Hamish McRae is not merely a fine ski writer; he is also the planet's leading financial commentator. So, a good chap to talk to in a crisis.
How does the guru calibrate the downturn facing the economy. "Probably not as bad as the early Nineties," Hamish told me over a cup of tea in our canteen, "though it could become it."
Now, you may have unwisely put all your savings into now-worthless shares in a demutualised and recklessly run former building society. If so, your holiday horizons may extend no further than Bradford – home to the splendid, and free, National Media Museum – or perhaps Bingley, where there happens to be a lovely canalside walk to the 1853 Gallery at Saltaire, also gratis. But anyone with the good fortune of a steady income and/or some cash in the bank, this isn't the worst of times to travel – it's the best of times.
1991 was an annus horribilis for plenty of people in the travel industry: a transatlantic airline, Pan Am, collapsed, and there was a huge tour-operator failure in the shape of ILG (best known for the Intasun brand and Air Europe). The parallels with 2008 (Eos, Silverjet, XL) are remarkable – as is the present puny pound. So the way Britain's travel firms responded in 1991 indicates what might happen now. In short, it will be a buyer's market. And today the traveller starts from an even more advantageous position.
Example: in 1991 I flew to Athens for a then-remarkable £45 each way, on an Air UK Leisure charter. One catch was that I had to travel from London to Manchester to board the flight, which I gladly did because the fare was so good. Last week I flew from Gatwick to Athens for £46 on easyJet. In the intervening 17 years retail prices have risen by 50 per cent, and the cost of oil has trebled. So paying a pound more doesn't seem too bad.
In the early Nineties the whole airline business was traumatised by the first Gulf War and worldwide recession. It took a recently privatised British Airways to startle the world. "The world's biggest offer" was exactly what it said on the sides of the airline's fleet.
Facing load factors on some flights as low as 11 per cent (meaning eight out of nine seats flew empty), BA took drastic action.
Anyone who had already booked to fly on 23 April 1991 found that they would travel for free – their fare was reimbursed. All the remaining seats on that day were raffled. Most of the 20 million who applied failed to get a freebie, but there was plenty of consolation to be found in the fares that BA offered to fill its empty planes.
"It had exactly the intended effect, basically to kick-start travel," recalls Jamie Bowden, who coordinated what was known in-house as the "Up and Awayday" at Heathrow Terminal 1.
At the time, £299 return on the airline's premier route between Heathrow and New York was an excellent deal; today, as winter approaches, it is a commonplace fare. Yet when jet services began between London and New York, exactly 50 years ago today, the fare was higher: £310 return. That momentous maiden flight was operated by BOAC. The company's successor, BA, says that in today's money the fare works out at £5,220, slightly more than Club World.
The plane was a De Havilland Comet 4. I first became acquainted with this sleek aircraft at the start of my travel career, as a cleaner at Gatwick. By then, her career was almost over.
The tiny windows allowed only meagre light into a cabin that had a lot less headroom than today's no-frills aircraft. With only two seats on each side of the aisle, though, there was a strange sense of exclusivity – surprising, given that the Comet ended her days as a charter jet shuttling holidaymakers to Athens and back. She has been deposed by the garish orange Airbuses of easyJet and the blue Boeings of BA and Ryanair.
Air travel's glamour has long disappeared into the blue, but jet travel is now a mass movement. This winter it will prove better value than ever. If you can afford to go on holiday, you should. Millions of workers in Britain and beyond depend for a living on you and me investing in travel, near and far. In this bear market the correct strategy is to behave like a bull in a travel shop. Otherwise the world really will be in trouble. Ask Hamish.
Will Abta decide to go Dutch?
How grim was 1991 for the British travel industry? So bad that the Abta convention planned for Orlando, Florida was cancelled. Instead, the lucky delegates enjoyed an autumn assembly in Llandudno. But this year, the industry's annual get-together is taking place as scheduled at Maspalomas in Gran Canaria.
Good news for the resort's bar-owners – and also for easyJet, which is flying out Abta's top brass from Gatwick this afternoon. I shall be on board, too, having stumped up a painful £223 for today's one-way flight. (Next weekend the fare falls to £128 for the same hop.)
Presumably on the basis that the holiday industry can't have enough holidays, next year there will be two Abta conventions: one in the UK and the other abroad.
In these straitened times, Abta could return to the location of its very first convention – Brighton 1951 – for the home leg, and easy-to-reach Rotterdam, the surprising choice for Abta's first overseas foray in 1970.Reuse content