It really has never been easier to get around.
Air travel is no longer restricted to the rich and famous. Anyone can now book tickets to destinations all over the world quickly and easily using the internet, often at costs cheaper than a train ticket from London to Birmingham. For this we should remember and thank Sir Freddie Laker, who back in the 1970s started his own airline and offered flights to New York and Toronto for less than a hundred pounds each way. I used his Skytrain service to Toronto a couple of times, on wide-bodied, three-engined DC10 airliners, and they were great. Comfortable seating with plenty of leg room, a decent on-board food and drinks service, all included in the ticket cost. The in-flight entertainment was rudimentary, of course, as was the norm in those days. One movie was shown, projected on a couple of unstable screens that unrolled from the cabin ceiling at strategic places along the cabin, and the headphones were cheap and flimsy and often only worked in one ear. Contrast that with today’s offerings: Qatar Airways, for instance, offers all passengers, whatever their travel class, a choice of over 4000 films, tv shows, and music CDs in a variety of languages, all piped to seat back screens the size of a decent laptop and with sound through high-quality over-ear headsets (in First and Business they are top of the range Bose noise-cancelling sets).
But the thing about Skytrain was that it brought long distance air travel to the masses. Before Laker, it was the domain of huge national carriers like BOAC (as BA were then), the now defunct TWA and Pan-Am from the US, Air France, Lufthansa and so on. These airlines shared routes not on a competitive basis but by cosy agreements that ensured they all had more or less equal market shares. They were able to charge high prices for an admittedly often high quality product, and made decent money from every flight on every route. Sir Fred changed all that. These days he would be termed a disrupter, and a fine one he was too. Because of the cheap flights, people began to flock to his little airline for their trans-Atlantic flights, most of which tended to be for family visits and leisure rather than business. BA and its American “rivals” - more correctly, cartel partners – were forced to match Fred’s prices, and even exceed them, and having deeper pockets (they were national carriers, after all, and benefited from a much wider network of international flights to subsidise the price war) were able to lose money on every flight. Laker complained they were out to bankrupt him, but the Governments of the time, and the airlines themselves, insisted this was not the case: they were only offering competition. The inevitable happened. In any price war, Laker was bound to lose, and this he duly did. His airline went bankrupt within months of the price war starting, and the days of cheap trans-Atlantic travel were over – for a few years at least.
But eventually, more disrupters came along, including Richard Branson, who decided making money from selling records was all very well but there was more fun to be had (and much more money to be made) from travel, and started Virgin Atlantic airlines. Despite a sticky start (BA et al tried their price cartel tactics against Virgin as well) his deeper pockets and probably better business acumen enabled him to succeed where Laker had failed. Admittedly his prices were not as cheap as Skytrain, but to offset the higher charge Branson offered a more entertaining trip. Food and drink was better quality, the IFE was much more varied and more modern than rivals offered, and he frequently hopped on scheduled flights to meet and greet the passengers, chat to them about their experience and what could improve it – something the executives of his flag-carrying rivals would never have dreamt of doing. Sure, a lot of it was not much more than a publicity seeking gimmick – but Branson did listen, and his product evolved in line with the customers’ preferences. The result? Virgin flourished, as it continues to do to this day. Along the way, he introduced features that were revolutionary but are now considered mainstream. For instance, when he introduced his Upper Class (business) services, he not only sited the premium cabin on the top deck of the 747s he was by now using on his trans-Atlantic routes, completely separate from the economy travellers, he also introduced separate priority check-in desks, better quality in-cabin service and a limousine pick up from the traveller’s home or hotel direct to the airport. It worked: on the Heathrow – JFK route (and later Gatwick to Newark and elsewhere) Virgin Upper Class became the carrier of choice for many businessmen.
It forced the flag carriers to follow suit with their variations on the theme, and this in turn has led to the hugely profitable (but hugely expensive and highly competitive) business class market that now provides fully enclosed suites in Etihad and Emirates First Class, flat-bed and half-enclosed Business Class seating in just about every other airline, and little perks like pyjamas and slippers, and amenity kits for Business Class passengers on long-haul routes. Tickets may well cost several thousand pounds per trip, but there is no shortage of takers and on most routes for many airlines, the Business and First Class passengers effectively subsidise the economy class fares.
But to get back to the first couple of sentences of this piece….
Over the last ten to fifteen years, while the business class offering has improved, so too has the choice for the economy class market. This has come about through the rise of the no-frills airline – the successors to Freddie Laker’s Skytrain services. All over the world, airlines have sprung up that provide low price tickets on single class aircraft, where food and drink and even baggage are classed as extra price options. Some of the products are good, in other cases the quality is appalling. There have been good products that failed - in Eastern Europe, for instance, an airline called Sky Europe offered a decent range of routes, including to the UK, at sensible prices that included food and drink, but they went bust after a couple of years of struggle. A Polish airline, OLT Express, offered flights between Gdansk and Warsaw for PLN20 (against a train fare of at least PLN120) and a flight time of 30 minutes (by train 4 ½ hours minimum), and was introducing flights to the UK for a range of fares including 25% of seats on each flight guaranteed at PLN50, when their owner became embroiled in a commodity trading and insurance scandal that resulted in the airline closing its doors after 6 months or so (the scandal is still rumbling through the courts today, five years later).
Other, similar carriers have flourished. Wizz Air, based in Hungary, were widely tipped to collapse two or three years ago, but are still very much in business, offering a huge range of flights around Europe and beyond (as far as Tel Aviv and Dubai and Tbilisi) at very reasonable prices, and with a fleet of airplanes that is expanding almost weekly with new aircraft being delivered. As with all low-fare airlines, food and drink and baggage are optional extras or purchased on board, but the costs are not excessive. Their product clearly works. British carriers like EasyJet and Ryan Air similarly dominate, with extensive networks and high volumes of passengers, but tend to be more expensive that Wizz. Ryan Air in particular sell seats at very low prices, but then bump them up with a huge list of extra costs – a £15 charge for payment on a credit card that is not Ryan Air branded, for instance, an additional fee for non-internet booking, £50 for a checked bag booked on line (a fee that trebles if you leave it until you get to the airport), £15 for taking a laptop on as cabin baggage….. They also fly to airports that are nowhere near the published destination: a flight to Brussels, for instance, actually lands at Lille in northern France (not even the same country!) from where you have to get a bus to the Belgian capital (at additional cost, of course).
The same pattern has emerged in the US domestic market, and across the Far East and India, and Australasia, South America…… Clearly, low cost airlines are here to stay. But at present, they are mostly short haul – that is, a flying time of under about 4 hours. Intercontinental routes – between Europe and US, for instance – are still served pretty much exclusively by the big airlines like BA, Air France, American Airlines and so on. This is primarily down to sheer economics. On prime routes such as these, the fuel burn is of course, much higher, and the landing costs (charged by airports for each landing on a given route, and limited in number) are also higher. Because of the route distances, either bigger aircraft are needed or more modern and fuel efficient (and hence more expensive) planes. So far, no-one has been able to make the economics work.
But that seems to be changing. More disruptors have entered the market over the last year or so that are trying to take the no frills concept intercontinental – and seem to be meeting with some success. They are doing this by using newer, larger, leased aircraft, and flying from smaller airports. Again, the focus is on the trans-Atlantic routes, but if they meet with a similar level of success that Wizz and Ryan Air and EasyJet have reached in the short-haul market, no doubt they will expand their intercontinental networks.
Based in Europe, the main players are Norwegian Airways and Wow! Norwegian is the larger of the two carriers, and has established a hub at Gatwick in the UK as well as its home base in Oslo, and offers an expanding route network around Europe and to the US. Right now, its offering includes a meal service where orders can be placed and pre-paid when buying and checking into flights on-line, as well as through the plane’s IFE system – which is also offering a decent selection of films, tv shows and music. Wi-fi connectivity is also offered to passengers in flight, all at reasonable prices. Ticket prices are also highly competitive, and the airline is picking up some decent business.
Wow!, meanwhile, offers a similar level of in-flight service and costs, but is based in Iceland and thus routes many flights through there. Reykjavik airport is acting as a hub connecting Wow!’s European network with some of its trans-Atlantic ones. But not all of them: there are other direct trans-Atlantic services, for instance Barcelona to Los Angeles: this is a 10 hour flight, but carries an identical service pattern to the airline’s European services. It, too, is picking up some decent business and is looking to expand its offerings.
Nothing is certain, but if Norwegian and Wow! succeed – as seems quite possible at the moment – then a potentially huge low-cost market will be opened up, and as travellers our options will be limitless. No doubt new competitors will take to the skies, and the big flag-carriers will be forced to compete too. Prices seem set to fall, which will of course attract yet more customers.
This is all good news for us, as travellers.
What concerns me a little in all this is what happens before you get on your flight, because in my humble opinion an awful lot of airports are simply not keeping pace with developments in the air. I guess this is not surprising, given how long it takes to get any kind of expansion plan approved, at least in the UK. Heathrow has been at pretty much full capacity for a few years now, and trying to agree an expansion project for the same amount of time, but is bogged down in round after round of public enquiries, planning applications and consultations – and of course appeals. There seemed to be a final decision made last year, but it was overturned (on appeal, of course) and a new round of consultation is underway. Earliest completion date now seems to be 2025 – and that is just for a new runway (no buildings….).
Luton, meanwhile, now gets my vote for the World’s Worst Airport – and when you think about some Third World monstrosities and New York’s JFK, that is really saying something. It’s always been a small, regional airport, home to a handful of small charter airlines catering for the package tour market. But the explosion of low-price carriers led to Wizz Air, Ryan Air and EasyJet establishing bases there and hence an incremental increase in flight numbers. There are no jetways at all – boarding and exit from planes is done by strolling across the tarmac from the terminal to removable steps. At the gates you wait in line (nowhere to sit) until your inbound aircraft arrives, at which point you are processed through and stand on four flights of stairs, until such time as the plane has emptied, re-fuelled and re-supplied. Do I hear safety hazard? Oh, yes! Then and only then is the exit door unlocked to allow you to board. There is an expanding choice of overpriced shops, restaurants and bars in the waiting area, but insufficient seating, so waiting there for your gate announcement – by screen, no PA – is never pleasant and always overcrowded. Passport control and security is understaffed and equally overcrowded, with staff that is uniformly rude and unhelpful. Did I mention traffic? No…….well, it’s worse if that’s possible than anything inside the terminal building. There is a one way system that is poorly designed and badly signed (especially on the way out) and used by cars, taxis and buses alike, with only one passenger drop off point. Buses meanwhile come into a semi-circle of bays from which they have to reverse to leave (so there is constant waiting to both get in and out). They are also irregular – only 2 per hour to the various car parks and the car hire centre – and the bus stops themselves offer no shelter at all from wind and rain. It has been like this, due to an “airport expansion” program for a couple of years now, and shows no sign of improving any time soon. On a scale of 1 to 10, I have no hesitation in awarding it a generous -50.
Stansted in Essex, also home to EasyJet and Ryan Air and a host of other carriers both low-cost and flag carriers, is not much better, although its road system is much better organised (despite security barriers in surprising places). The check in area is ok, but the security and passport control are always overcrowded and housed in a single football pitch-sized hall with a single line snaking through it. It’s never taken me less than 40 minutes to get from the entrance to the x-ray machines. Once through to the waiting area, there are clear similarities to Luton – overpriced shops, bars and restaurants and insufficient seating. There is the novelty, for some gates, of having to catch a shuttle train from the waiting area to a satellite building, but at least the gates do have jetways, even if they are not all in use.
Elsewhere, outside of Britain I’m afraid, the situation is better. My local airport in Warsaw used to be very much like Luton, but in the last 5 or 6 years has been completely re-developed. The entry and exit road network is efficient and well planned, there is a new rail service to a station under the terminal, and a constant stream of buses and taxis that make getting into town and back very simple and very cheap. The terminal itself has grown from perhaps 8 or 9 gates (when I first moved there in 2000) to nearly 50, housed in a single big building (that contains the original terminal as a central part of its design) so that getting around is very easy. There are several banks of departure screens, gates and changes are also announced in both Polish and English, and an excellent selection of shops, bars and restaurants to keep you amused. They are a little expensive, but at least there is also plenty of seating at the gates themselves, and all of these are served with jetways. Security checks can be a little slow and disorganised, especially if you’re departing during the morning rush hour (from about 6 to 9 on weekdays with Monday being the worst – naturally enough) but by and large the airport is a pleasure to use.
Schiphol in Amsterdam is a huge airport, in acreage about the size of the Isle of Wight (perhaps an exaggeration but still – it goes on forever, with a network of about 5 runways and connecting taxi ways for the planes, and at least three public motorways and a main railway line running underneath them) but it’s surprisingly easy to use. There are dozens of self-service kiosks to print your boarding card and deposit your checked bags (all very simple to do – who needs gate agents?), and security is very quick and efficient. Plenty of reasonably priced shopping, a good selection of bars and restaurants, and lots of seating areas, including outside with runway views and deckchairs for those rare Dutch hot and sunny days. It’s probably my favourite airport.
I quite like Frankfurt too, similar in many ways (including size) to Schiphol, but my favourite German airport is undoubtedly Munich. Great lay out, great selection of shops and food places, and all managed with Teutonic efficiency. On reflection, I think it might just be better than Schiphol (though a good bit smaller). Zurich is good too, as is Vienna, but I’m not so keen on Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where getting around is less easy and the staff less friendly (at least in my experience). It also seems to lack the shopping and eating variety offered by the Germans and Dutch.
So it seems to me the future is rosy for those of us who travel by air, whether for business or increasingly for pleasure. There is plenty of choice and good value to be had now, and this will continue to improve still further over the next couple of years, it seems to me. It’s the airports themselves that now need some attention, especially, I’m afraid to say, in my homeland. Flying into a dump like Luton or Stansted is nothing less than an embarrassment for this Englishman.
Whether the British government has the interest in making the badly needed investment any time soon, with everything else that is going on in my country (in particular the B-word, and crises in both the NHS and education services) is open to question. The state of British airports is but one element in an essentially broken transport infrastructure that will need a significant pile of money to fix, and it will not all come from the private sector (as our politicians desperately hope). If the economy does tank after 2020 – as many experts believe – then difficult funding decisions will need to be made by courageous, forward thinking politicians. And they, I’m sorry to say, are pretty thin on the ground.