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"Never say never" - Palmair MD David Skillicorn bows out
THE balloons fell from the roof and the champagne corks popped as the new arrival rolled in to the applause of 400 specially invited guests.
It was on May 12 2009 that tour operator Palmair unveiled its new jet, an £8m Boeing 737-500 named after Peter Bath, the company’s founder.
His son Stephen declared proudly: “This is the aircraft my father would have wanted.”
But even amid the celebrations in the hangar at Bournemouth Airport, some observers wondered whether it could last and whether such a major investment was justified during the worst downturn in the aviation industry for decades.
Indeed it did not last.
Buffeted by rising oil prices, the ash cloud, a recession and most of all the overwhelming power of the budget airlines, Palmair handed the aircraft back to its charter company in October, slashed its winter programme to just two routes and has made all but five of its 31 staff redundant, including all the cabin crew.
Though Palmair, as one of Bournemouth’s few truly iconic brands remains alive, no-one expects it to return to its former glory.
Others expect it to fade away quietly after more than 50 years of offering holidays from Bournemouth and becoming famous the world over as the only airline whose chairman saw off every flight personally.
The days of the family run, one plane airline offering “all the frills” as opposed to no frills, are well and truly over.
Times have changed and so has the travel market.
Though he would not use the term about himself, the highest ‘casualty’ in the restructuring of Palmair is the flamboyant managing director, David Skillicorn.
He leaves the company on Friday after 15 years.
“It’s a sad day,” he told the Echo.
“But I have had an immense amount of fun working for a great company and in a wonderful business.
“Our industry is littered with the corpses of firms which have collapsed, with people being let down, left stranded and sometimes out of pocket. I am very proud of the fact that we have decided to slow down and eventually stop in a very ordered way. That, in an industry like ours, is worth a lot and it’s worth a lot to me personally.”
He said Palmair was effectively “going into the deep freeze” until such time as market conditions could make it a viable proposition, if they do. There are no plans for a programme for Summer 2011.
So did Palmair become outdated in the world of Ryanair and easyJet?
It was always a genteel company in an increasingly brash marketplace.
“I think the problem is the industry polarising between no frills and the full service carriers. We got caught in the middle possibly. We were also snared in a global recession and faced a massive amount of competition.
“Something like Palmair does need the identity of its own plane and that brings with it a risk. You need to fly a certain number of hours a year and you just have to hope you find enough people prepared to pay the price you need to charge them to sit in all those seats you are offering. It became increasingly difficult. When you are in a recession, those people are harder to find.”
Mr Skillicorn, who joined Palmair from Phoenix Holidays in 1995 at the personal invitation of founder Peter Bath, said with hindsight the company might not have acquired its new aircraft last year.
“If we had known what was waiting round the corner, we probably wouldn’t have gone down that path. At the time it appeared the only way forward.”
And he said the company might have put more into trying to replicate the Palmair operation at other, small regional airports.
“We had various half hearted attempts which were successful, so maybe more of that would have helped.”
He added: “It was a whole succession of factors, which any one in isolation could have been dealt with. But when they all conspire together, you have to think long and hard about how long it’s sustainable for.”
The soon to be ex- MD will take a few weeks off , do some decorating “and think about what I want to do.”
So Palmair could be revived, with its reputation intact at home and abroad. After all, if a week is a long time in politics, it is a long time in the travel industry too.
As David Skillicorn said: "You never say never."
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