While the London capacity row rumbles on, travellers across the UK are using airline alliances to get to wherever they need across the globe. Gary Noakes reports.
If you live outside the South East, you’re allowed to feel a little smug about things like affordable housing, quieter roads and, if you fly a lot, being able to connect globally through your local airport.
The current debate about whether to expand Heathrow or Gatwick must be bemusing to anyone outside the London area because you can nowadays get pretty much anywhere without having to use either of these congested airports.
Some individual carriers – notably Emirates – have made regional flights to their own hubs and onward connections their forte. Still, most travellers from the regions rely on connections offered by multiple carriers and, whether you start your journey at Bristol, Belfast or Aberdeen, it’s the wealth of possibilities offered by an airline alliance that really comes into its own.
Star Alliance, Skyteam and Oneworld between them include 62 of the world’s airlines as full members, plus numerous others as associates. In an uncertain world, there is safety in numbers and there are few major airlines that have not seen the attractions of alliances. Co-operation among carriers usually means less competition and higher fares, but if you’re travelling for business and not paying for the ticket, this may be less of a concern.
Bypassing Heathrow admittedly means you miss the chance to enjoy the palatial delights of dedicated Star Alliance and Skyteam facilities and some of the airlines’ finest lounges – still, many frequent flyers would choose a less frenetic start to their journey over this, not to mention the chance to connect to the world from their home airport. Here’s what each of the alliances have to offer regional travellers.
As well as being the largest alliance, with 28 airlines, Star has the benefit of Lufthansa, Swiss, SAS and Brussels Airlines among its membership, giving it considerable clout in continental Europe as well as offering long-haul connections. Lufthansa Group flies from seven regional UK airports and, according to Christian Schindler, Lufthansa’s UK and Ireland regional director, 40-50 per cent of traffic from the UK is connecting, with destinations such as Johannesburg and Beijing being among the most popular. Joint-venture partnerships, including that of Lufthansa and ANA, make eastbound travel in particular a smooth prospect.
“The big advantage of Star is that we are under one roof at Frankfurt and your boarding pass is issued at the first point of entry regardless of carrier,” Schindler says.
Star also boasts the greatest number of passengers at Manchester, the busiest UK regional airport, with Frankfurt being the main connecting point. United, which also boasts seven UK departure points, is the frequent starting point for westbound travellers.
Star Alliance’s UK chairperson, Bob Schumacher, is also United’s UK boss and sees it from both sides. “We’re the most mature alliance – we will be 20 next year,” he says. “There’s never going to be a carrier that will be able to provide global connectivity for all, so what we are trying to do with the membership base is to take strengths from local markets and connect them.”
One Star member, Turkish Airlines, perhaps comes closest to providing global connectivity in that it flies to more countries (115) than any other carrier in the world. It has been quietly making inroads in the regions and is now present at Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Despite the setback caused by June’s attack at Istanbul Ataturk airport and the failed military coup, Turkish Airlines is rapidly becoming one of the alliance’s most important carriers, with only United carrying more passengers globally. Assuming political stability, the opening of the new Istanbul airport (expected in 2018) with capacity for 150 million passengers will, upon full completion in about 2030, only increase the carrier’s importance within the alliance.
A look at some of the most popular destinations from the regions will show Turkish Airlines’ reach, with Dubai and Muscat named as the most popular connections from Birmingham, and Nairobi from Manchester.
Star Alliance also has three of the four big African carriers – including the most successful, Ethiopian Airlines – which means that the alliance has virtually every country on the continent covered.
Of all the three alliances, Skyteam boasts the biggest presence at regional airports, mainly via Air France and KLM. Skyteam covers 17 departure points outside the London area and KLM’s four-times daily service from Norwich, for example, removes almost every reason for travelling to Heathrow. This year, KLM added Inverness, Southampton and Glasgow to its network. Combined, KLM and Air France offer 280 destinations from their respective hubs, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle.
Launched in May, KLM’s Inverness-Amsterdam route already has a load factor of more than 80 per cent. Graeme Bell, Inverness airport’s general manager, points out the need for these connections. “Highlands businesses have strong links with the US, Germany and France but the Far East is also an important growing market, especially for food and drink,” he says.
The latter is a £1 billion industry supporting 30,000 employees, and when added to the oil and gas, health and life science sectors, they make a compelling case for airlift that offers an alternative connection point to London.
Skyteam chief executive Perry Cantarutti points out that, including London, his alliance now boasts five more UK departure points than Star Alliance. “It’s a really solid position, we are pretty well covered,” he says.
Skyteam’s undoubted strength is China, where between 2007 and 2012 it signed up China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen Air. Cantarutti says the alliance now covers 160 destinations within China. These carriers are growing in importance on Australasian routes with, for example, China Southern serving Australia and New Zealand from Guangzhou and China Eastern from Shanghai.
“The one part of the world where Skyteam has a clear commanding position is China – it has been a concerted effort for nearly ten years,” says Cantarutti, who puts the total UK-China market at three million passengers. “One of the things we see more and more is that business travellers are wanting access to the secondary cities there. Being able to do that on a single alliance network is hugely valuable to them.”
Looking westwards, the Delta/Air France/KLM/Alitalia joint venture has 26 per cent of the transatlantic market, a figure that should increase with new Delta services from Edinburgh this summer and Glasgow next year.
While it is not a member of any alliance, Virgin Atlantic is almost a Skyteam member by virtue of it being 49 per cent owned by Delta Air Lines. This means that, for example, a Manchester-Atlanta journey continuing on to South America will start with a Virgin flight, as it is the UK carrier that operates to Delta’s hub.
Cantarutti, who took over the top job in November, is clear about his strategy. “It’s not my priority to be out recruiting new members,” he says. “Skyteam is 16 years old and the first ten years were about building network. In the past five years or so, the focus has really shifted to improving consistency and quality.”
As well as expanding the Skyteam lounge network (the latest opens in Beijing in November), this means fine-tuning what is known internally as “Sky Transfer”, working towards a seamless shift between carriers at 27 global hubs. To augment this, Skyteam will by the end of this year offer a rebooking facility at any of its members’ desks; so if, for example, a passenger connecting from KLM to Alitalia misses their flight, they can get the Air France desk to sort it out.
With 14 members, Oneworld is the smallest of the three alliances, but it has had something of a growth spurt since 2012, with Air Berlin, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Sri Lankan Airlines joining. Of these, Qatar Airways is the most important for the regional UK market and the only profitable carrier.
Since IAG chief executive Willie Walsh wielded the axe to regional flights when he was boss of British Airways, a BA tailfin on a scheduled service is a rarity in the regions unless the flight is heading back to Heathrow, Gatwick or London City. The odd exception is Denmark’s Sun-Air, which operates in BA colours to Humberside from Aalborg and Billund. It also flies from Manchester-Gothenburg and, until this spring, to Gothenburg from Cambridge.
Oneworld spokesman Michael Blunt acknowledges that it is a small alliance and that British Airways will inevitably head Oneworld’s offering from its Heathrow base, but adds: “You have to think of Oneworld in global terms.”
It’s a fair argument when you consider that Oneworld includes the might of American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, LATAM and Japan Airlines, with Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian giving it strength in the Middle East, something that other alliances are lacking. It is, however, a disadvantage in having British Airways as the home carrier if you are a Oneworld card carrier and don’t want to brave London Heathrow.
Despite this, there is a good deal of choice, with Manchester offering six Oneworld carriers and Edinburgh five. Qatar Airways has eastbound connections covered from Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham, with American Airlines taking care of westbound passengers from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester. Iberia also offers connectivity to South America through Madrid from Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester.
In terms of flights to Asia, Cathay Pacific has its Manchester service, while Finnair, which flies over the polar region to Asia, connects via Helsinki from Manchester and Edinburgh. With Latin America increasingly important on the world stage, LATAM is a significant partner with hubs in Santiago, Lima, Sao Paulo or Bogota reachable through Madrid or the US.
Oneworld believes that it has seamless connectivity covered. Blunt says: “If you are on one PNR [passenger name record] booking, you can check in on Oneworld to any destination around the world and you are through-ticketed and your luggage checked right to your destination.” Making loyalty to an alliance an even more tempting proposition.
Aberdeen to Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Frankfurt to Singapore (Singapore Airlines), Singapore to Seoul (Asiana Airlines), Seoul to Hangzhou (Air China), Hangzhou to Shenzhen (Shenzhen Airlines)
Manchester to Jeddah (Saudia), Jeddah to Nairobi (Saudia), Nairobi to Hanoi (Kenya Airways), Hanoi to Shanghai (Vietnam Airlines), Shanghai to Tianjin (Xiamen Air)
Birmingham to Madrid (Iberia), Madrid to Santiago (LATAM), Santiago to Sydney (Qantas), Sydney to Osaka (Japan Airlines)
How the alliances compare