The car in front of you is an MP's

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SO KEEN is the company that runs Britain's biggest airports to promote the merits of public transport that it is giving away free passes on the Gatwick and Heathrow Express rail links to MPs. How do you feel about that? Perhaps appreciative that BAA should be encouraging politicians to get out of their cars and on to the trains, or resentful that MPs get better treatment than the rest of us?

Either way, your response is irrelevent. Before you either applaud BAA's public-spiritedness, or begrudge the favouritism, you should know that the statement above is false. BAA does offer a freebie, but one that promotes car use: any MP who cares to ask is given a free pass to airport car parks.

This week's revelation that MPs were given a "secret passport hotline" to circumvent the endless telephonic queues for the Passport Agency prompted me to have a quiet word with one or two of our representatives at Westminster about travel perks.

Apart from those arduous fact-finding trips for Select Committee members, and the odd pounds 50 discount at the Langham Hilton, the consensus is that the best bonus to being elected is a free pass for unlimited use of the short-term car parks at Heathrow, Gatwick and all the other BAA airports.

The airports company says the policy is a hangover from its previous existence as a government body, the British Airports Authority. BAA plc is not obliged to continue to offer free parking for MPs, but given its intensive lobbying for expansion plans, perhaps we travellers - who indirectly pay for the perk - should not be surprised that politicians are given special treatment.

"The pass is for use on official business, and isn't transferable," a BAA spokeswoman told me. It is, of course, fanciful to imagine that any of our MPs would abuse the privilege for their hols, or would lend the pass to other people. But what checks, I wondered, are made? "I guess there's a certain amount of trust," she says.

Given BAA's public protestations about wanting to persuade airline passengers to shift from car to rail access, is it not a mite counter-productive to offer a section of the population free parking? Apparently, the policy persists because of the shortage of public transport at some Scottish airports.

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AH WELL, at least the newly elected Green Party MEPs can be relied upon to set a responsible example to travellers. On Wednesday this week, the London Green MEP Jean Lambert set off for her first day at the European Parliament. Which environmentally responsible form of transport did she use: the Eurostar train, or the even greener Eurolines bus? Neither: she flew from London City airport.

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A SUMMER of discontent is brewing for travellers in Europe, with industrial action causing disruption to travel plans. Traditionally at this time of year French and Spanish air traffic controllers start flexing their industrial muscles.

What makes 1999 different is that numerous other groups of workers in the travel industry are taking action over grievances.

The two most prominent tourist destinations for potential problems - Italy and Greece - have already suffered a dismal start to the summer season because of the conflict in the Balkans. Now the traveller faces some challenges from trades unions in the region.

Passengers booked on the Greek airline, Olympic Airways, this week faced disruption, with dozens of flights cancelled. The workers are protesting, not about pay and conditions, but about the involvement of British Airways in trying to turn around the airline.

Ever since Aristotle Onassis. the founder, sold Olympic to the Greek government in 1975, it has lost money (more than pounds 1 million a month last year). It is the most inefficient and unprofitable of all Europe's state- owned airlines: that makes it very inefficient and unprofitable indeed. Last time I flew from Athens to London, there were a grand total of 39 passengers on a Boeing 747 designed for 10 times as many.

The European Union says that continually subsidising Olympic's losses amounts to unfair competition. Neil Kinnock, the transport commissioner, this week threatened to block yet another handout, pounds 70m of state aid, because the airline has failed to reform.

In a bid to get its house in order, Olympic asked British Airways for help. BA has a consultancy offshoot, Speedwing, that draws upon BA's experience to sort out ailing airlines.

BA's Rod Lynch - who until very recently was responsible for TV and radio studio staff as head of BBC Resources - has been appointed chief executive of Olympic Airways. Given the problems he faces, he may soon be yearning for the canteen at Television Centre rather than the boardroom in Athens.

The Greek finance minister has vowed there will be no job cuts, no domestic route cuts and no cutbacks in financing new planes, which would appear to tie Mr Lynch's hands before his marathon attempt even starts. But Olympic's workers fear that the BA team will implement a cost-saving plan. People flying to, through or around Greece have been feeling the effects.

ACROSS IN Italy, more conventional grumbles are responsible for a repertoire of disruption this week.

The second Italian airline, Meridiana, cancelled dozens of flights because of a "sick-out" by pilots; this has nothing to do with turbulence in the air, but involves pilots calling in sick. (The same tactic was used by hundreds of BA cabin crew a couple of summers ago, and again recently by American Airlines pilots.)

Last Tuesday, shipping workers went on strike disrupting ferry services to the Italian islands; Wednesday was the turn of bus and tram drivers; and many railway staff stopped work on Thursday evening.

Travellers who plan to beat the shutdowns by driving, should be warned that Italian lorry drivers are expected to start an eight-day nationwide strike today.

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WHAT ARE your rights if you fall victim to industrial action? Very few. Airline tickets are nothing more than vague statement of intent to get you from A to B (possibly via C, and conceivably on a bus, train or ship). And, according to Michael Pettifer of the travel insurance specialist, Hamilton Barr, your holiday policy will offer little comfort.

"It's known in the trade as `misery money'," he says, referring to the pounds 20 or so that you get after a delay of 12 hours, with an additional tenner for every extra 12 hours. And it gets worse: if there is strike action in the offing when you take out the insurance, then you get nothing.

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