To St Petersburg, the magnificent former capital of imperial Russia – a city of opulent Tsarist palaces, gold-crusted cupolas, magnificent squares and seductive waterways but no doubt still “Leningrad” in the hearts of unreconstructed, Communist ex-councillors who once represented former pit villages like Lochore and Auchinleck.
St Petersburg is everything the guide books say, the trip did highlight Scotland’s deficit in airline connections with the wider world.
The journey out was painless enough – a quick hop over to Amsterdam, a smooth transfer and an onward flight which landed in St Petersburg well ahead of schedule. However the return trip, from taking off to finally landing in Edinburgh, lasted almost seven hours, about as long as a flight from New York. A non-stop alternative, if available, would have taken approximately three hours – about the same as it takes to fly to Majorca.
On the second leg of the outward journey I got chatting to a Russian businessman who had interests in a factory in Sunderland and had set out from Newcastle. This caused me to muse on how much better the economy of this and other cities in the North of England and Scotland would be if served by more non-stop flights to overseas destinations. Survey after survey has shown that compulsory airport transfers are a disincentive to attracting the type of people who can bring foreign investment.
George Osborne wants to boost the ‘Northern powerhouse’ by spending billions of pounds (money the government does not actually have) on taking HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. A more productive, and cheaper, alternative might be promoting the development of international links to Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford airports. Ditto the Scottish Government with Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Having said that, many of us can recall a time when, except for summer holiday charters, the only non-stop ‘foreign’ destinations from Scotland were Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Reykjavik. Now almost all European capitals (those in the former Soviet Union and the Balkan countries excepted) can be accessed this way from either Edinburgh or Glasgow (and on occasions, both).
Indeed, one major missing link in the chain will soon be connected with the resumption, after a long absence, of non-stop flights between Edinburgh and Vienna when both EasyJet and Jet2 will start respective services early next year. Talk about waiting ages for a bus and two coming along at once!
Unfortunately growth in European connections has not been matched by inter-continental services that start from Scotland, none of which are available to South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, despite our social and cultural ties with these countries. Other gaps in the market are China, Japan and South America.
There are, of course, only so many connections that can be justified in a country with a population of circa 5.2 million, not just in terms of passenger numbers but also passenger profiling. Delta’s non-stop service between Edinburgh and Atlanta, pulled after two years, was regularly well-loaded but unfortunately this was confined to economy. The number of spare seats in business class was what did for it, at least according to the airline.
Some 25 years ago, CBI Scotland carried out an investigation into the possibility of a single Edinburgh/Glasgow airport becoming a hub for flights travelling not just east to west but also north to south over the Arctic Circle – taking as their lead the success of Copenhagen in this capacity.
The idea eventually ‘died’ but CBI Scotland did receive well-deserved praise for a bold initiative that, had it come to fruition, might now be a huge revenue-earner for Scotland.
But that was then and this is now. At that time most international airlines were government-owned national carriers, which is totally different from the present market with its heavy input from budget airlines.
So the time may be ripe to look again at the CBI proposal and to consider two options which might yet lead to Scotland boasting an international hub through the creation of a single EGI airport.
There is, of course, a case to be made for sticking with the status quo, consolidate what has already been achieved and plan for feasible expansion at Abbotsinch and Turnhouse. Who knows, perhaps one day market forces may lead to one of them becoming Scotland’s premier airport.
Perhaps the Scottish Government could come up with some cash to fund a review which would surely be more cost-effective than pumping public money to keep Prestwick (just one passenger carrier and no more than one or two arrivals or departures each day) on its life support machine.
NO RUSSIAN CHRISTMAS
LEAVING for Russia early on 5 November and not returning until late on the 9th, brought to my attention the subtle change that takes place on British television at this time of the year.
Before our departure, television advertising was much the same as usual – for everyday products and services such as baby foods, cleaning agents, motor insurance, etc. But just five days later a great sea change had taken place with the ad breaks dominated by turkeys, mince pies, cheap champagne, laptops, smartphones, and, of course, those after-shaves and perfumes that promise to turn ordinary suburban husbands and wives into tigers and tigresses in the bedroom.
This led me to wonder if Remembrance Sunday having come and gone during our absence was more than just coincidence. With the solemn ceremonies at the Royal Albert Hall and the Cenotaph out of the way, all restraint seemed to have disappeared.
Now, when ITV and other commercial channels are switched on, the living room replicates the High Street – full of tinsel, baubles, mock jollity and sickly muzak related to Santa, Rudolph and the baby Jesus (usually in that order of priority).
In St Petersburg, by contrast, I did not come across one example of Christmas-related promotions on the main retail thoroughfare, the three-mile Nevsky Prospect, even though there was Western branding in abundance.
Clearly, one of the reasons is a throwback to the seven decades of communism, when Christmas celebrations were not illegal but nevertheless frowned upon by atheistic governments. However a second reason may have to do with Russians sticking to Orthodox religious dates and therefore not celebrating Christmas until 7 January, the day when 25 December would now fall had Western countries stuck with the old Julian calendar. (Switching to the Gregorian calendar effectively brought forward Christmas by 11 days, now extended to 13 days because the Julian calendar continues to ‘fall behind’).
To this observer, the date of observance in Russia makes sense. Firstly, January is statistically colder than December and therefore comes with a greater statistical chance of snow.
Even better, however, is that celebrating Christmas on 7 January offers the prospect of almost two more precious weeks of respite before the annual onset of the consumer frenzy and financial irrationality that appears to grip the nation at this time of year.