Time to fix the date for Easter to ease the airport squeeze
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 30 March 2013
As far as I can tell, the travel industry was not represented at the First Council of Nicaea. This event in AD325 was where, you will recall, Easter was defined as the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox.
Today, the early Christians' decision generates consternation each spring among airlines, holiday companies and travellers.
The commemoration of the resurrection is the holiest Christian festival. But if you don't mind me saying so, the decision about the date of Easter Sunday looks arbitrary. Indeed, the Orthodox church computes a different date to commemorate Christ's sacrifice, and will mark the event during the first week in May.
Eighteen centuries after the historic meeting near present-day Istanbul, our early Easter places huge stress on the limited resources of the travel industry – and the traveller. Over this weekend, Britain's roads, railways and (particularly) airports will be overstretched. You may reasonably point out that any weekend when Friday and Monday are additional days off will cause a spike in bookings. But when Easter falls in March, the consequences are dismal.
This year, the latest plausible date when the school holidays can begin is Good Friday, on 28 March. That means the weekend coincides with the great end-of-term getaway. Add in the pressure from late-season skiers, and the number of people who regard the UK as simply too cold before April, and there are too many passengers chasing too few planes.
The solution: fix Easter as the second Sunday in April, with school holidays beginning the previous Monday. A couple of weeks closer to summer will improve the chance that Britain's weather will be bright rather than bleak, which will be excellent news for the UK economy.
Those who choose to make a four-day break will not add to the congestion, because they can depart in the middle of the school holidays. If you happen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, congratulations on the new job and please take note. The rest of us using Britain's airports must simply pray that the experience won't be too grim.
Maiden flight from MAN to LHR
It all goes weird between Manchester and London this weekend. On Sunday, Virgin Atlantic finds itself competing head-on with two transport enterprises. One is the traditional foe, British Airways. The other is, er, Virgin Trains.
At 6.50am on Easter Sunday morning, Sir Richard Branson's airline returns to short-haul flying: from Manchester to Heathrow. Or rather Virgin Atlantic charters a plane, plus crew, from Aer Lingus to operate the flight on its behalf. In April, routes from Aberdeen and Edinburgh to Heathrow will follow. Virgin's two previous attempts at short haul, from Gatwick to Maastricht and Heathrow to Athens, proved unsuccessful. So why is the airline using precious slots at Heathrow for domestic shuttles?
The Manchester route is a defensive response to the takeover of BMI by BA, and the unhelpful geography of Heathrow. Since last year, all Manchester flights to and from the UK's main hub have been concentrated at Terminal 5. This is the BA-only facility at the extreme west of Heathrow. Transfers to other Terminal 5 flights are easy. But transfers to Virgin's flights from Terminal 3, in the central area, are a real pain.
Given that BA and Virgin offer very similar fares and equally high inflight standards, business travellers bound for long-haul destinations fly Manchester-Heathrow on BA and then board a bus to switch to Virgin Atlantic. The new link is not ideal, since it serves Terminal 1, but at least it is within walking distance and allows Sir Richard Branson's airline to sell all-Virgin tickets.
For more on the new route, plus BA's decision to abandon the Gatwick-Manchester link, and other changes, see this week's Inside Travel.
Is 60 the new 40?
Manchester airport will struggle to cope this weekend, according to one of its biggest airlines, easyJet. The carrier has warned passengers that Manchester – as well as Luton airport – will be "operating at full capacity" over the weekend.
"There is a likelihood that there will be congestion at security screening due to increased passenger volumes," says the airline.
Accordingly easyJet has spent the past week telling travellers that its check-in deadlines have changed: "To help you we will be opening check-in at three hours before departure and will close one hour prior to departure."
Ahead of a stressful weekend, easyJet told passengers that the airport goalposts had moved: the usual 40-minute check-in deadline at both airports was being increased to 60 minutes this weekend. Could it jeopardise the travel plans of thousands of travellers using Manchester and Luton? No, because the customary 40-minute limit remains. An easyJet spokeswoman described the warning as "just a note to encourage people to check in early and allow more time. Check-in won't close early".
A movable feast, indeed. Warning passengers about possible airport delays, and urging them to allow extra time, is commendable. But easyJet was actually misleading passengers, and no doubt increasing stress levels, by exaggerating the risk of their missing a flight.
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