Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Why some airline passengers are especially hungry for travel
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The Independent Travel

It took Laker seven years to get his Skytrain operation between London and New York off the ground, partly because BA did everything it could to obstruct him. After seven years of legal battles, the DC-10 took off offering transatlantic flights at historically low fares - with food as an optional extra. The idea was soon emulated by the US airline, People Express.

This week, British Airways took the notion one stage further by making food a non-optional non-extra on flights from its main base at Heathrow. An industrial dispute at its catering company, Gate Gourmet, meant that 600 flights carrying more than 100,000 passengers went out with no meals. Club World travellers from Heathrow to New York may have been a little disappointed that their investment of £4,000 return did not entitle them to an inflight meal. Worse, passengers on the long haul to Mexico City or Singapore were invited to join a 12-hour fast.

"Customers are strongly advised to eat before leaving for the airport," the airline urged. Even some inbound flights were meal-free: short-haul trips because normally both legs are catered at Heathrow, long-haul flights because the right galley equipment was not on board.

BRITISH AIRWAYS staff handed out meal vouchers to passengers at check-in, but this will have provided little comfort to travellers who like to relax with a drink at altitude. The airline has a rule that only alcohol served by cabin crew may be consumed on board. BA flights to and from Heathrow carried nothing stronger than tea, coffee or water. This meant that the airline followed the likes of Saudia and Kuwait Airways in operating completely dry flights.

STELIOS HAS a handy maxim: "Under-promise and over-deliver." The founder of easyJet has made a great success of this technique. Passengers expect nothing more from the airline than a basic commodity - transport from A to B - but when it is achieved on time aboard a shiny new aircraft with a friendly crew, then many customers will feel they have received rather more than they paid for.

Conversely, many BA passengers will feel they received a lot less than they paid for. The airline makes much in its advertising of its "free" food and drink, and no doubt BA's no-frills rivals will make much of its food-free flights - pointing out that at least they give you the option to buy a sandwich on board.

There but for fortune goes Virgin Atlantic. Sir Richard Branson's airline has just replaced Gate Gourmet as its catering firm at Heathrow. For BA, the company's dispute happened at the worst possible time: in the middle of summer, bringing back memories of last August's mayhem when the airline's operation ground to a halt because of staff shortage.

All the other inflight caterers are working at full tilt for other airlines, so ordering an extra 100,000 meals a day was not a feasible option. Instead, BA should have re-erected the marquees from last year's chaos at the Terminal Four car park. The airline could then have called in some of the excellent Asian restaurants around Heathrow to serve as location caterers and curry favour with passengers.

THE CONFUSION that seems to haunt BA at Heathrow has spread to its flight crews. On a recent flight to Glasgow, the cabin service director had evidently spent too long shuttling on 757s. He declared: "We're going to demonstrate the safety equipment on board this Boeing - sorry, Airbus." And on flight 822 to the Danish capital, the pilot announced the plane's imminent departure by saying "cabin crew, take your seats for lan- ... er, take-off". The theme of uncertainty continued: when the seatbelt sign was switched on for the descent, a member of cabin crew announced "We'll shortly be landing in - where is it tonight? Oh yes, Copenhagen."

"MOMENT OF TRUTH" is the slogan of Le Meridien. The hotel chain lived up to the boast when I checked in to one of its UK properties for the first time.

"To satisfy you better is our daily concern," announced the customer satisfaction questionnaire (CSQ) that guests are invited to fill in. "A few minutes of your time will enable us to measure whether we meet this commitment."

CSQs are common throughout the travel industry. It is traditional, however, for the hotel staff to spend a few minutes of their time collecting the forms after the occupant has departed - rather than to leave them on display for the next guest to read.

The previous user of the room was complimentary about most aspects of her stay, from the welcome to the mattress, although she found room service less than perfect: "No effort was made to keep ice-cream cold."

When invited to expand on issues of concern, she described a confrontation in the hotel gift shop: "The cashier short-changed me. I added up the amount it should have been. After arguing, he saw his 'error' and gave me the proper change." A moment of truth, indeed.

A DAY OF DELAYS

When I signed up to take part in Departure Lounge (BBC1, 7pm, Friday), I didn't realise I'd spend my life in such places. But that's the way it's turned out. The journey from Madeira to Manchester takes slightly less than four hours if you are lucky enough to fly direct. This week, I managed to stretch it to 16 via the pair of Iberian capitals.

The flight from Madeira to Lisbon got later and later; when eventually it arrived in the latter, the departure board showed a late-running direct flight to Heathrow. But because I had checked in luggage, I could not switch to it. Instead, I sat and waited for the delayed flight from Lisbon to Madrid.

At Spain's main airport, my leisurely two-hour connection suddenly became a scramble. Yet there was no need to rush: the BA plane was shown as delayed by one hour and 56 minutes. Could this degree of precision have been because a delay of two hours means it is obliged to provide compensation? The flight took off well over two hours late - though with the compensation, at least, of some food on board.

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