Simon Calder: Is your boarding pass now a lottery ticket?
The man who pays his way
Saturday 28 May 2011
Even as the "Cancelled" signs were scrolling on the airport departure screens, the vultures started circling – subject, of course, to the restrictions imposed by the scary airspace maps that showed a big red splodge where Scotland normally appears.
"Irish Ferries ready for second ash boost," trumpeted a press release from the ferry company, promising "Ulysses is poised to welcome any air travellers disrupted by another Icelandic volcano." No matter that the main effect of the ash cloud was to cut off Scotland from England rather than Wales from Ireland, where the good ship plies.
The rival ferry firm, Stena Line, was less gleeful, content to explain that it was bringing in extra call-centre staff "to efficiently help any stranded travellers if Britain should once again become a no-fly zone."
Travelling abroad is not essential for holiday happiness, as Coast & Country Cottages of Devon was keen to remind the media: "Avoid the hassle and stress of flight delays and book a luxury self-catering property."
By Thursday, some of the silver-lining seekers were getting apocalyptic in their pronouncements over the Grimsvotn eruption: "As the Icelandic ash cloud threatens to cover the whole of the UK by Friday," warned a press release for treetop adventure operator Go Ape, "This could spell disaster for many families that have planned half-term holidays abroad."
Seeing your long-planned trip disappear in a puff of Icelandic ash falls somewhere on a spectrum from disappointing to infuriating. It could also prove expensive, for example if you have booked flights and accommodation separately rather than a package holiday. But it is a misfortune, not a disaster.
If anyone has the right to talk about a calamity, it is the bosses of the airlines and holiday companies who still have millions of seats to sell for the summer.
Bookings for the year began strongly in January, but slid, in the manner of molten lava (or ice cream) down a cone, through the late winter and early spring.
Operators were hoping for a May surge, spurred by general glee following the royal wedding. But while the long-suffering British holidaymaker was prepared to accept that the first bout of eruption disruption was one of those "blue-moon" events where the wrong kind of ash, wrong kind of weather and wrong kind of rules were all in alignment, a repeat just 13 months later reminds us how fragile 21st-century travel is compared with the force of nature.
If you would like to study that phenomenon close up, Voyages of Discovery invites you to "Sail to Iceland to see the forces of nature in action" – aboard a cruise to Reykjavik setting sail from Harwich next Saturday.
Iceland is the place to witness geology in motion, as well as the source of the ash that renders airline passengers motionless.
Good luck to all the terrestrial tour operators seeking to capitalise on the airlines' misfortune. And hats off to Siim Kallas of the European Commission, who boasted that "the new EU procedures are working". But if the net effect of Europe's rules is to disconnect Scotland from the world, and turn the average boarding pass into a lottery ticket, the immediate future for much of the travel industry looks as grim as a foggy night on Grimsvotn.
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