Wrong way? The 2008 travel review

Could 2008 go down as the traveller's 'annus horribilis'? At the end of a year that saw multiple airline failures, the pound in freefall and record oil prices, Simon Calder reviews 12 dismal months

A young lady who had sought my advice on where to go for New Year last week wrote to say she would ignore my recommendation of Malta and would go California instead. Nothing unusual there – except when she told me of her choice of airline from Heathrow: "I had read such negative reports about Terminal 5 and British Airways so decided on Virgin".

Sir Richard Branson will be delighted to learn that he has gained one more Premium Economy passenger at BA's expense. And the chief executive of our national airline, Willie Walsh, may regret, once again, the institutional hubris that preceded the launch in March of the most expensive building ever constructed in Britain. Everyone who has used the new terminal since mid-April knows it to be an outstanding success; everyone who has not used it believes it to be a disaster.

This "national embarrassment", as MPs on the Transport Select Committee described the first few days of Heathrow Terminal 5, was but one of many miserable experiences for travellers and the travel industry – as this calendar of calamities, large and small, reveals.



JANUARY

Hundreds of Kenyans were killed in violence following disputed elections. Tour operators cancelled thousands of holidays to the East African nation. Even though no visitors were hurt in the conflict, Kenya saw its earnings from tourism collapse.

Meanwhile, travellers stranded by the Christmas Eve collapse of MAXjet tried to get home from New York. The failure was soon followed the other two business-class-only airlines flying between the UK and US: Eos and Silverjet.

What happens next?

British Airways believes it can make a profit on the route with its business-only operation from London City airport to New York JFK next year.

FEBRUARY

Air Passenger Duty doubled with only two months' notice. Because millions of travellers had already bought flights at the old rate, chaos ensued as many airlines sought to recover the tax to the great inconvenience of passengers – some of whom were asked to stump up cash at the airport.

On Valentine's Day the old adversaries, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, finally issued a joint statement, confessing to price-fixing on fuel surcharges. They have set up a fund of more than £100m to reimburse passengers, accessible at airpassengerrefund.co.uk, but as legal wrangles over recompense continue nothing has been paid out.

What happens next?

Four present and former British Airways executives are awaiting trial accused of conspiring with executives at Virgin Atlantic to coordinate rises in fuel surcharges on long-haul flights between July 2004 and April 2006; Virgin Atlantic, which blew the whistle, has immunity from prosecution.



MARCH

"We are ready, so bring it on," said BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, a week before Heathrow Terminal 5 opened on 27 March.

British Airways had been waiting for decades for its own home at Heathrow, which BAA duly created. But even by the standards of other grands projets in Britain, the opening of "T5" was calamitous.

The decision to move more than half BA's flights to its new home overnight proved fatally flawed. Despite months of testing, all manner of unforeseen problems cropped up, creating gridlock that persisted for 10 days. What went right? Well, opening day wasn't a total disaster. The first flight got away to Paris on schedule and with passengers' baggage on board, while the bosses of British Airways and BAA bragged to the media about the £4.3bn project.

As the day unravelled into misery for tens of thousands of passengers and Britain's international reputation, they vanished; the staff at Caffé Nero kept pumping coffee for the media village that quickly took shape. It took 11 days before the operation was working properly. Terminal 5 is now running well, and handling most of BA's flights, but the catastrophic opening has had lasting ill-effects for passengers of BA's rivals.

What happens next?

The next sequence of moves was scheduled for 27 January, but has now been postponed to 25 February; whenever it happens, expect plenty of scope for missed planes as 50 airlines change places. By then we should have a decision on the third

runway for Heathrow.

APRIL

As "Open Skies" took effect, offering unfettered competition between the EU and US, several new transatlantic services were launched from Heathrow. Some of them, such as Air France's link to Los Angeles and Northwest's flight to Seattle, have already been axed because of losses. Also in April, Oasis Hong Kong Airlines went bust, along with Eos.

What happens next?

Despite the Oasis coffers drying up, Air Asia reckons it can make money to the Far East on its new link from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur, due to start in March.



MAY

Queues formed outside the Russian Consulate in west London as desperate Chelsea and Manchester United fans sought visas to watch their teams in the Champions League final, held in Moscow on 21 May. It appears that the organisers overlooked Russia's draconian immigration rules – which were eventually relaxed for fans paying up to £1,000 for a rainy night in Moscow.

What happens next?

Rome's Olympic Stadium hosts the 2009 final on 27 May.



JUNE

The excellent Misha Glenny, interviewed for the Independent Traveller's "My Life in Travel" feature, does not exactly enter into the spirit of things: "I bloody hate travelling", he says. In contrast, in the same slot in the same month, John Sergeant says "I enjoy travelling", and confides "I like there to be a learning element to a holiday".

What happens next?

There is no truth in rumours that Mr Glenny and Mr Sergeant plan a new joint venture called Strictly Come Travelling.

JULY

Oil hit $147 a barrel, leading to predictions of doom from many in the airline business. Meanwhile an Independent reader, Rob North, discovered his own personal spike in the cost of travel: for a fly-drive holiday in South Africa, he obtained a credit card, and used it just once. It was then cloned and used by villains to rack up bill of "hundreds of pounds on a card I never wanted".

What happens next?

Ryanair is locked into a "hedge" position of $124 per barrel until the end of this year, even though the market price is now only one third of that. The fall in the price of oil may have come too late to save some airlines from failure. Mr North has kept his credit card, and reports no further problems.



AUGUST

Zoom stopped flying from the UK to the US and Canada, blaming the high cost of fuel. Other airlines offered stranded passengers cut-price flights home from North America.

British Airways launched an offer of thousands of frequent-flyer points to passengers whose flights were delayed by 15 minutes or more. Some UK resorts reported dismal trading for what should be their most successful month, due to dreadful summer weather.

What happens next?

Stronger rivals have stepped in to some of the routes vacated by Zoom, but fares are likely to increase. And the financial sun is likely to shine on Britain more strongly next August, due to the slump in sterling.



SEPTEMBER

For a generation or more, 11 September will be recalled as the day in 2001 when terrorists hijacked four aircraft to commit mass murder in America. But this year, the date acquired two more connotations.

Yet another Channel Tunnel fire caused mayhem for tens of thousands of travellers. But the collapse on the same day of Britain's third-largest tour operator, XL Leisure Group, had even more of an effect.

The travel industry likes nothing better than a good rumour about the financial health (or lack thereof) of big companies. As the price of oil spiked and small airlines began to fall, all sorts of scurrilous stories started to emerge about XL Airways and its parent company.

Just after midnight on 11 September, the company was still selling flights and holidays. But at 1am, it threw in the corporate towel. A few hours later the first holidaymakers turned up at Gatwick and Glasgow airports to find they would not be going anywhere.

A massive rescue operation was organised to bring back package holidaymakers from across Europe, Egypt and the US. Many travellers who had booked independently discovered that the ATOL scheme did not apply to them, and had to pay hundreds of pounds to get home.

What happens next?

An estimated 250,000 people had booked with XL but had not yet travelled; and more than three months after the collapse, many of them have yet to get their money back under the ATOL scheme. And repairs in the Channel Tunnel are still slowing Eurostar journeys from London to Paris and Brussels.



OCTOBER

Sterling started to shrink even faster. On 1 October, its value against the American currency was $1.80; by the end of the month, it had sunk to $1.65. Airlines were hit because many of their costs are in US dollars.

Justin Fleming, the president of ABTA, was denied boarding his easyJet flight to the travel association's annual convention in Gran Canaria after he went to the wrong terminal at Gatwick and turned up 10 minutes late for check-in – even though the flight was an hour late.

What happens next?

Mr Fleming looks forward to the next ABTA convention in Barcelona next October, and promises "to turn up at the airport at least three hours ahead".

NOVEMBER

Terrorists in Mumbai attacked tourists in hotels and a popular restaurant, killing nearly 200 people. Protesters closed Bangkok's main airport, stranding tens of thousands of holidaymakers.

What happens next?

The affected hotels partially re-opened last weekend; see panel for more on the recovery of the city. Expect some spectacular deals for travel to both Thailand and India.



DECEMBER

Against the euro, the pound fell from 1.21 to 1.06 in the first three weeks December; by Christmas, some bureaux de change were offering only 96 euro cents for each £1.

British Airways' brief flirtation with Qantas ended when they proved unable to agree terms for a merger – the Australian carrier wanted 55 per cent of the operation, rather than half, and is said to have insisted that the joint airline's HQ be in Sydney rather than London, the centre of world aviation. BA's interest in a tie-up with Iberia continues, as airlines seek to consolidate in terrible trading conditions.

"Airlines slash fares to lowest levels since 1980s", trumpeted the front page of an evening newspaper. But Tim Jeans, chief executive of Monarch insists "In reality 2008 wasn't all that horrible after all. We flew more people on more planes than ever, and even managed to celebrate our 40 years in business."

What happens next?

"This is the most dangerous year to turn into I've ever seen," said Stephen Bath, managing director of Bath Travel. But Tim Jeans is more optimistic: "There's more choice than ever, and the airlines flying today have, for the most part, seen it all before – and survived."

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