Easter disruption to Heathrow Express and Connect

Engineering work at Heathrow in connection with Terminal 5 spells disruption for train users over the Easter period.

The services affected are those departing from London’s Paddington station: namely Heathrow Express and the semi-fast Heathrow Connect. Easter Sunday is worse affected. There will be no Heathrow trains at all on that day.


Good Friday, April 6: Both Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect operate normally

Easter Saturday, April 7: Heathrow Express will operate normally with the last trains departing at 2110 from Paddington and 2140 from Heathrow Terminal 4. The last Heathrow Connect train departs Paddington at 1933 and departs Heathrow T 1, 2 or 3 at 2121.

Easter Sunday, April 8: No service with either Heathrow Express or Heathrow Connect.

Easter Monday, April 9: No Heathrow Express until 1555 from Paddington and 1618 from Heathrow Terminals 1, 2 and 3 then operating every 15 minutes. Heathrow Connect will only operate between Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. It will operate at the usual Monday to Friday times.

For more information go to heathrowexpress.com, heathrowconnect.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

SIA to toughen PPS membership criteria

Singapore Airlines (SIA) will make changes to its PPS (Priority Passenger Service) Club from this September. To move the club upmarket, SIA is insisting that travellers spend much more on their tickets.

Until now PPS has been one of SIA’s well kept secrets. Passengers seeking a loyalty scheme tend to be steered towards SIA’s popular Kris Flyer frequent flyer scheme which is linked to other Star Alliance carrier programmes.

By contrast PPS is a stand alone loyalty scheme within SIA. Its membership is available only to passengers booking premium class tickets with SIA. Besides earning miles, PPS members get better recognition from the airline. For example they can use the first class lounges when flying business or economy class. They’re higher in the pecking order at upgrade time and are likely to get their excess baggage charges waived.

Previously PPS members need only spend between S$9,000 (GBP2,992) and S$30,000 (GBP9,972) a year (based on a minimum yearly milaeage of 50,000 miles) with SIA which would be easily achievable for a passenger based, say, in Europe and flying regularly to the Far East and / or Australasia.

But these easy times are coming to an end. From September 1, SIA will up the minimum travel spend (excluding taxes, fees and charges) almost threefold to S$25,000 (GBP8,310).

Membership of PPS Club’s higher Solitaire tier will become more difficult too. SIA is scrapping lifetime membership at this level. It now insists Solitaire membership can only be earned with a hefty S$250,000 (GBP83,100) spend with SIA over a five year period.

Says Ravindra Bhagwanani of FFP consultancy Global Flight, “Yes this is an attempt to make the PPS Club more exclusive. But it’s also a more questionable one. There are drawbacks for the estimated 80 per cent of current members as they will simply be kicked out of the programme.”

“This and the recent changes to the programme let us view it in a completely different light. It no longer provides the outstanding value it used to do for premium passengers. While other airlines are keen on attracting them [premium passengers], SIA seems to want to get rid of them. Telling members who are spending between S$9,000 (GBP2,992) and S$25,000 (GBP8,310) that we don’t care about your business might not be a clever thing to do.”

If that wasn’t enough, PPS members are being stopped from using the first class lounges unless flying first class. The ability to access first class lounges irrespective of travel class will now be available only to Solitaire tier members.

Says a PPS spokesperson, “We have been receiving feedback that the Silver Kris lounges have become increasingly overcrowded. Some lounge changes are being made to maintain the lounges’ exclusivity and comfort.”

SIA’s changes haven’t gone down at all well with existing PPS members. Frequent flyer weblogs suggest that two-thirds of members will either let membership lapse or would be unable to re-qualify.

For more information go to singaporeair.com, globalflight.net.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Can Emirates overtake SIA and become Oz’s leading foreign airline?

Later this year passengers flying the Kangaroo Route between Europe and Australia will experience more choice and keener prices. A new aviation treaty signed last week between the UAE, Qatar and Australia has granted the Gulf airlines a huge increase in flights.

Qatar Airways has finally being allowed to serve Australia from Doha (see Online news, March 21). It can fly to Melbourne and can add a second city, probably Sydney, next year. Flights are expected to start this autumn.

Etihad can operate a further 21 flights a week to Australia. The Abu-Dhabi based airline flew to Sydney for the first time this week (see Online news, January 11). It can add the extra services between now and 2010.

But the deal which Emirates has secured is the most astonishing. Dubai’s national airline can hike its current 49 flights to 84 flights a week by 2011 – a 71 per cent increase.

Currently Emirates fields 49 flights a week to four cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. It’s expected the extra services will operate to all these four cities although Emirates might also add Adelaide in the future.

All the Gulf airlines provide good connections from Europe so what it means is that Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) kangaroo route leadership is being challenged.

Australians hadn’t heard of Emirates before 1996. But in the past nine years the carrier has carried 2.5 million passengers on its Australian services. A good proportion of these travellers will have flown between Europe and Australia or vice versa. Before Emirates appeared on the scene many might have chosen to fly Down Under via Singapore with SIA.

SIA remains market leader (amongst foreign carriers) as it’s still ahead on frequency. It operates 87 services to five cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. But after 2011 Emirates has announced that it would like to move to 112 flights a week by 2014.

Of course, you the reader, will logically assume that SIA will also grow its Australian services over this period. But Emirates’ meteoric development mirrors that of Dubai. Conversely SIA’s sluggish growth in recent time reflects the economic situation in Singapore.

So whereas Emirates forges ahead year after year with new routes and lots more passengers, SIA’s growth has slowed. On this basis Emirates may eclipse SIA after 2011.

Says an Emirates spokesman, “With its hub in Dubai, Emirates is in a unique position to connect passengers east and west as well as north and south of the equator.” So Emirates can fuel its Gulf-Oz flights with passengers not just from the Middle East and Europe but also with passengers from Africa, Russia and the Indian subcontinent.

To cement its ties with Australia, Emirates says it has invested over A$1 billion in airport lounges and sponsorship of key sporting and cultural events.

Says Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile, “I welcome the successful outcome of this week’s negotiations with the UAE. This is a five year strategic approach to growing our air services relationship with the region that provides capacity ahead of demand. Carriers can now confidently commit their aircraft to the Australian market and Australian tourism and trade will be the beneficiaries.”

For more information go to emirates.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Qatar to serve Melbourne

Gulf airline Qatar Airways has finally secured the right to fly to Australia. In a deal signed last week Qatar can begin flying to Melbourne this year and is able to add a second Australian city, probably Sydney, next year.

It’s not clear when Qatar will launch flights but it’s likely to be by the autumn when travel demand to Australia is at its peak. Neither has the airline finalised whether it will fly non-stop from Doha or route its flights via Bangkok or Singapore. But were Qatar to operate non-stop it will have the right plane for the job as it’s now taking delivery of a fleet of Airbus A340-600s.

Qatar is expected to market the new service to European travellers who take the kangaroo route to Australia. First and business class passengers find it easy to transit Doha airport now that Qatar has established a premium terminal. The carrier is the fourth Gulf airline (the others being Gulf Air, Emirates and Etihad) to serve Australia.

Often overlooked in favour of Sydney, Melbourne badly needs the extra passengers which Qatar will bring. According to The Age (the city’s local newspaper) the number of passengers using Melbourne airport declined by 500,000 in 2005/2006 compared with the previous year. If this wasn’t enough, Melbourne will lose its remaining European carrier when Austrian Airlines pulls its three times a week B777 service next Saturday (March 24).

For more information go to qatarairways.com, melbourne-airport.com.au.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Rotana expands loyalty scheme and announces new Centro brand

Rotana hotels, the upmarket hotel group with 23 properties across the Middle East, has announced plans to expand its loyalty scheme.

At present Rotana Rewards members pay an annual fee of US$205 in return for benefits such as late check-out and preferential room rates, as well as an AED250 (US$70) voucher to use in the group’s hotel restaurants, and further dining discounts. Members also earn points for each stay, which are duplicated for those who are cardholders with one of Rotana’s frequent flyer programme partners.

From May however Rotana is launching a new tier to its loyalty scheme, allowing guests to join a complimentary points-only scheme. The exact details of the new tier have not yet been released, but present earning values equate to 250 points per night in one of the “Resorts” or “Suites” properties, rising to 500 points per night at “Hotel” properties. Rotana currently has eight Dubai hotels in its portfolio, with another 19 properties due to open across the Middle East in the next 18 months, including three more in Dubai before the end of 2007.

In other news Rotana has announced a new brand for “budget-conscious” business travellers. Centro by Rotana will feature three-star plus properties with wifi connectivity, full service restaurants, deli style dining and take away kiosks, and fitness facilities including gym and swimming pool. Says Daniel Hajjar, corporate vice president for sales and marketing:

“Business travel and accommodation for the budget conscious executive is an increasingly important market in the Middle East, but remains grossly under-serviced. The Centro concept is specifically designed to cater to this rapidly expanding market.”

Rotana plans to open two Dubai Centro properties in the next 18 months, and hopes to expand this brand to 25 properties within the next five years.

For more information visit rotana.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Breaking News: Transatlantic ‘open skies’ agreement reached

EU transport ministers in Brussels have today voted in favour of an EU-US open skies aviation agreement which is expected to take effect from 2008.

Unlike air services within the EU, where airlines can fly and charge more or less what they wish, services to the US have been governed by restrictions.

In the case of the UK it means that only four airlines – BA, Virgin, American and United – can fly between London Heathrow and the US along with those  (Air India and Kuwait) who negotiated traffic rights decades ago. Airlines are free to start flights to the US from regional UK airports (these include Luton and Stansted, but not Gatwick) but they prefer Heathrow because that’s where the money lies.

Now that officials have given the green light it means more airlines will be allowed to fly from more airports within the EU. It will provide greater choice (both in terms of airlines and products) and fares, especially in first and business class, will become keener.The biggest effect of open skies will be seen at Heathrow which is the EU’s leading transatlantic gateway.

Britain’s Bmi has said it would like to launch some US routes from Heathrow while US carriers like Continental, Delta and Northwest might transfer their services away from Gatwick. It would also mean that Air France or Lufthansa could, if they wanted, fly to the US from Heathrow.

On the other hand, UK airlines will now be free to serve the US from points in mainland Europe and likewise carriers like Air France and Lufthansa can fly transatlantic from the UK

But talking about new routes and putting them into practise are two different things.  Bmi would have to acquire several new planes (or else drop some of its existing US services from Manchester) while carriers which are new to Heathrow will face difficulty obtaining ‘slots.’

Report by Alex McWhirter

Emirates boosts Johannesburg services and will add Cape Town

Emirates has been given permission to operate an extra four flights a week between Dubai and Johannesburg starting on June 3.

The Dubai-based airline has also been allowed to launch a new daily service to Cape Town. Flights to Johannesburg will be operated by B777-300s. These will depart from Dubai and return from Johannesburg every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Flight EK765 is set to leave Dubai at 1440 arriving in Johannesburg at 2050. It will return as EK766 at 2230 to reach Dubai the next morning at 0830.

The timings provide good connections for passengers travelling to or from Asia and Australia. There may also be some connecting possibilities from Europe. For example, flight EK766 from Johannesburg connects in Dubai for flight EK029 at 0950 for London Heathrow.

The extra seats will be welcome. Emirates currently code-shares with South African Airways on this route. It operates two flights a day and it can fill every seat.

Over the past year a couple of readers have complained to Business Traveller about being overbooked on flights departing Johannesburg which is not an attractive prospect seeing as South Africa has no rule which obliges airlines to pay DBC (denied boarding compensation) to ‘bumped’ passengers.

Emirates’ Cape Town service will start at a date yet to be finalised. This city is currently underserved from the Gulf with Qatar Airways the only other regional airline serving this city.

For more information go to emirates.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

LCY-Zurich flights set to double

Right now only one airline plies the route between London City (LCY) and the Swiss banking capital of Zurich. There are up to seven flights a day.

But by April 10 this increasingly popular business route will be covered by no fewer than three carriers providing a whopping 15 flights a day (more than from Heathrow) with all operating BAe146 jets.

Incumbent carrier Swiss is set to do battle with the likes of British Airways, which will operate up to four flights a day from next Sunday, and Air France who arrives on April 10 with a three flights a day service (see Online News, March 15). If that wasn’t enough, Swiss will itself add an extra daily flight from LCY on April 10 to compete with BA’s more business-minded timings.

But aren’t there now too many seats? After all, LCY is considered something of a niche airport and no other route currently supports more than two carriers.

“When we looked at serving Zurich,” says Peter Simpson, MD of BA City Flyer (the Manchester-based BA division which operates the LCY flights), “we did not realise that Air France also intended to fly the route. Nevertheless we believe our product will be successful.”

For its part, Swiss is beefing up its timings with both an earlier flight from LCY and a later return from Zurich which provides for a full day’s work at either end of the route and the ability to save on hotel accommodation.

It means Swiss will offer a spread of departures from LCY starting at 0700 and finishing at 1950. In the return direction, Swiss departs Zurich between 0715 and 2000.

Richard Gooding, MD of LCY, told Business Traveller, “Ten years ago we would have been nervous of having more than one competitor on any one route. But what we have seen is that extra competition develops the market. Our Zurich route has been crying out for choice and passengers will welcome it.”

What it means for the consumer is that fares on this route will remain keenly priced (for example, expect greater seat availability at the cheaper tariff tiers). In addition, the airlines concerned may hand out bonus loyalty miles and other perks to attract passengers.

In other news, BA City Flyer will honour all its existing LCY routes to Edinburgh, Madrid, Milan Malpensa and Frankfurt but it will also add services to Glasgow (in addition to Zurich). It will also boost Edinburgh from seven to eight flights a day.

All BA flights are operated by 110-seater BAe146 jets with a two-class layout on the international and a one-class configuration on the domestic routes. Product is to regular BA standards.

Says Peter Simpson, “We are now the second biggest airline at LCY with a 20 per cent share of the market [Belgian carrier VLM is first with 24 per cent]. This summer we will be operating 250 flights a week and expect to carry 600,000 passengers a year at LCY with 83 per cent of our passengers travelling on business.”

For more information go to ba.com, swiss.com, airfrance.co.uk, londoncityairport.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

October launch for Jet Airways’ Mumbai-New York service

Jet Airways has finally published schedules for its eagerly awaited service linking India with the US. It will launch a daily service with B777-300ERs (which the airline has on order) on October 28 between Mumbai and New York Newark (although Jet indicates that flights may start earlier depending on demand).

Flights will stop en route in Brussels with Jet Airways being able to carry passengers on all sectors. This means that travellers will have another air service option between the Belgian capital and the Big Apple.

Flights will depart Mumbai at 0225 arriving in Brussels at 0740. After a two hour transit the service departs at 0940 to reach Newark at 1225.

In the return direction flight 9W227 will leave Newark at 2025 (transiting Brussels from 0940 to 1140 the next morning) then arrive in Mumbai at 0040 the following day.

Direct flights on this route are operated by Air India (with one en route stop) and US carrier Delta which flies non-stop. But there are numerous connections available via both the Gulf and Europe.

Jet Airways is gaining an international reputation for top service at keen prices. Nevertheless it will face stiff competition from Delta’s non-stop service which shaves several hours off the overall journey time. Delta also offers a further selling point in that it’s linked to the Skyteam alliance (Jet Airways isn’t aligned with any alliance, although it does partner with several carriers for FFP benefits) and has a stronger loyalty programme.

For more information go to jetairways.com.

Report by Alex McWhirter

Air France grapples with inconvenient LCY schedules for new routes

Air France has published schedules for its five new routes from London City (LCY) (see Online News, February 21). Flights to Belfast Harbour (the closest airport to downtown Belfast) start on March 25 with the other four destinations (Geneva, Madrid, Nice and Zurich) following on April 10. At the time of writing Air France hasn’t decided whether or not to go ahead with plans to serve Milan Linate.

The flights are good news, but LCY is getting full up and as a result Air France says it has found it difficult to secure attractive timings in the morning peak.

“There’s a particular problem first thing in the morning [with slots],” Richard Gooding, the airport’s MD told Business Traveller, “so we’ve applied for permission to add a further five parking stands which are expected to be ready by March next year. These will alleviate the congestion on the apron [and free up early landing slots].”

Matters are especially tricky on Air France’s Swiss and Spanish routes from LCY. The first flight out of LCY to Zurich does not arrive until mid-afternoon. The inbound timings are better, though, which suggests that Air France (a Skyteam alliance member) is targeting the Swiss market for its business customers: a tough market to break, with Star (because of Swiss and Lufthansa membership) being the most dominant airline alliance in Switzerland. In addition, Air France’s three times a day service is up against the eight daily flights operated by Swiss and the four flown by British Airways.

The Geneva timings also suit Swiss rather than London-originating passengers. Air France’s first flight from LCY doesn’t land in Geneva until 1215 although the timings on the way back (at 0755, 1315 and 1715) are better.

In the case of Madrid (served twice daily) the first flight at 0910 gets you to the Spanish capital at 1300. But the final flight of the day from LCY is at 1430. Not ideal for either UK or Spanish business people. The service to Nice is aimed at the leisure passenger and operates only once a day. Air France’s last flight of the day from Madrid departs at 1910 which is fine. But its first flight of the day from Madrid isn’t until 1350 in the afternoon, no use for a London-bound day tripper.

Timings to Belfast are equally targeted at the Northern Ireland market. So whereas the first flight ex-LCY arrives in Belfast at 1120, the early service from Belfast at 0750 reaches LCY at a more useful 0920.

British Airways passengers using LCY can get round inconvenient timings by mixing and matching flights. They might depart from City but return to Heathrow or vice versa.

This isn’t so easy to accomplish with Air France as none of these new destinations are served directly from Heathrow. Air France will doubtless be hoping for more slots to become available.

For more information go to airfrance.co.uk.

Report by Alex McWhirter