Etihad to offer UK chauffeur cars

Etihad has begun offering complimentary chauffeur-driven cars for Diamond (first class) and Pearl (business class) passengers flying to Abu Dhabi from Gatwick and Heathrow. The offer will cover flights from Manchester later in the summer.

The transfers have no mileage limits within the UK and are being carried out by Chauffeurcar Plc using BMW 7 series and Mercedes S class for Diamond and Mercedes E class and Volvo S80 for those booked in Pearl class.

Rival Gulf airline Emirates has had a long-standing chauffeur car offer in the UK but its service, although offering a no mileage limit for first class passengers, has a 65 or 100 mile limit for those booked in business class.

In the Gulf itself, Etihad continues its door-to-door service. Diamond and Pearl passengers have a transfer to any UAE address, while Coral (economy) passengers enjoy a complimentary coach sevice between Abu Dhabi airport and the cities of Al Ain and Dubai. Bear in mind that some ticket types may not qualify for these chauffeur transfers, so check when booking.

Etihad currently flies once daily to Abu Dhabi from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. There’s a second daily flight from Heathrow between Thursday and Sunday inclusive.

In other news Etihad will add a further four destinations in the coming weeks. Flights from Abu Dhabi will begin to Casablanca on June 2 with Doha following on June 18. Kuwait follows on July 1 with Khartoum to be added on July 5.

For more information go to etihadairways.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Berlin opens its first Central train station

Berlin has never had a centrally-located train station. Until now mainline trains have stopped at different main stations in the city’s east and west sectors. This has caused confusion for visitors as care has had to be taken to use the correct station when say heading for cities such as Rostock, Leipzig, Hamburg or Frankfurt.

But joining or alighting from a long distance train will become much simpler from May 28 when Deutsche Bahn’s new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) opens. This enormous station (which every day will be handling 300,000 passengers arriving and departing on 750 trains) is located half way between the present main stations in the east and western parts of the city. It will become Berlin’s main rail hub handling services running east-west and north-south through the city. The hub will be fed by local (S-Bahn) trains along with regional (Regional Bahn) services.

Simplifying train routes in the Berlin area allows timings on some key routes to be cut by 40 minutes. For example, trains running to Hamburg from Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) will take 2 hrs 40 mins as against the 3 hrs 20 mins currently taken from Berlin Zoo (the main station in the western area). From May 28 similar reductions will be made available on routes to Leipzig and Dresden.

In other Deutsche Bahn news, the opening of a new 90km stretch of 300 kph track in Bavaria on May 28 will cut 25 mins from the fastest trains linking the key cities of Munich and Nuremberg. The journey will now be accomplished in 80 mins and train service will be stepped up to a half-hourly frequency from December 10.

For more information go to bahn.co.uk

Report by Alex McWhirter

Emirates to operate high density A380

Until now, the airlines which have purchased the giant A380 have been coy about telling travellers what they’re likely to find on board. The mainstream media has swallowed stories of how passengers will while away their time in gyms and having a flutter at the in-flight casino. But in reality as regular travellers know from experience, these ideas are pipe dreams. No airline can afford to waste space (the most precious commodity on any plane) on frivolities and any extra room is going to be reserved for premium fare customers.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) made this point clear to Business Traveller at a briefing last year in Toulouse (where the A380 is being constructed). SIA said its A380s will feature very different first and business classes to what is offered today. “But what we offer,” said a spokesperson, “must be economically viable and so passengers will not find amenities like showers and bowling alleys.” SIA says it will fit 480 passengers onto the A380 (configured for first, business and economy class) whose theoretical capacity is 555 seats. The A380 is expected to ply the Heathrow-Singapore-Sydney route from next December.

Now it’s the turn of Dubai-based Emirates to release more seating details for its fleet of A380s which it has ordered. Again, it looks as though Emirates is preferring to maximise passenger numbers rather than fit on-board frills.Emirates says its A380s will enter service in April next year. It will eventually see service on routes from Dubai to the UK, Asia Pacific and US. But unlike SIA, Emirates intends to operate three versions of the A380, each tailored to different markets.

There will be a low density 489-seater three class A380 version used on long range services. This A380 has a similar capacity to SIA’s version above. Emirates will also offer a long range three class version but this will have a denser layout as the intention is to fit 517 seats.

But where Emirates differs dramatically is its intention to operate a two-class high density 644-seater version for shorter flights. This latter A380 type is expected to appear on routes from Dubai to the Indian Subcontinent and SE Asia which handle voluminous contract labour traffic.

In other news, Emirates has announced a second destination in Japan. It already operates a daily flight to Osaka using an A340-500 and from June 1 it will begin a four times a week service to the industrial city of Nagoya. Flights will be operated by a B777-200. The service will step up to a daily frequency from July 1.

For more information go to emirates.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Renaissance Marriott to open at St Pancras in 2009

One of London’s best loved landmarks looks finally to have been given a new lease of life. Marriott International announced last week that it will open a Renaissance Marriott at St Pancras at the beginning of 2009.

The Grade 1 English Heritage-listed Victorian building, owned by London & Continental Railways (LCR) was formerly the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station (more commonly known as St Pancras Chambers). After a £100 million makeover, it will re-open as the Renaissance St Pancras Hotel London in 2009.

As regular business travellers will know, St Pancras is currently undergoing the largest regeneration in a century as it prepares to become the home of Eurostar trains to the continent in 2007. 

The hotel will have 52 of its 245 rooms in the Gothic landmark building, with the remaining 193 being in a new extension behind the hoteloverlooking new gardens or the railways tracks of the London International Passenger Terminal. The top floors of the hotel with views over Marylebone Road will hold 67 residential apartments (all of which have been reserved) from the Manhattan Loft Corporation, ranging in price from £450,000 to £3 million for a penthouse suite.

The hotel will have two restaurants and two bars, as well as a health and leisure centre in the basement – formerly used for storing ale from the Midlands. There will also be ample space for meetings and conferences, with a ballroom, eight meeting rooms and a business centre.

The hotel’s location will suit both domestic and international travellers down to the ground. St Pancras International is set to become a major transport hub in Europe, with 25 million people per year expected to use the station. By 2007, journey times will be cut further, with London to Paris taking two hours and fifteen minutes, and London to Brussels just one hour and fifty-one minutes.

On the domestic front, the terminal already provides rail connections throughout the country, as well as six London Underground lines. The hotel will also be a mere ten minutes from the City and West End of London.The restoration and development of the building will be the first since it was made vacant in the early 1980s. The Manhattan Loft Corporation, which counts the regeneration of areas such as Notting Hill and Shoreditch among its past successes, is now responsible for sprucing up the property’s old glamour with a modern touch. Over 20,000 square metres of bubble wrap will be used to protect the historical features until work is completed.

The hotel will join the Renaissance Chancery Court (in the former Pearl Assurance building in Holborn) as a hotel targeting those “who work to live, rather than those who live to work,” according to Jurgen Giesbert, executive vice president, Marriott International UK, Ireland, Middle East & Africa.

For more information visit marriott.com, manhattanloft.co.uk

Report by Annabel Dixon

Bmi launches second Saudi route

Last Thursday (May 18) Bmi launched a three times a week service to the western port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The new service, which is operated by a two-class B767, (leased from a Dutch charter carrier) complements Bmi’s existing service to Riyadh, which was launched last autumn.

At the same time Bmi has said it’s considering adding a third Saudi destination, Damman, to its network. Nigel Turner, chief executive of Bmi says: “We are looking at possible ways of serving Damman and I don’t think Saudi Arabia would object, they are very keen. I see a decision on Damman in the next six months.”

Bmi is the only British carrier to serve the Kingdom since British Airways withdrew its service 14 months ago. Direct flight competition comes from local airline Saudia, the only other carrier linking the UK with Saudi Arabia.

Jeddah, the commercial capital is also the gateway to Makkah and Medina for over a million pilgrims who fly into King Abdulaziz International airport each year. The decision to take on the route was as Turner points out ‘a no brainer’.

The Boeing 767 used to fly to Jeddah also covers Bmi’s other route to Riyadh. The route to the capital has been well received and the airline has increased the business class seating from 24 to 42 since the launch last year.

This particular aircraft operates in a two class layout (premium economy has been dropped on the Saudi routes owing to the lack of demand) and apart from the slightly tired carpets another difference (compared to Bmi’s Airbus A330s which operate flights to the US and India) is that business class passengers do not have in-seat in-flight entertainment. Instead, passengers are given portable DVD players with a choice of films.

But Bmi says it plans to replace the B767 in the near future. Says Turner: “The A330s will be coming into operation on the route we hope no later than March 2007.”

Bmi’s flights depart Heathrow Terminal One every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 0935 arriving in Jeddah at 1740. The return flight leaves Jeddah on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 0035 and reaches Heathrow at 0525.

There are good connections at Heathrow for services to the US, and Bmi has linked with British Airways to provide special through fares for transatlantic travellers starting their trips in Saudi Arabia (see Online news, April 20)

Future development for the new routes might be hampered by visa restrictions, as business travellers need a letter of invitation before they can obtain a visa. Tourism is almost exclusively for religious purposes with a special visa required. But Turner is positive that the country will be opened up to limited mainstream tourism soon: “Saudi Arabia has many natural treasures and the visa issue is vitally important to make it easier to visit. The UK government and Saudia Arabia are working closely to ease the process.”

Other developments are the plans for a new airport next to the current one. While the building is in process, King Abdulaziz International airport’s terminals will be expanded to ease congestion. Currently passenger traffic is 14.5 million per year and although it has a capacity for 18.5 million, passenger numbers are increasing at 7.5 per cent each year.

The new airport terminals are expected to be completed in five years with a capacity of 25 million passengers a year.

In other news, Bmi says it plans to launch a daily Heathrow-Moscow service next November. The new route would be operated by a narrow-bodied A320. It’s not clear whether Bmi will use Moscow’s main Sheremetyevo airport (used by fellow Star Alliance members Austrian, Lufthansa and SAS) or the more user-friendly Domodedovo airport (used by BA and Star member Swiss)

For more information go to flybmi.com

Report by Felicity Cousins and Alex McWhirter

GB Airways likely to operate as BA Connect from Manchester

GB Airways (one of BA’s partner airlines) is poised to convert its Manchester routes to a budget operation. By the end of the summer it’s likely that these services (which primarily operate to Southern Europe) will be rebranded as BA Connect.

Airlines flying from the Northwest operate in a particularly price conscious market. Faced with competition from budget carriers flying from Manchester and nearby Liverpool, GB Airways is being obliged to lower its operating costs.

GB Airways will continue to run the flights but the present business and economy class layout will be downgraded to a one-class configuration with passengers now having to pay extra for food and drinks.

This move may not please Club Europe (business class) passengers who have booked well in advance for their flights as they will now find themselves without the superior inflight service they had expected to receive.

On the upside, however, some fares may be lower as GB Airways will switch to the BA Connect model which offers one-way rates and the ability to make changes for a small fee.

A GB Airways spokesperson told Business Traveller that “These changes are in the pipeline. They will happen. But it will be a few months before they can be introduced. That’s because we need to train staff, change the systems and also alter the on-board branding.”

GB Airways also points out that passengers will still be able to receive the normal BA service on the ground including use of lounges for passengers paying higher fares or who hold the relevant FFP status. When asked whether these changes would eventually be applied to GB Airways’ routes out of Heathrow and Gatwick (these still feature the conventional two-class product) the spokesperson said “It’s not on the agenda at the moment.”

From Manchester, GB Airways flies to Dubrovnik, Heraklion, Lanzarote, Malaga, Malta, Paphos and Tenerife. From Heathrow and Gatwick GB Airways serves a large number of destinations in France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

For more information go to gbairways.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

SAS says it’s time to go for Gold

Scandinavian airline SAS has brought back its popular status match scheme for Gold tier UK resident members of the British Airways Executive Club. SAS will automatically offer Gold membership of its EuroBonus loyalty scheme to travellers holding the same membership tier of BA’s Executive Club.

Qualifying members need first to register their details with SAS (this can be done on the carrier’s website) and fly four times in business class by June 30. The airline calculates flights on a one-way basis so that would mean making two return trips to Scandinavia or maybe one return long-haul trip via Copenhagen, for example, to the US or Asia.

Passengers must also prove they are active BA Executive Gold members by sending SAS copies of a recent (January, February or March) statement. Once travellers have qualified they will be upgraded.

The EuroBonus scheme is ideal if you travel regularly to Scandinavia and use other Star Alliance carriers like Lufthansa, Swiss, United and SIA for short or long distance flights.

For more information go to flysas.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Airbus A318 lands at London City

Travellers using London City Airport (LCY) may soon have access to far-flung destinations. Current planes using the capital’s most convenient airport are limited in range. The furthest which travellers can fly is to cities like Stockholm or Milan. But all will change if Airbus’ state-of-the-art A318 twin jet gains permission to use LCY.

Last Saturday saw the A318 conduct a test sortie into this environmentally challenged airport with its short runway, limited taxiways and parking space. The result was positive.

“The trials went exactly according to plan,” airport MD Richard Gooding told Business Traveller, “we are now analysing the plane’s environmental impact and it’s highly likely the A318 will come to London City. The A318 is a big step forward for us. It’s the first time a mainstream plane has landed here. This plane can carry 107 passengers in a business and economy configuration [slightly more than the BAe146, currently the largest plane using LCY]. It gives us access to a new market because the A318 can fly farther so we can add destinations like Madrid, Rome and Vienna and one or two of the emerging cities in Eastern Europe.”

Continues Gooding, “The A318 is expected to replace the BAe146 which is no longer in production and will help secure the airport’s long-term development which is expected to quadruple throughput over the next 25 years.”

One drawback is that, Air France excepted, few carriers operate the A318. But that’s not an insurmountable problem. Adds Gooding, “Airbus has assured us it has customers [for the A318] in the wings.”

For more information go to londoncityairport.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

New budget hotel for Birmingham

Global French chain Accor has opened a new budget hotel in the centre of Birmingham.

The 250-room Etap Hotel Birmingham Centre is offering both business and leisure travellers a flat rate of £35 per room per night every day of the year.

The hotel says its product is geared towards today’s “Smart” traveller who is looking to minimise costs but wants the guaranteed standards and comfort of an established brand.

Etap rooms are full size, modern and are equipped with air cooling, colour TV, desk and chair, ensuite bathroom and shower and separated toilet. They all have a double bed with an overhead bunk bed and natural daylight.

There is a continental buffet breakfast served between 0630 and 1000 priced at only £2.95. Other snacks are available throughout the day.

Car parking is free and so too is internet access in the lobby.

Etap Hotel Birmingham Centre
1 Great Colmore Street
Birmingham B15 2AP

Tel +44 (0)121 622 7575

For more information visit etaphotel.com

Report by Alex McWhirter

Shanghai Airlines to join Star Alliance

China’s Shanghai Airlines has been invited to join the Star Alliance. The carrier is recognised as one of the better airlines flying within mainland China. It serves over 150 domestic and regional destinations using a 44-strong fleet of mainly Boeing jets from its Shanghai base.

This development must be considered good news for Star Alliance passengers making transfers at major hubs like Shanghai. Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly easier to fly into mainland China but transferring to a domestic connection has been a chore because of cultural differences.

It will be some time before Shanghai Airlines becomes a full member of Star Alliance (a glance at the carrier’s website shows the difficulty of the task ahead) but it will lead to easier reservations and connections at mainland Chinese gateways.

Says the carrier’s Chairman Zhou, “With the development of Shanghai Pudong Airport, we should make full use of the airport resources, provide quick and convenient ‘Under One Roof’ transferring and connecting services. We hope that the establishment of the second terminal building in the near future will provide high-standard, high-quality and high-efficiency operating service.”

From its home base Shanghai Airlines covers major domestic cities such as Beijing, Kunming, Shenzen and Xian. It also flies internationally to Bangkok, Phom Penh, Saigon and Osaka. It has recently applied to launch flights to Hong Kong.

Star Alliance members serving mainland China from Europe (both directly and indirectly) include ANA, Austrian, Lufthansa, SAS, SIA and Thai.

For more information go to shanghai-air.com, staralliance.com

Report by Alex McWhirter