Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

A master-class in buck-passing from Air Berlin

Even at 10.30pm, Belfast City Hall looks magnificent. This elegant confection, now celebrating its centenary, epitomises the optimistic start of what was a mainly tragic century for the north of Ireland. Now, though, Belfast is coming back to life. The building at its core is deftly illuminated so that the imposing domes and columns appear to have floated in from Hollywood. It is, once again, a beacon of hope - unless you happen to be a prospective passenger on Air Berlin flight 8635.

Five hours ago, all of us booked to travel to Stansted aboard Europe's third-largest low-cost airline were quite looking forward to the flight. Unlike its larger rivals - easyJet and Ryanair - Air Berlin prides itself on offering frills such as a sandwich and a cup of tea: "Cutting fares, not service," is its motto. Until, that is, things go wrong.

At check-in at George Best Belfast City Airport, we were warned of a one-hour wait. At 8.25pm, rather more than two hours after the flight should have taken off, the departure was cancelled "for technical reasons".

Had the cancellation been revealed 10 minutes earlier, many of the 70-plus passengers could have transferred to a BMI flight to Heathrow - the last London departure that night. Instead, we were left to deal with missed connections, appointments and opportunities, and to sample the effects of outsourcing.

Outsourcing suits airlines. Sub-contracting peripheral tasks like ground handling enables the carrier to concentrate on selling seats and flying planes. For an airline like Air Berlin, with just two flights a day between Belfast and London, delegating humdrum tasks is more cost-effective than employing staff. And, a disgruntled offloaded passenger (see picture) might say, it helps the airline shrug off its statutory duties.

By now, you probably know the legal score. Air Berlin, like any other EU airline, is allowed to fly domestically within the UK - but, by doing so, accepts the rules that prescribe passenger rights for delayed or cancelled flights. For a short trip, travellers delayed by two hours are entitled to a snack and a drink, plus two phone calls. Should the last flight of the day be cancelled: dinner and a hotel should be organised by the airline's staff. But Air Berlin has no employees at the airport.

"I cannot override an airline's decision. If the airline doesn't tell me what to do, I can't authorise any expenditure," said a harassed representative of Air Berlin's handling agents, Aviance. She offered passengers a photocopied list of Belfast accommodation, albeit with the warning "there is no guarantee that the airline will meet your expenses".

If you plan to travel on Air Berlin, ensure you have either plenty of cash or a mobile phone and credit card: you may need both. The first six hotels I called were full. The magnificent seventh was the Culloden, which indeed had a bed. For £350. Third from bottom of the list is Arnie's Backpackers. The carpet may be fraying, but a bed in this unassuming terraced house costs only £9 - just one-sixth of the VAT on a stay at the Culloden.

Next problem: something to eat. In Northern Ireland, unlike northern Spain, seeking dinner towards 11pm is an unappetizing prospect. The kitchen has closed at Maggie May's café on Botanic Avenue. But at least its name gives me an excuse to reveal the answer to the quiz posed a fortnight ago. What, I asked, does the phrase "It's late September and I really should be back at school" have to do with Baltimore, Maryland?

Kelvin Gillard of south Devon got it right. "The lyric is from Rod Stewart's 'Maggie May' which was originally the B-side to a Tim Hardin song, 'Reason to Believe', and Tim Hardin wrote 'Lady came from Baltimore'."

Any lady booked to come to London from Baltimore will have to renounce all her cosmetics as the work of the Devil before boarding the plane, neatly anticipating Hardin's next line: "All she wore was lace." Not a bad plan these troubled days. Meanwhile, I am humming a line from "Maggie May" while I consider my Air Berlin predicament: "You made a first-class fool out of me".

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