Simon Calder: In the air, on the tracks: we live in turbulent times
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 28 December 2013
For many travellers in 2013, getting off the ground proved the big problem. Barely had the new year begun than the snow came down and exposed the lack of resilience at Heathrow. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers were grounded at Europe's busiest airport. Campaigners for a Thames Estuary airport used the lost weekend as evidence for why a brand-new gateway should be built; campaigners for expanding Heathrow cited the same evidence as justification a third runway.
Gatwick weighed in to demand that the number of winter flights at Heathrow should be capped at a lower level than for summer, with "other airports" – that'll be Gatwick, then – benefiting from extra traffic. Heathrow declined its rival's helpful suggestion.
The skies of Britain remained impressively safe once again, but three non-weather incidents triggered thousands more delayed and cancelled flights. This month, the NATS air-traffic control centre in Hampshire went wrong, effectively shrinking the skies and grounding passengers by the tens of thousands; again, Heathrow was worst affected.
Then there was a pair of aircraft fire incidents at Heathrow. The first was on 24 May, when a British Airways Airbus took off, destination Oslo, with its engine cowls unlatched, precipitating a fire in the right engine and an emergency landing after the stricken jet flew back over London to return to the airport.
Less alarming, except for Boeing executives, was the fire aboard an Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliner while it was parked, empty, on Heathrow's apron. The cause was traced to a faulty battery – but not the same lithium devices that had caused the entire 787 fleet to be grounded worldwide in January, after Japanese airlines suffered a series of fires. It took three months to find a fix, and delivery of the state-of-the-art jet to the first UK customers – Thomson and British Airways – was delayed.
At least the airlines involved in these incidents didn't try to disguise the stricken aircraft – as Thai Airways did when a plane left the runway at Bangkok airport. No one was badly hurt, but the airline's reputation was injured.
Ryanair worked hard to rescue its reputation. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive, unveiled a sequence of passenger-friendly initiatives. The man who, some might say, put the "offensive" into "charm offensive," promised to "eliminate things that piss people off". Penalties for failing to comply with Ryanair's rules have been cut, and pre-assigned seating is soon to start. In a bid to accelerate his rehabilitation, Mr O'Leary took to Twitter – without appreciating that if he responded to a tweet from a female passenger with the words "Nice pic. Phwoaaarr! MOL," the whole world would see it.
Howard Millar, his deputy, confirmed Ryanair is in talks with Boeing about increasing the "seating density" on its 737 jets – squeezing in an extra 11 seats per plane. Coincidentally, Boeing reported that an unmanned F-16 jet had been flown at supersonic speed. Dispensing with the captain and first officer would immediately free up two premium seats at the front of each Ryanair plane. But Mr Millar told me: "Technology is moving quite rapidly, but we have no plans in terms of unmanned aircraft."
Reaching a destination was often only the start of the traveller's problems. The state of Florida started 2013 by threatening visiting motorists with jail if they did not carry an International Driving Permit. That law was later rescinded by legislators in the Sunshine State. In October, though, Congress effectively shut down the greatest tourist attractions in the US when they failed to reach a budget settlement. The main victims were travellers. From the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, the "closed" signs went up, causing profound disappointment for many overseas visitors.
In Europe, the stock of top-flight attractions increased with the opening, in February, of the Shard at London Bridge; a much-needed new visitor centre at Stonehenge in December; and April's reopening, after aeons of refurbishment, of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum in April. Anyone tempted to visit the Dutch capital by direct train, though, faces a long wait. Eurostar will not begin the long-promised through services until 2016 – coincidentally the same time as Deutsche Bahn begins a London-Amsterdam link.
For high-speed rail passengers in Europe, it has not been the best of years. The Independent Traveller reported the planned opening of Paris-Barcelona services for January; they finally began halfway through December. More embarrassing was Dutch Railways' horrible start to 2013. After spending billions of euros on a high-speed line, the new fleet of cut-price Italian-built rolling stock was sent back after multiple technical problems. The supermarket chain, Aldi, complained after these trouble-prone services were nicknamed "Aldi-trains".
France launched a fleet of low-cost trains without problems, by the sensible method of ripping first class out of well-tested TGV stock and installing more seats. The Ouigo service, from east of Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean, has lured travellers from other forms of transport, and may be expanded into London. But another SNCF offshoot, Rail Europe, was erased in favour of a website, Voyages-sncf.com.
Individual destinations endured some difficult times. While Cyprus recovered from the brink of financial collapse in March, Egypt's problems deepened as the year went on. In June, a figure with connections to the 1997 Luxor Massacre was given the job as governor in the Nile city. Shortly afterwards, the army deposed the president, and strife began again – placing Cairo and the Nile off limits for much of the second half of the year.
It was a tumultuous year for the business of travel advice and information. The guidebook publisher, Lonely Planet, was sold by BBC Worldwide at a loss of £80m. Thomas Cook shut down the European Rail Timetable, though it will be revived independently in 2014.
Two days before Christmas, TripAdvisor reached the hi-tech top table when it joined the Nasdaq index. Earlier, Wanderlust magazine celebrated its 20th anniversary, and Michael Palin was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Travel Press Awards.
The year ended as it began, with The Independent Traveller rated as best national newspaper travel section for the second year running – and more wrangling about the state of Britain's airports, and in particular Heathrow. Does the United Kingdom actually need a massive hub airport? The Davies Commission will decide. The body seeking to sort out the aviation muddle has shortlisted a possible extra runway at Gatwick and Heathrow. The surprise inclusion, on a very short shortlist, was the "Heathrow Robinson" option of adding a mile-and-a-half to the existing northern runway.
In the dying embers of 2013, British Airways signalled a move away from its "hub-and-spoke" business centred on Heathrow. With a new link from Edinburgh to Ibiza starting next summer, the long-held doctrine that every BA flight must either begin or end in London has been broken.
Interesting times –and, despite turbulence, the 21st-century British traveller has had another good year. The UK remains the nation with the widest choice of great-value travel.
Simon Calder's year of travails
My most-delayed flight: British Airways, Geneva-Heathrow, about 14 hours including unscheduled overnight stay at Paris Charles de Gaulle.
My earliest flight: Thomson Airways, Barbados-Gatwick, arrived one hour early.
Most misleading flight information: Email from easyJet saying Geneva-Gatwick flight was running 86 years behind schedule. (In fact, it was 13 hours.)
Most helpful lift: Skagway-Dyea, Alaska, followed by free tour of gold-rush country.
Least helpful lift: First bus stop outside Standa, Norway, to second bus stop outside Standa, Norway.
My cheapest ticket: 10p, platform ticket, Paddington Station, London.
My most expensive ticket: £1,347, Geneva-London-Buenos Aires-Mendoza (surface) Santiago-Madrid-London, combining British Airways and Iberia through Travel Nation.
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