Lower transatlantic business class fares from Air France

Air France has rejigged its transatlantic business class fares and brought in lower prices for travellers prepared to book well ahead. The deals are now available for online booking.

Return prices from London and UK regional airports via Paris CDG start from £1,226 for Boston, £1,516 for Chicago, £1,526 for Detroit, £1,626 for Los Angeles and San Francisco, £1,226 for New York JFK and Newark along with £1,226 for Washington DC. These rates are keenly priced compared with rates offered by rival airlines.

A particular advantage is that regional passengers flying Air France can depart from their local airport.  So in addition to London Heathrow (and a once daily link from London City to CDG) the French carrier offers connections from Southampton, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Air France’s new lie-flat style seating (now fitted to many B777s and a number of A330s and A340s) features on selected flights on all these routes with the exception of New York JFK and Washington DC.

But passengers must book weeks ahead to get the best prices. When Business Traveller tried booking a return ticket from Southampton to New York over the next few weeks the cheapest fare available was £1,826.  Only when we specified dates in April did the price fall to £1,226.

If further encouragement to use Charles de Gaulle as your hub were needed, the security queues at Heathrow Terminal 4 show little sign of improving. Reports from readers this week continue to highlight delays of up to an hour clearing security. Once again one of the four scanning machines was not in use, with BAA security staff confirming that though it was working, there were not enough staff available to operate it.

BAA told Businesstraveller.com “Supervisors are monitoring the situation constantly, and making decisions with regard to resourcing. Machines can be out of action for a short time, but we are doing everything we can to minimise delays.”. The advice for business travellers for the moment is that even if you are checking in online and have hand luggage only, allow plenty of time.

For more information go to www.airfrance.co.uk

Report by Alex McWhirter

Easyjet launches online check-in

Easyjet has pipped Ryanair to the post by becoming the first budget airline to offer online check-in [Ryanair’s online check-in system begins on March 16 – see Ryanair takes low-cost travel a step further]. It means that passengers can check-in from their home or office, print their own boarding passes and if carrying hand baggage can go straight to the gate once they reach the airport. Easyjet claims that online passengers needn’t reach the gate until 15 minutes before flight departure.

Until now passengers have usually had to stand in line even if they had no bags to check-in. The online system has been trialled since early February. So far it’s available on all routes from London Stansted, London Gatwick and Edinburgh airports, and Easyjet is in the process of rolling-out the service to customers across the UK. By April, 90% of Uk passengers should be able to take advantage of online check-in.

Other recent innovations of interest to business travelers include:  no weight limit for hand baggage [although a size limit applies], self-service check-in kiosks and “early bird transfers” where passengers who arrive early can be switched to an earlier flight.

These will soon to be followed by a ‘speedy boarding’ trial, where Easyjet will charge passengers a small fee should they wish to be amongst the first to board the planes.

For more information go to www.easyjet.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Bmi on the up again

Nigel Turner, CEO of Bmi has answered the airline’s critics in emphatic terms this week. Speaking exclusively with Business Traveller, Turner hit back at critics – both in the media and a small but vocal core of Bmi’s customers, who have found fault in the airline’s new direction, first unveiled last year.

“Bmi is on the up again,” he says. “We recovered last year and we’re recovering more this year as we refine our business model.”
The latest modifications to Bmi’s offering came in January with the carrier introducing online check-in. “Online check-in has taken off,” says Turner, “without any publicity we’re now finding that three per cent of passengers check-in online and by the end of the year we reckon that 20% of passengers will be using this service.”

The airline also has a new “fare families” price display where passengers can see all the different fares available on a chosen flight. The carrier’s first business model launched in August last year was unpopular with many passengers, who resented the scrapping of business class on most short-haul routes to and from Heathrow and the loss of free food and drinks on most services within Europe. They also disagreed with Bmi’s new policy of refusing to through-check baggage at Heathrow when passengers were travelling on separate tickets as a cost-cutting ruse.

Nigel Turner believes that the airline’s motives have been misunderstood. “We surveyed our passengers and they told us what they wanted from a short-haul airline. Besides wanting to speed through the airport, they wanted an efficient, friendly, safe and punctual carrier. They also wanted choices, in other words the choice of whether or not to buy food on board.”

“Food is no longer free, but for those who do want to buy food, there’s now a wider choice. People assumed that we’d become a low-cost airline simply because we had stopped serving free food. But the differences between us and the low-cost carriers are immense, not least since 50% of our flying [short and long-haul] retains business class and we have lounges. We also give passengers the choice of whether or not you want to through check baggage depending on the ticket or tickets you buy. Through baggage checking costs money particularly when connections are missed and the luggage has to be sent on separately.”

It is on punctuality that Turner is most proud. “We’ve invested millions of pounds in pre-planning and systems and I can now say our performance is head and shoulders above our main rival.”

The changes haven’t finished for the airline: “It’s a competitive world so we will introduce the next business model in April with further enhancements allowing passengers to buy more frills.” Though Turner said there were no plans for charging passengers for baggage checking for “the foreseeable future.”

In other news, Bmi says it will scrap Heathrow to Milan Linate and Madrid from the start of the summer schedule because the once daily flights can’t compete with rivals’ more frequent schedules.

Bmi is also keen to start flights to Moscow. Bmi has received UK government approval but approval from the Russian end is also required and so far this hasn’t been forthcoming.

A new three times a week Heathrow-Jeddah service gets under way on May 18. It will complement the existing Heathrow-Riyadh service. Both cities will be served by a B767 (leased from the Dutch airline) configured for business and economy class. The Premium (economy) cabin will be dropped from the Saudi services owing to lack of demand.

Other long-haul developments include the Heathrow-Mumbai service upgraded to daily from April with a new Heathrow-Doha link launched this summer in conjunction with Qatar Airways.

For more information go to www.flybmi.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Lufthansa adds Stuttgart from LCY

Lufthansa is expanding at London’s convenient City airport.  On March 26, the German airline is launching a new route to Stuttgart and increasing flight frequency to both Dusseldorf and Frankfurt.

Stuttgart and its surrounding region is an economic success story with multi-national firms and pioneering SMEs.  It’s also the gateway to the Black Forest region.

Flight LH2725 departs City at 14.40 to reach Stuttgart at 17.45. The inbound service leaves at 12.50 and arrives in City at 14.10.  Services are operated by Lufthansa partner Contact Air using an ATR turbo-prop.  These timings may not be ideal for everyone but passengers can mix and match flights with existing schedules to and from Heathrow.  Tickets start at £75 return. 

In addition, Lufthansa will operate new Saturday morning and Sunday lunchtime services to Frankfurt. It will also add an afternoon service to Dusseldorf.  These will compliment the existing early and late schedules on both routes.

Lufthansa’s announcement follows the recent launch of two other new routes from City. On January 30, regional carrier Eastern Airways inaugurated a four times a day domestic service to Newcastle while on February 13 SAS began a twice daily service to Stockholm Arlanda.

London City Airport

In other news, London City says that its shuttle bus links to Liverpool Street and Canary Wharf will cease from Friday March 3 because of falling demand.  The airport says that the new DLR rail service (with journey times of 14 minutes to Canary Wharf and 22 minutes to Bank in the City of London) has proved very popular with passengers.

For more information go to www.lufthansa.co.uk  www.londoncityairport.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

SAS begins fitting new business class seats

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has begun rolling out new long-haul business class seating on various routes from Copenhagen to Asia and the US.

Manufactured by UK firm Contour, the lie-flat style seating provides 61 inches of seat pitch, a 74 inch bed and 79 inches of living space. By comparison the existing seats feature 50 inches of seat pitch and only 50 inches of living space. And, of course, there’s no bed feature.

Seat cushion width is roughly the same at 20 inches (it extends to 23 inches between the armrests when the seat reclines) but the angle of recline is far more generous at 170 as against 135 degrees for the current model.  There’s a 10.4 inch seat back video screen with video and audio on demand some two inches larger than the present one attached to the centre console.

Because the new seating is more spacious, SAS is having to reduce the business class seat count.  On the four-engined A340s (which tend to operate to Asia) the number of seats is being cut from 60 (formerly 54 regular and six sleeper seats) to 46 of the new seats.  With the twin-engined A330 (which usually serve the US) the seat count falls from 54 to 34.

SAS says that one plane already has the new seats and it’s currently in service on the Copenhagen-Seattle run. The second plane with the new seating is expected to enter the Copenhagen-Beijing route later this week.  During March, the new seats will begin to appear on flights linking Copenhagen with Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok and Singapore.

Smart travel agents can identify the relevant flights by checking the business class layout on any particular service. But bear in mind that airlines are known to make last minute plane changes (and replacement craft may not have the new seating).

SAS offers connections at Copenhagen for UK passengers departing London Heathrow, City, Birmingham and Manchester.  In particular its Asian flights provide competitive journey times as Scandinavia is located on the “Great Circle” route.

For more information go to www.flysas.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Emirates to serve Perth double daily

Emirates is making it easier and cheaper for premium fare passengers to reach Perth in Western Australia. The Dubai-based carrier already flies once a day between its home and Perth. But from March 2 it will operate an additional four flights a week, rising to daily from September 2.

The additional flights are being operated by an Airbus A340-300 with 12 first, 42 business and 213 economy class seats. Flight EK424 will operate every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday departing Dubai at 09.25 and arriving into Perth at 00.10 the next day. The return service EK425 departs Perth every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 06.30 to reach Dubai at 13.45. From September 2, the A340-300 will be replaced by a B777 with similar capacity in first and business class.

The new services have good connections for UK passengers. Emirates’ overnight flights to Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester link with EK424. Once flight EK425 lands in Dubai there are onward transfer possibilities to Birmingham, Gatwick and Heathrow.

Overall flight times with Emirates via Dubai are only a little longer than if you were to take the main alternatives: SIA, British Airways or Qantas via Singapore. But Emirates more than compensates with keener pricing.

For travel in March, agent Airline Network is charging £2,378 for a return business class ticket with Emirates compared with prices of £3,746 with SIA and £3,852 with BA and Qantas. When it comes to first class, Airline Network quotes £3,778 with Emirates as against £6,398 with BA/Qantas (the agent has no first class deals with SIA).

The extra flights to Perth strengthen Emirates’ grip on the kangaroo route. The carrier currently operates 42 flights a week between Dubai and the Australian gateways of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.

In other news, Emirates is wooing premium fare passengers departing Sydney and Perth with upgraded airport lounges. It has just splashed out A$4.5 million (£1.89 million) on new first and business class lounges at both airports. Both are modelled on the existing facilities at Dubai. Of the two, the Sydney lounge is more spacious being 880 square metres in size with room for 160 guests. The Perth facility is 582 square metres with space for 106 passengers. Both provide a business centre with individual workstations along with a dining room.

For more information go to www.emirates.com.

Cathay Pacific postpones Manchester-Hong Kong

Aeropolitics have caused Cathay Pacific to postpone its much-awaited Manchester to Hong Kong route.

The three times weekly direct service had been scheduled to start on March 27 with flights making an en route stop at Moscow. Cathay Pacific had decided on this routing in order to spread its risks; the carrier maintains that a non-stop Manchester-Hong Kong would not have been profitable.

Business people in the Northwest of England had welcomed the new service, which would have been Manchester’s sole direct link with Moscow and Hong Kong.

Says a spokesperson for Cathay Pacific: “We’ve had to delay the route launch because we continue to await the completion of regulatory formalities regarding Manchester which are taking longer than originally anticipated. Cathay Pacific hopes to begin the service later in the year.”

Industry insiders believe that Cathay Pacific hasn’t been able to obtain traffic rights between Manchester and Moscow. Countries exchange traffic rights on the basis of equal opportunity and, as an airline of a third country, Cathay would have to persuade the aviation bodies in the UK and Russia for the right to fly customers between Manchester and Moscow.

Cathay Pacific says that passengers who have already made bookings for the new service will be accommodated on alternative flights via London. It says that passengers flying between Hong Kong and Moscow or vice versa can use existing code-shared flights. But bear in mind that these are operated by Aeroflot (using a B767) rather than Cathay Pacific.

Air routes between Moscow and Southeast Asia are currently under-served, with Thai Airways the only Southeast Asian carrier flying to Moscow. It operates a number of flights to Bangkok with onward regional connections. However, SIA will begin flying Moscow-Dubai-Singapore three times weekly from March 1 (see Online news, January 17).

For more information go to www.cathaypacific.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Kempinski opens in St Petersburg

Luxury German hotel group Kempinski has found a replacement property for the hotel it used to manage in St Petersburg, Russia.

The five-star European chain once managed the Grand Hotel Europe, now an Orient-Express Hotel, and now has the new 183-room Kempinski Moika. The hotel is located on the Moika River, opposite the famous Hermitage Museum and close to other major sites. Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main commercial street, is a two-minute walk away.

The Kempinski is constructed around a 19th century building dating back to 1852. Only the facade has been retained; the rest of the building is totally new. Introductory room rates are being offered (subject to availability) when the hotel opens next week (Wednesday, February 22), lasting until the end of March.

Business rooms (20 square metres in size) are on offer for the promotional price of Euros 132 as against the usual price of Euros 235. Superior rooms (26 square metres) will cost Euros 150 (Euros 275 normally) while Deluxe rooms (30 square metres) are priced at Euros 204 (Euros 320). Atrium suites (42 square metres) cost either Euros 291 or Euros 312 (Euros 455 to 485 usually).

Contact Kempinski Hotel Moika, Moika River Embankment 22, 191186 St Petersburg, tel +7 812 3359111. For more information go to www.kempinski.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Business class fares to India tumble by 50 per cent

What a difference a year makes. Last year UK executives heading for India were paying high prices for their business class flights – always assuming they could get a seat.

Rigid governmental controls on the number of airlines and flights allowed to fly between the UK and India created a seat shortage. Which was good news for the limited number of carriers plying the routes to Mumbai and Delhi (because high fares mean healthy profits) but bad news for the travelling public because ticket prices were kept high.

But liberalisation last spring allowed existing carriers to add extra flights. It also enabled newcomers like Bmi, Jet Airways and Air Sahara to enter the market. The resulting seat glut has led to business class fares, both by direct and indirect carriers, tumbling by 50 per cent.

When Business Traveller checked fares to Mumbai and Delhi for travel in the next few weeks, we discovered that business class tickets can cost as little as £782 return.

That deal was being offered by Airline Network and included flights with Air Sahara between Heathrow and Delhi. But other options included KLM for £1,240, Lufthansa for £1,494 or Qatar Airways for £1,520. 

Online agent Travelocity had rates of £1,214 with Air France or £1,218 with Alitalia. Non-stop flights with Jet Airways were on offer at £1,418, which is great value when you consider that Jet provides fully lie-flat beds.

Similar savings were available on the Mumbai route with Swiss having a mouth-watering rate of £1,162 while Bmi’s website quoted around £1,730. Jet Airways was priced at £1,394 through Airline Network.

Their stronger brand identities enable BA and Virgin Atlantic to continue charging the normal rates of around £3,000 return. But if you can book 21 days ahead (and no later than March 10) and depart by March 31 then you’ll qualify for Virgin Atlantic’s current  £1,277 seat sale offer.

For more information go to www.airline-network.co.uk,www.travelocity.co.uk,www.swiss.com,www.flybmi.com,www.virgin-atlantic.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Will Air New Zealand fly Auckland-Hong Kong-London ?

Rumours continue to circulate that Air New Zealand (ANZ) will announce an additional Auckland-London service to commence later this year. But instead of being routed via Los Angeles (as at present) this new service will reach London via Asia. Hong Kong is tipped as the most likely stopping point.

ANZ has enjoyed a direct flight monopoly since British Airways (BA) pulled off the Auckland route several years ago.  But ANZ’s policy of serving New Zealand via the US neglected the increasing numbers of people wishing to travel from Europe via the traditional Asian routing. It allowed rival carriers such as Emirates, SIA and Cathay Pacific to step in and exploit this market.

Traffic via Asia has grown so much that Emirates, for example, has found enough passengers to fly three times daily between Dubai and Auckland. While SIA now serves Auckland twice daily plus, like Emirates, with other flights to Christchurch.

ANZ is obviously after a share of this business and a recent air treaty between the UK and New Zealand paves the way for expansion. The carrier would still need traffic right approval from the Hong Kong authorities but in London, even if Heathrow couldn’t provide a landing slot, ANZ would surely find the red carpet rolled out at Gatwick because the Sussex airport is keen to attract long-haul services.

ANZ’s existing US routing is less popular than before because of new security procedures at Los Angeles  [Transit passengers at Los Angeles are photographed, fingerprinted and must reclaim and recheck their bags even when the flight is a through service]. ANZ’s CEO Bob Fyfe told Business Traveller. “We are meeting customer resistance from passengers travelling through Los Angeles. This is a problem we would look to address.”

Finally, the Star Alliance (of which ANZ is a member) is anxious to secure a presence on the key Hong Kong-London route which is almost entirely dominated by rival Oneworld airlines.  ANZ’s new service would fit the bill.

ANZ declined to confirm or deny the rumours. A spokesperson told Business Traveller, “The UK-Air New Zealand open skies agreement has opened the way for us to increase our services to London. We are looking at all the options but at the end of the day it all depends on what’s best for our business.”

For more information go to www.airnewzealand.co.uk

Report by Alex McWhirter