A weighty dilemma for flight 2203

Third World aviation gets a bad press. Frequent flyers trade plenty of possibly apocryphal stories such as the occasion when seats on an overbooked flight in Africa were assigned by means of a race around the aircraft. But last weekend there was nothing apocryphal about the explanation for a delay to a routine Boeing 737 flight. The plane was "too full". As a result, all the food and drink, and even the inflight magazines, had to be offloaded in a bid to make the aircraft safe for take-off.

Third World aviation gets a bad press. Frequent flyers trade plenty of possibly apocryphal stories such as the occasion when seats on an overbooked flight in Africa were assigned by means of a race around the aircraft. But last weekend there was nothing apocryphal about the explanation for a delay to a routine Boeing 737 flight. The plane was "too full". As a result, all the food and drink, and even the inflight magazines, had to be offloaded in a bid to make the aircraft safe for take-off.

This strange event took place not on some dusty landing strip in the Tropics, but in Bedfordshire. Britain's leading low-cost airline lived up to its no-frills tag when easyJet flight 2203 was delayed for nearly an hour while the sandwiches, soft drinks and reading material were removed. Aviation has evidently not moved on too much since 1783, when the pioneering aviators were jettisoning ballast to get off the ground.

Perhaps you were aboard the Canadian Boeing 747 from Gatwick to Vancouver that had to be towed to the end of the runway at the Sussex airport; only then were the engines started, saving perhaps a ton of fuel and cutting out an en-route refuelling stop. Local noise regulations can influence take-off weight, too: a delayed Qantas flight I took from Brisbane to Tokyo fell victim to a curfew intended to allow undisturbed repose for residents of the Queensland capital. The main runway, whose flight path passes over the city, was out-of-bounds, and the secondary runway was too short to allow a fully-fuelled Jumbo to take off - which is why we found ourselves refuelling en route in Guam.

Back to flight 2203. The maximum range of the Boeing 737-700 is over 3,600 miles, further than the distance from London to New York. Yet this jet was not attempting a transatlantic crossing - merely a two-hour hop from Luton to Madrid. Even so, passengers were told it was impossible to take off safely with each of the 149 seats filled.

"It's a very rare occurrence," said a spokeswoman for easyJet. If more passengers than usual decide to arrive with excess baggage, the take-off maximum can be exceeded. "We don't know about it until check-in closes," said the spokeswoman. "Instead of offloading passengers, it's standard procedure to offload catering."

"NO FRILLS" is something of a misnomer. BMI this week became the latest airline to abolish free food and drink on most of its European flights. Frills such as sandwiches and wine are still available; you just have to pay for them. The evening flight from Luton to Madrid and back coincides with the normal dining time in Britain on the outbound flight, and dinner time in Spain on the inbound trip. That equates to nearly 300 hungry people. The passengers in Luton were already on board when the sandwiches and drinks were taken off, and therefore had no way to prepare for the foodless flight.

Happily, check-in at Madrid had not yet opened by the time the food was dumped, so there was time to warn passengers of the delay - and the reason, so they could take appropriate action. One option would be to take the two-minute Metro ride from the airport to the village of Barajas, which has a typical Castillian plaza major. On the north side stands the Neguri restaurant, with the most satisfying ham this side of pantomime.

Unhappily, easyJet's ground handlers at Madrid chose not to pass on the news. Only when everyone was on board, with the door closed, was the reason for the delay revealed. The peckish passengers arrived at Luton at midnight, not the best time or place to find appealing sustenance. But at least the forced fast means that the passengers should weigh less next time around.

THE CAPTAIN'S "weight and balance" calculations were based on an estimated weight of 93kg (14st 9lb) for each male passenger and 75kg (11st 7lb) for each female. How long before this "guesstimate" is replaced by actual weight - with prospective travellers obliged to stand on scales before a final fare is settled?

LESSON LEARNT

The man just voted Britain's leading DJ, Danny Baker, yesterday ended his breakfast show on BBC London 94.9. Before he took his leave, Mr Baker asked listeners well into adulthood for examples of being admonished by officialdom.

Predictably, the US Customs and Border Protection service made an appearance. Kathy McCluggage, 46, from Belvedere in Kent reported an encounter at Dulles airport in Washington DC.

"The officer required me to place the same finger on his pad that I had used on the way in. I quipped that he must be checking whether I had swapped my finger with someone during my visit.

"He fixed me with a beady eye, and warned me that this sort of comment was not clever or funny, and that us Brits should take life more seriously. I then had a lecture about Homeland Security, the British sense of humour and Europeans in general."

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