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‘No flights from London? It’s not worth going there’

Plane Talk: Time to rebalance UK aviation to make it less dependent on the capital?

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 14 February 2024 11:24 GMT
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“There’s nowhere like London,” a leading airline executive told me. “If you can’t make a route work from London it’s not going to work from anywhere in the UK.”

The British capital is by far the biggest city in western Europe. Not only is the population large – the people are also extremely diverse and relatively wealthy. Ethnic diversity spells potential traffic for the so-called “VFR” (Visiting Friends and Relations) market. Wealth indicates a higher propensity to fly.

London is also by far the leading attraction for foreign visitors to the UK, both for business and for tourism.

Naturally, airlines that are hungry for new business to or from the UK will launch links to a currently unserved location from London before they contemplate a connection from a provincial airport.

As a result, of all the international destinations served by air from Britain, only a tiny handful are not flown from one of the London airports.

North country: the Faroes will be accessible from London from this summer (Visit Faroe Islands)

Sean Moulton, the aviation schedule analyst who knows more about airline routes than you or I ever will, can count the destinations served from the UK but without a London link on the fingers of one hand.

Want to fly to Cuba? You are a couple of decades too late. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Caribbean’s largest island was ridiculously well connected from the UK. Cubana, the national airline, had daily flights from London to Havana plus a weekly service from Manchester. Virgin Atlantic joined the fray with a link from Gatwick. These scheduled flights were supplemented by charters from a range of UK airports to Holguin – serving resorts in the east of the island – and Varadero, the main package destination, a short way east of Havana.

By the start of 2024, the options had shrunk to a single charter on Tui from Manchester to Varadero. Anyone hoping to fly direct to Cuba from the UK (and thus avoid the hell of a connection in Paris CDG on Air France or Madrid on Iberia) must head to the northwest England airport. But hurry: the last flight is on 21 April, after which the last bastion of state communism in the West will no longer have a direct flight from the UK.

Next up: the Faroe Islands. When I flew to this Danish Atlantic archipelago, roughly halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the only UK link was from Aberdeen. This has now moved to Edinburgh. But you must cross it off your list come summer: for the three months of June, July and August, the Faroes carrier Atlantic Airways will have a twice-weekly link from Gatwick.

Trapani in Sicily in western Sicily has in the past had a summer link with Manchester but not with London. The background to this: Sicily used to be a pain to reach. In the late 1990s I flew out to Palermo and back from Catania via Milan and Rome respectively, on annoyingly difficult (and expensive) flights on Alitalia.

Now, though, both the two big Sicilian cities are very well connected with London’s airports. On summer Saturdays, you can choose flights to Palermo on easyJet from Luton or Gatwick, British Airways from Heathrow or Ryanair from Stansted.

Trapani is only 38 miles west of Palermo. Concern that adding a link from the UK capital to Trapani would simply dilute traffic to the Sicilian capital may explain the previous hesitation. But starting on 1 April, Ryanair will fly from Stansted to the city.

The remaining two airports with links only from UK airports outside London are both connected by Ryanair. They are Beauvais in northern France and Charleroi in Belgium.

The reason? It’s down to Eurostar. Beauvais is the Ryanair version of Paris, though a 75-minute coach ride to a Metro station in a western suburb of the French capital. And Charleroi performs the same role for Brussels. Both airports have a market for links from places outside London – primarily Manchester, though Birmingham will join the Beauvais departures screeens next month. But don’t expect a Stansted-Beauvais hop any time soon: Ryanair has more profitable routes on which to deploy its planes.

This is not a Covid-era hangover: roughly the same picture prevailed a decade ago. Of the many hundreds of destinations available from UK airports, the attitude among aviation network development experts as well as prospective travellers seems to be: “No flights from London? It’s not worth going there.”

Perhaps it is time to rebalance UK aviation to make it less dependent on the capital.

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