26 June 2011
A trip to Brittany – and more ruminations on Dreamliner World versus A380 World
Brian Micklethwait

I recently spent a week in Brittany (see various postings here, staying with friends who live in the city of Quimper, which at the south west end of the Brittany peninsula, just before you get to the final southern tip.

I’ve stayed with these friends before, and on every trip before this latest one, I’ve flown Ryanair from Stansted to Brest, Brest being about an hour by car north of Quimper.  But the bad news is that Brest airport has recently constructed a swanky new Norman Foster type building, with lots of sloping glass and metal struts everywhere and a general absence of rectangles.  Somewhere in among all these new arrangements, there was a fight with Ryanair, the upshot of which was that Ryanair no long does flights from Stansted to Brest.  Strangely, though, Ryanair still does flights from Brest to Marseilles.

I’m guessing that this either has to do with money or with time, or perhaps a bit of both.  Maybe Brest airport wants to be paid more, or Brest itself wants to pay less, for Ryanair flights to and from London.  Or, the new airport arrangements mean that Ryanair can’t turn its planes around as quickly as it used to be able to.

Also, you can’t help suspecting that perhaps Brest built itself a posh new airport terminal because it wants a better class of persons to come to Brest from London, and from many other classy spots, and the dribble of Ryanair riff-raff to stay away.  Maybe some day soon there will again be flights Brest/London flights, but more expensive ones, containing richer and better dressed persons.  But those are just guesses.

Anyway, whatever may have caused the Brest/London Ryanair flights to end, for this latest visit I had to go from Stansted to Dinard, which is the airport of the port city of Saint Malo, which is at the other end of the Brittany peninsula, to its north west, about four hours drive from Quimper.  Very tiresome.  My hosts kindly collected me from there on the way.  And on the way back, I and Mrs Host were both going to London, so we went by train from Quimper to Saint Malo (changing at Rennes), and then took a bus to Dinard and a taxi from Dinard to the airport itself.  All very cumbersome.

It did give us a chance to wander about in Saint Malo, which was good, and I got to go by train in France, which I’ve not done for decades, unless you count Eurotunnel trips to Belgium, Germany, etc.

While we relaxed in the small bar at Dinard airport, Mrs Host and I agreed about how agreeable these small airports are, compared to huge designer cattle shed airports like Stansted, and such as Brest seems now to want to be.  Mrs Host reminisced about a cheep and delightfully informal flight she once took from a tiny airfield in Kent, to a similar airport not very near to Paris, for about £45 in about 1990, in a propeller driven plane.  Our preference was confirmed hideously when we got to Stansted, at about eleven o’clock at night, to find ourselves at the back of a vast hoard of incomers to London, waiting while too few people indolently looked at everyone’s passport.  Were they seeking a terroristic pin?  If so, we were the haystack.  It was bank queue hell multiplied by a hundred.  Actually, it was over rather sooner than it at first looked like it would be, but first impressions were deeply unpleasant, and are hard to forget.

This experience makes me think that the long-term future of air travel is lots of small airports rather than a few big ones.  The big ones can’t get any bigger, or nastier.  And the bigger the big airport planes (I’m thinking A380) get, the naster it will get to use these airports.

Dinard airport, meanwhile, was a delight.  It’s not quite just the one shed.  An architect was involved at some point in making the ugly boxy building where you congregate, but this feels more like a railway station than an airport, and what is more a railway station that is quite a bit smaller and more relaxed than, say, Rennes railway station.  Dinard airport is small, and shows no sign of wanting to get any bigger.

Indeed, if that bar we relaxed in is anything to go by, they positively glory in their smallness.  There are pictures there of old airplanes, with propellers, and of people in goggles posing in black and white or sepia in front of byplanes.  There were things like this ...:


… and this:


Boeing having bet their farm on the Dreamliner, a two engined go-anywhere improvement on the now ubiquitous Boeing 737 (which is what Ryanair now uses for most of its flights, including all my Brittany trips).  Airbus have bet their farm on the A380, a four engine enlargement of the Boeing 747.

In the short run, maybe Airbus have a point.  If the current question is: How can we get more cattle through the big cattle shed airports?, then the A380 may well be the answer.  And if the question is: How can we give more legroom to more money-no-object globetrotters, trotting globally from one huge financial centre to another?, ditto.

But what if, in the longer run, the question turns into: What’s the best way to get little clumps of people, inexpensively, from a small airport somewhere in the world but nowhere in particular (like Dinard or for that matter Quimper, which also has a small railway station type airport) to another small airport somewhere else in the world, for the tiny number of people who want that particular journey, yet who don’t want to be treated too much like a herd of cattle?

Maybe if you run the air passenger business, and run airports, the first two questions are what you now obsess about.  But speaking as a passenger, I can tell you that I greatly prefer the latter question.

I want a Dreamliner world, rather than an A380 world.

I see that I have blogged here before about this great commercial Confrontation Of Our Time.  In that earlier posting I quoted someone saying this:

How would you like to line up at customs having just gotten off the back of the second or third A-380 to arrive? Would passport control take longer than the flight?

Exactly.  What I feared was going to happen at Stansted on the night I passed through this week, would happen, at a truly mega-airport like Heathrow, for real.

I could ramble ever onwards, but instead I will say: over to Michael Jennings for more detailed answers to all of my questions, and for many more facts to back up or contradict my speculations.

  1. If your destination is a really big city, you are going to have to go through a really big airport. There really isn’t a lot that can be done about that. Building new runways close to cities is both logistically and politically hard (and you don’t want too many airports too close together for air traffic control reasons), so you have to make the most of the ones that you have. Having lots of direct flights from small destination to small destination is good, and that is how we are going, but big cities need big airports.

    It is possible to run a really big airport in such a way that going through it is a pleasant experience. Try Singapore, or Seoul, or Hong Kong. It requires very intelligent management, though, and a desire to make the airport pleasant coming from government as well as the airport and airline management. (For instance, you need more passport desks open and more security staff working at peak times, sometimes massively more) . There is no excuse for an airport to be as awful as Stansted on a Sunday night - it is just very, very badly run. Running a big airport well is hard, but it can and should be done.

    Running a small airport well is easy, though. Dinard has three departures a day (and two runways from them to depart). Stansted has around 300 departures a day (and one runway).

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  27 June 2011 at 12:50 am

  2. Are those fittings and decorations in the bar old and original fittings that come from a long history of aviation at the site, or is it a bar that has been fitted out more recently in an attempt to go for nostalgia. Looks a pleasant place for a pre-flight beer, anyway.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  27 June 2011 at 12:52 am

  3. Re that bar.  I’m pretty sure it is a faked up copy, and those fittings were bought in, although I can’t be entirely sure.  My reason is that the wood is all suspiciously new, and the pictures have a suspiciously generic feel to them.  Very little seemed to be about Dinard airport specifically.  Sort of the way new money landowners used to buy oil paintings of other people’s ancestors.

    Also, it says on the door in the picture: “Irlandais”, which says faked up Irish theme pub to me.  Brittany is very big on celticism, real or imagined.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on  27 June 2011 at 02:08 am

  4. “Boeing having bet their farm on the Dreamliner, a two engined go-anywhere improvement on the now ubiquitous Boeing 737 (which is what Ryanair now uses for most of its flights, including all my Brittany trips).  Airbus have bet their farm on the A380, a four engine enlargement of the Boeing 747.”

    A little basic fact checking might not go amiss… The Dreamliner is substantially larger then the 737, it is in no way related.  Oddly, Boeing’s lack of an updated 737 offering was one of the key news themes to emerge from last week’s Paris show.

    While the notion of more small airports is appealing, the reality is that there is almost always a large airport, or at least one drawing traffic from a large source of O&D;traffic, at the other end of the route; Ryanair’s base at Stansted is the most obvious manifestation.

    In the case of the Dreamliner, while Boeing argued that its aircraft will be buzzing between second-tier cities, the emerging reality is that buyers are using it on routes between major hubs and destinations that are currently marginal; Houston to Auckland and Nigeria, or Tokyo to ever more cities in China.  This will only serve to strengthen traffic across hubs and the use of the A380 on trunk routes out of them.

    Posted by Rory on  27 June 2011 at 12:10 pm

  5. I work in aviation, and I believe that the future lies with a measured mix of both point-to-point and hub-and-spoke commercial air transport.

    One of the main problems with air transport today is the number of aircraft in the sky. Air traffic capacity has been the #1 source of delay for a while, usually even when there is some bad weather, military exercise or other event. Eurocontrol, in order to keep traffic safe, then applies regulations which delay flights taking off, so the airspace in the congested part remains safe. In other parts of the world aircraft have to hold or divert.

    Wake turbulence is an issue, but only really at the very busiest airports; notwithstanding, the fact remains that larger aircraft carrying more passengers increase the payload throughput of the air traffic system, as, in a routine example, one A380 carrying 550 people on high altitude airways is treated the same with regarded to spacing, etc. as a Citation carrying 6 people. They are each “an aircraft” as far as ATC is concerned.

    Also, one A380 takes up 1 (admittedly large and ideally multi-jetbridge) stand at the airport, whereas, for example, 4 737-800s need 4 stands for the same number of passengers.

    From an economics perspective, when looking at twin-engine jetliners (80% of them?), a 737-400 or A319 requires 2 jet engines and a set of landing gear to be maintained, and perhaps 5 or 6 crew per flight that have to be paid. A 757, 767, A321, A330, 777 etc. has non-fuel costs that are only modestly higher in comparison, and, in proportion to the number of passengers that can be carried, the costs are lower per passenger than for smaller aircraft. This means that it is always more profitable to operate two larger aircraft instead of three smaller ones, and the A380 embodies an extrapolation of this principle. Boeing are looking into a larger aircraft to replace the 737, instead of upgrading the previous aircraft like Airbus have done with the A320neo, for exactly this reason.

    Michael Jenning’s points in his first comment are excellent and I agree that trunk air travel does not have to be, and often is not, the farce that it is in the UK.

    Having said the above, I think that lower density point-to-point aviation is immensely beneficial to passengers, local businesses, regional tourism and so forth, and I totally agree with the points raised in the blog post above.

    Unfortunately, any reasonably-sized airline needs high density trunk routes with consistently high payload factors in order to be profitable (Ryanair taking control of the London - Dublin route, and moving up from turboprops to B738s is what made them a success). The economics and logistics of larger aircraft justify their preferential usage where possible.

    Luckily some airlines are jumping into the breach, such as Flybe - hopefully people will continue to patronise their comparatively local services. I very much hope so, anyway.

    Posted by Ed on  27 June 2011 at 01:40 pm

  6. It seems fairly clear that Boeing’s plan was to get the 787 (Dreamliner) into service, and then use a lot of the technology and production systems that had been developed for that for a replacement for the 737, codenamed the Y1. The trouble is that the 787 project has been so troubled, is so late, and so overbudget, and getting the bugs out of the outsourcing has turned out to be much harder than intended. Boeing is desperately trying to get the 787 into service, is short of capital, its employees are tied up on that, and the technology from the 787 project might not transfer to a 737 replacement as well as had been hoped.

    Meanwhile, the existing 737 (the third generation of a 1960s design) is looking a bit long in the tooth compared to the Airbus A320 family (a 1980s design), which is being upgraded to its second generation NEO model. Boeing either has to launch its next generation aircraft anyway and hope that the program ends up being less troubled than the 787, or develop a fourth generation 737 with new engines and a few other changes as a stopgap, that may lag the A320 in performance anyway. In the medium term they still need the all new aircraft.  They look a bit squeezed.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  27 June 2011 at 04:14 pm

  7. That’s a sleek-looking machine.

    Posted by Bill Smith on  28 June 2011 at 03:13 pm

  8. Dreamliner is owsome.

    Posted by Spedycja on  30 June 2011 at 09:52 pm

  9. > 1.If your destination is a really big city, you are going to have to go through a really big airport.

    Whenever I can either fly off-peak or have sufficient Lufthansa miles, I fly in & out of the UK via London City. It’s not actually any faster from LCY to the City/West End / mainline railway stations than with the Heathrow Express, but the whole experience feels a lot more relaxed.

    Posted by Alan Little on  01 July 2011 at 04:02 pm

  10. I went from Ashford to Beauvais in about 1973 and we actually walked out across the grass to the plane. That was with Dan-Air.

    Posted by Ian on  01 July 2011 at 09:03 pm

  11. Michael, you’re exactly right. They have a similar problem with the 747-8, which is reengined with marginally upgraded avionics and systems, and a bit longer, which has to compete against the A380. As you know they’ve upgraded the 737 in a major way, twice (Drainpipe / Classic / NG) and arguably also the 747 twice (Classic / 400 / -8).

    Really the only product they are fielding to compete with Airbus is the highly profitable 777 series, which, a 90s design, is competing with the A330, which is development of the 70’s A300.

    I think it’s very sad, as Boeing aircraft are just fantastic, in terms of design philosophy, features, and performance. They just need to innovate to stay ahead, and focus on economics. If they don’t get their game together they will go bust.

    Posted by Ed on  03 July 2011 at 05:56 pm

Post a Comment

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.