Travel: Simon Calder

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The Independent Online
Faster planes for UK flyers! From tomorrow, the journey time on many flights from Manchester to Heathrow will be cut. The early morning British Airways Shuttle flight shaves 15 minutes off the previous schedule, reducing the journey time to just an hour. Has BA decided to put its much- underused Concordes on the route? "No," says a spokesman for the airline, "Minor adjustments are always made at the changeover from winter to summer schedules".

Is it merely a coincidence that these improvements are being made on exactly the same day that British Airways loses its monopoly on the Manchester- Heathrow route? Tomorrow, British Midland starts eight flights a day between the two airports. The new airline plans a journey time as short as 55 minutes; BA denies that it is trimming published schedules just to challenge the new competition, even though it will be using exactly the same Boeing and flying to precisely the same overcrowded airport as before.

Travellers from Scotland will find their services on British Midland curtailed because of the new route and subsequent transfer of resources. But do we really need all these alternatives? In the past six months, travellers between Manchester and the capital have acquired the added choice of four flights fto London City on KLM uk, as well as 16 Virgin trains and a wayward Wales & West service every day - not to mention numerous National Express buses.

It's not as if the head-to-head competition between BA and British Midland is having a dramatic effect on fares; if you want to travel from London to Manchester and back next weekend, the lowest fare on both airlines is pounds 88 (more than four times the cheapest rail ticket).

As these two pages reveal, British Airways is expanding its flights from Gatwick, including a new service to Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire. Yet I believe this latter route is in fact a re-establishment of an earlier service. British Caledonian (catch line, until the takeover by BA: "We never forget you have a choice") used to operate to West Africa.

When I was a security guard frisking passengers at Gatwick airport in the late Seventies, it was easy to envy travellers jetting off to the four corners of the world. The only ones I felt sorry for were those cramming aboard a tiny BAC 1-11, destination Abidjan. This was not the non-stop that British Airways starts flying tomorrow, but an "all stations to Africa" service that called, if memory serves me right, at Madrid, Tangier, Dakar, Banjul and Accra. Did anyone ever travel on this, and are they back yet? Let me know.

My Continental Airlines flight to Mexico for the report on Cancn was a little late leaving Gatwick, but the choice of what Americans call "de-planing music" seemed unnecessarily self-critical: Carole King's greatest hit, "It's Too Late". Looking at the airline's Go Forward plan to "Make Reliability a Reality", I remembered why punctuality is a company obsession: "Employees receive a $100 bonus for any month when Continental ranks first in on-time arrivals".