Thursday, 29 April 2010

Iceland’s volcanic ash menace, but Ferry operators laugh all the way to the bank

Commentators are calling it “A pain in the ash”: The gigantic cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano has disrupted 5000 domestic and international flights to date. This is the biggest flight disruption since the 2001 terrorist attacks; travellers have been stranded across six continents. The ash is especially dangerous for aircraft, as it can be sucked into their engines, cause them to stall and fall out of the sky. Experts say it could take days before international flights can resume normally. The cloud of thick ash has been spreading since the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in a remote part of Iceland on 14 April.

British, Irish and European ferry operators are not complaining, though, as desperately stranded passengers look to rail and ferry links to cross the English Channel and the Irish Sea. P&O Ferries told Fairplay that demand for its services was “unprecedented” since airports had been closed across the UK and parts of Europe. “It is the busiest day we’ve had, bar none,” spokesperson Brian Rees said. “We can’t book any more foot passengers on our Dover services until Monday.” Rees added that there were so many calls from customers that they were going unanswered, and the company website was “struggling to deal with the additional workload”.

Ferries were particularly busy on cross Channel services. All have reported a huge increase in traffic: Mr. Phil Jones, Chief Executive of Fastnet Line that operates between Swansea and Cork spoke of an "uplift" in bookings. So did Irish Ferries and Stena Line, and P&O announced an extra service between Dover and Calais. Ferries operating to France and the Netherlands were less swamped, although Brittany Ferries saw a huge increase in numbers of travellers at Santander looking to return to the UK from Spain.

Passenger Shipping Association director Bill Gibbon confirmed the massive increase in ferry customer bookings. “Ferry members have reported unprecedented demand for both foot passenger and car bookings in the last 24 hours. Stena Line reported more than a 50% increase in business and a six-fold increase in online activity, whilst SeaFrance has reported a huge surge in bookings with an increase of 100% in foot passengers alone, with car bookings increasing by 120%. P&O Ferries took more than 3,000 foot passengers overnight whilst Irish Ferries have announced an increase in bookings, a 200% increase in calls and a surge in visits to its website. LD Lines has also experienced a 50% increase in bookings for both foot and car passengers”.

Many business travellers and tourists alike have been caught flat footed by the whole of Europe suddenly becoming a ‘no fly zone’. Some celebrities too, Whitney Houston amongst them. The singer and her entourage were forced to take a three-hour ferry ride to Dublin to be in time for a scheduled concert, driving from Birmingham to Dublin via the ferry.

Some experts say that the demand for ferry services may receive a boost long after the cloud has dispersed. "We have never experienced such a travel situation, and ferries are proving they are a reliable and valuable alternative way to travel to and from the continent. This will continue to be the case long after the volcanic ash cloud has gone on its way," says Gibbon.

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