British Airways announces more upcoming strike dates

British Airways just can’t catch a break – the airline is still recovering from the massive disruptions caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and now they will have to deal with four different five-day strikes.

The first of the strikes will take place on May 18, followed by May 24, May 30 and June 5.

Unite, the union behind the strike said that 81% of cabin crew voted in favor of the strike, which will no doubt hurt passengers more than it’ll hurt the airline.

During the last strike, British Airways retaliated against striking cabin crew by removing their free flight perks, with that threat looming, I’m surprised so many union members were in favor of this strike – but I’m guessing they assume the union will fight to get those rights restored.

British Airways has posted a brief statement on their web site, but travelers with flights during the strike will need to keep checking for flight updates. During the last big strike, BA was able to keep a large number of flights in operation – albeit with a reduced schedule.

Sooner or later one of the parties will need to give in to the demands – because 20 days of strikes during the upcoming summer season will cause massive amounts of disruption to an already battered airline.

Travel returning to normal as the blame game begins

As air travel begins to return to normal, the question of who’s going to pay for the expenses incurred by the flight ban is being raised. Airlines say the EU acted too hastily in creating a blanket ban that cost them more than a billion euros.

Flights in most countries have nearly reached their pre-eruption levels, but some airports in Sweden and Norway shut down late yesterday as a northerly wind puffed more ash in their direction. Tens of thousands of people are still waiting to get home as airlines struggle to deal with the backlog.

Meanwhile, airlines are saying the flight ban was too strict. Eurocontrol, which manages Europe’s air traffic, insists that at the beginning of the eruption, the best scientific knowledge said that flying through any amount of ash could damage jet engines. The airlines and Eurocontrol ran some test flights and found that engines are more resistant than previously thought. Eurocontrol then made the ban more lax, allowing some and then most flights to resume.

Airlines are asking for taxpayer money to deal with the costs and for changes in EU rules that required them to put up stranded passengers in hotels.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland is still erupting, but only emitting a small fraction of the ash it once was.

On a personal note, my wife finally made it back to Madrid last night after being trapped in England since Thursday. She reported that Heathrow was crowded but orderly. Her flight left ninety minutes late, which is certainly understandable considering the circumstances. One big mystery is why there were only about thirty people on board!

On the first night she was stranded, British Airways paid for her hotel and food, then stopped paying. She had to pay 8 pounds to go to airport the next day, only to find it closed. The second night at the Heathrow Sheraton cost 195 pounds, including internet connection, breakfast, and a snack. She then went to stay in Oxford, where we know a cheap but good B&B called the Newton House. Her stay cost 260 pounds. A return bus ticket to Oxford was 25 pounds. Other expenses were 20 pounds a day for five days. The grand total came to 588 pounds, or $905.

British Airways says they don’t have to pay for more than one night of accommodation and food, something the BBC financial desk disputes. Luckily she was on a business trip for her scientific institute, so they’re going to pick up the tab, and presumably try to get the money from BA later. So her six-day headache was in fact a best-case scenario. She was luckier than all those people who ran out of their medication, missed important family events, or racked up a big balance on their credit cards. There are even rumors of Americans being fired from their jobs for absenteeism.

This has all the makings of years of litigation.

Most European flights resume

The skies over Europe are once again filling up with planes, but passengers can still expect headaches.

About 75% of flights are scheduled to run today and all major airports are reported open, but airlines warn there will be significant delays and cancellations as they try to get back into gear and deal with a huge backlog of passengers. Eurocontrol, the agency that controls air traffic in Europe, says it will be several days before the situation gets back to normal, even assuming no new eruptions occur.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland has reduced its output to about 20 percent of its previous levels and changes in wind patterns mean Europe will not get hit as hard as before. Vulcanologists point out the situation could change at any moment, however.

The ban was lifted mainly because several test flights showed that jet engines have a greater tolerance for ash than was previously suspected. The previous “zero tolerance” policy has been replaced.

On a personal note, my wife, who’s been stranded in England, is scheduled to return on a British Airways flight this afternoon. I haven’t told our four-year-old son because I don’t want to disappoint him if her flight is canceled. I suggest this for anyone in a similar situation. We’ll also be studying the rights of passengers stranded by the volcano. According to BBC personal finance reporter Kevin Peachey, British Airways should have paid for all of her accommodation and food, but they only paid for the first night and never communicated with her or the hotel after that. Complaints from travelers will be a major problem for the airlines in the weeks and months ahead.

Some European flights reopen. . .for the moment

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.

World Cup travelers outraged by high airfares

Eager fans headed to this summer’s World Cup in South Africa have been finding plenty of frustration due to sky-high airline prices. According to a story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, there may be a reason why: South Africa’s two main carriers are currently under investigation due to allegations of price collusion.

South Africa’s antitrust “Competition Commission” recently began an investigation of South African Airways and the country’s budget carrier Mango. Both carriers are suspected of agreeing to keep airfare prices artificially high during the ever-popular World Cup, with the country expecting around 350,000 visitors. Other airlines targeted by the probe include British Airways and partner Comair, as well as 1Time. South African Airways has offered to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Is behind-the-scenes price fixing at work? The jury is still out, though the $1700-1900 tickets we found on Kayak from New York City did not exactly remove our doubts. Tickets to South Africa have never been cheap, and the higher demand during World Cup is sure to keep prices up as well. If you’re heading to South Africa for the Cup this summer, make sure to have good look around the airfare sites at prices before you purchase.