Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fewer planes, more trains and automobiles?

Crowded scene at Terminal 1 Heathrow on Wednesday 20 December 2006

It's been a strange week. Normally I'm the one in the house who does the flying around. At least that's the way it used to be. Three or four days a week, I'd be away. I normally treated catching a plane to England with all the respect I'd give to catching a bus. It got me from A to B.

Occasionally they'd be late. One got de-iced before they’d closed the doors and the French pilot yelled some choice Anglo Saxon out the open door to get them to stop. There were the two nights in the last ten years I've spent sleeping on a bench in Heathrow Terminal 1. One plane aborted its take-off. Twice I’ve turning up for early morning flights that a corporate travel company had forgotten to pay for. More recently, one plane’s door wouldn't close and I turned up six hours late for my own meeting. But in general, I viewed planes as being more reliable than buses or trains.

This week I wasn’t the one in the house travelling. So while I was discovering the joys of walking Littl’un to school and then catching a train into work, I wasn’t the one stuck in Brussels on Thursday night with no flight home. I tried to figure out a rescue travel plan – Eurostar from Brussels = fully booked; Eurostar from Paris = fully booked; first seat on a Paris-Belfast flight on Sunday evening = now cancelled. But I’ll not be the one stuck on a sixteen hour ferry crossing (no berth) on Sunday night, nor chugging on the train to Dublin and up north to Belfast.

Nevertheless it’s shaken my normally relaxed attitude to air travel. UK and Irish airspace has been shut down this week longer than immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Longer than Air Traffic Control strikes. The natural but violent phenomenon of a volcano a long way away in Iceland is casually wafting its ash into the atmosphere above our heads like a smoker tipping their cigarette and the wind blowing the ash into your face.

What’s never happened before (to us) has happened.

And it’s flummoxed us. Travellers are bamboozled. Many people have no idea how to start planning to get home. They rebook onto the next flight. In turn it’s cancelled. And they rebook again. Hearing news reports from around Europe, I sense a lack of survival instinct to drive some travellers to find ways home that aren’t doomed to further cancellation. What did we do before low-cost flights?

It’s also obvious that some travel companies are better prepared that others.

Having learnt their lesson during the many cold snaps since Christmas, easyJet’s website very quickly and easily points passengers to the current flight list to see which ones are still marked as Operating and which ones have been Cancelled.

Ryanair have sensibly cut their losses. It’s obviously cheaper for them to stand down crews and check-in staff, cut the volume of calls to costly call centres and reduce the churn of booking and rebooking by simply cancelling flights for a 48 hour period, rather than running a creeping 12 hours at a time window of cancellations.

On the other hand, Eurostar’s website was struggling to cope on Thursday afternoon and evening. While the early screens would show availability of fares for various trains, by the time you progressed through the next parts of the ordering journey to specify the name of the passenger and whether you wanted marketing emails and text messages, there were no seats to book. Their call centre (naturally) took time to draft in extra staff and for a long time, it just turned away callers with a polite message. Wonky website. Incommunicado call centre. Frustrated travellers and bookers.

I loved the story that workers at Belfast City Airport took advantage of the closure to repaint lines on the normally difficult to maintain runway.

The volcano’s not going away. It’ll smoke and belch for days or weeks or months. The wind will change and the jet stream will blow ash into someone else’s face for a while. Flybe will realise that their small fleet of turbo props fly at lower altitudes and can charge a premium to those who can afford to pay to be transported on short fuel-thirsty domestic hops.

And we’ll all travel by plane less. Last year, the economy encouraged people to holiday closer to home. This year, an unpronounceable volcano will further diminish the fly-drive market and boost sales of rooms in Scottish B&Bs and nights in caravan parks. Update - Alain de Botton sums up the possibilities nicely on the latest podcast from Radio 4’s Today programme.

Me? I’ll just be glad when our family is hopefully reunited on Monday evening when a tired and crumpled traveller makes it home four days late from a three day trip. And I’ll check the small print of the travel insurance as well as the trans-Atlantic sailing timetables before she jets off to the US in June!

PS: I think we should arrange some kind of rota to keep an eye on Slemish. Wonder if any of the North Antrim candidates would like to work that policy into their campaign?

PPS: Belfast Film Festival is now on. Lots of good stuff to go and see!

PPPS: The Prisoner on ITV looks a bit rubbish. Pity.

PPPPS: Bet there’s not a lot of room on Sunday night's ferry for antics like the video below, captured this summer on the way back into Larne!


Timothy Belmont said...

I'm still in Tenerife. Was meant to be home last Friday and presently waiting to hear from the rep.

Alan in Belfast said...

Suspect you'll be there for a while! At least they haven't been able to fly new holiday makers in, so the accommodation should still be available.

Flights can land in Spain ... but there's not that much rail or ferry capacity to get people home over land and sea!

Hope you're not too inconvenienced by being away so long.

Alan in Belfast said...

In other good news ...

> Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport have said passengers will not be charged in their car parks for periods "over and above" their planned travel itinerary, if they presented the relevant documentation.

Anonymous said...

why those airplane companies not try to solve the problems by putting up alternative travel plans over land and sea? Are there any information help desks available to those stucked travelers?

Philip ORawe said...

I don't see much sign of operators publicising alternative routes. A good resource is for rail and ferry via Stranraer, Dublin or Dun Laoghaire. Belfast to anywhere in the UK has a maximum walk-on single fare of £46 if a through ticket is purchased.

However, the quickest way across at this time of year is the Larne-Troon P&O ferry, on which I was a refugee coming back on Friday morning. Problem is there are no through fares on this so to get to somewhere like London it's a lot more expensive than the above roues. It's pretty economical if the final destination is in Scotland though.

Anonymous said...

The recent disruption reminded me that I've kept a basic FlightMemory account for the last few years. One quiet afternoon I updated it with many new recent flights, and some very old long hauls I'd forgotten about. My statistics are quite embarassing...

The site has yet to embed a carbon calculator, however! Surely quite easy to do, if you assume some very rough averages for each type of aircraft and allow users to enter approximate passenger load etc.

Alan in Belfast said...

James - I keep the spreadsheet for my work travel. It used to be frightening. More than one return flight a week sustained over a couple of years was appalling!