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'


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.

React Now

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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam