Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

So Virgin wants a network in Africa? Good luck - they'll need it
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The Independent Travel

Africa needs Stelios, not Geldof, I wrote in The Independent last Monday. Intra-African air travel is scandalously thin. Should you ever need to travel between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Accra in Ghana, prepare to leave the continent: the OAG timetable suggests you change planes in Amsterdam, Dubai or London. Cairo and Lagos, Africa's two largest cities, have close to 30 million inhabitants in total. Yet there are only two non-stop flights each week between them.

Africa needs Stelios, not Geldof, I wrote in The Independent last Monday. Intra-African air travel is scandalously thin. Should you ever need to travel between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Accra in Ghana, prepare to leave the continent: the OAG timetable suggests you change planes in Amsterdam, Dubai or London. Cairo and Lagos, Africa's two largest cities, have close to 30 million inhabitants in total. Yet there are only two non-stop flights each week between them.

Lousy infrastructure causes many of Africa's woes. The 21st-century solution to some of those problems is the Airbus or the Boeing. Cheap, frequent flights would enable the continent to get connected. The fastest way to allow Africans to flourish economically, I argued, is for airlines such as easyJet to start up. And, that very day, one did.

"What Africa needs is Branson, not Stelios," riposted Paul Moore, PR chief for Virgin Atlantic, when he told me about Sir Richard's latest venture, Virgin Nigeria.

Ten days from now, a repainted Virgin Atlantic Airbus takes off from Lagos to Heathrow. The company, which is majority owned by Nigerians, plans "A wide network of routes across Africa and beyond."

The ensuing political negotiations could be as ugly as a Eurotunnel meeting, but Africa needs Virgin - and Virgin needs luck.

LUCK WAS in short supply when Virgin Atlantic was launched, 21 years ago this week. The maiden transatlantic trip from Gatwick to Newark airport was jeopardised by a "bird strike" during a proving flight. The replacement engine left little change from a million dollars. On the first passenger flight, supplies ran out somewhere over Newfoundland - not of fuel, fortunately, but of champagne. The host of journalists on board may have contributed to the shortfall.

From one second-hand plane, Virgin has grown to join the aviation élite - and has dragged British Airways with it. Uniquely for a country of this size, UK travellers benefit from a choice of two first-rate, home-grown, long-haul airlines. The rivalry produces good service and low fares, as demonstrated by a couple of routes where BA faces no competition. To Entebbe and Dar es Salaam, the Club World cabin is sub-standard, and economy fares approach £700 return - more than a trip to Australia.

FOR MOST of its life, Virgin Atlantic has been a thorn in the side of British Airways. Sir Richard's favourite enterprise has cherry-picked BA's most profitable routes and set up rival flights on them. Now, BA has returned the favour by launching a competing service to Virgin Atlantic's lucrative Heathrow-Shanghai route.

Some insiders say Shanghai is not just profitable for the airline: a scurrilous rumour suggests that cabin crew are especially keen to fly on the route. The attraction is not the intrinsic appeal of Asia's most dynamic city, but the cheap "designer" clothes that can be brought back and subsequently sold.

BACK TO Africa. The G8 finance ministers seem seduced by the idea of adding a dollar to the price of every air ticket and giving the proceeds to Africa. Such a tax could generate $1.2bn a year. The move suggests that politicians still assume that air travel is an élite, glamorous occupation, and that passengers deserve to be relieved of some of their conspicuous wealth. And if the slight increase in fares deters some people from flying, goes the argument, all well and good for the environment.

Certainly there are strong arguments for using tax to force airlines to become more efficient, as you can read in the travel pages of tomorrow's Independent on Sunday. Yet it is hopelessly misguided to hypothecate a tax on travel for an unrelated purpose, however worthy the cause. Should guests at the Gritti Palace be obliged to pay an extra euro on the bill to save the whale, or renters of cars forced to contribute a pound to support the RNLI? No.

Arbitrarily to penalise travellers, and to remove the element of choice about which charities to support, is a dangerous course - even for the sake of Africa.

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