Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

How far is it from Heathrow to Singapore? Your response may range from "Depends how much the pilot has drunk the night before" to "Too far for me". But if a free trip to Asia depended on it, you might go to some trouble to find out.

How far is it from Heathrow to Singapore? Your response may range from "Depends how much the pilot has drunk the night before" to "Too far for me". But if a free trip to Asia depended on it, you might go to some trouble to find out.

That was just what a gentleman from Worcestershire did when he entered a Tesco competition to "Win a Dream Holiday to Amazing Thailand". This week, the Advertising Standards Authority said the supermarket giant hadn't played by the rules, saying "The criteria for judging the entries had not been properly explained". The ASA suggested that the rules should have said something to the effect that "the answer is whatever Tesco says it is".

The wording is important, because the answer to the question is more contentious than you might imagine. The Official Airlines Guide reckons it is 6,744 miles. British Airways and its partner Qantas both say that the distance is four miles further. Singapore Airlines, which flies the route more than anyone else, says its Jumbos cover 6,761 miles - perhaps they build in the distance flown while "stacking" before landing. The International Air Transport Association, which has considerable expertise in these matters, tells me the distance is three miles less.

A US website ( that computes the shortest distance on a Great Circle route, proposes 6,755 miles. The boffin behind it adds that this is calculated according to the "Clarke 1866 model of Earth's ellipsoid", which is good enough for me. But not for BA, Qantas, or Tesco, all of whom claim that they can cover the ground in fewer miles.

Are BA and Qantas seeking to understate the distance covered by their planes in a bid to boost the second-hand value in the same way that cars' mileometers are sometimes "clocked"? No - the crucial quantities for used aircraft are hours flown and the number of take-offs and landings.

Perhaps they are trying to reduce the points payout to frequent fliers: the discrepancy between British Airways' distance and that on Singapore Airlines, multiplied by the number of passengers on a full jumbo jet, equates to the number of BA miles necessary to get a pair of flights between London and Paris.

Tesco prides itself on undercutting the opposition, and for this competition it discounts the distance from Heathrow to Singapore to just 6,743 miles. The company's promotions agency says it learned the distance by calling BA. But BA tells me the distance is 6,748.

It would, of course, be preposterous to suggest that someone at the agency had a drink before reporting for duty and subsequently misread that last 8 for a 3.

One other thought: if the supermarket were an airline, would Air Tesco's business class be called Clubcard World?


You have to hand it to the travel industry: rarely does it miss an opportunity to capitalise on world events. Back in 1998, even by the relaxed standards of international diplomacy, Serbia was an outcast. The Foreign Office was warning British travellers against "non-essential" visits, and EU sanctions had been imposed in response to the repression by the Milosevic regime of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

What better way to boost the economy than to increase tourism from the UK to Serbia? And how better to do that than to bring the tourism minister to the World Travel Market in London?

The minister was Slobodan Cerovic, and the company that boosted its earnings by arranging his visit was Millennium PR. The spin team valiantly sought to put Serbia in a positive light: a press release sought to reawaken our interest in Serbia "despite the problems affecting UK tourism this year due to the crisis in Kosovo" - problems like three big UK tour operators pulling out of the country the previous month, and the national airline being banned from flying within Europe.

This weekend, Millennium PR has capitalised on its previous Balkan experience by organising a trip for six British travel journalists to Montenegro at the invitation of the national tourism organisation.

At the time you read this, the half-dozen should be enjoying a "beach barbecue at Budvanska Riviera", rather less contentious territory than city breaks in Belgrade during the Milosevic era. Indeed, one of the many blessings about the overthrow of the tyrant is that the countries bordering on Serbia can expect a "peace dividend", in the form of lots more British tourists.

Certainly, that was the hope of the Croatian tourist office in London, which sent out a release last weekend as the people were taking power in Serbia. Little love may be lost these days between Serbs and Croats, but that doesn't stop the authorities in Zagreb seeking to take advantage of revolution in Belgrade to ram home the message that the region is once again safe and palatable.

Many of us have happy memories of visiting Yugoslavia before it imploded; in 1990, more than a million British people took holidays there. But the Yugotours that we took then were almost all to places that have now separated from Yugoslavia - especially Croatia, whose superb Adriatic coastline is punctuated to the north by the lovely Istrian peninsula and to the south by the sublime walled city of Dubrovnik. Slovenia, too, should win back much of its "lakes and mountains" tourism.

The list of beneficiaries even includes long-haul air travellers: before the turmoil, JAT Yugoslav Airlines was a leading discounter to Asia and Australasia. It will, no doubt, seek to re-establish itself. However, the market has become much tougher in the past decade, so JAT - never the world's most sought-after airline - will need to discount ruthlessly to win back business.

About the only part of the world that will not see much benefit is Serbia itself. Once the excitement of seeing history in the making has subsided, it will revert to being a state that most people travel through on the way to somewhere more interesting.


This week saw the annual round of mutual eco-backslapping that goes by the name of the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow awards. Ever since the Sustrans coast-to-coast bike path won the prize, but the chap from the cycling charity turned up in a car to collect the award, I have regarded the sustainable tourism ceremony with a touch of scepticism. Some would say the most effective contribution the airline has made all year to the environment is to ground Concorde in the wake of the Air France tragedy in Paris in July.

This year's event was unusual because one of the judges was missing from the ceremony. She had planned to attend, but when accepting the invitation mentioned that she would need to bring her month-old baby. In that case, said the World's Favourite Airline, you can't come. BA doesn't look too keen on the tourists of tomorrow.


After the allegations of drinking among flight crew on Thursday night's Dispatches programme on Channel 4, here's something to look out for should you find yourself at Heathrow's Terminal 4. Last time I looked, opposite check-in desk 54, there stood a strange sentry box affair marked "British Airways Recovery Unit".

What can it mean?