Skywriting and skytyping could return to UK skies

With the coronavirus crisis hammering the aviation industry, it is going to do all it can get to get back on its feet when the emergency is finally over.

One modest proposal snaking its way through the UK government’s legislative agenda is to revive the art of skywriting – in which planes pen messages in the air with smoke.

Flight cancellations on back of coronavirus crisis – your rights

Thousands of passengers left stranded abroad by cancelled flights are not being told that they are entitled to their rerouting costs, consumer groups have warned.

Normally when an airline starts cancelling, passengers are entitled to EU compensation of €250-€600 (£230-£550). However, where the cancellation is deemed to be an “extraordinary circumstance” – something outside the airline’s control, such as coronavirus – then the rules do not apply.

However, passengers stranded abroad by the cancellation in the EU – or due to travel home on an EU carrier – are entitled to rerouting, or to have their alternative travel costs refunded.

Thousands of air passengers have found themselves on the wrong side of cancellations – particularly in Spain but also in places such as Morocco and Poland. If your flight is cancelled, passengers can ask the airline to be rerouted on to an alternative flight, if that is possible, or to pay for a train or coach replacement.

This applies all flights that start in the UK, EU, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland or flights that arrive in these countries if you are flying on a UK/EU-based airline.

The airline does not have to pay if the passenger chooses instead to receive a refund of the return flight’s cost. If it is possible to get home, passengers are advised to take the rerouting option. Passengers making their own way home should keep all receipts and keep accommodation and other costs “reasonable”.

In practical terms, passengers are having to fend for themselves, as it is all but impossible to get hold of airlines. Passengers trying to call British Airways on Friday described how it was impossible to talk to anyone – and that was before Donald Trump extended the US flight ban to include the UK and Ireland.

The bigger problem may well be getting the airlines to pay up. They have been reluctant to pay rerouting costs in normal times, let alone in the current climate. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether they will still be in business to pay out, given that many are saying they are unlikely to survive without state help.

As a result, some travellers will likely find themselves relying on travel insurance, where their policy allows for travel disruption.

This is mostly offered by better, more expensive policies. Where the passenger used their credit card to book the flight – directly – with the airline, they may be able to hold their card provider responsible for their extra travel costs – if the flight costs more than £100 – and the airline refuses to pay.

Ultimately, the UK government may have to step in to repatriate large numbers of Britons stuck in places such as the Canary Islands or Morocco, where alternative travel is near impossible.

Passengers on package tours are better protected. Ski customers in France on package trips should be repatriated by the tour operator – and if the firm ceases to exist because it goes bust, the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA would have to fund emergency repatriation flights, under the terms of the Atol protection. It is a similar story for any cruise passengers stuck abroad.

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, said: “This is a difficult time for travel operators and airlines but too many people are being given no information at all or poor advice that could risk them being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Airlines and operators must ensure they are informing customers of how they will get people home and, where appropriate, how they can claim for additional costs they’ve incurred, such as overnight accommodation.”

Miles Brignall

While not an unusual sight elsewhere in the world, skywriting and skytyping – where planes flying abreast and puff smoke at intervals to form letters like a dot-matrix printer – have been banned in the UK for six decades.

Cautious officials of the era halted the practice out of safety concerns, and also as a pre-emptive response to the possibility that it could be used to spread communist propaganda at the height of the cold war. Officials believe such concerns are no longer valid.

The proposals have so far reached the consultation stage, with the Department for Transport inviting responses from the public.

“Should skytyping and skywriting become lawful, there is a potential commercial benefit to enable such services to be provided in the UK given its large population and significant aviation and advertising markets,” the DfT’s consultation document says.

“Although these activities are currently banned in the UK, we already boast some of the world’s best skytyping pilots, who currently perform abroad, mainly in the EU and China, but would be ready to deliver services in the UK once the law is changed.”

It adds: “Skytyping and skywriting could also add entertainment and display value to various spectacles. Skytyping is likely to take place at mass outdoor events such as music festivals and sporting fixtures.

“Skywriting is expected to generate activity in the form of enhancement to existing air displays and private individuals could use it for personal messages, such as marriage proposals or birthday celebrations.

“Skywriting and skytyping could also be used as part of public events, such as for marking royal birthdays, military commemorations or national memorial days.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “General aviation is an incubator for the aviation workforce of tomorrow, a vital industry which employs 230,000 people and adds £22bn to the UK economy.

“It’s critical that we do all we can to promote and strengthen the sector and enabling skywriting and skytyping will encourage innovation, provide jobs and create businesses.”

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