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Qantas flight diverted to Sydney after baggage handlers test positive

A Qantas flight was forced to make a mid-air U-turn on 31 March after baggage handlers working for the airline tested positive for coronavirus.

Flight QF741 left Sydney at 3.34pm local time, and was due to reach Adelaide at 5.15pm.

However, about an hour into the flight, news broke that six Qantas baggage handlers based in Adelaide had tested positive for Covid-19.

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There were no other Qantas staff available to service incoming flights, news.co.au reports. This prompted the flight to be diverted back to Sydney, where it landed just after 6pm. 

A number of flights due to depart Adelaide were also cancelled at short notice.

In a statement posted to its Twitter account, Adelaide Airport said: “We have this afternoon been advised of cases of COVID-19 involving Qantas employees working in the baggage handling area away from public areas.

“We are assisting SA Health by notifying other stakeholders who work within the terminal precinct, as well as informing and supporting our own staff.

“SA Health has advised that other areas of the terminal, including public areas, are unaffected at this time.

“SA Health has advised any passengers who arrived on flights in the past 24 hours to wipe their baggage and monitor their health.”

Flights out of the airport from 1 April are currently scheduled to operate as normal.

Confirming the incident, the South Australia Health Department said in a statement: “We are currently investigating six cases of COVID-19 in Qantas baggage handlers at Adelaide Airport.

“We are working closely with Qantas to ensure flights are not disrupted and the carousel area is fully cleaned.”

There are currently 337 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state of South Australia, and 4,557 across the entire country.

Australia is already restricting entry for foreigners and is increasingly restricting domestic travel.

Despite this, The Independent was still able to book a last minute Australian cruise with Cunard.

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Relax cancelled holiday refund regulations or holidaymakers will be hit harder, say ABTA

“Catastrophic damage to the UK travel industry, and widespread consumer detriment” – that is the warning from Abta about the effect of the coronavirus crisis on holiday firms.

The travel trade association’s chief executive, Mark Tanzer, is demanding government action to ease consumer regulations in favour of the industry.

Millions of holidays in March, April and May have been cancelled because of the worldwide shutdown. Under the Package Travel Regulations, travellers are entitled to a full refund within two weeks.

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Abta is asking for that time limit to be extended to four months, with government backing to protect holidaymakers if their travel firm goes bust. The association also wants a government-backed emergency consumer hardship fund to help fulfil refunds when hotels or airlines cannot or will not hand back money to tour operators.

Many travel businesses are refusing refunds to customers, often claiming incorrectly that the rules have been eased. They insist they are only obliged to provide travel vouchers.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, there have been no changes to consumer protection. But Mr Tanzer said there must be – as “normally successful travel businesses employing tens of thousands of people are facing bankruptcy”.

The Abta chief executive said: “The global pandemic has put enormous financial strain on tour operators and travel agents, with businesses seeing a collapse in sales while facing immediate repatriation costs and refund demands for cancelled holidays on a scale that is unmanageable. 

“Existing regulations are entirely unsuited to deal with this situation. These businesses are themselves waiting for refunds from hotels and airlines.

“Without this money, they simply do not have the cash to provide refunds to customers within 14 days. Customers with cancelled holidays will face lengthy delays in getting money back if travel firms are forced into bankruptcy.”

Abta has also called on the government to take “strong enforcement action” against airlines that withhold refunds due following the cancellation of flights.

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Flybe administrators deny talks with government about nationalising airline

The administrators for Flybe have denied opening talks with the government about nationalising the failed airline.

Accountancy firm EY told The Independent there are “no discussions” happening on this front after it was widely reported that they had asked the government to contemplate buying the carrier out of insolvency to serve regional routes.

The Telegraph reported that Flybe was discussing the possibility of nationalisation with ministers, “according to industry sources”.

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However, an EY spokesperson said of the claims: “We continue to be open to approaches from all parties in order to realise returns for creditors. 

“At this time, we can confirm that there are no discussions between the Joint Administrators and Government about taking Flybe Limited out of insolvency.”

It comes after airlines and airports in the UK were told there wouldn’t be an industry-wide government bailout amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak wrote to aviation executives last week to say that he would only consider discussing measures to shore-up individual businesses as a “last resort”, and that this would be done on a case-by-case basis rather than applied across the board.

He repeated the package of measures announced on Friday that will be available to all British industries: postponing some rates and tax payments and paying the majority of employed staff members’ wages.

Sunak added that “taxpayer support would only be possible if all commercial avenues have been fully explored, including raising further capital from existing investors”. It followed the news that easyJet, among other airlines, was continuing to pay out dividends to shareholders, to the tune of £171m. The airline’s founder and largest shareholder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, received £60m.

Flybe was an early victim of the world-wide travel slow-down due to coronavirus, and officially ceased trading on 5 March.

Europe’s biggest regional airline was already struggling financially when the crisis hit, having been saved from the brink of insolvency several times prior.

The latest of these included controversial government intervention, with ministers agreeing the carrier could defer paying its air passenger duty until a later date.

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Simon Calder: As your world shrinks, keep your eyes fixed on the horizon

Summer traditionally begins with a thud. As the clocks spring forward over the last weekend of March, lighter evenings are traditionally accompanied by ever-wider horizons for travellers – symbolised by the arrival in the post of the April edition of the OAG Pocket Flight Guide.

Even in a digital age, this monthly compendium of hypermobility has the edge over online sources, whether you wish to count the Polish cities served nonstop from Doncaster (six) or identify the one day of the week when it is possible to fly from the UK to the dreamily beautiful island of Terceira (Wednesday, 2.10pm from Stansted, Ryanair). 

Never have bigger, stronger pockets been needed for this guide. After a lean winter, the airlines gather strength and confidence. They lay on hundreds of new flights and count the cash as it rolls in for late-notice Easter breaks, early summer holidays and lucrative July and August departures. Reflecting the record-breaking summer schedules, the OAG April 2020 issue has 1,216 Bible-thin pages, each containing travel dreams encapsulated in microscopic font.

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Ever-expanding horizons, better value, safer journeys: that has been the constant quest for the travel business since the dawn of time, or at least the start of the Jumbo jet age 50 years ago.

Right now, though, the industry of human happiness finds itself in despair.

Desperation is most intense among travellers who find themselves on the wrong side of a world beset by barriers. As flight bans creep across the planet, they yearn to be home: to access medication, to care for family or friends who need them, or to return to their jobs in the NHS.

Normally I have the privilege of recommending great journeys to readers. Instead, I have spent much of this week advising people on escape routes.

Denise’s son is stranded in Nicaragua: “See if the British Embassy in Managua can provide him with documentation to travel to San Jose in Costa Rica so he can fly out on one of the Iberia rescue flights to Madrid”. And Laura finds herself detained in Durban by South Africa’s sudden international flight ban: “If you can cross to Mozambique by Sunday there’s an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa with a connection to London.”

The prospect of distant horizons has turned into a hasty and muddled retreat, and travel is currently calibrated in degrees of distress, not joy.

Where were you planning to be this weekend or over Easter? Perhaps sipping coffee in a cafe in Amsterdam or Paris as you contemplate which magnificent collection of art to visit next; carving your way, elegantly or not, down a snowy mountainside; or lazing on a beach while your cares ebb away with the tide.

Instead, our travel plans have been crushed by coronavirus. You may, like me, spend part of your days of reclusion trying to extract your failed investment in future travel – whether from an airline that is manipulating its website to try to deflect refund claims for cancelled flights, or from a holiday company that is flouting the law.

Ryanair is rolling its schedule back to circa 1995, with a handful of Irish Sea services and a couple of Continental links. British Airways’ scheduled operation for April sees, on the few routes still operating, as many flights in a week as previously took off in a day.

And I’m the man who pays his way but currently can’t, now a recluse clutching a copy of a once-reliable reference source that has become a work of fantasy. 

Distant dreams: the Pocket Flight Guide, April 2020 (Simon Calder/OAG)The Pocket Flight Guide for April 2020 will be seen henceforth as a historic document of dashed aspirations. The May edition may turn out to be as flimsy as a flat-earther’s arguments. But it will provide a starting point for anyone who believes the world is the better for tourism.

For the sake of the tens of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on travel, to satisfy the human aspiration for adventure, and to have a dream to hang on to, start planning your next journey.

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The round-the-world Clipper Race that was brought to an abrupt end by coronavirus

We were in a bubble out there,” Mary Vaughan-Jones mused.

The 24-year-old from Lancaster returned home last weekend after seven months at sea – her attempt at circumnavigating the globe as part of the Clipper Race having been brought to an abrupt end by the coronavirus pandemic – to find the world in a state of chaos. 

“It’s been quite overwhelming and it’s taken a few days to adjust to the seriousness of it all,” Vaughan-Jones says of her return to reality, adding, “I was devastated the race was cut short; I was having the time of my life, but it has been the correct decision”.

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Six good things travel companies are doing during the coronavirus crisis

The travel industry may have been brought to its knees by the travel restrictions and social distancing measures implemented across the globe in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t dampened its spirit.

Companies around the UK are doing what they can to help during the crisis, which has now seen more than 280 lives claimed by Covid-19.

Here are six ways travel companies are doing their bit and spreading a little compassion and kindness, from offering hotels to key workers to repatriating Brits stranded abroad.

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Setting up floating hospitals

Saga has offered two of its cruise ships as floating hospitals to help deal with the coronavirus crisis.

The 37,000-tonne Saga Sapphire and 58,000-tonne Spirit of Discovery, docked at Tilbury in Essex, could provide space for more than 2,600 patients in separate cabins.

Saga’s owners have reportedly spoken to government officials about making use of the liners, which have been withdrawn from sailing during the Covid-19 pandemic, as temporary hospitals.

A source told Sky News: “The ships are laying idle, the government expects its hospitals to be overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, so it makes sense to look at this option.”

Opening hotels to NHS staff

Former Manchester United footballer Gary Neville is to open his hotels free of charge to health workers.

His two Manchester hotels, Hotel Football at Old Trafford and the Stock Exchange Hotel in Manchester city centre, will provide 176 beds for NHS and medical staff.

Hotel staff have also been promised they won’t be made redundant or made to take unpaid leave.

“It is something we are delighted to have been able to come to an agreement with,” Neville said.

“It is at this moment in time that the whole of our industry needs to show solidarity, not just for our staff in these uncertain times, but for the people who need the accommodation most in the coming months.”

He added: “Our staff will operate the hotel as normal when health workers are allowed to stay there without any cost whatsoever when they need isolation away from family members who might be affected.”

The Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell has also closed its doors to all customers, but will stay open for NHS workers in need of free overnight accommodation.

Hotels open for stranded travellers

Three hotels near Kings Cross Station are offering free stays for people stranded on the way to or from Paris via the Eurostar: The Megaro, The Gyle and The California. All are offering accommodation and hospitality without charge where required.

The Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath is still open for anyone in need of somewhere to stay on a longer-term basis, “whether that’s to be close to local family who might not have space in their own house, or for vulnerable people currently on their own who would prefer to have other people close by while they self-isolate”. The hotel is offering a 25 per cent discount across accommodation and food and drink.

General Manager Ken Milton said: “We know that there are many people in the local area who are now facing weeks of isolation which they may struggle with both practically and emotionally. 

“We would welcome them to join us at The Clarendon so that they can at least be closer to other people, and where we can cook, clean and care for them – with minimal, if any, physical contact – to help them through this incredibly difficult time.”

Turning vehicles into ambulances

Indie Campers, a company that hires out campervans, is offering its vehicles up as “makeshift ambulances” and food delivery trucks. It has 850 vans, many of which will be offered free of charge to aid front-line services across Europe.

“They can be turned into food distribution vehicles, patient transportation, places for medical staff to sleep and clean themselves, or even makeshift ambulances,” head of inbound marketing Miguel Fraga told The Telegraph.

“In Italy, local NGOs are using them to allow health personnel to carry out home health checks in a protected way.”

Food delivery 

Ian Crighton, general manager of the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne, near Yeovil, said the hotel is offering a discounted take away menu for the over 70s and NHS workers. The local Sherborne Chamber Of Trade and Commerce is also offering free distribution of products and food to the elderly.

The Merry Harriers in Godalming, Surrey, is offering a take away menu, with free delivery offered by villagers. There’s also free hot drinks and a 50 per cent discount on food being offered for NHS workers.

On the island of Guernsey, the Duke of Richmond has launched a complimentary no-contact dinner delivery service for elderly neighbours. The hotel is delivering meals to elderly individuals who are within walking distance and is looking to extend the service to dozens of immediate neighbours who require assistance – they just need to call the hotel before 1pm and a meal will be delivered to their doorstep that evening. 

Offering hand sanitiser to the vulnerable

The Cary Arms & Spa in Devon has contacted all of its regular locals and close neighbours who are in the higher risk age group to tell them they can give the hotel a call for support if they need it. It has also been in touch with Rowcroft, a local cancer hospice, offering an “endless supply of sanitiser” as the hotel has an aqueous ozone converter.

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Coronavirus will affect the airline industry for years to come but not all of it will be bad

The airline industry will wear the scars of the coronavirus pandemic for a very long time.

On 19 March, Qantas announced it was grounding its entire international fleet. American Airlines suspended three quarters of its long haul international flights on 16 March.

Significant demand shocks aren’t new to the airline industry. In this century alone, it has weathered the storms caused by the 2001 September 11 attacks and the 2002-04 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic.

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But we have never before seen a shock of this magnitude affecting the entire world for what looks as if it will be a very long time.

So, will the airline industry be able to handle this predicament? What role will and should the governments play? And, when all this is over, what will have changed for good?

Many airlines can’t survive as they are

Right now, the name of the game, not only for the airlines but for most businesses, is liquidity – having money regularly coming in through the door.

An otherwise-solvent enterprise incapable of securing sufficient liquidity to cover its current costs can be forced into bankruptcy, and extreme uncertainty doesn’t help.

Although the airline industry had a good decade overall, finishing each of the last ten years in the black, its profit margins remain low, and profitability differences between regions and carriers are rather high.

Most airlines only have enough cash reserves to cover a few months of their fixed costs (costs that have to be paid regardless of whether their planes are flying).

Three options

The dynamics of the disease’s spread suggest that the extreme disruption we are seeing will stay with us for many months.

Governments will have to make hard decisions.

Broadly, they’ve three options:

  • let the struggling private airlines fall
  • offer them liquidity to help weather the storm
  • nationalise them, as the Italian government already has with Alitalia

I expect governments to use (and misuse) all three, with a significant number of small airlines (and potentially several mid-sized airlines) going out of business in the process.

The main argument that will be used for not allowing airlines to fail will be that connectivity will be an important driver of the post-crisis recovery.

This wider economic benefit will be emphasised by the governments that choose to bail out or nationalise their carriers.

Big airlines might get help, even if they’re weak

I expect larger carriers to receive priority treatment by governments based on the fact that they provide more connectivity, sometimes without regard to their long term viability.

This means that once the pandemic is over, travellers will likely find a more concentrated airline market, with fewer carriers in operation. A greater proportion of them will be government owned.

To start with, flight frequency will be lower and planes might be emptier, depending on the fleet mix the surviving airlines will use.

Whether prices will be higher or lower will depend on the interplay of demand and supply.

Fewer airlines and fewer flights would tend to drive airfares up, while lower demand and lower fuel prices after what is shaping up to be a global recession would drive airfares down. The net outcome is anyone’s guess.

I also expect an acceleration of product unbundling (food, drinks, baggage allowances and so on being sold separately), especially if recovery is slow and surviving airlines are under pressure to cut costs.

Last but not least, I should mention that it’s not only the airlines. Airports, aircraft manufacturers, and air navigation service providers will also find themselves under financial stress as demand evaporates.

The COVID-19 pandemic will stress-test the entire civil aviation industry, and when it is over – at least in the first months and maybe for years – the travelling public will return to an industry that has changed.

Volodymyr Bilotkach ​is an Associate Professor at Singapore Institute of Technolog​. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

 

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TfL suspends congestion charge, ULEZ and LEZ amid coronavirus outbreak

Transport for London (TfL) has suspended all road user charges for an indefinite period of time as of today, 23 March.

The suspension applies to the congestion charge as well as the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and Low Emission Zone (LEZ).

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has asked TfL to implement the suspension so that critical workers, including those working for the NHS, can get around as easily as possible during the coronavirus crisis.

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In a statement, TfL said: “To keep the public transport network running TfL has reduced the number of stations open and are ensuring they are appropriately staffed.  

“For some critical workers, in the current circumstances, driving to work will be the simplest option, which is why the charges have been lifted.”

In addition, the 24 hour access fee for Santander Cycles will be waived for NHS workers, who will be given a special code to access the service. Bike rides of up to 30 minutes are free of charge.

It’s hoped that the suspension will also help keep supermarkets fully stocked.

At the moment, motorists pay £11.50 a day in the congestion charge zone, while ULEZ costs £12.50 a day for most vehicles (£100 for heavier vehicles including lorries) and LEZ costs £100 or £200 depending on the size of your vehicle.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “People should not be travelling, by any means, unless they really have to. London’s roads should now only be used for essential journeys. To help our critical workers get to work and for essential deliveries to take place, I have instructed TfL to temporarily suspend the Congestion Charge, ULEZ and Low Emission Zone from Monday.  

“This is not an invitation to take to your cars. To save lives we need the roads clear for ambulances, doctors, nurses and other critical workers. This is an unprecedented time and I know Londoners are doing everything they can to look after each other. I continue to urge all Londoners to follow the advice of public health authorities and not leave their homes unless it is absolutely essential.”

The suspension comes as the government advised the nation to avoid non-essential international travel amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The UK currently has 5,018 confirmed cases according to the World Health Organisation’s latest report, dated 22 March.

The advice has since been upgraded to include non-essential domestic travel as well.

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Package holiday refund rules to be suspended

As the travel industry implodes because of the coronavirus crisis, rules on refunds for cancelled holidays are to be suspended.

At present package holidaymakers whose trips are cancelled are entitled to all their money back within two weeks of the trip being called off.

But the Package Travel Regulations 2018 were never designed for a total shutdown of international tourism. 

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An estimated two million overseas package holidays were due to depart in the first 30 days of the government’s warning against non-essential travel, running from 17 March to 16 April 2020. They have all been cancelled – representing around £1bn that the law insists should be paid back to consumers.

Many hard-pressed holidaymakers, facing uncertainty about their own incomes, are understandably anxious to get the cash that is due to them.

But The Independent understands that the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, will agree to protect Britain’s beleaguered travel industry.

For travel firms earning no revenue, having to hand back payments for cancelled holidays immediately could force them out of business.

On Friday, the European Commission updated its guidance about refunds for cancelled holidays – encouraging customers to accept vouchers or credit notes, as long as the customer is allowed to ask for their money back eventually.

But that guarantee must be backed by insolvency protection, turning the vouchers into IOUs that are backed by the state.

Mr Shapps is expected to agree to companies issuing credit notes enabling the holidaymaker to book a new trip within two years. Any customer who does not redeem the voucher can then claim the sum in cash.

If the travel firm goes bust in the interim, financial protection will be provided by the government-backed Atol scheme.

The fund that provides Atol refunds is almost empty after the collapse of Thomas Cook exactly six months ago. But the Department for Transport is the financial backer of last resort.

The travel trade association, Abta, applauded the the European Commission recommendation.

“This new guidance will give customers the essential assurance that they will either get a holiday or their money back, as well as providing a much needed helping hand to travel companies through these difficult and unprecedented times.”

While the government has stepped in to support airlines, it has not yet announced any specific measures to help the wider travel industry – including agents and tour operators. 

Mark Tanzer, chief executive of Abta, said: “We’re running out of time, people are losing their jobs right now and some companies will be facing bankruptcy if nothing is done.

“If that happens on a significant scale then the financial protection schemes for holidays will be placed under immense pressure and there will be considerable delays in customers recovering their money.

“The government has said they will do ‘whatever it takes’ but we need much quicker and more decisive action.” 

The move will anger many travellers who entered into contracts that guaranteed a full refund if the operator called off the holiday. They will instead become unwilling creditors of the company.

Some holiday companies are already claiming, incorrectly, that the rules have been changed. The Independent has seen dozens of examples of travel firms rejecting requests for refunds.

Until the rules change, a strict entitlement to a cash refund remains.

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Italian grandmother’s online cooking class is keeping us all connected

Italy may still be in lockdown but an 84-year-old grandmother has found a way to bring a taste of her country to the rest of the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nonna Nerina’s fame began about three years ago when she started teaching her Airbnb guests how to make authentic pasta, passing down old family recipes and techniques.

Based in the small town of Palombara Sabina, north of Rome, her granddaughter Chiara Nicolanti started an Airbnb Experiences page for her grandmother’s classes, which quickly attracted international media attention, as well as hundreds of travellers and chefs wanting to refine their pasta-making technique.

Other grandmothers in the village also began to take part and the town’s tourist population began to steadily rise.

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