The independent traveller: Going every which way but home

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THOSE IN-FLIGHT maps that show where your plane is heading are useful and interesting innovations - usually. They help reconnect the traveller with the real world, removing some of the detachment that afflicts air travel and letting you know that the conurbation over which you are flying is Ulan Bator, not Uxbridge. But on a hop this week from the Australian city of Darwin to Singapore, I wondered if a little knowledge can be a disconcerting thing.

The aircraft computer cheerfully promised 40 minutes remaining before an on-time arrival in Singapore, but the accompanying map told a very different story. It indicated a drastic 120-degree change of direction. The smooth north-westward progress suddenly became a descent due south, which gave the doubly unfortunate impression of an aircraft plunging towards the earth.

For the next 10 minutes, the mantra "Qantas has never had a fatal accident" came in handy. Finally, the pilot announced what was happening.

There were thunderstorms in Singapore. The normal diversion airport for the territory is Kuala Lumpur, but the bad weather had spread to the Malaysian capital. So the captain had decided to divert to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to refuel.

However, for some time the computer insisted that we were still bound for Singapore, until it gave up the struggle to maintain such digital pretence when all the physical evidence suggested otherwise.

At this point, the pilot cheerfully announced that his plan was "to fill up with enough fuel to allow us to fly to Singapore, hang around for an hour to see if the storm clears, and, if necessary, fly back to Jakarta". Who said that all the excitement had gone out of flying?

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THE LANDING was rather less vertical and more gentle than the map (above) suggested. As we sat on the runway at Jakarta, a raucous group of Australians - who I suspect had not declined too many offers of free drinks - decided to liven things up. When the time came for the safety demonstration, one of them decided to perform the briefing. He acquitted himself impressively well, though I'm sure I heard an unscripted mumble about "returning the stewardess to the upright position".

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THE TERM "stewardess" could soon disappear, if Qantas continues to amend the vocabulary of air travel. In the beginning, airlines employed cabin crew: the stewards and stewardesses who look after everything from safety to serving the Sauvignon Blanc. The foreman of the operation was the purser. Qantas felt this term, borrowed from the shipping industry, was a little archaic. So a new post of "flight service director" was created.

Just as British train companies no longer have passengers - they have customers - Qantas decided the title needed to be changed yet again to "customer service manager", with the second-in-command becoming "customer service supervisor".

This sounds like the kind of caper in which Britain's privatised rail companies indulge, rather than making the trains run on time. To fuel that suspicion, one duty of the new manager is to offer words of reassurance to passengers (sorry: customers). So we were assured that connections at Singapore would be held, even though the diverted flight was running two hours late. And, as on the UK's railways, we found out only upon arrival that this was not entirely true. The connection to Paris had already flown, with no direct flight for another two days. When they found this out, some of the passengers delved into their own personal glossaries to express distinct displeasure.

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THE LANGUAGE became riper still among those with connections to London. The flight left 90 minutes late, and upon arrival at Heathrow there was a further delay of 20 minutes waiting for someone to operate the air bridge.

Luckily for those who needed to reach central London fast, there is a high-speed alternative - not the Heathrow Express, which drops you off at distant Paddington, but a non-stop bus link to Feltham station. From here there are fast, frequent trains to Waterloo.

The key to a rapid journey is to catch one of the special non-stop buses. I failed to realise that the bus saying "H26 - Feltham" was a normal London Transport service, and set about on a truly exotic journey around the innards of the airport and the outer London suburbs.

The bus started off at a rare old pace, but unfortunately heading directly away from Feltham. For my 80p, I got a tour of the Cargo Village (why do they insist upon using a rural term for the antithesis of countryside?) and a glimpse of the VIP area. Then we swung around and started pointing in to where the sun was rising (in the general direction of Jakarta - I was getting used to such radical changes of course by now). We swept through a succession of suburban streets, becoming a "Hail and Ride" service that picked up schoolchildren at their doors. Most dramatically, the bus swung into what looked just like the grounds of a prison.

Even with this repertoire of diversions - and some operational difficulties in the, er, Staines area afflicting South West Trains - the bus-train combination worked well. It took under an hour to reach central London and cost less than a fiver.

And that first impression about the prison was correct: tourists, like me, who catch the wrong bus can look forward to a close encounter with Feltham Young Offenders' Establishment.

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