Airline passenger boost is just the ticket

Doha will welcome seven Qatar Airways flights from Edinburgh each week. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Doha will welcome seven Qatar Airways flights from Edinburgh each week. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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With increased air routes and cruise ship promotions, travel firms have seen a strong start to the year, writes Kristy Dorsey

THIS week marks the start of daily flights between Edinburgh and Doha – capital of the world’s richest country per capita – as the recovery in the travel industry works it way up to the premium end of the market.

Qatar Airways announced in November that the service, previously flying five times a week out of the Scottish capital, will become a daily operation from the start of this month. The announcement came just six months after the launch of Edinburgh’s first direct flight to the Middle East.

Hailed at the time as a long-missing link in the capital’s route network, the Edinburgh-Doha connection could have further to travel. Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said last year that two flights a day are possible if demand lives up to expectations. He’s not the only one considering such possibilities. Turkish Airlines flies once a day between Edinburgh and Istanbul in winter and nine times a week in summer, but Ahmet Serhat Sari, the airline’s general manager in Scotland, has said the carrier would consider increasing that frequency as well as flying to other destinations in Scotland if there is sufficient demand.

After the devastating fall-out from the last recession, the travel market has been in slow recovery mode for a year or so as consumer confidence has gradually crept back in. ABTA’s Travel Trends Report for 2015 found 20 per cent of holidaymakers will spend more on their trips this year, while only 15 per cent plan to spend less. Meanwhile, recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show UK holiday departures in 2014 hit 39 million for the first time since 2008. The positive trend has continued into the current year, with industry analyst GfK reporting a 7 per cent increase in summer bookings in the latest week up to 14 February.

Stuart Leven, UK chief executive of Royal Caribbean, said the cruise operator has seen a similar increase in bookings in the first part of 2015. Customers are also opting for longer cruises.

“From Scotland, we have seen a very strong start to the year,” said Leven, who was in Glasgow last week speaking at the annual dinner of the Scottish Passenger Agents Association. “We are ahead of where we were at this time in 2014.”

Of those Scottish travellers who book a cruise, 56 per cent will book again in the following two years. The UK average, by comparison, is 50 per cent. In addition, Scots generally cruise for longer than people from other parts of the UK. For these reasons, Royal Caribbean is investing north of the Border in promoting its new ship, Anthem Of The Seas. It will begin sailing in April from Southampton with a range of restaurants, bars and activities including virtual skydiving and surf simulators to a Broadway-style theatre and a “Bionic Bar” staffed by robots.

Despite the host of amenities, Leven said cruising is no longer the elitist pursuit it once was. He argues it should be compared to the cost of similar holidays in an all-inclusive resort.

Cruising does, however, suffer from misconceptions based on gentrified images from the past.

“The conceptions that people have of cruises is that they are for older people, not families going on holidays,” he said. “There is also this idea that cruising is not an active holiday – you lay on the deck in the sun, you get off in the afternoon for a walk through some town, then you come back on board and eat your dinner, and that’s pretty much it. That certainly is not what we believe a cruise to be.”

Break that barrier, Leven said, and Royal Caribbean sees “great potential for growth in the Scottish market”.

Executives at Emirates are likewise upbeat. The carrier has flown 2.8 million people between Glasgow and Dubai since that service began in 2004, with growth quickening after the introduction of a second daily flight and first class seating, both in 2012.

Part of the route’s success lies in the fact that leisure travellers can easily connect onwards to the likes of Australia, Thailand, Mauritius or the Seychelles, opening up alternatives to the UK’s usual foreign holiday destinations. Laurie Berryman, UK vice-president of Emirates, said about three-quarters of Scots leisure travellers using the route are bound for further destinations.

But Emirates has also seen a big increase in demand for its premium services – business and first class – which has been driven in large part by the return of corporate spending. Premium customers have use of the Emirates executive lounge in Glasgow, as well as a complimentary chauffeur service to and from the airport.

As a major gateway for passengers and cargo, Berryman said Glasgow remains of “huge importance” to the carrier.

“Its robust economy and tremendous appetite for both global commerce and travel has resulted in significant growth for our operation in a relatively short amount of time,” Berryman said last week on a visit to the city.

“Testament to our belief in Glasgow as the cultural, sporting and academic heart of Scotland, we have invested heavily in the area beyond simply the airport, including sponsorship of the Emirates Arena and the upcoming Rugby Sevens. Glasgow remains a key location for us, and we look forward to growing our operation over the coming years.”

That could include introducing the Airbus A380 on the route, though Berryman said that would be a “big step up”. Compared to the Boeing 777-330 currently in use, the A380 has 34 additional first class seats, 62 extra business class seats and an additional 117 seats in economy. An alternative would be to add a third daily flight.

“Looking ahead, Scotland has got a very exciting future aviation-wise,” Berryman said. “It is good to see confidence again in the aviation business, and in travel overall.”

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