A BRAINTREE bus company has opened up about its lockdown experience and warns the industry is in dire straits.

Flagfinders is a Braintree based coach business which owns depots across the area in Braintree, Halstead and Kelvedon.

The company runs multiple services including private hire and also runs multiple routes across the district.

They also do school buses and provide transport to schools across the area including Notley High School & Braintree Sixth Form, Helena Romanes School & Sixth Form, Honywood School and Ridgewell Primary School.

However, the business was hit hard by the lockdown with Flagfinders losing more than 80 per cent of its work virtually overnight.

Jon Powell, 47, director at Flagfinders said: “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit us all at the end of March, Flagfinders lost 80 per cent of its work almost overnight and had to cut as many costs as possible.

“The majority of our fleet of 40 vehicles were taken off the road leaving a few minibus contracts still in place to support key workers and vulnerable students.

“March to July is usually our busiest time of year and the income generated over this period carries the business for the rest of the year.”

The business has been checking in on each of its depots every three weeks to maintain their fleet which is sitting idle.

Now the business says the coach industry is under serious threat.

Mr Powell added: “The government’s furlough scheme has been paramount for our survival with around 80 per cent of our staff currently on furlough.

“We have been working with our trade organisation, CPT (Confederation for Passenger Transport), and the picture for the coach industry is not good.

“Their predictions for our industry, unless we receive additional government support by November, are 10,000 directly employed staff made redundant, 300 (20 per cent) of operators in administration or voluntarily wound up and coach fleet reductions of 3,600 vehicles.

“This will have a huge knock on effect not only to the industry as whole but to the availability of vehicles for school transport.”

The industry has been shrouded in uncertainty with Flagfinders only learning two weeks ago they’d be operating school contracts due to social distancing measures.

Previously, the company was only able to fit 20 passengers on a double decker and only nine on a 57-seater coach.

However, new Government guidelines now regard home to school transport as a dedicated service and should be able to achieve normal capacity.

This differs from local bus who still have the social distance guidelines in place.

Flagfinders also say they are working closely with schools to make bus travel safe for pupils.

Measures include seating students in year group bubbles, disinfecting and sanitising buses daily, having hand sanitiser of the vehicles and, while they’re not compulsory on dedicated school transport, encouraging children over the age of 11 to wear masks whilst travelling.

The industry is appealing for support from the Government with Flagfinders even taking part in rally at Westminster to highlight their plight.

Mr Powell said: “We took part in the in the ‘Honk for Hope’ coach rally that took place on Monday 20 July in London around Parliament square and Embankment.

“This event was attended by approximately 500 coach operators from all around the UK to highlight the pressures and possible collapse our industry.

“We cannot stress enough how severe this outbreak has been to our industry.

“We could see a loss of 41% of operators by April 21 with direct industry job losses of 23,000 people.

“We have never experienced such trading conditions in over 40 years of operating and have faced numerous challenges since the outbreak.

“Predicting the income going forward has been difficult as well as keeping up with all the ever changing guidance.

“Flagfinders hopes to continue serving the local community who we have served for many years and are looking forward to the work returning to normal levels.

“However, this may not be for many months and the ending of the Job Retention Scheme in October will be a critical point.

“Home to school services do not provide a sustainable income without the infill work and private hire work.

“However, we are keeping positive and with the help of government backed loans and finance payment holidays we are determined to survive until the normal work returns.”