I’m not sure it’s anything to boast about but so far this year I’ve flown at least 120,000 kilometres, passing through more than a dozen international airports in the process. It hurts me to say it, but the only one where the aircraft invariably takes a slightly tedious holding pattern before landing is the one that serves my own country: London Heathrow. On the positive side, I get magnificent and slightly prolonged aerial views of the capital city where I feel most at home.
I pass through Heathrow more often than any other airport, so I was especially interested in one item of ‘news’ that emerged last week: Finnair had been placed on a “list of shame” of airlines for its noise pollution at Heathrow. My eyebrows were raised: surely Finnair’s relatively small aircraft couldn’t be making a bigger noise than the vast and numerous Boeing 747s that regularly descend across West London?
My suspicions were well-founded: it seems that Finnair had neglected to update its data on Airbus aircraft types in line with the “chapter” system for noise emissions described by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in order to upgrade the aircraft from a less impressive Chapter 3 rating to the Chapter 4 category with which they actually comply. Finnair’s place on that list of shame is therefore unwarranted.
I was in London to attend the World Travel Market, one of the biggest confluences of the global travel business community anywhere on the planet. I love travel markets and the opportunity they provide to stroll from, say, Rio to Rwanda in just a couple of minutes. It’s fun to be accosted by a Costa Rican adorned with pineapples on one corner and a lady from a Chinese hill tribe dripping with golden jewellery on the next, passing a Maasai warrior in full regalia on the way. I also admit to the vice of stuffing myself like a child with the candies and chocolates that many stands generally offer to visitors.
But travel fairs are also a great way to make and re-establish contacts and to find out what’s new in the world of travel generally. One of the main items under discussion in the UK travel community, apart from issues of sustainability and responsible travel, is the need for more capacity at Heathrow, if not a whole new London airport – putting an end to those extended landings at one of the world’s biggest aviation hubs. The fact that London remains so busy, of course, is a reflection of the continued and increasing appetite for air travel.
In its 2013 Industry Report, the WTM states that “nine out of ten senior travel industry executives… polled are optimistic about the prospects for both their company and the wider industry as a whole in 2014”. It doesn’t deny that “the industry still faces some hurdles, with half of those polled highlighting the negative impact international and domestic conflicts can have on the industry”. Taxes – the UK’s Air Passenger Duty is set to go up again in 2014 – and visa regulations are viewed as other obstacles.
Supporting Finnair’s own strategy is the report’s conclusion that Asia is the “next tourist hotspot”, with Finnair destination countries Vietnam and Thailand as well as Myanmar and Cambodia among the countries highlighted, but with China taking a clear lead as “the industry’s most important BRICS market”. Finnair’s own China network extends to Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and, for the first time this summer, Xi’an.
Other conclusions are more surprising. For example, there is a general assumption that the printed guidebook is in its death throes and that online travel media, much of it user-generated, is taking over. But the WTM Industry Report shows that six out of ten British holidaymakers use a hard copy traditional guidebook, compared to 25% who print from the web and 20% who use an app. Online and social media are certainly here to stay and play an increasingly important role in travel decisions and bookings, but the printed guidebook, it seems, is far from extinct.
Lastly, one more surprise, and one that aroused my suspicions again: can it really be true, as a WTM survey concluded, that the most popular celebrity family to sit next to on a flight would be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Baby George?