Revealed: P&O Ferries struggles to win back customers 10 weeks after brutally sacking 800 crew

ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills reports on the crisis facing P&O Ferries

Two briefing slides, compiled by P&O Ferries, reveal the scale of the damage to the company’s business caused by its decision to sack its crew without warning in March and the disruption that followed.

The slides contain traffic data showing how many cars, caravans, coaches, motorcycles, lorries and foot passengers travelled on P&O’s ferries last week.

The figures were circulated as part of an internal P&O management meeting which took place on Teams on Monday and were later shared with ITV News.

The slides show that in the week ending Sunday, May 22, P&O carried 2,134 tourist vehicles between Dover and Calais - traditionally the company’s busiest and most lucrative route - a colossal 92% fall on the same week in 2018.

The number of daily tourist vehicles travelling on P&O’s other routes - Hull to Rotterdam (down 25%), Liverpool to Dublin (down 44%) and Larne to Cairnryan (down 50%) - was also significantly below pre-Covid pandemic levels.

P&O briefing slide which shows tourist numbers in 2022 compared to 2018

P&O briefing slide which shows tourist numbers in 2022 compared to 2018. Credit: P&O Ferries

“The [Dover-Calais] figures are absolutely abysmal,” a manager at P&O told me.

“We only had two [out of four] ships operating last week but even so, Port of Dover was busy but we weren’t, we’re not even covering fuel costs on some crossings. Everything is desperately down.”

P&O Ferries' decision to fire 786 of its crew without warning on March 17 was unusually brutal and attracted widespread public condemnation.

The company’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, admitted he chose to ignore the legal requirement to consult the unions in advance but he insisted the sackings were necessary to save the business.

The slides suggest P&O’s aggressive behaviour may have also damaged its commercial prospects.

P&O’s freight service across the English Channel has experienced a dramatic slump in trade.

Freight volumes on the busy route between Dover and Calais in the week ending Saturday, May 21, were up 32.3% on the previous week but from a very low base.

P&O’s two ferries carried only 3,022 freight vehicles, 87.7% less than the company had budgeted for.

The company’s freight services across the Irish Sea have been fully operational for several weeks but traffic on the Liverpool to Dublin crossing ran 19% below budget last week and traffic between Larne and Cairnryan was 17% below target.

By contrast, freight levels on P&O’s Hull to Rotterdam service have recovered.

P&O briefing slide which shows freight numbers in 2022

P&O briefing slide which shows freight numbers in 2022. Credit: P&O Ferries

The figures are grim, not least because rival companies, including DFDS, Stena and Brittany, variously report that their ferry businesses are performing strongly.

“I would be incredibly shocked if P&O Ferries is making money, it’s almost impossible with this level of traffic,” a shipping consultant who works with several of the large operators told me.

“I think the numbers tell you that P&O completely misjudged how disruptive sacking its crew would be.

"The most junior strategist could have told you it wasn’t going to work the way they planned. Thousands of customers have switched to P&O’s rivals and they haven’t yet switched back”.

P&O tweet from 17 March 2022 which said services would be suspended for the 'next few days'. Credit: Twitter/POferriesupdate

P&O Ferries suspended its services when it sacked its crew. The company planned to resume sailing within a few days using cheaper agency crews but it ran into a series of setbacks and delays.

The company’s eight ships were required to pass safety inspections by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the regulator, before sailing again. Three vessels failed those inspections, one of them - Pride of Kent - failed three times. Six of P&O’s ships have now successfully re-entered service.

Spirit of Britain, the largest ship in P&O’s fleet which is capable of carrying up to 180 lorries, began operating again on April 26. Last week it carried an average of only 27 lorries on the 33 crossings it made between Calais and Dover.

Capacity is part of P&O’s problem. The company has been forced to run a limited timetable across the English Channel while its ships were stuck in port.

YouGov data shows P&O reputation has suffered lasting damage. Credit: YouGov

But there’s also evidence that the company’s reputation has suffered lasting damage. According to YouGov, the public's opinion of P&O slumped after the sackings and remains “firmly negative”.

Stena, P&O’s rival, is rated far more highly for “impression, value, quality, reputation, satisfaction and [whether to] recommend".

Some of P&O’s former customers admit they now avoid using its service.

“I won’t sail with P&O unless it’s the only option available,” says Hannah Pierce whose family runs a haulage company with 35 lorries.

“We had years of really good service with [P&O] but on March 17 they dropped us in it. It has taken so long to get their ships back in service that we’ve now built up relationships with DFDS and Irish Ferries.”

“What they did [to their crew] was morally wrong,” she added. “I’m quite old fashioned, I have allegiances and I value loyalty.”There are reasons for P&O to be hopeful. The slides suggest that advance tourist bookings are recovering slightly.

Earlier this week, P&O revived its travel sharing agreement with DFDS across the English Channel and on Wednesday, a seventh ferry, Pride of Canterbury, was cleared to sail again by the regulator.

In a statement, a spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: "Both the Spirit of Britain and Pride of Kent have now returned to service on the Channel, and are transporting passengers as normal.

"We are fully booked over the coming Whitsun weekend, with booking figures up 20% last week on the previous week.

"The imminent return of the Pride of Canterbury will further bolster our growing momentum and we welcome the steady return of valued customers as our ships set sail again.”

“P&O is undoubtedly in a very difficult position, the overall picture is worrying but it’s too soon to judge how things will turn out,” the shipping consultant insists.

“We need to focus on how the company is trading in six weeks time. If they are heading into the peak summer season and they still haven’t got the business back on track then they really are in trouble.”

The consultant expects P&O to survive. “People can talk about a boycott of P&O all they want but, in the end, money talks,” they told ITV News. “Hauliers will switch ferry companies over small amounts of money and the passenger market is even more fickle.”

Peter Hebblethwaite is banking on the consultant being right.