The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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And Now, the Rest of the Story
August 13, 2015 -- I abandoned printed business-travel commentary in 1997 and one of the reasons was scalability. Unlike print, where you're always trying to hammer a story into an arbitrary number of words, the Net permits you to write as long as a topic deserves. There are no physical barriers and what we bloviators call a "deep dive" can run as deep and as long as the story needs.
But that was then. These days, the Net comes with its own challenges--short attention span theater, anyone?--and it turns out that deep dives are deeply troubling propositions. So it is with Seat 2B, the weekly column I've happily cranked out since 2007 for BizJournals.com and its predecessors.
My friend and editor, Josh Moss, and yours truly recently came to the same conclusion: The optimum length of a Seat 2B column is around 1,000 words, 50 percent shorter than I had been writing in recent years, but also about 50 percent longer than the vast bulk of BizJournals articles.
Then along comes a column like this week's Seat 2B. It labors to cover several parallel tales--the transformation of Aer Lingus, London's airport-capacity woes and British Airways' drive to acquire the Irish carrier--and explain how those apparently unrelated threads meet at a single point. That's impossible to do in 1,000 words and I had to leave some great data points, useful background and (I hope) important analysis behind.
So here, as the unctuous Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story. Read Seat 2B first and then come back here for these luscious tidbits.
SAVING AER LINGUS
Aer Lingus is a small airline (50 planes) based in a small country with fewer people (4.5 million) than metropolitan London (8.2 million). As such it always lives at the knife's edge in the cyclical airline business. After a notable revival in the months after 9/11, it hit the rocks again during the 2008 global financial meltdown. Aer Lingus' decline was so precipitous, says Jack Foley, executive vice president of North America, that the airline seriously considered dropping its transatlantic flights. How did it turn around its fortunes? Relentless cost-cutting and refocusing the product on good, basic transportation at a reasonable price. The result? "We are genuinely the lowest-cost platform on the transatlantic," says chief commercial officer Mike Rutter. It also has the third-best profit margin among European carriers.
A BETTER BUSINESS CLASS
If you haven't flown Aer Lingus across the Atlantic lately, you won't recognize it, especially in business class. Interiors of its Airbus A330s have jettisoned the trademark Irish green and gone for a sleek, silvery sheen. The seats? Aer Lingus is using the same ones that JetBlue installed for its Mint transcontinental flights. Almost every seat has aisle access, a 16-inch touch-screen video monitor and a ton of storage space. (On a recent flight, I was able to slip my laptop into a storage cubby with a locking latch rather than put it back in my bag during takeoff and landing.) There are at-seat power points and USB ports, of course, but also dedicated space for smartphones and tablets. The free WiFi is fabulous. The in-flight menu stresses local Irish ingredients and highlights the country's new culinary zest. Wines are judiciously chosen. (Want to eat before you fly? On the short overnight flights from JFK, pre-dining is available in the lounge. About half of JFK-departing business-class passengers use the pre-flight option, says Helen Maguire, Aer Lingus' director of consumer sales and marketing for North America.) A single touch turns the seat into a comfortable and commodious (78 inches long x 22 inches wide) fully flat bed. You receive a thick duvet and a plush pillow. The amenity kit of the moment can be recycled as a tablet case. And the crews I've met are charming and professional. Bottom line? I think it's the best business class ride across the Atlantic now, especially when you consider Aer Lingus prices can sometimes be half of what the big guys charge.
DUBLIN AS A HUB
The new Aer Lingus business class has 30 seats and the purpose is to position Dublin as a logical hub between the United States and Europe. "You don't build a 30-seat business class for O&D traffic to a country with 4.5 million people," explains Foley. This transatlantic connectivity is where the new Aer Lingus can shine. It goes without saying that the two-terminal Dublin Airport is an easier place to change planes than London/Heathrow, where checked bags and tight connections go to die. Going to a British destination that isn't London? Chances are you're better changing in Dublin than London, mostly because Aer Lingus flies to more U.K. cities than even British Airways. Aer Lingus also flies to dozens of cities in Europe and cozy, comfortable and friendly Dublin is a felicitous place to change planes. In fact, except for Helsinki's Vantaa Airport, I can't think of a less stressful place to connect. The imminent launch of Aer Space, with a guaranteed empty middle seat and lots of bundled perks, will also help. That'll give U.S.-originating customers a premium ride all the way to their final destination in Europe. And the price is likely to be cheaper on Aer Lingus than any competitor.
THE JETBLUE CONNECTION
It goes without saying that Aer Lingus will return to the Oneworld Alliance after it is purchased by IAG. But that doesn't mean the tight alliance with JetBlue Airways will disappear. "That has been locked in," insists Rutter, the chief commercial officer. And you can understand why Aer Lingus is anxious to keep itself aligned with JetBlue despite the Oneworld (and American Airlines) connection. Aer Lingus has recently moved to JetBlue's terminal at JFK, built its proprietary departure lounge there and generates a huge amount of traffic from JetBlue in New York, Boston and dozens of other U.S. cities. Then there's the matter of the Customs "preclearance" at Dublin, which means arriving flyers are essentially considered domestic passengers when they reach the United States. Foley says that allows him to offer connections at JFK as short as one hour and 15 minutes between Aer Lingus arrivals and JetBlue departures.
SELLING AER LINGUS
The long, winding and convoluted road that has led IAG to buying Aer Lingus is too long to recap even in a deep dive. But the end game has arrived. More than 60 percent of Aer Lingus shares--including the Irish government's 25 percent stake--have been pledged to IAG's offer. The last big block of outstanding shares--Ryanair holds 30 percent--will probably fall into line next week. (At least it should so long as Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary hasn't been stringing along his drinking buddy, IAG chief Willie Walsh.) Final regulatory approvals--the U.S. government will need to okay Aer Lingus' participation in the transatlantic joint venture with American Airlines--will take about 90 days. So chances are that Aer Lingus will be part of the IAG stable by the end of the year.
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