More travel firms join Backing Britain campaign

Avis and Accor have joined BA in offering free car rentals, hotel stays and flights to SMEs as part of the Backing Britain campaign.

The airline announced earlier this week that it would be offering 5,000 return flights (worth up to £15m) to help small and medium entreprises (SMEs) win business abroad, in association with UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and British American Business (BAB).

Now Avis has joined the scheme, offering 1,500 free car rental days to customers joining, or already part of, Avis Business Solutions – a bespoke rental scheme for small businesses. Meanwhile Accor Hotels has offered 5,000 free room nights for members of its Accor Away on Business scheme.

The organisations are currently agreeing terms and conditions of the offer with UKTI and BAB, with the details due to be unveiled in the next few days.

For more information visit avis.co.uk, accorhotels.com, ba.com, ukan.uktradeinvest.gov.uk.

Report by Mark Caswell

Bmi keen to start Baghdad services

Bmi says it is “willing and ideally placed” to re-establish air links between London and Iraq’s capital Baghdad, and has met with senior officials within the Iraq government to discuss the possibility.

The carrier’s CEO Nigel Turner recently attended a conference in London to discuss investment in Iraq, and said that “the ability to travel by air between Heathrow and Baghdad is vital in supporting the considerable energy that is going into bringing business ties and investment back to normality”.

Bmi currently serves several destinations in the Middle East including Amman, Beirut, Jeddah and Riyadh, and Turner said it made “geographical and economic sense for us to add Iraq to our growing network of services to the region”.

“Iraq is surrounded on four sides by countries that we already serve from Heathrow,” said Turner. “We are carrying an ever increasing number of passengers who, at the moment, travel from Baghdad to Heathrow via our existing intermediate point of Amman. As trade and business ties grow we envisage that these numbers will grow.

“As the situation returns to normality we are seeing a small number of scheduled services from Baghdad being launched within the region. At the moment we are unable to commence services to Heathrow until the UK Government permits UK aircraft or British registered carriers to fly in and out of Iraq. Nevertheless, I have told Iraqi officials and business that subject to the required levels of operational integrity and safety being satisfactorily achieved and appropriate governmental approval, bmi is ready and willing to once again re-establish air links between Heathrow and Baghdad.”

For more information visit flybmi.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

In-flight entertainment: Sky high entertainment

flydubai-economy-IFE

What will tomorrow’s in-flight entertainment systems offer? Tom Otley talks to Panasonic Avionics

If there’s anything that moves more quickly than the technology of in-flight entertainment (IFE) on aircraft, it’s passengers’ expectations. Not long ago, we were happy to have our own individual monitor in the back of the seat in front. Now we want the ability to stop, start and pause, play games and choose from a full range of Hollywood movies, as well as select from hundreds of audio options. Yet this is only the beginning.

Along with Thales (click here for a report in the November 2008 edition of Business Traveller), Panasonic Avionics is the major supplier of IFE systems to the airline industry. The rapid advances occurring are down to the ability to store more and more content on board the aircraft. “Systems today are capable of up to a terabyte of storage capability, and are also high definition and widescreen capable,” says Neil James, executive director of corporate sales and product management at Panasonic Avionics. “They also have picture-in-picture ability, so you can keep track of the moving map while watching other entertainment.” The moving map – still the most popular option on IFE systems – is a good example of how things have advanced. The new systems can provide flight data, various resolutions, and the ability to zoom in on your location on the ground.  So what else will we soon be seeing on our monitors?

Websites

To view a website on your screen, the aircraft doesn’t necessarily have to be connected in real time to the internet. Cached versions can be uploaded at the gate prior to take-off so that the passenger can surf all, or a selection of, the pages on a site. When the aircraft next reaches the gate, it then synchronises with the onboard IFE system, allowing the website to be updated and the information on page impressions to be downloaded.

So, for instance, an airline might have a cached version of its own website on board for passengers to log on, change their preferences, make enquiries about future flights, or even provide feedback on the flight they are on. This would then be downloaded on landing. The advantage for the airline is that it can collect information on the passenger, as well as increase traffic to its site.

Digital magazines

Airlines can provide a library of magazines digitally, including their own duty-free brochure. This would allow 3D impressions of the objects on sale, a far greater range of goods than could be carried on board, and home delivery. Imagine having a list of hundreds of magazines, including Business Traveller, available to read on screen during your flight. In the future you might even be able to download your magazine on to a plastic flipbook for easier viewing, which could be plugged into the USB socket, although the technology for this is still several years away.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the real key to providing websites and email, and whatever we think about the use of mobile phones on board aircraft, according to Neil James, connectivity will be “ubiquitous”. In part, this is because of the operational benefits to the airline of avionics equipment – if the aircraft is connected for operational reasons, why not use that connection to give benefits to the passenger? It also allows for basic yet useful things such as real-time credit card validations for onboard duty-free purchases, as well as enabling airlines to integrate passenger data in real time.

This isn’t the first time connectivity has been offered – the Connexion by Boeing service gave passengers wifi on their laptops, but was discontinued in 2006 after a lack of take-up. It’s something James is confident the new system can overcome. “Previous business models relied on having worldwide coverage from a series of satellites that were all lit up simultaneously, so there was always going to be an issue with take-up rates to make it economical,” he says. “Our approach is to buy the bandwidth by the drink, and our agreement with the satellite provider is that we only light them up when we need them and get more airline customers coming on board. So we are doing it on an on-demand basis. The second thing is that satellite antennae technology has moved on tremendously in terms of how it operates.”

How we will access the web and our emails might be subject to different business models from different airlines. What’s certain is that as the cost of providing the service comes down, more and more travellers will benefit. “The airline can choose how to use the bandwidth, so they can allow certain things and not others, such as streaming videos, which uses a lot of bandwidth,” James explains. “It can also choose whether to have browsing from the seat through the IFE system, or via laptops. Either is possible.”

Gaming

Whether we are travelling with children, or are, at heart, children ourselves, the games being offered on IFE systems are more sophisticated than ever. Although it’s possible for games such as chess to be played via touchscreen, the IFE providers pride themselves on having handsets that satisfy the needs of gamers, and are providing hundreds of games and handsets sophisticated enough for us to play them. “The layout of the buttons, the squash pads and the tactile feel are all done in the same way as you’d expect to find on most gaming sticks,” James says.

USB

All the new systems can provide a USB for peripherals such as keyboards, mice and games controllers. While you can’t stream video from an iPod yet, you can view pictures and documents, although not all PDFs can be displayed. The USB can also be used for charging devices.

Launching next year is Karma, a new type of handset, about the size of an iPhone. It has a touchscreen in the middle so you could be watching a movie on your main screen and still have the moving map on the handset. It can be turned into a phone, it knows its orientation and it has accelerometers built in, so you can use it to play games.

Free or pay for view?

On low-cost airlines, we might end up having to pay for a lot of this technology. “The airline can charge for an individual movie, a fee to access the system or a charge for games,” James says. “We also support rich media for advertising so they can track all the statistics to see if it was a click-through or they watched the advertisement. We have already provided a system for Virgin America allowing passengers to order food and be charged for it on board.”

When is the future?

“The fundamentals never go away – safety, reliability, power, weight and size. The airlines are driving us very hard on all of these,” James says. Systems will get smaller and lighter and conserve less power. “We want to give the passenger as much room as possible, particularly in economy, and the new generation of super-light seats can’t have the older, more archaic electronic systems in them, so we are reducing weight and space.”

Panasonic is keen for the new technologies to be adopted as soon as possible. That includes Mpeg 4 on the aircraft; closed captioning, allowing full descriptions for deaf or hard-of-hearing people; and new OLED screens, which consume less power, are light and thin, and allow passengers to view their own media devices on the high-resolution screens installed.

“There will also be a new generation of 3D moving maps, not as enormous as Google Earth but similar, and we are investigating technologies for headsets providing special and surround sound,” James says. HD will arrive “within the next year”, something the new 15-, 23- and 32-inch screens will be able to display.

One note of caution is that while it is not always the newest aircraft that has the newest system, “generally the flagship systems for us are flying on the newer aircraft”, he says. “Every A380 flying today is Panasonic, and we will continue to have the lion’s share of the A380 aircraft and are on the launch of the B787 Dreamliner with ANA.”

Technology aside, what IFE systems offer in the future will depend on what customers want. “We are in the middle of defining our 10-year roadmap for IFE and getting ready to launch a new generation of IFE systems,” James says. “We’re looking at things such as micro-gaming, the idea of mobile devices becoming the remote for one’s life, and virtual worlds. There’s a whole bunch of emerging technologies that we keep tabs on and we have a group of people monitoring them, so when we are defining our new systems we take that information to our airline customers. We say to them: ‘Knowing that the expectations of  customers are driven on the ground, and that the demographic that will be flying in business class on your B787s are your teenage kids today, we need to help you anticipate their expectations in five or 10 years.’”

Future proofed?

In fact, the only thing holding back some of this progress is the state of the airline industry, which has never been in such difficult circumstances. “We wish the industry could support changing the systems more often, but realistically airlines expect a 15-year life out of them,” James says. As a result, Panasonic builds in as much overhead in there to try and anticipate what will be needed in the future, without adding too much cost.

“The systems we deliver now have a gigabyte Ethernet backbone and we did that on purpose because HD will come along and airlines will push more and more down that road,” he explains. “Our architecture is modular so we can update them and keep them current. Singapore Airlines is a good example – some aircraft started with our System 2000 and then upgraded to 3000 and 3000i, so we were able to keep a lot of the system the same while upgrading over time. We always try to do that to make sure the systems have long legs – but there comes a time when we have to say that there’s a real sea change in technology so we need to go to a completely different architecture.”

For more information visit panasonic.aero.

BA’s two-for-one business class offer starts tomorrow

**NB: For the latest details of this offer, click here**

By now you’ll probably have heard the news – British Airways is launching a “buy one get one free” offer tomorrow on Club World tickets from London.

The promotion has been reported on several websites and radio stations, although it doesn’t officially start until tomorrow (May 1). The offer is valid on BA Club World fares departing on selected dates between June 1 and October 31, and applies to two people travelling together on the same flight.

Bookings must be made over the bank holiday period, with the offer closing at midnight on Tuesday May 5 and can result in significant savings such as London to New York from £1,666 for two people (or £833 per person). All fares include taxes and charges, and are subject to availability.

BA has created a special website address for this offer, however it does not go live until tomorrow, so please return to this website tomorrow morning for the details.

For more information visit ba.com.

Airlines increase efforts to fight swine flu (updated)

Cathay Pacific (CX) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) have joined the growing list of carriers putting into place measures to prevent the further spread of influenza A.

CX has set up a Swine Influenza Task Force meeting regularly and updating the airline’s response to developments. Onboard, the latest health news are broadcast on all flights arriving into Hongkong to keep both passengers and crew abreast of the current situation and necessary action required. The stock of face masks has been increased and crew instructed to don them when dealing with suspected cases. CX’s high sanitary standards for seats, galleys and restrooms and catering operations is, of course, being maintained and stepped up.

SIA is now providing pamphlets on swine flu containing a list of frequently asked questions onboard all flights to and from affected areas. Health kits will also be given, upon request, to passengers who do not feel well on flights to the US. These kits contain a thermometer, facemasks and antiseptic towels.

In addition, SIA flights landing in affected areas will undergo additional cleaning so as to ensure the disease does not get spread via contact with things in the plane. All SIA cabin and flight crew will also have to take their temperature before each flight, while staff at Singapore’s Changi Airport will carry out temperature checks twice a day.

Airline efforts bring to mind similar steps taken during the SARS epidmic in 2003 as well as the recurring avian flu outbreaks. Besides heightened attention to hygiene onboard, airlines are telling their crew to look out for any passengers who appear ill.

United Airlines has placed face masks and alcohol-based hand
sanitisers in the forward galleys of all planes entering and exiting
from Mexico City, besides frequent cleaning of aircraft serving the
route.

Philippine Airlines has issued strict instructions to its staff to
deny boarding of passengers displaying symptoms of swine flu, as well
as to detect ill customers onboard.

At Air New Zealand, close communication among staff has been
established to ensure that everyone on duty is in good health. Its
aircraft are fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Air filters which
are said to filter out 99.999 percent of airborne viruses, including
influenza.

These filters are also found on all United and THAI
Airways aircrafts and are guaranteed by Airbus and Boeing to keep air
as pure as in hospital surgical units.

THAI has also implemented deep-clean fumigation on flights operating to
and from high-risk countries for 30 to 40 minutes before each flight
departure.

However, airlines have yet to reduce pork intake or stop serving it
onboard, as a link has yet to be drawn between consuming pork and
catching the disease.

United said since there
is no indication that people eating pork will catch the disease, it
will not take action unless necessary. But it will continue to follow
the directives of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US
Centers for Disease Control.

To date, travel to and from affected
regions has not yet been restricted, although several airlines
including Malaysia Airlines and SIA, have announced they
will waive cancellation and alteration fees for flights heading to
affected destinations.

“So far there has been minimal impact on
travel patterns. We believe that passengers can be trusted to make
informed decisions, provided that there is open and transparent
communication of accurate information,” said Andrew Herdman, director
general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, in a statement
issued yesterday.

Herdman added that with the guidelines
developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,
“Asia-Pacific carriers are well prepared to handle health crises
including those involving communicable diseases”.

For an update on swine flu, visit www.who.int

Joshua Tan

WHO ramps up swine flu alert even higher

The bad news – the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised the current level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5.

The good news – countries throughout the globe are better prepared to deal with a deadly new disease than at any time in history.

WHO’s director-general Dr Margaret Chan – no stranger to pandemics, having presided over Hongkong’s controversial handling of SARS in 2003 as director of health – has urged governments to immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans. Measures revolve around heightened surveillance, early detection and treatment of cases and infection control in all facilities.

Chan said experiences with H5N1 avian influenza had resulted in investment in contingency programmes that “we are now benefitting from”.

She added: “For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real-time.”

Increased government transparency concerning results of their investigations “helps us understand the disease,” she said.

It was the first time WHO had declared a Phase 5 outbreak, the second-highest on its threat scale, indicating a pandemic could be imminent. Germany and Austria became the latest countries to report swine flu infections yesterday, with cases already confirmed in Canada, Britain, Israel, New Zealand and Spain. A toddler, who succumbed in Texas, became the first death outside Mexico, which has been identified as the epicentre of the infection with 160 fatalities.

In the Asia, South Korea has reported five suspected cases in addition to a “probable” case revealed earlier.

Scientists are concluding that somewhere in the world, months or even a year ago, a pig virus jumped to a human and mutated, and has been spreading between humans ever since. Unlike with bird flu, doctors say, there is still no evidence to suggest a direct pig-to-human infection from this strain, which is why culling of this farm animal has not yet taken place. However, individual countries like Egypt are taking matters into their own hands, slaughtering 250,000 pigs in the country, eaten mainly by the Coptic Christian minority

While most deaths from the disease have occurred in Mexico, it has yet to be proven as the flu’s exact point of origin. According to the country’s chief epidemiologist, one of the deaths directly attributed to swine flu was that of a Bangladeshi immigrant, who had lived in Mexico for six months. The unnamed man was visited by a brother who arrived from Bangladesh or Pakistan and was reportedly ill. The relative has since left, his whereabouts unknown.

Experts are not ruling out that the flu could have been brought in from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

For more details, visit www.who.int/en

Margie T Logarta and the wires

Jumeirah to debut in Germany

Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts has announced its first hotel in Germany, with the Jumeirah Frankfurt Hotel due to open in summer 2010.

The 219-room hotel will be located in the city’s PalaisQuarter leisure and retail development, within walking distance of the financial district, stock exchange, pedestrian shopping areas and opera house. The property will feature a signature Talise spa, as well as a “contemporary restaurant concept by leading Japanese designer Takashi Sugimoto”, and meeting and business facilities.

Jumeirah recently announced its first Scottish property, slated to open in Glasgow in 2011 (see online news October 13, 2008), and is also developing a third London hotel, within the Beetham Tower on the Southbank (see online news July 30, 2007) . The group’s first Asia-Pacific property is set to open in Shanghai later this year.

For more information visit jumeirah.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Artist impressions of the Jumeirah Frankfurt Hotel


Gulf Air to return Jet’s 777 aircraft

Passengers currently enjoying the fully-flat beds and suites on Gulf Air’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft should not get too comfortable. The carrier will not be extending the wet lease of four aircraft from Jet Airways once the current six-month agreement expires.

These aircraft were originally destined to join Jet’s fleet, and are fitted with the Indian carrier’s luxurious first class suites and fully-flat beds in business. Gulf Air took the planes on a wet-lease agreement earlier this year (see online news January 13, February 11 and March 5), and it had been widely reported that this agreement would be extended into a long-term dry lease.

However Gulf Air stresses that while this was an option for the carrier, a dry lease had never actually been agreed. In a statement the airline said:

“The lease agreement signed between Jet Airways and Gulf Air was for an initial  period of 6 months on a wet lease. Some coverage has claimed that the decision to continue with a dry lease after the 6 month wet lease has been cancelled. This is not correct as no such agreement existed.  

“Under the terms of the current agreement Gulf Air has an option to sign a new agreement for a dry lease after the expiration of the wet lease but this was subject to several business considerations including market conditions. After careful analysis of various commercial and other business considerations, Gulf Air has decided not pursue the dry lease option for the foreseeable future.”

Last year Gulf Air announced that it had commissioned James Park Associates (designers of the business class seating on Singapore Airlines’ A380) to revamp its seating product, interiors, livery, uniforms and lounges, with the process due to take up to two years (see online news April 11, 2008).

For more information visit gulfair.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Ryanair’s cure for swine flu – take a strepsil

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary says that a potential swine flu pandemic will not affect short-haul flights around Europe this summer, and advises “a couple of strepsils” should be enough to combat the virus.

The outspoken O’Leary made the comments at a press conference this morning (April 28), adding that swine flu was “a tragedy only for people living… in slums in Asia or Mexico”.

O’Leary is also quoted as saying that the “a couple of strepsils” should be sufficient to cure the two Scottish travellers who have recently been diagnosed with swine flu. The newly-wed couple recently returned from a honeymoon in Cancun, where it is believed they contrated the virus.

Visit ryanair.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Asian airlines waive fees in flu crisis

A number of Asian airlines have announced that they will waive cancellation and alteration fees for selected destinations affected by swine flu.

Singapore Airlines will waive all cancellation and change fees for customers with tickets to the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Spain for tickets issued prior to 28 April 2009 for travel up to and including May 27.

Passengers will be allowed to change the routing of their journey, postpone travel until October 31, or cancel their ticket, without penalties. However, any change of date or routing will be charged at the new fare for that journey less the amount already paid.

Malaysia Airlines passengers who have booked to travel to Los Angeles or New York can change their flights at no charge from now until the end of May.

Japan’s JAL is allowing passengers holding JAL tickets issued on or before April 27 with reservations for flights to, from or via Mexico, Brazil and the United States (excluding Hawaii and Guam) up until May 11, may apply to JAL for the waiving of cancellation and refund charges.

ANA tickets purchased on or before April 28 cancellation and alteration fees will be waived for flights booked up until May 31 to Mexico, the United States (excluding Hawaii) and Canada.

Kenny Coyle