Hot Air (3): “London Calling”

I recently spent two weeks vacation in the UK. Across the pond, I was able to think up some new topics of discussion and prepare some content for a number of upcoming posts. Traveling through London Heathrow is always an amazing experience and on this trip, I was also able to stop by the fascinating London City Airport (LCY) nestled in the Docklands district.

Two BA CityFlyer ERJ’s share the ramp at London City Airport; despite the operational successes of the E-Jets , the carrier has its eye on Bombardier’s C-Series as a long-term replacement. (Photo: John Jamieson, April 10/2017, LCY)

Let’s begin by looking at the smallest of London’s 5 major airports London City (LCY), an airport located in the docklands occupying 83 ha. Relative to other airports in London, LCY has operational limits established by its 4900 ft runway, the lack of a parallel taxiway, and the “steep approach” certification required for landing. Despite only handling regional aircraft, the airport takes advantage of its proximity to downtown London to cater to business passengers and commuters. British Airways subsidiary BA CityFlyer is the dominant carrier at the airport. Using its mix of ERJ’s (170 & 190) the carrier has a strong European network along with a handful of domestic flights.

With the exception of British Airways Flight 001 to New York, an all Business class flight which stops for Fuel and Customs in Shannon, the airport has no long haul operations. Currently the airport lacks the necessary runway length required for full-load long haul operations. With no plans for runway expansion, heavy (as described) long haul operations are out of the question. However, following successful tests conducted by Bombardier’s new C-Series aircraft, the airport may soon be able to extend the boundaries of its network.

British Airways uses a configured Airbus A-318 for its daily flight from LCY to New-York JFK. (Photo Credits: Jack Sann, July 21/2016, KJFK)

As announced by Bombardier on April 26th, the C-Series received its “short runway” certification from Transport Canada and EASA. In the short term this enables Swiss International to operate its C-Series 100 jets into London City from Zurich and Geneva. In the long term this certification will allow LCY to broaden its horizon and tap into Middle East and North American markets. From a global standpoint the C-Series will also be able to operate into other “STOL Restricted” airports such as: Key West (future operator Delta Airlines currently operates 737-7’s), Florence (Italy), Eilat (Israel) and hopefully Toronto Billy Bishop (YTZ).

With the C-Series’ game-changing operational range, the “Short Runway” certification has removed a major obstacle for operators looking at serving LCY. As is to be expected, rumors have surfaced that the IAG (International Airways Group), British Airways parent organization, will place a major order to replace its ERJ-190s. With the IAG being made up of a number of individual airlines (BA, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and Vueling) the potential order could be a major boost for the Canadian manufacturer. Meanwhile, while Toronto-Billy Bishop is still too short to accommodate full load operations, the hope is that in time the airport expansion project will be given the green light.

At the moment Porter Airlines is only capable of serving YTZ with its fleet of Bombardier Q400s; the airline has put its C-Series order on hold as plans for YTZ remain up in the air. (Photo: John Jamieson, July 18th/2011, YUL)

Over the past year Canada’s two major airlines, WestJet and Air Canada, have added significant capacity to London-Heathrow and London-Gatwick. Competition looks set to continue this year as Rouge, Air Canada’s Low-Cost subsidiary, plans on serving London Gatwick from Vancouver during the summer. This service from Vancouver is significant because WestJet, Air Canada’s major competitor, inaugurated service to London Gatwick from 6 Canadian airports last summer.

Despite some operational issues, WestJet’s venture into London was successful enough to convince Air Canada that it needed to match WestJet on capacity to the UK. Last summer, Air Canada added a second daily flight to London Heathrow (operated on a 787-9) and made plans to add a route to Gatwick operated by Rouge. From the outside, it seems like Air Canada is trying to flood the market with capacity and drive down ticket prices beyond a level which can be matched by WestJet. The two airlines (Rouge and WestJet) already offer Low Cost-Long Haul service to London Gatwick from Toronto (YYZ); are we seeing the same thing in Vancouver.

On international flights, Rouge matches WestJet’s service product; on domestic flights there is little separating Air Canada (Mainline) and WestJet. (Photo: John Jamieson, June 24th/ 2014, YVR)

This summer there will be 5 scheduled carriers (treating Rouge as a separate entity to Air Canada) operating service to London. It will be interesting to see which carriers remain in the sector long term. Air Transat has served Gatwick seasonally for many years, and it seems unlikely that Air Canada and British Airways will downscale operations significantly from Heathrow. While Air Canada’s second daily flight to Heathrow will not be operated this summer, there remains a high level of competition on the sectors to London. In a perfect world the benefits of competition, price matching, promotional fares, and flexible scheduling, exist while allowing the carriers to turn a profit. While Air Canada and BA have kept service standards and fares relatively fixed on their flights to Heathrow, it will be interested to see how Rouge and WestJet market their prices and products in the Gatwick sector.

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