Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Time to call time on these one-sided airline punctuality contracts

Perhaps it was tempting fate. Last January, in this column's annual survey of whether airlines are keeping their side of the punctuality bargain, I urged the new chief executive of British Airways to buy a watch: only three of the 24 BA flights I took in 2005 were on time. In response, the airline kindly invited me to Heathrow to meet Geoff Want, the British Airways director responsible for improving the airline's lamentable punctuality record.

In a long and frank interview at BA's Compass Centre (the airline's mission control), he spelt out everything BA was doing to try to make sure planes ran on time. I thanked him, and left for Terminal 1 and a BA flight to Marrakech - a first chance to see how the punctuality campaign was faring.

It turned out to be a normal day: boarding began around the time the flight was due to leave, and we sat around on board a stationary plane at the gate for a further half-hour.

Even when our national carrier is not beset by security alerts, staff disgruntlement and fog, BA suffers from systemic tardiness. The latest Association of European Airlines figures show BA languishing fourth from bottom for punctuality, which bears out my experience this year: only three out of 26 flights on time, with the average delay in departure 27 minutes. Waiting for BA to be late cost half a day of my time this year.

SO WHAT? On the scale of human suffering, such minor inconveniences do not register. But an airline that cannot get even one in eight of its planes away on time has some problems - as does any BA passenger who takes the carrier's schedule on trust and arranges life in the fond but usually mistaken belief that the published arrival time represents something more than a vague ambition.

BRITAIN'S SECOND airline, easyJet, also appears contemptuous towards timekeeping, and by extension its passengers - at least on the 13 flights I took this year. I have been turned away from a pair of easyJet flights due to late-running trains getting me to the airport a couple of minutes after check-in closed. No complaints; in the contract I agreed at the time of booking, the airline explained the rules. But it's a one-sided deal: every easyJet flight that I managed to catch in 2006 departed late, by an average of 16 minutes. The airline's typical "block time" (from pushing back at departure to engines off on arrival) is 90 minutes, so this delay adds one-sixth to the time I planned to spend on board.

The no-frills airline has recently started charging up to £7.50 for the privilege of "Speedy Boarding" - sprinting on before the rest of us to grab the prime seats. On this year's performance the airline would do better to introduce a "Speedy Flying" fee to try to improve its dismal performance.

The Central European clones of easyJet did badly: SkyEurope averaged 34 minutes behind schedule, Wizz Air 20 minutes and both Austrian and Czech Airlines 14 minutes. Further east, Cathay Pacific scored 36 minutes late on a couple of short hops from Dubai to Mumbai and onwards to Bangkok.

Charter airlines proved more reliable. The average delay on First Choice Airways was 21 minutes, while rival operator Thomas Cook managed to depart an average of a minute early on a pair of transatlantic flights.

Flybe, which will be Europe's largest regional airline when it takes over BA Connect, averaged 51 minutes late. Things, as they say, can only get better.

BEWARE THE Iberian peninsula if you hope to fly on time. On the Spanish national airline, Iberia, the average delay was 33 minutes, including one of nearly two hours that merited not a word of apology nor explanation. TAP Portugal kept me waiting for an average of 15 minutes on a succession of flights. Its partner in the Azores - Sata - threw the timetable out the window and into the Atlantic with an average delay of 1 hour 45 minutes - the worst of any airline.

And the best? A no-frills airline, but not one from Britain. On a short hop last month from Phuket in Thailand to Singapore, Tiger Airways departed 16 minutes ahead of schedule. It arrived equally early at the no-frills terminal, which offers blissfully quick and simple access to the city-state. Tiger is 49 per cent owned by Singapore Airlines - and one-sixth belongs to the founders of Ryanair.

TAKE-OFFS AND TURN-OFFS

Europe's biggest airline in 2007, at least in terms of passengers carried, will be Ryanair. One reason for the Irish carrier's success has been its robust timekeeping. Could that be slipping? Of a dozen flights I took with the airline this year, only four left on time. Still, the delay in departure averaged a mere six minutes. Arrivals, as I found in October, are a different matter.

As you know, Ryanair takes an imaginative attitude to geography. I was flying to Baden-Baden, the fine German city that Ryanair describes as Karlsruhe. After flying around in circles for an hour, waiting for fog to clear, we touched down. In Strasbourg, France.

Taking travellers to the wrong country is possibly a first, even for Ryanair.

Never mind the wrong country: many British Airways pilots reside on a different planet, chronologically speaking, when flying to Heathrow.

"There's no reason at all why we shouldn't be on schedule" - flight from Lisbon, which actually arrived 20 minutes late. "We're running on schedule" - from Prague, also 20 minutes late. Most annoying of all, from Budapest: "We'll be at the gate just ahead of schedule". Even though arrival was only 15 minutes late, it wiped out any chance of seeing extra time in the World Cup Final: the penalty for flying on BA.

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