In common with executives from across the aviation industry, Colin Stewart is excited about the new horizons offered by the Boeing Dreamliner.
Describing the arrival of the new planes as a “step-change,” the UK director of Spanish-carrier Air Europa is keen to emphasise the transformative nature of the new planes.
“We have always been strong in terms of service on-board our aircraft,” he explains, “but this will be a departure for us in terms of product.
“For our business passengers, we will offer a fully-flat bed, while, in the two class configuration, all of the economy seats will have seat-back entertainment.
“The general feel of the cabin on the Dreamliner is a lot more modern; we are really able to live up to the promises we make to our passengers.”
With 22 of the Boeing aircraft – in both the 787-8 and 787-9 configuration – scheduled for delivery before 2020, this is certainly an exciting time for the carrier.
As they arrive the Dreamliners will replace the 14 older Airbus A330 aircraft currently in operation, upgrading services and allowing Air Europa to add new services.
Top priority for this year is Bogotá, the rapidly growing capital of Colombia.
Launching on June 29th, Air Europa will offer a daily service to the Latin American destination, welcoming the Dreamliner to the fleet for the first time.
“This is our major push in our marketing at the moment,” explains Stewart from Air Europa’s London headquarters.
“We had been considering moving into this market for a long-time, maybe three years, and now we have that opportunity.
“This is one the fastest growing economies in the region, growing faster than it has for a long time, and it can be a success for us.”
Seen as both a business and leisure destination for the carrier, Stewart also points out European travellers have the added benefit of connecting through Madrid, allowing them to skip arduous procedures imposed by US airports.
Also new to the network is Asunción in Paraguay, with two departures a week added to the schedule from December last year.
“We have become the only European carrier to fly to the destination,” enthuses Stewart.
In the Black
Indeed, with fuel prices following the cost of oil sharply downward over the past year there is a positive feeling around the aviation industry as a whole at present.
But Stewart sounds a note of caution.
“No carriers made money in the last five years, it was a really difficult environment; now is the time to plan for the future.
“Yes, fuel prices have fallen, buy many carriers have hedged fuel prices so they might not fall as quickly, and there are a lot of other fixed costs.
“This is the time to invest in new aircraft, to plan for the future.
“This period has been a long time in coming, but it can be hard to tell what is going to happen in the future, when fuel prices rise again.
“Overall, though, the cost of travel itself is still relatively cheaper.
“Compared to other luxury items, travel is still affordable.
“The price of travel has fallen over the years, not risen – this is because it is a competitive market and we are driven by price.”
Out of the UK
One of the notable success stories at Air Europa in recent years has been the growth of its UK operations.
The carrier will celebrate its seventh year flying from London Gatwick at the end of March, and much has changed over the past few years.
“We launched with the Embraer planes in 2009, with just over 100 capacity, and then moved up to the Airbus with near 190 capacity, we have grown in that way,” explains Stewart.
“Since then we have seen an 80-90 per cent load factor on our flights.”
But it is where passengers go once they reach Air Europa’s hub in Madrid that really illustrates the airline’s growth out of London.
“Personally, the biggest sign of growth has come from the connecting traffic,” continues Stewart.
“When we started in 2009 our total connecting traffic onward from Madrid from London was around seven per cent. So we were mainly point-to-point.
“At the end of last year this had increased to 44 per cent.
“So we are becoming established as a long-haul Latin American specialist.”
Gatwick, too, has proved a boon to the development of Air Europa, with the airport investing significantly to improve facilities in recent years.
“I’ve been really impressed with Gatwick and the money they have spent there.
“Chief executive Stewart Wingate has led a real change there at the airport and they have stepped up their game.
“The security process is quick; the passenger experience is one of the best.
“There has been a huge investment - £1 million a day at one point – and this has changed the perception of what Gatwick is, as well as changing the facilities there.”
Of course the elephant in the room for any UK aviation executive at present is airport capacity in the south-east of England.
Here Stewart chooses his words carefully.
“Heathrow has a very strong economic case for growth and the larger airlines that are based there see that as the option for growth,” he explains.
“At the same time, Gatwick are certainly fighting their corner, outlining how the costs will be met, where the funding comes from.
“One of the biggest concerns among UK airlines has been questioning who is going to pay for this? We need sensible, appropriate funding and to see that the costs are distributed fairly.
“We need to look at what it really costs and who is to pay for it.”
Overall, however, he sees little hope for a quick resolution.
“We were expecting something in December and now we are looking toward summer 2016.
“I have a very ‘glass half empty’ view of this process.
“These decisions are very bureaucratic and can take a long time.
“Even in the best case scenario, if the government makes a decision in the summer, we are only at the start of the planning application.
“We are looking at 2025 or beyond before a new runway is even built.
“Nobody wants to take responsibility for this political grenade.”
Air Europa – the Latin American specialist - has for over 25 years experience delivering the very best in customer service and in-flight experience to its valued customer around the world.
As a key member of the prestigious SkyTeam global alliance, Air Europa is able to offer passengers’ greater flexibility and choice with access to over 1,057 destinations across 179 countries.
Take a look at the official website here.
Interview: Chris O’Toole