Holidays from hell

This week British Airways passengers have been trapped at Heathrow. But from endless delays and unbuilt hotels to food poisoning and freak weather, getting away from it all is rarely easy, says Simon Calder

Some of the passengers who were stranded by the annual summer snarl-up at Heathrow yesterday could choose from these exciting holiday options, in lieu of the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal or Sydney Harbour Bridge. Others who had planned to head home to Tokyo or Toronto found that they had earned an unexpected free night in the Heathrow area. But all will have shared a deep and collective desire to be elsewhere.

The world's greatest travellers, arguably, are the Germans. They seem to reach the four corners of the planet with relative ease. In contrast, British tourists - and those who chose to spend their holidays here - are prone to what headlines yesterday summed up as "travel misery".

Hoteliers around the UK's busiest airport must rub their hands with glee each August. In the month when they expect business to be at an annual low, with executives off on holiday, they can cash in on an event that has become as predictable as the Notting Hill Carnival: the British Airways summer debacle.

The centre-spread of last week's British Airways News shows an airline brimming with corporate confidence after the latest excellent financial results: "Service formula spells success" reads the headline. "Working towards a trip to remember."

Air travellers tend to be fickle and forgetful; we never reminisce about the time a flight went well, but can recall every detail of a journey that goes badly. The 70,000 passengers whose holiday or business plans were wrecked by BA's shutdown at Heathrow yesterday will certainly have cause to remember their trips.

At the best of times, aviation is a complex piece of choreography that demands excellent performances from a diverse range of teams and individuals. At the UK's busiest airport the perpetual dance is especially tricky. The BA operation at Heathrow is stretched to the limit across three of the four ageing terminals.

For an island race that depends upon international transport for survival, we are remarkably tolerant of ramshackle infrastructure. Our leading airport cannot cope with the number of people and planes that want to use it, and a solution to the South-east's runway shortage is a decade away. Meanwhile, even passengers booked on other airlines have been delayed by the latest BA calamity, as the terminals, aprons and gates have become ever more sclerotic.

At least British Airways is still a going concern. Tens of thousands of passengers booked to travel on EUjet this summer will be going nowhere, unless they spend hundreds of pounds on new flights. The airline, based at Manston in Kent, tried to tap into our hunger for travel. But so spoilt are we for choice these halcyon days that EUjet funds did not add up.

The calculators will be busy at BA, too. "We are a quality airline and our customers are prepared to pay a little more for what they value most," says Sir Rod Eddington. But the invocation to his staff to "work together as one team" seems to have been lost on the wildcat strikers who, once again, caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

Plenty of people - including BA staff and passengers - will be outraged by the apparently arbitrary and harsh treatment of workers at the airline's catering contractor, Gate Gourmet. When baggage handlers and other staff stopped work in sympathy, they will have known exactly what the impact would be on the weary traveller and the airline's prospects.

At this time of year, a fully loaded 400-seat jumbo going to New York and back represents up to half a million pounds in revenue. The losses rapidly multiply across hundreds of departures, and are compounded by the costs of putting passengers up in hotels that they would rather not be staying in. In addition, new EU rules mean the airline is legally obliged to pay substantial compensation to passengers.

The visible price of this week's fiasco is likely to top £50m but the long-term damage runs much deeper. The people BA must thank for its profits are business travellers, who are averse to disruption. Whenever there is a whiff of a dispute, travel agents routinely switch executives to other flights.

Flying planes efficiently and profitably depends on goodwill - a commodity that seems in as short supply as meals on BA.

Despite the woes of our national carrier, a million travellers will leave the country this weekend. And for some that will be merely the start of the problem.

A generation ago, holidaymakers often became victims of the spectacular collapses of big tour operators. Thousands of people lost their holidays or were stranded abroad. Such events have been alleviated by robust bonding schemes.

But they apply only to holidays recognised as packages. Many now book every aspect of a trip independently. Tempting, but not always a good idea. If you are among those held up at Heathrow expect little sympathy from a foreign hotelier for nights that you spent in Hounslow rather than Honolulu.

For the majority of travellers, properly packaged or not, the basic elements of a holiday will work out as expected. Then all you have to worry about is a checklist of threats. The core ingredients of a holiday - sun, water, food - each hold their own perils. Indeed, accidents in water are the second highest cause of death for British travellers abroad.

The biggest killer is neither disease nor terrorism (both of which represent a tiny fraction), it is traffic accidents. Britain is a singularly safe place. As soon as you cross the Channel, the risks on the road double, and in many destinations - such as Portugal, Turkey and New Zealand the accident statistics are several times worse.

For those sleepless in Staines rather than slumbering in Sydney, the BA shutdown may have prevented a much more serious holiday disaster but I don't expect to be thanked for saying so.

SEA OF TROUBLES

By Louise Jack and Cahal Milmo

Hundreds of tourists were struck down by a highly contagious virus on the P&O liner, Aurora in 2003. Greek authorities refused the Aurora permission to dock, leaving 2,000 passengers unable to land. British doctors ferried medicine and supplies to the luxury ship as it lay anchored off the Greek coast. The sick passengers were confined to their cabins in an effort to contain the outbreak. The Aurora then sailed on to Gibraltar and treatment. Holidaymakers had paid between £1,000 and £5,000 each for the cruise.

BRACE, BRACE

This March, Jacquie and Tony Brown from Surrey were on their honeymoon when their flight was forced to make an emergency landing. "The pilot said there was a problem with one of the engines and that we'd have to make an emergency landing. He then put the plane into a steep climb and fuel was jettisoned. It was terrifying." Fire and ambulance crews lined the runway as the chartered Tristar landed safely back at Cuba's Holguin airport. The Browns and more than 100 fellow holidaymakers were flown home 57 hours after their original scheduled departure.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Joan Cracknell arrived at her dream holiday destination only to find that her hotel hadn't even been built. Tour operator Balkan Holidays didn't tell Joan and her husband until they landed in Bulgaria. They arrived at the airport at 2am, after a delayed flight, to be told they were being put in a cheaper hotel.

THE LATE SHOW

Last year, holidaymakers were forced to wait 17 hours while their plane travelled just 48 miles. The Air Scotland 757 left Glasgow with 86 passengers at 6.10pm, it was due to collect 147 passengers in Edinburgh. However, there was a problem with the wheels and the pilot made an emergency landing. The passengers were told to get off and return at 2am to check in for a new 4am flight. They were then on that aircraft until 6am before air-traffic control gave the go-ahead for take-off. As the plane went down the runway an emergency light came on and the pilot had to abort. Eventually some passengers demanded to get off and police had to be called to calm travellers down. They finally took off at 10.55am.

FORCE OF NATURE

When holidaymakers in the Caribbean were relocated last year to avoid Hurricane Frances, they found themselves in the path of a second storm. Tourists at the Sandals resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, were evacuated and spent 36 hours in the dining-hall of another hotel with hundreds of others without power or hot food. Witnesses described how tourists, lying side by side, were violently sick, and rain water ran down the walls as Hurricane Ivan raged outside. There was only one toilet for 300 people.

TURKISH DELIGHT

Jill Sands could be forgiven for not wanting to go on holiday again any time soon. On the first day of her family holiday in Turkey this month, the 35-year-old was nearly swept out to sea by a giant wave and found her villa had no air-conditioning. The following night she came within inches of being mauled by a bear and 24 hours later was bitten by a snake as she slept. Within another 48 hours, her villa had been burgled and she had been admitted to hospital with hypertension.

BARE-FACED CHEEK

Valerie Barnes, 67, must have thought her holiday was bad enough when she arrived to find her hotel half-finished, full of workmen, fumes and dust. However, things got worse when she was forced to flee from a drunken man who stripped naked and paraded around the hotel. Mrs Barnes and her husband swiftly left the hotel, seeking compensation.

WASH OUT

In 2002 holidaymakers visiting Prague were caught up in the world floods in living memory. The river Danube overflowed its banks inundating large areas of the city and putting lives at risk. The difficulties for foreign visitors were exacerbated because they were unable to understand directions shouted from Czech rescue helicopters overhead.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE

In April 2003 holidaymakers in Mucura were kidnapped by gunmen in speedboats looking for a businessman who was staying on the Carribbean island. The hostages, including an 11-year-old boy, were released unharmed after 48 hours when their captors realised their target was not among them.

STOLEN MOMENTS

Burglars ransacked the apartments of British tourists while they were out on the last night of their holiday in Zante. Staff at the Neraida Bungalows had told them only a few hours earlier to remove their valuables from safe deposit boxes ready for departure. The Hewitts lost £2,000 worth of belongings. As well as the burglary, the toilet in their apartment didn't work, a cupboard was held together with a pair of swimming goggles and the pool was a filthy green.

PLANE CRAZY

For most people, a flight to Paris involves a single plane and lasts 50 minutes. By the time the Hales family from Leicestershire made it to the French capital in July 2001, they were on their fifth plane and the journey had taken nine hours. The family were on their way to EuroDisney from East Midlands airport when each of three BMI flights developed a fault. They were then transferred to Birmingham airport, where their Air France plane developed a fault. The fifth plane made it to France but the family had lost a third of their three-day holiday.

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