Simon Calder: The joys of joining the macho jet set

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The Independent Travel

Flying: what a fine thing it is. Whether you are wallowing in the pampered indulgences of first class, scrunched up in a microscopic charter seat, or clinging for dear life to the canvas chair of a Soviet biplane implausibly pressed into service for tourist joyflights in Cuba, being aboard an aircraft usually implies you are travelling to somewhere exciting. The end justifies the means. But there are limits. For me, they are exceeded by Continental flight 99.

Flying: what a fine thing it is. Whether you are wallowing in the pampered indulgences of first class, scrunched up in a microscopic charter seat, or clinging for dear life to the canvas chair of a Soviet biplane implausibly pressed into service for tourist joyflights in Cuba, being aboard an aircraft usually implies you are travelling to somewhere exciting. The end justifies the means. But there are limits. For me, they are exceeded by Continental flight 99.

If Hell, as Sartre suggested, is other people, the departure from Newark airport in New Jersey to Hong Kong is a fair approximation of the devil's lair. Continental is an excellent airline. But being cooped up in one of its Boeing 777s for two-thirds of a day, crossing 11 (or is it 13?) time zones plus the International Date Line is not my idea of travelling fun.

The route began last March. In the words of the great aviation expert, Karl Swartz, it became "the longest, most macho flight in all of civilisation ­ if you can consider Newark to be part of civilisation". The 15-hour, 40-minute trip from the East Coast to the South China Sea is also the longest flight using a twin-engined aircraft.

If two jets fail inflight on a Boeing 747, the flight can usually continue and land safely on the other pair. If the same happens on a twin-engined 777, you are in a certain amount of trouble. Vast resources go into preventing, so far successfully, such an occurrence. But if one engine fails, as has happened on commercial flights, then the airline needs a diversion plan ­ or, rather, a series of them.

The terrain traversed by CO 99 looks less inviting even than Newark. Within the rules governing twin-engined flying, the most direct route heads due north and shadows the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, then crosses the Arctic Ocean before making landfall in northern Siberia. The exact course will be chosen by the captain, and depends on airspace restrictions and weather. But much of the trip is over the frozen north.

As soon as you get north of Montreal (about an hour after take-off), the population thins and there are few towns with 400 inhabitants, let alone hotel space and meals for 400 tired, hungry and cold passengers and crew. A senior pilot spent three months checking out the route for suitable diversion airports before flights began. But Continental keeps an extra aircraft and crew on permanent standby ­ just in case, as an insider told me, "we need to go get the passengers".

¿ Continental's superlative was short-lived. One month later, United started flying the New York to Hong Kong route ­ but from Kennedy airport, which is all of two miles further from Hong Kong than is Newark. This amounts to less than 15 seconds of flying time, but was enough to grab the title from Continental. Now, though, United has decided to axe the route, and Cathay Pacific ­ which was to begin services from Kennedy to Hong Kong in September ­ is not going to bother starting. So Continental still rules the northern skies.

"In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty" ­ a passenger whose flight to Hong Kong is diverted to northern Siberia may start humming the opening line of Donovan's song, "Catch the Wind". But the lyric applies equally closer to home. To, for example, passengers hoping to reach Europe's leading no-frills airport on the train jocularly described as the Stansted Express.

On Thursday, thousands of passengers found it took longer to get from London's Liverpool Street station to Stansted than it did to fly to their destination (or, in the case of the unfortunate travellers who missed the check-in deadline, not fly).

At the airport end, inbound passengers wishing to continue their journey by rail could pass the time by watching the remarkable spectacle of a heavily delayed train arriving, disgorging its passengers, and then leaving the station empty ­ returning 10 minutes later to be connected to four extra carriages, finally leaving for London half-empty. The train operator, WAGN, has adopted the view of Admiral Fisher after the First World War: "Never apologise, never explain."

While contemplating once more the leafy surroundings of Stansted Mountfitchet station, at about the time we should have been arriving in the City of London, a conspiracy theory took root in my travel-addled brain. Rail companies from Eurostar to GNER are losing passengers to Stansted's no-frills airlines. Anything that makes air travel more awkward and stressful helps them win custom back. So if the airport train company could be persuaded to make passengers' lives a misery through inept management and contempt for customers...

At that point the departure entertainingly described as the 6pm creaked into something approaching life and limped towards London, leaving that particular train of thought four coaches short of completion.

¿ What a job title: "Lecturer in Disaster Management". I braved the train to Stansted to meet the only man in Britain with this occupation, Simon Bennett of Leicester University. His new book, Human Error by Design is published this week (Perpetuity Press, £14.95).

"Disaster Management" sounds the sort of life skill we could all do with. Dr Bennett runs a post-graduate course at Leicester University that focuses on air safety ­ or the lack of it. Managing an aviation disaster, he says ,"is a matter of imposing order on a situation of extreme chaos". Dr Bennett spends his vacations in the jumpseat of flight decks, talking to pilots about the stresses they face and seeking ways to make flying even safer.

Investigating disasters has not dulled his appetite for flying. "Aviation is a remarkably safe form of human activity," he says. "I'd far rather spend my entire life at 35,000 feet than cycling around Leicester." While his assertion is hardly a plaudit for cycling or the skills of East Midlands motorists, Dr Bennett is the kind of passenger that Continental Airlines loves.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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