Simon Calder: British Airways is a national institution - and that is part of its problem

'It is aware that easyJet, Ryanair and Go are circling, vulture-like, ready to pick up traffic'

Share

In the gloom of a February dusk, the ranks of concrete hangars look ghostly. Each resembles a giant Nissen hut, with one end open to the elements.

In the gloom of a February dusk, the ranks of concrete hangars look ghostly. Each resembles a giant Nissen hut, with one end open to the elements. That is the strange sight that will greet the pioneering aviators from Dorset when they touch down at around six this evening, German time, at a former US Air Force base high above the Moselle Valley, 60 miles from Frankfurt.

Yesterday, British Airways' chief executive, Rod Eddington, outlined the "future size and shape" of Europe's biggest airline. But Europe's largest no-frills airline, Ryanair, believes the future does not reside in the crowded hubs of Heathrow and Gatwick. Instead, the Irish carrier will point to the 156 passengers booked on this afternoon's flight from the sedentary south coast resort of Bournemouth to the strangely sized and shaped Hahn airport, in an obscure part of Rheinland-Pfalz. Ryanair believes it can make money on what, by any interpretation, is an unusual choice of route.

One reason the airline is so confident is that costs at the ex-military airfield are vanishingly small. Hahn is owned by the people who run Frankfurt-Main airport. But assistance from regional authorities, and the desire to develop Hahn as a hub, mean that fees charged to airlines – and indirectly to passengers – bear no relation to those at "real" Frankfurt.

If the low-cost formula works for this unlikely combination, then surely, argues Ryanair, it can work anywhere in Europe. And since the airline's market capitalisation is presently larger than that of British Airways, who is to describe no-frills flying between little-known airports as eccentric? Not Stelios Haji-Ioannou, whose 35th birthday is today. He will be celebrating at Luton, the once-forlorn airport where he started stirring up aviation in Europe. Six years ago, he started easyJet with a couple of planes borrowed from a British Airways affiliate. You could fly anywhere you wanted, so long as it was Glasgow.

Today sees the launch of the 41st and 42nd easyJet routes, from Gatwick to Palma and to Malaga, the latest strands in a web that is stretching across Europe. They are using slots at the Sussex airport that were vacated by British Airways after 11 September. But the easyJet chairman was hoping for a more generous birthday present from the British Airways boss, Rod Eddington.

Mr Eddington had pledged to chop unprofitable routes, which most people assumed would cut a swath through all the poor performers in Europe. Low-cost airlines like easyJet were poised to fill the vacuum as soon as British Airways announced it would stop flying to destinations like (so the speculation went) Nice, Lyon, Naples, Pisa and Newcastle.

The no-frills carriers were disappointed. British Airways is ending only five short-haul routes, and the same number of long-haul services. It refuses to say what they are, but long-distance travellers aiming for Bogota, Caracas, Lilongwe, Lusaka or Manila may well be advised to travel by the end of next month if they wish to fly with British Airways.

This looks more like snipping off a few untidy twigs than the root-and-branch honing that some in the City were demanding. But British Airways is fully aware that easyJet, Ryanair and Go are circling, vulture-like, ready to pick up slots and traffic forsaken by Britain's biggest airline.

One reason we're so interested in the fortunes of British Airways is because it is a national institution – that's part of its problem. As with BA, so with Air France, Lufthansa, Alitalia and so on. They are once-bright emblems of nationhood, considered essential last century but rapidly losing their sheen as the aircraft seat becomes a commodity of the masses, rather than an icon of glamour.

The people who are flying today from Bournemouth to Hahn, Bristol to Alicante, or Liverpool to Amsterdam are not intent on wining and dining. They simply want to arrive, alive at the right place at roughly the right time – and at a price that will not break their credit card limit or the company accountant's heart.

There is no shortage of airlines willing to deliver them, including daughters of mainstream airlines: BA's low-cost creation Go (since sold off) is slugging it out with bmi's offspring bmibaby, while KLM's Buzz tries to find a niche of its own in an increasingly complex business.

Air travel is a market, but it has historically been grotesquely distorted. Through the 20th century, airlines could control the supply of air travel – not least because they were often owned and operated by national governments, who would negotiate all kinds of restrictive treaties. These enabled the airlines to sustain a high-cost, high-fare environment where passenger needs were secondary.

Bilateral agreements that act in the interests of traditional airlines still constrain aviation in much of the world. But within Europe there's something approaching "freedom of the skies", whereby any European airline can fly anywhere it wishes. Naturally, terms and conditions apply – the main one being that newcomers to Heathrow will struggle to find slots.

While the fortunes of the flag-carriers, well, flag, the new breed thrive. Ryanair has long taken the view that people will cheerfully fly to places they have never heard of, so long as the price is right, and so far they have been proved correct. If Hahn doesn't appeal, then how about Friedrichafen, Klagenfurt or Eindhoven? Even if you can't spell it, you can go there for next to nothing. The same applies to almost anywhere within two hours' flying time of London.

The low-cost mantra is spreading. A month from today, East Midlands airport is to be transformed into a no-frills gateway when Go starts flying to Mediterranean destinations, Scotland's two largest cities, and Prague. Bmibaby, a new operator, arrives shortly afterwards.

British Airways retains an almost priceless asset – the largest number of slots at the world's most desirable international airport – that will sustain it through the present ghastly times.

Heathrow and Hahn, the two extremes of aviation infrastructure, can co-exist in exactly the same way that McDonald's and the Cafe Royale thrive in close proximity at Piccadilly Circus, despite offering radically different propositions. But right now the despondency at Heathrow is deeper than the gloom at Hahn.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning