Three years ago this week, planes heading for Gatwick were ending up all over the place. The mysterious drone (which, say some, never existed), hovering close to the runway, forced dozens of diversions to distant airports and mass cancellations – wrecking the Christmas travel plans of 150,000 people.
Arriving in the right country had to be counted a success, even if it was Liverpool or Newcastle; some aircraft touched down in Ireland, France and the Netherlands.
On every flight, pilots have planned diversionary airports and can touch down with alacrity.
So why, when France abruptly instituted a travel ban on arrivals from the UK, didn’t the ferry firms simply navigate away from Calais and Dunkirk towards Ostend and Zeebrugge?
With no travel ban in force by Belgium, British motorists would be able to drive off towards the Alps without further ado. Absurdly, they could even quite legally drive over the border to Calais or Dunkirk, though this would clearly breach the spirit of the French ban.
Anyway, it is academic: because channeling capacity away from France and into Belgium for an indeterminate length of time is a much more challenging undertaking than landing a plane at an airport.
Unlike airports used for ad-hoc landings – for which the main requirement is a long, well-lit strip of asphalt or concrete – ferries need some serious docking infrastructure, the port staff to operate it and officials to process people and vehicles. A week before Christmas is not the ideal time to organise all this.
Next, the wide choice of cross-Channel routes and competing ferry firms that British travellers enjoy is partly down to the relentless amount of freight between the UK and France.
Trucks underpin the business model of ferry lines. Imagine informing haulage companies that the 90-minute trip from Dover to Calais or two-hour voyage to Dunkirk is extended by an hour or two and arrives in a different nation. It would damage already precarious supply chains in the short-term and customer relations in the long term.
The hope of the entire UK travel industry is that the French will realise the futility of their ban and end it as abruptly as it began.
You may recall that France provided around 36 hours’ notice of closing its frontiers to British travellers, triggering a rush for the ports as well as airports and international rail terminals.
In the final, frenzied 24 hours before the ban took effect, ferry lines serving France were faced with an unprecedented spike in traffic as travellers tried to reach Continental Europe before the restrictions began.
DFDS alone carried around 7,000 passengers on its routes from Dover to Calais and Dunkirk. The queues were formidable, but to compensate everyone was offered a free meal on board. You don’t get that on budget airlines, in my experience.
Ferry lines are not averse to some quick thinking on routes. Over the summer, Stena Line temporarily instituted a Holyhead-Belfast route because of changing demand patterns as a result of travel restrictions. And if you can remember as far back as May this year, Portugal was the sole major European nation on the UK “green list” from which quarantine was not required.
Brittany Ferries was in advanced negotiations about a possible link from Portsmouth to Porto. In the event, constantly shifting government policies meant that the connection did not go ahead. But one day …
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