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'DAMP SQUIB' STRIKE AND AA GOES UNDER
By Joe Brancatelli
How often does this happen: Disaster is predicted for London's Heathrow Airport. Chaos is expected at any British airport that accepts U.S.-originating flights. Then nothing actually happens.
It's a post-Thanksgiving miracle--or a pre-Christmas miracle. Or just a bit of blind luck.
The public-sector strike in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, November 30, was called a "damp squib" by prime minister David Cameron. That is a political assessment, of course--in fact, schools were closed, thousands of operations were cancelled and there were widespread disruptions--but it was accurate as far as the airports were concerned. If anything, customs and immigrations procedures went faster than usual and there were very few problems.
Mark this one as the nightmare that wasn't, especially when you consider that BAA, the company that operates Heathrow, was predicting massive tarmac holds and 12-hour arrival delays.
Of course, it wasn't a totally uneventful week. American Airlines, the third-largest carrier in the United States, did declare Chapter 11. And the business-travel community yawned.
This is how we covered it. And, as usual, this unfolds backward, with the latest items at the top, just like a Pinter play.
11/30/11, 7:30PM ET, WEDNESDAY
London Versus Los Angeles on Strike Day
FlightStats.com says that 27 flights were cancelled today at London Heathrow airport and 65 more were delayed. That's not much different than a normal day at Heathrow. By contrast, 19 flights have dropped at LAX so far today and 149 have been delayed. It was high winds, not a border-agent strike, at LAX.
11/30/11, 8:30AM ET, WEDNESDAY
Urgent! Breaking News! Nothing Happened!
Surprisingly, there has been very little disruption at British Airports this morning due to the strike of U.K. Border Control agents.
To counteract the strike at London/Heathrow and other airports, British bureaucrats have drafted all sorts of volunteers to fill the gap. Soldiers, airport executives, Whitehall apparatchiks and, as far as I know, Precious, the coffee lady from the Come Fly With Me TV spoof. Add a clear determination to keep people moving, some rigid pre-departure checks from airlines dispatching flights to Britain and a strong tailwind over the Atlantic that led to U.S.-originating flights arriving up to an hour early and you have little to no delays to clear British customs and immigrations.
The strike lasts until midnight tonight British time, so there's plenty of time for disruption, I suppose. But mark this one, so far, as a business-travel bullet dodged.
11/30/11, 12:30AM ET, WEDNESDAY
Okay, Here We Go...
As the United Kingdom braces for a public-sector strike that could involve 2 million employees in many areas of government, our eyes are on the striking border-control agents at Britain's airports. The first overnight flights from the United States should be touching down soon, so I suspect we'll hear soon enough if the predicted chaos at London/Heathrow materializes.
At least two leading British media outlets are live blogging events around the nation. The left-leaning Guardian is covering developments here while the BBC is painting a word picture here.
For the record, very few flights were cancelled ahead of the strike at the airports. Air India cancelled a few, as did Etihad. One can assume that loads on the flights that do operate might be slightly lower as travelers opt to skip their scheduled flights. On an average weekday, London/Heathrow handles about 180,000 domestic and international passengers.
11/29/11, 10AM ET, TUESDAY
Heathrow's MP Wants to Shut It Down Tomorrow
I don't know if this is predictive of the chaos to come at London/Heathrow and other U.K. airports tomorrow, but the parliamentarian whose constituency includes Heathrow wants to shut the place down.
Hayes and Harlington MP John McDonnell says that the planned strike of border-control agents on Wednesday is so dangerous that the government should consider closing the airport. You can read his thoughts here.
Chances of a Heathrow closure? Zero percent. Unless there's a little dusting of snow, of course.
11/29/11, 8:15AM ET, TUESDAY
American Airlines Flies Into Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
The parent company of American Airlines, AMR Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this morning.
You've been flying long enough to know that a bankruptcy filing of an airline means nothing to the initial day-to-day flying experience. In fact, as I have frequently written, carriers seem to go out of their way to show you that everything is normal during the first few days of flying in bankruptcy. And, no, you haven't lost your AAdvantage miles. The American AAdvantage program is one of the few things that is making money for AA right now.
I expect the same-old-same-old from American at least through the New Year. No flights have been cancelled and no routes have been dropped.
What we know about this filing right now is limited because no one has had time to plow through the paperwork. But we do know that:
1 -- Gerard Arpey is out as chief executive. His disastrous tenure is over with the announcement of his "retirement." The new CEO at American is Tom Horton, who, among other things, has been the airline's chief financial officer.
2 -- This is NOT a "pre-packaged" bankruptcy. Given AMR's issues, this bankruptcy will last for some time. I don't expect it to be as long or as costly as the United Airlines bankruptcy, but you never know.
3-- American already has posted the now-standard "nothing to see here" Web page aimed at mollifying passengers. You can read the boilerplate at http://www.aa.com/i18n/information/restructuring.jsp
I'll have more about the bankruptcy later this week, of course. But, to be honest, we covered the issues pretty thoroughly in a column last month. This filing isn't a surprise. Only the timing, just before the cash-rich December travel period, is notable.
11/27/11, 11:30AM ET, SUNDAY
What U.K. Airports Are Saying--and Tweeting
In advance of a potentially paralyzing strike of border-control agents on Wednesday, U.K. airports are posting their own warnings and tweeting like mad about their contingency plans. Here's how to keep up with the statements of airports with flights that arrive from the United States:
11/27/11, 11AM ET, SUNDAY
Airlines Post Reaccommodation Policies
Officials at London/Heathrow are begging airlines to cancel flights on Wednesday, but, at least so far, no carrier has cancelled any U.S.-originating flights to Britain. But most have now posted reaccommodation policies if you were planning to travel to London or Britain on Tuesday or Wednesday. Here's what they are offering:
DELTA AIR LINES
11/26/11, 10AM ET, SATURDAY
A Woeful Wednesday If You're Heading to Britain
An impending strike of UK Border Control agents could make travel into the United Kingdom a horror show on Wednesday, November 30, and for a few days beyond.
First, the simple facts: a strike of about 2 million public-sector workers due on November 30 in Britain includes the country's border-control and customs agents. Those are the ladies and gentlemen who examine our passports and paperwork when we arrive in London, Manchester, Edinburgh or other UK entry points. If the industrial action occurs, the agents won't be working--or will be operating at much lower staffing rates. Entering Britain will be a nightmare.
BAA, the less-than-competent private company that operates London's Heathrow Airport, is already predicting delays of 12 hours and a nightmare of dozens of planes (and thousands of passengers) being held on the runways. They are urging carriers to cut flights. To date, no carrier has.
Given the proven ineptness of BAA to handle almost any irregularity, you have to assume the company's nightmares are likely to come true. After all, Heathrow routinely underperforms--and underperforms in a world-class, headline-grabbing, cataclysm-for-passengers way. About a year ago, you'll recall, a dusting of snow paralyzed Heathrow for nearly a week because BAA officials were not prepared.
The vast majority of U.S.-originating travelers enter Britain at Heathrow and many use Heathrow as a connecting airport for other stops in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. If the strike does happen (and assume it will), Heathrow will be chaotic. The other U.K. airports serving US-originating flyers (Manchester, Edinburgh, London/Gatwick and London/City) will be less messy than Heathrow, of course, but it's only a matter of scale.
So what to do? First off, if you're planning a flight to or through a British airport starting on Tuesday, November 29, consider changing your itinerary. In fact, I'd extend the "nightmare scenario" through the entire rest of the week since it might take days for Heathrow to untangle after a truly messy November 30. And if flights are delayed for 12 hours, many subsequent arrivals and departures will be delayed or cancelled since the equipment and flight crews won't be turned around in time to make their scheduled runs later in the week.
If you must get into Britain on November 30, consider flying to Brussels or Paris instead and catching a Eurostar train into London. Eurostar claims it won't be affected by the Border Control strike.
I'd also be wary about traveling to Britain or through Heathrow during the Christmas/New Year holiday season, too. The public-sector agencies may call additional one-day strikes and logic would dictate it might be during the high-impact holiday season. So plan with extreme caution.
For what it's worth, here's the official line from the UK Border Agency: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/newsarticles/2011/november/51-30-november-strike. The fact that it stresses security rather than traveler entry indicates how little folks will be worried about moving passengers through the airports quickly.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.