Airlines should be prepared to start working more closely with tour operators as the market continues to take a hammering.

That was the message from Air Berlin sales manager for the UK Titus Johnson at the Association of Independent Tour Operators conference in Morocco last week. He said a drop in the business travel market and the reduced demand for flying for the ­leisure traveller may force scheduled airlines to reconsider their previous decisions not to work with the trade.

He said: “This is going to be a bad period for airlines and worse than 2001. There are more airline seats in the market and fewer bums to fill them.

“Airlines need tour operator business now more than ever and may well be willing to ­reverse the trend.

“It is a great opportunity, particularly for niche operators, to demonstrate their value.”

Johnson said Air Berlin was already hoping to work more closely with tour operators by offering them a number of deals including holding group reservations and allowing ­operators to cancel up to 10% of their ­allocations without penalty.

However, Brighter Group chairman Dan Brewin, who has worked for various airlines and travel companies for 40 years, argued carriers will only give operators minimum allocations as they seek to maximise revenues through their own distribution channels.

While he refused to be drawn on the possibility of further ­airlines going bust he added: “What happens to fuel is going to be critical in determining the future. It is a significant chunk of costs.”

Brewin also predicted ­airlines could soon encounter problems hedging fuel (buying supplies in advance to protect against a future price rise), adding: “Many have hedged but whether they will be able to hedge as much in the future is unclear as the financial ­community finds it harder to back that situation.”