Woe Is Kent

In his weekly newsletter for The Independent, Simon Calder laments Brexit’s contribution to the state of travel in England:

Ashford International station in south-east Kent has a problem. It is not international, unless you count the Eurostar trains that whizz past at 186mph. The same applies to Ebbsfleet International in north-west Kent. 

Both stations have cavernous halls for international passengers en route to Paris and Brussels. But the Channel Tunnel train operator closed both stations at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though travel demand has returned, only the London St Pancras hub remains open. The Transport Select Committee wanted to know why such valuable infrastructure has been mothballed, reducing the travel horizons of the good people of Kent. So the chair, Tory MP Huw Merriman, asked Eurostar’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, to explain.

In his two-page reply, Mr Damas did not hold back on explaining the forces ranged against the train firm. Perhaps the fact that today is his last day in the job before retirement helped his pen flow more freely. While financial pressures and engineering issues have contributed to Eurostar’s woes, the main problem is Brexit. The British insisted on becoming “third country nationals” after leaving the EU. That means border officials must carry out extra passport checks. “The stamping of British passports by Continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times,” he wrote. “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour versus 2,200 in 2019.”

 Cutting capacity by 30 per cent and pushing up fares, he wrote, may not look the greatest business strategy, but it has stifled demand and prevented St Pancras becoming entangled in absurdly long queues as Dover was earlier this year. Opening the Kent stations would spread resources even more thinly and add demand that cannot be met. So they will remain disconnected from Europe until at least 2025. “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.”

Transport expands the sphere of life; Brexit has shrunk it. And the new government has also shrunk your pounds. Having bought an expensive Eurostar ticket, your problems are only just beginning. Last Monday morning, as sterling plunged to its lowest value ever against the dollar, the bureau de change at St Pancras was charging almost £109 to obtain €100, valuing the pound at less than 92 euro cents.

 

 

What a Mess

Friday morning the UK Guardian reports that  “Germany has removed several countries and regions including the US, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and some regions in Greece from its coronavirus travel risk list, the Robert Koch Institute … for infectious diseases has said. The new classifications apply from Sunday, the RKI said. Earlier this week, the US also eased its warning against travel to a number of the most developed nations including Germany.”

Yet the German government advises “Entry into Germany remains restricted and is possible only in exceptional cases. This applies regardless of whether the traveler is fully vaccinated or not.”

If you are American and want to travel to Germany: the American government says “Germany will currently only allow EU citizens, EU residents, and residents of certain other specific countries to enter. The United States is not one of those countries. U.S. citizens traveling to Germany from the United States will not be permitted to enter unless they meet one of only a few narrow exceptions.”  

The US State Department is easing recommendations for outbound travel, but as of today, if you are German and want to travel to the US: “The U.S. government does not allow entry if a foreign traveler does not have U.S. citizenship and has stayed in one of the following countries within 14 days before its planned entry into the United States: 26 countries of the Schengen Area: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.”

Could the governments of the world maybe do a little bit better job of making themselves clear?

They’re Not Making It Easy. Especially Canada.

It looks like travel-ready Americans’ first trip won’t be to the north, where it looks like all those damn foreigners aren’t welcome.

“Canadians support border closures more than residents of any country in the world. A full 86% of Canadians said they strongly or somewhat support closing the border to anyone from another country, while 76% said they support the idea of closing the border to anyone from another province, state or region.”

Fits and Starts

Here it comes in fits and starts, the return of travel. Beginning in late June a British cruise line will send out a ship capable of holding 3,647 passengers  and … just sail around, not stopping anywhere. More wandering than cruising.

China says it is processing visa requests from vaccinated individuals, but only from those who have been vaccinated with a Chinese-made vaccine, which are not available or approved in much of the world.

And the Icelandic government announced today that from tomorrow, visitors who can prove vaccination will be welcomed into the country with no test or quarantine. If you time it right, just before the coming big volcanic eruption, maybe you can trade where you’re stuck now for being stuck in Iceland.

The Difference Between Canadians and Americans

Here’s a photo that says a lot about how Canadians and Americans are treating the virus. Top is a Maid of the Mists ship, one of a fleet of sightseeing ships that set out for Niagara Falls from the New York side. Bottom, the Hornblower, is a Canadian counterpart.

Via the Monocle Minute.

2021 Travel? Not so Fast

The aviation consultancy Simpliflying reaches some fairly downbeat conclusions about the swift resumption of tourism in 2021. It thinks:

1 – It’s likely that there will be some form of air travel recovery from April. Shorter haul leisure routes (e.g from Northern / Western Europe to the Mediterranean) will recover first, especially those catering to older leisure travellers, who are higher in the vaccination queue. 

2 – Widespread vaccinations of the adult population in Europe and North America however, won’t occur until after April, and we can’t expect a mass of adults to be vaccinated until the Summer. 

3 – In Western Countries, vaccination schedules will not be uniform. In other countries, the roll-out may take until 2022 or 2023. This means testing is here to stay, and will work alongside vaccination certificates and biosafety measures. 

4 – Reopening borders for air travel will not be a priority for Governments. Even the introduction of vaccines may not be enough.

You can download the entire report here.

On The Road: Field Notes From The Wreckage Of Tourism

Oops. Meant to post this last week. It’s column #25 of the On the Road series published monthly at 3 Quarks Daily. This column was published there last Monday. Here is a link to all 25 columns.

 

News from the leisure travel world is worse than grim. More than half of the 16 million travel industry jobs in the United States have been lost. On 14 April last year the TSA processed 2,208,688 air travelers. This year that number was 87,534. 

It’s the same everywhere. Da Nang saw a 98.5 percent year on year drop in visitors over Vietnam’s four day Reunification Day holiday. Ninety nine point nine percent fewer foreign visitors entered Japan in April than a year earlier. Planes are parked and ships are docked.

They outfit the American cruise ship industry in a low key shipbuilding town on the Bay of Bothnia in Finland. Turku shipyards built the world’s biggest floating petri dishes, the 360 meter long ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seasfor Royal Caribbean International.

Seventy seven thousand employees, Royal Caribbean had, until a virus as unfriendly to people as plastic to the sea torpedoed its heart, soul and balance sheet in three months flat. Maybe Turku can save its shipyard jobs by building hospital ships; Royal Caribbean may tread choppy water forevermore.

If not by sea, what if by air? Qatar Airways, purveyors of dreamy Qsuites, offers a ticket changeable for anywhere they fly within 5000 miles – at the price of the original booking. You could in theory book a business class flight from Philadelphia to Kyiv for $1600 and change it to Hong Kong. They seem to mean it.

Lest your enthusiasm take flight, Forbes stands ready with a harsh de-icing, predicting “no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, face masks, surgical gloves, self-check-in, self-bag-drop-off, immunity passports, on-the-spot blood tests and sanitation disinfection tunnels” and a four hour check-in process.

I don’t buy it. That’s just too grim, if only because airlines and governments alike are committed to maintaining a viable airline industry. Plus, airlines need you way more than you need them for a change. How about that.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phuket, Thailand’s biggest tourist island, reported no new cases on Monday and Tuesday 11 & 12 May, so on Wednesday 13 May the tourist board petitioned national authorities to reopen right then and there.

Not so fast, the government replied, as they work on a plan for “high-spending visitors from Asian countries to select areas … to avoid 14-day quarantines.” They will “have to provide a health certificate, buy health insurance, and undergo a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.” Nothing like a carefree week at the beach.

Schemes for survival in the travel industry have veered into wishful thinking. AirNorth, Yukon’s airline, with service (in normal times) to Old Crow, Mayo, Watson Lake and beyond, found itself with a largely idle catering facility. For those fortunate to live near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, it began offering pick up and delivery of airplane food from its Flight Kitchen.

JetBlue thought nostalgia for airplane food might be a thing, too, and in early May began offering delivery of cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for three ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers through Imperfect Foods. Pardon the … delicious irony.

Everything about the road (and flight paths and shipping lanes) ahead is uncertain. The airline trade association IATA, which offers a comprehensive country-by-country map of travel restrictions, argues against countries imposing quarantines, and forecasts, with wistful tear and jutted jaw, that international travel will return to 2019 levels by 2023. Continue reading

Weekend Reading

Just a couple of timely articles for you this weekend, one a pocket history of Irish Catholicism on the occasion of the pope’s visit, called It’s too late. Not even Pope Francis can resurrect Catholic Ireland by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, the other Peter Beinart’s explanation of Why Trump Supporters Believe He Is Not Corrupt in The Atlantic. Beinart:

In a forthcoming book titled How Fascism Works, the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley makes an intriguing claim. “Corruption, to the fascist politician,” he suggests, “is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.”

Beinart’s thesis is that

for Trump and many of his supporters, corruption means less the violation of law than the violation of established hierarchies….

and he points to Fox News’s prominent coverage of the Mollie Tibbets story on the morning after the Cohen and Manfort court proceedings:

The Iowa murder … signifies the inversion—the corruption—of that “traditional order.” Throughout American history, few notions have been as sacrosanct as the belief that white women must be protected from nonwhite men.

and to Trump supporters’ revulsion at Hillary Clinton:

Clinton’s candidacy threatened traditional gender roles. For many Americans, female ambition—especially in service of a feminist agenda—in and of itself represents a form of corruption.

•••••

It promises to be a lovely pre-fall weekend in southern Appalachia, low humidity, nighttime lows below 60 (15C). Wherever you are I wish you well and I’ll leave you for the week with one more problem to chew on.

Damrak, Amsterdam.

Too much tourism:

Amsterdam edition.
Venice edition.
Prague edition.
Iceland edition. (I write about the scourge of “Puffin Shops” in Out in the Cold, too.)

And it’s not just Europe. There’s the

Thailand edition.
Philippines edition,
USA edition, even an
Adelaide edition.

See you next week.

The Price to Be Paid for Vile Customer Service

When a constituency has been beaten down for long enough a crystallizing moment can prove fatal. Beware tonight, United Airlines. Beaten Down: Airline passengers. Average seat pitch formerly 35 inches, 31 now. Fees, fees and more fees. United Airlines, already last in customer satisfaction, richly deserves the pain coming from it’s just really ugly, unforgivable police action today.

The frowning, sometimes dimly-qualified, testosterone-pumped enforcement cowboys whose gauntlet you must run these days to all the airlines’ friendly skies may wish to think otherwise, but the interior of an airplane is not a war zone. Although you wouldn’t know it on this day.

Honest now, most likely United Airlines chairman Oscar Munoz, like a thousand other captains of industry, kissed his wife and kids and obeyed traffic rules this morning on the way to the office. There is no reason to believe he did anything besides look after his shareholders’ interests right up until, entirely outside his control, an incident occurred on board one of his planes waiting to leave O’Hare airport.

Mr. Munoz’s company needed four of its employees to be somewhere other than Chicago and all of the passengers declined to volunteer their bought and paid for seats for the airline’s benefit.

The airline tried to bargain with its customers. The first offer? $400. No takers. The second? $800. Again, no takers. People gotta go where they gotta go. Interesting to note: rules are, passengers are eligible for up to $1,350 for such a disruption but United Airlines apparently decided not to offer more than $800. They preferred to enlist strong men to haul a paying passenger from his seat instead.

It would appear that in the wake of the incident, after a wavering moment of incipient decency in which Chairman Munoz called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” the chairman tilted awry by calling the bumped passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” Said he, the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Oh, Lordy, whether the passenger was belligerent or not (and none of the emergent videos, see here, here, and here, demonstrate such), this was exactly, precisely, even perversely the wrong response.

The passenger declined to be forcibly bumped from a flight he had paid for with money or airline miles, because the airline thought a better use of his seat was to transport its own employees. (And answer me this, why should police abet the airline in the airline’s wrongdoing?)

A single event won’t usually overtake a career. On this one, Mr. Munoz, who was under fire just last week for denying passage to teenage girls for wearing leggings, just might get caught up in the deluge. Sometimes, a constituency beaten down for long enough will rise up. Sometimes a big enough misstep from the loftiest heights can lead you over the corporate cliff.

Even while I have written just now, I see 2310 new Tweets with the hashtag #United. Since Mr. Munoz kissed his wife and kids this morning, I wonder if he may have kissed his job goodbye.

 

 

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

chernobyl

Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.