Simon Calder: It's a long haul from Gatwick to Jakarta
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 22 March 2014
Before it was banned from Europe's skies, Garuda Indonesia provided a pleasingly slow-track to Australia. Your journey Down Under had barely begun when – ding! – the seatbelt light went back on. Just over an hour out of Gatwick, it was time to touch down in Zurich. By the time the elderly Boeing 747 took off again from Switzerland, you had been on board for about three hours, yet covered less than 500 miles. The next hop was nearly 3,000 miles, to Abu Dhabi, where the plane refuelled on the apron and the passengers refuelled in the duty-free. There was also time for a sling in Singapore en route to Jakarta, where you changed planes for Sydney – calling at Bali and Melbourne.
After a seven-sector, all-stations-to-Sydney flight, jet lag was irrelevant: you had no idea what day, or indeed planet, you were on. But as well as having enjoyed rather too many inflight meals, you had got a bargain flight to Australia.
You know, of course, that the annotation "+1" after a flight arrival time signifies touchdown on the day after departure. Numerous airlines stretch to "+2": the evening flights from Heathrow to Sydney on BA, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic arrive around 23 hours after departure, but by then it is already the dawn of a new day in Australia's largest city. I have only ever seen one airline with a "+3" symbol in its schedule – and that is Garuda.
Many travellers will put up with protracted journeys to conserve cash for more important things than air travel, and Garuda was often the answer. At a time when premium airlines were quoting £1,000 or more to Australia and back, Indonesia's national airline was a few notches down at around £800. I flew Garuda fairly often in the 1980s and 1990s, including one bizarre touchdown at Jakarta from Hong Kong. A friendly flight attendant was standing in the aisle, chatting and smoking, as the DC10 made its final approach to the Indonesian capital.
The airline experienced five fatal crashes in those decades. In 2004, Garuda hit the headlines again. Aboard a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, the Indonesian human-rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, was poisoned with arsenic. The airline's chief executive, Indra Setiawan, was jailed for complicity in the assassination. As far as I know, that is a first among airline bosses (yes, including that one).
After yet another fatal accident in 2007, Garuda was banned for two years from the European Union on safety grounds. The prohibition was lifted five years ago, and last year Garuda promised a non-stop link from Gatwick to Jakarta. Welcome news. Besides connecting Sussex with the world's most populous island, Java, it would offer fast connections to Bali and a handy one-stop link to Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney via the Indonesian capital. And at 7,275 miles, it would be the longest non-stop flight from any UK airport, taking the title from BA's Heathrow-Buenos Aires route.
Bali low, but very slow
Flights were due to start last October. But then someone spotted that a fully laden Boeing 777 carrying enough fuel to reach London would weigh too much for Jakarta airport's apron and runway. As the civil engineers got busy preparing the ground, the launch date slipped to May this year. But alluring fares were promised, such as £556 return to Bali.
This week, the airline announced its plans for a non-stop flight from London to Jakarta have been indefinitely postponed. A link of sorts may start in September, as Garuda is planning to extend its Jakarta-Amsterdam route to Gatwick.
Garuda says it wants "to offer passengers the ideal flight schedule from Amsterdam to London". That is odd, because British Airways and easyJet already offer 10 flights a day between them on this route – although Garuda's Boeing 777 will provide the intriguing option of long-haul comfort on a 45-minute flight.
May is not an auspicious month for Australia- bound travellers. The promised Antipodean alternative on Garuda from Gatwick has been shelved, while one Heathrow-Sydney contender also drops out that month. Virgin Atlantic is abandoning its sole Australian route, blaming the weakening Aussie dollar and increased costs. The airline's chief executive, Craig Kreeger, said: "We need to deploy our aircraft to routes with the right level of demand to be financially viable."
Osborne does his duty
Less competition between the UK and Australia means fares will soar, right? To make it worse, the Chancellor is helping himself to more of the passenger's cash. In Wednesday's budget, George Osborne said the highest rates of Air Passenger Duty, to destinations such as Jakarta, Bali and Sydney, will fall from its present £94 to £71 next year. First, though, he is raising the tax to £97 on 1 April. No matter: so cut-throat is competition on the "kangaroo route" that fares are falling.
I checked Opodo.co.uk for fares between London and Sydney for 5 May, the day Virgin ends its flights, coming back a fortnight later. China Southern opens the bidding at £762 return via Guangzhou, while Malaysia Airlines offers A380 comfort for £778. Not one of the nine fares quoted was more than £800. That is less than my Garuda ticket cost 25 years ago, when fuel was as cheap as water and APD hadn't been invented.
That's all very well, you may be thinking, but not everyone starts in London, where fares are bound to be low. Well, try the same dates from Edinburgh to Sydney. China Southern undercuts its Heathrow fare by a fiver. You will travel via Amsterdam – where you'll be joined by Dutch passengers who have paid more, for less.
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