Conflicting signals from the skies

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The Independent Travel

The Millennium Curse strikes again, this time at Stansted airport - sorry, London Millennium Gateway. Anyone who has endured a delay there will have speculated whether, with the prospective holiday dwindling while overseas air traffic controllers strike or baggage handlers go slow, it would be a good idea to start writing postcards now. But anyone persuaded to scribble missives to friends and family will find the selection in the shops at Stansted is dismal.

The Millennium Curse strikes again, this time at Stansted airport - sorry, London Millennium Gateway. Anyone who has endured a delay there will have speculated whether, with the prospective holiday dwindling while overseas air traffic controllers strike or baggage handlers go slow, it would be a good idea to start writing postcards now. But anyone persuaded to scribble missives to friends and family will find the selection in the shops at Stansted is dismal.

The highlight is a card emblazoned "British Airports"; a curious title, since all four pictures are of Gatwick. Of the six planes visible, three belong to Dan-Air, which went spectacularly bust in 1992. Another is an obsolete Lockheed Tristar of British Airtours, and behind it a British Caledonian DC-10; both airlines disappeared when BA swallowed BCal in 1988. The one sight that still appears at Gatwick is a Virgin Atlantic jumbo, and about the only feature of UK aviation that has remained constant over the past decade is the air traffic control system - which helps to explain the delays.

*****

Coming back from the Essex airport on the Stansted Express, I met an Italian couple heading into London and onwards to Clapham Junction. They were dismayed when the train rumbled through a place with a signpost that declared it to be Clapton Junction - a minor rail crossing in the middle of Hackney Marshes. I put their minds at rest and guided them to the right bus at Liverpool Street station. It was the least I could do, in return for a kindness offered by a friendly local on my first rail trip into Italy, when I could not understand why the vast, sprawling city we were passing through did not appear on my map: "That's the third station we've been through called Sottopassaggio", I remarked to my companion. A fellow passenger quietly pointed out that this means "passenger subway".

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Whichever airport you use, beware of turning up late. Faced with a summer of disruption, airlines are tightening up on dawdling passengers, who may cause a plane to miss its slot and spend the next hour or two waiting for another gap in the skies. The trouble is, there are conflicting signals about which deadlines are real and which imaginary, and what will happen if you fail to make it in time.

The biggest no-frills airline, Ryanair, is absolutely serious when it warns "Check-in closes 30 mins prior to departure. Passengers will not be checked in after this time." But the next condition, "You must be at the boarding gate 30 mins prior to departure", is unenforced - and unenforceable. If someone checks in at Stansted 40 minutes before departure, the long queues and creaky rail shuttle will make it impossible to meet the half-hour deadline.

Anyone who has bought a Ryanair flight and arrives late may conclude from the insistence that "All fares and fees are Non-Refundable, Non-Endorseable, Non-Transferable" that their money is lost. In fact, Ryanair's standard procedure is to book you on a later flight, if there is a seat, and charge you £25 for the privilege. This applies even if you change your destination - miss a flight to Turin, and you could be re-booked to Genoa, Brescia or even Pisa.

"Our departure gates will now close 15 minutes before your flight is due to depart," warns British Midland. For departures from Germany, the rule is even stricter: "Closure time for all German flights is 30 minutes". Yet business-class passengers are told that the minimum check-in time at Bremen, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Stuttgart is just 20 minutes.

"Don't delay," warns Virgin Atlantic. "Gates closed 20 minutes before departure". The Independent Traveller would be interested to know of any occasion on which the departure gate has actually closed 20 minutes before departure.

Most specific of all is Alaska Airlines. Its "New check-in policy for timely departures" is specific. You must be in your seat at least 10 minutes before scheduled departure. At minus three minutes, the doors close. And, at "0 minutes, for a timely departure, we take off". So the airline has somehow avoided all that dull business of taxiing out to the runway. If only; the last Alaska Airlines flight I caught was five hours late.

*****

Bus services in Panama City are so manic that no map could hope to show them all. The vehicles are like latter-day dragons, aflame with colour and roaring along the streets. But should you find yourself in the Panamanian capital, you will surely gravitate towards the nation's finest store: Gran Morrison - and yes, it does sell the music of the great Van Morrison.

When I reported this to Danny Baker, late of Virgin Radio, his listeners responded by citing other places which nearly share the name of a celebrity. Luton, it is claimed, boasts a travel agency called Tom's Cruises. An Italian restaurant in the James Herriot country of North Yorkshire glories in the title All Pizzas Great and Small. Perhaps it gets its mozzarella from the fromagerie known as Cheeses of Nazareth.

Cycling across the Lancashire moors recently, into the teeth of a gale, I had plenty of time to admire the surroundings. In Rochdale there is a car repair workshop called Terry Mason, perhaps run by Perry's younger brother who never got on in the law business. A few miles later, on the road over the hills to Rossendale, you find some fine horseriding terrain. Future Grand National winners could emerge from the nearby village of Red Lumb. And between the two locations, you have to go through a hilly and attractive area called Spotland.

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Neither Spotland, nor Scotland, has any peak to compare with those of East Africa. Paul Goldstein of Exodus has returned from climbing Mount Kenya. On a clear day, he reports, from the top you can see the summit of Kilimanjaro, 250 miles distant. He speculates that this is the longest view available to the human eye. It certainly trumps the other claimant to the title: the peak outside the Indian hill town of Darjeeling whence you can see three of the world's highest mountains, including Everest - a mere 200 miles away.

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