Air Berlin breaks Star Alliance monopoly

Air Berlin is poised to enter the important 180-mile Frankfurt-Zurich business route currently monopolised by Lufthansa and Swiss.

The budget German airline will fly four times a day on weekdays and once daily at weekends. Flights commence on April 24 with lower fares and business traveller friendly timings.

Conventional wisdom had it that Frankfurt’s main International airport had been closed to budget carriers because suitable “slots” were impossible to find. 

But Air Berlin has become an exception to the rule. According to an Air Berlin spokesperson, the EC competitions’ department has instructed Lufthansa to release a number of Frankfurt slots because it is the process of buying out Zurich-based Swiss which will end any competition between the two carriers. Swiss will also join the Star Alliance next week.

Air Berlin flights will depart Frankfurt at 0645, 1130, 1455 and 1900.  From Zurich, the services will leave at 0905, 1305, 1645 and 2105. Flight time is 60 to 70 minutes.

When Business Traveller checked Air Berlin return prices for travel out of Frankfurt on April 24 with a return from Zurich on April 25, we were quoted €60 for off-peak and €88 for peak time flights. By contrast, Lufthansa was charging a competitive €99 for off-peak flights (a new lower tariff introduced in response to Air Berlin) but peak time services were priced at a hefty €608.

The following month sees Air Berlin add additional flights to Helsinki and open two new routes to Denmark. Flights will operate once daily from May 2 between Berlin Tegel and Helsinki. On the same day there will also be new services to Copenhagen from both Berlin Tegel and Hamburg.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Developments to Central and Eastern Europe

Malev, CSA, Central Wings and SkyEurope are all improving their UK services this summer.
Hungary’s Malev is doubling the number of flights between London and Budapest by adding a new B737 service from Gatwick. Flights will operate up to twice daily from May 1 with departures from Gatwick at 0840 and 1900 and with the inbound services from Budapest timed to leave at 0600 and 1635.
When Business Traveller checked fares on the route for a return flight out on May 2 and back on May 4 we were quoted an online fare of £176 return.Says Malev’s UK country manager Doros Theodorou: “The new Gatwick flights will offer good connections at our Budapest hub for onward destinations in Central and Eastern Europe.” Malev’s existing twice daily flights from Heathrow continue as before.
Czech airline CSA is upgrading its London to Prague service by introducing brand new 162-seater Airbus A320s. CSA has 12 of these state-of-the-art planes on order and they set the Czech national carrier apart from regional rivals Malev and LOT who all use the ubiquitious B737.  
The A320s feature a slightly wider cabin than the B737. The first plane to join the fleet will fly on CSA’s flagship London Heathrow route. From April 1, you will (barring any last minute changes) encounter the A320s when taking flights OK651 at 1440 and OK649 at 2115 out of Heathrow and OK650 at 1235 and OK652 at 1845 from Prague.
CSA’s third daily service on this route, namely OK653 from Heathrow at 0740 along with OK648 at 2110 from Prague is expected to be converted to A320 operation from May 1.

Meanwhile, Central Wings (a Polish budget airline backed by LOT) has just added its first B737 flights from Leeds and Edinburgh. On March 26 it began flying Leeds-Warsaw followed by Edinburgh-Gdansk on March 27 plus Edinburgh-Katowice (near Krakow in Southern Poland) on March 28. Flights on all these routes operate thrice weekly.
Slovakia’s SkyEurope is poised to launch two new routes to Krakow using B737s. A twice weekly service from Birmingham will commence on April 12 followed by a thrice weekly link from Edinburgh on April 13.
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Report by Alex McWhirter  


Inaugural Virgin flight to Dubai

Virgin Atlantic this week began flying to Dubai, its first Gulf destination, with a lavish inaugural trip attended by CEO Steve Ridgway and Sir Richard Branson, as well as corporate guests and the UK press. As usual, the airline isn’t backward in coming forward. Despite entering an extremely competitive market with prices being driven to an all time low by new entrants, Sir Richard Branson spoke of his ambition to win a 10% market share.

Sir Richard sees Virgin’s main competitor on the route as being British Airways rather than local carrier Emirates, perhaps wary of upsetting the home carrier. He is also bullish that the Upper Class product will win over customers at the front of the plane, while at the back he intends to compete on price with economy fares which are 15% cheaper, something that will be a real achievement given current prices. Sir Richard also said that once the route has established itself, the airline would be looking elsewhere in the region. Some options might be Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Lebanon.

A current Virgin Atlantic seat sale (book by March 30) sees economy class seats offered for £328, with Premium Economy at £553 for travel between April 13 and July 15. Upper Class costs £2,059 falling to £1,179 when booked several weeks ahead.

Virgin is flying to Dubai four times a week with Airbus A340-600s. There will be five flights a week in May increasing to daily from June 1. The flight leaves London at 2100 arriving in Dubai at 0710 with the return departing Dubai at 1435 reaching Heathrow at 1910.

These timings hardly connect with any onward services from Heathrow but from July 1 the schedules are revised. That’s when Virgin’s flight will leave Heathrow at 2025 to arrive in Dubai at 0620 the next morning. The Dubai-London service will then depart much earlier at 0820 to reach Heathrow at 1240 which is ideal to connect with domestic, European and long-haul flights.

On his way to Dubai, Sir Richard officially opened the final stage of its clubhouse at Heathrow Terminal 3. Billed as a private members club it is certainly different. A cinema, spa bath, massages, facials and haircuts are all available, and there is even a ‘sweet shop’ for sweets and popcorn to enjoy whilst watching the screen. If you need refreshment you can get a drink from the cocktail bar and when hungry there is a brasserie with choices such a shepherds pie or a deli selection. The office / library has a good number of desks, some with workstations and seating / reading material, and is also quieter than the rest of the clubhouse. If you do want to work, choose your spot carefully as noise levels vary. It is a lounge for work, rest and play.

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Report by Julian Gregory

New routes from Cardiff with Eastern Airways

Commuter carrier Eastern Airways has announced three new routes from Cardiff International Airport. Starting April 24, the Humberside based airline will offer three flights each weekday to Brussels from the Welsh capital, two to Newcastle, and a daily flight to Aberdeen.

The niche airline will service the new routes from Cardiff using 29-seater Jetstream 41 aircraft, taking over the routes from Air Wales which last week announced the suspension of its scheduled services from the same airport. Says Darren Roberts, Communications Manager for Eastern Airways:

“We looked at the routes made available by the withdrawal of Air Wales, and felt that Newcastle, Brussels and Aberdeen fitted into our schedule well. We are already the biggest operator out of Aberdeen airport, with the oil operators making up a lot of our market in that area, and expect the majority of passengers using these routes to be business travellers looking to avoid overnight stays.”

Eastern Airways has carved a market for itself by plying domestic routes with poor surface connections, such as Inverness from Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, and Norwich – Manchester / Aberdeen. The latter route takes 1hr 20mins, giving passengers the opportunity to undertake a day trip that would be impossible by road or rail.

The expansion follows the commencement of the airline’s London City – Newcastle route, which began on January 31. Says Roberts,

“The important thing with this route was to give passengers a large enough choice of flights, and we believe that four flights daily is what the market needed. We have been please with the support from local business communities, and operating out of London City has given workers in and around Canary Wharf a convenient option of travelling by air to Newcastle.”

The airline is not impervious to competition though, with its Stansted – Manchester route having been dropped earlier this year following the start of Air Berlin flights on the same route. Roberts said that the route had been withdrawn due to “a significant drop in passenger numbers since the arrival of Air Berlin.”

On of the reasons for this is that flights with Eastern Airways are not cheap – when Business Traveller checked this week, a fully flexible day return fare Birmingham – Inverness was £381.90, departing BHX at 0855 and arriving in Inverness at 1035, with the return leg departing at 1635 and arriving in BHX at 1815.

A similar flight departing Cardiff – Newcastle in early May was £307.70, departing Cardiff at 0835 and arriving in Newcastle at 0950, returning at 1700 and arriving back in Cardiff at 1815. Timetables for the Cardiff – Brussels / Aberdeen routes have yet to be finalised, although they should be available for booking online next week. Readers should also note that all tickets with Eastern are non-refundable, although fully flexible tickets can be rebooked for travel up to six months after the original flight date.

Of course the airline has not based its model on the low-cost offering – fully flexible passengers enjoy BA Terrace lounge access when departing Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle, and fastrack security clearance at certain airports including Southampton and Leeds Bradford. In addition all passengers receive complimentary bar snacks and champagne onboard, and a copy of ‘Spectator’ magazine.

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Report by Mark Caswell

MAS cuts flights to Europe

Manchester, Vienna and Frankfurt are all affected by Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) decision to cut underperforming flights.The move is the first stage of MAS’s business turnaround plan (see Online News, March 1) which aims to reduce losses by £46.83 million (RM 303 million) this financial year.

Kuala Lumpur-based MAS says it will withdraw its four times a week B747 service to Manchester on May 1 followed by its three times a week B777 service to Vienna on June 1.  MAS’s daily B777 service to Frankfurt will still continue but flight frequency will be cut to a five flights a week operation from May 31.

Europe is a problem area for MAS. The airline serves 12 destinations in this region and the management admits that not a single one is profitable.  MAS says that the Kuala Lumpur-Vienna service alone runs a hefty annual £4.5 million (RM 30 million) deficit.

The decision to drop Manchester is a blow to the UK’s Northwest as MAS provided Mancunians with connections to destinations throughout Asia and Australasia. Says Tim McDermott, the airport’s development director, “We’re obviously disappointed to see the route withdrawn. However, we will continue to work closely with MAS towards the reinstatement of the service.” 

With the starting date for Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong service (from Manchester) now placed on the back burner and Thai not sure when or if it should start services, SIA is the only SE Asian carrier to fly from the UK’s Northwest.

Other MAS routes being withdrawn from Kuala Lumpur include Xian (China) along with two Indian cities, namely Kolkata and Ahmedabad.

There are also service cutbacks on other routes. The ones most likely to affect Europe-based travellers are Penang-Singapore (where the number of B737 flights is cut from 14 to seven a week) and Kuala Lumpur-Auckland where B777 flight frequency reduces from seven to five flights a week.

But there is some positive news too.  Several flights to Bangkok, Singapore and Brisbane will be retimed to improve flight connections  for international passengers transitting Kuala Lumpur.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

BA insists domestic passengers self check-in

From April 25, all British Airways domestic passengers must either check-in online or use the self check-in machines at the airport. BA is following rival Bmi which began to steer passengers towards similar check-in systems last January. There are differences however. Bmi’s tiny and economy fare (two of the cheapest tariffs) passengers have to self-check, but those travelling on business or premium economy fares or who are high ranking FFP members can still use the conventional desks. In BA’s case the new system will apply to almost all passengers.

The few exceptions are limited mainly to groups of six or more and passengers in transit (the latter may already have checked in at their origin airport anyway). BA’s conventional check-in desks will be converted to “fast bag drop” desks for customers (who have already checked-in online or by machine) to hand over any luggage for tagging.

BA’s commercial director Martin George says that “making the airport experience simpler and speedier is the cornerstone of our vision for Heathrow Terminal 5 and we want to introduce many of these improvements now.”

The airline is investing heavily in automated check-in systems as it believes over 80% of its passengers will use these systems by the time BA moves into T5 in 2008.  BA is cutting costs at the same time (because fewer staff and check-in desks are needed) as well as using space within the terminals more efficiently.

On the other hand, it is possible that there will be scenes of confusion. Not everyone is computer literate and the passenger mix of domestic flights tends to include elderly travellers, holidaymakers and overseas visitors.

A BA spokesperson says that the carrier will have dedicated staff on hand to help passengers with the check-in process. “Passengers will be guided through every stage of the process.  Providing help for everyone is the key to making the new system a success.”

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Birmingham adds more business destinations

Travellers based in the Midlands will find it easier to reach various business destinations from this summer. Existing carriers and newcomers are launching new routes from Birmingham and adding extra flights to existing destinations.

The first of the new services is being launched by BA Connect (BA’s regional low fares division) on March 26 when it begins daily flights to Berlin Tegel and Geneva along with a four times a day service to Belfast’s City airport.

On April 12, the Slovakian budget airline Skyeurope starts a twice weekly service to Krakow in Southern Poland, an increasingly important business destination. While on May 11, German budget carrier Hapag Lloyd Express inaugurates a five times a week service to Cologne which will be ideal for the football events taking place the following month.

Skyeurope aircraft

Birmingham will get a link with Liege in Belgium on May 15 with the launch of a three times a week service by Irish airline Aer Arran.  It’s also the only air link to Liege (a city near Brussels) from anywhere in the UK.On June 25, Aer Lingus starts a useful three times a week link to Cork.The big news on the long-haul scene is the announcement that Air India is doubling flights from Birmingham to Toronto, Amritsar and Delhi on May 1.

But two airlines are quitting Birmingham this weekend.  Budget carrier German Wings is abandoning its service to Cologne  (Hapag Lloyd will take over in May) while CSA is scrapping its Prague route.  But Prague remains served from Birmingham by budget airline Bmibaby.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Oneworld at LHR

British Airways will monopolise Heathrow’s new £4.2 billion Terminal 5 (T5) when it opens in March 2008.It had been thought that some or all the Oneworld members would have shared T5 along with BA which would have meant easier transfers. But there simply isn’t the space to accommodate all the Oneworld members under one roof.

So carriers such as Aer Lingus, American, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, and Qantas will either stay put in T3 or move there from either T1 or T4. Future Oneworld members such as JAL, Malev and Royal Jordanian will also be based at T3.

It means that Oneworld passengers making transfers between BA and other member carriers will have to switch terminals. T3 is closest to T5 but bus transfers will be required with baggage moving underground along a new tunnel network.

But confusion could arise with code-share services. Currently every Qantas, Iberia and Finnair flight from Heathrow also carriers a BA flight code. So passengers will need to make absolutely sure they know which airline will be operating their flight otherwise it’s all too easy to arrive at the wrong terminal.

In other news, BA Connect (BA’s low-cost regional division) has announced a new route between London City (LCY) and Milan effective May 2. It will also book boost its LCY-Edinburgh service from five to seven flights a day.

BA Connect

But the Milan service operates only once daily (except Saturday) so day trips aren’t feasible. And its timings (out of LCY at 09.30 and back from Milan at 13.40) may not suit. In addition, the flights are using Milan Malpensa (46 km from the city centre) rather than the more convenient Linate (10 km away).

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Paris Sofitel becomes a Marriott

Marriott has taken over the 782-room Sofitel Paris Rive Gauche. The US chain plans to undertake extensive refurbishment with the property being rebranded as a Marriott in late 2007.

The programme calls for additional suites, a three-storey executive floor including a lounge, revamped food and beverage outlets and an extended health club.

In the meantime, the four star property (originally built in 1972) will continue for business. It’s located along the Boulevard St Jacques near the St Jacques Metro station and a 15 minute walk from Montparnasse.

The new Marriott will fill a gap in the chain’s Paris portfolio. Weekday room rates currently start at Euros 200 with executive rooms at Euros 225 and suites priced from Euros 270. At weekends the rates are Euros 175, 200 and 270 respectively.

In other news, Marriott recently opened a Courtyard (its value-for-money brand) in Berlin City Centre. The property is situated on Axel-Springer-Strasse and the nearby Stadtmitte U-Bahn (underground) station provides speedy links to Potsdamer Platz and Alexander Platz. It’s a five minute walk to Checkpoint Charlie.

Here you’ll find all the features of the “new generation” of Courtyards such as quasi four-star rooms with air-conditioning, in-room safe, trouser press, empty mini-bar (either bring your own drinks or buy them from the “grab and go” lobby shop), affordable broadband and a good bath and shower. There is also one restaurant and a bar. Business Traveler stayed there last week, and found the hotel to be excellent value, with weekday rates at Euros 119 room only. At weekends you pay Euros 109 room only or Euros 119 with breakfast for two.

Another Courtyard, this time in the northern area of Zurich, is set to open next September. With similar features to Berlin this property will be opened on a development area at Max Bill-Platz. Oerlikon station is a short walk away and it’s located roughly midway between the city’s airport and the Hauptbahnhof (central station). Frequent suburban trains serve the airport and downtown. Room rates are not yet finalised.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Emirates expands in Germany and Switzerland but drops Copenhagen

Hard on the heels of its inaugural flight from Hamburg, Emirates has announced additional services from Dusseldorf and Zurich.The Dubai-based carrier will add a second daily flight from Dusseldorf starting on May 1, while from Zurich the additional flight will begin on October 29.

Both services will be operated by an A330 with more popular timings such as an overnight departure from Europe (providing executives with a day in the office) and a mid- to late-afternoon return from Dubai (allowing a morning’s work in the UAE).

Like Hamburg there are few long-haul services operating from Dusseldorf. Says Henry Hasselbath, Emirates’ VP for North and Central Europe, “We have an advantage over Lufthansa as [with the exception of Chicago] they don’t fly long-haul from Dusseldorf. But we offer connections over Dubai for India, South Africa, Japan, China and Australia. Already 50% of our passengers are continuing beyond Dubai.”

And Dusseldorf has a good catchment area. Besides the Rhine-Ruhr region the city’s airport is also convenient for areas of Belgium and Holland.

Emirates’ business class fares from Dusseldorf are keen. Typical return fares in May start at Euros 2,033 (£1,383) for Dubai, Euros 2,198 (£1,496) to Singapore, Euros 2,202 (£1,498) for Hong Kong, Euros 2,473 (£1,683) for Osaka and Euros 3,022 (£2,056) for Sydney.

Meanwhile, Emirates has launched deals for passengers using the Hamburg service between now and June 29.

First class passengers breaking their journey in Dubai are being offered two free nights at the luxury Ritz Carlton or a week’s free car rental. Those booking business class can opt for one night’s free stay at the five star Habtoor Grand Resort and Spa or four days’ car rental.

In other news, Emirates has announced upgrades for business class passengers booking flights from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow and bound for selected destinations beyond Dubai. The latter cities vary according to UK airport of departure but include Bangkok, Delhi, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Singapore, Shanghai and Osaka.

Passengers departing from Gatwick get upgraded to first class throughout ; those departing the other UK points go first class on the sectors beyond Dubai. Flights must be booked by April 14 but you can travel until June 30.

Finally, Emirates has postponed plans to begin a new Copenhagen-Dubai service this autumn. Officially Emirates says that the route has been put back to 2007 “in order to meet the sharply higher frequency requirements of existing destinations.” Bookings were known to have been healthy, however.

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Report by Alex McWhirter