Travel: Simon Calder's column

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The Independent Culture
THREE ACES doesn't make for a good hand when you are flying. The winner of this column's annual table of tardiness is the Colombian airline Aces. Of the 78 flights I took in 1998, the three with Aces averaged two hours late. But at least these planes got me between Bogota and Medellin eventually.

There are two broad schools of thought about aviation: one holds that flying remains a miracle, and we should be grateful to complete our journeys safely; the other maintains that by the end of the 20th century, travellers ought to be able to rely on the schedules with which airlines entice us to fly. I incline to the latter view, which is why this statistically insignificant survey is an annual event.

Three of the tardiest four airlines in 1998 are based in Latin America; only 10 minutes more punctual than Aces, on average, was Cubana, which escaped last place in the 1997 survey on a technicality (at least two flights must be taken on an airline during the year for it to register). Avianca of Colombia averaged 45 minutes late; it also had the slowest return of baggage, 75 minutes, but this was not the fault of the airline - all the luggage from the flight arriving at Heathrow from Bogota is taken to a corner of the airport to be examined by customs.

Among British airlines, Debonair was way behind with an average delay of 95 minutes. Meanwhile, the year's new airline, Go, a no-frills offshoot of British Airways, managed to average five minutes early.

British Airways itself sold me the largest number of tickets: 12. BA's punctuality improved from 13 minutes last year to just five this year - a result, perhaps, of its pounds 35m campaign to improve timekeeping. Better still, Iberia managed to improve on its creditable on-time performance for 1997; in the past year the Spanish airline averaged two minutes early.

Late - but better than the average 21 minute delay - were (in declining order) Lufthansa, Thai, Alitalia, Continental, Cathay Pacific, KLM UK and Qantas. Worse than average were Tunis Air, Air France, easyJet, Olympic of Greece and Virgin Express. These last two airlines actually provided more stress than all the rest put together, and the average delay on each of 30 minutes conceals a catalogue of chronic inexactitude.

The reason is that in a possibly misguided spirit of generosity, if for some reason I failed to travel on a flight altogether, it does not register in the survey. On Olympic, I hung around at the airport for a couple of hours before a flight was cancelled, and the next service got me to my destination 14 hours later than originally scheduled. Lufthansa and Cubana both ejected me from flights (fortunately in advance) because they had overbooked. With British Airways and Virgin Express, I voluntarily abandoned flights when the length of the delay made the journey futile.

Finally, a few special awards: the best ground-handling was by Aer Lingus at Heathrow, which managed to cope with both Virgin Express and Olympic Airways with aplomb and good humour. Fastest formalities were on Continental; in Tampa, I managed to get from buying a ticket to airborne in 12 minutes flat. And the "free freight" award goes to Virgin Express, which on no fewer than three occasions sent my bicycle as luggage on flights on which I was not travelling; the bike consequently travelled rather further than I did last year.