Ryanair to fly from Belfast City; Aer Lingus and BA to join them?

Ryanair has announced its first ever flights from Belfast, while speculation continues that Aer Lingus may set up its UK hub in the Northern Irish capital.

From October 30 Ryanair will launch daily flights from George Best Belfast City to Liverpool, Glasgow and East Midlands airports. The carrier said that it would look to expand operations from Belfast in the next 12 months, although no other destinations have been announced as yet. Due to limitations on expansion at the airport the budget airline will be limited to carrying 140 passengers on inbound flights on its 737 aircraft, although flights leaving Belfast will be allowed to run at full capacity.

Meanwhile rival carrier Aer Lingus looks increasingly likely to announce Belfast International Airport as its first hub outside the Irish Republic. According to reports in The Sunday Times, the airline will look to launch transatlantic services to the US from Belfast, although a spokesperson for Aer Lingus said that the airline was still “in discussions with a number of airports” – Birmingham is also believed to be under consideration. The carrier is said to be considering a major UK expansion, including the possibility of a Heathrow-Belfast international service (a route currently only plied by Bmi).

The speculation follows last month’s decision by the European Commission to block Ryanair’s proposed £1bn bid for Aer Lingus. The commission said that a merger would harm competition as it would have created a monopoly on 22 out of the 35 routes in and out of Ireland.

Resurgent Belfast has become an increasingly attractive proposition for airlines, with Air France launching London City to Belfast City flights earlier this year. And it seems that BA, who scrapped its Heathrow-Belfast International route back in 2001, would also consider a return. CEO Willie Walsh told the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce back in June that he would “love” to reinstate the route, although this depended on an increase in runway capacity at Heathrow.

For more information visit ryanair.com, aerlingus.com, ba.com. For a look at Belfast’s recent regeneration projects, read the current Irish Special of Business Traveller.

Report by Mark Caswell

Jumeirah’s towering plans

Planning permission has been granted for a 175m high, 52-storey tower on London’s Southbank which will include the city’s third Jumeirah hotel. Number One Blackfriar’s Road will be situated next to Blackfriar’s Bridge, and is due to open in 2011, in time for the 2012 London Olympics.

The mixed-used development will house the Jumeirah Hotel at Beetham Tower (The Beetham Organisation being the name of the developers), as well as 64 residential apartments and penthouses, several cafes, restaurants and shops, and a two-storey rooftop deck with views across London.

Details of the hotel are still sketchy, but Jumeirah says it will be a 261-room property, with “several restaurants and bars, a spectacular ballroom and variety of meeting spaces, plus a state of the art spa, health and leisure facility”.

At 175m the building will be 5m taller than the Telecom Tower, just shorter than the Swiss Re building (aka “The Gherkin”), and some 40m higher than the London Eye. By 2011 the Jumeirah property will be under stiff competition as the tallest hotel in London though, with rival luxury brand Shangri-La signed up as a tenant of the 310m London Bridge Tower (more commonly referred to as “The Shard of Glass”), due to open in the same year.

For more information visit jumeirah.com, shangri-la.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Free txts 4 u on KLM flights

Passengers onboard KLM flights will be able to send text messages and emails for free during August, September and October, as the airline seeks to promote the service to its customers.

Sending a message in-flight from a KLM plane via its in-flight entertainment system (IFE) normally costs US$2.50 a time, but for the next three months the carrier is waiving the charges. The service is currently available onboard KLM’s 777 and A330 aircraft, and is gradually being rolled out onto its 747 and MD-11 fleet.

The promotion is in the run up to a revamping of the carrier’s IFE offering from September 1, with both the audio and video programmes being extended. KLM is introducing four new channels for passengers, including language lessons and audio books.

Berlitz is supplying the carrier with beginners’ courses in 23 languages, while the audio book library will start with three English-language books, and gradually be extended over time. There will also be a channel offering reassurance for those afraid of flying, including information on turbulence, and take-off and landing procedures. Finally a new “B-wise” channel is being launched aimed at business travellers, with features on global business, and a look at cultural and business protocols around the world.

For more information visit klm.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Silverjet announces further delay to second New York flight

All-business class carrier Silverjet has announced the launch of its second daily flight to New York will now start on September 20, nearly three months behind schedule.

The airline’s second flight between London Luton and New York Newark was originally due to have started on July 2, but this was delayed until the end of this month to allow for a C-check (a maintenance check carried out on aircraft every 12-18 months) to be performed on its first aircraft.

However this check has thrown up the need for additional work to be carried out on the plane, meaning that the carrier’s second aircraft (which went into service on July 17) is needed to ply the original flight until the maintenance work has been completed in September. Said Lawrence Hunt, CEO of Silverjet:

“Whilst we’re disappointed that the launch of our second flight has been delayed, the fact that much of the work is being carried out during the traditionally quiet time for transatlantic business travel will reduce disruption to our customers.”

The carrier says that all passengers who have booked on the delayed second flight will be offered seats on the current Silverjet service or a full refund.

For more information visit flysilverjet.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Lounging around

It’s been a busy few weeks for new executive lounge openings around the globe – Business Traveller rounds up the latest offerings from Eos, Star Alliance, Virgin and JAL.

First up all-business class carrier Eos has opened a new gate-side departure lounge at London Stansted airport called Club 48. The lounge includes amenities such as wifi internet access, computer terminals, 50-inch widescreen TVs and bar and food services. The carrier says it has used leather seating, granite and frosted glass counters and tables, walnut veneers, stainless steel, and rich-coloured artwork to create a warm environment for passengers. Visit eosairlines.com.

There’s also a new option for Star Alliance lounge lizards, with the opening of its first lounge in North America. The 1,400sqm area at Los Angeles Tom Bradley International Airport has a seating capacity for 264 first and business class passengers, and includes complimentary wifi internet access, and business services such as fax machines and photocopiers. The lounge replaces 12 individual facilities previously used by individual airlines, although Star member Air New Zealand continues to offer its own lounge. The alliance is also due to open two new lounges at Heathrow T1 and Paris Charles de Gaulle T1 in 2008. Visit staralliance.com.

Meanwhile in Tokyo Virgin has unveiled its refurbished Clubhouse for Upper Class passengers at Narita airport. The new area has an increased seating capacity, with two sunken lounges and a raised sun deck section with views of the airport. Virgin is also rolling out its ‘welcome system’, an electronic guest entry system that aims to provide accurate flight and customer information, and which can inform passengers of the status of their flight before they enter the lounge. Visit virginatlantic.com.

And staying at Narita, Japan Airlines (JAL) has reopened its First Class and Sakura lounges after a refurbishment programme. The lounges have been “completely transformed using warm timber such as walnut, combined with soothing lighting, elements of glass and stone, and furnished with stylish leather and suede upholstery”. Both areas now offer a buffet-style hot meal service between 7.30am and 10pm, and there are bars with airport views staffed between 3pm and 10pm. The lounges also feature new shower rooms, complimentary massages and relaxation rooms, as well as improved broadband internet facilities. Visit jal.co.jp.

Report by Mark Caswell

Qantas reveals A380 details

Qantas has revealed a detailed spec of its forthcoming A380 aircraft, which will include wifi internet access, a private upper-deck lounge for business class passengers, and the introduction of a new premium economy cabin.

The Australian carrier will fit 450 passengers on board its fleet of 20 superjumbos, delivery of which is due to start in August 2008. This compares favourably with the 480-passenger layout announced by Singapore Airlines on the same aircraft, 538 by Air France, and between 490 and 644 by Emirates (see online news June 14). The four-class Qantas offering will be configured with 14 in first class, 72 in business, 32 in premium economy, and 332 in economy.

Private suites in first class are situated on the main deck, and are the result of five years of research, with seats transforming into a 21.5 inch-wide armchair, and a fully flat bed measuring six-foot eleven inches in length and 29 inches in width. The suites will also feature a 17-inch in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen, “an array of personal stowage options” and a touch screen control unit. There will also be a guest seat and large dining table (22 x 27 inches) designed for two people, electronically controlled dual layer window shades, mood lighting, and designer amenities and crockery by Payot Paris and Alessi and Visy.

In business class the carrier has evolved its Skybed fully flat offering, creating a larger bed (six-foot eight inches in length and 23.5 in width), enhanced cushioning, a larger in-arm IFE screen (12.1 inches), and additional storage options, along with an electronically deployed privacy dividerand amenities by Ultraceuticals. The cabin will be located on the upper deck, with seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, and passengers will be able to relax in a dedicated lounge area, complete with leather sofa, self-service refreshment bar, and a large screen with laptop connections for presentations.

Seats in the new premium economy cabin (which will also be rolled out from early next year on the carrier’s 747-400 aircraft), will feature “a sliding base that moves with the seats back to create a more comfortable, ergonomically correct position to aid sleep and eliminate pressure points”. Manufactured by Recaro (responsible for seats in top-end car brands such as Aston Martin, Audi and Porsche), the seats will feature a 42-inch pitch, 19.5-inch width, and nine-inch recline, and include a “foot net” to stop sliding during sleep, increased knee and shin room between seats, and a 10.6-inch IFE screen. Configuration will be 2-3-2 in the premium economy cabin (located behind business on the upper deck) and passengers will have access to a self-service bar area.

Even economy gets an overhaul, with a “single beam seat design offering increased shin and knee clearance”, and a carbon fibre back shell with 10.6-inch IFE screen. Seat pitch is 31 inches, with six inches of recline and up to 18.5 inches of width. The economy cabin is located on the main deck, with seats in a 3-4-3 configuration.

The IFE features audiovisual on demand (AVOD), with over 100 movies, 500 audio CDs, 30 games, and a selection of audio books and radio channels. There are Lonely Planet destination and arrival guides available from the IFE in all classes, as well as online duty free shopping, moving maps and text news. And big news for business travellers – there will be wifi internet access throughout all cabins (although the provider and cost has yet to be confirmed), as well as USB and RJ45 ports (for wired internet access), and PC power sockets.

Qantas is the first carrier to announce such detailed specifications of its A380 cabins, and it coincides with the airline’s redesign (or to be honest, slight tweaking) of its famous kangaroo logo. It has also announced new business class lounges at Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for next year (click here for a roundup of recent executive lounge openings).

For more information visit qantas.com, and to send us your comments on Qantas’ announcement, simply click on the link below.

Report by Mark Caswell

Airlines’ carbon offsetting schemes unsatisfactory

MPs expressed their dissatisfaction with the airline industry’s attitude toward carbon offsetting in a report published this week. Most notably the report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee called British Airways’ efforts to encourage carbon offsetting “risible.”

After collecting evidence from BA, Silverjet and Virgin Atlantic, the committee found the airlines to be “not disposed to consider whole-hearted cooperation with the government over offsetting”, because of industry objections to government-mandated increases in air passenger duty.

The report marks another blow to BA’s carbon offsetting program, following a recent Channel Four Dispatches programme that detailed the shortcomings in the mostly-unregulated carbon offsetting market, claiming among other things that British Airways carbon calculator estimates were too low.

BA responded to the report by saying they were one of the first airlines to offer a carbon offsetting plan on their website, but that “we recognise that customer response has not been as strong as we would have hoped.”

The MP report also criticized Virgin Atlantic for failure to offer an offset plan to customers, failure to direct them to an outside provider and the lack of an emissions calculator on the Virgin website.

A spokesperson from Virgin Atlantic said the airline had been working to “mitigate” the effect they have on the environment and was in the process of developing a carbon offsetting scheme.

“What we explained to the MPs was that it’s something we’ll be able to announce by the end of the year, but we want to get it right. Carbon offsetting is complicated—it’s more than just planting trees. We’ll have a scheme by the end of the year, and it will be a scheme that leads the industry,” the spokesperson said.

The Commons report did praise business-class only airline Silverjet for its automatic inclusion of offsetting into each ticket price, but noted that the airline should be more transparent in its literature detailing “the exact nature of its carbon neutrality.”

In its final recommendation, the report urged the Government to “engage in a dialogue with business to develop a consensus definition of what carbon neutral means,” and to bring more legitimacy to the growing industry.

The report praised the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on its plans to publish a voluntary code of best practice by late summer. Defra hopes to have the code in place by the end of the year, a spokesperson said. The code would provide accreditation and standards only for formal certified emissions reduction (CER) projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, and offset providers and companies will be able to seek out accreditation for some or all of their projects.

Budget airline easyJet made the news in April when the company announced it would not use carbon-offsetting companies because of the exorbitant markup associated with going through a middle-man. ‘There are too many snake oil salesmen in the business,’ said Toby Nicol, easyJet’s communications director. This summer, the company plans to launch a program that involves buying UN-backed carbon credits to sell directly to passengers.

EasyJet claims the best way it can be environmentally efficient is by investing in new aircraft, using existing aircraft efficiently, avoiding congested hub airports and focusing on short-haul travel. According to a recent Government report, air travel accounts for 6.3 per cent of total UK CO2 emissions.

For more information on the practice of carbon offsetting, read the forthcoming September issue of Business Traveller.

Report by Lucinda Housley

SIA to donate proceeds from first A380 flight to charity

Hot on the heels of Qantas’ announcement of its A380 interiors, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has revealed that tickets for the first commercial flight of the superjumbo will be sold for charity.

SIA will be the first carrier to take delivery of the A380 aircraft, and the airline says it will sell tickets for the historic flight (which is due to take place “in the month of October”) on auction site ebay, with the proceeds going to charitable causes. Says Chew Choon Seng, CEO Singapore Airlines:

“The first commercial A380 flight will be a moment in aviation history. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, on an aircraft that will mark a new chapter in air travel. And while we will celebrate the event, we also wish to remember the people who are less fortunate and can be assisted by the charities to which all the proceeds will go.”

So far SIA has kept tight lipped about the exact date of the October flight, or the layout of its A380 aircraft. Speculation has been rife on internet frequent flyer forums as to when SIA would take delivery of the first plane, with a report on French business website challenges.fr saying that the carrier could receive the aircraft as early as next month.

Enthusiasts interested in travelling on the first flight should register for further updates at singaporeair.com/a380 – the charities which will benefit from the proceeds of the flight include Medecins Sans Frontieres, Community Chest (a charity for underprivileged people based in Singapore), and two children’s hospitals in Sydney.

Report by Mark Caswell

United finally go flat out in business

United Airlines is to start fitting fully flat beds in business class from this autumn. The US carrier will gradually introduce the new seating over the next couple of years, across its fleet of 767, 747 and 777 aircraft.

United says it will be the first US airline to offer fully flat beds in business – but not for long, as Delta announced last year that it would start going fully flat from 2008 (see online news October 12, 2006). The announcement has however trumped rivals American Airlines introduction of “next generation” angled lie-flat seats which it has gradually been rolling out since last year (see online news March 16, 2006).

The new United business class seat has been designed by B/E Aerospace (Delta’s offering is being manufactured by the rival company Contour), and will feature a 6ft 4 inch fully flat bed, 23.5 inches wide at its widest point, with four-way lumbar support and six-way adjustable headrest, a 15.4 inch TV screen, and an ottoman with storage space for laptops.

Technophiles will also be happy to find an iPod adapter enabling passengers to play their own music through the IFE (whilst also charging the device), and a USB port to charge other items such as PDAs, mobile phones and cameras. In-flight entertainment includes 150 hours of movies and TV programmes and 50 audio channels, along with noise cancelling headphones.

Interestingly United has eschewed the herringbone layout favoured by the likes of Virgin and Air New Zealand, in favour of a 2-4-2 configuration similar (but with key differences) to BA’s Club World. This means that passengers in the window and central seats will still be faced with climbing over their neighbours to get out. Unlike BA though, United has opted for adjacent seats facing in the same direction (see layout below), meaning passengers won’t have to face each other during the flight. Seat width dimensions are slightly smaller than BA’s new Club World (25.5 inches at their widest), but the flat bed length compares favourably with BA’s figures of  6ft when fully reclined, or 6ft 6 inches in the “Z” position. The airline says it carried out “extensive line-of-sight testing” to ensure passenger privacy, something it says has been achieved through the height of the IFE console, and a side seat-divider screen.

United says it will also revamp its food and beverage offering, with new menus from chef Charlie Trotter, and upgrades will be made to the restrooms and cabin interiors “in the coming months”.

Configuration on the 777 will be eight seats in first class, 40 in business, 107 in economy plus, and 114 in economy. United says it will begin fitting the new seating this autumn, along with its new first class suites announced earlier in the year. Says John Tague, United executive vice president and chief revenue officer:

“We are responding to our customers and delivering a distinct travel experience. Our customers travelling in international United Business will be able to relax more comfortably, work more productively and enjoy their experience more fully due to the flexibility and comfort that the new seat provides.”

United joins an ever-growing number of airlines giving in and going fully flat, with Emirates announcing similar plans for its new 777-300ER and 777-200LR aircraft (see online news June 15).

For more information on United’s news seating, visit suitedreams.united.com – and if you have any comments on United’s new seating design, just click on the link below to email us.

Report by Mark Caswell

Female-friendly dining at Jurys Inn

Female business travellers who dislike eating alone on trips now have the option to dine with other solo women at the Jurys Inn. The chain is testing out a women-only table in the restaurants of its Chelsea and Manchester hotels.

The idea is a result of feedback from 1,200 guests, which showed that 76 per cent of female travellers find it uncomfortable to go to the bar or restaurant alone and as a result often end up ordering room service.

Marketing manager for Jurys Inn, Suzanne Cannon says: “It’s a chance for businesswomen to meet other travellers in similar circumstances, be part of a group and enjoy eating in company after work rather than being stuck in a room.”

This is not the first time hotels have tried to include the lone traveller. In fact one Business Traveller reader, Terry O’Connor, pointed out in a letter in our June issue, that The New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi was offering exactly the same idea to any lone business traveller who wanted company over dinner 30 years ago.

Other hotel groups have also addressed the issue of lone diners by offering magazines and papers to read over dinner, and Novotel’s ‘TV dining’ concept is aimed to make eating alone more comfortable.

When asked if the same service would be available to male diners, a spokesperson for Jurys Inn said that the results of the recent survey showed that women’s dining was something that had created a lot of interest, but if the trial is popular the chain will encourage mixed or all-male dining tables too. Places for the women-only table must be booked at check-in.

Jurys Inn opened a property in Plymouth last month and will be opening eight new properties in the next three years in Brighton, Liverpool, Swindon, Watford, Sheffield, Exeter, Derby and Cardiff.

For more information see jurysinns.com.

Report by Felicity Cousins