Winter flights: A world of new possibilities
As the clocks go back, the global map of airline route networks shifts, too. By Simon Calder
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 29 October 2011
In northern Europe, the last weekend of October marks the final nail in the coffin of summer. Tomorrow is not just when the clocks go back and you get used to the sun setting in mid-afternoon: it is also the "seasonal boundary" when airlines' summer schedules give way to winter.
Yet there are enough new opportunities to provide the traveller with dozens of fresh possibilities this winter. The word "destination" is deliberately left out of that sentence: the new season is more about wider choices of services than finding new locations on the sky map.
An honourable exception is Vietnam. Some years ago, British Airways planned services to Ho Chi Minh City, the republic's main commercial centre – still known on baggage tags as SGN from its old name, Saigon. As BA shrank, the idea was dropped. But from early December, Vietnam Airlines will serve both Ho Chi Minh City and the capital, Hanoi, from Gatwick.
To Latin America, KLM is making the running from its hub in Amsterdam – which can be accessed from more than a dozen UK airports. The Dutch airline (now part of Air France) is re-starting links to both Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, which should help to drive down fares to the two most alluring cities on South America's Atlantic Coast.
Travel to Ecuador is thankfully accelerated, too. Until now, flights from Amsterdam to Quito (the capital) and Guayaquil (for connections to the Galápagos) have involved a refuelling stop at Bonaire, one of the Dutch Caribbean islands. Removing this pause saves a couple of hours from the overall journey time – and improves the chances of a decent sleep on this very long haul.
KLM is also going into Havana. The three weekly departures from Amsterdam will provide welcome extra capacity to the Cuban capital and competition for Virgin Atlantic and BA/Iberia, though two of the new flights are combined with Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
One more Latin enhancement: Qantas will soon start a non-stop link between Santiago in Chile and Sydney. Flights across the South Pacific are rare, and the extra capacity will relieve the existing links from Santiago via Easter Island to Tahiti, and from Buenos Aires via Auckland to Sydney.
Germany's flag carrier, Lufthansa, is breaking new ground with a route that you might have imagined already existed: connecting its main hub, Frankfurt, with Gatwick. Since BA dropped the route some years ago, Continental Europe's financial centre has been disconnected from the UK's second airport. Business travellers based south of London will be glad for a point-to-point link, but what will appeal more to leisure travellers is the ability to plug into Lufthansa's global network.
No change of season is complete without British Airways shuffling its portfolio between airports and terminals at its London hubs. Madrid and Barcelona flights migrate from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, with services to Bucharest, Budapest, Larnaca, Prague and Warsaw going in the opposite direction. And it's more than a Mauritius rumour that BA flights to the lovely Indian Ocean island are being sent anticlockwise around the M25 to Gatwick from tomorrow. Mauritius fits comfortably into BA's premium long-haul leisure offering from the Sussex airport.
Gatwick continues to vie with Manchester for the title of UK airport with most connections (both have more than 200 each, way ahead of Heathrow). LGW cedes the SAS flight to BGO to MAN: in other words the Scandinavian airline, SAS, is switching its Bergen link from Gatwick to Manchester.
But the British airport with the highest number of links to Europe remains Stansted. The Essex hub gets a fourth Swedish destination when Ryanair starts serving Malmo (which it has described as "Copenhagen"). Gothenburg and two flavours of Stockholm – Skavsta and Vasteras – are already on the departure boards.
Expansion from other UK airports is sparse, mostly comprising the odd ski flight. Yesterday, the Spanish low-cost airline, Vueling, announced a new link from Cardiff to Barcelona, starting in March. And looking globally, two moves look more significant than any others. Next month, BMI is likely to become the first UK airline to go into liberated Libya, with daily flights from Heathrow to Tripoli expected to start on 21 November. From a travel perspective, the opening up of the second-largest nation bordering the Mediterranean (after Algeria) is akin to the solar system acquiring a new planet. Libya's shoreline is as long as Cyprus's and Tunisia's combined. The nation comprises two ancient territories: Tripolitania, centred on the capital; and Cyrenaica, around the "rebel capital", Benghazi. BA once flew to both Tripoli and Benghazi, and may return again soon.
Even more important for the airlines, the traveller and the planet is what happens on Tuesday at Tokyo's Haneda airport. Aviation eyes will be on All Nippon Airways's 7am departure to the small city of Okayama. This short domestic hop will be the maiden scheduled flight of the much-delayed Boeing 787 "Dreamliner", which is promised to be the first truly 21st-century airliner – delivering enhanced passenger comfort and greater fuel economy. Don't expect the new plane on a radar screen nor runway near you for a while; deliveriesto BA, Thomson and Virgin Atlantic are way down in the queue.
Most unusual new destination? Once again, the prize goes to Air France, whose "Dedicate" route network from Paris (using small A319 aircraft, and aimed squarely at business travellers) expands to embrace Bata in Equatorial Guinea and Port-Gentil in Gabon. Don't all rush.
Off the map Going, going...
As airlines seek to stem their losses, lots of destinations are falling off the map. Ryanair is grounding 80 of its aircraft between now and the end of March, rather than fly them around Europe at a loss. South-west Scotland loses its connection with Stansted with the ending of the link from Prestwick, while Girona – serving the Costa Brava – vanishes from the departure screens of Britain. Adria is exiting from Heathrow, with no more flights to Ljubljana, pictured; Flybe is dropping routes from Belfast City to Doncaster and Liverpool; and Galway in the west of Ireland is losing all its UK connections until next Easter.
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