News & Current Affairs

September 12, 2008

Fears for package holiday firm XL

Fears for package holiday firm XL

Spanish beach

Tour operators have been hit by soaring fuel costs

Package holiday firm XL has filed for administration after experiencing financial difficulties, reports say.

The firm is Britain’s third biggest tour operator and flies to 50 destinations, mainly in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

XL is the latest travel firm to face financial difficulties as the industry struggles with sky-high fuel costs and an economic downturn.

Low-cost transatlantic airline Zoom collapsed last month.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said the company currently continued to hold a license to operate as a tour operator and commercial airline.

He said: “It has not been confirmed to us that XL have filed for administration.”

Financial protection

The carrier had already cancelled its schedule of flights to the Caribbean.

If the firm were to collapse, package holidaymakers would be protected under the Atol scheme, a financial protection package.

Administrators might be able to help the company continue.

“But many companies have gone into administration and not survived, it’s a sign there is severe problems with the company’s accounts,” he said.

“Other airlines who have had similar problems have had aircraft impounded.”

If the news is true, it is a major, major thing for the industry
Bob Atkinson, Travel Supermarket

Travel writer, Simon Calder, described XL’s airline operation: “A pretty large airline with 21 aircraft, [it] flies all over the world, the Caribbean; Mediterranean; North Africa and North America, from airports across the UK.

“It does most charter work, but also quite a lot of – effectively – no-frills, scheduled work.”

Bob Atkinson, of the price comparison website Travel Supermarket said XL’s troubles would be blow for the travel trade.

He said: “If the news is true, it is a major, major thing for the industry, the British travel industry. They are a very large operator and this will send serious shock waves through the industry.

“And what it’s going to do more than anything, it’s going to highlight how precarious the airline industry is at the moment.”

XL customer Marion Foster of Thame, Oxfordshire, has a flight booked to Rhodes next week and was contacted by customer services on Wednesday to ensure her tickets had arrived.

She said: “At the time I thought it was a nice customer service touch to receive such a phone call but now I don’t know what to think.

“As I only booked flights with them it looks like I will lose my money which seems somewhat unfair.”


Are you affected by the issues in this story? Do you have a holiday booked with XL? Send us your comments and experiences

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September 10, 2008

Fusion power seeks super steels

Fusion power seeks super steels

Jet (EFDA)

The JET lab has helped pioneer fusion

Scientists say an understanding of how the Twin Towers collapsed will help them develop the materials needed to build fusion reactors.

New research shows how steel will fail at high temperatures because of the magnetic properties of the metal.

The New York buildings fell when their steel backbones lost strength in the fires that followed the plane impacts.

Dr Sergei Dudarev told the British Association Science Festival that improved steels were now being sought.

The principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said one of the first applications for these better performing metals would be in the wall linings of fusion reactors where temperatures would be in a similar range to those experienced in the Twin Towers’ fires.

‘Not melting’

The key advance is the understanding that, at high temperatures, tiny irregularities in a steel’s structure can disrupt its internal magnetic fields, making the rigid metal soft.

“Steels melt at about 1,150C (2,102F), but lose strength at much lower temperatures,” explained Dr Sergei Dudarev, principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Atoms in steel (UKAEA)

Iron atoms in steel: Black balls show irregularities that disrupt magnetic fields, weakening steel

At room temperature, the magnetic fields between iron atoms remain regular, but when heated, these fields are altered allowing the atoms to slide past each other, weakening the steel.

“[The steel] becomes very soft. It is not melting but the effect is the same,” said Dr Dudarev.

He said blacksmiths had exploited this property for hundreds of years – it allows iron to become pliable at temperatures much lower than its melting point.

The peak in this pliability is at 911.5C, but begins at much lower temperatures, at around 500C (932F) – a temperature often reached during building fires.

The steel backbone of the Twin Towers was probably exposed to temperatures close to this, when insulating panels – meant to protect the buildings’ structural frame – were dislodged by the impacts of the hijacked planes.

The roaring fire mid-way up the building heated the steel struts, and once temperatures rose above 500C the structure became elastic, and collapsed under the force of the floors above.

Tuning up

The interest of Dr Dudarev and the UKAEA is to find steels that can withstand the intense heat of being inside a a fusion reactor.

UKAEA has helped pioneer fusion power – deriving energy by forcing together atomic nuclei – at Europe’s JET lab in Oxfordshire; and is now assisting the development work on the world first large-scale experimental reactor known as Iter.

The extended periods over which Iter will run means the reactor must have robust materials built into the vessel where the fusion reactions will occur.

Dr Dudarev said it should be possible to tune the properties of suitable new steels by adding a mix of other elements.

“We need to look at the magnetic properties of steel, [and] vary their chemical composition in a systematic way in order to get rid of this behaviour,” he suggests.

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