Flying in the face of economic pressures and rising oil prices, airlines from the British Isles are launching an unprecedented 128 new routes this summer – and incurring the wrath of the environmental lobby.
Europe’s largest no-frills airline, Ryanair, is responsible for most of the growth. The Dublin-based carrier, which now flies one in 10 intra-European passengers, is starting 90 new services from the UK in the next three months. These include some links that defy the conventional wisdom of aviation: tomorrow, Ryanair starts flying from Birmingham to Kaunas, connecting the West Midlands with central Lithuania, followed on Monday by a new link from Bristol to Rzeszow in south-east Poland.
Next month, easyJet will connect Liverpool with the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Other unusual pairings include Flybe’s new routes from Exeter to Dusseldorf and Southampton to Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central of France.
The record number of route launches is a result of improved fortunes among the airlines, for which earnings were especially strong from July to September last year. But since then Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the airlines’ trade association, IATA, has said that carriers can expect only “pathetic profitability” in 2011.
The chief executive of Ryanair, rejected claims that its growth plans were overambitious: “Not at Ryanair’s very low fares. Most are to very popular summer sun- type destinations.”
His airline’s expansion is taking place almost entirely from airports outside the London area. There are eight new routes from Birmingham, nine from Bristol and 10 from Liverpool. Star of the summer is East Midlands; besides 11 more routes on Ryanair, travellers in the Derby-Leicester-Nottingham triangle can also fly on Bmibaby to Ibiza or Verona.
Greenpeace condemned the rate of expansion. The head of its transport campaign, Vicky Wyatt, said: “Whilst saying ‘no’ to expansion in the South East is a good start, the government shouldn’t allow a massive increase in flying via the back door by simply moving expansion out of the South East and into the regions.”
Another Dublin-based airline, CityJet, is launching summer-only flights from the UK’s main business airport, London City. Surprisingly, they are all to destinations in southern France that can expect negligible business travel: Pau in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Toulon on the Riviera and the Provencal city of Avignon.
The last destination puts CityJet in direct competition with Eurostar trains, and is likely to infuriate campaigners keen to see travellers switch from air to rail. This week the Chancellor postponed plans to increase Air Passenger Duty.
Luton-based Monarch is starting flights from its home airport to Corfu, as well as links from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to both Paphos in Cyprus and Bodrum in Turkey. BMI is ending its Heathrow-Glasgow link and switching capacity to Scandinavia and North Africa – including Marrakech, which will have five competing airlines from London.
One notable airline absentee from the departure boards of new routes is British Airways. Its schedules from Heathrow and Gatwick are being augmented, but largely with old links that are being revived: Marrakech (formerly a franchised route), San Diego and San Juan in Puerto Rico.
The result of the latest strike ballot by BA cabin crew in their long and bitter dispute with management will be announced on Monday, and is likely to show another resounding majority in favour of industrial action.
Continental carriers have not demonstrated the same appetite for new routes from Britain, but travellers from Luton have some interesting options courtesy of Wizz Air. New destinations on the departure screens include Cluj-Napoca and Tirgu Mures in Transylvania, and the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Skopje.
12 routes you never thought you would see
East Midlands-Bergerac (Ryanair)
London City-Pau (CityJet)
Luton-Skopje (Wizz Air)
Luton-Tirgu Mures (Wizz Air)