Simon Calder: Mexican stand-off over cancelled flight
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.
Friday 25 April 2014
Latin America's friendliest nation? While aficionados of countries from Cuba to Chile will disagree, I reckon it is Mexico – with 120 million overwhelmingly amiable people and a spectrum of enthralment to tempt the traveller. The nation embraces ancient civilisations and alluring beaches – at Tulum, the Mayan city above the Yucatán shore, both at the same time.
This spring, thanks to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner opening up the world with its longer legs, Mexico becomes easier to reach. Next Saturday, Thomson begins non-stop flights from Gatwick and Manchester to Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific coast. And, starting this week, AeroMexico replaces the old Boeing 767 on the Heathrow-Mexico City route with the bigger, faster jet, accelerating the journey and providing dozens more seats with every departure. That should make Baja California Sur, from which I have just returned, even more accessible.
If Mexico is on your travel menu, you might be tempted to buy a ticket from the AeroMexico website – as I did ahead of my trip this month. I fondly imagined I had made a direct online booking at aeromexico.com, but the receipt did not arrive from the airline's HQ in Mexico City, nor its UK office. Instead, it turned up with a note saying "Thank you for booking with Bravo Travel". It turned out I had been sold the ticket through a London travel agent, itself a trading name of a firm called Ausonia Services Ltd.
A puzzling development, but not one that mattered – until things started to go wrong. A couple of months later, another email arrived from Bravo Travel that appeared merely to restate the flight details. Closer inspection revealed that the original departure had been cancelled and I had been re-booked on the following day. (Say what you like about Ryanair, but when it changes a flight even by a few hours, the airline flags up the fact and offers options.)
The new date didn't fit my other travel plans. So I asked Bravo Travel for a refund so I could buy alternative tickets on a different airline. Not so fast: even though the agent had taken the thick end of £1,000 from me, the refund request had to go to AeroMexico in Mexico City. It could take up to 45 days. Six weeks later, Bravo Travel said it hadn't received my original request for a refund. I could apply again, but I would need to wait another 45 days – representing three months between the airline messing up my travel plans and returning the cash.
At that point I called AeroMexico's UK office. "We can't get involved in customer relations," I was told. "Technically Bravo Travel have issued the ticket and therefore the responsibility lies with them." A proper Mexican stand-off.
After many calls, emails and finally my suggestion that we invite the law to adjudicate on the matter, the money was refunded.
Following the involuntary re-routing, my hurriedly revised travel plans involved a Saturday night transit through Mexico's northernmost, westernmost city. Tijuana, which squeezes against the US frontier, does not get a good review from the Foreign Office. The latest travel advice makes the city sound like the OK Corral on a bad day: "Public shoot-outs during daylight hours in shopping centres and other public venues as well as large firefights have occurred."
Yet when I passed through, Tijuana was calm and amicable. The journey also provided a glimpse of the future of travel south of the US border. Tijuana's un-identical twin, on the other side of the frontier, is San Diego – a beautiful oceanside city with much to enchant the visitor. It also has a handy, pocket-sized airport. Its two Californian rivals, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have four runways each; San Diego has only one, with the added excitement for pilots of a range of hills at one end of the runway. The only airport anywhere in the world to squeeze more capacity out of a single strip of concrete is our own, beloved Gatwick.
The constraints of San Diego airport mean that some of the excess demand trickles south. An estimated 4,000 passengers a day cross between the US and Mexico specifically to use Tijuana airport, which adjoins the frontier. Indeed, the first thing you notice when you arrive at the Mexican airport is the Berlin Wall, or at least its 21st-century equivalent: the fences and watchtowers of the American border.
At present, you have to take a taxi to or from the constantly crowded San Ysidro border crossing at the other end of town. Going south, the frontier formalities are swift, involving nothing more complicated than walking through a gate. Coming back through US immigration, it can take hours.
By next year, though, you will be able to walk between suburban San Diego and the airport terminal. Tijuana is building a pedestrian bridge from the terminal, across the defences and into the United States. The "Mex Express" route will be bankrolled by the Mexican airport's owners, paying for US Customs and Border Protection staff to be stationed there.
Plenty of European airports straddle frontiers. At Basel and Geneva you can choose to walk out of the airport into France or Switzerland, while Gibraltar offers a choice between Spain and Britain as it was 30 years ago. But as far as I know, this is the first cross-border airport in the Americas. British travellers on a Californian fly-drive will soon be able to tack on an extra dimension: drop off the car north of the border, cross the bridge and fly to one of dozens of destinations across the friendly states of Mexico.
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