Looking back over the last few weeks, it really has been silly season from various so-called environmental organisations, who have each taken their turn at launching evermore ludicrous potshots at the aviation industry. One of the most bizarre episodes involved Greenpeace campaigners turning up to protest at British Airways reinstating their flights from London Gatwick to Newquay. It is not that Ive got anything against environmental organisations protesting about short-haul flights – they have some valid points to make – it is just that they really do seem to pick on the most ridiculous targets.
Of all the major airlines operating flights from UK airports, why target BA?
Surely these groups would want target the airlines which are growing fastest, and which they see as the biggest threat – Easyjet and Ryanair? Theyve levelled plenty of criticism about the growth of no-frills flights before, but I cant help wondering that the real reason for targeting BA is that they are a soft touch. The dumbest of all anti-aviation groups, the aptly named (no, I dont do irony) Planestupid, did try to have a go at Easyjet, but turned up at the Easy-brand headquarters in Camden, instead of the Easyjet head offices, which are situated in a bright orange hangar at Luton airport! Perhaps Planestupid are one of the few organisations out there who practice what they preach, because anyone who has ever taken flights from Luton knows that Easyjets head office is impossible to miss! Of course, they wouldn’t dare mess with
Ryanair – not only are the Irish airline notoriously litigious, but their tough talking (and highly intelligent) chief executive, Michael O’Leary, would tear them to shreds.
So why even bother to add more fuel to the fire, and keep commenting on this topic? Simply because, in broad terms, I do actually agree with the principle – short-haul flights should be replaced by quality, high-speed train services.
However, as always, the do-gooders have got plenty of sticks with which to beat us, but they are pretty lousy at coming up with carrots. So, looking over some recent UK domestic air route changes, Ill do a bit of their homework for them. Below are just a few examples of routes which have been cancelled, or significantly cut back, in the face of improved competition from high-speed train services or more suitable airline rivals:
The End Of BA Connect
Whether British Airways continue to operate flights to Newquay or not, the least that groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth could have done is given them a huge pat on the back for finally bringing the axe down on their heavily unprofitable, and equally wasteful, BA Connect regional airline. Despite half-hearted attempts to rebrand this business and launch it as a low fares operation, BA Connect was always going to be a costly company to run, and one which relied on heavily inefficient aircraft. Our understanding is that there were several BA Connect routes which regularly operated with single figure passenger loads. Those routes which are still viable, will continue to be operated by Flybe, leading to some inevitable rationalisation in the market, especially on numerous city pairs where the airline duo competed head-to-head with each other. This means that there are now huge efficiency improvements on flights between Scotland and major regional hubs such as Birmingham and Manchester.
Axing Of British Airways Gatwick To Newcastle Flights
Reduction in frequency on British Airways Gatwick to Glasgow flights – in both of these cases, British Airways might be giving way to no frills competition in the form of Jet2 and Easyjet respectively, but it is generally accepted that no-frills airlines offer greater efficiencies than their traditional counterparts, in terms of both financial costs and fuel burn per passenger. Additionally, Eastern Airways were unable to make their flights from London City to Newcastle work. Although we always felt that this particular route looked ambitious, we would expect that the vast majority of sensible business travellers between London and the Northeast will continue to opt to take the train.
Manchester To Edinburgh (Jet2)
Although this route continues to be operated by Flybe (who have inherited the route from BA Connect) and BMI Regional, we suspect that this flight is simply too short to be viable for no-frills operation.
Liverpool To Edinburgh And Glasgow (Flybe)
Belfast City Flybes attempt to muscle in to Liverpool has to be one of the most spectacular failures in low-cost airline base set-ups. Although there was no other competition on flights from Liverpool to Scotland at the time (Ryanair have subsequently launched cheap flights from Liverpool to Inverness and Aberdeen), there just does not appear to have been enough demand to make flights from Liverpool to the
Scottish central belt work. It might look surprising that these routes were a failure, considering that Manchester can still support competition to both cities between Flybe and BMI regional, but this is significantly helped by transfer traffic, which is not relevant to Liverpool. Flybes failure on the
Liverpool to Belfast City route was a little bit more surprising to us, but it seems that they just couldnt compete against Easyjets well established flights to Belfast International.
Liverpool to London City (VLM) Reduced Frequency
This service initially operated five times a day when the route started, but now VLM operate just three daily flights between Liverpool and London City. During the time that these flights of operated, the West Coast mainline has undergone significant upgrades. However, VLM have recently increased their frequency on their
London City to Manchester flights, bucking the general trend towards rail. This suggests to us that rail travel has a significant advantage over flights into other London airports – especially Stansted and Manchester, but that for the time being at least, VLM can capitalise on being able to get people in and out of the Docklands financial district very quickly. As the West Coast mainline undergoes further improvements, and as domestic flights continue to be squeezed by having to pay two sets of air passenger duty, we wouldnt be surprised to see VLMs Liverpool flights getting dropped within the next 12 months.
Birmingham To Newquay (BmiBaby)
There isn’t much difference in the drivetime between Newquay and either Birmingham or London, but BmiBabys route to the Cornish surfing Mecca just did not seem to work from Birmingham. There might well have been the operational reasons behind this decision, but it was interesting to see that BmiBabys Manchester to Newquay flights (Manchester is another two hours up the road) have survived. We think this might be an interesting case in point about the viability of shorter domestic hops – even if the road journey takes a bit longer, people still prefer the convenience of driving in their own car. This is less of an issue for more business dominated routes, where speed, and the ability to work during the journey, offer advantages which outweigh the convenience of the car.
We hope that the above examples show that market forces can and will have a significant effect on peoples choice of transport mode, regardless of any input from the environmental lobby. As each case has shown, the reasons for success or failure of any particular flight route can be extremely varied, and even these are subject to a liberal dose of our own speculation. However, what they highlight is that the aviation industry, in the UK at least, is extremely
Darwinian in its weeding out of the poor performers. Perhaps this stems down to the ultimate paradox of air travel – because flying is an inherently resource intensive method of transport, companies have to be extremely efficient in their usage of fuel, and other assets like aircraft, in order to compete and survive. Adding additional environmental costs on to short-haul flights might tip the balance against inefficient routes even further, although this might also endanger some economically vital regional routes.