Simon Calder column

The traveller would be paying more for less were it not for a bearded billionaire
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The Independent Culture
FOR THE traveller, Richard Branson arrived just in time. In the mid-Eighties - shortly before British Airways swallowed up British Caledonian - he launched Virgin Atlantic. This long-haul airline has proved a tremendous asset for Britain's travellers, holding down fares while raising standards. Mr Branson also moved into short-haul flying with Virgin Express (again holding down fares, though I'm not so sure about the raised standards); and boldly went where no airline executive had gone before, buying up two of the UK rail franchises that were well beyond their "best before" date. And from this month, as Liz Kershaw reports below left, the Virgin brand can also take you on a Mediterranean beach holiday with some welcome extra touches.

Some of his ideas have been eccentric, to put it politely, such as the idea of flying Boeing 747s from Maastricht in Holland to Gatwick. But as someone who started spending cash with Mr Branson so long ago that it was in old money (Neil Young's After the Goldrush, 30s 8d from Virgin Records in Brighton, if you must know), I believe that the record-buyer and traveller would be paying more for less were it not for the bearded billionaire.

Yet his timing may be slipping. The new Mediterranean holiday company, Virgin Sun, began operating on 1 May. Within a week, the two biggest tour operators, Thomson and Airtours, were engaged in their fiercest market- share battle yet. This had nothing to do with the new company, but the impact is likely to mean lower prices this summer and next. Good news for us travellers, not so good for Mr Branson.

Next: the problem with persuading people to book their holidays a year in advance is that 12 months is a very long time in international politics. Since the Virgin Sun brochure appeared, the leader of the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, has been arrested. The guerrillas' regular warnings of attacks on tourists at Turkish beach resorts are being taken much more seriously this summer, and many would-be holidaymakers have cancelled. Virgin Sun has a big operation in Turkey.

Elsewhere in Europe, the effects of the Kosovo crisis are disrupting flights - as is a new air traffic-control system, which appears to be functioning with all the efficacy of a contraflow on the M6.

Then there is China. Shanghai, the economic power-house of the world's most populous country, gets connected with London a week today thanks to Virgin Atlantic's newest route. No one could have foreseen (especially, it tragically appears, Nato) that the Embassy of the People's Republic in Belgrade would be destroyed in a bombing raid. Following that event, the Foreign Office has advised against travel to China because of anti- British sentiment. These are not the sort of circumstances in which you would want to begin a new route to China, but Virgin Atlantic is going ahead anyway.

The timing of the launch always looked odd, though. A fortnight from now, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre will be marked. Travellers who have visited the Chinese capital recently will know that the scene of the pro-democracy demonstrations is under wraps, officially for renovation but in practice to stop any repetition of the events of June 1989. The front line between tourism and human rights is never a comfortable location, but some will feel that it would have been decent to defer the launch of the new flight to Shanghai.

AFTER AN all-night, 400-mile journey from Berlin, I arrived in Krakow yesterday morning feeling rested and refreshed. The secret, of course, is the couchette: a simple idea whereby a railway compartment is converted deftly into a high-speed dormitory with a clever system of fold-down bunks. The whole journey from the new German capital to Poland's loveliest city cost pounds 25 - about one-third of the price of a sleeper between London and Edinburgh, which is the same distance. Two questions: have couchettes ever been used on British trains? And if not, why not? Surely a new business idea for Richard Branson.