Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Airlines demonstrate the elasticity of time

Flying a jet aircraft, like sprinting or swimming 100 metres, is essentially a matter of time and motion: controlling velocity in a safe and expeditious manner (this definition is not sufficient to qualify you to fly a Boeing 747, nor to win a gold medal). But sometimes cabin announcements made on planes suggest that the crew have lost their grip on time; either that, or they believe the travelling public is credulous, dim or not possessed of wristwatches.

During the round-Britain dash described on the following pages (itself a study in the mismanagement of time and motion), I was sensitised to timekeeping. At Glasgow airport, five minutes after the easyJet flight to Belfast was due to leave, the captain announced to his passengers: "We're just coming up to our scheduled departure time."

If I might take a moment of your valuable time for a couple more definitions: the scheduled departure time for an aircraft represents the instant it is due to start moving (usually by being pushed back from the stand). The corresponding arrival time is when the pilot puts on the parking brake and turns off the engines at the aircraft stand. Next time you arrive five minutes late at check-in for an easyJet flight, try smiling optimistically and reciting this line: "We're just coming up to the check-in deadline."

Ryanair boasts one of the best performance records in the business, but the claims made by its cabin crew can irritate rather than impress passengers. A favourite is to pretend a flight's official arrival time is defined as the moment the tyres hit the runway. A plane arriving at the airline's main base takes at least five minutes from touchdown to reach the stand - making the claim: "Welcome to London Stansted, where we've landed five minutes ahead of schedule" absurd. Some staff take the policy to extremes: a flight from France that arrived at Stansted airport more than 15 minutes late was immediately claimed by the senior stewardess as, "another on-time arrival".

Curious interpretations of the speed-time continuum extend to boats and trains. At the start of the main school holidays, traffic gridlock at Dover Eastern Docks held up a SpeedFerries catamaran to Boulogne by 20 minutes, which most passengers would barely notice. Approaching the French port, the chief officer announced that the vessel had made up time. The ship docked half an hour late.

Some transport enterprises must be taking lessons from politicians on putting a positive outlook on unfortunate turns of events. But this type of spin depends on a modicum of veracity underpinning the claims. Recent journeys suggest that staff on at least one operator are finding it so tough keeping trains to time that they have begun to massage schedules to create the impression of punctuality. On a First Great Western train from London Paddington to Weston-super-Mare, the senior conductor kept moving the goalposts: announcing progressively later times that the train was, he said, due to arrive.

Travelling in the opposite direction, staff insisted to passengers they were on schedule even as the train limped along through Ealing Broadway some time after it was scheduled to arrive at the London terminus.

Back on easyJet, pilots appear to have discovered a new scapegoat for delays. I was among a planeload of passengers waiting in the departure lounge at Prague airport for a flight to Gatwick. We watched the inbound aircraft arrive right on schedule, but a tardy turnaround held up the outbound service by half an hour. "Sorry about the delay," said the pilot when we were finally underway. "It was caused by problems in Athens earlier today." This presents an interesting problem for the Olympic organisers. Could the host city for this year's Games take the rap for everyone's delays this summer?

BA INVITES CUSTOMERS TO SHARE OIL PRICE PAIN

When you buy a sandwich, you do not worry about how much the maker paid for the bread, the butter and the cheese (or caviar). What concerns you is how fresh, tasty and good value it is. Likewise, when you book a flight, the salient factors are comfort, punctuality and price. The cost breakdown for the plane, pilots and fuel is as irrelevant as the amount that the airline pays for the buttons on the uniforms of its ticket desk staff.

British Airways does not agree. The airline gets through a prodigious amount of fuel - not least flying around in circles over south-east England as aircraft wait in the queue to land at its main base, Heathrow. BA has "hedged" (locked in at a fixed amount) less than half its fuel needs, and is therefore exposed to the present record high oil price. To share the pain, the airline has raised its fuel surcharge to £12 on each return long-haul flight.

Twenty years ago, Virgin Atlantic possessed only one borrowed Jumbo jet, the lowest return fare to Australia was £1,000 and Stelios, the founder of easyJet, was a teenager. Now, competition from Virgin and other airlines on key BA routes is so intense that fares are typically half what they were a generation ago. About 1.2m aircraft seats leave the UK every week (happily, the same number come back), and every airline seeks to fill them by cutting prices.

Many business journeys are optional these days, with technology offering plenty of alternatives to a high-priced flight; and if the air fares for a trip of a lifetime look too high, prospective leisure travellers may instead decide to refit the kitchen or buy a new car.

Aircraft seats are notoriously perishable, and the fuel surcharge will quickly be eroded by a decline in air fares. Then at some point, when oil prices fall, British Airways will have to remove the fuel levy - which will annoy customers who have paid the surcharge on tickets bought well in advance, only to see later bookers avoiding the levy.

Fares and capacity are no longer fixed by mutual agreement between airlines in collusion with governments. Pricing power has moved from the airlines to the customer - just where it should reside, whether you are buying a cheese sandwich or a one-way flight to Sandwich Bay in Labrador.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness