Primera Air collapse: Why wasn't the public warned about the airline going bust?

The Man Who Pays His Way: ‘We must close now – so close to opening new frontiers,’ wrote the owner to his staff

Primera Air collapse: Travel plans wrecked as passengers stranded

“This is a letter I was hoping never to write,” began the final dispatch from the owner of Primera Air to his staff.

Andri Ingolfsson closed down the heavily indebted budget airline on 1 October, saying: “It is impossible to believe that this incredible journey has come to a sad end.”

Oh no, it isn’t. The demise of Primera Air is certainly sad for the owner and, more particularly, his staff and passengers. But it is far from an unprecedented or unexpected event.

A year earlier, a much older and more familiar airline, Monarch, perished in the intensely competitive environment of European aviation. Primera Air was aiming further, launching an extensive transatlantic network from Stansted and Birmingham. But within five months the airline was bust, owing millions of pounds to suppliers – and passengers, in the form of promised refunds and stipulated cancellation payouts.

All year I have been reporting on Primera Air’s broken promises: ditching its Birmingham-Boston route, reducing New York services from the Midlands from daily to four a week, and cancelling its launch service from Stansted to Toronto.

Instead of shiny new Airbus A321 aircraft, many passengers from Stansted to New York found themselves aboard an elderly Boeing 757 chartered from a Florida airline, or making an unexpected touchdown in Iceland.

Plenty of people, including some former Primera Air staff, have come forward over the summer with allegations about the airline’s financial health.

Almost since the first commercial carriers took to the skies a century ago, rumours have been circulating that airline X or Y is about to go bust. Often the stories are created by rivals, who of course stand to benefit if the prophecy is self-fulfilling and competition dwindles.

Primera Air, and any other airline I have ever questioned about its financial resilience, responds by insisting its business is on track and that funding is in place.

“Yes, but you’re selling transatlantic flights for under £100,” is not a helpful retort.

Offering seats at just above marginal cost (the expense involved in carrying one extra passenger) is nothing unusual in aviation. Sometimes selling at a loss can make sense, in the hope that ancillary revenue from seat allocation to inflight catering will make it cash-positive.

On Sunday, the most profitable airline in Europe, Ryanair, kindly flew me from Stansted to Belfast for one penny less than the Air Passenger Duty of £13 that it paid to the chancellor for the privilege of taking me.

Any airline will insist that its average selling price is quite healthy, thank you. And short of being invited to study the day-to-day accounts of an airline, neither you nor I can ever get the full picture of how many seats are selling, and at what price.

When you and I book a flight or any other travel product, we are buying a dream and taking a chance. Airline bankruptcy is merely one of the calamities that can ensue before (or worse, during) the trip.

All you can do is build in what you regard as being an acceptable degree of consumer protection – from the basic precaution of paying for the flights with a credit card, to the gold plating of buying the flying as part of a package holiday.

“We must close now – so close to opening new frontiers,” wrote Mr Ingolfsson. Perhaps he had in mind the improbable new schedules for 2019 that his airline had advertised and was still selling at 5pm, after staff had already been told Primera Air was no more.

Almost always, aviation keeps its promises: tens of thousands of people flew happily, cheaply and safely on Primera Air this summer. But in travel, as in life, not every dream comes true.

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