Simon Calder: In travel, you need the right approach
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 24 August 2013
The final minute of a flight may be the most stressful time in the cockpit, but as a passenger you can afford to relax in the moments before touchdown. While the pilots prepare for landing, you can look further ahead than the threshold of the runway – and, if you wish, speculate about the likely length of the queue for passport control and the possible wait for baggage. You might even take a stab at the arrival time at your final destination. At this stage of the flight, what could possibly go wrong?
I estimate the Airbus was about a mile short of Düsseldorf's runway and at a height of perhaps 300 feet when the engines roared and the A319 soared. The aircraft banked to the left as it climbed and gave those of us in window seats some thrillingly fresh views of the Rhine.
The passengers and crew had anticipated a routine first flight of the day from Heathrow to Germany's third-busiest airport. The British Airways jet had got away early and within an hour of take-off we were on the final approach. But the aircraft ahead was deemed too close for safety. At a cost of a few hundred pounds in extra fuel, the pilots made a textbook "go-around" and landed safely at the second attempt.
A member of the cabin crew told me he experiences a "go-around" only every couple of years on average. I happen to be slightly ahead of him: aboard an easyJet flight to Geneva last year, I enjoyed an unexpected extra turn over the lake and mountains rather than touching down as planned.
From my limited experience, go-arounds are more fun than abandoned take-offs – after an alarming failure to get aloft first time around aboard a Tupolev belonging to the Romanian airline, Tarom. The incident also took place in Switzerland, at a snow-covered Zurich.
On that occasion, no one explained the problem. But on my latest missed approach in Germany, the captain announced gruffly and concisely: "Düsseldorf air-traffic control made a right hash of our approach."
The tube's stress test
Earlier that same day Transport for London had made a right hash of my approach to Heathrow. Tube trains do not usually run to published timetables, but early in the morning they are supposed to – particularly to the nation's busiest airport. The 5.21am westbound District Line service from Earl's Court carries people with planes to catch, plus people heading to work in order to help other people catch planes. The first train of the day is scheduled to reach Hammersmith in six minutes, whereupon passengers walk across the platform to a waiting Piccadilly Line train. This departs a minute later and deposits its happy customers at Heathrow Terminal 5 at 6.05am. So much for the clockwork theory. In the event, the 5.21 turned up late – a cause of consternation for those relying on making the Hammersmith connection. We need not have worried, since the first Heathrow train had not been sighted.
For reasons that were never explained (but were unlikely to do with air-traffic control), the first train arrived 15 minutes late and plodded to the airport, turning a straightforward journey into an exercise in stress. Airline staff and passengers sped from the train in an undignified mob sprint, while a recorded announcement boasted: "A good service is running on all lines." The travelling public, not the Tube operator, should be the judge of that.
Meanwhile, the London Underground remains the best advertisement for the Heathrow Express, the high-speed service from Paddington station; expensive, yes, but run by people who appreciate that passengers have planes to catch.
Czech point Charlies
At least I reached my final destination. Russell Roe, a student from Brighton, was not so lucky. On Monday he turned up at Heathrow Terminal 3 in good time for his 4pm flight to Prague. But British Airways check-in staff turned him away. Mr Roe's passport expires on 6 November this year, and he was told that the Czech authorities would not let him in because they insist upon at least three months' validity remaining.
"I felt humiliated, as I had checked the relevant information provided by British Airways," he says. "But everyone I spoke to at the airport said it was my responsibility for not checking."
They were wrong, and Mr Roe was right. An EU citizen is entitled to remain in the Czech Republic, or any other EU nation, up to and including the last day of validity of the passport.
When I contacted BA on his behalf, the airline accepted its check-in staff had been Czech point Charlies. "We are very sorry," said a spokeswoman. "The agent misread the regulations. British passport holders do not need to have three months' validity beyond the period of intended stay in the Czech Republic."
To its credit, BA moved swiftly to put things right and arranged new flights for Mr Roe. As well as paying him the obligatory €250 in denied-boarding compensation, the airline is also reimbursing his travel expenses for the wasted journey to Heathrow. And he has been given a £250 voucher for a future flight.
"I am fortunate my case has been satisfactorily resolved," Mr Roe says. "I hope what has happened to me might go some way to ensuring that this scenario doesn't happen again."
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