From check-in and security to shopping, lounges and jets, airports and airlines are doing a little blue-skies thinking. Could it spell an end to Heathrow Hell and fly us into a brighter future?
FLIGHT OF FANCY
From check-in and security to shopping, lounges and jets, airports and airlines are doing a little blue-skies thinking. Could it spell an end to ‘Heathrow Hell’ and fly us into a brighter future?
WHEN WAS THE last time you looked forward to going to Heathrow? Thought not. Heathrow is a lash-up, make-do-and-mend airport which collapses into chaos at the first sign of trouble. Many of the airlines that use it are not much better. Everyone has their own story of Heathrow Hell. But, whisper it, things might — just might — be about to get better.
After its disastrous opening, BA’s Terminal 5 is now voted the best airport terminal in the world — light, airy, efficient and, yes, with lots of shopping, but lots of good shopping. The Paul Smith boutique remains the best airport store in the world and the fine-wine concession rivals the best that Dubai International, Heathrow’s biggest competitor, has to offer.
Heathrow wants to repeat the trick with the new £2.5 billion Terminal 2 that opens next June. Already the sweeping roof and high pillars that are clearly visible from the roadside bode well. As do a few strategic leaks about what passengers will find inside, notably the first John Lewis airport store.
Once Terminal 2 is finished, Heathrow wants to overhaul Terminals 1 and 3, completing a near-total rebuild of the world’s busiest airport in terms of international flights. Only T4, which is comparatively modern anyway, will remain the same.
The new terminals will have new technology, too. Heathrow is working on a Trusted Traveller programme that will enable regular travellers, who have undergone background screening checks by customs and border officials and the police, to bypass security. The idea is that Trusted Travellers will have a dedicated channel they will be able to use, regardless of what class they are travelling. The scheme is likely to be phased in next year.
Once that’s all done, Heathrow needs another runway (or two). With any luck, that’s what the Davies Commission, set up to make recommendations on increasing the UK’s airport capacity, will plump for when it issues its interim report later this year.
Things are getting better in the air, too. Virgin’s newly approved tie-up with Delta means the two airlines will boast 31 flights on peak days to and from North America. The merger closes the gap with the British Airways and American Airlines partnership on the key London-New York route.
Delta, the world’s second-largest carrier by traffic (after United), has also begun to fly between Seattle and Heathrow. Onward links with Virgin Atlantic make the route viable. The flight will bolster Delta’s efforts to build a mini-hub in Seattle, where it recently added nonstop services to Shanghai and Tokyo.
Virgin has refitted most of its long-haul fleet, offering Wifi, new seats and new food in all classes. It will further improve its upper-class suites and premium-economy seats on its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets that come into service next year. Its first Airbus A380 superjumbos will arrive around 2017.
On the ground the airline is raising its game, too. The new menus at the Clubhouses offer the best food of any lounge — think whitebait, pea soup, smashed broad beans on toast, chicken paillard and great wines, all served to your table by spiffy waiters and waitresses. There’s no need to move (unless, of course, you want to go to the spa).
Virgin is also offering some pretty nifty perks to its regular customers. Anyone who has had a Virgin Flying Club gold card for ten consecutive years will soon be awarded a Virgin gold card for life. Yes, you read that right. For life. No other airline offers this and it’s all the more valuable when you consider it will give travellers free seat reservations, priority boarding and lounge access across Delta’s North American network, too. British Airways will respond by revamping its Executive Club perks this autumn.
The flag carrier has had a turbulent time of late: it has been hit by strikes, Heathrow hassle and cost-cutting. But in the next few weeks its new Boeing 787s and Airbus A380s will take to the air. They
are BA’s first all-new long-haul aircraft since the Boeing 747 jumbo landed at Heathrow more than a generation ago.
Overall, BA is spending £5 billion on twelve Airbus A380s and 24 787s between now and 2017. A further eighteen 787s and eighteen new Airbus A350 long-haul jets will arrive by 2023. To cap it all, BA’s 100-strong short-haul fleet of Airbus A321s, A320s and A319s will be refitted over the next two years.
In recent years BA has ceded its position as the world’s most innovative, and favourite, airline to the likes of Singapore, Virgin and the Gulf carriers — Dubai’s Emirates, Etihad from Abu Dhabi and Doha-based Qatar Airways. BA always used to be first with the nifty tricks, notably flat beds. But recently the competition has out-thought and outplayed it, with new lounges, new food, new seats, new cabins, in fact, new and better pretty much everything.
But there are signs that BA is back on its game. Take the A380. Emirates and Singapore Airlines have vast economy and business-class cabins
stretching the length of the huge aircraft. They are impersonal and you can practically see the germs gathering in the air. BA has split its A380 up into several smaller cabins to create a more personal, intimate atmosphere.
First class is downstairs and is bigger and better than ever. There are two Club World cabins, one upstairs and one downstairs; the same goes for World Traveller (BA’s economy). World Traveller Plus (premium economy) is upstairs and has been completely redesigned, with a new best-in-class seat, more leg-room and low-level storage bins for those sitting at the window, similar to those found on the upper deck of a 747.
Frank van der Post, BA’s new consumer chief, knows all the new fixtures and fittings in the world are worth little without top-notch service, so he has spent the past two years retraining staff to think more like hoteliers than trolley dollies.
It’s not only UK-based airlines that are innovating. The decision by Emirates, the world’s fastest-growing airline, and Qantas to merge has created a powerful alliance. Emirates/Qantas boasts eighteen flights a day from the UK to every major city in Australia via Dubai. BA only offers a single flight to Sydney — and that’s via Singapore, which is a tougher way to go.
Whichever way you arrive at Heathrow — on the ground or in the air — there’s a lot of blue-sky thinking. Now all the airports and airlines have to do is make sure thoughts become deeds. Ultra will be travelling and watching.