British Airways Shutdown Impacts Cruise Travel

August 12, 2005

As if the recent, tragic spate of terrorist activity in London wasn't destructive enough for summer travelers -- including cruise passengers -- this week's British Airways shutdown at Heathrow is now creating more roadblocks for folks heading to (and returning from) European cruises.

The back story: According to an Associated Press report, British Airways flight cancellations began on Thursday as a result of an odd dispute with Gate Gourmet, which supplies its onboard meals. The problem is actually within Gate Gourmet -- and only peripherally involved British Airways (which was unable, earlier this week, to provide food service onboard and gave some passengers vouchers to buy meals in the airport before taking off). But British Airways airline workers who shared the same union as that of the Gate Gourmet catering staff -- including baggage handlers and bus drivers -- went on strike as a show of support.

British Airways was then forced to cancel flights into and out of Heathrow.

The impact on cruise travel reaches beyond London also, as numerous lines work with British Airways in their air/sea programs to ferry travelers to places like Amsterdam and Barcelona.

Royal Caribbean International, which owns both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, is operating six ships in Europe and both lines are reporting some impact. For instance, Saturday departures include Legend of the Seas, from Southampton; Splendor of the Seas, from Barcelona; Constellation, from Dover, and Century, from Amsterdam.

According to spokesman Michael Sheehan, the challenge is not only to reroute folks heading to their cruises (he estimates about 50 passengers will be impacted this weekend and they have already been reticketed), but also finding ways to get folks home who are disembarking this weekend. Travelers who'd planned to return to North America this weekend -- and who will either be rescheduled on other carriers or hosted in hotels in London, Amsterdam and Barcelona for a night or two -- number about 100, Sheehan says.

Crystal's Mimi Weisband also reports that a handful of folks departing on Crystal Symphony this weekend from Stockholm have been rebooked.

At Princess Cruises and Cunard Line, spokeswoman Julie Benson told Cruise Critic that its problems were minimal as its main U.K. carrier is Virgin Atlantic.

Holland America says it has no turnarounds in Europe this weekend so the problem is a moot one, at least for now. For Oceania, whose Insignia departs out of Lisbon this weekend, the relatively sparse number of impacted guests have been offered other transportation options.

Other cruise lines, such as Princess, Cunard and Silversea, have not responded to Cruise Critic's request for information.

In all cases, these efforts to rebook passengers only apply to those who bought their airline tickets through the cruise line, and this could be a cautionary tale for those folks who independently made arrangements. Several executives were quite candid in saying that the extra helping hand -- in terms of rerouting or supplying hotel rooms as necessary -- is limited to those customers.

And, of course, folks who've bought travel insurance should be covered -- though reading the fine print would be crucial. Access America's Mark Cipolletti says that at this point "because the situation is still unfolding we can't exactly tell you what we're going to do ... but most policies include trip cancellation, trip delay and missed connection."

Cipolletti offers a clearer definition in terms of the fine print, noting that under travel delay coverage, which goes into effect when there's a lag of six or more hours, "an unannounced strike is covered." And trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance would provide for compensation should a strike cause an airline to be shut down for at least 24 hours. In this case, both apply.

In the meantime, wire services are reporting that British Airways intends to resume service beginning at 8 p.m. GMT Friday. "But," according to Associated Press, "it warned that the disruption caused by more than 500 canceled flights at one of the world's busiest airports would continue for many hours."