Virgin opts for Boeing Dreamliner

Virgin has purchased 15 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, with an option to add a further 28 aircraft, to replace its A340-300 fleet.

Sir Richard Branson chose the occasion of the carrier’s resumed flights to Chicago (a route previously plied by Virgin, but scrapped in 2001 following 9/11) to announce that the airline would phase out its A340-300 fleet from 2011, replacing it with the more noise and carbon-efficient Dreamliner.

The 787-9 is said to produce 27 per cent less fuel burn in the air, due to half of its construction material being made of carbon fibres – it is also thought to reduce in-air noise pollution by 60 per cent. Says Branson:

“The Dreamliner will bring a step change to the industry, substantially reducing environmental impact and incorporating innovative design and advanced technology, while providing an enhanced flying experience for our passengers.”

The carrier also announced a partnership between Virgin Fuels, Boeing and GE Motors aimed at testing bio-fuel technology in a demonstration 747 flight as early as next year.

“Just two years ago the assumption was that bio-fuels couldn’t be used to power jet engines,” says Branson. “But views are changing, and developments have shown this can now be achieved.”

Branson added that Virgin was continuing to investigate other methods of reducing carbon emissions, including the trial of towing aircraft to stands, and improved air traffic management.

The twin-engined, twin-aisled Dreamliner will have a capacity of between 250 and 290 passengers depending on configuration, and will feature the “biggest window in the sky, with individual dimming functions to reduce the amount of natural light entering the cabin”, as well as improved air purification and humidity controls. Asked if the purchase of up to $8 billion of Boeing aircraft would affect Virgin’s order of the delayed Airbus A380, Branson replied that the airline remained committed to adding the A380 aircraft to its fleet, with delivery expected within the next couple of years.

The introduction of the Dreamliner will also open up the possibility of new routes for the carrier, with Branson announcing that Virgin plans to fly direct from London to Perth from 2011, with a London-Hawaii route also under consideration.

Commenting on the forthcoming launch of Virgin America (a separate US company planning domestic flights within the United States, of which Branson is a minority shareholder), he said that the airline had satisfied “all the necessary requirements to allow it to begin operations”, with a possible start date slated for July 4 (Independence Day). Branson also said that from 2008 Virgin will effectively be able to offer passengers round-the-world tickets, with Australian airline Virgin Blue due to start flights from Sydney to Los Angeles, from where passengers could connect with existing Virgin Atlantic flights.

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Report by Mark Caswell

Air France emulates Lufthansa with Paris first class lounge

Only three European carriers remain big players in the first class market: Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa (including Swiss). There’s no getting away from the fact that first class passenger numbers have fallen over the years (partly thanks to business class improvements) but that has made the product more exclusive. For example, Air France only offers first class on its fleet of B777s with the number of seats cut to eight or just four depending on plane type.

Take Lufthansa as an example. Two years ago Germany’s national airline unveiled a separate first class terminal at its main Frankfurt hub. It was the first of its type in Europe. Lufthansa passengers here are offered the highest standards of service and are chauffeured directly to their plane at boarding time.

Now Air France has followed suit with something similar at Paris CDG designed specifically for its L’Espace Premiere (the carrier’s first class brand) passengers.

Air France has just opened a special first class lounge within CDG’s Terminal 2E. Access is open only to first class passengers rather than those using loyalty card status. It’s part of an upgrading of CDG ground services for which the airline has recruited an extra 100 staff.

The special lounge is aimed at passengers departing from Paris – who can now check-in at a specific location no matter where they are flying – plus those in transit with connections of at least two hours. The new facility will be especially convenient for passengers flying from the UK as their flights arrive in adjoining Terminal 2F.

First class passengers departing CDG will have their luggage shrink-wrapped (a useful security feature) at dedicated counters within Terminal 2E. From here they are escorted through to the lounge where they will find work, relaxation and dining areas (meals and wines are served). There are also shower rooms and a Clarins massage area.

As with Lufthansa at Frankfurt, the coup de grace is the chauffeur-driven ride direct from the lounge in Terminal 2E to your plane anywhere on the airfield. Air France offers its first class product to over 100 passengers every day to 24 destinations.

Does BA have any plans to open something similar? “We have yet to finalise what we’re doing with our first class product in Terminal 5 [which opens in April next year],” says a spokesman.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Blackwall Tunnel tidal flow closure spells access problems for LCY users

If you’re using Blackwall Tunnel to reach London City Airport (LCY) from South London in the morning peak then allow at least an extra 30 to 60 minutes to complete the trip.

Traffic mayhem on the A102 southern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel is the result of the sudden decision by TfL (Transport for London) to close the “tidal flow” last week. This special lane, in use for almost 30 years, has been a vital queue-buster for motorists heading northbound through the tunnel. It operates in the morning peak hours between Monday and Friday inclusive and increases road capacity by a third.

Yesterday morning, for example, traffic reports on local radio told of three and four mile tailbacks on the A2/A102 heading north with delays of at least 60 minutes to reach the tunnel entrance. Surrounding roads were also heavily congested so public transport users are also victims.

TfL says it has had to close the tidal flow following safety concerns expressed by the Metropolitan Police. A TfL spokeswoman told Business Traveller, “Public safety and the efficient operation of traffic through Blackwall Tunnel is our primary concern. The increasing number of ‘near misses’ in this enclosed environment had posed a significant safety risk and endangered lives. The decision to stop the tidal flow was taken jointly with the Metropolitan Police and was aimed at delivering the highest possible safety standards to London’s travelling public.”

“TfL anticipates there will be some increase in congestion on the south approach to the tunnel as a result of this decision. Changes in traffic flows will be monitored and congestion mitigated wherever possible.”

TfL has released a video of the near misses. These took place on the north side of the tunnel and were caused by impatient drivers making illegal overtaking manoeuvres.

Closure of the tidal flow has resulted in a flood of complaints from road users. Critics maintain that the tidal flow could be operated safely provided it is given greater police enforcement and better signage.

The Blackwall Tunnel is a vital economic link between South London, Canary Wharf, LCY plus the expanding areas to the east of the capital. Alternatives for road users would be the Rotherhithe tunnel (which is also heavily congested) and the Dartford tunnel which is impractical for many as it is some distance down river.

It seems inconceivable that the authorities can stand by and ignore the mounting chaos now experienced in the morning peak.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class summer sale

Last week we told you about United’s summer-time business class sale. And now Virgin Atlantic has announced a similar sale for Upper Class (its business class brand) but the difference is that this deal covers both US and non-US destinations.

Travellers flying from London Heathrow between July 1 and August 31 will pay as little as £1,399 for a return ticket to New York, Boston or Washington DC. Flights to Chicago (a new route launched this week) cost £1,599, Miami is priced at £1,699 while Los Angeles and San Francisco will both set you back £1,799.

Elsewhere you can fly Virgin to Barbados for £1,399 or to Dubai for £1,199.A minimum stay of a Saturday night is required with all travel completed by September 7. Bookings must be completed by May 9.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

VLM enters the jet age

VLM is now operating smoother and faster jet flights on its popular London City (LCY) to Rotterdam route. It’s a far cry from the Belgian carrier’s F-50 turbo-props which have plied between the two cities for many years.

So far the Belgian airline has acquired a single 92-seater BAe146-300 -VLM plies the Rotterdam route from LCY ten times a day with the BAe146 operating four of these flights. Jet-operated flights are the 0740, 1030, 1655 and 1935 services from LCY. From Rotterdam you will find the BAe146 on flights departing at 0705, 1000, 1620 and 1915.Seating inside the BAe146 is configured five across (3-2) with 31 inches of legroom.

VLM operates over 100 flights a day in and out of LCY representing some 36 per cent of all movements. Rotterdam is VLM’s second largest base. Besides the flights going to LCY, there are twice daily links to Manchester and Hamburg.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

High-speed trains to link Paris with two key business cities in Germany

From June 10, rail fans will be able to board a direct high-speed TGV train at Paris Est and reach Stuttgart 3 hours and 39 minutes later. The ticket will normally cost Euros 95 one-way in standard class.

Today the same trip by conventional train involves up to four changes (there are no direct links), takes 6 hours 14 minutes and costs Euros 102 for a one-way “walk-up” tariff.

Another example of where journey times are being speeded up is the Paris-Frankfurt route. Currently anyone wanting to take the train will have to search hard for a direct train (most services require en route changes) and even then he or she is faced with a 6 hours 25 minutes trip costing Euros 87 in standard class.

From next June a Paris-Frankfurt trip with TGV or ICE (Germany’s equivalent of France’s famous TGV train) will typically take 4 hours 29 minutes (bear in mind that an en route change is still necessary) and cost Euros 105.
But from December 9, further track improvements will cut the Paris-Frankfurt time to 3 hours, 50 minutes.

The faster journeys, making the train far more competitive than the plane, are down to France’s new TGV Est line which runs eastwards from Paris to Strasbourg and beyond. Right now these lines east of Paris, with their slow and conventional trains, are “Cinderella” services compared with their high-speed TGV counterparts which have run south and west of the capital for many years.

Another first is that the two countries’ national rail systems (France’s SNCF and Germany’s DB) will both operate their high-speed trains over the same tracks. Until now, the French have barred Germany’s ICE trains from their rails claiming that they were “too heavy.” But critics reckon French chauvinism played a role here.

Standards are being elevated on the new route. DB says that on-board staff will speak English, German and French. The first class service will include a wide selection of newspapers, a taxi order service for Paris and a light meal at your seat for international journeys.

Because Paris Est (from where the new trains depart) is next door to Paris Nord (the terminus used by Eurostar’s London trains) it means that UK passengers will also benefit from the new link.

But as regular rail travellers will testify, through rail ticketing isn’t a strong point. And this will be the situation here in the early days so passengers travelling to or from the UK with Eurostar will be obliged to buy separate tickets.

However a Eurostar spokeswoman told Business Traveller that the firm is “committed to through ticketing” and plans to offer through fares into Germany via Paris. As a first step Eurostar expects to introduce a £99 return excursion to Frankfurt this summer.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Gulf Air to downsize

Gulf Air is slimming its network in a bid to return to profitability. Previously the Bahrain-based airline was the national carrier not just of Bahrain but also of the UAE, Qatar and Oman, but in recent years it has seen its owning states break away to found national rivals such as Emirates of Dubai, Qatar Airways of Qatar and Etihad of Abu Dhabi.

All these three have expanded more aggressively and stolen market share from Gulf Air, forcing the airline to live more modestly. It will scrap six long-haul destinations including Sydney, Hong Kong and Dublin, retire its B767s and replace some A340s with newer A330s. It will also acquire four narrow-bodied A320s to develop regional links.

The idea is that Gulf Air will better serve the needs of the Bahrain and Oman economies for which it is the designated national airline.

Says the airline’s deputy chairman Mahmood Al Kooheji, “Our operation is losing more than 1 million US dollars a day and when you include other costs such as financing the figure would be substantially higher.”

Adds the airline’s new president and CEO André Dosé: “We will stop operating our heavily loss-making services to Dublin, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Sydney and Singapore. Instead we will allocate more assets to better serve all important centres in the Gulf and Middle East region.”

To better improve scheduling “we will introduce a ‘wave structure’ of inbound and outbound flights to allow us to offer shorter connection times and ensure better connectivity with our Asian and European long-haul flights.”

Gulf Air has no timetable for when the six long distance routes will be dropped. All the carrier is prepared to say is that the restructuring will not be complete until early 2009.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Exclusive: Jet Airways new B777s will debut on Mumbai-London next month

Jet Airways has chosen the flagship Bombay-London route to debut its new B777-300ERs. The privately-owned Indian carrier has ordered 10 of these planes and the first will be used between Mumbai and London Heathrow from May 23.

The occasion will be eagerly awaited by premium travellers as the new planes feature Jet Airways’ new first and business class products.

Jet has installed spacious four across (1-2-1) seating in both first and business class. For its 32-seater business class cabin, Jet has adopted the ‘herringbone’ layout which is featured by Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand (ANZ).

The fully flat bed is 73 inches in length with 35 inches of shoulder and 33 inches of hip space. The TV screen is 15.4 inches in size.

Jet has never offered a first class before. So for its top cabin product, Jet has emulated the individual cabins featured by Emirates. First class will comprise eight suites each with 26 square feet of usable space and sliding doors which provide privacy.

The first class bed will be 83 inches long and the flat screen TV monitors will be 23 inches in size. Each first class suite will allow dining for two, multiple lighting options, variable lumbar support and an eight-point massage system.

Economy class passengers, as always, make do with a conventional layout, albeit with newly designed seats with footrests. The 274 economy seats will be disposed nine across (3-3-3) and this is a big step up from the capacity offered on the current flights turning Jet into a major player on this route.

None of this should come as a surprise. Chairman Noresh Goyal has told Business Traveller that he wants Jet Airways to be the Indian equivalent of Singapore Airlines. With these new products Chairman Goyal would seem to be realising his ambition.

The first B777 will operate to Heathrow daily as flight 9W118 leaving Mumbai at 1245 and arriving in London at 1755. It will return to Mumbai on busy overnight flight 9W117 departing Heathrow at 2125 and arriving in India at 1050.

Jet Airways currently uses two-class (business and economy) Airbus A340-300s on this route. These are currently leased from South African Airways and have a six across layout in business (2-2-2) and eight (2-4-2) in economy. For the time being the A340s will operate Jet’s second daily Mumbai-London service and will also continue to operate the Delhi-London flights.

The arrival of the B777s will allow Jet to bring forward the launch of its Mumbai-Brussels-New York Newark service. We had reported (see Online News, March 21) that Jet would operate this route daily from October 28. But the carrier says flights will now start on August 5.

Timings are slightly changed with 9W228 departing Bombay at 0210 and arriving in Newark at 1200. Flight 9W227 returns at 2030 to reach Mumbai at 2355.

Jet has full traffic rights on all sectors so it will become a player on the Brussels-New York route which is currently served by Continental, American and Delta.

In other news, Jet is expected to sign a deal with Brussels airport next month to operate a mini hub. Jet is acquiring a 10-strong fleet of two-class Airbus A330-200s and these will feature on a new Delhi-Brussels-Toronto route to be launched later this year. The idea is that the New York (ex-Mumbai) and Toronto (ex-Delhi) flights will cross over in Brussels at the same time. This would allow passengers to switch destinations. For example, a passenger from Mumbai could change at Brussels for Toronto.

Details of the A330’s business class aren’t yet available. These planes will eventually be deployed on the Delhi-London route and on services from India to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Finally, Jet Airways says it expects to fly transpacific this winter. The B777s will be used to pioneer a new route from Mumbai to San Francisco with a stop in Shanghai. Traffic rights are not yet finalised although Jet would be hoping to carry passengers between Shanghai and San Francisco.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Zoom to serve Bermuda and New York

Zoom will compete with British Airways between Europe and the island of Bermuda next June.The Canadian carrier is set to launch a service from Gatwick on June 8 with flights being extended to New York JFK on June 23. Flights to Bermuda will operate twice a week while the New York service will operate every day.

What it means is that Zoom will be possibly the first airline to allow passengers to visit both Bermuda and New York on the same trip. That means passengers will be able to book all flight sectors at an advantageous price.

Flights to New York from Gatwick are priced from £258 return and, when Business Traveller checked Zoom’s website this week, there is plenty of availability in June at this price. The service to Bermuda is costlier and you can expect to pay upwards of £360 return. Zoom has yet to finalise prices (and so cannot yet accept bookings) with the regulatory bodies for the Bermuda-New York sectors.

Passengers paying an extra £99 per sector qualify for premium economy seating which includes extra legroom and various other frills.

Schedules call for a 1300 departure from Gatwick arriving in New York at 1545 (or 1845 on Wednesday and Friday when the flight stops in Bermuda). In the return direction, Zoom departs JFK at 1930 arriving in Gatwick the next morning at 0600 (or 0755 when routed via Bermuda).

A major advantage of Zoom’s pricing is that passengers can book on a one-way basis. They need not include a Saturday night stay (as the major airlines require) or book round trip only.

Zoom is using B767-300s. Seating in economy is 31 inches rising to 36 inches in premium economy. One drawback, for passengers spending some time away, is Zoom’s meagre luggage allowance which is only 20 kilos (or 30 kilos in premium economy) in total. Zoom’s 20 kilos limit is less than half the “per piece” allowance (normally two pieces of 23 kilos each) offered by the conventional airlines.

Whether the Zoom concept will work is a moot point. The big transatlantic airlines cross-subsidise their economy fares with high business class fares. Zoom doesn’t have this advantage. On the other hand Zoom is spreading its risks by including Bermuda, so only time will tell.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

Almost all BA’s JFK flights now feature new Club World

Transatlantic business class passengers opting for British Airways on the London to New York route will almost certainly experience the new generation Club World seating.

BA says the latest flat bed seating is now installed on 96 services a week linking Heathrow with JFK which are operated by B747s. But new Club World is not yet available on flights going into Newark and neither is it currently installed on the small number of B777-operated flights on the JFK route.

The latter would be evening flight BA173 from Heathrow which departs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This flight returns the following morning from JFK as BA172 on Wednesday and Friday and as BA178 on Sunday.

Each B747 flying to JFK is configured with 70 Club World seats. Typical features of the new generation product include:

• Six foot, fully flat bed that is 25 per cent wider than before
• A new ‘z’ bed position that extends to six feet, six inches
• Enhanced entertainment
• New design of privacy screen
• Laptop locker
• New interior colours
• Onboard Club Kitchen for hot and cold snacks between meals

For a full analysis of the new seating, read Felicity Cousins’ article in the December 2006 / January 2007 issue of Business Traveller.

Says Richard Boyle, BA’s commercial director, “We are constantly trying to innovate and improve. Heathrow-JFK is a crucial business route and we are delighted to provide a virtual guarantee of our new product on this high-frequency route.”

BA says that 17 of its 100 strong long-haul fleet have been fitted with new Club World. The remainder of the fleet should have the new product by mid-2008.

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Report by Alex McWhirter