Travel: Is it a plane? And, if so, whose?

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The Independent Culture
TO BORROW from President Clinton's celebrated piece of evidence, "it depends upon what the meaning of the word `airline' is". The launch of the oneworld alliance this week hastens the demise of capital letters in aviation, a campaign begun by easyJet and continued by go. More importantly, it will become even trickier to tell which airline you are booked on.

You can go around the world without ever travelling on the airline shown on your ticket. Buy a ticket on Continental Airlines from Heathrow to Los Angeles, British Airways onwards to Auckland, then Air New Zealand for the homeward hop via Asia - and you could instead find yourself flying with Virgin Atlantic, Qantas and Singapore Airlines.

As has been discussed here, the practice of "code-sharing" flights has some trivial effects, like the absence of seat-back videos on Virgin Atlantic flights operated by Continental. Of much more concern is safety, since fatal accident records vary greatly from one airline to another.

A fortnight ago I explained how, at least according to the private website, British Airways has one of the better safety records in the aviation business. But John Turner of London says that "the data reported there is incomplete as the BA statistics fail to mention two fatal events suffered by one of its predecessor airlines, British European Airways".

Indeed, BEA lost a Vanguard over Belgium in October 1971. The following June, a Trident crashed in Staines just after take-off from Heathrow. As Mr Turner writes: "The inclusion of these two events alters the statistics considerably and doubles the accident rate for BA, making it not significantly better than its European counterparts".

IT ALSO depends upon what the meaning of the word "aircraft" is. If a fear of flying keeps you grounded, then consider catching the Belgian airline, Sabena, from Brussels to Antwerp. A stall on board flight SN72 would be annoying rather than potentially fatal, since it is a bus. The craft cruises along the E19 at an altitude of about 10 feet and at a ground speed of around 60mph. A similar performance can be expected from Czech Airlines flight OK 4029, which trundles between Brno and Prague. Britain is not left behind: the country's latest airline, designator 2E, started "flying" in June. The new Overseas Airline Guide shows it as the most prolific route in the world, operating 70 times a day - between Heathrow airport and Paddington station. Flight 2E 0502 and all its sibling departures comprise the Heathrow Express rail link. But the crucial question: does the Warsaw Convention apply to these "flights"?

ONE REASON it could be relevant is because the Warsaw Convention governs how much compensation you are entitled to when your baggage goes missing.

Vera Grant of Cumbria says her airline showed little interest in the welfare of her luggage: when she flew to Norway, her bag remained behind in Newcastle. Normally it would be flown out on the next departure. Instead, it stayed put while Ms Grant set about trying to kit herself out for the cold.

When it came to compensation, the airline, she says, hid behind the paltry provisions of the Warsaw Convention: "an outdated regulatory mechanism which serves only to protect airlines from claims which would arise in other fields of commerce," she says.

With airlines so securely protected by the Warsaw Convention, she continues, "it is cheaper to pay the limited compensation required than to employ additional staff or more competent handling agents to do the job properly".

The airline in question calls itself Braathens SAFE - rescuing some of those capital letters discarded by other airlines, and perhaps tempting fate. But, like most European carriers, it has an excellent safety record.

THE CUBAN national airline remains bottom of the list of airlines for whom safety statistics are available. But I am looking forward to flying on Cubana later this year, as you can guarantee an interesting experience. Just this week, Florian Barker of Coventry found herself on Tuesday's flight to Manchester, even though she had been booked on the previous day to Gatwick.

"Monday's flight from Havana was overbooked by 74 people, so they kept us in a hotel overnight and flew us back the following day," she reports. "When we finally got to Manchester, the ground staff told us we'd have to continue by coach to Gatwick, even though we had been promised a connecting flight." After a passenger mutiny, they were put on a plane, and got home 26 hours late.

"That was better than the 54 poor souls who were overbooked on the way out," Ms Barker remarks. "They were put on a bus to Heathrow, flown to Madrid, connected to Sao Paulo in Brazil and eventually flown up to Havana."

You don't need an airline alliance to see the world - just book a flight on Cubana.