Irish holidaymakers have been thrown under the bus

Confusion has led to competing advice as precious time disappears for hard-hit travellers

“In all of the confusion and the bluster and the PR spin, Irish consumers and holidaymakers, many of whom have already spent thousands of euro on overseas holidays they may or may not be in a position to take, have been effectively thrown under the bus – and not just the once.” File photograph: Getty

“In all of the confusion and the bluster and the PR spin, Irish consumers and holidaymakers, many of whom have already spent thousands of euro on overseas holidays they may or may not be in a position to take, have been effectively thrown under the bus – and not just the once.” File photograph: Getty

 

So incensed was Simon Harris by a contributor to Morning Ireland on Wednesday that he took to Twitter to tell the world he felt like shouting at the radio.

The contributor was Ryanair DAC chief executive Eddie Wilson, who had just accused the Government of being “out of step” with administrations across the EU in the timing of the opening of the country to international travel.

Wilson said that at some stage the country was going to have to “get back to normal” and he suggested that people would “not lose their heads just because they are on holiday. People are going to do it sensibly.”

He did not say how he knew this to be true, and offered nothing by way of evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that it was.

His comments were hardly much of a surprise and were just the latest in a long line of volleys fired across the bows of the Irish authorities by senior Ryanair executives – most vocally Michael O’Leary – who have been shouting for weeks about the need to scrap travel restrictions and allow people to come and go as they please.

It is, perhaps, telling that a Cabinet Minister – one who, until very recently, was on the front line in the Government’s fight against Covid-19 – would resort to a channel beloved of those who may otherwise be voiceless to vent. It is, certainly, a reflection of the muddled approach that has been adopted regarding international travel over recent weeks by the Government.

We have seen Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggest the summer was “not lost”, and dangle the prospect of overseas holidays in front of many people hoping they would be able to escape this often rain-soaked island for a spell this year.

Will you travel abroad for a holiday this year?

Bridges in the sky

As recently as last Wednesday, officials at the Department of Transport were briefing journalists that the “mood music has definitely changed” and promising bridges in the sky leading from Ireland to destinations including Spain, Portugal, Malta and Greece. They would, we were told, be rolled out within days.

By Sunday the new Minister for Transport, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, was saying people should “restrict travel to when it is absolutely necessary” and urging everyone to holiday at home this summer.

Within 24 hours, Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan was expressing concern about an increase in foreign travel leading to a spike in Covid-19 cases, while a day later the newly anointed Minister with responsibility for tourism, Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin, was saying that while “right now” the advice was to ease travel restrictions, people should still holiday at home.

In all of the confusion and the bluster and the PR spin, Irish consumers and holidaymakers, many of whom have already spent thousands of euro on overseas holidays they may or may not be in a position to take, have been effectively thrown under the bus – and not just the once.

Consumer protection rules

First, the Irish government lobbied the European Commission to have longstanding and hard-won consumer protection rules changed to allow airlines and travel companies to offer credit notes instead of the cash refunds travellers were legally entitled to. The commission said no. Then the Government introduced new rules to make vouchers more attractive with the promise they would come with a Government-backed guarantee.

These supposedly consumer-friendly vouchers may well be an acceptable alternative for many people, but for many others who have seen their income slashed or their jobs disappear, the offer of a voucher is a just another slap in the face.

So what can the Government actually do to make things better?

Certainly doing nothing is not an option, but equally certainly, shutting the airports and banning all flights to and from Ireland is neither practical or desirable. We are, after all, on an island, and air links are critical for trade and journeys that cannot be avoided.

But if the State’s top medic believes non-essential foreign travel this summer is a bad idea and if all the indications are that coronavirus is far from under control in many countries across the EU, then perhaps the Cabinet could make it crystal clear that overseas travel is simply not going to be on the table this summer.

Invested huge sums

Maybe it could also prove it is in the citizens’ corner and not in the pocket of the aviation industry by demanding that some mechanisms are put in place to offer comfort to the tens of thousands of Irish families who have invested huge sums into holidays they are being advised not to take.

As it stands, if a flight takes off and people adhere to Government advice and stay at home, they stand to lose all their money. As many as 80 per cent of the seats on planes which were due to fly to popular tourist locations this summer were sold pre-Covid-19, and the airlines will get to keep all that money as long as they take off, irrespective of how many of the seats are occupied.

While the authorities should not ban all flights to and from Ireland, they should at least stop airlines profiting from flying ghost flights this summer. All that is required is a rule change which would force all airlines to refund passengers who heed Government advice and stay at home until the crisis has passed or at least until the end is nearer.

Such a step would protect those who do the right thing, instead of punishing them. It would certainly be a more effective measure than simply shouting impotently at the radio of a dreary Wednesday morning.

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