Simon Calder: Even as the airline crashed, I could still buy a ticket
Saturday 13 September 2008
One hundred and one uses for an XL Airways ticket? In aeronautical terms, I can think of only one: to make a paper aeroplane.
Luckily, in the early hours of yesterday, I stopped one click short of buying a worthless promise.
Even after midnight, while a statement to the media was being prepared, the XL.com website put on a brave face. The front page paraded tempting offers for Summer 2009 holidays, while the booking engine readily accepted all my personal details for a flight from Gatwick to Tenerife next month, price £281. Had I made that final click, I believe I would have been the last person ever to buy an XL Airways ticket, and this morning the proud owner of a particularly expensive, delta-winged paper plane.
By the time the first passengers turned up for the 5am from Gatwick to Menorca to learn of the airline's one-way ticket to oblivion, the cheerful optimism of the website had subsided to the sombre statement: "We are currently performing essential maintenance." Yet the chirpy soul on the airline's answering machine said: "We fly to a range of beautiful beach destinations, from Egypt, Portugal and the Canaries, to Greece and Turkey."
At Gatwick's bleak dawn, the realisation that XL Airways flew to none of the above soon turned to anger. As passengers turned up to be turned away from flights, the main emotion was outrage. Travel is not supposed to be like this; it is meant be the industry of human happiness, dispensing dreams for hard-earned cash.
But a quarter of a million dreams disappeared overnight, and about 2,000 XL staff found their careers had vanished, too.
Outrageous? No, just a sad reflection of the willing suspension of disbelief that permeates the airline industry, where groundless optimism prevails until the planes are grounded.
Over the past decade, we passengers have connived in this madness – enjoying the twin trends of steadily falling fares and ever-widening travel opportunities. I savoured the subsidy from KLM shareholders of £20 for each flight I made on the short-lived no-frills venture Buzz, and I still bag loss-leader fares at every opportunity. But the perfect storm is now raging: rising oil prices, dwindling consumer confidence and sterling plummeting faster than a Boeing 737 with a depressurisation issue.
XL Airways is the sixth over-ambitious, under-capitalised airline serving the UK to fail since 24 December last year, and before Christmas Eve comes around again, there will be more casualties.
All of which will raise the spirits of some travel industry executives. They are among the few beneficiaries of the failure. Last night, tour operators and airline bosses may have raised a glass to the demise of another airline. Reduced competition means fares will rise, possibly to the levels where sustained profitability is a realistic possibility.
Perhaps the tearful demise of XL Airways will prove to be part of the messy, painful corrections the industry needs. With fewer, stronger airlines, the theory goes, we will end up paying more to travel the planet – but reduce the risk of another collapse.
Yet the XL Airways collapse could fuel a dangerous dip in confidence. If the third-largest UK tour operator can fail so spectacularly, travellers may conclude, is any company safe?
"Yes," is the short and simple answer. Britain has the singular good fortune to be the main hub for at least five formidable and rock-solid airlines. British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and BMI may face some uncomfortable turbulence this winter, but will weather the storm.
If not them, then – who's next? Over the past few months, a fashion has emerged in the airline community for furtive comparisons of notebook entries showing likely casualties.
Sorry to disappoint, but I have no intention of revealing mine.
Suffice it to say that, next Tuesday, I fly out to Greece on easyJet. I did not bother to buy the extra protection a credit card brings, because there is no earthly possibility of the bright orange airline waning any time soon. But I return next weekend on a different airline, for which I have paid by credit card – in case the precious token of transportation turns out to be just another paper plane.
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