Britain: Simon Calder column

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The Independent Online
As conspiracy theories go, this one's a bit flimsy. But the Case of the Disappearing Bicycle has got me worried.

Travelling with a folding bicycle is the ideal solution for much of the research I undertake. Airlines, buses and railways are happy to carry the machine, and so far this year it has safely accompanied me to Harwich, Hook and Harare. Twice, though, it has gone astray, and both these occasions are related.

Now and again travel organisations ask me to speak at conferences. Inevitably the subject veers towards the subject of what is wrong with the travel industry, and I end up offering full and frank suggestions as to how the audience could pull up its collective socks.

The first such event this year was at a conference of independent travel agents, held in Ireland. If you want to keep my custom, I announced, have the courage to recommend EasyJet (the direct-sell, no-frills airline) when it is the most appropriate choice.

I checked my bicycle in as usual, only for it to vanish mysteriously. It turned up some days later at Heathrow, having been "short-shipped" by Aer Lingus; "short-shipped" is a euphenism for "not shipped at all".

Then, last Sunday, I took issue with Britain's travel agents at the annual ABTA convention in Tenerife. Why, I wondered, is it so much easier to book a foreign holiday than a British one? The industry is hurting both itself and the country, by exacerbating the tourism deficit - as a nation we spend pounds 10 million pounds a day more on overseas travel than we earn from foreign visitors coming to the UK. Domestic holidays, I ventured, help avoid everything from Air Passenger Duty to lost baggage.

More robust heckling. After the convention everyone headed for the airport. Or, more accurately, airports. All the other delegates seemed to be flying out of Tenerife North on scheduled flights; I was the only one to have bought a cheap Skytours package, departing from the island's South airport.

You guessed it: after half-an-hour of watching all the bags come and go at Gatwick, I had to conclude the bike was making its own way back from Tenerife. After meandering around Europe, the absent conveyance was finally tracked down in Dusseldorf. The unhappily mangled remains of what used to be my bike were delivered late on Thursday.

I shall repair the damage and take it to the Airports Council International conference in Seville next month. But after telling airport operators a thing or two about how to make life for long-suffering passengers, I fully expect never to see the bike again.

Making such a fuss seems churlish compared with the disaster potential of aviation - exemplified by last Wednesday's emergency landing by the Virgin Atlantic plane whose undercarriage failed on the final approach to Heathrow. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.

Next day, GLR - the BBC radio station for London - asked listeners to suggest a new slogan for Richard Branson's airline.

The entrants included "Wheel get you there" and "Red carpet treatment in the air, blue light treatment when you land". The best I could come up with was "Smooth as Virgin olive oil in the air, but a bit of a Branson pickle when you land".

The winner was a Heathrow worker named Greg, who made play of Virgin's much-publicised inflight entertainment: "We'll give you a telly, but you'll land on your belly".