26 APRIL 2010


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Article from BTNews 26 APRIL 2010

COMMENT - Safe Flying, Passengers Rights and Business Sense

This week has seen a number of key things happen and I am sure we all will have some kind of opinion. First the volcano has thrown up a number of problems relating to air travel.

The Icelandic volcano is still giving headaches to the UK Met Office and National Air Transport Services (NATS). As they repeatedly say the situation is dynamic and can change hour by hour. The only thing that everyone wants is to be safe when flying, both the authorities and airlines agree but when the skies over Europe were blanketed with layer of ash then someone had to do something, it appears that first some flights were made by monitoring aircraft followed by airliners flying along the same route. Then comparing the test data and seeing if it was possible to fly safely in the skies.

Thankfully, the regulations were changed but still have some restrictions which are sensible. The situation is dynamic and can change so an area of sky will be clear one day but not the next, but with this kind of restriction at least some flying can take place and areas of dense ash can be avoided.

Many of these airlines were losing cash and need to get their aircraft flying again, after all a plane on ground does not make any money but the authorities are taking the right stance, safety is the most important matter in all cases.

It is important for anyone who travels to be as safe as it can be made and there is enough evidence from previous experience of flying through ash clouds to say that is has a higher risk of engine failure so should be considered dangerous, but now it is safe to fly through lower density of ash clouds and that is good for all, of course if aircraft experience problems then that must be reported to the authorities immediately and the appropriate actions taken. That is paramount to continue safe flying.

Once it had been proved to be safe flying through a lower density of ash and then agreed with all concerned, the authorities, airlines, regulators, airframe and engine manufacturers the airspace was deemed to be safe but with conditions and restrictions, again safety is paramount and must always remain so.

I applaud everyone for what they did in this matter. Their efforts got the planes back in the sky.

The second thing is passengers rights, under current EU law, airlines must provide accommodation and food for any delays incurred whether it is their fault or not. The law is EU261/2004 but the airlines complained about it then and the volcano has proved how damaging it can be to the airlines, a number of airlines have considered taking to the courts but have decided against it, knowing that they would lose. How can it be fair for a passenger who buys a very cheap ticket, then an incident which is outside the control of the airline expect to be given accommodation and food far in excess of the value of the ticket by that airline. Very good for passenger but very bad for the airlines, this law is unfair in this volcanic situation and needs to be changed.

The principle of EU261/2004 is to make airlines that delay or cancel flights because of technical difficulties under their control responsible for the accommodation and food for all passengers involved. That is what this law was meant to be, to protect passengers from airlines just abandoning them when it was the airline’s problem not when it was an act of god.

Again, most insurance companies won’t issue policies that cover acts of god, so the vast majority of passengers that are making their way home by surface means, are having to find the money out of their own pockets. Many thousands are still stranded as you read these words, struggling to get home.

The UK government did try and help but the crisis proved too great for them, they thought about using the Royal Navy and that brought a little hope but that plan was soon stopped. They did collect returning troops from Afghanistan and took some 200 stranded passengers from the Spanish port of Santander, well done for that. Now more passengers stranded in Spain have returned on a cruise ship, the Celebrity Eclipse that sailed from Bilbao with over 2,000 passengers. The tour operators came to the aid of those passengers.

Again, everyone is making for the French channel ports, did the government think there would not be thousands of people turning up with little or no money. Well that is exactly what did happened and sad stories of frustrated and almost desperate people trying to get home. The long lines of people reminded me of lines of refugees fleeing from conflict carrying all their worldly goods.

It is all well and good that the ferry companies say they can cope but again you here stories of passengers waiting for hours to board a cross channel ferry, some even having to buy bicycles to be allowed to board.

Well in a few weeks we will get back to normal but all of us will have memories of that Icelandic volcano. Those involved in transport had better take a few crisis management courses because some did not come out of this crisis very well. On the other hand quite a few travellers did triumph over adversity.

Terry Spruce, Guest Editor


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