Alex McWhirter reports on the changing face of the often ignored, yet essential, domestic aviation market.
All too often, domestic flying is an overlooked part of the aviation business, as carriers the world over devote their energies to more glamorous international services.
This has always puzzled me. It is true that domestic air service is rarely profitable, but conversely it delivers millions of passengers to the airlines’ global route networks, which are more lucrative at the same time as being prestigious. Domestic aviation also plays a vital role in developing international business with the regions and connecting travellers to the outside world.
There is no better example of this than the UK. Domestic services to and from London Heathrow have been cut back over the decades owing to a slot shortage. Today, there are only domestic flights linking Heathrow with Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle.
Business travellers need only peruse airline timetables to recall the days when there were air services not just from these cities but also from Birmingham, Carlisle, Dundee, East Midlands, Guernsey, Jersey, Liverpool, Newquay, Norwich, Plymouth and Teeside. These were either scrapped or diverted to other London airports, such as Gatwick or Stansted, meaning flight connections became a chore.
Until recently, BA seemed content with the situation. After all, its Heathrow services tend to operate at T5 so passengers can make easy transfers. And with the exception of routes to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the airline holds a domestic monopoly at Heathrow.
Still, April saw a change. For the first time, BA introduced a business class (Club Europe) service on its six domestic routes. It means high-fare paying passengers now get better treatment both in the air and on the ground.
Why the change? Previously, the only part of the airline’s network that you couldn’t book a business class seat on were flights within the UK. A British Airways spokesperson says: “We know that many of our customers who connect between our short-haul and long-haul services prefer to travel in business class and we want to offer them a consistent experience throughout the journey.” BA also recently added buy-on-board food and drink in economy class, providing another reason to offer a full service to premium customers.
In the past, BA was content to offer a one-class domestic service (like its counterparts elsewhere) as it learnt to live with the competition provided by the likes of Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss. All of these airlines – and a few more – have for decades enticed UK regional passengers to fly globally via their hubs in Paris CDG, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Zurich. For passengers in first or business class, the above carriers would offer only the lower standard of business class such as is found in Europe.
What has really changed BA’s thinking is the way that the Gulf airlines and some US and Asian carriers have begun to build up their regional presence in search of new market opportunities.
The US carriers operate nonstop services to the East Coast and Midwest from several regional UK airports. But it is the Gulf airlines that provide the biggest challenge. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways now operate – either individually or en masse – from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.
Because they operate wide-body aircraft and offer long-haul business class standards throughout the journey (some flights also feature first class), they are strong competitors for BA’s premium long-haul passengers bound for the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia via London. It is true that a plane change is required, but a change is needed anyway when travelling via London.
Two of Asia’s leading carriers, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, are limited to Manchester because of its long runway. Again, both are sixth-freedom carriers in the business of carrying passengers to destinations (in Asia and Australasia) beyond their Hong Kong and Singapore hubs.
What about other foreign airlines operating out of Heathrow, or Virgin Atlantic? Aren’t they even more disadvantaged by having to use terminals other than T5? Virgin and those foreign carriers not operating from the regions (although Virgin now operates a few US routes from these airports) realise that their travellers face a terminal change, which adds to the connecting time.
Little Red (now defunct) was Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to look after the needs of regional passengers making connections to airlines other than BA at Heathrow. It made use of so-called “remedy slots” that the regulators instructed IAG (International Airlines Group) to make available, citing competition fears at Heathrow following the demise of Bmi.
Some of these slots were taken over by regional airline Flybe at the end of March this year. Flybe operates three daily flights from Aberdeen and four a day from Edinburgh into Heathrow T2. These flights are aimed at making connections easier for passengers connecting on to Virgin Atlantic and foreign airlines. To keep costs under control, Flybe is using a smallish Q400 turboprop aircraft that has half the number of seats of the larger A320 jets that Little Red operated.
It is too early to say whether or not Flybe will make a success of its entry into one of the world’s leading aviation hubs. One wishes it success, although I can’t help wondering what the long-haul premium class traveller will think after arriving on an overnight flight from Dubai, Singapore or Los Angeles.
EUROPE’S DOMESTIC MARKET
What’s the situation like in mainland Europe? Much the same, although long-haul foreign carriers do not have the same level of presence in the regional long-haul market as they do in the UK.
The main difference is that a greater variety of domestic routes can be operated. Plus, almost all hub airports are directly linked to the national rail network and, in some cases, by high-speed train. In contrast, Heathrow is served only by a spur running off the Great Western Railway mainline to Paddington. A link from Heathrow to the planned HS2 route linking London with Birmingham was proposed, but that has been ruled out for the time being.
Where long-distance rail links exist, as they do in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle, to take three examples, most travellers still want to connect by air rather than rail. Partly it’s because they feel “safer” linked into the airline’s network and, if they wish to drive, it’s easier to park at an airport than at a downtown train station.
When France opened its TGV line between Lyon and Paris in 1981, it was thought that the high-speed train would eliminate air service altogether. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Even though the TGV now also runs directly between Lyon and Paris CDG, there are still five daily Air France flights (duration one hour), despite the fact that the rail journey time is two hours and there are regular services throughout the day.
The situation is similar in Germany. Only on the short Cologne-Frankfurt airport ICE line has air competition been vanquished. Lufthansa flights remain on ICE routes between Frankfurt airport and Dusseldorf, Nuremberg and Stuttgart. Between Frankfurt and Dusseldorf there are no fewer than seven daily flights, while there are five to Nuremberg and six to Stuttgart.
There’s an even more extreme example in the “domestic” Benelux market. KLM, so keen to snare connecting passengers to fuel its global network, operates four flights daily on the 158km hop between Brussels and Amsterdam. And yet there are hourly Thalys trains between Brussels and Schiphol airport that take about 90 minutes – only half an hour or so more than taking the plane.