Bmi suspends London-Mumbai route indefinitely

A major technical problem with one of its long distance planes has forced Bmi to indefinitely suspend its London Heathrow to Mumbai service.

The popular route was launched only last year in a blaze of publicity. Bmi was one of the first carriers to take advantage of the newly liberalised UK-India aviation treaty which has seen traffic grow by leaps and bounds.

The plane being grounded is a wide-bodied Airbus A330 which has a landing gear fault. Bmi has a fleet of three A330s but because the other two are fully committed on other routes the carrier has no spare capacity.

Bmi suspended the Mumbai route earlier this month and is not expected to restart until at least mid-December. “We’re still waiting for a full assessment [of the technical problem] from Airbus,” says a spokesperson, “and rather than cancel it on a week-by-week basis we’ve taken the step to suspend the service indefinitely.”

Adds Nigel Turner, Bmi’s CEO, “It is with great sadness and of personal disappointment to me that we have been forced to make this very difficult decision. We have tried without success to locate a suitable replacement aircraft.”

“The marketplace is intensely competitive and we have serious concerns about a prolonged period of over three months’ absence.”

“We remain committed to our long-haul network so we have made no reductions in operating crew levels including the 66 cabin staff positions involved in the Mumbai operation. Any job losses will be minimal and all confined to India-based positions.”

The suspension has come at a difficult time. Travel to India traditionally picks up at this time of year following the ending of the monsoon season. Bmi says it is rebooking affected passengers with other non-stop carriers like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic where possible. The other two non-stop carriers are Air India and Jet Airways but there are indirect options with carriers like Lufthansa and Emirates.

When asked whether Bmi might decide not to restart its London-Mumbai service, a spokesperson replied, “That’s not an impossibility. It all depends on what happens to the aircraft.”

For more information go to flybmi.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

W Hotels moves from urban oases to “fantasy island”

Luxury US lifestyle hotel brand, W Hotels, has opened its first resort hotel, the W Retreat and Spa – Maldives.The seven-year-old W Hotels brand (part of the Starwood group) opened the resort in September and is planning more resorts..

Ross Klein, president of W Hotels says: “The W hotels in New York and LA have always been urban oases and there is still the escape element to them, so the next step was to put our W personality onto where people go [for leisure].”

W Maldives is set on the island of Fesdu, in the North Ari Atoll. It has 78 private villas (either overlooking water or on the beach), each with its own plunge pool and sundeck. The resort has six gourmet restaurants including 15BELOW, a cave-like bar 15m underground, and a spa with Bliss products.

The move from city hotel to resort was a natural progression for the brand according to Klein: “The opportunity came up and we wanted to do it in true W form. We picked an exotic and fun location. It’s the “ying yang” of the W personality; it’s hip and humble and at the same time comfortable and cool.”

W Maldives is not alone as a luxury retreat in the island republic. Other established resorts include: the Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa, with its underwater restaurant, two Four Seasons resorts and two One&Only resorts. Shangri-La will make its entrance in 2008.

However, Klein believes W Maldives has something different to offer. “Luxury was very different seven years ago [when W was launched]. It was a very traditional luxury but W was born out of a real change. W is a very approachable luxury; we want the experience to be inclusionary [sic]. We want to be everything; but definitely not traditional.”

Damon Page, general manager of the W Maldives explains that the retreat will offer guests the “whatever, whenever, wherever” service approach. So, for example, if a guest wants to drive the resort’s speedboat, they will be accommodated, or if they want to learn how to cook, the chef will allow them into the kitchen to do so.

The aim is to move away from simply lying on the beach. Klein believes that after a few days of doing this you reach a “plateau of passive pleasure” and your senses need more stimulation.

Page says: “We wanted to stimulate the senses, so that the senses are engaged but not bombarded.”

Klein says: “There is no typical W customer – that’s the key. We wanted it to be our own version of Fantasy Island.”

In the future W retreats will focus on “winter playgrounds” as well as beach locations, Klein revealed.

Internationally, W Hotels has announced plans for properties in Vieques, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Santiago, Athens, Istanbul, Doha and Dubai. Noticeably, London is missing from the list.

Klein says: “Europe is different to the United States. When we do come to London and Paris, it won’t be a “cookie cutter” of what we have in New York. It has to be unique to each location. And we are poised now.”

He adds: “Seven years is not anywhere near the brand maturity, but seven years is the perfect time, now we have established a place in the market. It’s hard to believe that seven years ago there were no W Hotels at all.”

For more information, visit whotels.com, starwoodhotels.com.

In other news, W looks set to develop another brand,although again, its beginnings will be in the US.

The new Aloft brand has been created by the W team but is a “freestanding” brand. It aims to be a “re-invention of utility travel”, for travellers on the road in between the big cities.

Klein says: ‘I must emphasise that Aloft is not a W ‘light’. We looked at the personality of W and had a chance to develop Aloft. It is a limited and select service brand. We looked at everyone from a road warrior to college kids to families and retirees.”

The idea is that when you stop on the road you not only want to refresh yourself, but also be in a refreshing space.

Klein adds: “Aloft is ahead of its time. Technology-wise, all hotels have wifi now, so of course we are looking to the future to see what travellers will need for, say, 2010.”

The first Aloft hotels will be at Philadelphia Airport and in Lexington Massachusetts. The group plans to have more than 500 Aloft hotels by 2015, worldwide.

See alofthotels.com for more information.

Report by Felicity Cousins

Thai’s paid for upgrades

Thai Airways is offering Bangkok-bound travellers the opportunity to step up a class. Passengers prepared to fork out an extra US$760 at the time of departure from London can upgrade from economy to business or from business to first class.

This sum covers one sector and is in addition to the normal fare. It’s offered with most fare types and offers a good saving on the regular business or first class tariff. It is also available for London-bound flights out of Bangkok.

“It’s proving to be very popular,” says a spokesperson for Thai in London, “although travellers must remember that the upgrade is subject to space being available.”

Thai flies twice daily with B747-400s between London and Bangkok. From London, flight TG911 departs at 1150 to arrive in Bangkok the next morning at 0610. Thai’s evening flight, TG917 leaves at 2135 reaching Bangkok the following afternoon at 1555.

In the return direction, TG910 leaves at 0035 and arrives in Heathrow early the same morning at 0620. Thai’s lunchtime flight, TG916 departs at 1350 and reaches Heathrow the same day at 1935.

Of these four services, the busiest flights tend to be TG911 from Heathrow and TG910 from Bangkok.

Thai’s B747-400s used on the London route now features lie-flat style seats in business with lie-flat versions in first class. But that means the number of seats is cut from 50 to 40 in business and from 14 to 10 in first class.

Thai’s current online return fares between London and Bangkok are: £453 for economy, £1,955 for business and £3,530 for first class.

Passengers checking with the Thai website or with telephone reservations can gain a rough idea of availability in advance of travel.

For more information go to thaiairways.co.uk.

Report by Alex McWhirter

December 5 debut for SIA’s new seating

Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) eagerly awaited new seating will arrive on the Paris route on December 5.

The new product will then appear a week later on SIA’s three times a week link from Singapore to Barcelona via Milan.

The new first, business and economy class products (see Online news, October 19) are being installed on SIA’s brand new fleet of B777-300ERs. The seating is designed to make SIA competitive with rivals into the next decade. In particular, the business class seating promises to be one of the more innovative products aloft.

According to airline booking systems, the first SIA B777-300ER will enter service on December 5, operating from Singapore as overnight flight SQ334 to Paris CDG, departing at 2350. It will return as flight SQ333 from CDG to Singapore at 1145 on December 6.

SIA currently flies once daily on this route with a B747-400. Potential passengers can spot the new first and business class seating by the seating plan. New First class is configured four across with seats lettered A (window), CD (middle)  and F(window). New Business class is also configured four across: A (window), DF (middle) and K (window).

Online agent Expedia is quoting between £2,064 and £2,541 return for business and upwards of £4,284 for first class.

The bad news is that it will be more difficult for frequent flyers to redeem miles for a first or business class award ticket once the new products have entered service because of greater demand from fare-paying passengers. Another consideration is that while there are 42 business class seats the number of those in first class is cut to just eight.
A number of readers have complained to Business Traveller that SIA’s Paris route is completely blocked out for award tickets during December. 

 Ravindra Bhagwanani of consultancy Global Flight Management, says that this is normal practise when an airline launches a new and improved product.
“SIA risks having a big revenue demand for these seats and, in any case, award seats to SE Asia are limited during the Christmas and New Year period.”

But matters will improve says Bhagwanani, “Demand will level out over time because, a) the market will get used to it, and b) the competitors will catch up. After a first hype SIA will, like any other carrier, be unable to tell its best customers that no award seats will be available.”

SIA says that the new product will also be rolled out on the B777-300ER in December on two regional flights (SQ862/861) linking Singapore with Hong Kong. Then in January next year it will appear on the Singapore-Zurich route (flights SQ346/SQ345) followed by Singapore-Frankfurt (SQ326/325) in May. In between these dates, the intention is to use the B777-300ER on the Singapore-Seoul-San Francisco route commencing in March.
 
One final word. Readers must note that airlines can and do make last minute plane changes for unavoidable reasons. So don’t be too disappointed if the promised B777-300ER is, on occasion, swapped for another aircraft.
 
For more information go to www.singaporeair.com and www.expedia.co.uk.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Six new services for London City

Lufthansa is adding Hamburg and Nuremburg to its growing network of flights from London’s City airport (LCY). It comes at a time when LCY is more popular than ever with passengers seeking to avoid the security hold-ups at Heathrow.

On October 29, the German airline will launch twice daily weekday flights to Hamburg along with a once daily service on weekdays to Nuremburg. There is a single flight on Sundays only to Hamburg.

Flights to Hamburg are being operated by partner carrier Cirrus using a Dash-8 turbo-prop. Flight LH4821 departs LCY at 0915 arriving in the North German port city at 1215 with flight LH4825 departing at 1810 and arriving in Hamburg at 2110.

Inbound flights to LCY see flight LH4820 departing Hamburg at 0745 (arriving LCY at 0845) and flight LH4824 departing at 1640 (arriving 1740). Flights LH4825/4824 also operate on Sunday.

Lufthansa’s single flight to Nuremburg are being provided by Contact Air using an ATR42 turbo-prop. This operates only on weekdays with LH4823 leaving LCY at 1300 reaching Nuremburg at 1615. Return service LH4822 departs at 1100 to land at LCY at 1230.

Another four routes are being launched by private Italian carrier Air One including services to its country’s capital and main business destination.

As exclusively revealed in Business Traveller (see Online news, September 28) Air One will inaugurate twice daily (single daily frequency at weekends) flights from LCY to Milan’s close-in Linate airport on November 20. This will be followed on January 8 with a similar schedule to Rome Fiumicino.

But now Air One has announced its intention to add daily services to Genoa and Turin from January 29. Says Giorgio de Roni, the airline’s VP network and marketing, “Looking at the growing demand surrounding London City we feel that Italy is currently an under-served market. We believe the airport’s location will be the key to the success of Air One’s London operation.”

Adds LCY’s MD Richard Gooding, “Route development at London City is driven purely by customer demand. We have very close links with the business community and work with them to provide the direct air transport services they need. Air One is very keen to develop services to Italy and we wish them every success.”

Except for BA Connect’s service to Milan Malpensa, none of these cities are currently served from LCY.

For more information go to lufthansa.co.uk, flyairone.it.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Oneworld members boost key Asian routes

Finnair and Cathay Pacific are improving services on several key Asian routes. The Helsinki-based carrier is adding a new route to Delhi on October 30 and will double the number of flights to Tokyo (from two to four a week) at the beginning of December. Both services will have good connections from other airports in mainland Europe, Scandinavia and the UK.

The new Helsinki-Delhi service will operate with an MD11 three times a week (every Monday, Wednesday and Friday) from Finland returning from Delhi the following day. Timings are AY21 at 1410 arriving Delhi 0010, returning as AY22 at 0200 reaching Helsinki at 0600.

Tokyo Narita will be served by an Airbus A340-300 every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from Helsinki from December with flights returning the next day. Finnair’s new flights are those operating on Thursday and Sunday out plus Monday and Friday back.

Flights depart at 1720 arriving Tokyo at 0955 and returning at 1155 to reach Helsinki at 1510. It means that business people now have a more convenient spread of departures.

In Asia, Cathay Pacific hopes to launch a single daily flight on the important Hong Kong to Shanghai route on December 1. The carrier is still waiting government approval to begin the service (so its website currently contains no information) with an Airbus A330 or A340 but booking system Amadeus displays flight CX368 departing Hong Kong at 1840 and arriving in Shanghai at 2115 (Friday timings are 2335 to 0205). In the return direction, CX367 leaves Shanghai at 2235 to reach Hong Kong at 0115 (Saturday timings are 0305 to 0545).

Cathay’s new service will provide various connections at its Hong Kong hub. It will also providing another opportunity for Oneworld members to earn frequent flyer miles.

For more information go to finnair.com, amadeus.net, cathaypacific.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Budget carriers expand at Madrid

Additional runway and terminal capacity are enabling the budget carriers to expand services at Madrid. The UK is one of the main beneficiaries with a new service from London City, an additional flight from Gatwick and the first ever links from Nottingham and Bournemouth.

BA Connect (BA’s budget brand) launches a twice daily service from London City on October 29. This had been one of the routes most requested by City users. Flights are timed to leave at 1005 and 1855 and to return from Madrid at 0750 and 1640 so they are geared slightly more towards the Madrid-based passenger.

BA Connect will share Madrid’s new terminal with its parent and other Oneworld members. The airport’s older terminal, where handling fees are reputed to be less expensive, is now being made available to low-cost carriers.

Easyjet will increase its flights from Gatwick from three to four a day on October 30. Timings here are now geared for business people with the new flights departing Gatwick at 1925 and leaving Madrid at 0725. The other flights (timings refer to travel from October 30) leave from Gatwick at 0740, 1300 and 1655 with the inbound timings to the UK being at 1145, 1720 and 2055.

Ryanair is marking a change of tack by actually using a major airport rather than a secondary facility outside town. Its new flights at Madrid will make it easier for UK regional travellers to access Spain. It is inaugurating services from Nottingham East Midlands and Bournemouth in November.

There will be four flights a week from Nottingham commencing November 22 and three flights a week from Bournemouth starting on November 23. Services on both routes depart at 0840 and return at 0640.

In addition to the UK services listed above both Easyjet and Ryanair are launching a number of routes from Madrid to destinations in mainland Europe.

For more information go to easyjet.com, ryanair.com, ba.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Hertz goes green

Hertz is the latest travel provider to set out its green credentials. The mammoth car hire firm is building up a fleet of environmentally-friendly vehicles in Europe which can be booked alongside its conventional offerings.

Hertz’s Green Collection comprises thousands of mainly fuel-efficient diesel cars in the UK, Belgium, Italy and Holland. Rental outlets in France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland will be getting the green cars by the end of the year.

In mainland Europe you can expect to hire diesel versions of popular sellers like the Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Renault Megane and Skoda Octavia.

Here in the UK, customers are being offered a choice of the diesel Ford Focus, diesel VW Jetta, Mercedes 170 and, from November 1, the Toyota Prius (petrol/electric) hybrid. All offer air-conditioned comfort with the added advantage that the Prius is exempt from London’s £8 congestion charge.

Hertz’s criteria for what constitutes a green vehicle is one which has a C02 output of under 140 g/km and which offers good fuel economy. It is not based on the vehicle’s whole life cycle where the hybrids don’t score highly (according to a report in this month’s What Car?) Hertz says all vehicles in the green fleet achieve 41.5 to 65.7 mpg.

UK rates are similar to a conventional Group C vehicle like a Ford Focus 1.6LX. Says a Hertz spokesperson, “We are committed to offering customers as much choice as possible, because each customer’s requirement are different. The Green Collection has been introduced so that those customers that wish to select the greenest vehicles within the Hertz range are able to do so quickly and easily.”

Launch locations for the Green Collection in the UK are at major airports plus Central London. Airport locations consist of five London area airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City) plus Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick and Edinburgh.

For more information go to hertz.co.uk.

Report by Alex McWhirter

SIA announces upgrade plans

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is spending some US$360 million on new first, business and economy classes which will enable the carrier to remain competitive into the next decade.

Highlight of the three is business class. As had been widely expected, SIA has followed in the footsteps of British Airways and adopted fully flat beds in place of the angled seats which it currently offers.

Because of delays to the A380 super jumbo programme, the new seating will initially appear on the carrier’s new fleet of B777-300ERs which enter service on SIA’s Paris CDG to Singapore route next December followed by Zurich-Singapore in the New Year.

The UK market will have to wait longer. London was supposed to be the first European city to experience the new products on the A380. It will continue to be served by the existing B747-400s and SIA would not be drawn on the timetable for retro-fitting this fleet and neither can it confirm when its A380s will arrive. So Manchester-Singapore (a route currently served by older B777s) is likely to be SIA’s first UK destination to experience the new seating on the B777-300ER but probably not before 2008.

The Business Class (SIA fans will lament the dropping of the previous Raffles branding) seat is a huge 30 inches wide. SIA claims it’s the widest seat currently available although at the shoulders this reduces to 25 inches when it is a fully flat bed. Every B777-300ER will be fitted with 42 seats in an exceptional 1-2-1 layout which contrasts with SIA’s current 2-3-2 angled seat layout.

SIA has followed Abu Dhabi-based Eithad in fitting forward-facing seats rather than adopting the “herringbone” layout seen at Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand.

It means every passenger will now gain direct access to the aisle. But there is a downside. Although SIA’s new seat is 76 inches long when converted into a bed, and it’s much wider than its rivals, the seat pitch is just 51 inches (compared with 70 to 80 inches at BA and Virgin Atlantic).

With less space than usual between you and the seat in front, passengers can only sleep in a diagonal position. In other words, your head stays on the right side of the seat with your feet positioned to the left into an alcove (within the seat in front). Some travellers have voiced concerns that SIA’s new seat may be too wide for comfort, especially when upright, unless the carrier provides lots of cushions. But this extra wide seat is necessary to get the diagonal sleeping position.

One thing is clear: passengers will gain a lot more space and SIA indicates it may charge a premium. “We would like to charge 10 to 20 per cent more for business class on routes served by the new aircraft [with this seating],” says Huang Chen Eng, SIA’s executive VP for marketing. The seat is made of leather and flips over (like Virgin) to become a bed with a material mattress. Furnishings have also been improved with a Givenchy cotton duvet and height-adjustable tables for easy working.

First Class on the B777-300ER adopts the similar but spacious 1-2-1 layout. It has a width of 35 inches, almost enough for two people. It claims to be the largest fully flat bed in the sky when converted. But the seat pitch is 71 inches (20 inches more than in business) with a bed length of 80 inches. Luxury abounds with the leather and mahogany furnishing topped off by a down pillow and duvets and Salvatore Ferragamo amenities. However, the new first seat misses out on certain privacy features offered by the Gulf carriers and with only eight seats there will be availability problems for passengers booked on RTW (round-the-world) tickets. Bear in mind that the A380’s first class layout will be announced later.

Economy class is also being upgraded with leather seats, footrests and some clever features for storage and lighting that is in the seat back in front so as not to disturb neighbours. Onboard amenities such as toothbrush, mouthwash, moisturizers are also being introduced. But SIA hasn’t adopted Cathay’s new “fixed shell” design (see Online news, September 28) and the amount of space available to passengers is virtually unchanged. The seats are 19 inches wide and have a pitch of 32 inches.

One also might have expected to see SIA come up with a premium economy product seeing as the gap between regular economy and business class is now wider than ever.

Across all classes Krisworld IFE has been approved with the introduction of more of everything – 100 movies, more languages to learn, more guides, music and laptop power in all classes. The biggest innovation is the inclusion of a suite of business software so you can work without the need for your laptop. Star Office is installed which will allow you to work on Powerpoint, Excel and Word files. All you need is to bring a USB memory stick with your files on and plug it into the USB ports in your seat. The keyboard found on the back of the IFE handset is about 30 per cent larger than you get on a Blackberry. Alternatively you can bring your own USB keyboard/mouse or buy one on board. LCD screen sizes are large being 23 inches in First, 15.4 inches in Business and 10.6 inches in economy.

Business class is the innovator here with SIA deciding to provide more space sideways than lengthwise. It remains to be seen what passengers make of the extra wide seats but there’s no disputing the fact that BA’s new Club World (launched on November 13 and which will be an update of the existing product) looks decidedly cramped at eight across (2-4-2) on the B747/B777 compared with SIA’s new four across (1-2-1) layout.

For more information go to singaporeair.com

Report by Julian Gregory and Alex McWhirter

Asiana’s new business class

Next week Asiana will launch a new and improved business class on the London to Seoul route. At the same time it will withdraw first class seating from this route.

The Korean carrier, which flies four times a week from Heathrow, will switch from a three-class B747 to a two-class B777 on October 24. The more comfortable business class seating is lie-flat style. It’s configured seven across (2-3-2) with 60 inches of legroom and a 167 degree angle of recline.

Seats feature a 15 inch monitor with AVOD (choice of 30 movies) and internet access through Connexion by Boeing (but bear in mind the system is only active until the end of the year).

Flights currently operate to and from Heathrow every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Flight OZ522 departs at 2100 arriving in Seoul Incheon at 1550 with flight OZ521 returning at 1330 to reach Heathrow at 1705. Timings are slightly different on Sundays.

Asiana will provide complimentary chauffeur-driven transfers on arrival at Seoul Incheon to business class passengers holding full and certain discount fare category tickets.

The carrier’s UK website quotes a return business class fare of US$10,662 (£5,920) but better deals are offered by travel agents. For example, online agent Travelocity displays a return price of £1,874.

For more information go to uk.flyasiana.com, travelocity.co.uk.

Report by Alex McWhirter