September 20, 2008

How XL’s Demise Prompted Flights of Fancy By the Media

By Simon Calder

Stranded: a word that, over the past week, has acquired some interesting new meanings. Because I am presently stranded at my desk, unable to reach a real dictionary without getting out of my chair, let me see what my word processor offers: "aground, ashore, beached, grounded, marooned, wrecked". Yet, since the collapse eight days ago of the XL Leisure Group, certain sections of the media have used "stranded" to describe people who are on holiday. If a stranding merely involves sitting by the pool and ordering another cocktail, I'll be first in line to volunteer for the ordeal.

The trigger was, of course, that collapse of XL - a collection of companies that had expanded way beyond financial reason to become the third-largest tour operator in Britain. Imagine if the population of Crawley - around 85,000 people - were scattered across half the globe, at resorts clustered around 50 airports from Egypt to the Caribbean. They are due to fly home over the next two weeks, on an airline whose planes have been, er, stranded by airport operators demanding payment of outstanding charges. To allow everyone to complete their holidays and get home would require a "shadow" airline to be set up from scratch. And, by and large, that is what happened.

The financial plug was pulled on XL at 2.50am on 12 September - just as the check-in desks at Gatwick were due to open for the airline's 5am flight to Menorca. Over 100 prospective passengers were aghast to learn that their holidays were cancelled and they were stranded at Gatwick. An equal and opposite number of travellers were en route to Menorca's airport, where they would discover that there was no plane to take them home.

But even as they fumed, an extraordinary operation was taking shape in a central-London office building - the HQ of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), responsible for everything from checking the safety credentials of UK airlines to running the Atol scheme that protects peoples' money and repatriates holidaymakers whose tour operator has gone bust.

To do serious people-moving, you need serious people, and that's what the CAA brought in. Travel-industry stalwart Roger Allard, who runs Voyages of Discovery and Swan Hellenic, was brought in to set up repatriation flights, along with Alan Murray from Monarch, the airline with decades of expertise in chartering aircraft.

Together with a team from the CAA, TUI and Thomas Cook, they set about mimicking as closely as possible the XL schedule. On the day of the collapse, more than 1,000 people were due to fly back from Tenerife. So three jumbo jets were mustered from Greece and sent to the Canaries. Meanwhile, British Airways sent a Boeing 777 to Orlando to pick up several hundred XL passengers who presumably couldn't believe their luck - especially those who had anticipated charter-flight conditions, yet slept all the way on a Club World flat bed.

Some package holidaymakers were stranded, but in a reasonably pleasant manner. Early on Friday morning, for example, a flight was due to leave for the Greek island of Skiathos. Landing at the unusual airport of this beautiful isle is rather a challenge for pilots, so only certain aircraft are allowed in, commanded by specially trained pilots. Meeting those conditions proved impossible on the day, so holidaymakers were given hotel rooms and meals until the flight could be organised.

There were some ugly scenes at Larnaca airport in Cyprus, where some passengers were obliged to wait for a day or more because of flight delays. But thanks to creative thinking, the vast majority of the estimated 85,000 XL clients abroad when the plug was pulled were never grounded, marooned or wrecked. They were on holiday. And when it was time to go home, they boarded the transfer bus and went to the airport.

The collapse of XL certainly wrecked the job prospects for the 1,700 staff and proved expensive for many people on flight-only deals. But the response in some quarters was exaggerated. A woman in Corfu interviewed by the BBC's Breakfast programme demanded the immediate presence of the British Consul. And at least one newspaper described the operation as an evacuation to rival Dunkirk. As far as I know, no retreating passengers found themselves in open boats under enemy fire.

A tale of three cities

When, in 1989, I travelled to Istanbul for the first in The Independent's 48 Hours city-break series, I flew on another now- defunct airline: Caledonian Airways. Even in those pre-no-frills days, the price was agreeable: 109 for a two-night stay, including flights and transfers. Then, scarcely any attention was paid to the effects of air travel on the planet.

As fares fell and horizons expanded, we extended the reach of 48 Hours around the globe - New York and Hong Kong became realistic targets for weekend stays.

From today, however, we are taking a fresh approach. The concept remains the same, but often we will be presenting cities in sequences that can realistically be combined into longer trips, opening up the prospect of covering three locations in a week, say.

Ben Crichton's 48 Hours in Istanbul, on pages 10-11, will be followed by the city of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the following week by Athens. Look out also for a Venice-Rome-Naples trilogy, and a festive Christmas market trio along the Rhine.

As always, we welcome your suggestions on how we can do things better.

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