Airlines are recovering from their own particular form of prolonged Covid painfully slowly: saddled with debt after travel restrictions crippled their businesses. So it’s encouraging to see the age-old game of “strange new airliners you never thought you’d see” return.
We already know there will be a good crop this summer, including:
- Manchester to Ohrid, a beautiful lakeside town in North Macedonia
- Copenhagen to Newquay, Cornwall’s non-stop connection to Scandinavia
- Belfast International to Beauvais – located between the Channel coast and Paris, with a landing pad built by the Germans during World War II as they prepared to invade England
This week, however, a new set of surprises has surfaced – all starting with Heathrow.
Loganair has acquired slots at the UK’s busiest airport and is using them to service locations that have given up all hope of a Heathrow connection.
The city of Derry, in the north-west of Northern Ireland, has up to three flights a day; Dundee wins a twice-daily link to Heathrow; and, with a stop at Tayside Airport, Orkney and Shetland find themselves flying the same plane twice a week to the world’s most in-demand hub (Heathrow, not Dundee).
The impacts are truly far-reaching: Dundee and Derry will be just one stop from Australia thanks to Qantas’ daily non-stop flight to Perth and both cities becoming more visible to business and leisure travelers from all over the world.
British Airways, which (I understand) lends Loganair slots, will be happy to have new source markets for long-haul flights from Heathrow – although with Loganair using Terminal 2, the Real flight is easier with Star Alliance airlines such as Air Canada, Singapore Airlines and United.
It will be interesting to see what percentage of visitors from north-west Northern Ireland want to connect and how many just want to be in London. Heathrow’s popularity among domestic passengers has increased markedly over the past year thanks to the Elizabeth Line. The £20 billion east-west route is faster and more comfortable than the Tube, and unlike the (expensive) Heathrow Express, it continues past Paddington to the West End, City and Canary Wharf.
However, is there room for a new airline at Heathrow? I’m thinking easyJet. The airline has long said it would only consider moving to Heathrow if it could operate “at some scale”. An indication of just how large that scale will be became apparent during the depths of the Covid pandemic in November 2020, when easyJet registered 14 pairs of daily takeoffs and landings at Heathrow.
Airport Coordination Limited, the independent body that assigns precious rights at London’s main airport, did not confer it.
Britain’s largest low-cost airline is busy deploying its planes with great success elsewhere; On Tuesday, its chief executive, Johan Lundgren, said: “We see booking momentum continue to be strong in the summer as customers prioritize travel spending.” Ticket prices and the percentage of seats filled (load factor) increased sharply.
Gatwick is an easyJet stronghold: this summer it will offer more than 6 million seats from Sussex airport, while none of its main rivals – British Airways, Vueling and Wizz Air – can attract up to a million seat.
However, never say never in the aviation industry. I challenged aviation schedule analyst, Sean Moulton, to imagine how easily JetJet could have a presence at Heathrow, by flying into the airport from existing bases outside. From the airline’s point of view, that would be the same concept as serving another location-restricted airport, Amsterdam.
Two of the points Sean offered – Edinburgh and Nice – currently only have links from Heathrow on British Airways. The airline can make a lot of money from wealthy passengers who have no other choice to fly. Since British Midland was amalgamated into BA, the expansion airline has enjoyed a profitable monopoly (although the airline will dismiss that claim due to the level of competition from other London airports); easyJet will certainly help reduce fares.
The third place Sean suggested: Belfast International. For decades it was the only Irish airport served from London Heathrow. But George Best City Airport, just 10 minutes from the center of Northern Ireland’s capital, proved irresistible for British Airways. That means visitors from west Belfast, as well as from towns like Antrim and Ballymena, will not be well served if they want to go to Heathrow.
Some passengers from central Northern Ireland looking to get to Heathrow could even start traveling along the newly renovated A6 to the City of Derry airport and those new Loganair flights – unless there is a link to the hub UK main from Belfast International.
Notice the little orange of easyJet at Heathrow. Who knows where it could end?