Tag Archives: aviation

Air New Zealand has done regional New Zealand a favour

My congratulations to Air New Zealand. They’ve bitten the political bullet and opted to cancel of routes that are operated exclusively by their smallest aircraft. That means the end of any services to Kaitaia, Whakatane and Westport. These routes, and the others served by the Beechcract 1900D, were loosing money hand over fist. Air New Zealand says about $1 million/month.

I have no doubt that the cities losing service will be upset, and there’ll probably be media rage in spades. But here’s what they should remember:

Flights still aren’t far away

  • For every cancelled airport, there’s another airport within an two hours drive. For Whakatane there are two within an hour’s drive.
  • For all nonstop routes cancelled (like Whangarei or Taupo to Wellington) there are options to fly through a hub (Auckland) or take a two hour drive to get a nonstop flight.

Regional New Zealand has been historically over served: we need to recalibrate our expectations

  • Most places in the world two hours drive to an airport with commercial service is nothing. Look at the US, the world’s biggest domestic market. Regional passengers routinely drive 5+ hours to get a flight.
  • Indeed, people in many big cities need to travel a good distance to an airport too. It took us two and a bit hours to get into central Istanbul yesterday.
  • And many others in big cities choose to go further to access more distant airports with low cost carriers and lower fares. That’s not dissimilar to a Wakatano driving to Rotorua to grabaseat which I am confident happens all the time.

These changes will ultimately make flying to the regions more accessible

  • The Beechcraft were tiny. Considerable fixed costs were split across just 19 passengers leading to inevitably high fares. There wasn’t much Air NZ could do to offer genuinely accessible fares to ordinary regional dwellers.
  • As it retires the ‘lil ones, Air New Zealand is adding more capacity to other regional airports with flights on fifty seat aircraft. Larger aircraft will bring lower fares, accessible to more regional New Zealanders.
  • The new low cost, last minute regional fares, are also a reasonable nod to the folk who need to travel to a funeral, or similar, and are buying fares at what would normally be the most expensive time. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re operating at scale.
  • Nowhere else in the world is there a single airline operating 19 seat and 350+ seat like Air New Zealand. Sustaining comparable fleet wide service levels for these different birds leads to a high costs base for the smallest ones.
  • It is possible that the likes of Soundsair (sponsor of the World Famous Kahurangi Marlborough Schools’ Debating Team) will step up to fill some regional gaps, as they’ve done for the former Air NZ Wellington-Wanganui route. Soundsair has a different cost structure and that allows them to offer fares that are genuinely competitive. I’d look out for them on Nelson-Palmerston North, in particular.

So good job, Air New Zealand. Do your best to weather the negative publicity storm. This is better for regional New Zealand, long term.

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 4 – flight search engines, the ugly, the good and the bad

In my first post on booking flights online I said you could never trust a single search engine for your flights, not even those who purport to search all the airlines. You do better making more searches.

In this fourth post in the series I want to give another example of how badly some search engines can get it wrong (“the ugly”) and then talk about some specific good and bad points of the various search engines available.

Auckland to Buenos Aires – going through London is ugly

Say you’ve decided to fill your late summer with delicious cuts of meat and implausibly cheesy pizza by heading from your home in Auckland to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Good call. If you jump on kayak.com, a search engine that purports to search all the airlines (and all the other search engines) you’ll be recommended this…

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 9.06.36 PM

Two problems with this fare:

  1. It’s British Airways, via Hong Kong and London! That’s an unnecessary trip to a whole other hemisphere and almost three times longer than the most geographically direct route.
  2. Trips across the South Pacific are seldom cheap (there’s very limited competition), but kayak is asking you to pay about $500USD more than if you went ahead and searched directly with Lan Airlines, or expedia.co.nz, for that matter.

Following the advice from my first post would have yielded you that saving. If you went further, per my third post, and looked to break the fare at intermediate stops, in this case Tahiti, you’d probably end up with further savings.

The strengths of different searchers

Much as I caution against relying on one search engine they are unavoidable tools of the trade. Knowing how to get the most of them means knowing which have particular strengths. And that’s the main purpose of this post. There are a range of search options that are fine, but do nothing special (orbitz, priceline, expedia, edreams), so I’ve left them out.

  • Kayak is generally pretty good. It has a nice feature called ‘hacker fares’ where it will suggest different airlines for different legs of your trip if that turns up a cheaper fare. It also uses an algorithm that tells you how likely the fare you are looking at is to increase, though I am pretty sure that’s rubbish. Sometimes, though, it really lets you down, like in the example above.
  • Skyscanner is generally pretty good too, and it makes less outright mistakes than kayak. One feature that is especially neat if you can search a country or even “everywhere” as your destination. This is great when you’re looking for ideas. It may be the closest thing you get to the dream we all have of walking into an airport, picking a flight from the departures board and buying a ticket. Skyscanner’s Achilles heal is that you can’t search multi-stop flights.
  • ITA Matrix is google’s product. It has the best search functionality. You can search date ranges easily and specify you’re happy with a range of airports or cities. This kind of thing is great when you’re planning a holiday and are prepared to be flexible. To get the most out of ITA you need to learn the advanced routing codes. ITA’s downside, and it is a big, bad one, is that you cannot book the fares it finds you. So you end up using it to scan the market, then search for bookable fares elsewhere. You can also try and take the routing codes to some unsuspecting travel agent. In my experience they look at you like you’ve practiced airline voodoo. There’s a 50/50 chance they can actually book the fare to which you point them.
  • Statravel genuinely offers different fares for students, teachers and young people. The different fares have different conditions, and some “youth” age brackets go as high as 32. So if that counts you it is worth a try for long haul travel. Also, for reasons I have never understood, it is the only site I know that bundles multi-stop Virgin Australia domestic trips with fares in and out of Oz.
  • Ebookers is where I often find myself booking. It has no special functionality to speak of but it seems to often offer fares that no other site does. It only quotes in pounds, which is annoying when you’re comparison shopping, but it often converts out as the cheapest option.

Two final cautions. One: always check the fare you find at any of these sites against what the airline offers on its own website. You might be surprised at how much you save. Two: these kinds of search engines take different approaches to bundling baggage fees up in their low cost carrier fares. Always check carefully over what you are actually buying.

We’re probably approaching the end of the online flight booking knowledge I can easily disperse here at this point. But please, ask me anything and I will share what I know.

Iranian sanctions: Up in the air

MD82

Since Hong Kong we’ve tried to avoid flying in an attempt to sustain the somewhat romantic notion that we’re really traveling the Silk Road. We’ve made exceptions when overland travel isn’t safe (Pakistan/Iran border) and when the distance between stops, and time to travel between them are just too damn large to bare (I’m looking at you, China).

Our flight from Shiraz to Mashhad met neither of these exceptions. But sanctions have effectively frozen Iran’s civil aviation in the 1980s and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to add a little vintage to my tally of aircraft flown. We flew on an ATA Airlines MD82, a narrow-body stalwart of the 1980s with engines mounted at its tail and wings far back as a result.

In most senses it felt like a pretty normal flight. The existence and contents of the inflight meal was probably the biggest nod to another time of flying. I’m pretty sure that roll was from the 1980s. We made what seemed to be a u-turn on the Shiraz tarmac, and took a very long time to roll to a stoop in Mashhad, but I’ve really no clue as to whether either peculiarity was due to the aging aircraft that we flew.

Thee normalcy of our flight, and the hundreds like it in Iran every day, on aircraft that anywhere else would be passed their used by date is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Iranian industry. Other heavily sanctioned states (Cuba and North Korea) have turned to Russian manufacturers. Iran tried that, but when the Tupolevs kept crashing they decided to stick to the western stuff. Now they use a rag tag collection of aircraft that were flying when sanctions first hit in 1979, or second hand metal they’ve managed to finagle despite tight restrictions on international finance. There’s a story about some ex-Qantas 747s being flown all over the globe before landing in Iran, just to put sanctions enforcers off the scent.

There are at least six carriers with serious domestic schedules and, excepting Japan, Iran probably has one of the densest use of wide-body aircraft for in-country hops of anywhere in the world. Pilgrimage flights to Mashhad are especially common – four others left in the hour we did from Shiraz – and charters seem to be used to circumvent government regulated fares. Continue reading Iranian sanctions: Up in the air

Eight reasons why Emirates is crushing it

Emirates_Boeing_777_fleet_at_Dubai_International_Airport_Wedelstaedt

When we departed Dubai airport we were flying from the busiest international airport in the world. Sure there are busier airports with big domestic markets, but this year DXB has edged out London’s Heathrow as the airport serving the most international passengers.

Dubai airport’s meteoric rise has largely been on the back of Emirates. Emirates was only founded in 1994 and, in a world where most big movers in aviation have been low cost carriers, it has made a conventional hub-and-spoke strategy work. It’s now the operator of 777s, A380s one of the fastest growing carriers in the world.

Here are eight the many reasons why Emirates has been successful.

1. High wealth passenger; low cost labour

Rich countries have wealthy travelers, but labour in them tends to be expensive. Poor countries have cheap labour, but nobody flies. Dubai is a rare example where there is a wealthy flying population, but the basic labour needed to run an airline (think baggage handlers) is incredibly cheap because it’s all guest workers. This keeps operational costs down and lets Emirates offer competitive fares.

Because the labour force can’t unionise Emirates can also do things like decide to have its major banks of flights in the middle of the night when its colder and aircraft need to burn less fuel on takeoff. And none of them can really complain.

2. A natural crossroads

Most airlines that have success disproportionate to their home population are based in big port cities. Think Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Copa Airlines. The cities they fly from (Singapore, Hong Kong, Panama City) represent natural geographic transit points.

Dubai does not have a port of the same scale, but it still represents a historic crossroads between cultures. This kinds of position and cosmopolitanism can be leveraged to make a hub airport, and the Dubai crossroads is all the more important given where the world’s population is growing. These days Dubai is within eight hours flight time of half of the world’s population.

Some great examples of connections that make sense via Dubai include:

  • The growing stream of Chinese setting up businesses all over “Africa province”
  • South Asian and Filipino guest workers heading to the Middle East
  • South Asians heading to Europe and the Americas
  • The Kangaroo route, as discussed below

Continue reading Eight reasons why Emirates is crushing it

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 3 – breaking up fares

This post is part of a series sharing my views on how to book flights online. Forthcoming posts include fuel dumping and tricks for specific search engines.

One way to think about my series of posts on how to book flights online is that each challenges an assumption that we commonly make when booking. First I challenged the idea that a simple search would get you the best result. In “When to book” I challenged the assumption that sooner is always better. This post challenges the assumption that you get a better deal if you book your whole trip with one airline.

The one airline assumption isn’t unreasonable. We expect things to be cheaper when we buy from one source, like buying in bulk. But this isn’t always borne out with flights. Often booking one fare to an intermediate stop and another to your eventual destination will get you a better deal. I call this breaking tickets.

Lets start with an example. Imagine you want to fly from Auckland to Bogota on just before New Year, which is exactly what Fiona and I did last year. A search on kayak will yield $2002 (USD), and skyscanner $1947. But you can think laterally in a way that a search engine doesn’t. Search instead for one ticket to Los Angeles ($919) and one from there to Bogota ($356) and you’ve a grand total of $1275. That’s a solid 30% saving.

Breaking up is hard to do

There are two challenges with breaking fares. First, if your ticket isn’t booked as one then airlines aren’t obliged to rebook you if you miss your connection (though your travel insurer should reimburse your costs). So some caution with connection times is required.

Second, you can come up with almost limitless permutations and lose yourself in the search process. Why, for example, did we break our fare to Bogota at Los Angeles, rather than Honolulu, Miami or Santiago? The airline geek in me wants to say “you just know” because you spend your days looking at where airlines fly and why they do it. But failing that this post has some examples, and then some broad principles for when you should look at breaking things up. Nothing beats just messing around and trying different things, though. You just might strike gold.

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Go nuts: the options I considered for our trip from Auckland to Bogota.

Good break ups

Okay, so, some examples. Excuse the New Zealand centeredness.

  • Break domestic and international legs. This is especially relevant if flying from a regional centre in New Zealand, but from Wellington and Christchurch too. Always look at a flight booked out of Auckland.
  • To the US (and also Central America) look to break flights at Los Angeles. Carriers to LA that don’t go on include Air Pacific and Air Tahiti Nui and the market to the Americas from LA is super competitive.
  • Getting to Latin America is also often cheaper via LA because of how incredibly uncompetitive flights across the South Pacific are.
  • To Singapore or Kuala Lumpur try one booking to Sydney and then another on Scoot or Air Asia.
  • For South East Asia good break points are Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. You can get there cheaply via Sydney (as above) or with Jetstar, Emirates or Etihad direct. From there you can often pick up low cost flights with Air Asia, Jetstar or Tiger Airways. Note that low cost carriers don’t always show up on search sites like expedia.com.
  • To Europe consider breaking your journey at Singapore or, increasingly, Shanghai. Bonus points if you use one of the cheap ways to get to Singapore described above. And if you want to get really clever also have a look at one booking to Asia and another that goes Asia-Europe-New Zealand.

And the principles that underpin those examples

The examples above will work sometimes, but not always, and they only cover a very limited selection of routes. So here’s my best go at articulating the principles that underpin them.

Start by testing competitiveness

To figure out how much investigation is worthwhile assess the competitiveness of your route. If a route is uncompetitive you might be able to stitch together two tickets for routes that are competitive and get a lower fare as a result. Conversely, if it’s super competitive, breaking fares might not do much good. You can get a sense of competitiveness by counting the airlines presented to you by an aggregator search. Kayak shows five from Auckland to Bogota, for example, but 23 from Auckland to London.

Try flying to a hub, and tagging an extra flight on

Find that when you search for the whole routing you get routed via a big hub airport? That airport is a good place to try breaking your tickets. Not all carriers that only fly to big airports have codeshare or interline agreements that let them book you through to the little ones. This is the principle that underpins the idea that you should always look at splitting domestic and international. Big international hubs are generally large world cities: Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Frankfurt, New York, Los Angeles, London etc.

Tap into low cost carriers when you can

Low cost carriers don’t fly everywhere but breaking into where they do will get you lower fares. Getting on to Spirit at Los Angeles (America’s most complained about and most profitable carrier) is what makes the example flight from Auckland to Bogota so cheap. Other low cost infested markets include Australasia (Jetstar), Asia (Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, spicejet, flyDubai), Europe (Ryanair, EasyJet and Pegasus Airlines) and North America (Spirit, JetBlue, SouthWest). Not China, though.

Generally, low cost carriers only fly short haul. Scoot (ex-Singapore), Air Asia X (ex-KL), Jetstar (ex-Australia) and Norwegian (over the Atlantic) are rare counter examples.

There are also carriers that, while not strictly low cost, tend to try and compete based on fares rather than services. In the Asia Pacific China Southern, Royal Brunei and Air Pacific are good examples. Aeroflot is another.

Practice makes perfect (flightfox experts)

Before it sadly changed its business model, I spent some time as an expert for flightfox. The idea of the site was that people specified where and when they wanted to go and the best pitch from an expert got paid. Most of the time when I won a contest it was because I knew where to break up routes to save travelers money.

These days flightfox works differently. Instead of crowd-sourcing fares flightfox employs experts and you pay a fixed fee to access their services. If your trip is complex their service can be very worthwhile. Because they, like me, do this all the time, they develop a good understanding of where to break a journey to get you the best fare that goes beyond a few examples and principles.

Fair regional airfares

It must be election season. A nothing story about a couple in Nelson complaining about what they paid to fly to Dunedin caused the Prime Minister to chime in and the story ended up on the front page of stuff.co.nz.

To be fair to the PM, his heart wasn’t really in it. With every equivocation imaginable he says: “I’ve made it clear that I think Air New Zealand needs to continue the work it’s doing while making sure that it reduces prices to the regions if it can.” And then in the next breath he congratulates Air New Zealand for being one of few airlines around the world making profit.

In between, he acknowledges that Air New Zealand might be in a position to exploit its market power, and that’s the interesting bit of the issue. But first lets pause on the specific complaint that began all this. A couple had to travel from Nelson to Dunedin for a funeral. They bought last minute fares and paid $340 per person per sector. And they were grumpy about that, but that’s more to do the structure of airline fares than whether Air New Zealand is abusing monopoly status.

Airline fares tend to be more expensive towards the date of travel even though the airline is essentially selling the same product regardless of when its bought. This price discrimination is used to increase airline profit. But it also means that cheaper tickets are available to folks booking well in advance who might never be able to afford to fly if fares were priced constantly. Business travelers who are more likely to be making last minute bookings are therefore effectively subsidising other travelers without complaint. It’s only when travelers who generally pay lower fares need to travel urgently that complaints arise. My sympathies to the couple involves, going to a funeral is one such example, but they’re rare and the general model is good.

But Air New Zealand’s a monopoly, right?

Okay, enough trolling. The big question is whether Air New Zealand’s fares represent an abuse of its market power because on the face of it, it does have a monopoly: it’s the only carrier offering connecting flights from Nelson to Dunedin. I’m not convinced this is the case. First, $340 for Nelson to Dunedin is not much more than you would pay for a last minute fare from Auckland to Christchurch or Welligton tomorrow a route in which Air New Zealand faces competition in the for of Jetstar. Flying AKL-CHC tomorrow will cost you $299, about 15% less. Second, a large part of that difference is explained by the higher costs of flying to regional destinations. Smaller aircraft and smaller airports mean fixed costs are spread across fewer passengers.

The question then becomes, why isn’t Air New Zealand abusing its market power? It’s company with a duty to its shareholders to turn a profit. Partly because ground transport creates come competition. But more because the threat of regulation. Regulators are meddlesome and their rulings cumbersome. Their potential can be enough to keep some (though certainly not all) monopolies in check. I posit the same is true for New Zealand Post, which goes so far as to self regulate access to its network for other providers.

Ordinarily I’d say the threat of competition also keeps prices in check, but I don’t think that’s true in this context. The market isn’t genuinely big enough to sustain competition. The last airline to try, Origin Pacific, lasted for only a couple of years. It’s been hard enough on trunk routes where by my count seven airlines have had a go in the last twenty years. The Air New Zealand/Jetstar combo with jets between main centres is the most stable we’ve had in that time and likely to stick around. So too, I’d say, is Air New Zealand’s relatively benign monopoly on regional routes.

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part two – when to book

This post is part of a series sharing my views on how to book flights online. The first post appeared here. Forthcoming posts include how to break up your fares, fuel dumping and tricks for specific search engines.

When you’re booking flights online there’s nothing more frustrating than buying your ticket only to see the flight get cheaper the next week. Maybe that’s why rules about when to book seem to pop up on those lists of “life hacks”, like this one, that says you should always book on Tuesday afternoons. What rubbish.

Many of us end up resting back on the idea that the sooner you book the cheaper your fare is going to be. That’s because we think that airfare prices look like the graph below getting sharply more expensive over time. If you were going to rely on a single rule for when to book, sooner is better is probably your best bet. But we can do better than that.

how we think airfares go

Airfare price changes over time actually look more like these graps, less regular and predictable than we’d like.

Long haul airfares short haul airfares

Fares change stepwise, and not in curves. Airlines sell tickets in different fare classes. There are often different conditions associated with them (refunds, frequent flier miles etc.) and they sell at different prices. So when the cheapest fare class sells out, the fare jumps up to the next one.

There’s no time scale on my graphs because I can’t tell you exactly when to buy either generally or for any given route. But I do have a few tips to help you cut through the complexity.

Tip one: Treat short and long haul differently

Long haul flights deserve more effort than short haul. The savings you get, both in percentage and absolute terms, are likely to be higher and the fare pattern less predictable.

Short haul flights, especially those by low cost carriers (or those trying to mimic compete with them) generally start out cheap and get more expensive. Sometimes there are sales, but they are hard to predict. If there are a lot of airfares available for the same price you have time to wait around and see if there is a sale. If not, you don’t.

With long haul flights sooner is often not better. Lead in fares – say more than six months out from departure – tend to be expensive. Airlines know that the most risk-averse customers will buy a long way out and they take advantage of that. Generally buying a long haul fare about two months to six weeks out will get you the best deal.

Tip two: buy the outlier

On a competitive route if one airline is significantly cheaper than the others – say 20% or more – buy the fare. It’s a good indication that the airfare is on special or, if not, the airline with the low fare is unlikely to be beat.

Tip three: set a price alert

Several aggregator sites (kayak and skyscanner at least) offer a service that emails you when flights for the dates and destinations you have chosen change price. Ignore small changes, they’re probably just exchange rate noise. But if your fare suddenly drops that’s a good time to buy.

Tip four: you can test whether a fare is in jeopardy

The tips I have given so far encourage you to wait around and see what options you get. The problem with that is that sometimes a fare class will sell out while you’re waiting and you’ll suddenly have to pay a higher price

There are two ways to guard against this:

  1. Do a search for your flight with a large number of people. If the fare doesn’t change it means there are enough seats for a large number of people in your fare class.
  2. Search for the dates either side of when you want to fly. If the fares are higher on adjacent days your fare class is probably selling out. By now. If the fares are the same there’s less of a risk of your fare changing and, worst case, if it does, you can always go a day earlier or later.

A search in time saves nine

You might have noticed that the things I recommend take quite a lot of effort: search on multiple sites, pay attention to fares over time. Sorry about that. The truth is, though, that getting to grips with the fares available well in advance of your travel gives you the best shot at noticing when a special comes on, or being satisfied with the purchase decision you make even when one doesn’t.

Joe’s guide to booking flights online – part one of potentially many

The internet has democratised travel booking. That’s great. It has scuttled money grubbing travel agents who get more commission when travelers pay more. It allows the joy of planning your own trip and making your own choices. And it means you can get cheaper airfares.

The process is so simple it gives the impression that you can get yourself the best deal with minimal effort. That’s especially true of sites like expedia.com or kayak.com that give the impression you’re searching all the airlines, or even all the other search sites at once.

The truth is it’s a lot more complicated than the search sites imply. Google can reliably search the whole internet and bring you the most relevant results. But google’s flight booking software can’t guarantee the best deals: iata matrix does some great things, especially if you know the code to use, but it often misses the cheapest option and, critically, you can’t always book the deals you find there.

You don’t need to be an avid airline geek like me to beat the computer. In this post I’ll give you three approaches that you should be using, at a minimum, if you want to ensure you’re getting a good fare. I’ll use an example from my own searching just now to illustrate the point: Fiona and I need to fly from Lahore in Pakistan to Dubai on 10 September, and then on to Tehran in Iran on 18 September. For ease of comparison, all prices are in USD.

As a starting point I searched on kayak.com. Kayak’s good because, as an aggregation search engine, it searches all the other search engines. It also has some useful features. You can stipulate one airport and say you’ll accept others nearby. And, crucially, it will offer you airfares it has stitched together from the offerings of different airlines, even if those airlines have no relationship to one another. It calls these ‘hacker fares’.

As you can see here, Kayak is offering up a ‘hacker fare’ with Kuwait Airlines and Qatar Airways for $645USD. The fares are both one stop. We can out hack that, though.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 10.12.46 AM

Tip one: use a range of aggregator sites

There are lots of websites that purport to search all the airlines (and sometimes all the other search sites) but they often offer up conspicuously different results. They have different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve talked about kayak’s pros already, you’ll see its cons as we beat its fare. Skyscanner is another favourite (especially as they’ve an NZD version). It has a neat feature where you can broaden your search to any city in a given country. But it lacks the ability to search for multi-stop trips, which is rubbish.

If you wanted to cover your bases here you could search on: kayak, skyscanner, orbitz, expedia, ebookers.com and edreams. I’ve made bookings on each at different times. Hipmunk is cute but adds little value.

Sadly none of these sites does much better than kayak on this occasion. Partly that’s cos few of them will book flights for Iran. (What cultural imperialists!). But fear not, we’ve more tricks to play.

For the record iata matrix gives a great looking fare on Qatar Airways, but it isn’t bookable. Useless. Continue reading Joe’s guide to booking flights online – part one of potentially many

Kazakh airlines and the EU blacklist

The European Union (EU) blacklists airlines it considers unsafe, banning them from serving the EU. It doesn’t just pay attention to carriers that actually want to fly into the EU, it judges carriers all over the world. And so EU blacklisting has become a de facto judgement about all carriers’ safety.  It’s worth paying attention to.

Often times the reason for the black listing is a lack of trust in a safety regulator, rather than an individual airline. On this basis the EU blacklists all carriers from particular countries including, at the moment, Afghanistan (well, duh), Zambia and Nepal. Individual carriers from those jurisdictions can get an exemption from the ban if they satisfy the EU that they can prove safety independently from whatever the regulator in their home country might say about them.

Air_Astana_Embraer

In 2009 the Kazakh aviation regulator failed an international audit and Kazakh carriers were EU blacklisted. From what I’ve read the problems were basically twofold. First, there was a bunch of Soviet era regulation which hadn’t been updated. Second, the regulator was underfunded. It couldn’t hire and retain the quality staff it needed.

The EU let Air Astana keep flying to Europe, but banned it from expanding its operations. Air Astana flies a modern, Western fleet. It registers them in Aruba so they’re subject to Aruban safety regulation which is pretty well respected. So there are good reasons to treat them differently from other Kazakh airlines. But if you think they’re safe, why not let them expand in Europe? That, I have never understood, and probably never will. As of April, Air Astana can fly wherever it pleases in the EU. It’s got new routes to Paris and Prague in its sights. Very good.

With the weird case of Air Astana aside, EU judgements about carrier safety are pretty good, and probably more relevant to your travel plans than you imagine. In New Zealand’s neighbourhood most carriers from Indonesia and the Philippines are blacklisted. Notably, though, while safetravel.govt.nz tells travelers to be wary of flying a Chinese made plane in Tonga, it is silent about the potential hazards of carriers the EU says are unsafe.

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The rise of Chinese aviation, and the rise to come

Get ready to update your trivia files. Beijing’s Capital Airport is likely to become the world’s busiest airport this year. It’ll knock Atlanta Hartsfield off a perch it’s occupied for nearly twenty years and become the first non-American airport at the top since, well, ever. It’s a sign of the massive rise of aviation in China. And there is much more to come, provided regulation makes way for innovation.

The Chinese aviation market is dominated by publicly owned airlines. The single state run carrier was broken into six in 1988 and have since consolidated into the big three: Air China, China Eastern and China Southern. Then there are a a plethora of other carriers owned by municipal governments seeking prestige. There are some successful private carriers too. Of these Hainan Airlines is notable because its service levels match the best in the world.

What’s missing is low cost carriers (LCCs). You know, the kind that offer low fares, charge for you for drinks, and have innovative fare structures that everyone complains they;ve been tricked by on facebook. China’s got one, Spring Airlines (its particular trickery is to give passengers a combined 15kg luggage allowance for checked and carry on combined*) but it should have many more. LCC flights make up only 5% of the market in China, when it’s more like 25% worldwide. For my money, that’s why air travel in China is actually lower than would be predicted by its wealth.

Regulation makes flight inaccessible

The lack of LCCs is primarily due to regulation. The number of licensed airlines is set and their fleet numbers are capped. Applications to fly new routes are cumbersome and the government had a big hand in setting airfares. Flying here is expensive as a result. When booked up trains or sheer distance has forced us into the skies we’ve paid about $90NZD per hour of flight.

There have been some moves towards deregulation recently. In March this year the regulator announced it was relaxing restrictions on budget airline fleets. If this trend continues hopefully we’ll see competition and innovation, plummeting fares, and the kind of democratisation of air travel that LCCs have created in places like Malaysia, India and Mexico.

Airlines don’t talk about themselves as regulated industry. It doesn’t sound sexy. They’d rather we think of them as brands and businesses. But actually regulation plays a massive role in air travel’s development. The absence of LCCs in modern China is a good example. There are others closer to home. Until the 1980s Australia’s two major carriers had to fly dual schedules by law. That meant if Ansett had an afternoon flight from Sydney to Darwin, Australian Airlines had to have one too.If flight becomes as much more accessible in China in the next thirty years as it has in Australia and New Zealand in the last thirty, it won’t just be Beijing’s airport at the top of the rankings. China as a whole will become the busiest air travel market in the world.