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.