Travel: Thank you for not travelling with us
Saturday 07 August 1999
As was revealed on this page last week, Exodus Travel has imposed an upper age limit of 40 on its expeditions overland through Africa. On the previous page, you can read about the many and varied travel hurdles that tend to arrive with birthdays, together with a view in support of the ban. But whichever side you are on, the Exodus move was unexpected.
Most adventure travel companies recognise that the sector of the market with greatest potential for growth comprises people who are described by that horrid marketing phrase "empty-nesters", ie parents whose children have now moved out, leaving them with time to travel - and who, with luck, still have enough money to do so.
These travellers tend to be more adventurous than their younger counterparts. But a sensible tour operator will seek to persuade clients to "self-filter" in the areas of health and temperament.
A good medical questionnaire should bring to the surface any reservations that a customer has about his or her suitability for the challenge ahead. And a company's literature, and staff, should leave the client in no doubt about any hardships to be faced along the way. But if, at the end of the evaluation, the prospective traveller still wishes to proceed, he or she should surely be able to hand over the cash and sign up for the holiday.
Exodus says "no", on the grounds of social incompatibility; in other words, the company feels that older travellers just aren't fun enough to fit in.
I notice, incidentally, that my thesaurus recommends one particular synonym for the word "exodus": "retirement".
THE FERRY company Stena Line is also doing its best to dissuade potential customers, perhaps on the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" principle. Call its rail reservations line (0990 455455), and the message is: before we give you information about services, give us all your credit card details. We'll tell you whether you can travel later.
You might imagine that, since the demise of duty-frees, the ferry operators would be keen to attract as many passengers as possible. But Stena is being customer-unfriendly to the point of downright discourtesy.
Suppose you want to go from London to Dublin next weekend. There is currently a two-for-one deal that gets you and a partner there and back from London for a total of pounds 66, using the Virgin train from Euston to Holyhead and the Stena fast ferry from there. Being a wise customer, you first ask whether the times and dates you need are available. Whether you were calling a train, boat or plane operator, you would expect the sales person to dig into the database to check whether a seat were available.
Not Stena. You are not allowed to proceed any further unless you give all your credit card details. Then, if space is available on the chosen day, your account will be debited and the tickets issued. If there is no room, you must look elsewhere for a way to reach Dublin.
This process does not, though, occur within minutes, or even hours. The standard response time is two days, though "at this time of year it can take up to a week", according to the reservations agent I spoke to. So you could hand over your credit card details, yet find out too late that there is no availability. This sounded so absurd that I asked a colleague to make a similar request. The response was exactly the same.
AS DESCRIBED on page 6, a small American airport is making money from handling aircraft diverted owing to unruly passenger behaviour. "Air rage" is an ugly phenomenon, and those who jeopardise the safety of an aircraft or assault a crew member should face the full weight of the law. But Hugh Mackay, of Edinburgh, wonders if airlines and police are being too zealous in cracking down on potential troublemakers.
The lunch-time flight from Edinburgh to Spain was delayed for seven hours. One particularly irate passenger, says Mr Mackay, twice asked a member of staff whether he could speak to the airline's manager.
The employee, he says, "left the desk and appeared to smile as she went to a door, pressed a button enabling it to open, went through the door and made a call on her mobile phone".
Next, two policemen arrived, followed by the manager. "My wife and I and the other passengers sitting beside us were astonished then to see the man being arrested."
Mr Mackay wrote to the airline, saying, "airport delays are commonplace. Some passengers react well, others badly. Some are extremely nervous before the flight and therefore find delays and disruptions unbearable. Properly trained staff should be capable of handling this. They should not have found it necessary to bring in the police."
The airline responded: "We would like to reassure you that we do not involve the police lightly. Ground staff are trained to deal with such situations, and we are sorry that you feel they could have done more." The airline concluded, "We hope we have the pleasure of welcoming you on board another flight with us in the future." All very chummy. So why, wondered Mr Mackay, did the letter begin with the legalistic phrase "Without prejudice"? The reply:
"Thank you for your feedback which is always welcomed, and without which we would not be able to adapt and improve the services we offer. Please note we will be unable to enter into any further correspondence."
Mr Mackay concludes that: "All your readers, unless they are teetotal and very polite, should beware."
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