Simon Calder: Concorde's second cousin, once removed
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 06 August 2011
Son of Concorde? The British Airways link between London City Airport and New York JFK: a narrow-bodied Airbus jet kitted out for just 32 passengers. It takes about three times as long as the supersonic jet that boomed off to oblivion in 2003; today's BA1 requires an en-route refuelling stop in Shannon. But is significantly cheaper than Concorde used to be; book ahead, and a round-trip on this exclusive aircraft can be yours for £2,313.
You, like me, may regard this as an excessive indulgence. So perhaps I can interest you instead in what I guess is Concorde's second cousin, once removed: Air Canada flight 823, where a ticket costs one third as much. As reported here six weeks ago, until late September a little Airbus will hop each day from Heathrow to St John's in Newfoundland.
I blanched at the fare: £751 return in economy, much more than to Vancouver, a city more than twice as far from London. But I was determined to try the only service that can get you across the Atlantic in under five hours.
The premium price included the right to reserve a seat in advance, before reaching the airport. When I chose where to sit, the flight was "wide open" with loads of empty seats.
Terrific, I thought, as I clicked on an unoccupied row of three seats: a private-jet experience on an economy-class flight.
Few aspects of aviation are as entertaining as the gradual onset of dismay on the face of a far-too-smug traveller realising that his expectations must urgently be modified.
The flight was on the first weekend of the school summer holidays; the world, his wife, their offspring and distant relatives evidently wanted to fly on Air Canada. The airline had, quite legitimately, sold more seats than were actually available on its dozen departures from Heathrow that day. As Air Canada says, "Overbooking is a means (certainly not perfect but, on the whole, pretty viable) which allows us to offer refundable tickets without losing a lot of money". When they over-estimate the no-shows, "We offer compensation and make alternate arrangements to get you to your destination."
Those "alternate arrangements" evidently included my diddy jet. In return for suitable recompense, some passengers who booked to fly non-stop on a wide-bodied jet to Toronto were enticed to switch to a two-hop trip that stretched to 13 hours rather than the normal nine. Air Canada offers €900 in travel vouchers (or a cheque for €600) for volunteers who arrive over four hours late at their final destination.
So, having paid £376 for the westbound trip, I was sitting aboard flight 823. alongside people who were effectively flying free. Good luck to them – and if the same thing should happen to you, make the most of the three-hour layover in St John's. Use some of your earnings to pay for the 10-minute cab-ride to the centre, to explore the first city in North America.
A meteorological mystery tour
"Flights so good you won't want to get off," was what Air Canada used to promise prospective passengers.
A strange slogan, not least because it begs the question: are travellers ever reluctant to leave an aircraft?
And what constitutes a "good" flight? One that arrives safely, of course, and at roughly the right time, right day and right airport.
If these are your criteria, Newfoundland may not be the ideal destination. My first flight to the island, 20 years ago on Aeroflot, touched down at Stephenville – 200 miles across the island from the intended target of Gander, which was snowbound. This summer on the island has proved so meteorologically miserable that tourists have been exchanging salutations along the lines of "May it rain only when you are indoors".
As recently as Thursday afternoon, flights to St John's (including the London service) were delayed by what Air Canada described as "low ceiling fog, reduced visibility". I hope the passengers were, indeed, thrilled to linger longer on board.
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