Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The World's most unusual airports: a visit to Gibraltar International Airport

If a few days ago I presented some cases of airports in challenging locations (all of them in islands where flat terrain is scarce or non-existent), this week I had the chance to visit an airport whose location is also a bit "complicated", I am referring to Gibraltar International airport.

Although not an island, land is certainly scarce in Gibraltar to the point that the current airport is partly built on land reclaimed from the sea. By the way, a strip of land that Spain claims, as, apparently, it was not included in the original treaty that ceded Gibraltar to the UK in perpetuity. This claim, that is, obviously, rejected by Britain, is at the origin of a seemingly endless dispute that has, at times, constrained the use of the airport and prevented the development of its full potential.

Gibraltar International Airport as seen from the North face of the Rock

Gibraltar's old WWII airfield was expanded on land reclaimed to the sea in order to be able to operate with modern passenger jets

An agreement between Spain and the UK over joint use of the airport relaxed things a bit in 2006 and Iberia and some Spanish airlines started flights to the Rock's airport shortly after, but these flights were far from a financial success and they were discontinued. As of today, the airport only has scheduled flights to the UK, operated by British Airways, EasyJet and Monarch (and we flew over Spain to get there from London, so it seems that airspace restrictions are no longer an issue!)

But as this is an aviation blog, I will leave the political issues aside on this post...

I must say I was positively impressed by the airports brand-new terminal, maybe because of the low volume of traffic that makes it look a bit oversized, but there is a minimalist feel that is quite useful in preventing pre-flight stress.

Another plus is that the views from the terminal are simply amazing, with the Rock dominating the landscape. The architects that designed the terminal have make it easy to enjoy this magnificent view by adding an outdoor terrace on the South side of the terminal (unfortunately, the fact that the airport only gets a handful of flights a day means that it is far from ideal for planspotters!)

A note on the side: I also enjoyed a lot the decoration at the (only) airport bar, with great aviation-themed vintage posters!

But the most unusual feature of the airport is that the runway crosses the only access road into Gibraltar, which means that, both, cars and pedestrians alike need to cross it to get in and out of the territory!

How often do you see an old lady with shopping cart crossing an airport runway?

Only in Gibraltar!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Iberia and Vueling on diverging flight paths

I just read an article on a Spanish news portal (in Spanish, "Iberia tenemos un problema"-"Iberia, we've got a problem") that warns about the difficult situation Spanish carrier Iberia is currently in.

Nothing that I had not brought up on this blog before: see my article of just a few days ago ("IAG's Spanish problem, Iberia Express and Vueling").

There are not many successful cases of network carriers creating spinning-off profitable low cost airlines, as noted recently by industry blogger Cranky Flier, not to mention the adverse effect it could have on your brand.

In Iberia's case, the problems are compounded by ongoing labour litigation that could take away all the labour cost reductions achieved with the creation of Iberia Express, its new low cost subsidiary...

Going through turbulence...

The ironical thing here is that, while this happens, Vueling, an airline that is 40% owned by Iberia, seems to be going from strength to strength, and it is actually "upgrading" its brand and services and recently announcing a major fleet and network expansion at its Barcelona base (although some Vueling frequent fliers tell me that the carrier has still some way to go in terms of reliability and customer service in order to shake off the "low cost" label completely).

An interesting case of business-fiction prospective would be the situation where Vueling ends up taking over Iberia's short and medium haul operations...seems quite far fetched at present, but about a decade ago we saw former regional operator Crossair taking over its bankrupt parent, the once mighty Swissair and more recently Austrian Airlines corporate structure being gradually folded under Tyrolean Airways (although keeping its brand).

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Vueling keeps growing, plans to fly to a 100 cities from Barcelona

More like this coming soon!

There was quite a lot of expectation today to hear what Vueling had to announce.

And there were interesting novelties, as Vueling continues to upgrade its product with the introduction of a business class. One step that was anticipated as it fits into the carrier's strategy to target business travellers.  So, this announcement did not really come as a surprise, as I had already pointed out in these pages how there were objective measures to qualify Vueling as a hybrid airline rather than a low cost carrier and the airline's top managers had already provided some hints about the imminence of this move.

Regarding fleet renewal and expansion programme Vueling will be getting some 9 brand-new aircraft of the A320 family shortly (at the moment is still flying some Iberia-then-Clickair 1990s-vintage A320s) and some of them will be equipped with wi-fi.  The first (unanswered) question that comes to my mind is whether this means the end of Vueling's flirtation with Bombardier's CSeries...

Another important novelty is the massive route expansion out of Barcelona and into Europe and Africa.   The new twice daily service between Barcelona and London Gatwick really stands out, because until now Vueling had avoided head-to-head competition on this route with Easyjet and Ryanair. Also of note is the airline'e first foray into sub-saharan Africa, where it is "taking over" the niche route to Banjul, that used to be operated quite successfully by now-defunct rival Spanair. New routes to Morocco reinforce the growing presence of Vueling in Africa, that I commented already a few months ago. 28 new routes in total for the summer season (you can find the list here) that will bring to 100 the number of direct destinations operated by Vueling from Barcelona.

In another example of the company's hybridisation, Vueling's CEO Alex Cruz said that he aims to make of Barcelona one of Europe's top hubs (I guess he was referring to intra-European connections, since there are still few long-haul flights at Barcelona that Vueling's passengers can connect too). In order to support this claim he revealed that transit passengers already make 20% of total traffic (not a bad number for a company that was not initially conceived as a hub-and-spoke network carrier!).

The hub-in-the-Med possibility that I outlined nearly two years ago might finally come to fruition after all...

Monday, 15 October 2012

Aviation videos (III): landing at small island airports

One of things I am wondering is how Felix Baumgartner managed to land at exactly the right spot from so high up...because landing can really be an art, be it because of adverse weather conditions or because the the airport is in a "challenging" location...and some of the most challenging airports are located in small islands, where it can often be difficult to find enough flat land to be able to build a runway. Have a look at these islands airports to see what I mean...!

In this video you will see several aircraft landing in cross-winds at Madeira airport, a landing streep embedded between a steep hill and the sea. I found particularly interesting the landing of Air Berlin aircraft from minute 9 of the video!

Vagar, Faroe Islands
The interesting here is the shape of the runway, that is not exactly flat, but adapts to the curvature of the terrain (this airport, built by the British during WWII is possibly worth a blog post of its own!)

Saba, Netherlands Antilles
If Madeira's airport looks challenging, what to say of Saba's!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Airline alliances & the Gulf carriers: if you can't beat them, join them!

Making new friends

Interesting times ahead for the airline industry...While old European, Asian and American flag carriers are still adapting to the tectonic shift that the emergence of the Gulf super-connectors (plus Turkish Airlines) has represented. We start to see another wave of strategic movements.

Today it's been confirmed that Qatar Airways is joining Oneworld, while Etihad has inked a codeshare agreement with Air France-KLM and Air Berlin (that despite being in Oneworld is partly owned by the Abu Dhabi carrier). And all of this with the Emirates-Qantas agreement that, although more limited in geographical scope than the three main alliances, promises to transform the Europe to Australia air travel market.

What next? A growing role for Turkish Airlines within Star Alliance? Emirates joining one of the alliances (they were talking with American Airlines' parent AMR) or creating its own alliance by striking deals similar to the Qantas one with other airlines?

What's clear is that the old saying still holds true: if you can't beat them, join them!

UPDATE: (or in this case it would rather be: "if you can't beat them, try to get them join you!)

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Another amazing BBC video documentary: "How to build a Jumbo Engine"

The BBC is such a great source of aviation documentaries!

After having posted videos about a British Airways Boeing 747 refitting and the history of early British commercial aviation, I have just discovered this other great piece about how Rolls-Royce makes its Trent engines.

On this video you will be able to see not only most of the engine-making process at Rolls-Royce Derby factory (and understand the complexity and sophistication of a jet engine and why there are so few companies in the World able to make them!) but also the workings of the engine's manufacturer supply chain and the massive importance it has for the UK's industrial economy.


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Thai Airways' first A380 (& III): getting onboard

And, finally, the A380 was delivered to Thai Airways in a ceremony with Thai dances and the speeches...

And the Sun was shinning, which makes the A380 look a lot better!

And we got onboard, which was quite an experience, because I manage to see some parts of the aicraft that are normally out of bounds, such as the cockpit and the crew rest areas!

First class

First class toilet

First class lounge

Business class

Economy class

An old friend seen from the window: the Concorde!

The crew rest area, a part of the aircraft usually off-limits (an A380 has a crew of 23!)

The cockpit (it takes only one month of training for the pilots to transition from A340 to A380!)

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Thai Airways' first A380 (II): outside the aircraft

After visiting the A380 assembly plant, our group headed towards the Airbus Delivery Center, where Thai Airways was going to take delivery of the aircraft the following day.

And there she was...waiting for us! we did not get onboard, but could walk all around and below it!

Ah! and we later got to enjoy some great Thai food at a chateau nearby...but this is not a topic for this blog :-)

Thai Airways' first A380 (I): visit to the Airbus factory

I attended my first aircraft delivery ceremony this week and I also had the chance to visit an aircraft factory for the first time in my life. Both experiences were simply amazing!

I went to Toulouse to cover the delivery of Thai Airway's first Airbus A380. The Thai carrier has 6 of them on order as it goes ahead with its fleet renewal plan, that wil see all of its Boeing 747s phased out in a period of 5 years from now.

So I went to Toulouse as part of a group of journalists covering the event, not only from industry and trade journals, but also from Thai general media, many of whom had flown to France for the occasion. And it is here that I would like to take the chance to thank both Airbus and Thai Airways for the great organization and hospitality during the visit.

Once at Airbus' facilities we got an overview of the Airbus A380 programme and of Thai Airway's plans for their A380's deployment. The press tour included also a visit to the A380 assembly plant, an amazing building that we were told is the largest single-roof industrial building in Europe, it had been built on a greenfield site in 2004 with the sole purpose of assembling the largest aircraft of the Airbus family.

One of the things that I found most amazing is that far from a noisy and buzzing factory floor, as I was expecting, the factory is a actually a quite place, but not because of lack of activity, during our visit work was going on simultaneously on several airframes, but because the orderly and highly automated way the work is done. For those of you interested in seeing how an Airbus A380 is made, here are some pictures I took during the factory tour. In the next post I will narrate our encounter with Thai's first A380.

The A380's fuselage sections are assembled in Toulouse...

...although the components are being shipped from all over Europe

the nose

the wings

the tail

An A380 being readied for Emirates

the landing gear

View from inside the Airbus factory

Monday, 1 October 2012

London Heathrow (LHR) airport is overrated

...if your journey starts or ends in Central London.

Sure, airlines have good reasons to want to fly into Heathrow, most certainly British Airways and the rest of Oneworld airlines, as it is an important hub for them (in 2007 47% of BA's traffic at London Heathrow was connecting).

Connecting traffic at Heathrow is also important for non-Oneworld airlines. CAA data for 2007 shows how of all airlines carrying over half a million passengers at Heathrow, connecting traffic was over 15% of their passage in all cases except in three (Swiss, Air France, and KLM, with Alitalia just above this mark). As expected, since they did not have a local partner, connecting traffic at Heathrow was relatively less important for Skyteam carriers).

I am not sure these numbers would still be valid for Star Alliance's carriers though, I guess that after BMI's demise and absorption by British Airways its share of connecting passengers will fall to Skyteam's levels.

Connecting traffic involving non-aligned carriers was 3.5M, however, 1.4M involved a Oneworld transfer, another million involved Star (most likely BMI, that is now gone) and transfer traffic between non-aligned carriers at LHR was less than one million passengers in total. These might still sound like big figures, but they are the aggregate of several tens of non-aligned airlines flying to LHR on that year and I suspect the Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways are responsible for a significant part of this traffic.

So, even if you are not in Oneworld, you can still benefit quite a lot from flying to an airport with lots of connections (I must say the connecting traffic figures for non-Oneworld carriers are higher than I was expecting...)

But is this extra traffic enough to justify the London Heathrow premium? I don't have enough information to be able to answer this question...but if you rely mainly in origin and destination traffic, and that means basically, people that start their journey in central London, I wonder why London Gatwick does not emerge as a more serious competitor to London Heathrow.

Will Gatwick airport finally get the credit its deserves?

I have been using London Gatwick a lot this year, traveling in and out of several locations in central London and I struggle to find the reasons why LHR would be a better option for a passenger that has London as the start or end point of his journey and that is not flying with a Oneworld carrier.

LGW might be slightly further away from London than LHR, but the difference is not huge (although maybe just far enough to discourage those that get to the airport by taxi?). LHR has the tube and the (in my opinion) overpriced Heathrow Express, but LGW has several fast mainline train options, with frequencies of no more than 15 minutes, that can take you to several points in central London (Victoria, Charing Cross, St.Pancras International, London Bridge) in about half an hour. It might be slightly more expensive than the tube and 10 minutes longer than the Heathrow Express but I think it beats both  hands down in terms of value.

My guess is that more and more people will warm up to the charms of Gatwick airport as pricing becomes more of a tool for rationing airport capacity in the South-East of England, at least until it solves its chronic shortage of airport capacity and a final decision is taken about the future of Heathrow (to check the different options, check this piece that was recently published on Flightglobal).