Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Where naysaying has become an Olympic sport
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The airline was created - using the same aircraft, crews and slots - from the financial wreckage of its predecessor, Olympic Airways. During its three miserable decades of existence, this airline made a profit in only one financial year. The EU prohibits state support for airlines, so by all normal measures the airline should have gone out of business long before the 2004 Olympics. To keep it flying through the Athens Games, in 2003 the government erased the huge debt burden and reincarnated the airline. A company called Olympic Airways still exists, but carries not a single passenger: it does ground-handling, maintenance and training. But the new airline has proved just as adept at losing cash as the old version.

AT CHECK-IN at Manchester airport, the Athens flight was shown as being on time, which was just as well because I had just 65 minutes scheduled to change planes at the Greek capital. When, nearly an hour after scheduled departure, we were still on the ground, I began to enquire about the chances of making the connection. The response was the first of many shrugs - indeed, if shrugging were an Olympic (Games) event, Olympic (Airlines) could supply many competitors: a "what do you expect us to do about it?" attitude permeates the organisation.

WHEN THE plane doors opened in Athens, one member of ground staff actually took some interest when I explained that I had a near-impossible connection. By the time I reached the transfer desk, the boarding pass was ready - and I was told to run to gate B13.

I had six minutes left, and was about to discover the longest distance between any two points at Athens airport - the checkpoint where I had arrived, and gate B13. I turned up with a minute to spare, to witness that rare species: an Olympic flight that had departed early. A glance at the boarding pass revealed why: on this 150-seat jet, I was (or would have been) passenger number eight. So the boarding process would have been extremely quick. FILLING IN the long hours before the next flight was easy. My encounter with the home-turf corporate shrug began at the executive club, the first place I sought any Olympic staff who might be able to book me on a later flight. They sent me to join the queue at the sales desk. When I reached the front, I was directed to the queue for a different desk.

Greece has a "No" day, celebrating the nation's refusal to comply with the demands of the Axis powers during the Second World War. This turned out to be Olympic's "No" desk. No, I could not switch to an earlier flight on a different airline. No, I was not entitled to compensation, even though on the desk was a sign informing me explicitly what my rights were. And, especially, no breakfast, even though I was stuck at the airport for hours. By now I had formulated the uncharitable but inviting theory that Olympic Airlines is part of a cunning plan to enhance the general good nature of the Greek public at large. The rare unfriendly and unhelpful individuals are concentrated in a single organisation, leaving the remaining people you encounter in Greece hospitable.

Perhaps the duvet of unlimited state subsidy is just too comfortable. Olympic lost about £10 per passenger last year. Cyprus Airways, representing another warm, friendly and welcoming country, did even worse: its government and shareholders effectively subsidised the traveller between the UK and Cyprus to the tune of £50 for a round trip.