast and south and central France, with new links from Southampton to Clermont-Ferrand on 21 May, Pau on 25 May and Béziers on 27 May.
The new BMI links from Heathrow and Manchester to Basel in Switzerland actually touch down in French territory in Mulhouse, serving such alluring nearby towns as Colmar and, for Le Courbusier fans, Ronchamp.
The ferry companies are not sitting idly. P&O's new Spirit of Britain has brought style back to the Dover-Calais run; and LD Lines has a new fast ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre.
When, three years ago, Open Skies was launched between Europe and the US, everyone (including me) imagined a brave new transatlantic world where London would get essential connections to alluring destinations such as New Orleans and Salt Lake City, and that Birmingham and Newcastle would wake up to find themselves connected with Miami and Los Angeles. In fact, not much happened beyond several US carriers shifting their Gatwick operations to Heathrow. Air France tried linking Heathrow with Los Angeles but soon gave up, and Northwest had a go at a link to Seattle, but retired hurt and left the monopoly to BA.
This summer sees much more significant changes as a result of BA's closer ties with American Airlines. The two airlines are now allowed to collaborate, rather than compete, across the Atlantic, and have aligned their schedules to suit the needs of business travellers (and airline shareholders). There is now the closest there has ever been to a "shuttle" service on the world's premier intercontinental link, between Heathrow and New York JFK. Going west, morning departures are erratic between 8.30am and 11am, but from 1pm they are every hour, on the hour, until 8pm. Inbound there are two "daytime" flights (one on each of BA and AA, leaving in the morning and arriving late evening) and then a staggering nine in the five hours from 6.10pm. Miss one, and you will have as little as 20 minutes to wait for the next — so long as you have a flexible ticket, which applies mainly to business flyers.
Modest schedule improvements to Miami and Chicago offer more evenly spaced options. A couple of warnings: BA and AA use different terminals at Heathrow, so if you miss the noon American Airlines flight from Terminal 3, you'll have your work cut out getting across to Terminal 5 for the 1pm. And while AA has improved over the years, its inflight product is a world away from BA's excellent service.
In order for BA and AA to snuggle up, they had to relinquish slots to rivals . Delta is starting flights from Heathrow to both Miami and Boston (which it previously attempted to serve from Gatwick). Iceland Express is adding Boston to its network with connections in Reykjavik from Gatwick and Edinburgh; and its new Sunday service to and from Winnipeg , makes the Manitoba city an easy and cheap one-stop connection from Gatwick.
Finally, BA is hoping it will be third time lucky on the route to San Diego starting in June, which will make the colourful Californian city and Mexico's Baja Peninsula enticingly easy to reach.