Traveller's Guide To: New winter flights

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As the clocks go back and the airlines begin their new seasonal schedules, Simon Calder reveals where's hot and where's not

Winter? Already?

Yes, from the point of view of the world's airlines, which recognise only two seasons: summer ends tomorrow, when the clocks go back, and the winter schedules will take effect until the clocks move forward on 28 March next year. Many airlines use the change as an opportunity to start or stop services. Flying in winter is usually less profitable than in the summer, and the economic downturn has accentuated that; Ryanair is cutting capacity sharply at its main base of operations, Stansted, while British Airways is grounding a total of 16 Heathrow-based Boeing 747s and 757s this winter and axeing routes from Gatwick to Europe. But in the ever-optimistic realm of route planning, many airlines are introducing new services that they hope will prove profitable; in particular, anyone heading for the Canaries this winter is spoiled for choice. See the special supplement in the centre of this edition for reasons to be there.

Virgin territory?

Sir Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic, departs a fortnight today from Gatwick to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. This is a former BA route, which is a touch ironic because British Airways will be landing in plenty of Virgin territory as the airline makes some radical route changes. The airline is introducing five new long-haul routes that mark a switch in focus from business to leisure.

No prizes for spotting the flagship service: Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, will be aboard the inaugural flight of BA275, the new departure from Heathrow to Las Vegas. Mr Walsh is gambling that connecting passengers and travellers poached from Virgin Atlantic's existing Gatwick-Las Vegas service will provide a jackpot for BA. The airline is also setting up on the Gatwick-Montego Bay route, in direct competition with Virgin's link to Jamaica's main resort airport, and Gatwick-Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. The other new benefit at Gatwick is the option for BA passengers to check in the day before, regardless of the time of their flight.

America's biggest city has fallen off BA's route map from Gatwick. The airline has axed its connection to New York, and is re-deploying the Boeing 777 on two new links: to Malé in the Maldives and Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt – both of which are overwhelmingly holiday routes, and the latter served currently only by low-cost carriers.

No frills versus full service?

Yes, and, in retaliation, some full-service routes are about to get new low-cost airlines. Just as British Airways has decided to go head-to-head with easyJet on the Gatwick-Sharm el Sheikh route, easyJet is returning the favour with a new Luton-Sharm connection – and the first no-frills flights from Luton to Tel Aviv. The latter will compete against El Al from Luton, and the El Al, British Airways and BMI links from Heathrow. For the first time for a no-frills airline, easyJet will offer Kosher snacks: look out for the smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. Jet2 is also flying from Manchester to Tel Aviv, the Israeli destination that will be featured in the 48 Hours city-break slot in The Independent Traveller next Saturday.

Plenty more new routes will be on offer from easyJet – though these are mainly starting early in November, rather than in the coming week.

On 29 October, easyJet starts connecting Manchester with the most exotic place within three hours' flying time: Marrakech. Manchester also gets easyJet connections to a pair of classy European cities: Copenhagen and Munich. Most of easyJet's new routes, though, are "mid-haul": from Liverpool to both Lanzarote and Fuerteventura; Gatwick gets a link with Agadir on the coast of Morocco; Stansted will have a connection to Fuerteventura; and Luton becomes connected to Paphos, in the alluring western end of Cyprus.

Monarch is expanding southwards, with new links – that started earlier this week – from Birmingham to Las Palmas and from Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Manchester to Fuerteventura.

Jet2 continues to expand from northern destinations: Belfast to Tenerife, Manchester to Tel Aviv and Newcastle to Sharm el Sheikh. And Turkish Airlines moves into the no-frills market with a new link in November from Stansted to Sabiha Gökçen, Istanbul's low-cost airport.

Are European airlines getting in on the act?

Ireland's two largest carriers, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, are continuing to expand routes from the UK. Ryanair is focusing strongly on the Canaries, with new links from Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton to Lanzarote, Las Palmas and Tenerife South.

Other highlights are Bristol-Malaga, East Midlands-Ibiza, East Midlands-Marrakech, and Liverpool to Agadir and Bratislava – or "Vienna East".

Edinburgh airport expands thanks to Ryanair, with "Munich Wes" (the small Bavarian town of Memmingen), "Barcelona" (Girona) and "Brussels" (Charleroi) all on the menu.

Meanwhile, Aer Lingus is continuing its expansion at Gatwick, with new links to Bucharest, Warsaw and Eindhoven – plus Tenerife and Lanzarote.

Air France is introducing a new London City-Nantes route, one of very few new options; the UK, with a weak economy and currency, is not seen as a good bet by many airlines.

Anywhere really exotic?

Not from Britain. Your best bet is to head to Germany or the Gulf. Lufthansa is adding services from Frankfurt to Abuja in Nigeria, with some of them continuing to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. Air Berlin is expanding its network from Cologne/Bonn – which has easy links from the UK – to two notable Moroccan destinations with no direct services from Britain: Tangier and Nador.

Among the more appealing new destinations provided by Gulf-based airlines, Qatar Airways is adding a serviceV Cfrom its hub in Doha to Goa in India that will travel four times every week. Meanwhile, Etihad has launched a link from Abu Dhabi to Cape Town.

Any new planes?

No. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner was meant to be in service with Thomson and Virgin Atlantic by now, but the new long-haul plane is still some years off. For something different, you could buy a UK-Paris-New York itinerary through Air France, which starts flying the Airbus A380 "Superjumbo" from Charles de Gaulle to JFK on 23 November. Air France will be the first European operator of the A380. In December, you can get a Manchester-Paris-New York flight, with the transatlantic sectors on the new aircraft, for £524. Note that the French carrier moves from Heathrow Terminal 2 (where it has been since the year dot) to Terminal 4, to join the other SkyTeam airlines.

One of the more unlikely Anglo-French survivors is Southampton to Avignon. Flybe says it is continuing the service through the winter due to "unprecedented demand".

Falling off the map?

BA is throwing in the towel at Gatwick on many short-haul routes on which it competes with no-frills airlines: four Spanish cities (Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid and Palma) drop off the departure board, as well as Malta and Krakow. Ryanair has dropped a range of flights from Stansted, as part of its continuing dispute with BAA, the airport's owner, and earlier this month switched many links from Manchester to Leeds/Bradford.

However, easyJet is dropping just one UK route this winter, from Luton to Vienna. Bmibaby is leaving the key Costa routes from Manchester to Malaga and Alicante to rival airlines. And the Aer Lingus link from Gatwick to Nice is to cease.

The French lose flights from London City, too: Air France is cutting services to Paris CDG, Nice and Strasbourg, the latter likely to cause consternation among some MEPs.

Any alternatives?

Yes: the train. As the new November edition of Thomas Cook's European Rail Timetable reveals, when the train schedules take effect on 13 December there will be more high-speed options across Europe. In particular, the fast Milan-Rome-Naples link is finally due to be completed, bringing the journey time between Milano Centrale and the Italian capital down to three hours, with other useful high-speed links to Florence and Bologna.

Cold war: Airlines do battle over the snow market

In December, BA will launch Gatwick-Innsbruck services aimed squarely at skiers; pilots will have to receive special training to handle the difficult approach through mountainous terrain. Ryanair takes off from Bristol, East Midlands and Prestwick to Turin on 19 December, and from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Liverpool to Grenoble. On the same date Gatwick gets a connection to Cuneo in Italy and Lourdes (serving the western half of the French Pyrenees). Ryanair's rivals may be heading for the nearest shrine to pray that the world's biggest airline – in terms of international passenger numbers – will not be making too big a footprint in the snow market.

Santa wars could be about to break out in Finland. For years, Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland has claimed the main Father Christmas franchise for flying day trips from the UK. However, this winter, Transun is offering flights to what it calls "True Lapland"; the town of Enontekiö in north-west Finland, a couple of hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Besides the chance to meet Santa, Enontekiö offers outdoor pursuits including husky-drawn rides, snow-shoe hikes and snowmobile safaris. Flights will operate in December from Birmingham, Manchester, East Midlands, Cardiff, Doncaster-Sheffield, Glasgow, Gatwick. It costs £399 for adults, and £349 for children.

Man with a mission BA's Andy Lord

Andy Lord, director of operations for British Airways, explains what is needed before beginning a new route...

"As you can imagine, it is a very complex process. Our commercial team will look at what opportunities exist for new routes and changing frequencies, they will look at where they want to fly and what aircraft to use. Then it gets handed over to my team who are responsible for on-the-day planning and control of the operation. We have about 750 flights a day worldwide, and up to 8,000 crew on duty at any one time anywhere in the world – it is a massive logistical exercise. But we're absolutely delighted to be starting flying to five new long-haul destinations next week: Las Vegas, Sharm el Sheikh, Punta Cana, the Maldives and Montego Bay.

"We have to organise everything from refuelling and crew accommodation to making sure that the airport and terminal facilities are adequate for the aircraft. We have to set up catering and IT systems, and make sure that we deliver the highest level of service for our customers."

Away days: Hotspots this season

San Juan

A working version of Havana: that sums up the Puerto Rican capital. Like its Cuban counterpart, it straggles the seafront towards a colonial core, where muscular Spanish fortifications jostle for attention with pretty churches and pastel-painted houses. It may be the Clapham Junction of the Caribbean, but wander (safely) through the backstreets and you will encounter a friendly bunch of people with apparently no business more pressing than to exchange beers with new arrivals by ship – or, very soon, from Gatwick.

Sharm el Sheikh

The big draw for many visitors at Egypt's biggest resort lies beneath the waves. The conditions in the Red Sea – deep, warm and nutrient-rich water bathed in sunshine – have created superb coral reefs. Some are so close to shore that you can almost step from hotel to reef. The simplest way to explore the reefs is snorkelling, but the waters of the Red Sea attract tens of thousands of divers. Numerous operators offer diving tuition and expeditions. For people who prefer not to go so deep, glass- bottom boat trips are on offer – as well, of course, as the beach. Onshore, tour operators offer quad-bike tours that explore the desert, while you can also visit a Bedouin camp (though not the most authentic of the genre).

The most adventurous excursion is an overnight trip to Mount Sinai, climbing in the early hours in order to see sunrise from the summit – where Moses received the Ten Commandments. After dawn, you descend to St Catherine's Monastery, a fourth-century complex run by Greek Orthodox monks – and the location of the biblical Burning Bush.

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