Emily Thornberry has been critical of the coronavirus repatriation
Emily Thornberry has been critical of the coronavirus repatriation

Sniping at airlines for a soundbite doesn’t fly

Plane Talk: Many airlines have erred during the coronavirus crisis, but so have some politicians

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 14 April 2020 17:57
Comments

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry MP, has done valuable work on behalf of us all. So she deserves to be cut some slack in what are likely to be her final few days in the post.

Yet her intervention in the debate about bringing Brits home from abroad looks perplexing, to put it politely.

On BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, Ms Thornberry criticised the Foreign Office for its inaction in organising rescue flights for British travellers abroad – and in particular, the FCO’s recommendation for stranded citizens to use commercial airlines to get home.

“I know of a family of six from Yorkshire who went on holiday in Australia and have got stuck,” she said. “Commercial airlines have told them that they can get home – but it’ll cost them £61,000.

“There are airlines that are simply taking the mickey. There are airlines that cancel flights at one price and they put on another and it's much, much more.”

I have asked the shadow foreign secretary to provide more details of these “cancel-then-raise-fare” cases but have not yet had a response.

Her account of that unfortunate family being obliged to fork out more than £10,000 per person does not chime with the events I have seen unfold.

Because so many British travellers have been wanting to travel home to the UK from Australia, I have been watching fares – and the dwindling number of airlines – for the past week.

Qantas grounded its entire international fleet. Singapore Airlines was banned from carrying transit passengers. The UAE government took Abu Dhabi and Dubai (and therefore Etihad and Emirates) out of the equation.

As you would expect, prices rose as supply dried up.

Qatar Airways was left with the Australia-UK market almost to itself. Such was the demand that, for flights departing imminently, only business or first class was available – and on occasion those tickets topped £10,000 per person. But anyone who could wait a couple of days saw the price from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or Perth via Doha to the UK drop to a more reasonable £1,500.

Rivalry on what was, until this year, one of the most competitive routes in the world has not completely disappeared. British Airways is operating a daily flight from Sydney to Heathrow for at least another week. The standard fare is around £1,450 – still annoyingly high, but, in a shrinking market, much better than it could be.

That Yorkshire family of six would spend a total of around £9,000 once the onward northbound train is added on. Depending on the airline they should originally have travelled with, they may get some or all of that back. But I imagine they will judge it to be money well spent.

British Airways and Qatar Airways are providing a service at a time in which I have never known so much grief, stress and confusion over travel plans. Their ground staff, pilots and, especially, cabin crew are working in an environment which, however good the cabin air filters, may not be biohazard-free.

And the prices? Many of the routes are highly directional: all the demand is going one way. With the government in Canberra imposing new rules that mean any arrival is summarily marched off by police or the military to two weeks of incarceration, there is not huge demand from Australians currently in Britain to return to the “lucky country”.

Airlines bringing people home may well secure a competitive advantage. I think warmly of EgyptAir for bringing me safely from Cairo to London, and I imagine that gratitude is reciprocated for the 13,000 pounds I spent (of the Egyptian variety, which converts to £660) for a four-hour flight.

Journey through London's empty streets during coronavirus lockdown

When this dreadful spell is over, the role that airlines play in connecting the world is one of many things that needs to be reassessed.

Certainly, many airlines have erred during the coronavirus crisis. But sniping at carriers who are genuinely trying to do the right thing, for the sake of a soundbite, feels inappropriate.

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