“One left at €639,” reported the British Airways website when I asked for the cost of stepping aboard the 2020 equivalent of the last helicopter out of Saigon: last night’s BA flight 8482 from Faro to London City airport.
That’s £570 for a journey scheduled to take 170 minutes. Sixpence a second, if you prefer.
Each Thursday, in a now-familiar ritual, the transport secretary sounds the death knell for another holiday destination. After Spain, France and Croatia, this week’s bell tolled for Portugal.
The mainland now rated in the same risk category as parts of Somalia, and quarantine awaits travellers returning to the UK.
Grant Shapps gave the usual deadline of 4am on Saturday – so that no one with a typical weekend-to-weekend booking would be able to use their original flight and Saturday or Sunday flight if they wanted to avoid two weeks of self-isolation.
As British Airways laid on extra flights from Faro, Lisbon and Porto to the UK, I wanted to help holidaymakers desperate to get home ahead of the 4am Saturday deadline. So I tweeted the news, and the lowest fare (at the time, a more modest £382) to London City.
It’s fair to say not every social media user was impressed.
“That's daylight robbery,” wrote Suzanne Thornber. “Don't they realise the pressure people are under, shambolic and shameful.“
Shane Taylor commented: “Got to find the money for Willie Walsh's payout somehow” – a reference to the outgoing chief executive of British Airways’ parent company, who walked away with £3.2m in pay for his last full year at the helm of IAG.
And “Hallimeister65” accused BA of "absolutely loving taking advantage of the naughty list by ripping customers off and pretending they're doing them a favour”.
At the risk of triggering another outpouring of fury, I commend British Airways for its swift and helpful response to the latest twist of the quarantine knife.
Consider, for a moment, the other scenarios.
BA could have done nothing, in which case demand for the existing flights with any remaining seats would have soared, driving up other airlines’ fares commensurately.
One reason some (relatively) lucky escapees were able to grab the Wizz Air late-night flight from Lisbon to Luton for €347 (£310), was because British Airways had increased the supply of seats; otherwise the midnight flit to Luton could have been even pricier.
The airline could have gone against industry practice and done travellers a favour with, say, a €200 (£178) flat fare on its Portugal “rescue” flights.
Yet whatever you think of free market economics, supply and demand does a fair job of allocating scarce resources – such as a quarantine-exemption flight home. Those tickets would have gone in a flash.
As I write on Friday afternoon, the last seat on that London City flight has just been sold. Whoever bought it no doubt had pressing reasons, personal or professional, for wanting to avoid two weeks in self-isolation. And BA provided a solution. Nobody forced the buyer to take it.
Consider also that the outbound flight went out almost empty, meaning the costs of the last-minute operation had to be met by the return leg; that subsequent flights will carry few passengers; and that profitable flights spell employment.
Exploitation of a captive market? No: a public service.