Virgin Trains plans service improvements

Virgin Trains has announced plans for extra trains on its West Coast routes from London Euston. At the same time the train firm says it will offer passengers chauffeur-driven cars, revamp its website and move towards e-ticketing.

Currently trains operate every half-hour on weekdays between London, Birmingham and Manchester. Services from London to Liverpool and Glasgow are less frequent.

But under plans being finalised with Network Rail, Virgin Trains plans to raise train frequency to a service every 20 minutes on routes to Birmingham and Manchester.  Trains would then operate hourly to Glasgow and half-hourly at peak times on the Liverpool route. The schedule improvements are expected to start in late 2008.

The chauffeur-drive service will be trialled for passengers arriving at Euston from this summer. It will cover any destination in Central London with transfers priced between £22 and £34.

Virgin Trains’ website will also be revamped this summer with simpler fare displays. In addition, there will be an e-ticketing trial which will enable passengers who book online to print their own tickets in the office or home. Eventually Virgin Trains expects to extend e-ticketing across its network.

Passenger numbers on Virgin’s West Coast routes have risen from 13.6 million in 1997/8 to 18.17 million in 2005/6.  The biggest growth has been on the London-Manchester route where the number of rail journeys has increased by 105% since the half-hourly timetable was introduced in September 2004.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

VLM to acquire jets ?

Travellers flying with VLM from London City (LCY) next month could be in for faster and smoother flights.

The Belgian airline is rumoured to be adding a couple of BAe146 jet aircraft to its fleet by mid-May and they are likely to enter service on the Luxembourg run.

Until now this niche airline whose hub is at London City has specialised in operating a fleet of Dutch-made F-50 turbo-props over its route network which, besides Luxembourg, covers domestic UK cities along with Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels. This made sense because VLM has few direct rivals, the F-50s are economical to operate and they also meet the noise restrictions at LCY. But the planes are beginning to show their age when compared against more modern turbo-props and jets.

But it is Luxair (who flies with swish Embraer 135 jets) on the popular business LCY-Luxembourg route which seems to have prompted VLM to consider the switch.

For travel on and after May 15, VLM’s website is showing all three daily flights between LCY and Luxembourg operated by BAe146s. These are the services at 0800, 1500 and 1850 from London which return at 0705, 1400 and 1755.

A spokesperson for VLM would neither confirm nor deny the addition of the BAe146s. In a statement VLM says, “We are currently reviewing our fleet and the type of aircraft we operate on certain routes. At this stage no final decisions have been made but current passenger numbers and the fact that load factors are constantly increasing do require us to look at alternative aircraft. Since VLM operates at several slot-constrained airports, increasing the size of its aircraft is the only option to increase capacity further.”

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Massive upgrade for Hilton Prague

Hilton is splashing out Euros 50 million on upgrading its mammoth hotel in Prague. The renovations include all 788 rooms along with the various food and beverage outlets and other facilities and the work is expected to be finished by 2008.

Prague is an increasingly popular destination with both business and leisure travellers. According to the Hilton Prague’s marketing manager Marketa Sebkova, “The renovations are necessary to meet clients’ increasing expectations and to keep track of the latest accommodation trends. They will provide greater comfort for corporate and leisure travellers alike.

Over 20 per cent of the accommodation has already been totally modernised and upgraded including the CzecHouse Grill and Restaurant with its open kitchen and which specialises in modern European and Czech traditional cuisine.

The two-level executive floor with its 137-rooms, 32-suites and dedicated lounge has been totally renewed. Guests staying here receive the usual benefits (separate check-in, free breakfast, snacks and so on) along with a free broadband link (in the lounge area) and use of a meeting room.

The current room size (28 square metres) reflects the standards when the hotel (originally called the Atrium but rebranded as a Hilton 10 years ago) opened some 15 years ago. In those days Prague had only a handful of Western-style hotels so the room size was considered perfectly adequate and guests found the atrium lobby to be jaw-dropping. But today the accommodation isn’t as spacious as some guests might expect to find at a leading business hotel.

Says Marketa Sebkova, “The size of the rooms is driven by the architectural structure of the building and there isn’t much that can be done in terms of size. However during the renovation we have maximised the space by adjusting the furniture layout. Also in the executive rooms we removed the wall between the bathroom and toilet. We now have four point bathrooms with a separate shower cabin.”

The Hilton is located on the right bank of the Vltava River, a short walk to the city’s historical centre.

Room rates (including service and tax) for a mid-week stay in early May start at Euros 165 for a Value and Euros 205 for a Flexible rate room. Executive rooms cost Euros 230 and Euros 270 respectively.

Hilton Prague, Pobrezni 1, Prague 18600.
Tel + 420 224841111

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Report by Alex McWhirter

ANZ revives RTW kudos

Air New Zealand (ANZ) is reviving the kudos of being able to circumnavigate the globe using a single carrier.

Readers with long memories will recall that the late Pan Am instigated RTW flights almost 30 years ago. At the time Pan Am incurred the wrath of trade body IATA (International Air Transport Association) by offering a special fare in the form of a loyalty discount. Pan Am’s ticket went on to become a big seller.

With the launch of daily London-Hong Kong-Auckland flights on October 29 (see Online news, April 6) ANZ is set emulate Pan Am’s concept as it offers London-Auckland flights via either Asia or North America.

This has prompted London agent Austravel to devise a special fare for ANZ’s RTW service. Lead-in prices for the basic routing covering London-Hong Kong-Auckland-Los Angeles-London are £789 for Economy class, £1,415 for Premium Economy and £2,688 for Business class. Stopovers are allowed in every city but note that taxes, charges and fees will inflate these rates.

Passengers can pay extra and make sidetrips to NZ domestic cities along with Brisbane, Cairns, Sydney and Melbourne across the Tasman. Other possibilities include Tahiti, Fiji and San Francisco. Most if not all these sectors will be with ANZ too.

ANZ’s B747-400s used on the London route all feature the carrier’s new long-haul products. Legroom in Economy class is 34 inches, Premium economy 38 to 40 inches while Business class consists of fully flat beds with almost 80 inches of space. Passengers deviating from the standard itinerary will find the new product on ANZ’s B777s. Other B747s are in the process of being retrofitted.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Air France introduces online check-in

Air France and its partner airline KLM have joined the growing list of airlines offering internet check-in for most destinations. Passengers can now check-in online at their leisure between 24 hours and 30 minutes before the check-in deadline for their flight, and choose to print out their boarding pass or collect it at one of the self-service kiosks at the airport.

Passengers may use the service whether they are travelling with or without checked baggage, an added bonus compared to the online check-in facilities recently introduced by low cost carriers Easyjet and Ryanair (see Online news February 23 and January 25 respectively), which are for passengers with hand luggage only.

The service follows British Airways’ announcement that from April 25 all domestic passengers must check-in using online or self service kiosks (see Online news March 23). Internet check-in represents yet another cost saving opportunity for airlines, complementing the established e-ticketing now used by the majority of carriers. There are undoubted advantages for the consumer, such as being able to arrive later at the airport, choosing seats online, and ensuring that frequent flyer details are attached to the purchase.

But it is still a relatively new concept, and airlines have had mixed experiences in delivering the product to the consumer. The Bmi website for example provides excellent demonstrations of its online and self check-in facilities, but when a member of the Business Traveller team tried to access his account on two separate occasions in the last week, he found the service to be temporarily unavailable. Understandably there has also been concern from the airlines regarding online credit card fraud, and Business Traveller will be publishing an investigation into the implications in its May issue.

In other news, Air France has announced plans to allow passengers to use their mobile phones onboard flights. Trials will begin in early 2007 on new A318 aircraft fitted with ‘OnAir’, an inflight system which allows mobiles to be used without the risk of disrupting the plane’s navigation.

The service will enable passengers to send and receive calls and text messages, access the internet in WAP/imode, and receive and send emails on a laptop or PDA. Exact details of the service are sketchy at present, although Business Traveller understands that call tariffs will be comparable to the international roaming agreements currently used by phone operators.

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Report by Mark Caswell

Bmi poised to operate Saudi routes with B767

Bmi will switch its Saudi Arabian services from an Airbus A330 to a Boeing 767 from next Saturday (April 22). The B767, which is being leased from a Dutch charter will have a different seating layout to the A330 which has operated the Saudi routes since last autumn.

Whereas the A330 operates in a three-class (business, premium economy and economy) layout the B767 will be two class. There will no longer be a premium economy cabin.

The Riyadh flight departs every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from Heathrow at 0935 to arrive in Saudi Arabia at 1750. The inbound service operates every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday departing Riyadh at 0025 to reach Heathrow at 0525.

The B767 will launch a new three times a week service to Jeddah starting on May 18. Flights (at similar timings to the Riyadh services) will depart Heathrow every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday returning early the next day.

In another move Bmi has surprisingly decided to interline its Riyadh and Jeddah services with British Airways for passengers booking through flights to North America. Logically, one might have thought Bmi would team up with fellow Star Alliance partner United rather than a carrier in a rival alliance (BA being a Oneworld member). On the other hand, BA serves more gateways in the US and Canada than does United.

The tie-up, displayed on the Saudi section of covers Bmi flights departing Saudi Arabia for North America. Passengers fly Bmi to Heathrow from where they connect with BA to any of 22 destinations in the US and Canada. Executive Club members earn mileage with both Bmi and BA flights (though bear in mind a change of terminals might be required as Bmi flights go into Terminal 1 while most of BA’s transatlantic flights depart Terminal 4).

The special interline fares start at SR4,300 (£654) in economy class from Jeddah to New York (via Heathrow) with Jeddah-San Francisco costing SR4,900 (£746). Ticket prices exclude taxes and fees and, at the time of writing, can only be booked through BA’s offices in Jeddah or Riyadh. They cannot be booked online.

In other news BA recently raised its UK online booking card fee from £2 to £3, while Bmi has settled with an even higher fee of £4.95 (except for holders of the Bmi credit card). From tomorrow (April 21) BA will increase its long-haul flight fuel surcharge from £30 to £35 per sector. The short-haul surcharge remains the same at £8 per sector.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

New Leicester Marriott

Marriott is poised to open a state-of-the-art business hotel on the outskirts of Leicester in the East Midlands. It’s the first new-build Marriott outside London for over 10 years.

The 227-room property will open on May 31 and is aimed at guests arriving by car. Located close to junction 21 on the M1 and with the M69 close by the Marriott is a short drive from Leicester city centre. It’s also convenient for other towns and cities in the Midlands including Derby, Nottingham, Coventry and Birmingham. East Midlands airport is a short drive north on the M1.

Accommodation comprises both regular and executive rooms along with a dedicated lounge. All feature the new Marriott interiors with “Revive” bedding, flat screen TVs and internet access. Wi-fi covers the lobby area.

Food and beverage outlets comprise a cocktail bar, lounge-style café and a new restaurant called Mixx. There are also 20 meeting rooms and a large function suite. Fitness facilities include a gym and pool.

Rates are keen. Introductory midweek offers for standard rooms are £99 for regular rooms (car parking at extra cost) or £105 (including breakfast and parking). Executive rooms (including the usual perks) cost £119. Weekend rates start at £58 (including breakfast), £76 (including breakfast and dinner) while executive rooms are priced at £96.

Marriott Leicester, Smith Way, Grove Park, Leicester LE19 1SW. Tel: 0870 6001348

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Report by Alex McWhirter

UK regions get more transatlantic flights

US carriers will offer more transatlantic flights from the UK regions this summer.

As already noted (see Online news, March 2) Delta will launch a daily non-stop B767 service from Edinburgh to Atlanta on June 6. Now comes news that American will re-instate its daily B767 summer-time link between Glasgow and Chicago on May 2. Besides being destinations in their own right both Atlanta and Chicago are mammoth hubs which provide connections to many dozens of onward destinations.

Continental, which offers more direct services by B757 from the regions than any other carrier, is boosting flight frequency to its hub at New York (Newark).Last March it upgraded its flights from Bristol and Belfast from a five times a week to a daily service. Next month it will add extra flights from Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

From May 4 Edinburgh will be served by 11 flights a week while Glasgow will go up to 10 flights a week from May 6. Both Scottish cities currently have a single daily service.

Also on May 6, Continental will begin operating twice daily with B757s to Manchester in place of today’s single service by B777. Finally on May 29, the carrier will increase the number of weekly flights from Birmingham to New York from seven to 10.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Flybe expands UK Southwest to Paris market

Flybe is claiming credit for a significant expansion in passenger numbers between the Southwest of England and Paris.A year ago the budget carrier inaugurated twice daily flights between Exeter and Paris CDG. In that time, says a Flybe spokesperson “we’ve grown the market between the Southwest [both Exeter and Bristol airports] and Paris CDG by 52%”.

Besides tapping business from the Exeter area market, it appears Flybe has attracted passengers from BA Connect’s rival service from nearby Bristol.According to industry sources the passenger market between Bristol and Paris is static. Indeed sources state that numbers actually declined slightly over the past year. Although BA Connect operates five flights a day at convenient timings it uses 49-seater Embraers. These planes are costly to operate and fares tend to be high because there are only a handful of cheap seats on every flight.

Flybe operates more economical 78-seater Dash8-400 turbo-props allowing the airline to charge lower fares and with greater low fare availability. Says the spokesperson, “They offer the speed of one of our larger BAe146 jets but not the capacity.” Both Exeter and Bristol are around 285 miles from Paris. The Dash8’s flight time is only five or 10 minutes longer than with the Embraer.

When Business Traveller compared the cost of flying from Bristol and Exeter to Paris CDG over the next fortnight there was a significant price difference between the two routes.

Last Tuesday (April 11) for travel to Paris on April 18 and returning April 21, BA Connect was quoting £537 online for peak and £322 for off-peak flights. By comparison, the online rates with Flybe from Exeter varied between £187 and £147 respectively. Flybe flies only at peak times.

For travel to Paris during the week following (out April 24, back April 28) BA Connect wanted £349 and £237 whereas Flybe’s prices were between £135 and £86.

It would seem that some would-be users of Bristol are voting with their wallet. Depending on where they are based in relation to Bristol airport (which is located southwest of the city) Paris-bound travellers are opting for more economical flights with Flybe from Exeter, Bmibaby (who flies from Cardiff in Wales) or they are heading down the M4 to Heathrow for British Airways, Bmi or Air France.

A spokesperson for BA Connect said the carrier has started offering lower fares from Bristol for a limited period. Aimed at leisure travellers the deal sees BA Connect making 12,500 one-way seats available at its lowest price of £71 return. But the lowest fares are hard to find unless you book to travel many weeks ahead. The deal ends on April 21 although travel is allowed until October 31.

In other news, Flybe hopes to replicate the success of its Exeter service in East Anglia. It will start a daily Norwich-Paris service on May 25.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Emirates set to fly Hamburg-New York JFK

Emirates will challenge European and US transatlantic carriers on their home turf this autumn. That is when the Dubai-based national airline is set to launch daily flights between Hamburg in Northern Germany and New York’s JFK airport. The service, which originates in Dubai, is expected to get under way on October 29. It will be operated by a three class B777-300.

Although the schedules aren’t yet displayed on Emirates’ website, a spokesperson for Emirates says, “We can confirm that Emirates does have plans to start additional services to Hamburg which will link to JFK.”

According to preliminary timings, flight EK205 will depart Dubai at 0855 to reach Hamburg at 1255, departing from there at 1440 to reach New York at 1700. In the reverse direction flight EK206 departs New York at 2315 to arrive Hamburg at 1235 the next day. Departure from Hamburg is at 1415 with an arrival in Dubai later the same day at 2325.

Emirates launched Dubai-Hamburg flights only last month (March) so this move next autumn (when the existing A330 is switched to a larger B777) means a service upgrade.

Hamburg is one of Germany’s wealthiest cities and the airport’s catchment area covers Northern Germany, Berlin and areas of Denmark. Yet it is poorly served by long distance flights. Lufthansa, for example, hasn’t a single long haul flight from Hamburg. As a result, passengers seeking to reach the outside world invariably have to change planes at another hub.

One exception, besides Emirates, is US airline Continental which operates a five times a week service to New York Newark using a two-class B757.

Business class flights to New York next November are currently priced by online agent Travelocity as costing £3,323 return with Continental, £2,294 with Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), £2,277 with SAS (via Copenhagen), £1,784 with BA (via London) and £1,723 with Air France (via Paris).

Emirates is expected to price keenly in all classes and will operate a wide-bodied B777 which has more passenger appeal than Continental’s narrow-bodied B757.

This autumn’s Dubai-New York service via Hamburg means Emirates will be flying the route thrice daily. As now, the two daily non-stop services operated by Airbus A340-500s will continue. But one of these Airbus flights will be upgraded to a larger B777-300 aircraft from September 1.

Emirates’ New York services are proving to be popular. Passengers are drawn both from the Middle East region and the Indian subcontinent. The latter is poorly served by direct flights so passengers originating in, say, India find it easier to take Emirates from one of various gateways and change in Dubai.

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Report by Alex McWhirter