Simon Calder: Cabbie's advice for BA staff: work for tips
Saturday 27 June 2009
To see how bad things are for the world's airlines, look beyond the all-time low fares to a competitive destination such as Auckland in New Zealand (some seats still available at £379 return on Singapore Airlines). Instead, consider an Australasian city with meagre services – which usually means disproportionately high fares. Darwin, today's Destination of the Week (see page 13), is such a location.
In the olden days of flying, when planes could barely cross a river without stopping to refuel, Darwin was the first airport of call for Brits bound for Australia. Today, though, access is much trickier: British Airways has not flown there for years; Garuda Indonesia is banned from the EU on safety grounds, cutting off a popular route from the UK; and Qantas, Australia's national carrier, abandoned its daily flight from Singapore several years ago. Just the kind of destination, then, where airlines can cash in.
In fact, you can find a return trip to the Top End of Australia for a rock-bottom £500, using a combination of Air France/KLM and Qantas's no-frills offshoot, Jetstar.
The gloomy state of the aviation industry was accentuated by BA's latest cull at Gatwick. Spanish routes to Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga and Palma are being surrendered to easyJet and Monarch, with Gibraltar (shifting to Heathrow) completing the Iberian retreat.
Krakow, Malta and Pisa also vanish from BA's departure screens at Gatwick, and Varna in Bulgaria will disappear for the winter, reappearing in the schedules next spring.
Might there be some green shoots of recovery by then? Not according to Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive. "There is no evidence of that in our industry and things will be very tough for a considerable time," he says. "This is now a very deep and protracted recession."
Another airline boss is far more cheerful. "The good news is that we think it has stopped getting worse," said Dale Moss as his airline celebrated its first birthday. He is managing director of OpenSkies, the carrier set up a year ago to take advantage of the new freedom of the skies between the EU and the US, operating a three-class Boeing from Amsterdam and Paris to New York. That was the original plan, anyway; the economy cabin was soon ditched. Mr Moss also paid £54m for a rival all-business-class airline, L'Avion. At the time, the combined value of such airlines from the UK to the US had sunk to zero: MaxJet, Eos and Silverjet went bust in succession.
Marc Rochet, founder and chief executive of L'Avion, can surely scarcely believe his luck at converting his start-up into so much hard cash. He even got a bit of paintwork to celebrate his short-lived but very profitable venture: "The name 'OpenSkies' will be written in purple on the planes' fuselage, mixing in tones of L'Avion's signature purple as a tribute to that airline".
Since Mr Moss foresees an imminent upturn, perhaps the artist could dab a few green shoots of recovery on the fuselage while he's at it.
The investment in L'Avion may yet prove wise. But had Mr Moss waited a few more months, he might have picked up the airline for more like 54p. And that could have saved 800 people taking unpaid holiday jobs at their own airline.
Given the divergence between the optimism of Mr Moss and the pessimism of Mr Walsh, you might imagine that OpenSkies and BA operate on different planets. In fact, the former is a subsidiary of the latter, and Mr Moss's boss is Mr Walsh – who has just persuaded 800 staff to work unpaid in the airline's "fight for survival". Their next meeting may prove interesting. Meanwhile, a London cabbie named Mark Clayton has contacted me to offer an upgrade to the work-for-nothing idea: soliciting tips from passengers.
As a taxi driver, Mr Clayton is not unaccustomed to gratuities for good service. His proposal goes like this. You find on your seat an envelope with the following message: "Thank you for travelling with BA. We are not being paid by our employer to look after you today. If, at the end of your flight, you feel you have received good service, you may wish to leave a tip, to be shared by the crew."
BA's rules would need to change: the airline forbids ground staff and cabin crew from accepting tips. But Mr Clayton says: "I would certainly tip knowing the crew were making a sacrifice. On a Boeing 747 they could pick up a huge wad of cash."
You might think twice about flying on an aircraft where the crew are working for tips, but travellers' lore suggests that largesse can get results. It is widely held that, on a certain southern European airline, a large cash tip to cabin crew could buy an instant upgrade; and a whip-round between passengers on a Russian domestic flight once persuaded the captain to divert to their preferred Moscow airport.
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Virgin Atlantic never misses an opportunity to capitalise on its rival's discomfort. This week, the airline's president, Sir Richard Branson, accused Willie Walsh of "talking his airline into an early grave". But the bearded billionaire's baby is facing tough times, too. Virgin has firm orders for 15 of the much-hyped Boeing 787 "Dreamliner", whose maiden flight has been delayed yet again.
While Branson's airline waits for the fuel efficiency and improved passenger comfort promised for the new 787, it has ordered 10 Airbus A330s.
As another Boeing delivery date goes west, though, Virgin could have gone east to fill the gaps in its fleet.
From 29 July, UK travellers will get the chance to fly on an Ilyushin 96. This wide-bodied jet has found few takers beyond Russia, where it is built; an order for five from Air Zimbabwe fell through, and Air Libya has yet to take delivery of its pair. But Cubana has shown touching loyalty to its former benefactors in Moscow, and will use the aircraft to restart services from Gatwick to Havana (pictured) – head-to-head against Virgin's jumbo.
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