Thursday, 30 December 2010

Airlines soon to become more like media companies?

We all know what the internet has done to print it now the turn of the in-flight magazine?

As in-flight wi-fi becomes commonplace and airlines start to facilitate the use of hardware platforms on-board too, I imagine the days of the paper in-flight magazine are counted...

Airlines can find new ways to monetize the information gateways they open for their passengers, in an extreme case, they would become more like media companies, for example, Finnair is now lending iPads, but I can see Ryanair charging for such a service. Similarly, airlines can develop their own media products tailored to the specific interest of their travelers, for example Lufthansa's CloudStream...after all, they know quite a lot about their frequent fliers, and it opens the door to new monetization opportunities that have more in common with the online media rather than with traditional airlines.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Spain's empty airports (III): León

In North-West Spain the city of León got a brand-new airport in 1999. There had been an airfield at León for decades, but the inauguration of the new facility and the opening of commercial services at León airport was a significant improvement on the accessibility of this historical city, that tracks its origins back to an old Roman fort, that had traditionally suffered from its remoteness and its distance to the country's main urban centers.

However, I got quite surprised to learn, this autumn, that the airport had just been enlarged. I had a look at the numbers and found out that the Spanish government had invested over €80 million at the airport during the last 6 years. This seems quite a large number taking into account the current amount of passengers the airport is handling, more so when some of the recent investments have been directed at increasing the airport's capacity. For example, LEN is now able to process 580 passengers per hour...but the total number of passengers last year was 94,282, that is around 250 passengers per day! And looking at the route network available from the airport it looks as if this traffic is well distributed along the year, in other words, it does not seem there are extreme demand peaks that require all this extra capacity (most routes are done by Air Nostrum using regional jets).

The expansion programme was implemented with an expectation of 500,000 passengers per year in 2012...but since reaching a peak of 160,000 passengers in 2007, traffic has only decreased since then. The fact that León is going to be connected to the Spanish high speed rail network in 2012, and it will then be within 2 hours travel time of Madrid by train will not help raise the airport's traffic figures...

Monday, 27 December 2010

Spanair's difficult year

A Spanair A320 on the tarmac at Barcelona airport

From this blog I follow very closely the evolution of Spanair, as Barcelona (BCN) is one of my favourite airports and its future is inextricably linked to the future of Spanair.

Why? because Spanair is at the center of an experiment: the attempt to establish from scratch a hub-and-spoke operation in a mature market with strong presence of low-cost carriers. The reasons for this are both political and economic. Barcelona is one of Europe's main airports (one of the top ten, in close competition with Rome-Fiumicino) however, it has never been a hub, neither has it had its own flag carrier.

Although Barcelona and Catalonia have traditionally been the main tourist destination and the more export oriented economic center in Spain, during the period when most European countries developed their own flag carriers, Spain was a heavily centralised country and Iberia always focused on Madrid-Barajas, with Barcelona acting as a sort of secondary mini-hub for European flights. The result has been that today Barcelona is possibly the European airport with the lowest proportion of intercontinental traffic with regards to total traffic in Europe. This situation is, obviously, a source of concern in Barcelona, as the lack of long-haul connections can become a major weakness in the era of global business.

Iberia's decision to hand over its European flights at BCN to its low-cost subsidiary Clickair, that subsequently merged with Vueling, and the increasing share that low-cost airlines have been acquiring at BCN, added salt to the injury.

No wonder then that, as soon Spanair, an airline with a history of losses but with the second largest network in Spain, was put on sale, a consortium led by the Catalan governement took over. The aim was to make of BCN a hub and consolidate a full-service hub-and-spoke operation out of Barcelona, in coordination with Spanair's Star Alliance partners. SAS would remain as a strategic partner with 20% of the capital.

Easier said than done. If consolidated flag carriers are having a hard time in their established markets, Spanair's challenges looked daunting...and, indeed, the numbers the company has just presented are deep in the red. It lost €186 million, of which €120 million are an oeprational loss. This is 55% above what was expected by the airline. However, it is true that this is an improvement over the €218.3M. loss of the previous year, and last quarter it managed to book a modest profit of €5 million.

The company is keeping the goal of becoming profitable in 2012, despite the short term reality that it has needed a fresh injection of capital from a company owned by the Catalan government in order to keep it afloat.

This money should keep Spanair flying for a period of time, but is unlikely to facilitate the development of the sort of intercontinental hub that remains the raison-d'être of Spanair and the ultimate justification of all this public support.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The demise of Hamburg International Airlines

Another airline that has recently stopped operating: Hamburg International Airlines, from Germany, has joined the list of the recession's victims.

Hamburg International was no conventional airline, it was considered a "hybrid airline", operating a mix of scheduled and charter flights and, as this article explains, some of its routes were certainly off-the-beaten track (if such thing exists in aviation!), such as Germany to Iraq. It also operated a small mixed fleet of just 9 aircraft that included both Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s (that have now been returned to the lessors). Amazingly, a year before its bankruptcy the airline was contemplating ambitious expansion plans...

The demise of Hamburg International Airlines illustrates the difficulties small airlines face when they can not find the right positioning in the market.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Which airport does Santa Claus take off from?

Possibly Rovaniemi, Finland (RVN), at least this is the airport commonly assumed to be the closest to his home in the Finnish woods...or was it the North Pole? in that case, Ivalo, Finland (IVL) could be a better alternative, as it is farther North, although if he really lives in the North Pole maybe he should be taking off from Svalbard airport-Longyear (LYR), in the Svalbard islands, Norway, which happens to be the World's northermost airport with regular air services.

In any case, it seems that most European airlines have made their choice on where Santa's real home is, otherwise you wouldn't have over a dozen airlines from all over Europe flying every winter to the small town of Rovaniemi (pop.60,000) from tens of destinations such as Milan, Amsterdam or Budapest...However, looks like Easyjet and Transavia beg to differ...or at least they are hedging their bets, as they fly to Ivalo instead.

Wherever Santa's home is, though, one thing is sure, these two airports are the gateway to an amazing winter wonderland...!

Air Malta's struggle and the dependent island

Malta's lifeline (Photo: Wikipedia)

Government subsidies to airlines are a regular topic on this blog, however, up until now we had focus mostly on the funds governments pay out in order to develop air routes or airports, and devoted relatively little space to that government aid whose objective is to guarantee the survival of an airline.

We have, admittedly, seen less and less of these since the wave of market liberalization of the 90s and the stronger stance of the European Commission on these matters, however, a new, and I hope exceptional, case is back on the table. This time it affects one of the small players of European aviation, but one that can have a massive impact on the economy of one of the European Union members states: Air Malta.

I guess the capital importance of tourism and air travel in this island nation, that happens to be also the Europe Union's smallest member, has been the decisive argument in convincing the European Commission to give the green light to a €52 million aid package to Malta's ailing flag carrier. We saw in a previous post how the market is often able to adapt quite quickly to the demise of a relatively large carrier, however, the fact that tourism accounts for around a quarter of the country's GDP and Air Malta is carrying nearly half of this traffic, could make any less-than-immediate transition extremely painful for the island's economy.

When I was reading about the case I could see how many commentators had serious doubts about Air Malta's capacity to reverse its situation, an opinion that seems to be shared in Brussels any case, the aid package is supposed to guarantee operations for the next 6 months, a time the Maltese authorities should use to prepare for the worst-case scenario and to make sure that a possible Air Malta's bankruptcy does not bring about the bankruptcy of the country too!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Spain's empty airports (II): competing to become the gateway to the Pyrenees

With this post I intend to continue the series I opened a few weeks ago about the many underused airports spread across the Spanish geography, a reminder of the construction bonanza of the last few years...

Today I am going to focus on two recently inaugurated airports, Huesca (HSK) and Lleida (ILD) that are vying to become the main gateway to the Pyrenees and to the multiple ski resorts that dot this imponent mountain range that separates Spain from France.

Huesca airport is located near the city of the same name, that is the capital of a province that includes most of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees and ski resorts such as Candanchu, Formigal and Panticosa. This airport is part of Aena's network (the Spanish public airport operator). This investment has been strongly questioned, given the small number of passengers that use the facility and the limited impact it has on the local tourism industry in an area where the vast majority of skiers arrive by car. Traffic numbers certainly abysmal, around 6,000 passengers a year (and a record low of 8 passengers in October 2010), this means there is a annual operating deficit of €700 per passenger (and this does not even take into account the initial investment)! There is currently no regular traffic at the airport and only Monarch airlines and Pyrenair (using Air Nostrum aircraft) operates some seasonal flights during two winter months from UK airports and from Madrid, Valencia and La Coruna.

Prospects do not look very good, particuarly when you take into consideration that Huesca is, given its size and geographical position, quite well connected to the rest of Spain, it has high speed rail services to Madrid and a free motorway links it to the regional capital, Zaragoza, a much larger city (with a population of over 700,000), that, curiously enough has, possibly, the opposite problem, an underused airport, that is shared with a military base, with considerable potential, given the city's growing role as a logistics center (I'll write about this case in a future post...) .

And let's not forget the newest airport that has been built with the Pyrenean gateway in mind: Lleida. I already wrote a post about it last year, where you can find some details about it. This airport, managed by the Catalan government, has a slightly larger local market than Huesca, but faces pretty much the same challenge: to find enough demand to consolidate regular routes. There are a number of routes currently being operated from the airport, Ryanair and Vueling fly to several European and Spanish destinations, but they are heavily subsidised and doubts remain on their long-term survival. Pyrenair has also started some winter flights to Spanish and Portuguese destinations, targeting the ski market.

Lleida has the advantage of having relatively easy access to the most international ski area of the Pyrenees, the Andorran ski resorts, that attract a number of British and Russian skiers that, although not as huge as in the Alps, can guarantee a considerable amount of traffic to a small airport like Lleida. Most of this traffic was currently being channeled through Toulouse airport (TLS), in France, but they might be ready to switch their operations to the South side of the Pyrenees if they eye an attractive enough deal, this is the case of Neilson, that recently announced that, after striking a very favourable deal that includes tax reductions, is going to fly over 20,000 British skiers per year to Lleida for the next five ski seasons.

Despite these efforts, there is another airport that has strong chances of becoming the "real" gateway to the Pyrenees: Barcelona (BCN).

Although we tend to think about Barcelona as a sunny Mediterranean city, the fact is that the Catalan captial is just over an hour and a half by car from teh closest ski slopes, a time that has been reduced considerably through improvements in land transport links, the (unlikely-to-succeed) bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics might speed up some public works already in progress, such as the completion of the Barcelona-Toulouse motorway that will bring the Pyrenees and Andorra much closer to the metropolis and its airport.

Approximate catchment areas of the airports of Huesca (HSK), Lleida (ILD), Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS), Zaragoza (ZAZ) and Barcelona-el Prat (BCN), and their respective positions relative to the Pyrenees. For the sake of simplicity I have not included other airports in the vicinity such as Girona (GRO), Pau-Tarbes (PUF) or Perpignan (PGF)

The American Airlines website design fiasco

Here is a story that I came across that should be compulsory reading, not only for everyone with an interest in airlines and web design, but also at business school courses and MBAs.

To summarize: an American Airlines customer, with an eye for web design and usability, visits and doesn't like what he sees, he posts his opinion on his blog, and here comes an webdesigner commenting on this post to let him know that if American Airlines website sucks is not because they have bad designers, but because corporate culture and internal politics and rules do not let them do their best.

The result: the American Airlines worker that posted the comment was fired (I am sure Seth Godin would be appalled to learn that someone that cares so much about his work got this sort of treatment from his employer), the story went viral on the internet, with the subsequent damage to to AA's corporate image).

At the end, got a face-lift (although not sure Dustin Curtis is now happy about it, given he had his own ideas about how it should be)

You can read an account of the story here.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Mexicana's bankruptcy and the quickly-adapting Mexican air travel market

Picture: Wikipedia

Mexico's second-largest carrier, Mexicana de Aviación, went bankrupt last August, however, the market moved in quickly to fill the void. Mexico's air traffic did not even register the loss of such a large operator. On one hand a number of new international routes were opened, mainly between the US and Canada and several Mexican destinations. Domestically, the spare demand has been absorbed by local operators, flag carrier Aeroméxico (a Sky Team partner) and Mexican low-cost airlines such as Volaris, Interjet and Viva Aerobus, that reported increasing load factors and market share.

As this article points out, this was possibly a case of excess capacity that has now wiped out. The speed with which the market adapts to the new situation highlights the dynamism of the air travel sector and its capacity to adapt to supply and demand factors and, in my opinion, strengthens the case for limiting government subsidies to loss-making airlines.

In any case, despite there are people willing to defy the new market equilibrium: a reborn Mexicana, under new management, plans to start operations in January. The new Mexicana will be smaller, it has rehired 30% of the previous staff, and operate a fleet of 20 aircraft. Half of its routes will be to international destinations, and, if everything goes well, the plan is to increase the fleet to 30 aircraft during the year and hire the remaining 70% of the staff of the original company.

This is certainly a bold move, since it might bring back excess capacity, but will possibly be good for Mexican air travellers, as the new Mexicana will have to work hard to regain its place under the sun and this possibly means lower fares...

Monday, 20 December 2010

How Twitter becomes the essential crisis-management tool when European airports are in chaos

It is starting to become the norm: volcanoes, air traffic controllers strikes and, like every winter, snow, snow and more snow...

And Twitter is steadily becoming the number one resource for stranded passengers, airlines, infrastructure managers, transport authorities and onlookers to assess the situation and communicate with each other. At this point in time no one beats Twitter and its capacity to engage in real time with multiple players. Want further proof? Look at this snapshot from KLM's Facebook page, taken amidst the snow-related air traffic disruption of this weekend:

The power of real time info

Another issue up for discussion is why UK airports are so sensitive to adverse weather conditions, it would be foolish to expect the same level of readiness in the face of snow than, for example, Finland, but the UK is not located precisely in the tropics, and we know there are snow storms every winter, given the large flux of people transiting through UK airports, even if problems last for just a few days, the amount of disruption is huge! wondering whether are there are better ways to cope with snow...

Does it need to be like this every winter?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

KLM does an amazing job using Twitter to rebook stranded passengers

One of the most interesting (and useful!) uses of social media during the recent snow-related air traffic disruption in Europe has been that of Dutch airline KLM, using Twitter to communicate with passengers, not only to inform and receive feedback but also to take specific action to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

KLM (@klm on Twitter) started taking rebooking requests from stranded passengers and notifying them of their new schedules.

Here you can find some examples:

The procedure is not without its faults, and one of them is privacy, private information and details of flight itineraries were being aired on Twitter for everyone to see.

When I was monitoring the KLM stream to write this post, I could even see a personal acquaintance tweeting his details to the airline, then a few minutes after that, KLM confirming new flight details to him, but with a typo, I quickly pointed this error to the airline and then got in touch with my friend too in order to let him know...this is absolutely powerful stuff! I was participating in the rescheduling of a flight plan from my own desk miles away from the airport where all this was taking place!

This obviously raises some interesting questions about privacy: as I could see what was going on, so did millions of other people...this is the reason KLM was also asking passengers to DM (direct message) the company (also through Twitter) in order to make communications private, however, you can only DM people on Twitter if you follow each other, something easy to do but that requires some coordination.

In any case, it seemed that people were valuing more the convenience of being able to sort out their travel schedule than any lack of privacy. In any case, and I guess in order to avoid any legal or security problems, KLM posted a note on its Facebook profile shortly after announcing that it was going to remove all references to private information from its Twitter stream...

In summary, a curious situation and, setting legal implications aside, a possible case study of the trade-off, privacy vs. convenience, that people have to do when engaging in conversation in social networks: if you keep too much information private, your presence in social networks loses its "raison d'être", as you will have problem sharing and communicating, on the other hand, it is necessary that you have a choice on what information you keep to yourself...

While I am finishing to write this post I realize that even Twitter has some limits:

But, in any case, kudos to KLM for understanding the power of Twitter and going the extra-mile in customer service!

What is sure is that air travel disruption is proving a test-ground for social media in its crisis-management function!

Food provenance, authenticity and airline marketing: providing an in-flight gastronomical experience

Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 with wild salmon livery
(photo by Frank Kovalchek, via Wikipedia)

A few days ago I came across a couple an interesting article on Airline Trends (a great blog that I recommend to anyone interested in airline marketing, by the way!) that focused on how food can be a great way for airlines to differentiate their offerings and improve the traveler experience.

This is a topic that deeply interests me and I think airline's initiatives in this direction are very consistent with the ongoing trend towards introducing more doses of authenticity in the consumer experience, something you can see for example if visiting any UK supermarket, where products come with more and more provenance references in their I thought about a sharing an article that friend site has just published about authenticity and provenance in in-flight meals.

Food origins up in the air (via

I hope you enjoy the post and please do not hesitate to contact me if you know of any more initiatives of airlines using on-board food provenance and authenticity for marketing purposes! is a site to discover and explore the origins and stories of the best European foods, find out where they are made, how and by whom!

Friday, 17 December 2010

George Soros invests in Flybe as the British regional airline readies its expansion plans

Pointing upwards! (Picture: Wikipedia)

What is the fastest way to become a millionaire? Start as a billionaire and invest in an airline....! but it looks like billionaire George Soros would rather disagree!

Well, true, a £7M. investment in Flybe is not even pocket money for the famous tycoon (it will buy him around 3.4% of the company), however I find it significant that such an experienced and powerful investor, that managed to sink the pound sterling in 1992, is backing Flybe at this time, when ambitious expansion plans are under way at the British regional airline. Flybe has just floated in the stockmarket and plans to use the proceeds of the flotation to double its fleet and possibly open new bases in Europe or acquire another regional airline, another sign of confidence in the future, is that Flybe's current owners are not planning to cash their money in, at least not in the short term.

There is no lack of examples to support the old joke about the dubious profitability of airline investment (even Warren Buffett got caught on this one!), however, it is remarkable how Flybe has been able to build its niche business in a market strongly dominated by behemoths like Ryanair, Easyjet and BA, or I should say, precisely by being able to exploit the markets gaps these airlines were leaving: as opposed to BA and its Heathrow focus, Flybe has an extensive regional network, as opposed to Ryanair and Easyjet, Flybe caters mainly to the business traveller...will it be able to replicate its business model in the continent? in any case, it looks like we are going to get used to hearing about Flybe more often, as the British regional champion is onto something big!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Estonian Air experiences the power of Groupon-style promotions

When we speak about social media in the air travel sector and the new channels airlines are opening to engage with their clients we usually think about Twitter, Facebook...but what's been really hot in the internet scene this last year?! think Groupon and its legion of copycats. Basically, these sites offer a product or service every day at a very discounted rate, the catch is that this deal-of-the-day only applies if a certain number of people sign up for the offering. The concept has proven to be so wildly successful, that 2-year-old Groupon is rumored to have had a $6B acquisition offer from Google!

To see what happens when you apply the coupon concept to air travel we have to go to one of Europe's smallest and most peripheral markets for air travel: Estonia. And it was a resounding success!

Estonian Air, a SAS subsidiary and flag-carrier of the tiny, but internet-savvy, Baltic nation had to stop selling discounted tickets through when sales started going through the roof, they were planning to sell 2,500 tickets and by the time the promotion stopped more than 6,500 had already been sold. It might not sound like a huge number to some, but if you take into account that Estonian Air has a small fleet made of just 2 Boeing 737-300, 3 Boeing 737-500 and 2 Saab-340 turboprops, you can see how this promotion successfully sold a considerable share of its available capacity...I am sure many other airlines throughout Europe and the rest of the World are looking attentively to the North-Eastern shores of the Baltic!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

By invitation: Roman from AirObserver on Airport privatization in Spain. What impact for Ryanair?

From today Roman from AirObserver is going to be guestblogging in this blog.
Roman runs AirObserver, a blog which covers airline news and especially European low cost market. He cooperate in Airpanorama project, a barometer which aims to offer the easiest way to compare most European low cost airline traffic figures.
He is also the author of an e-note about Ryanair business model.

Here is his first post in this space. Enjoy!

Airport privatization in Spain: What impact for Ryanair?

Picture: Barcelona airport new terminal

Spain's Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has recently declared that his government plans to privatize 49% of AENA, the public authority in charge of Spanish airports. This privatization will start with two major airports in Spain: El Prat and Bajajas (other airports will come). Thus, probably in the hope to reduce public expenditure and to a certain extent, to improve airports management. Indeed, Zapatero’s government, who leads a struggling Spanish economy, hopes that the privatization would generate €9 billion.

A private management could impact Ryanair’s revenues:

In Spain, as all over Europe, Ryanair is massively subsidised. What I noticed in France is that each airport which gives money to Ryanair is actually managed by regional public bodies. Most of regional airports that are giving money to Ryanair are loss-making airports. Indeed, Ryanair always deals in the same way no matter the country: it brings in passengers, in return of important subsidies and free or lower airport fees. Consequently, small airport have more costs than revenues. Moreover, most of the time, the airport also has to hire, train, and pay all the required ground personnel. If you take this into account, you’ll understand why it might not be that profitable. However, when they realise that they are no longer able to deal with these high costs, it is too late, as the Irish airline doesn’t allow for contract changes.

My point here is that this kind of deal is only possible thanks to public support. Without public support, the airport won’t be able to survive, and would not agree to such deal. A private airport will only focus on revenues. In the light of this, we can conclude that, if the Spanish government decides to extend the privatisation movement to other small regional airports, the type of deals that Ryanair was able to conclude until now won’t be possible any more. Newly privatized airports will look at revenues first and not hypothetical future tourism revenues.

Airlines such as Vueling and Spanair have already given their support to this privatization, however full details have not been disclosed yet. Cataluña government for instance is waiting more detailed precisions from the Spanish government and Zapatero's still has to find potential investors.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Thanks everyone!

When I started writing my previous post about social media use during the Spanish airport crisis, the events were still unfolding and I could not imagine this would be, by a large margin, the most popular story in this blog so far.

Every new crisis or unexpected event becomes a test-ground for social media and further proof of the growing importance of these new communication channels in crisis management. I imagine this is one of the reasons why so many people from around the World visited this blog and took an interest on how social media was put to use during this crisis of first magnitude. I was particularly delighted that one of the World's top airline marketing blogs, Simpliflying, re-published my article in its entirety, thus giving me the chance to make my analysis available to its well-qualified and global public.

Here is the link, and do not forget to visit the rest of the Simpliflying blog. It's totally worth it!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

An analysis of Social Media during the recent Spanish air traffic controller's strike

At the time of writing these lines the effects of the Spanish air controllers unannounced and almost total strike are still being felt throughout the whole South-Western European airspace. This industrial action has forced the closure of the entire Spanish airspace and gravely affected that of the surrounding countries (Portugal, Morocco), the chaos at airports has been total, more so when the controllers' walk-away has coincided with the start of a five day holiday in Spain. The Spanish government has had to recur to extreme measures such as declaring the "state of alert" and putting the ATCs under military control.

It is not my intention here to delve into the causes of the crisis or on the chronology of the events , but to look at how the different actors of the crisis have been using social media to get their message through.

The role of social media during crisis has become more and more important and this crisis. I find that the current situation has many points in common with the recent volcanic-ash episode that forced the closure of practically all European airspace. As I explained in a previous post, the recent Social Media for Airlines conference, dissected the response of airlines and organisations to sudden short-term disruption of air traffic. In that case, the crisis was a catalyst that pushed organisations to embrace social media. And this case is no different...

In fact when the crisis started all the social media artillery seemed to be on the side of the air traffic controllers, that had their own blog and at least two Facebook fan pages presenting their point of view (this one seems to be the main one, but has much less activity than this other page that is focused on the current conflict...This put them automatically on the spotlight, with thousands of angry people directing their anger at these platforms. The Spanish ATC Twitter account was replying to comments and actively tweeting until Saturday morning when it seems that it stopped tweeting (the deluge of mostly negative comments was possibly too much for whomever was managing this account)

The government side did not have this sort of social media channels in place when the crisis started to unfold. Spain's airport and air traffic management organisation (Aena) had an institutional website that was in no way suited for this task, providing just some informative notes and a contact telephone. There was no Twitter account to speak of until Saturday mid-morning (more than twelve hours after the strike had started), when the official Aena Twitter account was opened. The first time I checked it out it had only two followers and they had not even had the time to upload an avatar picture for their Twitter profile. To their credit however, they got up to speed fairly quickly, I checked it again 15 minutes later and it had already over 1000 followers, by early afternoon they had reached 3000 and it was tweeting a constant flow of information on Spain's airport network situation. Besides English and Spanish it had also streams in the other official languages of Spain: Catalan, Basque and Galician. We hope that, as in the volcano crisis, this level of engagement with the public will remain going future.

It is unusual for events taking place in a mid-sized non-English speaking country with little Twitter penetration to make it to Twitter's global trending topics, but at some times today the Spanish airport chaos made it to the top of the list, for example: #controladores, #barajas,

Other hashtags you can monitor to follow the events are:
#aena #huelga #controladores #prat #estadodealarma #DGAC #Spanishstrike

most of the tweets related to these hashtags are in Spanish, but quite a few are in English too.

And obviously Eurocontrol, was also informing via Twitter, by the way, it must have been a complicated day for them since there were not only issues in Spain but also closures and disruption due to snow at Schiphol (AMS), Paris-Orly (ORY) and UK airports such as London-Gatwick (LGW).

Other unexpected side actors of this crisis have been Hotel Auditorium, a huge hotel next to Barajas airport with its own twitter account as it is in this hotel that air traffic controllers were holding a meeting on Friday night while the crisis was at its peak. They required police protection after the ATCs were discovered by a number of distressed passengers that had been hosted at the hotel after their flights got cancelled (as a side note, I also had the chance to stay at Hotel Auditorium earlier this year after my flight was cancelled due to an air traffic controller's strike in France).

I have also seen the potential of Twitter as a tool to arrange alternative travel plans, for example, I have spotted several people on Twitter looking for car-sharing arrangements to travel by road to their destinations as well as some online car-sharing companies, such as Comuto and Amovens, promoting their services.

And other online services that thrive with public attention in days like this are the air traffic live monitoring sites, such as FlightRadar24 or Radarvirtuel, that I already used, with spectacular results, during the volcanic-ash crisis.

Snapshot of Radarvirtuel around 7pm CET, air traffic returns slowly to Spanish skies, spot the empty region in Central Spain and around Madrid airport (MAD).

Friday, 3 December 2010

Ryanair stops taking reservations from end of March for its Girona (Barcelona) routes

Passengers looking to book a flight out of Girona-Barcelona (GRO) with Ryanair for travel dates beyond 30th March are coming across this:

As Catalan daily Avui has pointed out, there are two possible reason why this is happening while bookings from the other Barcelona-area airports where Ryanair operates, Reus (REU) and Barcelona-El Prat (BCN), are working fine
Either it has something to do with ongoing negotiations to keep Ryanair at GRO or, the official version, the Irish company is still defining its summer flight schedule.

On one hand and as my article of a few days ago at AirObserver pointed out, Ryanair's recent arrival at BCN strengthens its negotiating power bis a bis the Catalan authorities. The current agreement between Ryanair and the local authorities expires at the end of the year 2011 and it seems that Ryanair has been asking for 12 million euros to renew it.

This happens at a time when these same authorities seem less keen on more money handouts and risk getting caught in a "subsidies war" with other local airlines (see AirObserver's post on this too). Blocking flight reservations could be a way to send a strong signal and an important power gesture...

On the other hand, Ryanair has just opened routes to destinations from GRO, such as Larnaca (Cyprus).

So possibly there was a combination of the two factors at play, negotiation strategy and route planning. In any case, while I finish to write this post I read that sources of the Catalan government have confirmed that an agreement has been reached to keep Ryanair operating at Girona airport (although has not yet been ratified due to last week's parliamentary election in Catalonia). I am waiting for more details...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Some thoughts on the upcoming Spanish airports privatization

The Spanish government has announced that it is planning to sell part of the Spanish airports operator, AENA. This is a move that had been on the table for quite a while (with particularly strong pressure coming from Catalonia, where the current centralized airport management structure is widely perceived as detrimental to the development of Catalan airports) but the Spanish government had always resisted this move.

Even today's announcement was not very rich in details, it is not clear to me how this sale is going to be made: looks like AENA keeps all the airports but might allow other companies to manage some of them, namely Barcelona and Madrid, but it is not clear how, what level of implication will the private sector have given that the government will keep a majority? is there going to be a public offering? How this move is going to affect the way Spanish airports do route development?

Many questions to which we are will try to give an answer in upcoming posts...!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A tour of Spain's empty airports: Ciudad Real (I)

Life's hard for Spanish regional subsidy, no Ryanair...

Spain has been hard-hit by the current economic crisis. One of the ills of Spain is its oversized construction sector, that flourished at a time when Spain was building more houses in a year than the rest of Western Europe put together, or more kilometers of high speed rail than Japan. And the airport sector was not immune to this fever. A number of airports were built under the assumption that the good years would never end and that ever-growing low-cost airlines would fill their facilities and bring prosperity to their hinterlands.

In a number of posts I will examine the legacy of that the boom years have left at Spain’s airports network, how airports that to this date remain devoid of flights are coping with the effects of the economic crisis, what is their current situation and what are the perspectives for the future.

It must be said that part of the growth was for real. A number of factors explain why it was necessary to invest in better infrastructure: first of all an upgrade was necessary after decades of backwardness compared to the rest of Europe, add to that a booming and increasingly internationalized economy, a growing and more diverse population and a continuing flow of tourists taking advantage of the low cost airline revolution.

But in the midst of this growth some companies and local authorities started devising ambitious plans, some have proven to be too of them is Ciudad Real airport, also called Don Quijote airport(CQM), named after the legendary 17th Century Cervantes' masterpiece,that is set in the region.

The scheme was simple and executed on a grand-scale (investment is thought to have been around €1.1B): to build a brand-new airport next to the high-speed railway line Madrid-Seville and market it as "Madrid-South".

This was the first dubious assumption. Ciudad Real airport is 250km. from Madrid, the main market it was intending to serve. This is a bit far, even for Ryanair standards!

No problem, the airport developers argued, we are next to the high speed train so why not just build a station and get people to complete their journey by train? Ok, some problems with this: are you expecting low cost passengers, that are supposed to account for the major share of traffic, to step off their cheap flights and then pay the not particularly cheap high-speed rail tickets for the hour-long trip to Madrid? (another key factor in such a set-up is train frequencies, that at the time of writing this post remained an enigma, but my guess is that they would be unlikely to reach the sort of frequency that air travellers would expect of a commuter service). It might work for some passengers but I think this would not be very sustainable solution to support the levels of traffic that would make CQM economically viable (the airport has the capacity to handle 10M. passengers a year). If you opt for road transport, the ride can take you nearly two hours, which is more that the flying time to Ciudad Real airport from most European destinations. Take away the Madrid link and there is little economic or tourist activity in this sparsely populated area to support an airport of its own.

You might say that, luckily for Spain’s wretched public coffers, this was a private initiative (the first private airport to open in Spain). But this is just part of the story: one of the airport's main shareholders was the semi-public local savings bank, Caja Castilla-la-Mancha (CCM), that owned 30% of the venture, and that subsequently had to file for bankruptcy and be rescued by the Spanish government. Plus do not expect the local authorities to allow the airport to close down without first trying to keep it alive with generous public subsidies.

Four different airlines have opened routes from Ciudad Real. The first two to try it, Air Berlin and Air Nostrum, have already left. Ryanair departed shortly after, since it could not reach a satisfactory agreement (aka generous enough subsidies) to continue operating. Only Vueling is left, operating a heavily subsidised operation(something AirObserver noted a few weeks ago). I prefer not to think what the cost/passenger is (at some point this year there were 91 full-times employees taking care of the passengers of a single Ryanair thrice-weekly flight, which forced the airport company to dismiss part of the workforce). Prospects to get more traffic look grim.

Is there a future?

It will be very difficult for Ciudad Real airport to achieve, in the foreseeable future, the levels of activity it has been designed for, even if the economy rebounds and the Madrid metro area goes back to previous growth levels. Even more when there is still plenty of capacity left at MAD and plans for a new airport to the South of Madrid are already under way.

Another option that might have more chances of becoming economically viable is to become a cargo airport. Ciudad Real has a central location in the Iberian peninsula, an extra-long runway and plenty of land around it, the sort of space that could facilitate the development of a large scale intermodal logisitcs operation.

But the idea of developing a large logistics hub from scratch remains no less of challenge...! .

Thursday, 25 November 2010

From today I am guest writing at AirObserver

It is an honour for me to have the opportunity to be guest writer at such a high quality blog as AirObserver.

My first post on this site, that focuses on the European low-cost airline industry, is titled "Ryanair holds the upper hand at Catalonia's airports" and on it I explain how the Irish airline has gone on to become an extremely powerful player in the Catalan air market, an issue that has deep consequences in an area where the tourism sector is one of the main drivers of the economy.

You can find a link to the article here.

And my suggestion is that you do not forget to have a look at the rest of AirObserver's articles... it's worth the time!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My insights from the recent Social Media for Airlines Conference

I recently had the chance to attend some of the sessions of the Social Media for Airlines Conference that took place in London, organised by Simpliflying in association with Airline Business and Flight Global and chaired by Shashank Nigam and Mary Kirby (aka RunwayGirl). I would like to share some of the insights I got from this interesting conference (I know, it was nearly two months ago, but this site's redesign plus some other projects that came up left me little time to write a few lines about it!) where I had the chance to meet other bloggers and social media experts that focus on airlines and air travel, such as Paula Berg, Sven Solterbeck, Sergio Mello and Karlis Smiltens.

The sessions I attended were very illustrative of how social media has made a quick foray in the airline scene (and it is here to stay!) sometimes driven by external events beyond the control of airlines. A case in point was the Icelandic volcanic ash-cloud, that grounded almost all European airlines for a number of days last spring.

This event was a watershed in the social media strategy and use for many airlines and aviation related institutions. It was the dramatic disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano what forced these companies to start using social media channels to engage with their stranded clients.

At the start of the crisis some institutions did not have any proper structure to deal with social media (or to interact with their own clients in such a massive scale) and it was mainly thanks to the effort (and sleepless nights) of a bunch of dedicated professionals, such as Aurelie Valtat at Eurocontrol or Christian Kamhaug, of SAS were not only able to improvise and sustain an active presence in the main online social networks, but to set up the basis of what has become a successful long-term social media strategy...So, at least something positive came out of that episode!

I am really looking forward to the next conference where I am sure that, given the unstoppable growth of online social networks and the increasing number of ways in which airlines are tapping them to engage with their potential customers, lots of interesting new case studies will be presented!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ryanair's cheapest fare? what about being paid to fly?

It is just coincidental, I was not intending to write again about Ryanair's website, but the Irish airline keeps giving me reasons to talk about them...

I just came across what is possible Ryanair's cheapest fare from London to Barcelona (Girona)

In this case looks like a technical issue...but will the day arrive when Ryanair is going to pay us to fly with them? the idea might not be that out of place as it seems, since it was Michael O'Leary himself that more than once has hinted that future business models for airlines might involve giving more seats for freee and destinations paying to get traffic. Although this is not that far off what some local authorities are doing, recent statements from Ryanair's chief point towards the opposite direction. But...never say never, specially when you are talking about Ryanair's pricing policy!

Friday, 12 November 2010

How to monetize an airline website: Advertise your competitors!

You need to have strong confidence in your own product to carry advertisements for the competition in key parts of your own website, but this is exactly what Ryanair is doing! After all it makes sense, if you have the cheapest air fares in the market to let the other airlines display your prices next to yours, this is what we can see in the example below, plus they can make some money when someone clicks on one of the adsense ads.

Spot the ads for competing airlines and travel sites on the right

It would be interesting to know what percentage of Ryanair's website visitors end up going to the competition (something that the Flightblogging blog already noted some time ago), but if the ads care still there, and given Ryanair's legendary ability to extract to the latest penny of value from its operations we can be certain that the overall effect has a positive effect on the Ryanair's bottom-line!

Adsense ads are actually placed automatically based on a number of criteria, but you can choose where you place them on your site, and Ryanair has gone us far a placing them in the centre of their main site. That at the time when I checked it while I was writing this post, it was carrying ads for: Eurotunnel!

Spot the Eurotunnel commercial in the central part of the site

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Finnair rethinking quality

A few days ago I was checking options for my upcoming trip to Russia and I ended up at Finnair’s website. The first thing that caught my attention is the Twitterish interface that Finnair has come up with.

The central part of the screen has actually been taken over by the "Quality Hunters". This is an initiative Finnair has come up with to highlight its commitment to quality. The “quality hunters” are actually independent professionals from all over the World that have been tasked with traveling the globe during a whole month reporting on their experiences on quality wherever they go, be it the flights, airports or destinations.

The innovation is not that these "quality hunters" will be blogging and communicating their experiences along the way, engaging in open dialog with the public and making extensive use of twitter, but that Finair is giving them the main section of their corporate website. Some of the posts have little to do with the airline itself, but when they do write about Finnair I like the fact that they are sharp and straight to the point, like for example this post by "quality hunter" Christina Lund Sørensen about her less-than-satisfactory eating experience on-board several of Finnair's aircraft. It is a much welcome exercise of transparency on Finnair's side that the bloggers are allowed and even encouraged to post even when they do not have positive things to say.

The quality hunting experience has even its own site, that adds to Finnair's well designed main corporate website and where you can find all sorts of background information about the quality-hunting bloggers and their findings. I would say that overall it is a very good idea, with an even better execution!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The new Allplane Blog is here!

Those of you that were already regular visitors of the Allplane Blog must have noticed the scope of the change. Yes, after some months in the net, operating with a very basic template and configuration that delivered less than optimal upload speeds, the time has come to unveil the new design of the Allplane Blog!

But the change is not merely aesthetic, besides the new functionalities that have also been added and the enhanced connectivity with other blogs and social media platforms, this is just the first step in the project to make of Allplane a much more rounded and comprehensive platform for all those in love with the world of commercial aviation and air travel.

Watch this space!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Manchester United players in the latest Turkish Airlines commercial

At this blog we follow very closely all news about Turkish Airlines, an airline in the middle of an expansion cycle that is likely to consolidate Istanbul as one of Europe's major hubs.

We reported some time ago on the marketing initiative that led the Turkish airline to sponsor two of Europe's major football clubs: F.C. Barcelona and Manchester United. We spoke about the FC Barcelona deal last time, but it is Man United's players that are now the main characters of Turkish Airlines latest commercial. Watch out if you happen to be on the same flight!

Friday, 8 October 2010

How this Alrosa TU-154 made it to the news

When last August I was at Domoededovo airport, in Moscow, this Alrosa TU-154 caught my attention, Soviet-made aircraft are becoming more and more difficult to spot. What I could not imagine that this same plane (registration number RA-85684) would make it to the news a few weeks later, when it made an emergency landing in a remote Russian airfield and overrun the runway. Fortunately everyone on-board survived!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Upcoming airline consolidation in Russia

In Soviet times Aeroflot was the biggest airline on Earth, it had the monopoly of air travel in the largest country in the planet. But in 1991 the Soviet Union broke up, economic and political chaos ensued and air traffic plummeted. Aeroflot's transformation mimicked that of its country and the company was broken up with the formation of over 800 independent smaller companies. Some of these became flag carriers of the newly independent republics, whereas in Russia itself, hundreds of regional airlines were carved out of the assets of the former Soviet Aeroflot. The so-called "babyflots" were born. However, Aeroflot did not disappear, it continued to operate international routes out of Moscow, while the "babyflots" served the domestic market.

The decade of the 90s was a time of turmoil in Russia, with weakened institutions and instability and the airline industry also suffered as a result. The "babyflots" were in great measure responsible for the bad reputation acquired by Russian airlines abroad. These undercapitalized companies, operating small fleets of old Soviet-era planes became famous for their dismal service and appalling safety record.

Aeroflot started to put its record straight in the year 2000 and underwent a modernization and much-needed re-branding. A few years later the improvements are evident. Aeroflot is now operating a fleet of modern aircraft, levels of service are now on a par with Western airlines and even its corporate website has a fresh and innovative look. It also helped that the Russian economy has been growing steadily in the last decade, with total passenger numbers in Russia more than doubling in 10 years, from 21 million in 2000, to over 45 million in 2009. Still a fraction of what it was in Soviet times (roughly half the number achieved during the peak year of 1990) but on upward track.

So we have a stronger and more modern Aeroflot in 2010, but...what happened to the “babyflots”?

Financial attrition and safety issues have taken its toll, as I write this post the numbers are down to 168. This is still too many according to the chief executive of Aeroflot, Vitaly Savelyev, that in a recent statement said that the country could do much better with 30 to 35 larger and more financially stable airlines.

The authorities have started to pilot this consolidation process, with Aeroflot becoming the vehicle for the consolidation of the air transport sector in Russia. The Russian flag-carrier is expected to take over a large number of the “babyflots”.
Back to the origins.

Picture: Russian airliners at Domodedovo airport, Moscow. An Orenair Boeing 737 in the foreground whereas a large number of old Soviet aircraft, that used to make up the fleets of Russian domestic airlines, can be seen in the background, among them, in the center of the picture, two Ilyushin Il-62

The first wave of consolidation is already under way, Aeroflot is taking over a group of six airlines: Rossiya, Orenair, KavminVodyAvia, Vladivostok Avia, Saratov Airlines and Sakhalin SAT Airlines. The first step will involve state-owned Rossiya airlines taking over the other five soon-to-merge airlines and then being absorbed itself by Aeroflot. But this might just be the beginning, as we can expect tens of other smaller Russian airlines to be absorbed by Aeroflot in the near future.

This raises some interesting questions about the future of civilian aviation in Russia: what would be the competitive landscape ten years from now?

What would be the role of the main private carriers (namely Transaero and S7) in a market where state-controlled Aeroflot will be acting as a “national-champion”?

An S7 Airbus A320. S7 is currently the airline that carries more passengers domestically in Russia

What would be the implications for the aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus and their chances to capitalize on the emerging Russian market, if a larger Aeroflot became the launchpad for the reemerging Russian civilian industry? Recent decisions regarding the upcoming launch of the Irkut Ms-21 and Sukhoi Superjet 100 point already in this direction.

And what will be the prospect of ever getting a sizable low-cost aviation market in Russia? Some recent upstarts like Sky Express have tried to enter this segment, that remains practically non-existent in Russia. Will the authorities allow low-cost carriers to challenge incumbent airlines in the same way it has been done in the West?

Many questions that I will try to answer in upcoming posts...

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Planespotting in Moscow: a colorful festival

A Kirgizstan Airlines TU-154, see in the background the large amount of old Soviet-made airliners parked (most of these aircraft do not seem to be in active use)

Azerbaijan Airlines Boeing 757

An A320 of Armenian carrier Armavia

This year I missed Farnborough airshow because I had scheduled a trip to Moscow on the same dates, however, what I saw during my wait at Moscow's Domodedovo airport was probably more interesting for someone, like me, interested in airliners, as one after another aircraft from the myriad of airlines that operate today in Russia paraded in front of the terminal in their way to or from the runways.

I guess the first word that comes to the mind of the Western planespotter in Russia is "diversity":

Diversity of airlines, because besides the main European and Asian airlines you get to see many airlines that seldom operate outside Russia or the countries of the former Soviet Union and also diversity of aircraft, because Moscow's airports are one of the few major hubs where you can still see a considerable amount of Soviet-made aircraft alongside the typical Boeing and Airbus models.

Soviet-era airliners are becoming a rarer sight as Russian airline's fleets become Westernised, and they seem to become increasingly confined to the fleets of former Soviet republics' airlines.

This Westernisation might reverse, though, when Russia successfully launches its new range of civilian aircraft, such as the Irkut MS-21.

The evolution of the civilian aviation sector in Russia has a fascinating story and I think it deserves more than one, watch this space!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Planespotting at Perpignan & the advantages of small airports

A far cry from the grandiosity of Barcelona airport (BCN), or even the super-fast growth of neighboring Girona-Costa Brava (GRO) airport, the small airport at Perpignan, in the South of France right next to the Spanish border, has preserved some of the obvious advantages of small regional airports.

If commercial offering is almost non-existent in the terminals, the no-crowds, no hassle, fast boarding experience is a strong positive point. With only a handful of flights per day (namely Air France to ORY, Ryanair to Stansted and Charleroi and the new several-times-a week Flybe routes to Birmingham and Southampton and BmiBaby to Manchester), airport transit procedures are quick and efficient.

Perpignan (Perpinya in the local Catalan language) is the entry point to the wine-growing Roussillon area, which has many important, if a bit underrated, tourist attractions, such as the Cote Vermeille (with the magnificent seaside town of Collioure/Cotlliure) and the Pyrenees. With Girona airport becoming ever more congested (although this might change again as a result of Ryanair's recent landing at BCN), Perpignan can be given serious consideration (provided you have a car) as an alternative entry point to the Costa Brava.

Planespotting at Perpignan is quite limited given the small number of regular flights at the airport, nevertheless, in my recent visits to the airfield I could see how some roadside areas on the approaches to the airport are always packed with spotters at the times when there is some air traffic at the airport. So I joined the crowd and here are the pics!

Ryanair's Boeing 737-800s are regular visitors at PGF since the Irish low-cost airline operates daily flights to London-Stansted (STN) and Charleroi (CRL)

A view of a Ryanair Boeing 737-800 by the PGF control tower

Air France A320 landing at Perpignan as seen from the airport access road. Air France operates several daily flights to Paris-Orly (ORY)

A view of the small terminal at Perpignan-Rivesaltes (PGF) with an Air France A320 in the foreground

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Planespotting at Perpignan airport (PGF): the Patrouille de France

Perpignan/Perpinya (PGF) is usually a pretty quiet airport but this week was different, as it was hosting the “Patrouille de France”, the acrobatics team of the French Air Force (Armee de l’Air), that was training ahead of an upcoming air show near Perpignan, where it was scheduled to perform alonside the Breitling Jet Team.

This visit by the “Patrouille de France” was an outstanding opportunity that local planespotters did not miss (as you could see the crowd gathering all along the road that leads to the airport. The “Patrouille’s” Alpha Jets performed their exercises at low altitude and right over the airport, including the traditional display of the French tricolour, and several other acrobatic moves.

Another unusual sight at Perpignan was a C-160 Transall from the Armee de l’Air, that was there supporting the “patrouille’s” temporary deployment to the Catalan airfield.

The timing of the exercises was also coincident with the arrival of the two most frequent visitors of the airport, Ryanair’s Boeing 737 from London Stansted (STN) and Air France’s A320 from Paris-Orly (ORY), not a bad planespotting afternoon for such a small airport!

One of the Patrouille de France Alpha Jets on the tarmac at Perpignan

Air France A320 arriving from Paris-Orly passing by the Patrouille de France Alpha Jets

A view of the terminal and control tower at Perpignan, with a Transall C-160 in the foreground and a Ryanair Boeing 737 in the background

An unusual sight: a Boeing 737, a C-160 and several Alpha Jets together at PGF

Ryanair's Boeing 737 preparing to depart for London Stansted (STN)

A Transall C-160 of Armee de l'Air

Patrouille de France deployed to Perpignan airport

Two of the Alpha Jets were painted in a more military grey-green rather than the tricolour livery worn by the rest of the "Patrouille"

The tricolour

Perpignan airport fly-over

An Alpha Jet in its ascending path over Perpignan airport