6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 11


Grey skies for home services

David W. Wragg

Britain's domestic air services receive scant thought from a public which can conveniently travel by car, train or long-distance coach. Many useful cross-country air services are unknown to all but a few, and even on the domestic trunk routes — from London to Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh — most of the traffic is probably accounted for by repeat business from a comparatively small number of regular customers. The only exceptions to this rule are on the routes to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and, possibly, the Scottish Islands.

But now the domestic trunk routes are back in the news. British Caledonian Airways, the main independent airline, wants a £2 premium on fares for the British Airways' London and Glasgow shuttle service. The reason, rejected by the Civil Aviation Authority, is that the greater frequency of the shuttle service, with its `no booking but seat guaranteed' conditions, Will take traffic from BCAL's carefully built up service. The CAA has, however, accepted that some fare differential between British Airways' Heathrow-Glasgow shuttle service and British Caledonian's service to Glasgow from Gatwick might be a good idea, leaving BCAL to propose a 'no frills', or 'coach class', service without inflight catering, which would cost less than the shuttle service.

Undoubtedly, the most depressing aspect of the present position is the poor economics of the domestic air services.

Some two years ago, BCAL, then a new airline formed out of the merged British United and Caledonian Airways, was able to boast that its domestic trunk services were profitable, using BAC One-Elevens and having a 56 per cent load factor, while British Airways had to confess to a lack of profitability from its Tridents and a 71 per cent load factor. The energy crisis of last year changed the picture for BCAL, and the service to Belfast had to be abandoned as one of the economies necessary for the survival of the airline. Now, BCAL is concerned for the future of its Glasgow service, and for any other routes to which British Airways might extend the shuttle.

BCAL'S fears may be groundless, and certainly the CAA thinks so. Any decline in traffic, or lack of growth, could be a combination of the present economic situation and the reluctance of the public to pay £38 for a domestic trunk return. Shuttle is not the blessing British Airways claims it to be; often too many passengers board the first aircraft and time is wasted while they get off, and there is a delay while standby aircraft are brought out. Having several aircraft, and their crews, standing by in reserve cannot be cheap. In this light, the proposal for a cheaper service from Gatwick could be the right answer, and if followed through, traffic could be stimulated With beneficial results for BCAL's cash flow and profits.

There are those who see domestic air services as a frivolous extravagance in a small country, and argue that traffic is taken from the railways. However, at a time when many railway services, particularly cross-country, have been withdrawn, and the inefficiency with

which the remaining services are operated, domestic air services are important and one might even argue that the flair applied to their operation by some airlines is good for the national morale.

It is, after all, a growth industry, with most of the growth coming from private enterprise. In any case, the services offered are needed, particularly those from provincial cities, and, in spite of the small size of this country, often the only 'there and back' in a day method of travel is by air, because we are not only bigger than many seem to realise, but also very congested.

The real problems are that the airlines themselves sometimes try to do too much by taking on too many ill-assorted services, and the travelling public will not, unlike their North American and Australian counterparts, let airlines operate the aircraft best suited to the domestic air services.

The airlines, for example, are seldom content to operate services out of one airport, but tend to grab whatever services they can lay their hands on, even though, as British Airways has found to its cost, dividing the necessary engineering and other facilities up between more than one main base is excessively expensive. British Midland Airways, for instance, has pioneered many valuable domestic routes, and made other services work where lesser airlines have failed, but it operates into all four of London's airports, and has its own main centre of operations at the East Midlands Airport at Castle Donington, which serves Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. Apart from anything else, should passengers have to commute between airports between flights?

Passengers have some very odd ideas about aeroplanes. Put someone in an early Boeing 707, dating from before 1960, and he thinks that he is flying in a modern aeroplane with a top-notch airline. Take him out of the 707 and put him into a brand new Hawker Siddely 748 — a twin-engined turboprop airliner — and he thinks that he is flying in an 'old-fashioned' airliner. The HS 748 is so 'old-fashioned' that there is a two year order book for new aircraft! Although no one has yet put 707s onto domestic flights, the point must be that aircraft of the 748 type are the best for most British domestic air services, and that the main trunk routes probably really cannot justify anything bigger than a BAC One-Eleven. To put TriStars and Tridents on domestic routes, as British Airways does, is like picking the taxpayers' pockets. As a country and as individuals, we cannot afford fashionable aeroplanes, and indeed few successful air transport networks are created using fashionable aeroplanes. It is a case of the right plane for the job, and the paradox is that we, who have made so much money out of selling the right aeroplane overseas, cannot accept them for our own air services. Even when traffic indicates, as on London to Belfast, that a large wide-bodied airbus, such as the TriStar, might be filled, there has to be an appalling drop in frequency to do this, and inconvenience to the travelling public as a result. Indeed, Britain's most frequent air service is between Jersey and Guernsey, with a half-hourly peak period frequency using seventeen passenger aircraft.

To suggest that all domestic air services should be operated like this would be ridiculous, but the lesson — the right size and type of aircraft coupled with a reasonable frequency — and the results — a high volume of traffic and profits for the airline — are there.