Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Why there'd be no presents if Santa had been on my flight to Basel
Saturday 23 December 2006
Let me take you back to the olden days before our leading airport became Britain's answer to Guantanamo Bay: to last Sunday evening, in fact.
As in-flight entertainment goes, this performance is pure avant-garde. It comprises a recital, over the public-address system, of the names of about half of the passengers on board British Airways flight 756, from Heathrow to Basel.
From Christophe Nicolas to Michael Becker, the purser Sam Baycock plods conscientiously through the list of travellers aboard the Airbus. Twice.
The second time, I count them: 55 or 56. My uncertainty arises because "William Scott" gets two shouts (once, sonorously, adjacent to Graham Watt). Either the duplication is a mistake, or two gentlemen on board share the same name. Some of the passengers (Jackson Cousteau? Julian Bomber?) must surely have been added for comic effect or to make sure that we are paying attention.
This eloquent soliloquy takes place over northern France, specifically, the Champagne region. Yet the passengers thus honoured are in no mood to celebrate their inclusion on the roll of honour. Tidings of comfort and joy? Not exactly. They owe their place on Sam's in-flight register to the fact that their baggage will play no further part in their lives for the near future: more than half of the luggage has been left behind at Heathrow.
Bury bad news? Not on this flight. Sam Baycock is reciting the names of those deprived of their possessions in the lottery that is 21st-century air travel. She is the modern-day equivalent of the town crier. Meanwhile, the other crew aboard the errant BA flight are performing minor miracles. The captain, Russ Williams, is one of the rare breed of pilots who judge that fare-paying passengers who have battled their way to the airport and through security deserve to know why their plane is running an hour late.
His opening gambit, around the time we should have left, was: "There are some bags next to the aircraft but no loading team. In the next five or 10 minutes, I hope they will turn up." Eventually, they did. His next promise: "The cargo door will be closing in the next couple of minutes. We'll be leaving in about 10 minutes".
Things deteriorate, though: "We've lost our tug [the vehicle used to push the aircraft back from the gate]. We'll have to get another one." Followed by an increasingly desperate: "The latest news is that we're fourth in line for a tug."
When, finally, the plane takes off, the cabin crew have barely an hour to serve meals (I use the term loosely) and free drinks - which are voraciously consumed by the bereft passengers around me: "Mine's a Samsonite... I mean, a Sauvignon".
During all this, armed only with some blank sheets of A4 and a pen, the crew manage to operate a production line turning out handwritten forms for use by the Basel 55, as the possession-free passengers are now known (except by the breakaway faction who maintain that the correct title is the Basel 56).
These makeshift forms carry the date and flight number, with spaces for each passenger's name, seat number, baggage tag, address in Switzerland and phone number. It feels more like Blue Peter Goes Flying than The World's Favourite Airline, but the crew's hearts are definitely in the right place.
LAST-BUT-ONE word to the steward who, when, we finally land in Switzerland, does his best to sound reassuring. Yet one verb gives his announcement a touch of menace: "Tomorrow, our ground staff at Basel and Heathrow will be working hard to relocate you and your luggage." Personally, I would rather be reunited than relocated.
And the last word? To Captain Russ Williams, after explaining yet another snag in the tricky business of flying from London to Switzerland: "I guess we'll get our reward in Heaven." Not what you want to hear from a pilot. Stranger still was my inbound flight - from Baden-Baden, due to Ryanair's festive €10 (£7) fare. One week before Christmas, I was checked in by an agent named Bettina Christ. "Call me Tina," she said. I hope that both Ms Christ and you enjoy a first-class Christmas and a premium New Year (I'll be the one in economy). And may your luggage be with you.
WITH A SONG IN MY HEART
Over the past few years the world has become a less safe place. Yet one force has been working ceaselessly to bring people together and put a smile on the planet. I refer, of course, to the Eurovision Song Contest.
The winning entry in 2004, "Wild Dances" by Ruslana, was instantly forgettable. But Ukraine's triumphant Euro-anthem dramatically eased access to the former Soviet republic. With victory came the right to stage the 2005 event in the capital, Kiev. At a stroke, the government shrugged off a century of red tape and declared that Eurovisionistas were welcome without visas. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but has become permanent.
Now this year's winners have been honoured. While recording a podcast in Lapland, I repaired for refreshment to the Hotel Santa Claus in Rovaniemi. An off-duty elf named Hot Toddy (well, that was his story) told me about the latest triumph of Eurovision in transforming the world. With a nose as ruddy as Rudolph's he explained that Lordi, the monstrous rockers who took the title, were local boys. The main square in the capital of Lapland is now called Lordi Square.
Listen to Simon Calder's podcast from Lapland by visiting www.travel.independent.co.uk
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