While big name carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa and Iberia provide services between Europe’s major hubs, a school of smaller, less well known airlines with names such as Love Air, Air Engiadina and Air Dolimiti are building a dense web of connections between Europe’s secondary cities. Thanks to new city airports, quieter, smaller aircraft and greater demands on executive time and money, these airlines are becoming a vital consideration for anyone planning, or budgeting, business travel. Members of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) alone operate more than 1,048 smaller (19-120 seats) turbo-prop and turbofan (jet) aircraft. They provide more than 1.7 million services a year on some 1,050 city routes across Europe, from Finland to the Canaries and stretching as far east as Israel. This is certainly no subsector. The advantages of using these services are considerable. Regional carriers allow business travellers to depart from local points – Birmingham, Dortmund, Valencia, for example – rather than slog to their nearest major hub – London, Frankfurt or Madrid. And thanks to small aircraft, many regional airlines can use city centre airports, greatly reducing journeytime from office to departure point, and from airport to city centre on arrival. London City, Belfast City and Florence are prime examples. Check-in time can be as little as 10 minutes; luggage retrieval quicker; and not having to wrestle with fractious crowds of travellers endemic in hubs such as London Heathrow and Frankfurt makes travelling a more pleasant experience. Airport parking is also usually cheaper at local airports. And safety standards are high. These are not Twin Otters, buzzing about Europe with retired bush pilots at the controls. The average age of aircraft flown by members of ERA is 8.74 years – lower than that of the fleets operated by most of Europe’s major airlines; and maintenance procedures are as stringent as for any Boeing 747 or Airbus. Up to 54 million passengers a year fly on regional airlines and some 70% of these are business travellers. Nor does travelling on a 19-seater turbo-prop mean sacrificing comfort. Because these aircraft are often operating close to heavily populated areas, they have to be environmentally friendly in both noise and emission levels, and internal noise and vibration is kept to a minimum with the latest technology. The Saab 2000 is a case in point: the cabin is unusually quiet, 76dB – equivalent to the noise levels inside a luxury car. Cabin service also matches the standards to which business travellers have grown accustomed. Many aircraft have leather seats, meals are served on quality china and with fine wines. Most regional airlines started life as independents, but vital economies of scale are denied to a company operating a number of small aircraft over a handful of routes. “Small may be beautiful but it can prove expensive, particularly in areas such as ground handling, catering, manning ticket counters, and sales and reservations,” says ERA spokesman Heinz Decker. This has resulted in the widespread teaming up of regionals with major carriers. Air UK, for example, went in with KLM and is now wholly owned as KLM uk; Swissair has a major stake in Crossair; similarly, Austrian Airlines and Tyrolean. British Airways elevates franchise agreements to artform status with its British Airways Express line, embracing regional carriers such as CityFlyer Express, British Mediterranean and GB Airways. These regional airlines all fly aircraft and crew in BA colours and to have to adhere to BA’s safety and operating standards. Services are described as “operated on behalf of British Airways by …” And it gives the faint-of-heart confidence to see the familiar colours of one of the world’s major operators, although the signs are that confidence in the little players is growing. According to a recent Company Barclaycard survey, 53% of those polled believe that smaller independent airlines offer better service and quality, and 40% supported larger carriers. This is a reversal of the previous year’s figures. Lufthansa has gone down a similar route with TeamLufthansa, creating close relationships with Air Dolimiti, Business Air and Augsburg Airways. Most recently, it has entered into an agreement with Debonair, the cut-price trans-European carrier with regional aspirations, to have the airline operate routes on its behalf from Germany to the UK, France and probably Italy, starting in March. Full details at the time of going to press are still to be confirmed. “We launched business class at the end of October and are providing all the services a businessman expects, including assigned seats and free bar; but we are still 100% committed to making air transport affordable to everyone,” says Debonair chairman and chief executive Franco Mancassola. These looser alliances allow smaller regional airlines to retain their colours and individuality while providing feeder services for larger carriers. This enables them to increase passenger traffic and thereby expand the variety of their offerings. Eurowings has long had a route agreement with KLM on flights from a number of German cities to Amsterdam and a new contract allows passengers to earn frequent flyer points with KLM’s Flying Dutchman programme. Timetables are tailored to match long-haul departures from Schiphol and recently jet aircraft were introduced on some routes, giving the airline a far greater passenger carrying capacity. Eurowings also provides six links to Paris CDG with Air France, and has connections with Alitalia via its relationship with KLM. KLM claims that 60% of KLM uk’s traffic to Amsterdam, from airports such as Norwich, Cardiff and Birmingham, transfers to long-haul routes. All these arrangements allow beleaguered travellers to avoid the hassles of a major hub at one end of the journey at least. Small regionals are also getting into bed with larger ones. Love Air operates Birmingham-Le Havre-Caen on a franchise agreement with Regional Airlines and in Regional’s colours. “We wanted the advantage of Regional’s infrastructure in France,” says Shelley Harris, marketing director for Love Air. “It has 35 aircraft and 250 flights a day. We have five aircraft.” Other routes set up on the same basis are on the cards. The main advantage of these relationships to the traveller is financial stability. Flying is an expensive business and if regional airlines can defray the costs, so much the better. Only one member of ERA has gone out of business in the past year, so they are not dropping like flies. “I believe that within the next five to 10 years, the major airlines will be operating only out of big hubs and they will have subsidiaries or franchisees to provide links with secondary airports,” says Jack Romero, chief executive of Euroscot, originally a low-cost carrier but one that is looking to change its colours. In the light of this, Euroscot is talking to two major carriers and hopes to operate franchise agreements with both. One is KLM between Southampton and Amsterdam. But Romero wants to maintain Euroscot’s identity. “Our passengers know that Euroscot staff will meet them at Southampton with coffee and sandwiches at any hour, if a flight is delayed. We ensure taxis are waiting and help with onward travel, where they have missed ferries or trains,” he says. “Our customers must know they can still expect that level of service with a franchise agreement.” The bad news for passengers is codeshare arrangements, which obfuscate which carrier is operating a service and in what aircraft. So someone expecting the comfort of a Boeing 737 on a 2hr30min flight to the Continent might end up on a little Fokker instead. Managing director of London City Airport Richard Gooding once booked a flight on Crossair from Basle to Paris. This turned out to be a codeshare with Air France – operated by Air Jet. Meanwhile, the City Centre Airports Association (CCAA) is working to promote smaller hubs such as London City and Florence as a serious entity, particularly to aircraft manufacturers. “The day London City Airport opened, Boeing bought De Havilland and announced it was ceasing production of the Dash 7, the only aircraft London City was licensed to accept,” says Richard Gooding, who is also CCAA chairman. “It did not augur well.” CCAA’s efforts are showing results. Lufthansa and Crossair have been closely involved in the development of the Dornier 728, still at the study stage. This was possible as a result of the association’s good relationship with Fairchild Dornier. And Crossair virtually designed the Saab 2000 to order, including jet-speed turbo-prop engines and short take-off and landing (STOL) capacity, to allow use of London City, Berne and Lugano airports. “There has been a maturing of the regional airline industry in the past five years. The biggest change is the stability brought about by alliances with bigger carriers, which guarantee marketing and distribution,” says Gooding. And travellers are voting with their feet (or perhaps more accurately, their bottoms): passenger growth averaged 12.6% for 1996 – almost double that experienced by major airlines for the same period. And average load factor was 54.4%, around break-even point for regional airlines. All of which suggests that these carriers are regionals, not marginals. FLYING FOR PEANUTS … Low-cost carriers operate services across routes similar to regional airlines, but with no frills: no leather seats, bone china or top class wines. The specialists offering this pared down, but remarkably cheap, service include Debonair, EasyJet, Ryanair and Virgin Express. Travellers can buy one-way, unrestricted tickets, and are hampered by little or no penalty for changing or cancelling up to 24 hours before departure. They provide no entertainment, and often no dedicated seat – first come, first served is the order of the day. In-flight service varies between none (EasyJet and Ryanair) and paid-for (Go and Euroscot). Fares start with impressively low and least available, and rise in stages. Book six weeks in advance, and you may be able to take advantage of EasyJet’s weekend rate of £25 one-way from Luton to Edinburgh. But leave it until just six days before, and you could end up paying as much as £89. Although originally aimed at leisure travellers, not surprisingly business travellers – and company accountants – have been quick to take advantage of the savings on some routes. EasyJet claims that on its Scottish operations, up to 50% of passengers are travelling on business. Even though cut-price carriers represent a tiny percentage of the market, last year (1998), there was a 15% increase in aircraft movements over the Clacton sector, which handles most of the European traffic into and out of the UK. “And most of that can be put down to those operating out of Stansted and Luton,” says a CAA spokesman. “Normally the increase would be around 5%.” And over the past year, some of the larger carriers have lowered tariffs. KLM uk, for example, simplified its air fare structure to include rates competitive with no frills carriers. And Euroscot’s daily BAC1-11 services between Bournemouth and Glasgow, launched in September 1997, attracted enough business traffic (40%) to force British Airways Express (Manx) to slash fares between Southampton and Glasgow. Euroscot is now changing direction and sees itself as a regional rather than a cut-price carrier. Kyle Davis, vice president purchasing management group (Europe) for American Express, says that although the no-frills carriers are good value, business travellers are not offered enough choice. “Our clients are largely not using low-cost carriers because of their departure points. Only Virgin Express operates out of London Heathrow and Gatwick. Luton or Stansted will appeal to business travellers living or working locally.” Davis draws comparisons with the US and low-cost carrier Southwest, which started by carrying leisure traffic. As it developed, it built up a critical mass of city pairs and geographical coverage, until it provided a viable business service. No-frills carriers probably feature larger in the imagination than in reality for executive travellers, but if Southwest is a role model, it may not be the case for long.
Example 1: London-Berne To fly from London to Berne from London Heathrow, assuming offices in the City (Cannon Street) Cannon Street to Heathrow by underground £3.30 1hr 30 min Check-in time 1hr Cheapest unrestricted fare with Swissair £460.00 2hr 20min Total £463.30 4hr 50min To fly from London to Berne from London City Airport, assuming offices in the City (Cannon Street) Cannon St to Tower Hill by underground £1.30 6min Tower Gateway to Canary Wharf by Docklands Light Railway £1.60 12min Bus transfer to London City £2.00 10min Check-in time 15min Cheapest unrestricted fare with Air Engiadina £430.00 1hr 47min Total £434.90 2hr 30min Notes Air Engiadina operates on behalf of KLM uk. This flight has a UK flight number and reservations are made through KLM uk. Fares are quoted without tax. Curiously, Swissair quotes £26.60 tax while KLM uk quotes £26.80 tax Example 2: London-Florence To fly from London to Florence (Pisa) from London Gatwick, assuming offices in the City (Cannon Street). BA and Alitalia fly to Pisa, as Florence cannot handle large aircraft. Alitalia's direct services depart London Stansted airport Cannon St to Victoria by underground £1.30 15min Gatwick Express to airport £9.50 30min Check-in time 1hr Cheapest unrestricted fare with BA to Pisa £524.00 2hr 10min Rail transfer from Pisa to Florence £3.00 1hr Total £537.80 4hr 55min To fly from London to Florence from London Gatwick, assuming offices in the City (Cannon Street) Cannon St to Victoria by underground £1.30 15min Gatwick Express to airport £9.50 30min Check-in time 1hr Cheapest unrestricted fare with Meridiana £480.00 2hr 15min Shuttle bus transfer into Florence £1.00 15min Total £491.80 4hr 15min Notes There are no direct flights to Florence from London Heathrow Fares quoted are the cheapest available with no Saturday night stay restriction. Airport tax at £15.60 is not included