Simon Calder The Man Who Pays His Way
THE FATHER figure of travel stands sternly outside Leicester railway station, world-worn suitcase by his side. "Near this site, in Leicester's Campbell Street station," reads the inscription on the plinth, "Thomas Cook organised the first known major excursion from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841."

You, like me, may need to read that line twice before realising that a bit of punctuation would help: the event that is being celebrated is the first-known major excursion of the railway age. Mr Cook's trip just happened to go from from Leicester to Loughborough; it did not presage a tourism boom between the two East Midlands locations.

Either way, the Thomas Cook name could soon be irrelevant. This week I travelled to the site of the first inclusive tour, because by next Wednesday the company that began the package holiday business could be history.

Just as the airline British Midland is seeking to ditch one or both components of its name, the man whose Temperance outing to Loughborough launched a billion holidays may be about to be pensioned off.

The first hint was a quiet call last week from a public relations company. As you will appreciate, travel tends to occupy something of a sleepy hollow in the tangled news jungle that is journalism. So when someone phones to offer a ride in a helicopter from London to a secret destination somewhere in England, "for an important announcement", even the most somnolent scribe is likely to stir.

A quarter-share in a helicopter ride is beyond the means of a person who pays his way. So to find out the general direction I should be hitching I called a friendly 'copter captain. He said the likely maximum range for a jaunt like this, taking into account speed and comfort, would be 200 miles.

A glance at the map put Britain's second-biggest holiday company - Airtours, based at Rossendale in Lancashire - just out of range. Thomson, the UK's number one, is located at Mornington Crescent in London NW1; and the galactic headquarters of First Choice, another of the top four, is in Crawley.

Neither destination, said my hovering honcho, would justify a helicopter. So the firm concerned must be Thomas Cook, whose headquarters are now located in Peterborough.

A few more calls to industry insiders confirmed the belief that the whole Thomas Cook conglomerate, including the tour operator Sunworld and charter airline Flying Colours, is about to be rebranded. By next weekend, the man who opened up the world could be history. No wonder he looks cross.

GIVEN THE reputation of Loughborough, though, it was something of a miracle that Thomas Cook ever built a business. The early 20th century guidebook I took with me noted that the bell foundry and railway business had made Loughborough "a flourishing town, but not a tourist's".

Two years ago Sony continued the theme, with a battery commercial about the importance of long-life cells for your Walkman. The ad showed a rain- scarred young man trudging through ordinariness. It quoted the refrain from one of the Monkees' less embarrassing hits to show what could happen when your batteries run down: "Then I saw her face/Now I'm a believer/No doubt in my mind/I'm in ... Loughborough with the auditors".

The town's great claim to fame is worth the eight-mile meander through miserableness from Leicester: the Great Central Railway station (pictured, above), which presides over the only steam-hauled main line in Britain.

From here you can follow in the footplate of that first major public excursion in 1841, but only as far as Leicester North. Leicester's Campbell Street station has vanished beneath modernisation - as Thomas Cook may now do.

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"YOU CAN fly from London to Glasgow for pounds 6," said the man on the radio. You can't, but it got me listening.

On Tuesday, Ryanair launched what it called an autumn seat sale, selling a million flights at silly prices. Closer inspection, though, reveals that Ryanair is simply off-loading capacity which would otherwise be empty, but dressing it up in such a way that radio presenters will pick up the story and spur people who hadn't previously thought of flying to Prestwick (the secondary airport for Glasgow) to take an autumn break.

First, the context. On average, across all the world's scheduled airlines, typically only seven out of every 10 seats are filled by fare-paying passengers. For no-frills carriers, the figure is more like 85 per cent, but on a wet Wednesday lunchtime in October not too many people want to fly from Stansted to Prestwick.

To sell seats, you have to cut fares. And there are an awful lot of seats to fill. The British no-frills aviation market is expanding at such a pace that it is virtually singlehandedly keeping the 737 production line at the Boeing factory in Seattle going. Ryanair, Go and easyJet have these planes - the standard piece of kit for low-cost airlines - arriving at the rate of one a month each. Each jet costs around pounds 25m on the road, and they've got to fly somewhere carrying passengers at whatever price the market will bear.

For the seven weeks from 6 September to 21 October, Ryan-air deems that price to be pounds 15.99 for seven of its destinations, and a few pounds more to the rest. That's where the man on the radio got his figure from; take off the tenner in Air Passenger Duty, and Ryanair gets a penny less than pounds 6. I was tempted, and called 0541 569 569 to book a return trip to Turin. You might assume this would cost just short of pounds 32, but in fact it was more than twice as much. To come back, the pounds 15.99 is amplified by Italian fees of pounds 15. Add a pair of weekend supplements of pounds 10 each way, and a credit-card surcharge,a nd the total rises to pounds 70. But it's still a bargain, and Turin in October has a mite more appeal than Leicester or Loughborough.

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