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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones