Fresh flowers, more legroom – why Dorset airline is world's third best

From gastronomic in-flight menus to luxury seats that turn into sumptuous beds, the world's great airlines spend millions of pounds each year trying to lure passengers to fly with them.

British Airways espouses the virtues of Club World. Emirates offers the latest in digital entertainment. On Palmair, they pop flowers in the lavatories.

The tiny airline, which runs a single, economy-only service out of Bournemouth, was voted, along with Air New Zealand, the joint third best carrier on earth by the consumers' association Which?. Holiday Which? magazine said only Singapore Airlines and India's Jet Airways bettered Palmair when it came to looking after travellers.

The industry is now being forced to sit up and take notice of an outfit that sends package holidaymakers to destinations such as Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.

Just 55,000 passengers a year travel on the airlines 30-year-old Boeing 737 but that did not stop it landing well ahead of Virgin Atlantic, which finished ninth in the annual survey of the world's best airlines. British Airways and British Midland were 26th and 28th respectively.

Palmair's secret is that it strives to keep a touch of glamour in the skies. Founded in 1957 by Peter Bath, who, until his death in 2006, personally waved off every flight that left Bournemouth (more than 16,000), Palmair is a nostalgic throwback to an era of package tours where the onus was on quality of service and personal interaction with the clients rather than the number of punters you can squeeze on to a plane.

In one anecdote concerning a rare late departure, Mr Bath was heard informing passengers: "It'll be at least another two hours, so any of you who want to can go home and mow the lawn."

The company, which is still in the Bath family's hands, concentrates on getting the basics right for all passengers. Fresh flowers are placed in the lavatories, and a number of seats have been removed from Palmair's jet to allow everyone a little extra legroom.

The seating plan allows people to specify where they would like to be placed and even who they would rather not sit next to. Large families can make sure they all sit together, while couples hoping for a romantic getaway can request not to be placed near any screaming children.

Every evening, one of its employees, Teresia Rossello, draws up the seating plan. She has now taken over from Mr Bath as the daily greeter for passengers arriving at the airport.

David Skillicorn, 41, Palmair's managing director, said: "We've never pretended to be a first-class service, we don't have state-of-the-art aeroplanes and we don't travel to fantastically sexy destinations. But what we do is treat people like real human beings. It should be easy and it should be fun."

The clientele is predominantly made up of older generation holidaymakers who live close to Bournemouth airport and, for that reason, Palmair and its parent company, Bath Travel, have largely avoided moving into online promotions and booking. The only way to get a seat on a flight is to telephone one of its operators or visit a travel agent.

"I'm sure one day we'll have to bow to the inevitable and start offering internet holidays," said Mr Skillicorn. "But I'm happy to admit that I'll be dragged kicking and screaming. We've never wanted to be at the cutting edge."

William Baker, aged 79, has been flying with Palmair for more than 30 years. "Travelling with Palmair is a bit like popping down to the local shop, everyone knows everyone else," he said.

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