Europe: Keeping The Show On The Road, The Sea & In The Air

Courtesy of Air Partner

Traveling Europe and the UK for touring, tourism or charter purposes has been challenging. COVID restrictions differ from country to country, and Brexit has added another layer of obstacles. As ICM Partners’ Beckie Sugden recently told Pollstar, “There is so much more to consider beyond the complexities of putting a tour together normally. There are now vaccination and testing requirements, scenarios such as a crew member becoming ill on tour, lockdowns being implemented, fluctuating tax rates and much more.”

Of the transportation execs Pollstar reached out to for this feature, more than one had dealt with crew members testing positive for COVID in the middle of a tour. Depending on the country a person is in, that can mean up to two weeks of quarantine right then and there.
The situation is “really bad,” said Louise Smit of Dutch transportation experts Pieter Smit.
“Right now, we have two drivers tested positive in Azerbaijan, so they are stuck now for the upcoming two weeks,” Smit explained. “They both have no COVID symptoms, but they cannot get a second test, they really have to wait for two weeks. It is a problem when drivers are on the road or flying to the destination and test positive on the way. Especially when France closed the border from the UK in December. This was simply inhumane! No facilities, food, and people missing Christmas with their families. Testing brings along a lot of extra costs as well.”
What’s more, “When the world was in lockdown, the roadies were still allowed to drive around, but there were no facilities open,” Smit continued. “Restrooms were closed because of COVID. Also, the atmosphere was totally different. Instead of enjoying a meal with fellow roadies in a French bistro near the highway, everyone had to eat alone in the truck. It was very lonely.”
Clive Chalmers, VP of Charter for Air Partner, confirmed that the individual restrictions each country in Europe has been implementing “has certainly been a challenging situation to deal with. As a worldwide business we have had to handle regular changes of policy, varying testing requirements from country to country and last-minute changes to the best-made plans on a considerably more regular basis than normal.”
One of the biggest challenges has been the reduction in frequency of scheduled flights, which are relied upon to transport crew members into place for the flights they are due to operate.
“In fact,” said Chalmers, “we have arranged aircraft charters on behalf of some airlines and operators to move crews in these circumstances to give the required certainty that their crews will be in place to operate a flight. We have also had to mitigate the impact of these restrictions, for example utilizing augmented crew sets to extend duty times to avoid crew changes down route where possible. Much like the passenger experience of travel, crews have also been impacted, but it has been something we have had to manage to keep flying.” 
Challenges create opportunities, too, especially for transportation companies, who see themselves as facilitators. Tony Kennedy, Partner and Founder of UCARGO, furloughed five members of staff right at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

Pieter Smit
– Pieter Smit
Queen Maxima of The Netherlands visited transport company Pieter Smit on April 8, 2020, in Nieuw Vennep, Netherlands. This crisis has had major consequences for the transport and logistics sectors.
“What a mistake this was,” he said, looking back. “We realized very quickly that everybody started working from home, freight agents, trucking companies, airline agents, container carriers. Everybody related to [our] industry was hard to make contact with, we quickly brought our staff back onboard, provided laptop computers and mobile phones, and had a new website put together. Within weeks we were taking on business. It was hard at first to realize what we needed to provide service to our customers, but quickly we geared up and during last year we increased our headcount and added two new offices. Now, in 2021, [we’re] looking to expand into the USA, Italy and Saudi Arabia.”
Air Partner profited from its breadth of products and geographical coverage, which helped it find business opportunities even during the crisis.
“We have worked closely with our airline and operator partners to overcome the challenges faced by the crews flying our charters as a result of the pandemic,” Chalmers said.
Sectors needing charter services during the pandemic included oil and gas and government.
“Secondly,” he added, “it’s about getting our strategy right to ensure that our customers know where we are when they are ready to return to chartering. There has been lots of change and movement across our customer database because of the pandemic. Remaining on top of current demand and ensuring our customers can rely on us for independent advice on their chartering needs or a larger-scale return to charter is a priority.” 
On top of coronavirus, there’s been Brexit to deal with. While many prepared for it as much as possible, the finalized Brexit deal and its conditions came into effect with minimal notice at the start of 2020. In addition to the pandemic, it has been another challenge for teams to navigate. The biggest impact for Air Partner, according to Chalmers, “has been the reduction in availability of aircraft as a result of not having the necessary permits to operate flights which prior to Brexit would have been no issue. This is where Air Partner’s strong relationships with our aircraft operator partners, and our extensive knowledge of the aircraft market has really paid off. We have had to utilize a much bigger pool of operators to service our customer’s requirements. Our compliance team has been particularly busy auditing and approving new operators for use by the Air Partner Group, and we always welcome the opportunity to do business with appropriate new partners and expand our high-standard network.”
Pieter Smit kept its focus on its main market Europe, where the company has a broad base. “So, for us, the impact is way less than for the UK trucking companies,” Smit said. “We are currently working for projects in sports, like soccer and races. We are currently in St. Tropez with 85 trucks.” Trucks that run on HVO diesel, made of garbage that would be burned anyway. “Now it’s burned by our vehicles, which is way more useful,” Smit said.
In the lead up to Brexit, the Dutch government organized several info gatherings for companies. “Because of this, we were able to request CEMT-licenses beforehand, which enable us to drive into the UK,” she said. “We have been to the UK many times, we prepare [temporary admission] ATA Carnet documents for our clients. We keep extra time in mind for the border crossings.” UCARGO felt the effects of Brexit when most of the UK’s container terminals got congested in a post-Brexit trade disruption.
“Containers got stuck at ports,” Kennedy said. “This resulted in extra costs. Not only that, but customs clearance brokers where not taking on extra work and we found ourselves with lots of extra inquiries to deal with.”
Things have improved “in terms of better flow,” though “a lack of drivers in the UK” has resulted in a much bigger planning effort.
“Also, this has led to our drivers being paid double wages since the beginning of the year, adding costs,” Kennedy said. Added costs for carnets, work permits and cabotage are also big obstacles for bands, especially up-and-coming ones, who want to tour between Europe and the UK, according to Music Managers Forum Chief Executive Annabella Coldrick, which is one reason she thinks “European touring is unlikely to resume fully until 2023 as Brexit uncertainty and costs mean some shows are again postponed and dates become hard to get hold of.”
The MMF is currently lobbying government for a transition fund to help artists manage this burden. As far as coronavirus is concerned, the most important factor to ensure touring the UK and Europe picks up pace again will be “stability,” Smit said. “Every country – and in some countries like Germany, every state – has its own COVID measures. Also, these measures change all the time, making it very difficult to plan a tour.”
UCARGO just started to travel again last week.
“Hopefully over the coming months travel restrictions will get better,” Kennedy said.
According to Chalmers, “for this to return to anywhere near what we saw prior to the pandemic, we are going to be very much dependent on countries allowing large gatherings of people at events such as concerts and festivals. The entry restrictions must also be further eased to ensure that the barriers for travel are reduced as close as possible to conditions used prior to COVID. Some will say that the world will never be the same again, but we are seeing some encouraging signs of recovery, especially with touring taking place, albeit more on a domestic basis. I am confident the demand will be there as things become more open and we will be standing by to assist our customers as usual.”
And, he concluded, “It always amazes me how this industry pulls together in the face of adversity. I personally have been involved in this industry during previous world defining events such as 9/11 and the Icelandic ash-cloud crisis that have impacted aviation and associated industries heavily.  … My team and colleagues have also made me very proud and some of the charter projects they have delivered in extremely tough circumstances will no doubt be remembered as part of Air Partner’s 60-year history and as we move forward into the next 60 years!”