Skiing: Simon Calder

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The Independent Online
If you were on Freddie Laker's flight to Fort Lauderdale on Christmas Eve, I hope you reached your destination before 25 December. I witnessed the unfortunate DC-10 being towed back to the stand at Gatwick - not the best omen for flights during the festive season. I, by the way, was aboard the delayed Air 2000 flight to Banjul that overtook you. At least I got to Africa on the right day. But if you plan to fly anywhere in the next 12 months, you may wish to take heed of my annual aviation survey - and avoid Gatwick.

To maximise the chances of arriving on time, this one-traveller survey suggests, fly scheduled from Stansted or Glasgow. And for a flight arriving ahead of time, try a scheduled Monarch service. Curiously, my worst flying delays last year were on Monarch charters.

The Civil Aviation Authority publishes its own punctuality survey with a rather larger sample size, but it has the disadvantage of regarding a flight that operates up to 14 minutes late as being "on time".

Here's how mine works. During 1997 I recorded the punctuality of all the 80 flights I took. For an airline to be included required at least two flights to have been flown, a clause intended to exclude one-off calamities. Airlines that slipped through the net because of this include Aerocaribbean and Cubana (both within Cuba, and both two hours late). Most galling was a Ryanair flight from Dublin to Stansted. I paid pounds 25 extra to travel on an earlier flight, which then somehow contrived to arrive later than the following service.

The 10 charters I took incurred a mean delay of 45 minutes. The remaining flights were scheduled, and were, on average, 13 minutes late.

Based on a dozen flights, British Airways is bang on the 13-minute average. The company says it is spending pounds 35m to improve its punctuality; short- haul crews are reporting for duty 10 minutes earlier, so boarding can begin sooner. Aer Lingus, Airtours, British Midland and United performed slightly better than BA, while Britannia, EasyJet and KLM were rather tardier.

The hold-ups started getting tedious with LOT Polish Airlines and THY Turkish Airlines, both with an average delay of 40 minutes. Bottom of the barrel was the charter operation of Monarch, which extended a round trip to Cuba by two hours in each direction. Yet Monarch - in its scheduled role - grabs the punctuality award for being the only airline to arrive consistently ahead of time. (Monarch also has the best in-flight service on an international flight; the best on a domestic flight goes to Aerocalifornia, a Mexican operation on the Los Mochis to Tijuana route.)

How, though, do flights ever arrive early? One reason, particularly on North Atlantic routes, is the absence of a headwind (going west) or the presence of a stronger-than-usual tailwind (going east). But a much more common explanation is schedule padding - whereby airlines exaggerate the length of a journey in order to allow for possible delays on the ground.

Take Gatwick to Amsterdam. The flight time for the 200 miles should be no more than 40 minutes. But British Airways allows exactly twice as long, in case of congestion on Gatwick's single runway or air traffic control hold-ups.

Poor old Gatwick is easily the slouchiest airport in Britain, at least when I show up. Departures from the Sussex airport arrived at their destinations an average of 39 minutes late. From Britain's busiest airport, Heathrow, the usual hold-up was 10 minutes - the same as Manchester and Edinburgh. Flights from Luton, which has suddenly found itself to be Britain's low- fare hub, rated a 13-minute delay, while Glasgow and Stansted were perfectly punctual.

Honourable mentions for Air UK, Iberia, Mexicana, Southwest and TAP Air Portugal, all of which kept to time. Iberia was way in front, with an arrival time 15 minutes ahead of schedule on two flights, until a Gatwick- Madrid flight a month ago which was half an hour late. On this particular flight - as with most of the other tardy take-offs - no explanation nor apology was forthcoming. The only pilot who endeavoured to make up a delay was the KLM captain of an hour-late flight from Amsterdam to Chicago, who explained he had taken on extra fuel so that he could fly faster than usual.

Satisfaction with an on-time arrival can be thwarted if your bag has flown elsewhere. Most of the time I travel only with hand luggage, to minimise the chances of my possessions going to LOS (Lagos) while I'm waiting in LAX (Los Angeles). Twice last year my baggage has wandered off on its own: on Aer Lingus from Heathrow, and Britannia from Tenerife. In my first flight of this year, Air 2000 conflated a half-hour delay back into Gatwick with luggage delivery so slow that the bags did not arrive until the following day.

Happy flying in 1998 - or, if you're flying charter from Gatwick, happy departure lounging.

Unless you move quickly, one airline you won't be flying with is Laker Airways. Sir Freddie's second bash at the transatlantic market has proved ineffective, and next Thursday's flight will be the last. Unlike the original Laker Airways collapse in 1982, all customers have got their money back in good time. The airline says this is just a temporary suspension, but I fear it's the last we'll see of the man who did so much to break the aviation monopoly in the Seventies. Without Sir Freddie, those 80 flights would have cost much more.

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