Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

All aboard the world's most pointless flight
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The Independent Travel

The strangest flight in the world is not what you might think. It is neither of Air Ukraine's two daily departures from Kiev to Simferopol, even though these services take over 17 hours to cover a distance of barely 400 miles (the reason, apparently, is that Air Ukraine is short of planes so it uses a train between the Ukranian capital and the main city of the Crimea). Nor is it Maersk Air's flight 5005, a domestic link from Aarhus to Horsens: distance covered, 25 miles; time taken, 30 minutes; average cruising height, about six feet. The airline does not use an Airbus for this link, merely a bus. And no, it's not that most exclusive of departures, RAF flight 911 from Guantanamo Bay to Northolt.

The strangest flight in the world is not what you might think. It is neither of Air Ukraine's two daily departures from Kiev to Simferopol, even though these services take over 17 hours to cover a distance of barely 400 miles (the reason, apparently, is that Air Ukraine is short of planes so it uses a train between the Ukranian capital and the main city of the Crimea). Nor is it Maersk Air's flight 5005, a domestic link from Aarhus to Horsens: distance covered, 25 miles; time taken, 30 minutes; average cruising height, about six feet. The airline does not use an Airbus for this link, merely a bus. And no, it's not that most exclusive of departures, RAF flight 911 from Guantanamo Bay to Northolt.

No, the strangest flight in the world uses a civilian jet aircraft, and every day links two of Britain's busiest airports.

Here's a clue. It connects London and Manchester. You may think it is absurd enough that there are more than 40 flights each day between the two cities. After all, the official air distance is just 155 miles. On the closest comparable route in France, between Paris and Lyon (nearly 100 miles further), the presence of high-speed trains has reduced the number of daily flights between the nation's two biggest cities to a maximum of 15.

Virgin Trains has recently accelerated trains between London and Manchester, and reduced the travelling time to just two hours and 10 minutes. So how does the aviation industry respond? By adding yet more flights. Jet2 is now flying three times a day, each way, between Gatwick and Manchester. Prospective passengers apparently do not care for the new opportunity; my spy aboard a round-trip on Wednesday this week counted 18 passengers northbound, 21 coming back - on a Boeing 737 that has a capacity of 150. When, on Thursday, I made a test booking for travel that very day - when prices normally go through the roof - I was quoted a tax-inclusive fare of £38. (British Airways, meanwhile, was reassuringly expensive at £152 one-way). Yet this is still not the world's strangest flight.

The Tuesday morning departure from Heathrow Terminal 2 to Manchester is pretty weird. It is a Boeing 747 operated by Syrian Arab Airways. And even though it leaves at 9am and arrives an hour later, passengers are served lunch. But, as you've probably guessed, this isn't the strangest flight in the world either.

That dubious honour belongs to Qantas flight 183, from Heathrow Terminal 4 to Manchester.

Now, if you have enough time on your hands to peruse the airline schedules, you will see that all manner of carriers purport to fly between London and Manchester. "Code sharing" means, for example, that BMI departures masquerade as anything from Lufthansa to All Nippon Airways, while BA's flights are shared by Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Tap into the schedules to look for Qantas links between London and Manchester, and you will be offered a range of BA departures with Qantas flight numbers.

But what you will not be offered is the strangest flight in the world.

Every day at 8.50am, this service departs a horribly overcrowded Heathrow. It is a operated by a real aircraft - a British Aerospace 146 - yet it is effectively a ghost flight. In theory, passengers from Sydney can connect to it, yet there is a simultaneous BA departure - masquerading as Qantas flight 3386 - that arrives at exactly the same time.

It looks to me that the airline has one reason for sending the plane to Manchester: to keep the space warm. Qantas recently bought a collection of slots at the world's most desirable airport from FlyBE. It plans to use them to step up departures to Sydney using jumbo jets, but is not yet ready to start. Because slots are allocated on a "use 'em or lose 'em" basis, the airline has to keep flying somewhere.

So at a time when passengers are waiting in long queues to take off or touch down, the Australian airline appears to be squandering a slot that could benefit hundreds of travellers, wasting fuel and causing an environmental nuisance simply to stop anyone else using its space. By comparison, Air Ukraine flight 12 from Kiev calling at all stations to Simferopol is positively sane.

WHAT'S THE TIME? DEPENDS WHO YOU'RE FLYING WITH...

A couple more odd flights. For people who need to catch up with themselves, you can travel back in time by the best part of an hour with another short hop: the service operated by Twin Jet (that's an airline, not a plane) from Cherbourg to Jersey.

"We left Cherbourg at 9.04am and arrived on our stand at 8.24am," reported our man in the Channel Islands, Nick Owen, when he went to test it. "The aircraft and crew then wait in Jersey for the return at 4.15pm," he notes. "This must be one of the least intensive flying schedules in Europe, but after breaking the sound barrier they probably appreciate the rest."

* You can take time travel of a different sort with Kuwait Airways. The airline's in-flight magazine has one of those handy charts telling you the local time in different parts of the world. It starts well enough, even telling you the time of day in Dawson City, Canada (Greenwich Mean Time minus nine hours). But then something goes awry. The Netherlands is chronologically consigned to the far side of the world, in the GMT plus 12 time band. Spain becomes five and a half hours ahead, while New Zealand, the Philippines and Trinidad share the distinction of being just an hour ahead of the time prevailing in Britain.

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