High flyer: The A-Z of air travel

Let Simon Calder be your guide through the stormy skies of the travel world with his very own alphabet of aviation
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The Independent Travel

A Airpass America's "Inter-Rail of the Skies" is back, at least for a few thousand lucky travellers. Until the mid-1990s, Delta and Northwest offered foreign visitors the chance to travel anywhere they wanted in the continental US for a flat fare of around $299 (£185) for a month. You simply turned up at the airport, asked for a seat for your chosen destination, and joined the standby queue. After a bit of nailbiting, you usually found you were on the plane – and on the rare occasion it was full, you just flew somewhere else on the network.

First Northwest, then Delta, abandoned the offer: selling a month's worth of air travel for less than the price of a one-way ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles made no economic sense, especially when passengers like me were repeatedly opting for overnight transcontinental flights to save on hotel accommodation.

Next month, though, the airpass makes a comeback on an airline that is not even a decade old: jetBlue ( jetblue.com ), the stylish low-cost start-up that has become one of America's major carriers. With bookings hit by the recession, the airline decided to fill seats by launching a limited-edition $599 (£400) pass for travel from early September to early October. The security issues raised by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 have put paid to the carefree, "well, if I can't go to Miami, I'll head for Minneapolis" spirit. Instead, passengers have to book a seat at least three days in advance. The airline says it's delighted by the response.

Other carriers will be watching closely, and, in the most dismal autumn for years, may well decide to follow suit.

B Bankruptcy Zoom went bust a year ago yesterday. The transatlantic low-cost carrier was the latest in a very long line of airlines where accountancy has prevailed over optimism. Within a fortnight it was followed by XL Airways.

A calamity? Well, not for many of the hundreds of thousands of travellers affected. Whenever an airline goes bust – and expect a few to fall over the edge this autumn – anyone who has booked a flight as part of a package holiday is well protected (though the XL collapse has put a strain on the Atol refund system). Passengers who have booked direct and paid at least £100 using a UK credit card are covered by the bank; you can also claim for contingent liabilities, such as paying much more than the original fare to get home. In practice, though, other airlines step in to offer to rescue stranded passengers on a standby basis at low fares. So even the final category – people who have paid in cash or by debit card, and become unsecured creditors of a very bankrupt airline, do not usually fare too badly.

C Check-in Like cheques, pagers and George Michael, check-in seems an anachronism in the 21st-century. These days most of us travel on tickets that are either impossible or very expensive to change. So it's odd that we are obliged to line up at a desk in an airport in order to announce our intention to board the aircraft.

With airlines desperate to cut costs, many are keen to persuade us to check in and print boarding passes online. Luggage is taken to a "bag drop", sometimes optimistically prefixed "fast".

The days of a smiling young man or woman waiting to register your attendance at the airport in readiness for your flight look numbered; this summer British Airways has passed the 50 per cent mark in passengers checking in online or at a kiosk, with only one in four travellers at Heathrow Terminal 5 insisting on human contact. And Ryanair plans to abolish the check-in concept altogether from October this year. But while it prevails, these strategies could help to smooth your path when travelling with one of the more traditional airlines.

1. Arrive very early. Most check-in desks open two hours ahead (though this can be up to three for long-haul flights). Line up very early if, for example, you want to bag seats together or secure an emergency-exit seat.

2. Arrive very late (but a few minutes before the deadline). If you don't mind where you sit, survey the queue when you arrive at the airport. If it is dauntingly long, go and have a coffee and return 10 minutes before check-in closes. You are likely to find the line has vanished. You may occasionally also get lucky: if you are flying on a multi-class aircraft, and all the economy seats have gone, you could be upgraded to business class.

3. If the check-in desk handles multiple flights (increasingly the case), scrutinise the label that is attached to your luggage to make sure it shows your destination. At least the luggage then has a sporting chance of joining you on the flight if it is tagged to the right destination.

D Dreamliner Although the Airbus A380 did not start flying until well into the first decade of the 21st century, in terms of technology and passenger comfort it is effectively a 20th-century airliner – albeit bigger than anything that has gone before. For a dramatically different experience, improving everything from cabin pressure (comfortably closer to sea level) to bigger windows, you need the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. So, too, do dozens of airlines that have ordered the revolutionary new twin-engined jet. But the Seattle-based manufacturer ( boeing.com ) has had huge problems getting the plane in the air. When it finally takes off, British Airways, Monarch, Thomson and Virgin Atlantic are in the order book.

E Environment Air travel has many adverse effects on the environment. The damage starts on the ground, from the noise and air pollution caused by both aircraft and the extra traffic generated by passengers and staff. In the air, the world's airlines pump out a vast amount of carbon dioxide at high altitude.

"Air travel is a growing contributor to climate change," says the UK Government (though plenty in the industry maintain that, due to the current decline in aviation, the opposite is the case). According to the Government, "In 2006, air travel accounted for 6.4 per cent of the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change." It plans substantially to increase rates of Air Passenger Duty by November next year to stem the growth in aviation. Critics both within the aviation industry and the environmental lobby point out that there is little correlation between the tax paid and the damage done.

To limit the ill-effects of your travel, choose an airline that operates modern aircraft and packs in the passengers; easyJet has a very young fleet, and this summer has been filling nine out of 10 seats – far more than the average.

F Frequent-flyer points In 1980, the industry-standard "load factor" was just 70 per cent – in other words, three out of 10 seats were empty. Then someone at American Airlines hit on a wizard wheeze. To build customer loyalty, why not offer some of those empty seats to the passengers who flew most often on AA? The frequent-flyer scheme was born, and has been much emulated since. But as life has got trickier for airlines, "earning and burning" (accruing and redeeming) frequent-flyer points has become more difficult. Planes are flying fuller, meaning fewer seats are open for reward passengers – especially at busy times. In addition, "free" flights can be far from free: on a trip I booked from London to Boston and back, the ever-increasing "taxes, fees and charges" amounted to £231 – which meant I was paying more than half the cash fare for the privilege of spending my frequent-flyer points. Sometimes those "taxes, fees and charges" total more than the fare on another airline – compare the cost of using BA Miles between Gatwick and Amsterdam with buying a flight on easyJet from Sussex to Schiphol.

Britain's biggest low-cost airline, easyJet, has only once operated a reward scheme – and even that turned out to be a bit of a swizz. It lasted for only a few weeks early in 1996, to launch the airline's third route, from Aberdeen to Luton. Prices started at £29 one-way, and the highest fare was £69. Anyone paying the top price was promised a bottle of whisky (at the time liquids could freely be carried on board). But those claiming the reward discovered that it was only a half-bottle. Meanwhile, Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, told me: "Hell will freeze over before we introduce a frequent-flyer scheme."

To make the most of your entitlement on the traditional airlines' schemes:

1. Stay with the programme: to maximise your earnings, choose a single airline alliance and its associated rental car and hotel partner.

2. Look for special promotions that can rapidly earn you extra miles, or "tier" points that give you senior status and lounge access. For example, American Airlines had a cut-price first-class promotion, selling seats for not a lot more than the flexible economy fare, which allowed canny travellers to amass points several times faster than in the cheap seats. You can find out about the deals on websites such as the frequent travellers' online forum flyertalk.com.

3. As with any flight these days, the earlier you book, the better the deal you're likely to get. Book reward travel many weeks or, ideally, months in advance to get the widest choice of dates.

4. To maximise the cash value of your miles, "spend" them on uncompetitive, niche routes where fares are disproportionately high. Example – British Airways between London and Bermuda.

5. If there are no free seats for when you want to travel, pay cash for the cheapest economy ticket then use your points to upgrade to business class.

6. Check when your miles expire; these days airlines are exercising their rights to rewrite the rules and reduce your entitlement to zero, with minimal warning.

G Gibraltar The corner of the Iberian peninsula that is forever British has an airport that is, in many respects, unique. The runway, mainly on reclaimed land, runs east-west to bisect the narrow north-south isthmus linking the 30,000 inhabitants with the Spanish border. As with the Swiss/French airports of Geneva and Basel, you can choose which country you enter after exiting the aircraft. But unlike in those cities' airports, the main road between Gibraltar and the rest of the world crosses the runway, and is closed during the take-off and landing of flights.

H Handling companies The sign may say "British Airways", "easyJet" or "Ryanair", but in practice the staff you meet at airports are likely to be employed by an independent ground-handling company. Indeed only relatively few airline/airport combos, such as BA at Heathrow and New York JFK, or easyJet at the key Spanish airports of Alicante, Malaga, Palma and Tenerife, employ their own ground staff. It's more common for airlines to contract ground handlers to look after everything from check-in to the "ramp" (organising boarding, baggage, refuelling and departure) – especially at airports where a particular airline might have only one or two departures a day.

At Stansted, the Spanish-owned ground-handler Swissport – whose clients at the Essex airport include Air Malta, Cyprus Airways, Monarch, Norwegian, Ryanair and Thomson – is in dispute with members of Unite and the GMB. At the time of going to press, the effects of industrial action at Stansted, as well as Gatwick and Manchester, were not clear. V C Earlier this summer, hundreds of Ryanair passengers missed their flights from Stansted airport in London, because not enough desks were open to process the queues of people waiting to drop-off luggage.

At larger airports, airlines play off one ground-handler against the other, with Swissport, Aviance, Menzies Aviation and Servisair competing – though at some smaller airports such as Cardiff, Belfast City and Southampton there is only one ground-handler. Airlines can also ask other airlines to work for them, and this is particularly the case within the big alliances – so at Heathrow, for example, members of the Star Alliance work together.

I India The world's second-most populous country is now the bargain-basement destination in terms of air fares as well as living and travelling costs when you get there. Five years ago the minimum fare from London to the commercial capital, Mumbai, was above £500; today, you can get there for half as much, for example on Qatar Airways from Gatwick via Doha. For less than the cost of an "any time" standard-class return train ticket from London to Newcastle, you can experience one of the most energetic cities in the world.

Also in India, low-cost airlines are rapidly enticing travellers away from the world's greatest transport undertaking, Indian Railways. Kingfisher, GoAir and SpiceJet are among the options; for example, GoAir has nine flights a day between Delhi and Mumbai, with plenty of seats available at under £30 each way.

J Jet A-1 The standard aviation fuel is remarkably similar to domestic paraffin. Airlines are currently paying 60p a litre or less for the stuff – plus VAT, which they can reclaim. A standard narrow-bodied Boeing 737-800 or Airbus A320 with a full load of passengers and crew will burn around three tonnes an hour in the cruise, costing the airline around £1,200 – which works out at roughly £6.50 per passenger.

Spikes in the price of oil in recent years have led many airlines to impose fuel surcharges. On Valentine's Day last year, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic issued a joint statement confessing to price-fixing on these surcharges, and establishing a fund that has started paying out refunds to anyone who flew long haul with either airline between 11 August 2004 and 23 March 2006. See the website: airpassengerrefund.co.uk

K Kilogram The standard unit of measurement for baggage – and, by extension, excess baggage. The cost of carrying more than your entitlement used to be calculated at 1 per cent of the first-class fare for the journey you are making – which, these days, is an archaic concept. So many carriers have a fixed charge for each extra bag, or for excess kilograms. Most low-cost airlines have a limit of 15kg, and if you turn up at the airport with more than that, Ryanair will charge £15 per kg for the excess. Which leads inexorably on to...

L Lost luggage Most "lost" luggage isn't lost at all; it is left behind at your departure airport, erroneously sent to a different destination or – and this is the main problem – mis-sorted at a connecting hub. You should soon get it delivered to your home or hotel, and meanwhile are entitled to claim a reasonable and modest amount on essentials. If it is permanently lost, the Montreal Convention specifies the maximum entitlement for lost baggage as 1,000SDR (Special Drawing Rights, a "virtual" currency calculated from weighted values of the US dollar, euro, yen and pound), which – thanks to the slump in sterling – is now worth close to £1,000. Much better, of course, to stop your bags from going astray in the first place. The best ways to do that are as follows:

1. Don't check anything in unless you absolutely have to. British Airways and easyJet have very generous cabin- baggage allowances.

2. If you must check luggage in, try to book a non-stop flight – bags are much more likely to go missing when being transferred at airports such as Amsterdam, Paris Charles de Gaulle... and Heathrow.

3. Make sure that you have labelled the inside of your luggage with your name and address, in case the external labels are torn off while in the tender care of airport baggage systems.

M Maastricht The small airport in the far south of Holland where Europe's first short-haul, low-cost air service began in 1984: Virgin Atlantic flew a small Vickers Viscount to Gatwick as a "feeder" link for its New York flight. The airline later abandoned it, leaving the field clear for easyJet.

Maastricht is also the venue for Eurocontrol's "Upper Airspace Control Centre". While you're at 37,000 feet, men and women in an undistinguished building on the edge of the Dutch city of Maastricht are looking after you. Progressively, nations are ceding control of their skies to the pan-European body, which makes for smoother and more efficient use of airspace; the ultimate aim is a "single European sky".

On 27 June last year, Maastricht handled an all-time record 34,476 flights in a single day – equivalent to a take-off every two-and-a-half seconds, if they were evenly spread. The controllers do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts; the charge for controlling a two-hour flight of a standard narrow-bodied Airbus or Boeing is around £400, which works out at around £3 per passenger. Despite the slowdown in aviation, congestion is still a problem, especially in north-west Europe; the average delay due to "air traffic flow management" rose last year to two minutes, 20 seconds.

N No-show If you are travelling on a cheap ticket, expect to lose all your money if you fail to show up. You could try to reclaim the "taxes, fees and charges" that airlines are so quick to add but less hasty to subtract; however, many impose fees equal to or greater than the amount you can reclaim. Travellers on "full-fare" tickets can usually switch to another flight without penalty. Be warned that if you fail to show for your outbound flight, many airlines will automatically cancel the inbound leg.

O Overbooking A splendid device. On a typical flight a handful of passengers will fail to turn up for a flight without a penalty, they often book themselves on several flights and take whichever turns out to be the most convenient. Clearly airlines would lose revenue unless they accept more reservations than there are seats. Sometimes they guess wrong and everyone turns up. This is not only embarrassing, it is also expensive – the European Commission lays down rules for denied boarding compensation. The other weapon at the airlines' disposal is to enforce the latest check-in time strictly; if you arrive late, you forfeit all your rights.

Overbooking is one reason why airlines are often less than keen to give you...

P Pre-assigned seats When you book theatre tickets, you expect to be told where you are sitting. Surely airline passengers can expect the same courtesy? No. On many long-haul flights, seats may be allocated upon booking, but the airline will always reserve the right to change them. And if you have any special requirements such as extra leg room, you may have to wait to try your luck at the airport – or pay extra for the privilege.

Once again, British Airways has a distinct, enhanced offer. Passengers even on short-haul flights can pick a seat online 24 hours in advance – including those prized exit rows, though if you are incapacitated in any way you are likely to be moved.

"We're giving control back to customers," says BA. If you are travelling in a couple and want to maximise the chances of having a row of three seats to yourselves, book a window and aisle seat (A and C or D and F); unless the plane is totally full, it is unlikely that the middle one will be filled.

Q Qantas The Australian airline that began as Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services is probably the most widely misspelt carrier in the world (plenty of people add a "u" as the second letter). It was established in Brisbane in 1920, and is today one of only three aircraft to fly the Airbus A380 "Superjumbo". Qantas (qantas.com) has installed only 450 seats on the "Superjumbo", compared with 471 on Singapore Airlines and 489 on Emirates. When Air France starts flying the A380 between Paris and New York later this year, it will pack in 538. On the Qantas aircraft, the website seatguru.com recommends 71D, 79B-79K, 80A and 80K as the best seats in economy.

R Ryanair An Irish airline that attracts passengers and opprobrium in staggering quantities. Ryanair now qualifies as "the world's favourite airline" in accordance with British Airways' definition of the carrier that flies more people internationally than any other. This month, for the first time, a single airline will offer more than 10 per cent of all the available intra-European seats. Yes, it's Ryanair, way ahead of Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways, not to mention easyJet.

"If there was any alternative to flying on Ryanair, I'd take it," said the broadcaster David Dimbleby earlier this summer when he was caught up in the ground-handling snarl-up at Stansted. But the airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, appears to be positioning himself for an upgrade to sainthood. "I am beloved across the industry and across the world," he told me recently.

S Slots Permission to land and take off at specific times at a particular airport. A few British airports are "slot-constrained", with more demand than supply, notably Heathrow – which is almost full almost all the time from the first arrivals in the small hours to the last departures late at night. The two strips of concrete west of London constitute the most valuable real-estate anywhere on the planet, and 99 per cent of available slots are taken up – about the only ones that aren't used are for unappetising late-evening flights or the odd space at weekends.

Airlines acquire slots at Heathrow either by bidding for them through the organisation that allocates them or, more effectively, by buying them from other airlines. Either way, once the airline has the slot it can keep it forever through so-called "grandfather rights" – but this historic entitlement applies on a strictly "use it or lose it" basis. If an airline doesn't make use of a slot, it goes back in the pool to be reallocated to another airline. That, at least, is the theory – but in the current downturn some airlines are being allowed to retain slots even though they are not operating.

"Slots" also refers tactically to the exact minute a plane is permitted to take off by air-traffic controllers (see Maastricht). Pilots are averse to losing this slot, which is why, on boarding, you may be urged to sit down and get strapped in very quickly.

T Transatlantic aviation Protectionism is rife around the world, with governments limiting international flights to protect inefficient airlines. Europe and the US are well ahead of the pack in having reasonably free and open markets, and last year the North Atlantic air lanes were liberalised. But apart from lots of carriers moving US flights from Gatwick to Heathrow, not much has happened to benefit travellers; Northwest's link to Seattle, and Air France's to Los Angeles, did not last long. And since the collapse of Zoom last August, there are actually fewer US destinations than before "Open Skies".

U Upgrades If you want to fly in business class... buy a business-class ticket. Next best option: marry someone who works for an airline (but one with a business-class cabin, silly – not easyJet or Ryanair). Failing that, demonstrate your loyalty to an airline by signing up for their frequent-flyer programme – if they have to upgrade people because the economy cabin is overbooked, that's where they will look first. Or fly on your birthday: before Swissair went bust, I was given an upgrade from Heathrow to Zurich on 25 December (which, incidentally, is the least stressful day to fly; Easter Sunday is next best).

V Velocity Not all jet aircraft are equally fast. On the Heathrow-Hong Kong route, each evening three aircraft are scheduled to take off between 10.20pm and 10.35pm. First off is a British Airways Boeing 777, scheduled to take 12 hours. Next is a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340, which takes 20 minutes longer. Finally, a Cathay Pacific 747, which overtakes the Virgin plane and nearly catches up with BA, taking only 11 hours and 50 minutes.

W World Cup Every four years, football fans distort the flying patterns of the world. Book a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg on 8 May for a month, and you will pay £700. Try it a month later, and the price rises to £1,000. Any big sporting event puts huge pressure on airline seats, which the airlines take advantage of by raising fares. A reader, Nick Mount, has just got in touch to say: "We are flying to Durban in June 2010. The flights have doubled in price. Is this legal [yes] and is there anyway of getting a flight at the usual price? [no]".

X X-ray Not the well-known camp in Guantanamo, but the scanner that examines your luggage to assess how much of a threat to the aircraft your possessions pose. Later this year more sophisticated scanners will start to appear that can detect the potential of liquids to cause explosions, and gives hope that the present 100ml limit on bottles may be relaxed.

Others say that it is ridiculous to devote so much time, money and energy on searching passengers who pose no threat. They advocate screening passengers, based on booking patterns and – very controversially – age, nationality and even appearance. Some campaigners say that security staff already disproportionately select Asian men for extra attention.

Profiling already happens in other walks of life; the revenue protection officials at my local railway station make no attempt to hide the most obvious profiling of people they regard as most likely to be travelling without a ticket: young men of any colour.

Y Economy class Of course it is. You probably also knew that C class is business class (predominantly short-haul), J is long-haul business class and F is first class. But these are merely the cabin classes. Your electronic ticket is likely to show a different letter entirely. B, G, H, K to O inclusive, Q, S and T to X are used to refer to discount economy categories, all of whom sit in the economy cabin (unless they have friends in high places – see upgrades). A colleague flying to Toronto was delighted to see the newspaper had booked her in B class, which she took to be business – only to find herself at the back of the plane.

The top class, by the way, is not A but R – formerly used exclusively for Concorde, now for first-class suites on the Airbus A380.

Z Zulu Pilot-speak for Greenwich Mean Time, the clock by which all aviation is governed.