Silly scheduling doesn't help airlines, let alone travellers

Each afternoon, British Airways flight 2364 is due to leave the Sussex airport at 1.55pm bound for France's biggest port. Five minutes later, easyJet flight 5323 departs the same airport, with the same destination. Both aircraft are scheduled to arrive at Marseille-Provence airport simultaneously at 4.50pm, French time. Barring accidents, a photo-finish seems unlikely. So I felt compelled to take a flight on one or the other to see what happened.

British Airways allows five extra minutes for the journey, because it uses Gatwick's North Terminal - so badly located that, were it any further from the runway, the airline's operation would be over the county line in Surrey. In contrast, easyJet has some South Terminal gates that are very close to the runway. But with its head start (and aided by a slight delay for easyJet's Airbus A319), BA's Boeing 737 took off first.

At a single-runway airport such as Gatwick, losing a place in the queue can cause delays to snowball, and indeed the easyJet aircraft had to wait for several planes to land before it was allowed to take off. In flight, the Airbus has a slightly higher cruising speed than the Boeing, but to no avail; when the easyJet aircraft pulled up to a double parking stand, the other half was already occupied by the BA plane. Another race began; to "turn" the pair of planes as quickly as possible for the return leg to Gatwick - which, this time, easyJet is scheduled to win by five minutes.

Healthy competition? No: silly scheduling on the part of easyJet. Of course, the no-frills airport can operate its flights whenever it wishes, "slots" permitting - and much to BA's consternation, easyJet has plenty of those at Gatwick. Yet BA has long had three daily departures between Gatwick and Toulouse: just after 6am, just before 2pm and late in the evening. Then easyJet came along, with just one flight a day. But by choosing to schedule its only flight to coincide with one of BA's, the no-frills airline is missing a revenue trick. Here's how.

If you miss the first BA flight you will have to wait nearly eight hours for the next; then two come along at once. If easyJet had scheduled its flight for mid-morning, it would be much more attractive to late-booking-business travellers. They are usually more concerned about when they can fly than how much they have to pay, and would gladly stump up for the convenience of an extra departure. Filling a few seats on each departure with business folk paying £200 or £300 each way could transform the economics of the route, without antagonising us budget-minded travellers: we don't much care when the flight goes, if the fare is low.

AT LEAST these synchronous flights are on competing airlines. Today, and on subsequent Saturdays, Ryanair will offer two departures from Dublin to Bristol within 10 minutes - and a similarly matching pair of flights coming back. At 3.10pm, flight 882 is scheduled to depart from the Irish capital for Bristol; at 3.20pm, an identical Boeing 737, with the flight number 506, is due to steer the same course. Naturally, this is a recipe for confusion for all concerned. At Dublin airport last weekend, when I went along to take part in another great air race, I inevitably checked in at the wrong desk - like, I suspect, most travellers, I never look at the flight number, focusing instead on the destination and time. Both departures were delayed, in part because some passengers turned up at the wrong gates. Upon landing at Bristol, there was a further muddle at baggage reclaim. The same problems were probably mirrored on the return leg.

Why would a famously cost-conscious airline such as Ryanair brook such inefficiency? The reason has to do with the Irish carrier's current spat with Cardiff Wales airport. Last month, the airline accused the airport of pushing charges to unacceptably high levels, and threatened to abandon the route between the Irish and Welsh capitals, which began 10 years ago this week. The airport refused to budge, and Ryanair therefore ordered all subsequent Cardiff flights to overfly the Welsh capital and land instead at Bristol airport, 60 miles away by road.

"We very much regret the inconvenience caused," says the deputy chief executive, Michael Cawley, "but we are not prepared to tolerate these levels of cost increase."

Cardiff airport, like many others, incentivises airlines to start services, which is one reason why the near-moribund airport now has flights to a wide range of UK and European destinations. The idea is that after a period of low charges, to help get the route established, fees will increase to market rates. But no-frills airlines are fixated about airport charges, because they are one of the few costs that are negotiable. .

A WEEK EARLIER, Air Wales had closed its route to Dublin, so Cardiff airport was in the position of having lost not one but two airlines serving Dublin. To increase the discomfort, arch-rival Bristol had gained an extra flight at its expense. The airport calls Ryanair's statements "incorrect", and says that the charges it proposed "were less than the average that Ryanair publicly admits it pays across Europe". As a final yah-boo, the only international airport in Wales points out with some glee that a rival Irish airline, Aer Arran, has taken over the Cardiff-Dublin route with a new twice-daily service. And, unlike some of its rivals, the carrier is operating the flights many hours apart.