Any other business

Who’s to blame for the air travel crisis?

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

I sincerely hope you’re not reading this on a holiday flight that’s sitting on the tarmac with no indication as to when it might take off – or a sad train home after your flight was suddenly cancelled. Brace for three-hour delays at security, we’re told; don’t even try checking bags in, and at worst, as happened to Tui passengers at Manchester who thought they were going to Kos, watch out for a text after you’ve boarded telling you you’re going nowhere at all.

How and why? When the pandemic set in, airlines and airports – thinking, not unreasonably, that their industry was doomed – made mass redundancies rather than keeping sufficient staff on furlough. Now the industry is 100,000 staff short (10,000 at Heathrow alone), labour is scarce everywhere, rehiring is delayed by ‘airside security pass’ checks, and the Unite union is rubbing its hands at the scale of wage offers needed to address the problem. And as pay surges, so holiday prices will become unaffordable to those already skewered by cost-of-living rises.

Should the industry have started rehiring months ago? Should transport ministers have made it easier for them to do so? Of course. But they didn’t – and this is beginning to look like the summer for a quiet, Spectator–reading staycation.

Nothing like the 1970s

‘How many of you actually remember the 1970s?’ the Prime Minister asked his cabinet last week. Few hands went up, we’re told. But mine certainly would have done. Because I’m sure I have a more vivid recall of that dismal decade than does the then short-trousered Johnson, ten years my junior.

I remember, for example, the ‘three-day week’ provoked by miners’ strikes that blighted my first winter at Oxford. I won’t forget the day in 1975 when my father said we had to move house because, even though he was a top City executive, raging inflation and punitive tax rates meant he could no longer afford the outgoings on our London flat; nor the week in November 1976 when I was on a junior bankers’ training course at the Bank of England while Labour’s Chancellor, Denis Healey, was busy at the Treasury negotiating an emergency rescue loan from the IMF.

A rare flash of brightness: I can still picture the Queen in a sugar-pink coat-dress on her Silver Jubilee walkabout in Cheapside. Then a darker vision of the winter of discontent and a day of relief in 1979, before the Thatcher revolution kicked in, when I was told I was being posted abroad – to Brussels, but frankly I would have gone anywhere.

Britain then was a decaying economic wreck from which bright youngsters dreamed of escaping – to Hong Kong or New York, to Australia or South Africa, to teach English in Barcelona or study business at Insead. Maybe some today have the same dream – and if they do, they should go for it. But on the whole this country offers incomparably more choice, opportunity and colour, and less strife, than it did when I was starting work and Boris Johnson was an inky schoolboy. The Platinum Jubilee is a moment to recognise that transformation.

As price rises bite, we may well be heading for another winter of discontent. But only those who don’t remember the 1970s will believe it’s anything like as bad as the last one.

Old and proven

Is it time I stopped banging on about bank closures? Half of all UK bank branches have shut since 2015, according to Which?, and more than 200 will follow this year, making a total of almost 5,000 high-street premises remade as bistros and tanning salons without bringing the pillars of civilisation crashing down. And if more ex-banks now become charity shops, you might argue, that might actually help the cost of living crisis.

Well maybe, as I so often say. I still think something’s lost when the institution that holds our savings no longer has a human face or local presence; and history is diminished too. Consider this month’s closure of Child & Co., the NatWest offshoot in Fleet Street that is Britain’s oldest bank – dating from around 1664, so 30 years older than the Bank of England. Its last glossy brochure spoke of adapting to change while ‘retaining old and proven values’. But insufficient footfall these days means its handsome banking hall must be repurposed – unless at the last moment there’s an entrepreneur nostalgic enough to make an offer for Child & Co. and its customer list as a going concern.

A hopeless proposition? Not at all: just along Fleet Street is C. Hoare & Co., an upstart from 1672 that’s still family-run and setting benchmarks in bespoke personal banking. How much better if these two veterans carried on competing head to head, instead of one of them transitioning to a Specsavers or a Tesco Express.

Tip from a Master

Many readers are even crosser than I am about the slow death of branch banking and I salute Sebastian Payne – not the FT journalist but the Master of Wine of the same name – for an absolute scorcher of a letter on the subject of Barclays’ closure in Saffron Walden. Some years ago, I took a day-trip to Stevenage with my predecessor Christopher Fildes for a stupendous lunch hosted by Sebastian at The Wine Society – a rare model of a business that’s mutually owned by its customers and run for their benefit under the slogan ‘Passion before Profit’. Perhaps the rescuer of Child & Co. could offer a banking service on similar principles.

But this being a holiday weekend, you’ll expect a parting tip for bon vivanttravellers – so here’s one also prompted by Sebastian Payne. If you’re motoring from the Eurotunnel towards France’s southbound A10 autoroute via an overnight stop at Chartres, ignore those boring chain hotels on the ring road; instead head for the elegant old Grand Monarque in the centre, call for the wine list and study it carefully. Why? Because, says our Master, ‘so few places in France still maintain proper cellars, but this one does’.

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