A new generation of aircraft is set to revolutionise the aviation industry. Martin Ferguson reports
When Concorde was grounded a decade ago it was the end of a glamorous era in aviation history.
It was also the end of a valuable revenue stream for travel agents.
Luxury holiday packages sold to high-end customers brought in lucrative commissions for nearly 30 years. Many in the trade questioned whether the supersonic passenger jet would ever be replaced.
While the modern plane may never reach the same speeds, the launch of the Airbus A380 six years ago marked the dawn of a new age for air travel. Agents could once again draw on customer demand to fly on state-of-the-art aircraft to sell holidays.
With this year’s launch of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the Airbus A350 scheduled to be operational late next year, agents will have more scope for selling airline-based travel experiences than ever before.
Ken McLeod, a director at agency consortium Advantage Travel Centres, says: “The impact of the A380 and the Dreamliner on the trade has been significant. People are organising trips and holidays around the times and availability of the aircraft.
“This type of buying behaviour hasn’t been seen since Concorde. It’s a fantastic selling opportunity for travel agents.”
Andrew Solum is a director with travel and aviation consultancy TIA Global. He says the industry is going through a “dramatic change” and the B787 and A350 will revolutionise the way the world travels. “It used to be about bums on seats. It was about getting volume so you could offer lower costs per seat mile on large aircraft.
“Wide-body aircraft still have their use in select markets where there is a mix of corporate and leisure travel. But next-generation aircraft are more fuel-efficient, have greater range, and an optimum number of seats.”
Put simply, next-generation aircraft are much lighter, can fly higher, travel faster and are cheaper to operate, meaning better prices to long-haul destinations for customers.
“The B787 has the ability to fly from London to Perth or Honolulu non-stop,” Solum says. “This could open up two new markets [for an airline] just by a change of aircraft. Lower fuel usage is a godsend for airlines because the size and range mean they don’t need to cram in 800 seats to make it viable.”
Thomson Airways was the first UK carrier to operate the B787. It has four in its fleet with another four on order. Since the inaugural flight to Majorca in May, the airline has carried more than a quarter of a million passengers on Dreamliners.
Carl Gissing, director of customer service, says the aircraft is the perfect size and has the ideal range for the airline’s target market.
“The A380 and B777 are too big, but we still wanted to find an aircraft that was efficient and allowed us to bring customers cost-efficient holidays to new and different destinations.
“We also wanted to increase our range with an aircraft that would offer the best possible comfort,” says Gissing.
He calls the Dreamliner “operationally fantastic” and says: “It brings our costs down and allows us to put a good seat price together for our operators, which can then offer great value to customers.”
Gissing adds that Dreamliners will cut the airline’s carbon emissions by at least 20%. Earlier this month, Thomson launched a Gatwick-Phuket service, and Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico and Mauritius will join the network for the summer season.
This winter Thomson will fly its Dreamliners from Gatwick to Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Maldives, Kenya and Goa. The 787 out of Glasgow and the East Midlands will fly to Mexico and Florida, while Manchester flights serve Barbados, Mexico, Florida and the Dominican Republic. Last month, budget carrier Norwegian announced it would use the B787 to serve Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and New York from Gatwick next summer.
British Airways debuted its Dreamliner on the Heathrow-Toronto service in September and has since added another on its Heathrow-Newark route.
The airline plans to add 24 more to its fleet over the next four years. A BA spokesman says the investment is part of a drive to introduce cabins that make life for passengers more comfortable.
Lower cabin pressure, a mood lighting system and larger windows are supposed to significantly reduce jet lag.
“The B787 has the largest windows of any commercial airliner, offering customers views of the horizon from every seat. Instead of pull-down blinds, each one has its own dimmer switch,” says the spokesman.
BA is also one of a large number of airlines to have Airbus’s new A350 on order, with 18 scheduled to come into service between 2017 and 2023. Qatar Airways will be the first airline to operate the aircraft at the end of next year.
United Airlines, which flies out of Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester to US destinations, has 35 A350s on order.
Bob Schumacher, the airline’s managing director for the UK and Ireland, says it will replace older aircraft that are less efficient and less reliable. “The new aircraft will provide a better product for customers, and a better work environment for our co-workers. The cabin will offer an improved customer experience with more headroom, panoramic windows and more overhead storage.”
Security threats and high oil prices have made the last decade a huge challenge for airlines. But next-generation aircraft are creating new routes, markets and opportunities. Given the resurgence of global markets, the timing is good. Agents must be ready to capitalise on customer demand to try these