In for the (very) short haul

At 10.25 each morning, a Western Greyhound bus sets off from Plymouth, destination Newquay. It arrives at 1pm. By transportational coincidence, Air Southwest flight 103 also departs from Plymouth, destination Newquay, at 10.25am. That's what it says on the timetable, anyway. At the appointed hour, we nine prospective passengers were still in the departure lounge.

At 10.25 each morning, a Western Greyhound bus sets off from Plymouth, destination Newquay. It arrives at 1pm. By transportational coincidence, Air Southwest flight 103 also departs from Plymouth, destination Newquay, at 10.25am. That's what it says on the timetable, anyway. At the appointed hour, we nine prospective passengers were still in the departure lounge.

Until a year ago, as I mentioned last month, Concorde defined fast flight: you could reach New York before you'd left London, in terms of local time. Nowadays the time traveller's quest is to find a flight so swift it is over almost before it has begun. So I checked in for England's shortest hop.

First, a word about the airline - from the airline: "With more than 200 destinations from Gatwick and 175 from Manchester, Air Southwest is your gateway to worldwide travel." Perhaps you read that as meaning the airline has a massive network; in fact, Air Southwest has just two routes from Gatwick and two from Manchester. But there's no harm in thinking big - after all, Air Southwest was the original name of Southwest Airlines, which grew from a network of three routes, all in Texas, to become the safest and consistently the most profitable airline in the world.

Plymouth and Newquay were never exactly giant hubs in aviation. They were two casualties of the British Airways cull of unprofitable flights that finished off Concorde. Yet Air Southwest believes it can make flights from, to and between Plymouth and Newquay pay their way, for example by doing away with free food and drink. Consequently, the cafe at Plymouth airport does a roaring trade.

Oddly, for an airline whose customers are people in a hurry, check-in closes exactly half an hour before departure - even though the distance from the street entrance to the aircraft stairs is no more than 30 yards, and even with the security check a 10-minute deadline would be more than enough. Yet Air Southwest imposes the same limit as for Gatwick, where you have to queue for ages for security and walk for miles to the domestic gate.

When permission to take off was granted, the plane seemed almost instantly to leave the ground. The Tamar estuary appeared below - as did "God's Wonderful Railway", Brunel's Great Western line to Penzance. From 2,000ft you see Cornwall as never before. The terrain withered into autumn, until a wintry cloud swallowed the scenery.

As the captain, Nick Chittenden, had invited, I sat back and tried to relax, but the selfishness of the exercise nagged away at me. The Western Greyhound, by now leaving Saltash, is a far more environmentally sound way to get around. Short-distance flying around Britain is bad for communities and for the environment.

So how do I justify taking this short hop? On economic grounds. My final destination was London, not Newquay, and I would certainly have taken the train had First Great Western not charged £15 more than the airline. The earliest train from Plymouth on which you can get a Supersaver ticket (£49 one-way) gets you to London a few minutes before noon. The mid-morning plane, on which a one-way fare of £34 is widely available, is scheduled to reach Gatwick at 12.15pm. The plane wins, though there is a catch: the route is triangular, and you have to fly to Newquay first. So in order to get to London at a reasonable hour for a fair price, I had first to fly away from it, past the bare, brooding uplands of Bodmin Moor, at a speed of around 250mph.

Opinions varied, even among the crew, about how long the flight might take. The captain reckoned 15 minutes; the stewardess 12. In the event, it took 13. The longest flight in the world, from New York's Newark airport to Singapore's Changi, takes nearly 100 times longer: it clocks in at just five minutes short of 19 hours. I hope the Singapore Airlines flight does not emulate Air Southwest's shortest haul, on which the toilets are kept locked.

In-flight entertainment was lacking, too, so I got my kicks by analysing Air Southwest's fare structure. "Low fares, permanently", promises the airline. While one-way flights from Plymouth via Newquay to Gatwick start at £34, the lowest fare from Plymouth to Newquay is £94. Low fares indeed? Before no-frills airlines came to Britain, the relatively short hop from Stansted to Southampton cost a flat £10 return on the now-defunct Air UK.

By comparison, the Western Greyhound bus that was currently meandering through Cornwall costs £4. But the bus driver had the last laugh. The 10.25am from Plymouth calls at Newquay's airport shortly before completing its journey, to collect passengers on tardy flights who need a bus into the resort.

Air Southwest: 0870 241 8202; www.airsouthwest.com

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