New-look Ibis opens in Bristol

French hotel chain Accor has continued the updating of guestrooms in its budget Ibis brand, with the opening of a new property in Bristol.

The new-look rooms have polished wooden floors, queen-sized beds, air conditioning, freestanding mirror, and power showers. Technology includes in-room wifi, which costs £9.99 for 24 hours and includes access to movies and satellite channels on the plasma TV. Wifi access is free in the ground floor public areas.

The 182-room Bristol property is centrally located in the city’s harbourside development area close to Temple Meads railway station, with a shuttle service to Bristol Airport leaving from outside the hotel. Room rates start at £49.95 for a double room, which can sleep up to three people. Other options in the area include a Travelodge, with Marriott and Jurys Inn hotels nearby.

The first hotel to have every room with the new-look format was Ibis London City, which opened in 2005. Ibis is planning to gradually update guestrooms across its UK properties. Ibis is Accor’s most widespread brand in the UK, with 48 properties.

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Report by Sarah Maxwell

VLM increases flights to Amsterdam

Belgian carrier VLM is adding three more daily flights to Amsterdam. From September 4 the Antwerp-based airline will fly a total of nine daily weekday flights to and from London City (LCY) and Amsterdam Schiphol airport (AMS).

The new flights will leave LCY at 0810, 1535 and 1855, arriving at AMS at 0820, 1545 and 1855 respectively. The additional AMS-LCY flights will depart at 0850, 1615 and 1935, arriving in the capital at 1105, 1825 and 2145.

The London – Amsterdam route has proved a popular one for VLM – originally launching with three daily return flights in April 2005, the carrier increased this to six earlier in 2006 before this week’s announcement. The carrier flew 36,100 passengers on the route in the first six months of 2006, compared to 31,100 in its first eight months of operation in 2005.

Says David Nye, Regional Manager UK for VLM: “Since we commenced services to Amsterdam in April 2005, we have seen a steady growth in demand for our flights, especially from business travellers who appreciate our short check-in times and excellent on-time performance.”

The carrier flies out of LCY to UK cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, and European business destinations including Brussels and Rotterdam. VLM has also recently started to refurbish its fleet of Fokker 50 aircraft.

Lead in fares for LCY-AMS route start at £22 (one-way excluding taxes).

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Report by Mark Caswell

City of London now a wifi hotspot

The City of London launched its wifi network this week, effectively turning the Square Mile into one big hotspot, 24 hours per day. The wifi network is as a result of the City of London Corporation entering into a partnership with The Cloud, Europe’s largest wifi network operator, to install and manage the network.

Michael Snyder, chairman of the City of London’s Policy Committee, said: “City workers and visitors will be able to use wireless broadband to work more efficiently; staying in touch with their office via hand-held devices while on the move.”

The network is being installed in lamp posts and street signs, allowing City workers and visitors with wifi-enabled devices to access the internet on streets and in open spaces. To access the wifi network users need an existing wifi service provider such as O2 or BT (but not T-Mobile), or direct with The Cloud for a flat rate tariff of £11.99 per month (minimum twelve month contract), or a weekly tariff of £11.99, both allowing unlimited use across its 7,000 UK hotspots and 9 city centre hotzones.

George Polk, CEO of The Cloud, said: “Increasingly corporate users are turning to wifi for a range of services, including converged voice services and we have strong demand from existing customers for coverage in high density and high profile locations like the City of London. We expect this trend to continue. In addition, the network is designed to support secure access and private data networks for the emergency services, and other public services customers in the City of London such as transport authorities.”

Bobby Sarin, COO, The Cloud commented: “For too long, public wifi access has been over-reliant on high voucher pricing for revenue which has hindered frequent usage, despite wifi’s high performance and popularity. Ultra wifi finally allows everyone to have great value, “always on,” flat rate access to high-speed wifi across the UK for £11.99 per month.”

The City of London initiative is not the first such zone from The Cloud however – Manchester’s was launched earlier this month and others planned are in Birmingham, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham and Oxford, along with the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington which will all go live this summer.

In addition to the new hotzones coverage, people will be able to log on and use unlimited wifi at conventional Cloud hotspots located at BAA airports, regional airports, First Great Western train stations, Coffee Republic outlets, Little Chef cafés, Swallow Hotels and over 4,000 pubs and regional hotels across the country, as well as the business district of Canary Wharf. Launched in mid 2003, The Cloud partners with Vonage, O2, BT, Vodafone, Skype, iPass, Nintendo and Intel, among others, to facilitate the growth of wireless broadband services across Europe. The Cloud’s investors include 3i IT Provider and Accel Partners, Europe.

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Report by Tom Otley


Passport fees rise… again

The cost of passports is set to rise for the second time in less than a year. From October 5 the charge for a ten-year adult passport will increase to £66 for the normal postal service (up from £51), £91 for the fast track option (previously £77.50), and £108 for the premium same day service (up from £96.50).

The hike will also affect child and jumbo passports (with extra pages for frequent business travellers), with the cost of a fast-track jumbo application rising by £12 to £97. The new fees represent an average increase of over 15 per cent, and follow a similar rise in December 2005.

The increase in fees has been introduced to cover the costs of the new style ePassport, which includes an embedded secure chip containing the holder’s personal details and a scan of their photo. Over one million ePassports have now been issued in the UK, and from the end of the summer all new passports will contain the biometric chip. This is in line with US requirements for countries wishing to remain within the US Visa Waiver Scheme.

The new passport includes a biometric chip

The Passport Service points out that the increased charges will also fund enhanced background checks on applicants and face-to-face interviews for first-time adult passport applicants, which begin in 2007. Says Home Office Minister Joan Ryan: “Passport production is paid for through the passport fee. There is a cost to the anti-fraud measures that we are introducing, but we are clear that it is a price that must be paid to protect the integrity of our travel documents and improve the security of our borders.”

Travellers may have seen the charge for a standard ten-year adult passport rise by £24 in the last ten months, but the cost remains competitive when compared with many other countries – New Zealand citizens pay the equivalent of £123 for a ten-year period, while in Switzerland the charge is a whopping £219.

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Report by Mark Caswell

Etihad to fly Abu Dhabi – JFK

New York will become Etihad Airways’ 35th destination when the Abu Dhabi-based airline starts flights to JFK on October 26 this year.

Etihad’s chairman, HH Dr. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saif Al Nahyan, says of the new route: “By connecting Abu Dhabi and New York, we are once again illustrating the ambitions we have at Etihad Airways to service the world’s most strategically important cities and regions.”

Flight EY503 will depart Abu Dhabi International Airport daily at 1415, arriving in New York at 2125 (2025 after BST ends). On the return leg, flight EY504 will depart at 2310 (2210 at the end of BST) and arrive in Abu Dhabi the following day at 2025.

The timings of the new route mean travellers can make good connections from other cities in the gulf region and the Indian continent and fly onwards to the US. Etihad passengers flying from Bahrain on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays arrive in Abu Dhabi at 1210 in time for the new flight to New York. Wednesday flights from Delhi arrive at 1030, and Mumbai flights on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays arrive at 1050.

Currently British Airways flights leave Abu Dhabi early morning at 0200 arriving New York at 1115 (via LHR) and Turkish Airlines, which flies Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays leaves Abu Dhabi 0235 arriving New York at 1535 (via Istanbul).

For passengers flying from New York to Abu Dhabi it is also possible to connect to daily flights to Muscat and Bahrain at 2130 (Doha everyday except Tuesday) and Mumbai at 2310.

The New York route will be served by the new Airbus 340-500, in a three-class configuration carrying 240 passengers (12 in first, 28 in business and 200 in economy). Passengers flying in Diamond (First) will experience the new Diamond Zone seats, which recline to fully flat and can rotate 180 degrees so that passengers can hold meetings and talk to each other (see online news July 5).

Lead in return fares from New York to Abu Dhabi in economy are £612 plus taxes and business class fares from £2,035 plus taxes.

In other news Etihad is also planning new routes to Osaka and Shanghai, to be launched later in 2006.
Other recent new routes for Etihad were Casablanca and Doha which launched in June and from July the airline started flying to Kuwait six times a week (everyday except Tuesday), and Khartoum, thrice weekly (Monday, Wednesday, Sunday).

Report by Felicity Cousins

American unveils new business class

American Airlines has released pictures of its new long-haul business class seating which will debut on North Atlantic routes over the coming months.

The mammoth airline will be the first US carrier to offer passengers modern business class seating (see Online news, March 16). But the seats are “lie-flat” or “flat at an angle” in style rather than being fully flat.

American will shortly begin installing the new seating on its B767-300s with the fitting scheduled to be completed by Spring 2007. Next to follow will be American’s fleet of B777s with installation set to be complete by the end of 2007.

The seats, which come from well-known German manufacturer Recaro, offer 195.6 cm (77 ins) of legroom when fully reclined. When the privacy divide is raised and the armrest lowered the total seat width increases to 58.4 cm (23 ins).

But American’s new seats add nothing new to what’s already available with rival carriers. Indeed discerning global travellers would consider them lagging behind the standards set by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand. All these airlines offer flat bed seats. They would also appear to be uncompetitive in relation to the fully flat beds which Air Canada will shortly introduce on international routes.

So why hasn’t American seized the opportunity to lead the market ? A spokesperson revealed it chose lie-flat style seats because of economy and because it wanted to meet the needs of its frequent flyer members.

“We opted for flat-at-an-angle [ie lie-flat] seats for several reasons. Firstly, our tests showed that there was not a significant difference in comfort between fully-flat and flat-at-an-angle seats and there was a strong satisfaction for seats that had lounge, or Z position, capability.”

“Second, fully flat seats consume considerably more pitch than flat-at-an-angle seats which typically fit in the existing seat footprint [ie take up no extra space].”

“American decided to keep the current number of 30 seats in the B767 business cabin to preserve our AAdvantage [American’s loyalty programme] members’ ability to upgrade into the business class zone. This is an option valued by many frequent flyers. So research with customers and the capability of serving the maximum number of business class customers [because fully flat seats occupy more space which would mean that fewer seats could be installed] led American to choose the flat-at-an-angle option.”

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Report by Alex McWhirter

More UK flights for Central Wings

Polish airline Central Wings will add two additional UK routes this winter. Starting on October 29, the budget carrier (a subsidiary of Polish national airline LOT) will launch a five times a week service between London Gatwick and Wroclaw in Silesia. Then on December 15 Central Wings will begin flying three times a week between London Stansted and Warsaw. Return fares start at £45 for Wroclaw and £54 for Warsaw.

Flights depart Gatwick at 1725 arriving in Wroclaw at 2050 with the inbound service leaving at 0800 to reach Gatwick at 0950. In the case of Stansted-Warsaw the outbound flight departs at 0955 to arrive in the Polish capital at 1310. The inbound service leaves Warsaw at 0730 for a Stansted arrival at 0910.

There is currently a daily Ryanair service from Stansted to Wroclaw but there have been no flights between Stansted and Warsaw since Skyeurope withdrew its service earlier this year.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

London-Amritsar now set for August 4 start date

Jet Airways now says its planned London-Amritsar service will launch on August 4.The independent Indian airline will fly three times a week (every Friday, Saturday and Sunday) using a wide-bodied Airbus A330-200.

Flights will depart Heathrow at 2235 reaching Amritsar at 1135 the next day. The inbound service departs Amritsar at 1455 reaching Heathrow at 2235.

The city of Amritsar is situated in the northern state of Punjab and is famed for the Golden Temple. Amritsar is also a major commercial, cultural and transportation hub.

Jet Airways’ 226-seater A330-300 will operate in a two-class layout with 196 economy and 30 business class seats. Business class seating will be similar to the fully lie-flat beds currently installed in Jet Airways’ Airbus A340s which currently ply between Heathrow, Mumbai and Delhi.

Catering on board will include Indian dishes sourced from London restaurant “The Bombay Brasserie.” A host of entertainment options are available with Sky Screen.

Jet Airways’ website cannot quote fares or accept bookings from travellers based in the UK. So check with a travel agent for the best rates.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Booming LCY

London’s very own City airport (LCY) is on a roll with record passenger numbers and a growing network of flights. Says Richard Gooding, the airport’s MD, “We handled 220,000 passengers in June which is a record. This year overall we’re hoping for 2.4 million passengers.”

LCY has opened four new routes in the past few months (Newcastle, Stockholm, Milan Malpensa and Stuttgart) and Gooding reveals that the Star Alliance group of airlines are now the number one users of his airport. Previously the biggest customer was the Belgian airline VLM.

Gooding believes that a substantial number of LCY passengers are now using the DLR (which opened last December) to travel to and from the airport. “While I don’t yet have any accurate figures for the DLR, we believe that half of all our passengers are using it. For example, our car parking business is down by 5 per cent even though passenger numbers are 20 per cent up and it’s noticeable that the local roads aren’t as jammed up as they were before.”

The main jet aircraft using LCY is the BAe146 which is no longer in production. The airport is looking to safeguard its future by seeking approval for other plane types. Gooding reveals that the Brazilian-made Embraer 170 jet will be cleared to use LCY by next year with the Embraer 190 jet probably cleared in two years’ time.

But the biggest news concerns the Airbus A318 (see Online news, May 18) which is expected to be cleared by Spring 2007. “It means,” says Gooding, “that with the A318 we’re moving away from regional jets to something more grown up.”

The A318 would enable non-stop flights to be operated to cities like Madrid (currently the airport’s most requested destination), Vienna and various ones in Eastern Europe.

LCY’s growth has put parking space under pressure. “100 per cent of our capacity is now used at peak times,” says Gooding, “any airline coming to us now will only get a 30 minute slot [on the ground] which means the actual parking time is [limited to] 25 minutes. But this is good business practise because, a) we can get more aircraft in and b) the airlines can operate more flights so their [aircraft] utilisation is better.” LCY is seeking to add more parking space to cope with future demand.

The airport is currently owned by Irish entrepreneur Dermot Desmond and he has put LCY up for sale. Says Gooding, “He [Dermot Desmond] bought the airport 11 years ago for £23.5 million of his own money at a time when nobody wanted it. [At that time] Canary Wharf was bust and the UK economy wasn’t doing well.”

“We are now of a size when we have outgrown a single shareholder investor. There has been a lot of interest in LCY and a number of bids [a figure of £400 million has been rumoured in the financial press]. But whether we sell will depend on what offers come along and the credibility of the buyers.”

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Report by Alex McWhirter

BA’s new baggage policy; a further update

One month on and British Airways’ new checked baggage policy (see Online news June 15 and June 22) starting on October 11 continues to elicit emails from readers.

Most premium travellers remain opposed to BA’s decision to adopt a maximum checked baggage weight of 23 kilos per piece even though there will be more routes on which they can take two pieces rather than one. It must be stressed that 23 kilos is the maximum weight per piece. No longer will travellers be waived through (or a pay a small surcharge) if their checked luggage is a few kilos over the weight limit.

Business class travellers who need to take more than two pieces (or one piece in the case of passengers flying economy class) are peeved to learn that they must now pay a flat surcharge for every extra piece. No longer will the extra pieces be included in the overall baggage allowance.

Edinburgh-based reader Charles Hogarth is a BA gold cardholder and flies business class. He takes BA to London, mainland Europe and the Far East. “I travel with commercial samples and I take three pieces of checked baggage and I’m one of these people who doesn’t believe in lugging small suitcases on and off planes.”

“I typically take one piece for my clothes which might weight 12 or 15 kilos. I spread the commercial samples evenly between the other two cases which typically weigh 30 kilos in total.”

“As a gold cardholder I have never ever been charged for excess baggage. But under the news rules, Gold card holders aren’t entitled to any extra allowance so I’m now faced with paying £120 each time [for the extra piece] I take a long-haul flight in business class.”

Reader Steven Triandafillidis currently takes a minimum of two bags. “Excluding my brief case, I travel with a suit case and another holdall which is particularly heavy. This means I will immediately be looking at a minimum of £60 excess for the second bag [based on flying economy class short-haul].”

“Alternatively I can suffer the inconvenience of carrying it into the cabin. For an airline whose strategy is one of ensuring its customers have a hassle-free experience, I can safely say that by the end of the journey, having measured my cabin baggage and carried a particularly heavy bag into the cabin, I will have landed tired and angry.”

Readers who have complained to BA’s Executive Club about the airline’s new policy are being told that what BA is doing from October 11 “is part of an industry trend.” In that case, BA may well be right but only in the sense they are setting it. Business Traveller has checked with all three major airline alliances (Oneworld, Star and Skyteam) and none of the members currently has any plans to follow BA.

A number of readers have asked us to clarify the position regarding connecting flights [to and from BA with another airline] and code-share services [flights jointly operated by BA and another carrier].

The official word from BA is that connecting passengers will continue to receive the same allowance as provided by the other carrier. Says a spokesperson:”We will continue to accept any through-checked bags that weigh up to 32 kilos in cases where another carrier has through-checked a passenger.”

One example would be flying Perth-Singapore-London where Qantas would connect to BA at Singapore. Or where you might use Bmi for a business class connection for your BA flight from London.

As for code-share flights, BA says that the baggage allowance of the operating carrier will continue to apply. So if you booked a London-Singapore Qantas flight operated by BA you would have to abide by the BA allowance and not the Qantas one.

Please note that local government regulations mean that baggage entitlements differ when flying to North America, the Caribbean, Nigeria, Brazil and Mexico.

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Report by Alex McWhirter