Simon Calder: Do nine out of 10 flyers really prefer Holland?
Saturday 11 July 2009
The industry of human happiness? These days, the travel business rarely feels like that. Despondency runs deep; not so much because of what is happening this month and next, but what the rest of the year looks like.
In the short term, prospects for tour operators look quite rosy. Package holidays are commanding high prices for departures in July and August, thanks to swingeing capacity cuts. But the melancholy of autumn is likely to be intense for many airlines and holiday companies.
Who's to blame? Many parts of the travel industry point a finger at the usual suspects: the Government, and in particular the Chancellor's plans to change Air Passenger Duty (APD) rates in November, and again a year later. By the end of next year, the present £40 tax for travellers to Australia will increase to £85.
The pilots' union, Balpa, warns: "At a time when the worldwide aviation industry is suffering, the UK Chancellor is going to suffocate his very own industry." The headline figure of the survey Balpa commissioned about the APD rise has been widely reported: "90 per cent of adults would prefer to fly to Amsterdam to connect with their long-haul flight."
Clearly, if nine out of 10 long-haul travellers were to take a short hop to Holland to escape APD, the consequences forBritish pilots – and their cabin crew colleagues – would be dire. But the scenario that 1,000 online respondents were asked to respond to is so far-fetched that it renders the survey meaningless.
"You are travelling to Australia from a regional airport in the UK; such as Birmingham, Manchester or Edinburgh. This journey would involve a transfer on to a long-haul aircraft at a large international airport. When booking your tickets, you are told that you would pay £85 less in Air Passenger Tax per person by transferring in Amsterdam than you would if you transferred at London Heathrow. Given the choice, if you actually decided to make this journey, which route would you prefer to take?"
Let's leave aside the fact that most long-haul travellers from the UK fly from Heathrow or Gatwick rather than from regional airports, and that paying £85 less in APD would apply only if you flew to Schiphol on a private jet, which is tax-free; otherwise, you would have to pay £12 in tax for the hop to Amsterdam.
The survey's scenario assumes that you buy separate tickets: one to the Dutch capital, and another from there to Australia. At present, the vast majority of UK travellers changing planes at Amsterdam (or Paris, or Frankfurt) travel on a through ticket and therefore pay the full, long-haul rate of APD. They do this not because they enjoy paying tax, but because even after handing Alistair Darling £40, long-haul fares from the UK are usually lower than from Continental Europe.
Consider a trip to Sydney on 1 November this year. Through the online agent Expedia, you can easily get a return flight from Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic, pausing in Hong Kong, for £731. The best fare that the Dutch version of Expedia offers for an Amsterdam-Sydney flight on those dates is £847 return (plus £96 for the London-Amsterdam hops).
In return for paying £242, you would get a convoluted trip that involves a hop from Amsterdam to Frankfurt and a transfer to a Qantas flight that stops in Singapore en route to Sydney; inbound, you touch down in Bangkok and change planes in, er, London.
Amsterdam is not the world centre of aviation; nor, for that matter, is New York, Paris or Tokyo. London's airports offer far more choice and better value than anywhere else. My personal APD bill will increase by hundreds of pounds when the tax rise takes effect, but Britain remains the optimum country from which to begin a long journey.
Passport fees constitute a poll tax for travellers. You need this expensive document, which incidentally works out as a flat-rate tax of 2p for each day of validity, whether you merely want a day trip to Calais, a domestic flight on Ryanair or, like me, you spend your entire life on holiday while pretending to work.
In the past 12 years retail prices have gone up by around 30 per cent, while "passport inflation" is running at 300 per cent. That's not counting the next rise, from 3 September, which sees the cost of a standard passport leap by £5.50 to £77.50.
To avoid the hike, check your passport expiry date now. Does it run out in the next nine months? Renew now and you get credit for the unused time; a passport replacing one due to expire on 11 April 2010 will be valid to the same date in 2020.
Passports: a big business
Not all passports are equal. You can, like me, opt to pay £13 extra for a "Jumbo" passport with 16 more pages for frontier functionaries to stamp, sign and scrutinise to their bureaucratic hearts' content. When I touched down on the first flight from Stansted to Zadar in Croatia, I was touched that the immigration official should date-stamp the document on the very last page, perhaps in a vain bid to keep things alphabetical (Australia was already there). But what possible justification can there be for charging frequent travellers nearly £1 for every additional passport page? A question for James Hall, chief executive of the Identity and Passport Service.
"We don't issue very many 'Jumbo' passports. It requires a completely different production line, so the costs are significantly higher than a standard passport." There is one more good reason: the price of a passport includes the "Consular Premium", a whip-round to pay for UK consular services abroad. Standard passport holders chip in £15.12; "Jumbo" travellers pay 50 per cent more: statistically, we are more likely to call on consular help.
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