Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The airport that puts the comedy back into commuting
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The Independent Travel

No such thing as bad publicity? Ask Luton airport, which was turned into a national figure of fun in an advertising campaign for Cinzano. A well-tanned, macho Mediterranean type asks of Lorraine Chase, "Were you wafted here from paradise?"

"Nah, mate," she responds in an accent that is more Chingford than Cheltenham. "Luton airport."

Could it be coincidence that, during the 1980s, the Bedfordshire airport went into decline compared with others around London. Its fortunes revived only in 1995, when Stelios Haji-Ioannou chose Luton as the base for his new airline.

"Heathrow wouldn't have us, Gatwick wouldn't have us," says the easyJet founder. "Stansted gave us a price, but Luton was cheaper."

The turnaround was remarkable. Today, Luton has a flourishing low-cost business with easyJet, Ryanair and Monarch Scheduled. It is also a favourite with Continental carriers who want to establish a toehold in the richest aviation market in Europe; Wizz Air starts flights from Luton to Zagreb in March. Part of the appeal, to passengers as well as airlines, is its simplicity. The total walking time from where the bus drops you off to the gate to the aircraft is barely five minutes - or at least it was until Luton decided to build in a detour to delay the passenger by an extra 15 minutes.

As you know, airports make more money from what travellers spend while waiting to depart than from the fees the airlines pay them. The biggest killing is made at Terminal 3 at Heathrow, which handles the bulk of long-haul flights from the UK's busiest airport - notably departures to Japan and the US. For these flights, passengers turn up early and spend heavily. By contrast, the typical passenger at Luton or Liverpool simply wants a quick coffee and to get on the plane to Paris or Palma.

Liverpool was ahead of the game. Its lucrative retail labyrinth was built just at the time Yoko Ono consented to her late husband's name being attached to the airport. "Above us only sky" is the slogan of Liverpool John Lennon airport. But before you get near the plane that is to lift you heavenwards, you must negotiate a shopping and eating mall designed to make you dawdle and walk a distance roughly the same as the length of Penny Lane.

LUTON HAS followed the same circuitous route. Sure, it used to be a shed, but that was part of its appeal; it was a clean and tidy shed with a few shops and a catering establishment that did a passable impression of a pub. Now it has acquired airs, graces and aggravation - and lost its grip on reality. When you check in at the easyJet counter, signs implore you to "check in all unnecessary hand baggage".

Why? "For security reasons." At this point the poor traveller is baffled. For a start, easyJet made a name as the airline that has no upper weight limit for the amount you can carry on board. And does the sign imply that the security checks carried out on hand baggage are somehow flawed?

Next, the public address announcements. Presumably someone came up with the form of words that goes: "Will passenger X go immediately to gate 5 where your flight is fully boarded."

You need not be a professor of logic to spot a flaw in this assertion: if the flight is fully boarded, then passenger X is already on the plane; if he or she is not, then the aircraft is not fully boarded.

The Lutonian nonsense continues when your homeward flight arrives. As you approach passport control, you are greeted with notices requesting you "to help us reduce queues, please wait in line". An exact semantic equivalent is "to help us reduce queues, please join the queue" - thereby extending it.

Now that Luton has chosen to return to the status of a national joke, it should follow Liverpool's example, and name itself after a sadly missed national treasure. With no world-class musical figures hailing from the area, the obvious choice is the man who put Luton on the map. Welcome to Eric Morecambe International, an airport run by comedians.

* The founder of easyJet, easyCar, easyHotel and easyCruise has transformed travel in the past decade. That is why The Independent invited Stelios to be the first guest for an interview, before an audience comprising the top people in travel. Some of his bons mots deserve much wider appreciation.

Stelios on easyHotel: "The window is an optional extra. It wakes you up in the morning. With sunlight."

On the environment: "Per passenger carried, we are more environmentally friendly than BA. If BP can paint themselves as a green company, why not us?"

On second-home ownership: "Just look outside. Do you blame people for wanting to live in the sun more often?"

On easyCar: "We were a little too aggressive in photographing every customer. It was because many of our customers didn't bring the cars back."

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