Simon Calder: Palmair - the world's favourite aircraft

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

The world's favourite airline? According to my reading of the Holiday Which? survey that appeared this week, it has to be the charter carrier that has no inflight entertainment, no website and a grand total of one plane.

The world's favourite airline? According to my reading of the Holiday Which? survey that appeared this week, it has to be the charter carrier that has no inflight entertainment, no website and a grand total of one plane.

Taxi forward Palmair, the in-house airline of the Bournemouth-based company Bath Travel which organises package holidays and day-trips using its single Boeing 737. The survey of Which? subscribers asks whether or not they would recommend each airline to a friend. Palmair shares, with the Scandinavian airline SAS, the distinction of the aviation equivalent of a clear round: none of the Which? readers responded negatively. And because a higher proportion of Palmair passengers said they would definitely recommend their airline, the Bournemouth Boeing tops the poll.

So how does Palmair do it? By keeping things personal. Peter Bath, chairman of the company that bears his name, entered the aviation business in 1958 when he hired a BEA Viscount and filled it with Hants holidaymakers. Since then, he has despatched 16,000 departures from Bournemouth airport - some chartered in from other airlines, such as the now-defunct Dan-Air, but latterly in the colours of Palmair. And by "despatched", I mean literally seeing them off - every flight, except for a few occasions when he was prevented by illness or being overseas, has been sent on its way by the boss of the company.

The customer care advantages are considerable; you know exactly where to turn if "operational difficulties" delay your departure. Instead of a series of anonymous, nasal public-address announcements (or no news at all), Palmair passengers can find out exactly what is going on from the company chairman, and what he proposes to do about the delay. On one occasion when a technical fault made a late departure certain, he told passengers "It'll be at least another two hours so if any of you want to, you can go home and mow the lawn."

â¿¢ The rest of the top 10 provides a reminder of how the aviation landscape has changed over the past few years. The usual award winners are there - Air New Zealand, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Thai and Virgin Atlantic - but three places go to no-frills companies with a combined age of just 10 years. Anyone who runs a full-service airline in Europe must feel uneasy to see Buzz, easyJet and Go placed way above Air France, Alitalia and Iberia.

What of the world's self-proclaimed favourite airline? British Airways takes a middling position in the survey, but in the new Air Travel Consumer Report by the US Department of Travel it is the most complained-about foreign airline flying to America.

With 235 grumbles last year, covering everything from over-booking of passengers to under-delivery of luggage, BA grabs first place in the complaint chart by one moan from its nearest challenger, Air France.

Jo Devereux, a spokeswoman for the airline, says: "We are one of the largest foreign airlines flying to the US, and we do encourage people to put complaints in writing."

â¿¢ BA may not stay at the top of the grumble parade much longer if the crop of disincentives this week is anything to go by. The US Department of State has issued an alert about "hoof and mouth disease", as the livestock affliction is known in America, The government urges citizens to take advice from travel agents before travelling to the UK, and warns "Many footpaths, rural tourist sites, parks and zoos have been closed."

Goodness knows what the US media have been telling the public, but an American traveller visiting continental Europe and Africa this week observed "I can't understand why anyone would go to Britain. There's nothing to eat."

The problem afflicting TWA is there's nothing to eat with. The catering department of the US airline is running out of knives, forks and cups. The reason is, apparently, souvenir hunting. After 72 mostly distinguished years, TWA is about to be swallowed up by American Airlines.

The new owner intends to erase the brand, so thousands of loyal passengers are deciding to pinch a piece of soon-to-be-history when they leave the aircraft. Consequently, the caterers do not have enough steel knives and forks to go around, and is having to deliver meal trays with random combinations such as a plastic knife and a metal fork.

"You'll just have to make do with whatever you've got on the tray," was the advice of a steward to an unhappy passenger. "Your predecessors have swiped all the knives."

No doubt it is pure coincidence that this week the Norwegian airline Braathens announced an enhanced economy service from 25 March, and made much of the fact that the meal service features "steel cutlery".

â¿¢ The eccentric minority composed of Britain's cyclists never expects much from the Budget, and we have rarely been disappointed. This weekend, I expect many of us will be rushing to the bike shop to buy a new cycling helmet - not because of the Chancellor's generosity this week in removing VAT from head protection, but because his cut in the price of "green" petrol and £2,000 off vehicle excise duty for heavy lorries will encourage more traffic and increase yet further the dangers to cyclists.

â¿¢ The "real" Orient Express, the one that takes ordinary paying passengers, is to be killed off in June. One happy consequence is that the name will now be up for grabs among Europe's railways. The natural home for the New Orient Express is the branch line across north-east London from Gospel Oak to Barking. Not only does it head into the exotic East of the capital - the line also passes the home ground of Leyton Orient FC.