Simon Calder: Even as the airline crashed, I could still buy a ticket

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk