Even an ash cloud can have a sil­ver lin­ing

Pit­ted against vol­ca­noes and­woe­ful win­ter weather, the travel in­dus­try still flies high, says Colin Card­well

The Herald Business - - Travel -

WHEN James VI of Scot­land left Edinburgh in April 1603 and trav­elled to Lon­don­to­claim the English throne, the jour­ney took more than a year. Last month, Scots trav­el­ling south, with im­por­tant busi­ness of their own to con­duct, might have been for­given for think­ing that not much has changed in 400 years.

The past year has wit­nessed the most mun­dane of trips night­mar­ishly trans­formed into un­sought-for odysseys be­set with de­lays, can­cel­la­tions and, in some cases, gen­uine peril.

An Ice­landic vol­cano with a per­versely un­pro­nounce­able name that belched haz­ardous ash into the path of air­lin­ers be­came the icon of a uniquely fraught pe­riod for the travel in­dus­try.

In Scot­land it had be­gun a year be­fore with the sud­den col­lapse of hol­i­day air­line Globe­span, which left more than 3000 peo­ple stranded abroad and some 50,000 cred­i­tors owed a to­tal of £70m. Then in April Ey­jaf­jalljokull erupted, caus­ing the clo­sure of Bri­tish and Ir­ish airspace for days and hit­ting the global air­line in­dus­try with an es­ti­mated £1bn loss.

The year ended in­fa­mously with an el­e­men­tal strug­gle that con­signed tens of thou­sands of trav­ellers to nights spent in their cars, snow­bound on the roads, or shiv­er­ing un­der foil blan­kets in air­port de­par­ture lounges – and a cold blast of pub­lic wrath that led to the res­ig­na­tion of be­lea­guered Scot­tish trans­port min­is­ter Ste­wart Steven­son.

Yet, as the Her­ald’s deputy busi- ness edi­tor Mark Smith high­lighted in last month’s is­sue, strong play­ers sur­vived.

De­spite be­ing plagued by strikes and ru­mours of strikes, Bri­tish Air­ways re­ported its first prof­its in two years, while Ryanair saw a 17% in­crease in first-half net profit and easy­Jet posted an­nual pre-tax prof­its up 181% to £154m – more than dou­bling those of the pre­vi­ous year.

On the rail­ways, First ScotRail had its fran­chise ex­tended to Novem­ber 2014, and be­gan in­tro­duc­ing 38 class 380 trains to up­grade ser­vices in Ayr­shire In­ver­clyde and Ren­frew­shire. Last month the com­pany started ser­vices on t h e n e w Glas­gow to Edinburgh via Air­drie and Bath­gate line, which it says is the l o n g e s t d o m e s t i c p a s s e n g e r rail­way with new sta­tions to be built in Bri­tain for more than a cen­tury.

Brian Pot­ter, chair­man of the Scot­tish Pas­sen­ger Agents’ As­so­ci­a­tion and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Clyde Travel Man­age­ment in Glas­gow is san­guine about the prospects for 2011 de­spite re­cent chaos. “It’s cer­tainly been the worst year the in­dus­try has ex­pe­ri­enced but we see re­cov­ery com­ing as far as travel fig­ures are con­cerned,” he says.

“The vol­canic ash cloud was the big­gest thing to hit travel – and not just in the UK – but it has helped to bring on im­por­tant changes re­gard­ing the Air Travel Or­gan­is­ers’ Li­cence.

“It cer­tainly fo­cused cus­tomers’ at­ten­tion on what is and what is not cov­ered by in­surance and high­lighted an im­por­tant is­sue we have in the travel trade – many sud­denly found that if they had booked their flights on one in­ter­net site and ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion on an­other they could lose both.”

Bill Munro, chair­man of the swiftly-ex­pand­ing, Glas­gow-based Bar­rhead Travel, agrees and points to rea­sons that canny trav­ellers are eschew­ing on­line book­ings and re­turn­ing to the high street. “There are a lot of peo­ple who have been de­luded into think­ing that they have fi­nan­cial pro­tec­tion when they book on­line – and in re­al­ity they don’t. Get­ting re­dress on the in­ter­net of­ten doesn’t work very well.”

High street travel agents, Munro says, of­fer both full fi­nan­cial pro­tec­tion and ad­vice that can be sim­i­larly valu­able. “We have a disas­ter re­cov­ery area in our call cen­tre and dur­ing the ash cloud episode we had staff here un­til two or three in the morn­ing, ar­rang­ing taxis for peo­ple whose flights had been de­layed or get­ting their flights changed.

He also ar­gues that ma­jor op­er­a­tors such as Thom­son and Thomas Cook have dis­cov­ered that on­line book­ings are not the sin­gu­lar route to suc­cess that they might have seemed. “Sev­eral com­pa­nies have dis­cov­ered that it is cheaper to sell through a shop than on the in­ter­net be­cause of the high cost of cus­tomer ac­qui­si­tion. They can’t get enough traf­fic or­gani- cally so they have to ad­ver­tise; at the mo­ment they reckon it takes about £40 to cap­ture a cus­tomer – and that’s more than it costs in the av­er­age shop.

“Prices on the in­ter­net, with the ex­cep­tion of very last minute deals, aren’t re­ally any cheaper. For proper hol­i­days, peo­ple still like a face to face meet­ing.”

This is a theme that equally ap­plies to busi­ness travel, says Pot­ter – in spite of the slash­ing of cor­po­rate travel bud­gets and the trend to­ward con­fer­ence calls via Skype or other Voice (and face) over In­ter­net Pro­to­col providers.

He adds: “We have re­cently had video con­fer­enc­ing fa­cil­i­ties in­stalled our­selves and there is no doubt that for do­mes­tic meet­ings that will cut out a de­gree of travel. And the big, global com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing the banks, were great wasters of money when it came to Edinburgh to Lon­don travel, some­times send­ing 20 peo­ple from the same or­gan­i­sa­tion on the same flight.

“But in terms of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness, the face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion is still cru­cial – and the long-haul air­lines are pos­i­tive, es­pe­cially those in the Mid­dle East who have lots of planes on or­der.”

Echo­ing that, Gor­don Robert­son, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager at BAA Edinburgh Air­port, says that tar­get­ing long-haul hub op­por­tu­ni­ties is an in­te­gral part of the strat­egy for the com­ing year. He says: “We have added 26 routes this year tak­ing us to 140 in to­tal.” He is es­pe­cially pleased with ser­vices to Reyk­javik, a hub for des­ti­na­tions in the UK, Helsinki and a Ryanair route to Mar­rakech.

He adds: “It’s been a strange year, in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing with the ash clouds, the Bri­tish Air­ways strike,

Brian Pot­ter: sees a re­cov­ery ahead

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