Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Airport karma and the joy of a new (inflexible) age
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The Independent Travel

That was then: October 1986: "Billed as the last unspoilt place on the Mediterranean, Turkey looks as though it will not remain unspoilt for long. Horizon, Britain's third-largest holiday company, last week published its first special Turkey brochure with package deals starting at £199." This revelation appeared 20 years ago in the travel section of The Independent, at the time comprising two-thirds of a single broadsheet page. Today the amount of travel coverage has increased by at least 1,000 per cent, yet the lowest price for a week in Turkey has actually fallen (one reason Horizon, Tapestry Holidays and many other tour operators are no longer with us). Some time after this new, unfamiliar destination was revealed to the travelling public, I set off to investigate its largest city, Istanbul, for the first in the 48 Hours series. What the subsequent story did not reveal was my misadventure at Ataturk airport on the way home.

These online days, you may have forgotten the fragility of a handwritten plane ticket. On the outbound charter flight from Gatwick to Istanbul, the eventual take-off bore no relation to the departure time scrawled in fading carbon on the ticket. Once in Istanbul, I tracked down the company's agent to ask if the return flight would likewise be much later than advertised. Yes, I was assured, it would be.

So, at about the hour scruffily specified on the ticket as the original departure time, I wandered down to the reception of the hotel that came as part of the £109, two-night package. It was filled with people clutching familiar yellow carrier bags. "Buy before you fly - Gatwick duty-free", read the slogan.

"Have you just flown in on Caledonian Airways?" I asked, weakly.

As they began to nod, I began to leave. The agent was wrong, the ticket was right, and I was about to be left behind nearly 20 years too early for easyJet.

In those days, 5,000 Turkish lire was enough to turn a 20-minute drive into a 10-minute hurtle. At Ataturk airport, the check-in was closed. To emphasise this, the man behind the counter started doing an elaborate impression of an aircraft taking off. But his boss started shouting urgently into her walkie-talkie, while simultaneously tearing out the ticket and issuing a boarding pass. In those relatively innocent days, the security check defined the word "cursory", and the Toytown scale of the old airport terminal meant there was the Boeing 737 on the apron, yes the one with its doors closed and looking about to leave. Somehow the supervisor persuaded the captain that he could wait a moment more. The door re-opened; I climbed aboard; the plane took off; I lit a cigarette. That was, indeed, then.

FROM THE heavy-smoking Eighties, when I remarked that "Tourists are regarded by most of Istanbul's population as their best hope of economic salvation", to the present day: I returned this year without a roll-up to my name but with more idea of how to catch a flight home.

In the 21st century, the city's main airport is, like so many others, a vast, gleaming cathedral to aviation. It also takes rather longer to get through than the two-and-a-half minutes I managed.

Imagine if every passenger arriving on the Gatwick Express was searched, and their baggage x-rayed, before being permitted to leave the airport station and enter the terminal: that is the policy for travellers emerging from the Metro at Istanbul airport. You have to allow an indeterminate amount of time for this process. So early was I, in fact, that I was in good time for the previous flight.

As you may know, easyJet has a generous policy of allowing passengers on their return leg to switch to an earlier flight free of charge, assuming a seat is available. I happened to be flying on British Airways. Could I go earlier?

"It will cost £262 to change," explained the BA agent - more than the original ticket had cost. I declined, and instead reflected on a strangely satisfying equity across the decades: arriving too late for that first flight from Istanbul, but catching it; then arriving too early for my next flight, serving the time I evaded the first time around. This is now. And what a joyful time it is to be a traveller.

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