A limited number of flights took off this morning in Europe after an emergency meeting of EU transport ministers eased the flight ban on those parts of Europe with a lesser amount of ash. Several major airports, such as those in Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt, have seen limited departures. The millions of people waiting for a flight now have some hope of reaching their destination, or at least getting home after being stuck on layovers.
The volcano, however, seems to have other ideas. After a period of reduced activity, a new eruption has belched out a giant cloud of ash that’s heading for the United Kingdom, casting doubt on whether the reopening of a few airports there will last.
The economic impact is widespread, especially for the airlines, whose losses have already passed $1 billion. The tourism industry is also sustaining losses, but this is offset to some degree by people stuck overseas an having to continue to spend money. Luckily this didn’t happen during peak tourist season. Businesses that rely on air freight, such as importers of tropical fruit and flowers, are getting hit hard.
In the meantime, people are scrambling to find alternate modes of transport. My wife, who took many of the photos in our Ethiopia travel series, is still in Oxford trying to figure out how to get back to Madrid. There are no train tickets available until next week and the only transportation her travel agency could offer was a €500 ($672) bus ticket from Paris to Madrid. That’s more than three times the usual price. They also didn’t give any suggestion of how she could get to Paris. British Airways has her scheduled for a flight this afternoon, but since they just announced they’ve canceled all short-haul flights for today I doubt I’ll see her tonight.
Oh, and for some reason BA started following my Twitter feed.
Multiply this tale of frustration by a million, and you get some idea what it’s like to be in Europe right now.
Faced with another threat of a flight attendant strike, British Airways is preparing for the worst. The airline asked everyone within the company to voluntarily sign up for a 21 day training program to turn them into temporary flight attendants.
As of right now, only 216 volunteers signed up for the initiative, which falls quite a bit short of the 13,500 flight crew members that will walk out when a strike takes place. Five of the nine retraining courses are designed for pilots – which would turn them into the best paid cabin crew members in the world. The average BA pilot earns a just under $200,000 per year.
Of course, the union behind the flight attendants is not impressed, and they are quick to point out that the 21 day course is much shorter than the normal 3 month training a flight attendant receives, and could be a serious safety issue.
It makes sense for them to say this – as the public perception of the union and this strike is very negative. The same union almost shut down British Airways over the Christmas period last year, but a British court blocked their efforts at the last minute.
A union spokesperson said “Not only does this show contempt for the crew, what message does it send to passengers who have paid to be cared for by a premier airline?”. Personally, I’d rather have a cabin crew with just three weeks of training than be stuck at the airport for a week because a union was unable to reach an agreement on new pay cuts.
The British aviation authority, CAA, has approved the measures and will be monitoring the safety aspects of the training, to ensure that passengers are never at any kind of risk when they fly on a plane with the new temporary crew members.
After the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic Party majority in the house and senate, British Airways CEO Willie Walsh sees little to be optimistic about as far as stateside operations go. Many European carriers would like to see additions to the Open Skies Agreement, which provided greater rights for foreign-owned airlines to operate within the US. Walsh is worried about Obama’s support of US labor groups. “I think it’s very clear Obama has taken a strong line in relation to any change in the ownership and control regulations. So at this point I would not be expecting any major progress to be made.”
Right now, foreign companies can have no more than a 25% share in US-based airlines. That is not likely to change, especially considering the weak state many airlines are currently in. With a rumored merger with American Airlines now seemingly out of the question, BA is focusing on partnering with AA to offer better trans-Atlantic service. Before going ahead with that, though, they must receive approval from US antitrust investigators.
British Airways-backed upscale carrier currently flies two trans-Atlantic routes, JFK to Amsterdam and JFK to Paris Orly. A one-way BIZ class ticket on the Amsterdam route will cost $1050 if it is booked by November 21st. Fares to Orly will start at $1100 if booked by the same date. PREM+ (premium economy class) tickets start at $550 one-way.
Is this a good deal? It depends on how much you value your comfort. The PREM+ class seats are akin to business class seats on other carriers. They recline 140 degrees and offer 52 inches of leg room. Seats in the BIZ class recline a full 180 degrees. OpenSkies also offers full service including a concierge, food and drink, and in-flight entertainment.
Fliers who put more of a premium on price than comfort should be happy with the recent announcement that low-cost carrier Ryanair will be charging as little as 8£ once its trans-Atlantic service gets off the ground. Still, for what you get, you have to admit the the OpenSkies deal is a good value.