Even an ash cloud can have a silver lining
Pitted against volcanoes andwoeful winter weather, the travel industry still flies high, says Colin Cardwell
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