Now that European airspace has re-opened, airlines have moved onto a new operational challenge: How to get stranded passengers back home. It turns out there are quite a few bodies involved. The BBC offers up these numbers (Volunteers asked to give seats to stranded passengers, Apr 24):
If I understand these numbers correctly, they represent the number of Britons who need to be returned to the UK for each point. The simple solution of sending in a large number of planes just doesn’t fly — so to speak. Even if a plane can seat 350 people, it would take a large number of flights to get several thousand folks home. Airlines have a limited number of airplanes and crews along with limited landing rights at given locales. It would impossible to throw a large amount of resources at last week’s problem without creating more problems this week. Consequently, airlines are having to be creative. Another BBC posting (Volcano ash: BA defends policy on stranded passengers, Apr 23) explains that British Airways has been dispatching extra aircraft:
Extra BA planes were despatched, on Thursday and Friday, to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dubai, the Caribbean, and Sharm el-Sheikh. Over the weekend the airline hopes to send out more extra planes to repatriate customers from New York, Newark, the Maldives, Mumbai, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Most of these will fly out with freight, or completely empty, and will be for the use of stranded customers only.
Obviously, flying around empty planes could get quite expensive, so it is not too surprising that they have resorted to asking for volunteers to delay their flights:
BA is seeking volunteers who can delay their journey and give up their seats for a stranded passenger. The company says those volunteers can then re-book on later flights at no extra cost, but the re-arranged flight has to be at least seven days after the original departure date. … Virgin Atlantic is also taking up offers from volunteers who can fly home at a later date.
The most interesting part is how airlines are managing dealing with stranded passengers and current passengers traveling at the last minute:
Some passengers have complained that BA appears to be selling empty seats to new passengers on earlier flights. But BA said these were being offered at very high prices to keep them empty on its computer booking system, so stranded passengers can be slotted in.
“There are some seats available but at a much higher price. This is done on purpose, not to cash in,” the spokesman said.
Let’s start with that last quote. I love the suggestion that firms in general and BA in particular would never cash in on purpose. They might have stumbled across a profitable opportunity accidentally, but they never would have set out to willfully do that.
More generally, this appears to be an issue of BA’s information systems. If there is an open seat on the plane, BA’s systems default to offering it to the public. A priori that sounds reasonable but then you hit a situation like the current crisis when there are many passengers to be accommodated and there is no way to set seats aside except to set really high prices.
They could, of course, assign the seat to a particular passenger. That would require BA to reach out to individuals to let them know that they have a seat home on Tuesday morning. But they claim that is infeasible. Instead, they are counting on customers reaching out to the firm. I am not sure which is better. I appreciate that BA has their hands full but I would expect that customers at some point would value the airline being a little more proactive.