Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Airline compensation loophole narrowed

Airlines will have to prove technical problems were totally unforeseen if they are to cite them as an excuse for wriggling out of paying compensation for last minute cancellations.

Until now they have sometimes claimed such problems qualify as "extraordinary circumstances", which would exempt them from coughing up under EU regulations.

This loophole has been closed - partially at least - by the European Court of Justice. While it recognises that some technical difficulties may be totally beyond an airline's control - such as when a manufacturer discovers a fault which demands the grounding of aircraft - the court has ruled they will need to prove it.

Its judgement reads: "The onus is on the party seeking to rely on them to establish that, even if it had deployed all its resources in terms of staff or equipment and the financial means at its disposal, it would clearly not have been able – unless it had made intolerable sacrifices in the light of the capacities of its undertaking at the relevant time – to prevent the extraordinary circumstances with which it was confronted from leading to the cancellation of the flight.

"The fact that an air carrier has complied with the minimum rules on maintenance of an aircraft cannot in itself suffice to establish that that carrier has taken all reasonable measures so that it is relieved of its obligation to pay compensation."

The decision follows a case brought against the Italian airline, Alitalia. It was brought originally by a passenger who was informed five minutes before departure that a flight booked from Vienna to Brindisi had been cancelled.

The passenger and her family arrived nearly 4hrs late. The airline refused to pay €250 Euros compensation and €10 for phone calls.

The judgement says the cancellation resulted from a complex engine defect which had been discovered the day before during a check. Alitalia had been informed of the defect during the night before the flight. The repair of the aircraft necessitated the dispatch of spare parts and engineers.

It says the resolution of a technical problems caused by failure to maintain an aircraft must therefore be regarded as inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity. Consequently, technical problems which come to light during maintenance or on account of failure to carry out such maintenance do not constitute, in themselves, "extraordinary circumstances".

European Union rules cover all flights from EU airports and those to Europe from elsewhere provided the airline is EU based and the passenger has not received any compensation in a third country. Compensation is due unless the carrier informs the passenger of cancellation two weeks or more before departure - or offers an alternative flight that does not delay the traveller more than 2 or 4 hours (depending on whether cancellation is notified within 7 or 14 days of departure).

The amount of compensation ranges from €250 to €600, depending on the length of the flight.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Welcome to Britain

A disturbing vignette in the baggage hall at Gatwick Airport. An elderly Albanian couple, he clutching a traditional stringed instrument, she in peasant garb, are wandering bewildered.

British tourists try to help but the Albanians speak no English. A mixture of signs and words in other languages makes it clear they have failed to locate their luggage.

A British traveller approaches two customs officers, standing doing nothing, to ask whether there has been a flight from Albania and what the couple might do. I do not hear their exact reply but it's clearly not very helpful. The British traveller returns, incandescent at their attitude. Then one strolls across and tells her: "If you're so interested they can collect their bags at Carousel Six".

But while a British Airways service from Tirana has arrived recently, the luggage from that flight has long gone and its carousel number is no longer indicated on the information display.

Eventually the Albanians, via the BA inquiry desk, are reunited with their suitcase and are met by a friend.

A resolution which owes nothing, it seems, to Her Majesty's customs men.

Cursed are the currency exchangers

The £ was worth 1.13 Euros when I flew from Gatwick earlier this week. Yet in the North Terminal the best rate I could see was 1.05.

It seems iniquitous, when British travellers to the Eurozone are having to cope with an effective price increase of at least 40% since this time last year*, that currency exchange companies should be coining 7% on the difference between the official and tourist rates alone.

"Usurious" was how a friend described them today. Maybe they should share the pain a little.

I thumbed my nose at them - figuratively speaking that is - and went to an ATM when I arrived in the Austrian Alps.

That was probably a mistake, since by today the official rate had dropped to 1.07. But somehow, despite cutting off the thumbed nose to spite my face, it left me with a satisfying sense of revenge.

*Sterling has fallen against the Euro by 25 - 30% but looked at the other way round that means a 15 Euro dish of the day for example, which worked out at a touch over £10 a year ago, is now almost £15 - a rise of nearly 50%.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Pay as you go lounge at LA airport

Time to kill at Los Angeles airport? A pay for use business lounge has opened just before you get to the passenger security check on the international terminal's mezzanine level.

An admission of $25 (sadly now the best part of £20) gets you three hours, complimentary snacks and drinks and - if you need it - use of a business centre with wireless Internet access, faxing, photocopying and printing.

The lounge is open to passengers aged 21 and older regardless of which airline they are booked on.

New ski lift links Whistler and Blackcomb

Canada's Whistler makes a giant leap today with the opening of its spectacular new Peak to Peak gondola lift.

The lift links Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, noth far from Vancouver in British Columbia, which offer some of the finest skiing in North America. It enables skiers and snowboarders seamless access to 8,171 acres of terrain. It travels 4.4 kilometres in 11 minutes between Whistler’s Roundhouse Lodge and Blackcomb's Rendezvous Lodge.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

High Speed Trains to the Vendee

The Vendée will be only 3hrs 15mins from Paris when French Railways opens a new high speed line there on Sunday.

Daily TGVs (Trains a Grande Vitesse)will run from the capital to Les Sables d'Olonne on the Atlantic coast via La Roche sur Yonne at 10am (11am in summer) and 5.50pm. Services in the opposite direction will depart on Monday - Saturday at 5:43am and 3.42pm In summer they will leave at 10.43pm and 3.15 (4.15pm in high season) in the summer. Sunday trains to Paris will depart at 6.10pm.

Les Sables d'Olonne, north of La Rochelle, is not only a beach resort and port with plenty of fish restaurants but is also a jumping off place for the Isles of Yeu and Noirmoutier - and the canals of the Marais Poitevin.

The link has cost €105 million, including a €20.4 million contribution from the Conseil Général de Vendée (the departmental government)and has taken three years to build.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Colorado's Telluride expands

Telluride's ski terrain is already among the most interesting and varied in North America. From next week it should become even more exciting.

On Wednesday the Colorado resort is scheduled to open a a new four seat chairlift serving Revelation Bowl, an area of mainly advanced and expert terrain - but also incorporating a pisted run for cruising - above the tree line on the back side of Gold Hill.

Telluride has received over 17 inches of fresh powder in the past two days.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Package holidays best value as £ slides

Yesterday's further slide in the £ against the US dollar prompts a renewed reminder. As I wrote in this month's Ski & Board magazine, if ever there was a winter to book your holiday through a tour operator, this is it.

The advice applies to all holidays but to ski and snowboard trips especially, because besides paying for hotels through operators it is also possible to buy lift passes, rental packages and lessons.

Most package operators bought some or all of their US currency requirement on the forward market, when the £ was worth close to $2. Yesterday it had slipped to around $1.45.

This means that unless sterling rebounds, the price of lift passes, lessons, ski rental and any other extras on offer from operators are likely to be around 25% lower than in the resort.

Some operators who hedged only part of currency dollar needs – typically they buy 60% - 70% forward – may yet come under pressure to impose currency surcharges on customers who have already booked. However, rough calculations suggest that with operators in any case obliged to absorb unforeseen costs up to 2% of the basic package price, widespread currency surcharges are unlikely. And any which are levied should not be too painful.

All that assumes that the £ does not slips significantly further, however. It looks weaker than it should be to me. and in the current climate, nothing can be taken for granted.

Sterling falls - will more Brits holiday at home?

It's a predictable, knee jerk reaction by my media colleagues. Sterling slides, recession bites, more Brits holiday at home. It doesn't work that way.

Holidays in Britain can be excellent value but they are rarely significantly cheaper than elsewhere.

A break in France last weekend reinforced this view. Dinner with wine, bed and breakfast at hotels in Boulogne and nearby Wimereux, cost a total of approximately £400. We drank aperitifs at both. On the second night - we were celebrating my wife's birthday - the bill also covered two "coupes" of champagne at £10 each and glasses of a sweet Gascon wine with dessert.

Though I am not, strictly, comparing like with like, a similar break at our favourite country house hotel in the UK would have set us back at least £60 - £70 more. Almost enough to cover the ferry fare.

In the shops, wine prices were clearly less attractive than at this time last year but still compared well even with the recent deals offered by UK supermarkets.

Even in the US, with the dollar soaring, most hotel and restaurant costs still compare favourably with those here. In Maine, a year ago, we were eating whole lobsters and sharing bottles of New Zealand sauvignon (for some reason NZ wines were in the ascendency) for around £35 or less, all in. Not once did the bill for two top £40. Even after a 25% deterioration in sterling's exchange value, the bill wouldn't come to more that about £45.

General nervousness about the economy and employment prospects are certain to affect travel spending next year.

But I believe the weakness of the £ is more likely to push travellers towards more modest holidays next year than to persuade them to substitute home for abroad.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Fearsome and featherbedded - a Canadian ski Odyssey

The craggy looking skier who rode the lift with us to Eagle's Eye was concerned that we should not bite off more than we could chew.
“First time in Kicking Horse? Take the long easy trail to the bottom, take a look at the other runs on the way and see what you feel comfortable skiing. This is a pretty steep terrain.”
We nodded politely, thinking that we didn't really need telling. My wife and I have been around the skiing block more times than we care to remember and, in any case, we were aware of Canadian resort's macho reputation.
But his advice was far from redundant. Some ski areas turn out to be less challenging than their piste maps suggest. Not Kicking Horse. Though there are alternative routes which by pass its most daunting slopes its average pitch is among the steepest you will encounter. Several times, as we completed runs classified blue for intermediate, we shook our heads in wonder that they were not marked with a single black diamond, signifying advanced.
Mastering them does wonders for the confidence. Witness one visitor from Edinburgh who confessed that when she first approached the mountain she was as timid as a gazelle. A week into her holiday she was skiing with all that animal's grace and the courage of a lioness too.
This will be only the eighth season since the modest ski hill which served the small British Columbia railway town of Golden was transformed by the opening of a huge new gondola lift. The vertical drop from summit to village is now 4,133 feet (1,260 metres), the biggest in Canada after the twin mountains of Blackcomb and Whistler.
It follows that the base area is relatively unexploited, with only a handful of places to stay and eat. These include the Highland Lodge, opened by a Scot and his American partner, which incorporates a pub cum restaurant with an impressive range of single malts. You might be tempted to drive down to Golden, whose economy is based mainly on timber and the trans-Canada railway. It's a bit of a one horse town, though it is worth dropping into the shop which advertises second hand sports gear as “pre loved”.

We had begun this two week tour of four resorts with a complete contrast. The Alberta town of Banff is lively, full of bars and eateries, and attracts significant numbers of British tourists. The huge and wonderful Banff Springs Hotel alone has more restaurants than Kicking Horse and probably accommodates more guests. And while it has plenty of tricky challenges, the terrain at Sunshine Village, its principal local ski area, is generally kinder on unseasoned legs.
The original hotel was built to attract sightseers to the Canadian Pacific Railway. It quickly attracted the rich and famous. A memorable publicity shot from the 1930s shows Ginger Rogers, perched on a fallen tree sketching a Blackfoot Indian chief in full headdress.
You can spend a diverting hour or so just wandering its labyrinthine corridors, admiring massive buffalo heads on its walls, the gleaming brass tube system for delivering mail between floors, the stone pillared Mount Stephen banqueting hall with its suit of mock armour where you could imagine some tormented prince spending his days hammering out Rachmaninov - and wonder how many Hollywood stars and heads of state had done the same. You can spend your evenings without ever leaving it, eating anything from sushi to Schnitzel.
It's not too easy to getaway to the slopes in the morning, either. Only the truly obsessed skier would rush the immense breakfast buffet. Mount Norquay is the closest ski area to town but Sunshine, which is about a 20 minute drive and has a reputation for good snow conditions, is more extensive. You could also stay in Banff and ski at Lake Louise, which is 40 minutes west along the Bow River Valley and is bigger and better still. but we were booked to stay at the Chateau there.
Like the Banff Springs, Chateau Lake Louise was built for Canadian Pacific. In summer the lake by which it stands, with its reflection of the glacier beyond, is one of North America's most photographed scenes. The Louise in question was Queen Victoria's daughter. The nearby skiing is magnificent, particularly in the high bowls after an overnight storm, with terrain suited to all abilities. Test your agility in the boulder strewn Rock Garden, cruise on lovely wide, fast runs such as Larch.
And after a hard day it is worth summoning up the energy to go snowshoeing in the forest after dark - preferably by moonlight – with a resident guide who points out animal tracks in the snow.
Our final stop was Marmot Basin, across the glacier flanked Icefields Parkway. Though its slopes are best avoided on Saturdays, when hordes pour in from Edmonton, the nearest major city, it is among the most remote and stunning areas anywhere. The first impression is that trails are frustratingly short, but closer acquaintance reveals that this is not such a drawback, even for accomplished skiers and snowboarders, as there are lovely routes through the trees.
But even if conditions are less than perfect it would be compensation to stay at the isolated Jasper Park Lodge, again a short drive away. The complex is spread out along a lake. In the mornings we passed elk, browsing on the grass outside our room as we made our way to breakfast.

Though it has changed much since, it made a huge impression on that pioneering skier Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who put up there between the wars. His 1925 entry in guest book recounted how respective residents of New York and Pittsburgh arrived at the Pearly Gates, to be told by St. Peter: "I am sure you will like it" the other that "it will be a great change for you". Finally came a man from Jasper Park Lodge, "I am afraid" said St. Peter, "that you will be disappointed."
(This itinerary was organised by Edinburgh-based Ski Independence - 0845 3103030/www.ski-i.com)