INDEPENDENT tour operators may have to significantly rejig their programmes for summer 2000 after losing at least 750,000 seats to the vertically integrated tour operators.

Thomas Cook's Caledonian Airways and Flying Colours have withdrawn 500,000 seats to use for their own inclusive tour programmes (Travel Weekly July 5) and a further 250,000 seats are believed to have been withdrawn by two other vertically integrated airlines.

Independent operators said they are not sure if they will be able to replace all the lost capacity, and even if they can find seats elsewhere they are unlikely to be able to offer the same departure times.

One specialist operator who did not wish to be named said: "The trouble is that the vertically integrated carriers have got our historic (take-off and landing) slots, so even if we can find replacement aircraft we may not be able to get suitable flight times."

A number of foreign aircraft are being brought into the UK next summer to replace some of the capacity that has been taken out of the market by the vertically integrated operators, but these carriers will not be able to apply for slots until the scheduling meeting in November.

"This means it will be months before we will know whether we have got enough seats at the right times and at the right price, or whether we will have to make changes to our programmes," said the operator.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Independent Tour Operators said several of its members had been affected by the move by vertically integrated operators to take greater control over their flying. "Nearly 80% of charter seats are in the hands of the big four operators, so if they decide to take out some capacity that is going to have quite an impact," she said.

She claimed the withdrawal of charter seats from the independent sector would force some operators to reduce the size of their summer programmes. "However, the operators who are affected are not prepared to go public because the companies who own the airlines also own the travel agencies and they are concerned they will stop selling their holidays."

Another operator said it was too soon to know what impact the move by the vertically integrated airlines would have on package prices.

"It is possible that if we can find alternative flights these might be cheaper than those being offered by the UK-based charter airlines who are asking a very high price with a "take it or leave it" attitude," he said.

Meanwhile, operators say bookings for summer 2000 are on a par with this time last year, with traditional family destinations such as mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands selling particularly well.

Surprisingly, the millennium does not appear to have any impact on summer bookings, according to operators. Sunworld product director Alan MacLean said:"Even if people are going away for the New Year they are still taking a summer holiday.

"Some suggested that in 2000 people would go for a really big holiday, but we have not seen any evidence of that in our bookings."

TABLE: Thomson

Majorca

Ibiza

Florida

Minorca

Costa Blanca

Tenerife

Costa Dorada

Cyprus

Gran Canaria

Costa Brava

Airtours

Majorca

Florida

Tenerife

Gran Canaria

Costa Dorada

Cyprus

Lanzarote

Fuerteventura

Minorca

Ibiza

TABLE: Top 10 Best-selling Destinations for Summer 2000

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