What, Steve Ridgway asks me, were you smoking? Like the Pope, Mr Ridgway stood down this week; the former as head of the Catholic church, the latter as chief of Virgin Atlantic – another post involving red shoes, at least as worn by female cabin crew. But he (Mr Ridgway, not the Holy Father) took time out of his busy last day to heckle on the subject of smoking.
I had been reflecting on the changing attitude to smoking in the travel industry – and in particular, the first tentative steps by British Airways, a quarter-century ago, to experiment with smoke-free flights on a small number of services (while at the same time continuing to offer complimentary cigars to Concorde passengers). But Mr Ridgway said I should have commended his airline for jettisoning the ridiculous notion that it was acceptable to have naked flames lighting toxic substances to produce fumes that were then inhaled by everyone on board the plane.
"Virgin Atlantic was the first UK airline to ban smoking on all its flights in 1995," he says. "We agonised over the decision, but I was determined that we would be first."
A brave move, given that, at the time, 60 per cent of Virgin crew smoked – and probably a similar proportion of passengers. "In the end it was a non-event," he recalls. "We kept Athens and Tokyo going as smoking flights for a short while but stopped them too pretty quickly." BA became totally smoke-free only in 1998.
Virgin wasn't the first airline worldwide to ban smoking; that honour when to Muse Air, which during its brief existence in Texas in the 1980s promised a fresh-air alternative to other airlines. Given the nicotine-addicted times, perhaps it was short-lived because of the no‑smoking rule.
The final nails in the coffin of the smoking passenger were hammered in only a few years ago, when Middle East Airlines of Lebanon, Pakistan International Airways and Cubana of Cuba finally stubbed it out. But the cravings continue – and now vending machines dispensing "smokeless cigarettes" are being sold to passengers; I recently saw my first at Tenerife North airport, where each costs €10.
If you really can't do without tobacco, then nicotine chewing gum is the best solution – except, of course, in Singapore, where the habit is banned along with smoking in many public places.
Adrian Young, an aviation professional who turns up in some unusual parts of the world, confirms that the further east you go from Western Europe, the more people smoke.
"We flew for a while last year in Albania – in the restaurants it felt like smoking was mandatory." (Albania, where two out of three adults smoke, also gets a special award for producing the most vile brand of cigarettes ever made: Partizani, the standard Stalinist smoke during the Enver Hoxha regime.)
"On the other hand," says Mr Young, "I spent a pleasant couple of weeks at the start of the year in South Sudan. A formal smoking ban might not be in place, but smoking was frowned upon in restaurants and bars that had enclosed walls. Terraces and open buildings were smoked in."
Could free inflight alcohol be next to be banned? Drink is involved in most air-rage incidents, and in the event of an emergency being declared the last thing you want is to be held up in the rush for the exits by a passenger who is the worse for wear.
Meanwhile, those who can afford the £495 rack rate for the cheapest room at the Lanesborough Hotel in London can be sure of a drag or two. The property boasts: "The Garden Room at the Lanesborough Hotel features an extensive collection of Cuban and pre-Castro cigars. It is the first and the only luxurious smoking venue in Knightsbridge and the finest smoking room in all of London."
Teen idol, then train idle
What were they smoking at the Virgin Trains control centre on Wednesday? The late-evening train from Birmingham to London was packed with an intriguing combination of fans of Justin Bieber, who had just perfomed in the city, and National Farmers' Union delegates returning after the annual conference dinner. But it was held up for half an hour because of a late train from Edinburgh with connecting passengers on board.
Fair enough? Well, Virgin Trains says it holds the last train of the day if necessary to provide connections. That seems a disproportionate decision when you learn that only four people on the late train wanted to connect. Four rail passengers fit neatly into a cab. I know that for a fact, because I have travelled in this fashion, for example, from York to Scarborough when an East Coast train was delayed and missed the last connection. Yet Virgin Trains decided to delay the teen idol's fans. Many of them were heading for Coventry, where they arrived on the wrong day – quite an achievement on a 16-mile trip.
What were they smoking in the cockpit aboard my flight last Sunday morning from Spain to Gatwick? While waiting for departure, the captain predicted the flight would take nearly six hours (it took just over two). Later the first officer announced "Our routing has taken us over the Alps" – which came as a surprise to all of us who had just watched the Pyrenees waft past.
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