Simon Calder: Pain in Spain for travellers on the plane?
Saturday 07 August 2010
"Due to the ongoing air traffic controllers' strike our flight operations still continue to be affected by disruptions unfortunately" – so says easyJet, in a statement that has been on its website since the start of the month.
Odd, given that I have been unable to detect any industrial action by air-traffic controllers this week. July was tricky, with Greek and French controllers sporadically downing radars. A cynic, perhaps studying the airline's many cancelled flights yesterday – which included Luton to Istanbul and back, as well as shuttles linking Liverpool with Paris and Belfast, and Edinburgh with Stansted and Bristol – might conclude that the airline is shifting the blame for shortcomings in capacity on to the men and women who keep the skies safe.
Yet easyJet, which carries far more people between the UK and Spain than British Airways and Iberia combined, could, I fear, soon find its dire prediction comes true.
Spanish air-traffic controllers have voted overwhelmingly to strike in protest about what they say is an unreasonable increase in workload. La Unió*Sindical de Controladores Aéreos, as their association is elaborately known, seems likely to call a three-day strike to begin in 10 days or so.
Three characteristics of working in the aviation industry: it is often stressful, generally poorly paid (though reports suggest those Spanish controllers average €200,000 a year, making them among the highest-paid public servants in Europe) and relies upon an extremely wide and complex range of tasks being carried out in a timely fashion. The corollary of that last peculiarity is that a small group of workers can have an effect out of all proportion to their size if they decide to withdraw their labour.
Rationally it makes sense to exercise their right to stop work at a time when it will have maximum effect: striking while the iron, or at least the sun, is hot. The government in Spain, which depends so heavily on tourism, will do what it can to keep the airspace open in the event of a strike, deploying management and – if the call from Ryanair is heeded – military controllers. But experience suggests that such a move would drastically reduce the "flow rate", perhaps reducing by half the number of aircraft handled.
With an average of one dozen scheduled flights a day from Gatwick to Malaga alone, axeing 50 per cent of departures means 1,000 passengers a day grounded at either end of that route, with little slack in the system in terms of empty seats on other flights.
Spain's controllers and government are still negotiating, so the dispute could be settled without a strike. But uncertainty is maddening – for hard-pressed airlines as well as passengers.
Crafty travellers heading for the Costa Brava or Spain's Basque region could book another flight to Perpignan or Biarritz in France, or take a ferry. But you'll pay twice and, if the original departure goes ahead, get no refund. If you're aiming for the Canaries, good luck: fly to Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, whence there is just one ferry a week to Tenerife.
At least the Italian transport unions allow you to plan your moves ahead, with plenty of advance warning: air-traffic controllers in Rome plan to strike from noon to 4pm on 9 September (though sceptics might call that merely a long lunch break).
Even if you dodge the strikes, the range of other potential threats to your flight seems limitless. Milan's Linate airport will be closed to incoming flights tomorrow from 7-10am and between noon and 4pm for what the Foreign Office calls "the deactivation of an explosive device nearby".
Luxe-free to Luxor
Two hours: that, according to conventional wisdom, used to be regarded as the maximum sensible length for a no-frills flight. As the length of a flight increases, the cost advantages of low-cost carriers erode – as does the tolerance of the passengers. But from 3 November, the no-frills limit from Gatwick is extended to six hours for the new easyJet link to Luxor in Egypt.
The trip outbound from the Sussex airport (astride the River Mole) to the most glorious repository of antiquity (astride the River Nile) is scheduled to take 5 hours 30 minutes. Coming back, prevailing headwinds mean the journey is half-an-hour longer.
In fact, easyJet flights from Sharm el Sheikh to Manchester already take six hours. But now that 2,500 miles is established as a reasonable distance for a cheap flight, the skies could open up for plenty more no-frills departures: Gatwick to Nouakchott in Mauritania, Bristol to Beirut and Glasgow to Halifax in Canada are around the luxe-free limit.
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