Most people who know me well enough, know that I distinctly don’t like travelling by boat – to begin with, a trip to the Aran Islands when I was about 16 with my school, began a steady unwinding of my ability not to be seasick (to date, I still haven’t ever actually been sick – but a number of boat trips since stick poignantly in my mind as moments that I could only have felt worse by adding a litre of vodka and/or a hangover into the mix), then there’s the smell of diesel that seems to pass around all boats at some point or another, leading to potential asphyxiation before you’ve even left the port. Then, on a most important level to me – my pocket – the sheer inability of most ferry companies to offer anything even remotely close to what the airlines can do, means that they’re just not really an option, everything else aside. Conversely, I generally also spring to the defence of air travel, when the situation calls for it. Last month however, Iceland threw a new challenge out to the airline industry that was less ‘challenge’ and more ‘knock-out’. As people around the world struggled to try and explain why their flight was cancelled – ‘Yeah, it’s cancelled because of Eyja…Eyjafja…some volcano in Iceland’, the airlines all collectively tried to figure out how, having taken such a ridiculous pummelling the last few years as it is, they’d managed to win the battle, but possibly not the war. Airlines were grounded for days, and we all saw the pictures on the news of people stranded miles from home, with no money, the Red Cross having to set up beds in Amsterdam Schiphol and of course, the daily shot of some clueless Irish family who were after turning up to the airport for their ‘week in the sun’ and were subsequently wondering, on-camera, ‘where is me flight?’.
The first thing it demonstrated was that Ryanair, as it grows more and more, simply isn’t able to get away with the stuff it used to as a ‘cheeky, young airline’ – they’re no younger than a lot of European airlines who simply accepted straight away that they were going to have fork out compensation for this event. Ryanair made a brief effort at skirting that particular law – even though, as I say, it is law, even if it isn’t designed for such lengthy events – and subsequently had to back down very shortly after they’d made their sweeping declaration of non-compliance. The next thing it demonstrated was that, after allowances were made for nations to help their ‘home’ airlines as the need necessitated (essentially, providing state aid for the first time in years to airlines, since it’s been outlawed for some time), Europe as it occasionally does, hit a fork in the road. A large number of countries, Ireland included, laughed off the suggestion of giving the airlines any money (in our particular case, the exact reason from the ‘Malta’ Minister Dempsey was quite honestly, ‘We’ve no money’), while a number kept quiet – the obvious competition implications of this being quite serious and represent, to my mind at least, a major oversight on the part of ‘Europe’ as a whole. As it is, some of the countries that didn’t immediately declare themselves ‘out’ are already home to some of the largest airlines. Not that it matters, regardless of the size of the airline, it kind of defeats the whole point of ‘competition’ if some get bailed out and some don’t. Whatever about it though, we were hardly so much as getting back to normal when I started seeing the infamous #ashtag’s cropping back up on Twitter again. Eyjafjallajokull (And yes, that did take the guts of 2 minutes to type) was back at its old tricks again and once again, airports began closing, including a majority of Ireland’s airports.
I’m not too sure what the airline industry plan on doing about this, or what they can do about this, but I can assure you that now more than ever seems a cracking time to invest in Stena Line, or another large ferry company. Last time this volcano erupted, it continued, on and off, for the next two years – which means the next time we’ll be truly safe booking flights to anywhere will be just in time for the London 2012 Olympics. Which opens the airline industry, finally, to that idea of ‘consolidation’ that Mr. O’Leary’s been going on about for years – quite simply, if the volcano carries on, regularly on and off for the next two years, and European countries like Ireland can’t afford to bail them out, then it’s going to make life extremely tough for some of the airlines who are only really starting to find themselves again – the likes of Aer Lingus, for example. To begin with, the old saying used to be ‘a plane only makes money when it’s in the air’, the new truth however, owing to all the cancellations and inevitable compensation claims is going to be more like ‘a plane only makes money when it’s in the air – and loses literally thousands when it’s on the ground’. First thing’s first and all that, the European ‘heads’, if this continues, really will have to come up with some sort of unified solution from a compensation/legal/regulatory viewpoint. You can’t simply say ‘yeah sure, the Governments can hand out money if they like’ and then leave it up to each individual state to decide, which naturally favours the state’s with more money and not the actual airline’s themselves. In essence, you could have completely inefficient, hopeless airlines (that were inefficient and hopeless long before the volcano issue) being bailed out by their respective Government, while airlines that have performed increasingly well, unable to get any money from their particular Government, slowly haemorrhaging cash past the point of no return over the next year or two. The other thing is, regardless of how long it goes on for, some will lose more than others and here’s where efficiency is actually the critical factor. Ryanair, which we all know from countless business examples has a crazy level of efficiency; where Aer Lingus gets maybe 8 flights out of an aircraft per day, Ryanair might get 10 or 12.
Normally of course, that’d be something to be happy about. But because their aircraft typically carry more passengers a day, on the days when those aircraft can’t operate, they’re naturally taking a bigger loss – rather than having to compensate 8 flights’ worth of passengers, Ryanair are having to compensate 10 or 12 planeload’s. For the airlines then, it seems that for the next while at least, flexibility is going to be the key. When these operations are stopped, it’s going to be vital to get fresh crews out to wherever the aircraft have had to stop, or make sure that the crew stuck out there are sufficiently rested so as to be able to get going again at a moment’s notice. Making sure flights can resume ASAP and get stranded passengers home again and get things back to normal as quickly as possible is where it’s at. No doubt, it’s going to be more difficult than ever to get bums on seats as more and more people, through anxiety and uncertainty take to the ferry companies or simply holiday at home, don’t book any flights. And when these unfortunate events happen, the answer is in making it look like you’re doing everything you can. For a poor example of this, look at Ryanair over the weekend – they cancelled all their flights to and from Madrid, even though the other airlines continued flying there, which then led to speculation that all they were doing was saving money by not flying the aircraft and re-scheduling all these passengers (who’d more than likely paid high prices for a Saturday flight) onto the cheaper midweek flights. Whether it’s true or not, lots of people noticed and the whole thing was a bit of a sore point for passengers, as they watched other airlines continue to operate. Etihad on the other hand, has done things pretty well so far. When the whole thing kicked off, they continued to fly their transit passengers (flying through Abu Dhabi and on to Europe) from their original point outside of Europe and then put them up in a hotel in Abu Dhabi and promised to get them out on the final leg of their journey to Europe as early as they can.
In the meantime, there’s no doubt that ‘Eyjafjajokull’ will remain a word none of us want to hear…