Planes, trains and open skies

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iol travel jan 2 Airbus A380 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Inside the 538 seater A380 airbus. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

London - Simon Calder on travel in 2013.

Change planes

Fly Emirates from Heathrow, and there is a 100 percent chance that you will travel aboard the world's biggest airliner, the Airbus A380. Fly British Airways, and the probability is zero. BA has been way back in the queue for the “superjumbo”. Finally in summer 2013, some lucky passengers will get to travel on a British Airways A380. But where? The airline won't say until the spring.

The initial destinations will surprise us. You might imagine the airline would choose to launch the A380 on a flagship route such as New York or Tokyo. Yet the last time BA took delivery of a new type of long-haul jet, the Boeing 777, the two initial destinations were Paris and Cairo - enabling crews quickly to build up experience of the new plane. Forget Hong Kong, Sydney and Los Angeles; my money is on nearby “long-haul” airports with experience of handling A380s. Boarding now for Moscow and Dubai? Possibly. And don't rule out Frankfurt and Zurich for the running-in phase.

The megajet is one plane for which I would willingly pay BA's fee (typically £25/R320) for advance seat selection. The airline is to assign part of the upper deck to economy class, behind Club World and World Traveller Plus. The top deck is quieter and less cavernous, with seats a modest eight abreast. The 104 seats here will quickly become the budget traveller's favourite, and will probably emerge as a premium product, slotted in between economy and World Traveller Plus. What to call it: “Upper Class”? Virgin Atlantic might have something to say about that.

BA and Virgin are also in the queue for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner - a smaller, technologically more advanced jet than the A380. The new plane will replace those airlines' ageing 767s and A340s. But ahead of both is Thomson Airways, which is the UK launch customer thanks to the foresight of one of its components, First Choice.

The first 787 officially goes into service at 9.15am on 1 May from East Midlands to Cancun in Mexico, but before then you can be certain that Thomson will be flying the ultra-long-haul plane on such modest routes as Gatwick-Malaga and Glasgow-Palma, again to allow lots of crew to get accustomed to the plane as quickly as possible.

Needle match

You might imagine that the practical, hard-working Dutch would be the last people to misjudge a refit on a prime attraction, taking three times longer than initially planned. But that's what happened to Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which was closed down in 2003 for improvements to P J H Cuypers' 1885 redbrick marvel. The expected three or four years of refurbishment have stretched to a decade, during which the foremost elements of the collection reflecting the Dutch Golden Age have been camping out in an annexe, the Philips Wing. Some of the remainder have popped up at Schiphol airport. Finally, on 13 April, the doors of the Rijksmuseum reopen, and will do the same every day thereafter - it will become Europe's only major 365-day museum. Meet you in front of the Night Watch next Christmas Day? Rembrandt's masterpiece is the only object that will be returned to its original location.

In Paris, the focus is on making more of the river. The banks of the Seine have long been underplayed, but the Berges de Seine project aims to transform the waterfront with new parkland, bike trails and five “floating gardens” with restaurants and cafés. Expect some visible benefits by spring.

Orange menace

Open skies? Not between the UK and Russia, where archaic bilateral agreements still rule. BA's takeover of BMI opened up the London-Moscow route to another airline - and despite the squeals of Virgin Atlantic, the prize went to easyJet. Intriguingly, the no-frills airline won't say when it will start flying from Gatwick, but it has confirmed four flights a week from Manchester to the Russian capital, starting March 28. When Gatwick-Moscow goes ahead, it will be one of the rare city-to-city routes on which easyJet competes with BA's long-haul product; when both carriers flew Gatwick-Sharm el Sheikh, BA soon retired hurt. The Russian connections will be unusual, because there is no obvious bedrock of the “easyJet set” of leisure travellers; impulsive passengers deciding, “Let's go to Red Square next weekend” will get entangled in unhelpful visa rules. The main customers will be Britain's Russian community, plus some price-sensitive business travellers. If the Moscow link proves successful, expect Gatwick-St Petersburg to follow.

Railroad revival

Train travellers have plenty to be cheerful about in 2013. The European timetables introduced earlier this month have moved Salzburg 18 minutes closer to Vienna, thanks to a 155mph line between the two cities. The Austrian capital also gets a new main station: the Hauptbahnhof will, in time, assimilate many of the services now scattered among a range of termini.

On either side of the Rhine, Freiburg and Mulhouse already share an airport (Basel, also known as Euroairport) and now have a train connection as well. Even forlorn Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where England's football dreams deflated last summer, gets a new high-speed overnight link from the capital, Kiev.

In Scandinavia, Stockholm moves closer, in time terms, to the far north city of Umea. Throw in the opening on 7 January of the high-speed line between Barcelona and Figueres, and the trains in France taking on Ryanair (TGV-eco starts in April, linking suburban Paris with the south), and Europe's rail renaissance is flourishing.

Yet across the Atlantic, 2013 looks even more promising. In the spring, I am assured by Joe Szabo, ground will be broken on the new California high-speed line that will eventually connect Los Angeles with San Francisco. Mr Szabo should know, since - as the Federal Railroad Administrator - he is America's train tsar. He is also enthusiastic about a new network of 110mph services connecting Chicago with St Louis, Detroit and other Midwest destinations. And I am cheered by the lights going on in Massachusetts, specifically on the Boston to Cape Cod line in the coming summer.

Route treatment

Unfamiliar planes in unusual places will become the theme for flying in Britain in 2013. Planespotters will have their binoculars out on Easter Sunday (March 31) when Aer Lingus starts flying from Heathrow to Manchester, with links to Edinburgh and Aberdeen following shortly afterwards. Except it won't say “Aer Lingus” on the planes - the Irish airline is flying the routes on behalf of Virgin Atlantic. Sir Richard Branson's carrier has been awarded the Scottish slots after BA's takeover of BMI, and is using some of its own portfolio for the Manchester service. Virgin is “wet-leasing” jets from Aer Lingus, in other words chartering planes, pilots and cabin crew - all of them dressed in Virgin colours.

If it was an odd experience in 2012 to see easyJet pop up in Southend, it will be even stranger in June, when the first English route is served from the Essex airport. The target is Newquay, enabling holidaymakers to exchange the Thames Estuary for north Cornwall in an hour. But be warned: in the opposite direction, travellers must pay a £5 airport fee in order to be allowed on to the plane. Talking of “English domestics”: flights have run for many years between Manchester to Norwich, an alternative to long road and rail journeys. But in 2013 it's different.

In March, the Scottish airline Loganair moves in, and the service continues on from Norwich to a Dutch airport that you have never heard of: a naval air base that has no passenger services at present. Ladies and gentlemen, now boarding to Den Helder - the port at the mouth of what used to be the Zuider Zee.

Ryanair might call the airport “Amsterdam North”. It used to be said that Norfolk was cut off on three sides by the sea, and on the fourth by British Rail. Check the map, and you will see that Den Helder is almost completely cut off by the sea, but connected to the rest of the world by Dutch Railways. And soon, by Scotland's finest airline. - The Independent

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