London Air Travel’s Monday Briefing – 18 January 2021

Welcome to London Air Travel’s weekly briefing on air travel around the world, as published every Monday at 06:00 GMT.

London Air Travel

Norwegian Boeing 787 Aircraft, Boston Logan International Airport
Norwegian Boeing 787 Aircraft, Boston Logan International Airport (Image Credit: London Air Travel)

Welcome to the return of London Air Travel’s Monday Briefing for 2021 with our first edition of the year.

The 24 Month Winter

In a little over two months’ time, airlines in the Northern Hemisphere are supposed to start their summer schedules.

It is safe to say that there is no prospect of a return to normal for airlines this summer travel season.

The UK has today closed its borders to international travel and will require all inbound passengers to present evidence of a negative PCR COVID-19 test and to also self-isolate on arrival.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times splashed with proposals for inbound travellers to the UK to self-isolate, at their expense, in dedicated hotels for two weeks. This was not denied by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab when interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC yesterday.

As Tabby Kinger describes of her experience of Hong Kong’s strict quarantine regime in the Financial Times, whether staying in a soulless airport hotel or top-end luxury hotel suite at a cost of up to £65,000 “no amount of money makes it tolerable.” As experience in Australia has shown, quarantine hotels may themselves become a source of COVID-19 infection.

According to Politico, Greece and other EU Member States are pressing the European Commission to adopt a common standard (“vaccine passports”) to allow those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 the freedom to travel. There are significant misgivings on the part of many Member States, both on privacy grounds and restricting freedom of movement – a core principle of the EU – based on health status.

Whilst BA and easyJet have secured additional state guaranteed loans, it seems clear that Virgin Atlantic will have to obtain new sources of cash. Last week it raised $230 million through the sale and leaseback of two Boeing 787-9 aircraft. This is unlikely to be sufficient to see it through continued travel restrictions in 2021.

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Norwegian Ends All Long Haul Flights

Norwegian will not resume any long haul flights at London Gatwick Airport.

London Air Travel

Norwegian Aircraft
Norwegian Aircraft (Image Credit: Norwegian)

Norwegian will not resume any long haul flights at London Gatwick.

The airline confirmed today, Thursday 14 January 2021, that it will not operate any long haul flights again.

Norwegian plans yet another financial restructuring to shore up its balance sheet and reduce its debt levels. It will continue to operate short haul flights in Europe with around 50 narrow body aircraft this year.

Given Norwegian entered COVID-19 in a parlous financial state, there was an inevitability to this. That said, this is one of the most high profile casualties of COVID-19.

Under the leadership of its founder and former CEO, the ebullient Bjørn Kjos, Norwegian planned to revolutionise long haul flying.

Over the past seven years it had built up, at a very rapid pace and through an extraordinarily complicated corporate structure, a substantial long haul network at London Gatwick, principally to North America, but also to destinations in Asia and Latin America. It had plans for further transatlantic expansion at Gatwick with the Airbus A321 Long Range aircraft.

Norwegian’s rapid expansion did have its teething problems – principally the lack of back up during disruption – but it did win plaudits for its modern fleet and “Premium” cabin.

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Virgin Atlantic Going Concern Warning

Virgin Atlantic’s Directors and Auditors have commented on the ability of the airline to trade as a going concern following COVID-19.

London Air Travel

Virgin Atlantic Logo
Virgin Atlantic Logo (Image Credit: Virgin Atlantic)

Virgin Atlantic has just published, somewhat belatedly, its annual report and financial statements for the year to 31 December 2019.

Although the report was clearly drafted months ago in advance of it recapitalisation last year, it has only just been published on the Virgin Atlantic website and has not yet been filed at Companies House.

The airline group, which includes Virgin Holidays, reported a loss before tax and exceptional items for the year of £29.5m.

Like all airlines, Virgin Atlantic has been severely impacted by COVID-19. The court sanctioned solvent recapitalisation in July enabled Virgin Atlantic to secure new sources of debt and partial relief of debts owed to creditors.

When a company prepares a set of financial statements, its Directors are required to assess the ability of the company to continue to trade as a going concern. The company’s auditors are also required to comment on this.

To do this, Virgin Atlantic has modelled different scenarios for the resumption of passenger flights through 2020 and 2021. These are detailed extensively from page 57 of the report.

The airline has modelled its ability to trade as a going concern on an expected case of travel restrictions being lifted throughout 2021. In this instance, Virgin considers that, following its solvent recapitalisation, it would have sufficient funds to continue to trade for the next 12 months.

Virgin has also modelled an alternative scenario with more severe travel restrictions remaining in place until the summer, dubbed the August 2021 scenario. In this instance, Virgin Atlantic and its auditors have stated that further measures will be required to ensure the airline can continue to trade.

Virgin has since undertaken further measures such as the sale and leaseback of aircraft. Before its solvent recapitalisation, Virgin did seek state support but was rebuffed by the Treasury. Given that Virgin’s ability to operate passenger flights is in part impacted by restrictions imposed by the UK government and BA has secured a state guaranteed loan of £2 billion, it may have a stronger case for state support.

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BA Introduces Pre Paid Short Haul Catering

BA is to replace its buy on board menu on short haul economy flights with a pre order menu called “Speedbird Cafe”.

London Air Travel

British Airways, Short Haul Economy Speedbird Cafe, January 2021
British Airways, Short Haul Economy Speedbird Cafe, January 2021 (Image Credit: British Airways)

When British Airways introduced buy on board catering to short haul flights in 2017 then CEO Alex Cruz was convinced that it was only a matter of time before its network rivals followed suit.

Four years and a global pandemic later, events have taken an interesting turn.

Whilst Lufthansa is introducing buy on board across its airlines from March 2021, BA has pulled a minor volte face.

Since COVID-19, BA has offered a limited service in short haul economy of complimentary water and a light snack, with no buy on board to limit passenger / crew interaction.

This is now permanent. From Wednesday 20 January 2021, buy on board will be replaced with a fully pre paid service known as “Speedbird Cafe”.

BA will no longer sell M&S branded products. It will continue to offer a range of soft and alcoholic drinks, ambient snacks, as well as some sandwiches designed for the airline by Tom Kerridge. Worry not, the infamous Afternoon Tea box is still available.

You can download a full PDF menu here – note this is a large file.

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What To Expect From Air Travel In 2021

What passengers can expect from airports and airlines in the UK in 2021.

London Air Travel

Terminal 5A, London Heathrow
Terminal 5A, London Heathrow (Image Credit: Heathrow)

Happy New Year. Welcome to 2021.

As relieved as everyone is to have seen the back of 2020, hopes that life and, by extension, air travel will fully return to normal in 2021 remain remote.

The imposition of travel restrictions on passengers from the UK immediately before Christmas 2020 indicated how rapidly circumstances can change and how unpredictable the COVID-19 pandemic is.

Normally at this time of year we can present a laundry list of firm airline route and fleet plans for the next 12 months. Whilst many airlines do have plans for the summer season, no one knows to what extent these will be realised.

What is certain that COVID-19 has put airlines under severe financial pressure which will affect investment plans for years to come.

Yesterday, 31 December 2020, IAG confirmed that British Airways is to secure a state guaranteed £2 billion loan facility. Virgin Atlantic has not yet filed its annual accounts for the year to 31 December 2019.

Here are at least some things to watch out for in 2021.

Airport Slot Wars

For most of the past 12 months, airlines have benefited from a relaxation of “use it or lose it” slot rules.

This has benefited incumbent airlines, and particularly those that want to keep slots across Gatwick and Heathrow. And they’d like to keep it this way.

Airports and challenger airlines such as Wizz Air have other ideas. The Worldwide Airport Slot Board has proposed a compromise whereby airlines have to temporarily hand back slots for the summer season by February so new entrants can use them. Otherwise they must use their slots for at least 50% of the season, subject to exemptions for short notice cancellations due to travel restrictions.

Either way, a decision needs to be made shortly.

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How The Boeing 747 Transformed Flying From London

Concluding our series on the Boeing 747, how it transformed flying from London bringing new airlines, new routes and reducing journey times.

London Air Travel

British Airways Boeing 747, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
British Airways Boeing 747, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (Image Credit: British Airways)

Concluding our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA, here’s a broader look at how the aircraft transformed flying from London over the past 50 years.

The 747 Brought New Airlines To London

Air New Zealand, Avianca, Cathay Pacific, Braniff International (aided by deregulation of the US market) and Virgin Atlantic all launched their first services from London with the Boeing 747.

As you can see from Air New Zealand advert below it, as many airlines did, likened the Boeing 747 to a flying hotel.

Air New Zealand, London Gatwick - Auckland, August 1982
Air New Zealand, Boeing 747 London Gatwick – Auckland, August 1982
Avianca, London Gatwick - Bogota, via Madrid & Barranquilla, May 1978
Avianca, Boeing 747 London Gatwick – Bogota, via Madrid & Barranquilla, May 1978
Braniff International, London Gatwick - Dallas / Fort Worth, February 1978
Braniff International, London Gatwick – Dallas / Fort Worth, February 1978
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British Airways’ Special Boeing 747 Charter Flights

Our story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with special charters, including flights for sports teams and members of the Royal Family.

London Air Travel

Dreamflight, London Heathrow, 2015 (Image Credit: British Airways)
Dreamflight, London Heathrow, 2015 (Image Credit: British Airways)

Continuing our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA, here are some of more memorable BA 747 flights from the past 40 years. 

Unlike yesterday’s more controversial flights, these are special charter flights for moments of celebration and significance:

Dreamflight

Dreamflight, London Heathrow, Sunday 27 October 2019
Dreamflight, London Heathrow, Sunday 27 October 2019 (Image Credit: British Airways)

Founded in 1986 by former staff members Patricia Pearce MBE and Derek Pereira, Dreamflight raised funds to charter a BA 747 to fly children with a serious illness or disability to Orlando.

Approximately 200 children travelled on the flight with BA cabin crew and a dedicated medical team.

Each flight was given a special send-off at London Heathrow with BA staff and celebrity guests. Since the first flight in 1987 more than 5,800 children have flown on Dreamflight.

Sadly, Dreamflight did not take place in 2020 due to COVID-19. Hopefully, it will be able to resume, with a different aircraft, in 2021.

Dreamflight, London Heathrow, 2017
Dreamflight, London Heathrow, 2017 (Image Credit: British Airways)
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British Airways’ Most Memorable Boeing 747 Flights

Our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with some of the most memorable flights of the past 40 years.

London Air Travel

BA Flight 149, BBC News, August 1990
BA Flight 149, BBC News, August 1990

Continuing our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA, here are some of the most memorable BA 747 flights from the past 40 years.

These are flights, some of which are still controversial to this today, that are remembered for the wrong reasons. More BA 747 flights from happier times will be shared tomorrow.

BA9 “All Engines Fail” – June 1982

On 24 June 1982, a BA Boeing 747-236 aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth plunged 25,000 feet.

All four engines had failed after the aircraft hit a cloud of volcanic ash from Mount Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia.

Captain Eric Moody, who at the time did not know the cause of the engine failure, told passengers: “This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem and all four engines have stopped. We are doing our damndest to get them working again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Captain Moody, First Officer Roger Greaves and Engineering Office Barry Townley-Freeman spent 13 minutes trying to regain power on the engines. The aircraft subsequently diverted to Jakarta, where it landed safely.

The Last Flight To Kuwait – August 1990

The circumstances surrounding flight BA149 on 1 August 1990 remain a source of controversy to this day. The flight was scheduled to depart London Heathrow at 16:15 GMT for Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait and Chennai.

There had been news reports on the day of escalating tensions between Iraq and Kuwait. BA claims it was advised by the British embassy in Kuwait that the situation was calm and there was no reason for the flight, operated by Boeing 747-136 G-AWND, not to operate.

The aircraft was in radio contact with BA in London during the flight. At no point were the flight crew advised of an impending invasion or to divert the aircraft.

The aircraft landed in Kuwait at 04:13 local time.  At around 05:00 local time the airport closed. In the next hour the runway was attacked by Iraqi forces and the aircraft was evacuated.  Passengers and crew immediately went to an airport hotel.

According to BA, 310 passengers and 82 BA employees were held hostage by Iraqis.   Women and children were allowed to return home in late August.  The remaining hostages were dispersed to various sites and some were used as “human shields”.  The last remaining passengers and BA employees were released on 9 December 1990.

The aircraft was destroyed following the liberation of Kuwait.

British Airways Boeing 747-137 Aircraft G-AWND, Kuwait
British Airways Boeing 747-137 Aircraft G-AWND, Kuwait

The controversy surrounding this flight is why it proceeded to operate when other airlines had suspended operations and who in BA and the UK Government knew what, and when.

It has been alleged that the UK Government wanted the aircraft to land in Kuwait to enable an intelligence gathering exercise to take place.

BA has always denied any knowledge of a group of intelligence operatives boarding the aircraft at Heathrow.  The UK Government maintained that the aircraft landed in Kuwait before the invasion and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a statement to that effect before Parliament.

BA has always maintained that it had no knowledge of the impending invasion of Kuwait and that it would never put its aircraft, passengers and crews at risk. No passenger list has ever been released for the flight.

A number of passengers sued BA in different jurisdictions. The airline settled cases brought in the US out of court, citing the cost of litigation. Passengers from France sued the airline and the courts found BA to be negligent and passengers were paid substantial damages. In the UK, attempts to bring the matter to court have been unsuccessful there has been no public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the flight.

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The Queen Of The Skies Ends Its Reign

Our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with its abrupt and unplanned retirement in 2020.

London Air Travel

British Airways Boeing 747-436 Aircraft
British Airways Boeing 747-436 Aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

Had 2020 gone to plan, around 25 BA Boeing 747 aircraft would now be despatching passengers between London Heathrow and numerous destinations around the world.

Those seeking Christmas in New York or winter sun in Cape Town, heading for the alternative reality of Las Vegas, or skiing in Colorado or Whistler via BA would have been carried on a 747.

Some may have complained about ageing interiors or antiquated inflight entertainment systems on certain aircraft. Those sat on the Upper Deck or in the nose of the 747 would have sat comfortably knowing they had at least another three years to enjoy their favourite seats in the house.

Events, as we know, took a very different course in 2020. 31 Boeing 747s met an abrupt and undignified end, save for four that will be preserved at Dunsfold Aerodrome, Kemble Airport and Bro Tathan Business Park, Glamorgan.

It’s not the first time unforeseen events have had an impact on BA’s 747 fleet.

After the events of 11 September 2001, BA’s 747-236 aircraft followed the 747-136 fleet into retirement. 747s at Gatwick were transferred to Heathrow as the airline switched routes to Africa and Central & South America to the airport.

The 57 747-436 aircraft that remained at Heathrow were still the flagship of the long-haul fleet. They were the first to benefit from refreshed First Class, new Club World, and new World Traveller Plus and World Traveller cabins.

BA Club World IFE Screen
BA Club World 2006 (Image Credit: British Airways)
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BA’s Grand 747 Ambitions For The 1980s and 1990s

Our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with its grand ambitions for the 747 in the 1980s and 1990s.

London Air Travel

British Airways Boeing 747-400 Aircraft
British Airways Boeing 747-436 Aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to part three of our seven part series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA.

In part one we looked at the introduction of the aircraft at BOAC, and in part two the rapid expansion of the 747 network in the 1970s.

The 1980s was a decade of significant change for the airline, under the leadership of Lord King and Colin Marshall. Its corporate identity was revamped ahead of its privatisation in 1987.

In the early 1980s, the airline urgently needed to cut costs. Two Boeing 747-136 aircraft were sold to TWA in 1981. Four new Boeing 747-236 were placed into storage, with two ultimately sold to Malaysian Airlines.

That said, there was continued evolution in the Boeing 747 fleet from the early 1980s.

“The Widest Way To The USA”

One benefit of the Boeing 747 for passengers was that it allowed airlines to introduce new cabins beyond economy and First Class.

After introducing Executive and Club Class for full fare economy passengers, in 1981 BA introduced a dedicated “Super Club” cabin with six abreast seating, dubbed the widest seat in the air.

This would later evolve in to Club World, dubbed the “profit engine” of BA, with the Boeing 747 aircraft being the first to benefit from many innovations and new seats.

British Airways Super Club, November 1981
British Airways Super Club, November 1981

“Get Down Under 3 Hours Quicker”

Modifications to engines also enabled improvements on longer range routes, with BA claiming in 1984 the fastest journey times to Australia, a claim previously made by Qantas.

British Airways Australia Advertisement, December 1984
British Airways Australia Advertisement, December 1984
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