"Everyone in North America knows you should never change planes at Heathrow," a weary fellow passenger said to me as we sat waiting to be bussed to the Montreal plane. "But Air Canada promised it would be easy." The airline uses Heathrow as a hub: flights arrive from Asia destined for Toronto or Vancouver, and passengers can transfer in London to Air Canada flights to other destinations such as Montreal. A neat theory, but my friend was unimpressed.
Arriving passengers are placed in a holding area, and, after 15 minutes, are told to follow an Air Canada representative to the departure gate. This leg of the journey is harder than it sounds, requiring jet-lagged passengers to clear a security check and negotiate the labyrinthine shopping mall. Retail sales long ago replaced handling planes as the main source of airports' income, so passengers are obliged to run a retail gauntlet on the way to the gate.
Inevitably, some transferpassengers get left behind, so by the time the airline was satisfied everyone had turned up we were a good half- hour late. We trundled off to the runway - then turned around and returned to the stand. One hapless fellow passenger had been left behind, and was ushered aboard with a certain amount of embarrassment on the part of the airline. The rest of us were left to wonder how this could possibly have happened. After the Lockerbie bombing, when the weapon was hidden in luggage transferred to a transatlantic flight without the accompanying passenger, airlines are supposed to ensure that everyone is on board, or to offload any surplus bags. This flight was a couple of minutes away from taking off without doing either.
"Please stop being hysterical," urges Mrs U Forinton of County Cork, wishing to stub out the controversy over smoking on aircraft. "If I pay for a flight from A to Z and ask for a smoking seat, I expect to be able to smoke if I feel like it. If you are so concerned about social misery, perhaps you could write about the colds and bronchial infections the airlines' atmospheric controls provide, or the hypocrisy of airlines which ban smoking but sell cigarettes on board." To teach me what truly uncomfortable travel can be, Mrs Forinton prescribes the following: "For the remainder of this year's travelling I wish you lots of squealing, restless children in front; beer-loving Aussies alongside you on long overnight Qantas flights; and a loud-mouthed chatterbox in the row behind you."
Change for good
A fortnight ago I drew attention to the high cost of foreign currency at some high street travel agencies. Stuart Harrison of Lichfield proposes a neat solution. "I found my local Thomas Cook would match rates I obtained on the phone from American Express." Mr Harrison also suggests: "Never return unused currency, save it till next time. And roll on the ecu!"
The final word on the high cost of changing money comes from Mark Aspinwall of Brechin. "When I travel to a developed country with good banks, I often arrive without any local currency. I find an airport bank and buy local currency with a credit card. Of course this is not free, but on my Visa (which is dollar-denominated) I pay no commission; on my Sterling- denominated MasterCard, I pay 1.5 per cent. Both charge interest from the date of the transaction, so I guess the amount I will need and pre- pay my credit card account. The beauty of these transactions is that the exchange rate is very close to the market rate quoted in the newspapers."