Travel: Flying in Greece: I've been on more waiting lists than an NHS patient

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FRAZZLED AND fed-up after a week of horribly haphazard travel, on Thursday evening I did what I have never done before: ask an airline how much extra it would cost to fly in business class. "That'll be pounds 337", came the reply: in other words three times the price of my economy ticket from Athens to London. After climbing back on to my feet, I politely declined - and I was very glad that I did. Here's why.

Seat 31D was very comfortable - especially when combined with its neighbours 31E, F and G. And, if stretching out across four middle seats on this Boeing 747 doesn't satisfy my need for personal space, I needed look no further than rows 27 to 30 inclusive, all of which are equally vacant.

There are 426 seats on a Olympic Airways jumbo jet, but on Thursday night only 43 of them were occupied (more accurately, I counted only 43 passengers on board; some of us were occupying more than one seat). To look after us, there were two pilots, a flight engineer and a dozen members of cabin crew, not to mention 14 loos. I have a theory about why flight 265 was so sparsely populated, which I shall expound in a moment.

First, though: you know when you find it hard to leave a place? This week, that was how Santorini was for me. But this inertia had nothing to do with the haunting beauty of the Cycladean island in midwinter. It was impossible to leave because on Wednesday morning Olympic Airways cancelled the flight to Athens.

Ah well, I thought as I settled down to get some work done while waiting for the next flight, at least it's a bright, clean airport. Then I got thrown out; Santorini's gleaming terminal closes between flights. By that stage, I was inured to inconvenience. Five out of the six Olympic Airways flights I took this week were late. The total number of explanations or apologies: one (two if you count the non-appearance of the flight from Santorini). And I have been on more waiting lists than a hypochondriac NHS patient.

Highlights from my thoroughly mangled schedule include the shortest time I have ever spent in any hotel, a flat four hours from check-in to check- out. No, it wasn't that sort of hotel; I had arrived in Athens 14 hours late, and had to get up at 3am to catch a 5am connection. This flight, inevitably, was itself delayed, so I could have stayed in bed longer. Eventually I unravelled the three-stage reason: first, there are no boarding gates at Athens airport, so everyone has to be bussed to the airport; next, Olympic schedules no fewer than five domestic departures for 5am; third, there appear to be only four buses.

We can only hope that the timekeeping at the 2004 Olympics in Athens is better than that of the national airline. Cronus, the Greek god of time, would not be amused.

The only flight that wasn't late actually managed to be five minutes early. Could this be because it was the only domestic sector on which Olympic faces competition - from Heraklion to Athens? An Air Greece plane had left 15 minutes earlier. The Olympic flight got off to a flying start, and overtook its rival over the Aegean.

To return to the `Boeing Celeste', which left Athens a mere 70 minutes late. My theory about the on-board void is simple: in the past year, competition has boomed between Athens and London. Perhaps the missing passengers were aboard the carriers that managed to leave on time: British Airways, easyJet, Virgin Atlantic, plus a timely new Greek airline, Cronus Air. A word of advice to Olympic: either upgrade your performance, or downsize your planes.

On a hike around the wide open spaces of the rear cabin, I got chatting to an Australian passenger, who wondered why Olympic had not chosen to offer us a treat: "They could have upgraded us all to business class".