Air Astana launches frequent flyer club

Kazakh airline Air Astana has announced the launch of its new frequent flyer programme “Nomad Club”.

Members of the loyalty scheme can now earn and redeem points on Air Astana routes to, from and within Kazakhstan. The airline currently only flies from London direct to Almaty, but UK passengers can also fly from Frankfurt or Hanover to other destinations in Kazakhstan (Astana, Aktau, Atyrau, Kostanai and Karaganda).

The points accumulated and redeemed on Air Astana services depend on the fare paid and the class of travel. For example, six return economy class flights from London to Almaty will generate sufficient points for one free economy class return journey.

Members who take three return business class flights on the same route can earn a free one-way upgrade from economy to business class, while eight return business class trips London-Almaty will be rewarded with one free return business class flight.

Entry-level membership to the Nomad Club is Blue, but after earning at least 25,000 flight points or 30 flight segments within a year, members will qualify for Silver status which will reward them with 25 per cent bonus points on top of flight points, check-in priority, 5kg additional checked-in baggage allowance, personalised luggage tags, monthly account and statements. (London-Almaty business class generates 5,219 points.)

Once passengers have accrued 50,000 flight points or 60 flight segments, they will earn Gold status which gives them 50 per cent bonus points, check-in priority, access to the business class lounge, 10kg additional checked-in baggage allowance, personalised luggage tags, monthly account and statements.

From December 20, 2007 to January 20, 2008 members will also be able to enjoy a 25 per cent festive bonus on routes such as London-Almaty, Moscow-Aktau and Frankfurt-Astana for tickets booked in B, H, K, L, Y, J, C, D and Z.
 
In other news, Air Astana has signed a deal with German airline Lufthansa to allow members of its frequent flyer programme Miles and More to earn and redeem miles on Air Astana flights to and from London, Frankfurt and Hanover and Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan. Air Astana joins Austrian, LOT and Swiss as partners in the loyalty programme.

For more information visit airastana.com, miles-and-more.com.

Report by Jenny Southan

Starwood launches MICE website

Starwood Hotels and Resorts has launched a website aimed at the UK meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) market.

Starwoodukandireland.com has details of the group’s 13 properties across the UK and Ireland, with ideas for meetings and events, and special offers at hotels such as the Sheraton Fota Island Resort and Spa near Cork, and the Westin Turnberry Resort (home to the 2009 golf Open) in Scotland.

The website also has a “tools and tips” section to help planners find the best type of venue and break down budgets, as well as providing testimonials from previous clients.

Meetings organisers can also earn 2,500 bonus Starpoints on event bookings made before December 31, 2007 at selected Starwood hotels in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For more information visit starwoodukandireland.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Just landed

Businesstraveller.com compiles this week’s stories from the lighter side of business travel.

Sheikhen not stirred

Qatar Airways has announced it will feature the entire collection of 21 Bond films on its new Oryx in-flight entertainment service. The new system, which will have over 150 films and 500 music albums on offer, will be phased in across its Boeing 777 fleet, with the Washington-Doha route being the first to see the new service in January next year. Businesstraveller.com wonders if the films will also come with a free martini?

Easy grooming

Not content with planes, car rentals, pizzas, cruises, internet cafés and mobile phones, the Easygroup has ventured into the world of male grooming, with Easy4Men.com. For £4.50 customers get a pack including three sachets each of shaving cream, hair and body wash, and aftershave balm. The total volume of the nine sachets comes under the current 100ml liquid restrictions at airports, meaning the pack can be taken in hand luggage. Despite the company’s orange logo, there are currently no plans for a self-tan kit.

Don’t forget your toothbrush

According to a recent survey by online travel company Orbitz, the item business travellers would miss most if their luggage were lost is the lowly toothbrush. Over half (57 per cent) worry about their gnashers being neglected, with missing deodorant coming in second, at 27 per cent. Mind you, the same survey says that almost a quarter of those surveyed have had to share a room with a colleague when travelling on business, which may explain the worries about personal hygiene…

Mobile ticketing

Transport for London is trialling mobile phones with built-in Oyster cards. If the trials are a success, passengers will be able to swipe their mobile on readers to pay for tube, bus, tram and selected train journeys in London. The O2 Wallet will be included on specially designed Nokia 6131 handsets – it’s not clear what will happen if you swipe the phone while in mid-conversation but businesstraveller.com is keeping its ear to the ground.

Swiss cuisine

First and business class passengers with Swiss Airlines can now sample cuisine from Switzerland’s Grisons canton. The airline has employed Frederic Breuil, executive chef at Badrutt’s Palace hotel in St Moritz, and his colleague Reto Mathis of Mathis Food Affairs in Corviglia, St Moritz, to come up with delicacies such as zucchetti stuffed with a seafood terrine, air-dried venison and gravlax with a dill and mustard sauce, and palace truffle gateau with walnut ice cream. Mathis Food Affairs is most famous for its La Marmite restaurant, so you’ll either love it or hate it.

A room with a vue

Business travellers to Paris might want to check out the latest in “high-end” luxury – a one-bedroom hotel perched on top of the Palais de Tokyo gallery. The prefab-constructed Hotel Everland was designed by Swiss artists Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann, and comes with 1970s retro décor, views of the Eiffel Tower and a personal concierge. Prices start from around £300 and the room will be available until December 2008. Oh, and bring a bigger suitcase, as guests are actively encouraged to take the bath towels with them when they check out.

Fat chance

Air France has been forced to pay damages of £5,800 to a passenger who was asked to pay for a second seat due to his size. Jean-Jacques Jauffret, a French scriptwriter who weighs 170kg (26st 11lbs), said he felt humiliated when staff measured his girth with wrapping tape in front of other passengers at New Delhi airport. Still, we’re sure the person due to be sitting next to him was relieved. Do you think fat passengers should have to pay double? Click here to take part in our survey.

Mark Caswell

Heathrow expansion: the next step

As a government study gives the green light to Heathrow expansion, how soon can business travellers expect to reap the benefits?  We answer your questions

What is the significance of the latest announcement?

The study which was published last week presents the results of more than three years’ work by the Department of Transport (DfT). Back in 2003, the government gave its backing to expansion at Heathrow in a White Paper, on condition that it could be achieved without breaching strict environmental and noise limits. The DfT’s study says that this is achievable, either by building a third runway or moving to “mixed mode” usage of the two existing runways.

What’s “mixed mode” usage?

At present, Heathrow uses one runway for arrivals and one for departures; under “mixed mode” both runways would be used for arrivals and departures.

Is that safe?

Absolutely. Gatwick uses “mixed mode”, as do all airports with only one runway.

How would that help?

Heathrow is currently operating at 98 per cent of its capacity, which is capped at 480,000 ATMs (air-traffic movements) per year. This means that there is very little resilience in the schedules, and something as simple as fog can cause severe delays. Switching to “mixed mode” (which could be achieved by 2010) would significantly increase capacity. If the current cap was maintained, it would allow a lot more leeway in the schedules. If the cap is lifted, capacity could rise to 540,000 ATMs per annum by 2015.

It seems like a no-brainer. Why don’t they just go ahead with it?

This is where it gets complicated. Even if the number of flights isn’t increased, moving to “mixed mode” would change the pattern of noise and air pollution over west London. It would also mean that more planes have to take off to the east from Heathrow (ie towards the centre of the city), and planes make more noise taking off than landing. For these reasons, even moving to “mixed mode” without expanding capacity requires a policy decision from the government.

Would it be better just to get on with building another runway?

The economic case for a third runway at Heathrow is overwhelming, as was demonstrated by the government study published in 2003 which led to the publication of the White Paper. In particular, there are major concerns that London will lose both aviation and other business to the continent if expansion plans aren’t put in place. Similar hubs across the Channel are much better equipped – Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has five runways, Paris Charles de Gaulle has four, and Frankfurt airport has three (and is planning a fourth). Richard Lambert, chairman of the CBI, said last week that he knew of several major financial institutions – including Deutsche Bank, UBS and Citigroup – which have threatened to halt expansion in London if nothing is done about sorting out Heathrow. He added: “Expansion at Heathrow is critical to the City and investment banks. There are plenty of people out there who want to eat our lunch.”

Would the new runway solve Heathrow’s problems?

It would certainly help, but it’s a long-term solution rather than a quick fix. A third runway would increase capacity to 700,000 ATMs per annum (a 46 per cent increase from today’s levels), but it wouldn’t come online until 2020. The ideal solution would therefore be to switch to “mixed mode” while work is going forward on the new runway.

So what happens next?

The Department of Transport has opened a 14-week consultation, and invited comments from the public on the results of its study (it is holding a series of exhibitions around west London, starting next week in Barnes). The consultation period ends on February 27, after which the DfT will assess the responses and a policy decision will be made as soon as possible, but at the latest by the end of 2008.

Does this mean that the process could be stopped if enough people are against it?

Not according to the DfT. A spokesman said: “The government is convinced of the economic requirement for a third runway at Heathrow. If people come back and say, ‘We don’t want a third runway’, that won’t stop it being built. But if they come back and say, ‘Your figures don’t stack up’, we might change our backing for a third runway. It certainly isn’t a done deal.”

And once a policy decision is taken?

It’s still very much not the end of the process. If the government decides to go for a third runway, BAA will still have to get planning permission for it. As things stand at the moment, this would mean a lengthy and expensive public enquiry; however, the Department of Communities and Local Government is currently putting through a Planning Bill, which could change the way major public projects are handled. Under the new Bill, the government would devise national policy statements, covering certain areas of life such as aviation, which would be put together after consultation and debate. Once these policies were accepted, individual projects could then be approved relatively quickly by an independent planning committee, provided that they fitted the policy requirements. The Bill was introduced to Parliament this week, and could be in place by the time the third runway at Heathrow comes up for discussion, which would speed the process up significantly.

In the meantime, would switching to “mixed mode” require planning permission?

There wouldn’t have to be a public enquiry, but this might still require a planning application if it involves physical work to the runway or apron. There are also some elements of changing the airspace use which could have a planning dimension. In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority has some procedures in terms of airspace reallocation which need to be followed; however, changes to other agreements governing the direction and frequency of take-off would only need formal consent from the Secretary of State.

For more information, visit dft.gov.uk/heathrowconsultation.

Report by Lucy Fitzgeorge-Parker

Oman Air begins flights from London Gatwick

Oman Air began operations to London’s
Gatwick airport from the Omani capital of Muscat
this week. The two class (economy and business) flight using an Airbus A330
leaves Muscat at 1600, arriving Gatwick 2030,
returning 2230 from Muscat
and arriving at Gatwick 0945. The new flights were described by CEO Mr. Ziad
Bin Karim Al Haremi as being aimed at leisure travellers, to ensure that the
increase in tourism to Oman
continues.

“We are not going to be the taxi of the world with
travellers using Oman as a hub to get to the other side of the world,” Mr Al
Haremi said, “We are here as an arm of tourism into Oman.”

The new connection comes as a belated response to the
altered ownership of Gulf Air, which once was owned equally between Oman, Bahrain
and Abu Dhabi, but which latterly saw Abu Dhabi withdraw to launch Etihad, with Oman
withdrawing in May 2007. As a result the Omani Government has concentrated its
efforts on Oman Air for connections abroad, and has increased its 33% ownership
to 84%, with the expectation being it would become the sole owner in the near
future.

London is the 24th
destination for Oman Air, with its 25th to Bangkok also starting this week. The airline
applied for slots at Heathrow, but was able only to secure slots for the winter
schedule and so chose Gatwick where it has a consistent departure time for both
summer and winter schedules. Nevertheless Mr Al Haremi said:

“We don’t know whether we will stick with Gatwick or get the
slots at Heathrow and move there.”

At Gatwick Oman Air will use the Aviance lounge in the North
Terminal for its business class passengers. The airline’s frequent flyer
programme – Sindbad – allows top tier travellers to take advantages of the free
limousine service available both in the UK
and Oman
which business class passengers enjoy.

With the government’s increase in ownership comes
management’s focus on new aircrafts, new routes, and new logos. The CEO
optimistically said they are hoping to expand or increase frequency in the next
year to France, Germany, Kuala Lumpur,
Jakarta, Damascus,
Yemen, and the
Indian subcontinent, where they have approached the government for additional
destinations. By 2012, he said, they are planning to have 30 wide-bodied and 12
narrow-bodied aircrafts.

www.oman-air.com

New York Plaza hotel reopens on January 1

The PlazaThe famous New York Plaza hotel, which overlooks Central park, will reopen as a Fairmont Hotel on January 1, in a much-altered form and under new name “The Plaza”.

Regular business travellers to the US will no doubt remember the iconic building, which had over 800 rooms in its previous incarnation, as well as the beautiful grand ballroom. Owned by Donald Trump in the 1980s, and by Millennium and Copthorne in the 1990s, it was bought by Israeli developer Elad over three years ago, sparking fears it would be turned into condominiums. In fact, as a result of fierce campaigning by local pressure groups, a compromise was reached with Elad, which sold the hotel portion back to Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s Kingdom Holdings, which will now run the hotel through its Fairmont Hotels chain.

If the result is a compromise in terms of quantity, no expense has been spared. A total of US$400 million has been spent on renovating and refurbishing the building. It now has 150 private apartments, 282 hotel rooms (including 102 suites), and various upmarket shops, as well as several restaurants. There’s also the grand ballroom (formerly the venue for the Business Traveller US awards), which can accommodate up to 600 people, and will now be run by specialist events management companies Great Performances and Delaware Companies (see eventsattheplaza.com for more information).

The Plaza will be the first hotel in the world to have 24-carat gold-plated sinks and accessories in every guest room and suite, with other décor including veined marble, exotic woods and mother-of-pearl. There is white-glove butler service on every floor, free high-speed wifi internet access and wall-mounted flatscreen TVs with an IP-based high-definition VOD system.

General manager Shane Krige told Business Traveller that the new guests would be high-spending individuals, and would most likely be visiting New York for leisure rather than business. (Rack rates start at US$735 per night.)

Mind you, that doesn’t mean you can’t pop in for a drink at the Oak Room and Oak Bar, or try the new Champagne Bar and Rose Club for diners, or check out the Palm Court, which has a 111sqm stained-glass ceiling. There is also the small matter of six levels of shops, including a Caudalie Vinothérapie spa, fitness centre by Radu and a Warren Tricomi salon, all of which can be signed to your room.

For more details go to fairmont.com.
 
Report by Tom Otley

Singapore responds to strong demand

Singapore has never been so attractive to business travellers as well as meetings and incentive groups, it seems. Recently ranked as among the world’s top three cities for meetings, and as Asia’s top country and city for meetings by the Union of International Associations, last year its business travel and meetings, incentives, exhibition and convention (BTMICE) industry accounted for three million visitor arrivals, 28 per cent of the total and 35 per cent (€2 billion) of total tourism receipts.

Among large events Singapore captured were the Games Convention Asia 2007, Imaging Expo Singapore, Photo Imaging X-Change (PIX) 2007, FDI World Dental Federation Congress and the inaugural ITB Asia. And there is no shortage of new attractions to power this growth, from the Singapore Flyer (opening in March 2008), the world’s highest observation wheel with views out over the South China Sea, to the first-ever Formula One night race in September 2008.

Yet there’s no doubt that with increased popularity, hotel rates have been rising quickly. Speaking exclusively to Business Traveller, Aloysius Arlando, assistant chief executive (BTMICE Group), said that this was the product of two main forces. “Firstly, the reason rates have risen quickly is because post-1997, and 2001, and also because of SARS, there was very depressed pricing for Singapore’s hotels, and they were below the market in terms of what they offered guests and with regards to the region as a whole, and that has now been corrected. I’d also say that the rise in rates is as a result of the growth potential not only in Singapore but the region as a whole, so if you look at the rates in our competitor regions, they too have been going up quickly.”

Arlando said he expected rates to continue to rise, by perhaps as much as 20 per cent next year, but said that hotel companies would set their rates according to what the market could take. “Hotels are very mindful that it would be ludicrous that they price themselves out of the market, so market forces will come into play, even with strong demand,” he added.

Instead, Singapore is likely to concentrate on greater segmentation of the market, with prices competitive for three, four and five-star sectors, as well as for individual business travellers, incentives and association meetings, he said. “Pricing is always a concern, of course. But we need to reflect on what the destination can offer, and pricing cannot be a real concern looking at the events which are coming to Singapore in the next two years.”

Further into the future, he said that the Singapore government has released 15 parcels of land for future hotel development, and more than 5,000 rooms would soon be coming online, including over 500 rooms in the largest Ibis in Asia-Pacific, which would open in 2009, as well as a new Crowne Plaza at Changi and a Capella hotel.

SINGAPORE’S NEW ATTRACTIONS

Other new attractions include:

Marina Bay Sands

Opening in 2009, this is a high-intensity mixed-use integrated resort located along the Marina Bay waterfront which will add more than 100,000 sqm of MICE space and 2,500 hotel rooms to Singapore’s tourism infrastructure, along with entertainment venues, retail outlets, and bars and restaurants.

marina-bay.sg

Resorts World at Sentosa

Opening in 2010 this will offer four major attractions including the very first Universal Studios theme park in Southeast Asia, along with other lifestyle experiences including dining outlets, shopping options, outdoor entertainment and six hotels offering some 1,800 rooms. 

resortsworldatsentosa.com

The Gardens by the Bay

A SG$1 billion (€500 million), 94-hectare green oasis in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, estimated for completion in 2011.

gardensbythebay.org.sg


Silverjet launches loyalty programme

All-business class carrier Silverjet has launched a loyalty scheme with rewards aimed at corporate travellers.

“Silverjet Set” offers a free flight for every ten flown, but unlike rivals Maxjet and Eos, which run loyalty programmes for individual passengers, the Silverjet scheme is designed for companies, with all flights taken by their employees counting towards the earning total. Once the required ten flights have been reached the company can then assign the free ticket to any employee.

Silverjet says it has launched the scheme following canvassing of its “small and medium-sized enterprise customers to identify the most common complaints about existing loyalty schemes”.

Aside from the free flights, membership will allow companies to “book, track, report on, manage and change flight bookings”, as well as receive exclusive offers and store employees’ profiles and preferences.

Lawrence Hunt, CEO of Silverjet, says: “We wanted to create a loyalty programme that rewards our regular business travellers while delivering real benefits to the bottom line. By joining the Silverjet Set not only will employees enjoy their travel experience and arrive at their destination ready to do business, but companies will benefit by receiving substantial savings on flights, time and resources.”

So what about the small print? Well, “ten flights” actually refers to ten return tickets, 20 one-way flights or a combination of the two, which should allow flexibility for employees taking open-jaw flights. The free flights, which must be claimed within 12 months, include all taxes but not Silverjet’s carbon offsetting payment – regular readers will know that Silverjet recently removed the mandatory payment of a carbon-offsetting contribution when buying tickets (see online news November 22).

And note that although the scheme has been aimed at corporates, there appears to be nothing to stop an individual joining and earning flights for themselves, so long as they can quote a company name during the registration process.

For more information visit flysilverjet.com/silverjetset.

Report by Mark Caswell

Sun International opens Red Sea resort

South Africa’s leading hotel group Sun International has opened its first resort in Egypt, with conference facilities for up to 1,500 delegates.

The resort is based in Port Ghalib, around 175 miles south-east of Luxor. Developed along 11 miles of Red Sea coastline, the complex consists of three five-star hotels, a 1,000-berth international marina, and the second-biggest man-made saltwater swimming lagoon in the world.

Also set to open this month are 110 retail outlets, restaurants and bars, which will create a lively corniche and Khan (traditional Egyptian bazaar) close to one mile long in the centre of Port Ghalib.

Of the three hotels, the Palace at Port Ghalib has the most extensive facilities, with 296 rooms and 13 Royal suites, as well as a spa and traditional hammam, travel centre and the Olive restaurant with Michelin-starred chef Conrad Gallagher. The largest property, the Sahara Sun Sands, has 347 rooms including six Sea View Suites, while twin property the Sahara Sun Oasis, has 292 rooms including six Lagoon View Suites.

Located between the three hotels is an international convention centre, which can accommodate up to 1,500 people and is the only multi-purpose, state-of-the-art facility of its size in the region. There are also 18 meeting rooms and a ballroom with capacity for up 150 people.

Activities available at Port Ghalib include kayaking, windsurfing, parasailing, snorkelling, dolphin safaris, 4X4 desert safaris, deep-sea fishing, glass-bottom boat rides, mountain-biking and clay-pigeon shooting.

Port Ghalib is located close to Marsa Alam international airport (RMF) and is currently served by charter flights with flythomascook or thomsonfly, from Gatwick and Manchester once a week (during the winter season). Alternatively, Egypt Air has domestic connections to Marsa Alam from Cairo.

For more information visit discoverportghalib.com.

Report by Jenny Southan

More upgrades for Premium economy

Premium economy, the superior long-haul class pitched midway between business and economy class, continues to get better.

Readers with long memories will remember that the airlines’ original premium economy products featured slightly wider seating and more legroom and that was that. Passengers still had to use the economy class counters for check-in, there was no lounge access and there was no change in the food and drink.

But this year several airlines have begun upgrading their products. Virgin Atlantic set the ball rolling when it began re-launching premium economy on its Heathrow services (Gatwick follows in 2008) with new slightly wider seats with extra recline (legroom stays at 38 inches). Virgin now provides better food and dedicated staff on board.

More recently Bmi has instigated a massive seat upgrade. On its Airbus A330s (which operate a number of flights out of Manchester) it ditched the former seating (which wasn’t much different to economy class) in favour of fitting its former business class seats which, with the extra size (21-inch seat cushion width) and 49 inches of legroom, are more spacious than any other carrier’s product.

Now it’s the turn of Japan’s ANA. It will keep the same seating but introduce a series of ground-handling improvements.

Passengers qualify for separate check-in but they will also gain lounge access. It’s believed to be the first time that passengers have been automatically allowed to use the business class lounge. These are available for use at London Heathrow, New York JFK and Washington Dulles. Where lounge facilities aren’t available (at Frankfurt, Paris CDG, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago), passengers will be handed refreshment vouchers.

ANA passengers can also use a free luggage delivery service when arriving in or departing from Japan.

It would seem that the airlines are upgrading premium economy because of a narrowing slim price gap between it and discounted business class, which of course offers more comfort and service.

In the case of London-Tokyo, ANA charges almost £2,200 for a return premium economy ticket, whereas passengers who are prepared to take an indirect flight will pay only £100 or £200 more for business class with carriers such as Korean, Swiss, Lufthansa, SAS or Finnair (business class rates sourced from Travelocity).

For more information go to anaskyweb.com, flybmi.com, virgin-atlantic.com, travelocity.co.uk

Report by Alex McWhirter