Simon Calder: The ashen clouds will have a silver lining for travellers

Britain is far more exposed to this disruption than any other nation
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The Independent Online

Palms swayed in the breeze as the sun streamed down on a pretty garden where the predominant noise was birdsong. But the individuals who sought shade on a lazy spring afternoon were not holidaymakers sipping chilled cocktails: they were journalists swigging McDonald's coffee while reporting on the astonishing absence of holidaymakers, business travellers and anyone else whose immediate plans included air travel.

The location was the Renaissance Hotel on the Bath Road west of London, and specifically the grassy knoll that overlooks Heathrow's northerly runway. This is styled the "Media Garden" by the hotel management. Four weeks earlier, half-a-dozen television crews had been assigned there for the first day of the British Airways cabin-crew strike, in which all the talk was about how many planes were taking off.

Yesterday, the big story was a non-story, or more accurately the implausible tale of the closure of the skies – something that terrorism, bad weather and striking staff have never achieved. As the birds trilled and the reporters filed, the main event was the complete absence of airline traffic at Europe's busiest airport.

The larger they come, the harder they fall: Britain, as the main operating base for easyJet and Ryanair, is far more exposed to disruption than any other nation. The UK's airlines are losing something over £1m for every hour that the shutdown persists in pure revenue terms. The likely daily bill for fulfilling the duty of care – as stipulated by the European Union – is likely to run into several millions more, though evidence from stranded holidaymakers suggests that not all airlines are living up to their obligations. That is hardly surprising, since the rules on cancellation were never intended for circumstances such as these.

The business impact has reverberated across the UK: an extra seven or eight hundred London taxi drivers, for example, have been chasing a diminished amount of business in the centre of the capital. These are the cabs that would normally be waiting at Heathrow or London City for high-value fares.

Some hoteliers, particularly around the UK's airports, have never known such profitable times – but many more, especially beyond the capital, are losing business as intending foreign visitors become involuntary no-shows. Tourists who are stranded in Britain are cutting back on spending, affecting earnings at restaurants and attractions.

The airlines, though, are feeling far more pain than any other sector. Just as passenger loads and average fares were rising, an unprecedented closure of airspace catapulted them into haemorrhaging cash.

At present all the leading UK and Irish airlines have robust reserves; indeed, BA built up its cash pile to endure a protracted cabin-crew strike. But one expected consequence of the eruption is likely to be the accelerated consolidation that many industry analysts see as long overdue. Smaller airlines, which have struggled to break even over the past two difficult years, could well decide to throw in the towel and be swallowed up by hungry giants, especially Lufthansa, Air France and easyJet. So while the bill for the catastrophic closure will ultimately be met by travellers in the shape of higher fares, the endgame may also be a more rational, efficient airline industry.

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