Simon Calder: The Man Who Drops His Pen

Our friends in the north

"Folks, I'm having a great day in the office." The voice permeating from the tinny loudspeaker belongs to John, who is driving a Greyhound bus along the Trans-Canada Highway from Banff to his home town: "Calgary, the finest city in Canada," he proclaims. "I'm seriously proud to be a Calgarian."

The American psychologist Robert Levine did not include Canada in his survey of human kindness, which unravels on the opposite page. A shame, because the polite and civilised Canadians would surely have routed Rio and seen off San José as the most kindly citizens on earth.

Even when Canada's few criminals are busy, they never forget their manners. The local paper, Rocky Mountain Outlook, reports that "Four assailants in a stolen car were stopped at gunpoint by Mounties following a short car chase through Banff's streets on Saturday." (Only the cynical would suggest it is difficult to visualise a long car chase through the streets of Canada's highest town, population 7,000.)

When the car was cornered, two of the occupants fled. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police soon apprehended the pair who stayed behind in the back seat of the car, but "released them upon determining they were hitch-hikers". The car had been stolen earlier that day in Calgary, and the villains took time out of their getaway to pick up a hapless pair of hitchers.

THE COUPLE with whom I thumbed a ride from Lake Louise to Banff were on vacation from Florida. They told me they never picked up hitch-hikers at home, on the axe-murderer principle: in the US, if the driver is not a potential killer, it is probably the person standing by the side of the road. The same rule does not apply north of the border: "We pick up anyone hitching in Canada," said the driver. Only after they had dropped me off at Banff bus station did I realise how barbed this comment was. Clearly he was not a Canadian.

"LADIES AND gentlemen, I hope you're having as much fun as I am." On the bus, John is getting into his philosophical stride. "There's only two types of people in this world - the deadbeat society, and the people who want to have some fun." After a more pragmatic announcement - "If there's anyone going to Canmore speak now, because we're going by her" - he demonstrated he was part of the fun fraternity. He told us a story about this road, the highest stretch of Canada's main street.

"There's a unique phenomenon on this part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Because of the high elevation and the dry air, there's an unusual amount of static electricity. I would like to suggest a small experiment you can conduct to demonstrate that. Reach out and put your hand on the window glass."

Everyone does.

"Anyone feeling the pane?"

Newfies - AS people from Newfoundland are known - constitute the butt of jokes for other Canadians, in the same way that some British people tell Irish jokes and some Irish people take the rise out of Kerrymen. As with most stereotypes, these are wide of the mark, and, as the following example shows, not remotely funny.

Two Newfies left their home province to seek their fortunes in British Columbia, in the far west. They tried to hitch the length of the Trans-Canada Highway, but suffered appalling bad luck and spent two weeks getting only as far as Toronto - not even halfway along. So they went to a used car lot to try to buy a cheap car.

One was on sale at $200. They had $100 each, so they bought it. But before they drove away, the salesman's conscience got the better of him.

"I have to tell you, fellas, that there's no reverse on that car."

"That's all right. We're not coming back."

Those kindly Canadians are so concerned that everyone should have a right to decent air travel that they employ not one but two Ombudsmen to adjudicate when passengers feel aggrieved. So far, we have a grand total of none. But now that the European Parliament has voted for greater passengers' rights, surely travelling life is going to get better?

Don't sit back, relax and enjoy enhanced compensation just yet. Mark Watts, Labour's transport spokesman in Europe, says airlines have a duty to provide a minimum level of service irrespective of the fare paid: "Can Ryanair really not provide a cup of tea and a biscuit when there's a delay?" Financially, the airline could, since Ryanair is one of the few carriers with a robust balance sheet. But perhaps that is because it keeps the lids of the tea caddy and biscuit tin firmly shut.

Even though MEPs voted this week in favour of compelling airlines to upgrade their customer care, passengers are unlikely to see any difference before next summer. The European Parliament started talking about beefing up passengers' rights three years ago. Since then, the proposed compensation for travellers has steadily shrunk. And over the next few months, I expect to see some of the ideas for compelling carriers to compensate passengers watered down still further.

One key proposal insists that airlines must offer refunds when they are responsible for late or cancelled flights. Who is going to decide if the carrier is to blame, or someone else is at fault? It must show it has taken "all reasonable measures" to get you to your destination on time, but "reasonable" is a word that keeps lawyers rich.

The typical delay or cancellation, like the typical plane crash, results from a sequence of unexpected and unrelated events. Slack boarding may lead to a five-minute delay in pushing back, which is then exacerbated by another plane blocking the taxiway, causing a missed slot thanks to Britain's woefully inadequate transport infrastructure. The resulting hour's wait might get the plane to Italy just as a baggage-handlers' go-slow begins, and before you know it the plane returns home three hours late.

To get the aircraft and crew back on schedule and minimise delays for later passengers, a rational solution is to cancel a lightly booked return trip. Under Europe's proposed rules, if an airline's original small setback is deemed to have created the domino-effect delay, doing the right thing for the majority of passengers could cost it a small fortune, which will push up prices for all of us. Or almost all of us.

MEPs are more equal than other travellers. Mark Watts, Labour's transport man, enjoys the standard benefits for anyone lucky enough to be elected from a British constituency to the European Parliament: a free car-park pass valid at all BAA airports, not to mention unlimited free travel on the railways of Belgium. His travel expenses are met by the taxpayer, which allow him to be imaginative about how he reaches the debating chamber. A good thing, too, says Mr Watts. "As transport spokesman it's essential that I experience as many modes of transport as I can. How can I legislate without having experience of the very things that I'm talking about?"

There are two simple, cheap ways to get from South East England, Mr Watts' constituency, to Strasbourg, where the European Parliament has been meeting this week. Ryanair flies from Stansted for £42 return if you book ahead (tea and biscuits not included). Or Mr Watts could take Eurostar from Ashford, where he lives, to Paris Gare du Nord, walk for 10 minutes to the Gare de l'Est, and hop on a train to the capital of Europe; £89 in standard, £50 more in first class.

With your cash and mine to support him, Mr Watts opted to travel by rail to London, fly from City airport to Frankfurt on British Airways, take one high-speed ICE train to Mannheim and another to Offenburg, and hail a cab for the last stretch across the French border to Strasbourg. Yet to his credit, he then tabled an amendment to extend the enhancements of passengers' rights to cover terrestrial forms of transport such as buses, ferries and trains. Very kind.

Hitch-hiking in the province of Alberta is illegal, and 'The Independent' does not condone it

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