Money comes first to travel industry as it shaves costs

If `airtours' turn to foreign airlines, the CAA cannot regulate safety
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The Independent Online
SIMON CALDER

Travel Editor

When a Boeing 757 crashed into the Caribbean this week, the German holidaymakers who died were flying in a Turkish aircraft which had been substituted for a larger plane at the last minute, and was chartered to a Dominican Republic carrier. This may sound like an unusual arrangement, but such practices are just as common in the British travel industry.

British holidaymakers heading for Havana this week will find themselves flying from Stansted in an American DC-10 aircraft owned by the French airline AOM and operated by the Cuban airline Cubana.

The practice of substituting one aircraft for another is another frequent occurrence; margins in the holiday market are so slim that every opportunity to cut costs is studied closely, and smaller aircraft than planned may be used if passenger loads are light. When British tourists sign up for a package holiday, they relinquish control on the type of aircraft used. The Skytours summer brochure, for example, states: "If we have to change your flight, airline or plane type, it does not count as a major change to your holiday."

Most of the nine million or so British holidaymakers expected to take a charter flight this summer will fly in an aircraft operated by one of the leading charter airlines. For example most clients of Thomson, Britain's leading tour operator, will be carried by Britannia Airways - the operator's own airline. Like other British charter carriers, Britannia operates a modern fleet of Boeing 757s and 767s; it also sells its old aircraft to scheduled airlines. But at the last-minute end of the market the type and nationality of the aircraft is less certain. Passengers who paid pounds 99 for a charter flight to Prague last summer turned up at Gatwick to find they were flying in a Tupolev 134, an elderly Russian jet modelled on the old French Caravelle. And with holiday bookings for summer 1996 down 25 per cent on last year, pressure to cut costs could lead to increased use of foreign airlines and crews. The Civil Aviation Authority has no jurisdiction over foreign aircraft.

The Caribbean accident also reopens the debate on using twin-engined aircraft like the Boeing 757 and 767 over large bodies of water. The usual safety margin calls for such aircraft to follow a route which would allow them to reach a diversion airport within 90 minutes of flying on a single engine. Airlines are pressing for the rule to be relaxed. With an increasing number of charter flights from Britain to the Caribbean and Florida, using mainly Boeing 767s, the potential savings in time and fuel are considerable.

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