By Ray O’Hanlon
By week’s end they were all in need of a getaway break of their own.
Anywhere but Ireland would have been just the ticket.
U.S. travel agents and tour operators specializing in Ireland have been working almost around the clock since shortly after Memorial Day to deal with thousands of travelers frustrated by the suspension of Aer Lingus flights across the Atlantic.
And their problems will, even now, take days to sort out, this despite the resumption of Aer Lingus trans-Atlantic flights before the end of this week.
“It could be the middle of next week before things are back to normal again,” Neil O’Sullivan, outgoing president of the Irish Travel Agents Association, said Monday.
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O’Sullivan, who runs Pearl River-based Healy O’Sullivan travel, said that everyone in the travel industry had gone through a week they would like to forget.
His views were reflected by other travel industry executives, including on travel agent who ended up having to find his way back to the U.S. following a trip to Ireland for a wedding in Cork.
Barry Twomey of O’Connor’s Fairways Travel in New York left Kennedy Airport on a Shannon-bound Aer Lingus plane Wednesday of last week. It was the last flight out of New York before the one-day stoppage by Aer Lingus pilots and subsequent open-ended suspension of flights by the Irish airline’s management.
The aircraft had a mechanical problem that delayed its rescheduled, earlier-than-normal departure as the midnight Irish time stoppage deadline loomed ever closer.
“We were almost out of time but managed to get away with 10 minutes to spare,” Twomey said. “We were allowed to jump to the top of the line of planes readying for takeoff. There was a lot of trepidation in the cabin, but in the end relief.”
Getting back to New York would also be a close-run thing. Twomey, however, managed to get a seat on a Royal Jordanian Airlines plane out of Shannon to Kennedy last Sunday.
“There were about 25 other weary passengers on board who had been stuck in Shannon for three or four days,” Twomey said.
The Royal Jordanian contribution to the effort to get people home to the U.S., while welcome, wasn’t nearly enough. Twomey said that a group of 15 New York cops and firefighters who had also attended the wedding in Cork were forced to take a train from Limerick to Dublin, fly from Dublin to the Isle of Man, fly from there to London’s Gatwick, transfer across the city to Heathrow Airport and fly back to New York from there.
Paddy Moroney of Medway Travel outside Boston had clients jumping through similar hoops.
“Some people took ferries to England while others took the train to Belfast to fly to Gatwick and then connect through Heathrow,” Moroney said.
But England as a lifeboat posed its own problems. According to Moroney, many of the travel refugees from Ireland arrived in England only to find that they were in the middle of a peak travel weekend resulting from an extended bank holiday marking Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee celebration.
Back in the U.S., meanwhile, travel agents were scrambling to get their clients on board alternative flights to Ireland, mainly on British Airways flights out of several East Coast airports, or Continental Airlines out of Newark.
An added frustration for travel agents and passengers alike was that they had to travel to their originally planned airport of departure to have their tickets endorsed by Aer Lingus so that they could fly with another carrier.
According to Moroney, clearing away the backlog of travelers at the U.S. end should be relatively easy now that Aer Lingus is resuming its trans-Atlantic operation. But he agreed with Neil O’Sullivan’s view that the greater problem would be getting people back to the U.S. from Ireland.
Beyond the immediate task of clearing up after the problems of the last week, travel agents are also concerned over the potential long-term damage to both Aer Lingus in particular, and Ireland’s tourism business in general.
There is little doubt that what was Aer Lingus’ dilemma in recent days became an opportunity for the likes of British Airways — a partner of Aer Lingus in the oneworld alliance — and, to an even greater degree, Continenal Airlines. The latter in particular was able to scoop up a lot of people who had planned to fly Aer Lingus. And some of those stranded passengers, who had paid economy fares for their Aer Lingus flights, ended up paying for business-class seats on Continental.
The U.S. carrier, one of the nation’s largest, had already been working toward increasing its seating capacity to Ireland after Aer Lingus mothballed its Newark service in the wake of Sept. 11.
Continental recently replaced the Boeing 757 aircraft it was using on its Newark-Dublin route with a larger 767. In the coming weeks it is expected to make the same aircraft switch on its service to Shannon.
“The entire situation is really a pity because Aer Lingus had been doing a good job in the past couple of years upgrading and developing its trans-Atlantic services,” Barry Twomey said.
In addition to alternative scheduled carriers, some addled and frustrated travelers booked to fly to Ireland out of New York were able to avail of a hastily arranged flight out of Kennedy Airport Monday night.
A North American Airlines Boeing 757 was leased by the charter company Sceptre, which specializes in flying to Ireland, in part by booking large blocks of seats on Aer Lingus flights.
“I had to call in a few favors,” Bert Accomando of Sceptre said.
He said that the plane, with a capacity of 212, was made available to Sceptre customers who were facing cancellation of vacations in Ireland.
“It’s risky for us because we have to cover the cost of any seats not taken up, but there were a lot of very frustrated people trying to get to Ireland,” Accomando said.
Some of the most frustrated gave up on Ireland altogether.
“It certainly hasn’t been a good week for Irish tourism,” O’Sullivan said. “A lot of people ended up going to Cancun in Mexico or taking cruises out of Florida.”
One group that had booked for a pub tour of Ireland had gone instead to Las Vegas, O’Sullivan said, “and some people simply decided not to travel at all.”
Overall, travel agents are looking at the past week as a bad start to the summer.
But at least the shutdown over the Atlantic did not take place in the peak portion of the summer flying season.
Looking on the brighter side, O’Sullivan said that Ireland was both good at selling itself and an easy country to sell to the prospective traveler.
“But an extra effort will now be needed after the past week,” he said.
Sean Healy of DHO Travel in the Bronx and the incoming president of the ITAA said that the Aer Lingus dispute had “certainly put a halt to sales.”
“It didn’t help, but I think a month from now it won’t make much of a difference,” he said. “We [travel agents] put some serious extra time into handling the situation. Aer Lingus North America also handled the situation very well.”
Healy remains optimistic despite the problems of the last week.
“Both sides in the dispute got their point across,” he said. “They know now what each side will do so I don’t foresee this situation happening again.”
Twomey for one is glad the last week is over. “I’m glad to see the end of it and I hope that is the end of it,” he said in reference to troubles at the airline that, despite its reduction of trans-Atlantic services post-Sept. 11, is still North America’s most crucial year-round link with Ireland.