Check your baggage into the twilight zone

The nights draw in with a vengeance tomorrow. Or do they? That depends on which country you live in. Countries in higher latitudes, north and south of the Equator, are inclined to put the clocks forward in spring and back in autumn in order to maximise the light summer evenings. The result for globetrotters and schedulers is chaos.

The nights draw in with a vengeance tomorrow. Or do they? That depends on which country you live in. Countries in higher latitudes, north and south of the Equator, are inclined to put the clocks forward in spring and back in autumn in order to maximise the light summer evenings. The result for globetrotters and schedulers is chaos.

First, the clocks move in different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. Any unkind assertion that when landing in New Zealand you should put your watch back 30 years is wrong. The time, in fact, should advance by either 11 or 13 hours, except for a few weeks in October and March when Auckland is 12 hours ahead of London.

Next, not every part of every nation adopts daylight saving. American states are the worst offenders, despite the existence of a federal law called the Uniform Time Act. Hawaii keeps to the same time all year, as does Arizona – except those parts of the Grand Canyon state that happen to be Navajo Indian territory, which today is in step with other states observing Mountain Daylight Time and tomorrow will switch back to Standard Time.

Texas observes Central Time – except the city of El Paso, which prefers the Mountain variety. And woe betide anyone with a plane to catch in Indiana. The state has 92 counties. Ten of these are in the Central Time zone, and flip between daylight and standard time. The rest are in the Eastern Time zone, but only five make the switch – the other 77 stay on standard time all year long. A drive across the state today could take you through three separate time zones.

Winter begins at 2am (or is it 1am?) tomorrow, according to Europe and those parts of the US where they know how to adjust clocks. But when does summer return? In Europe, on the last Sunday of March; in America, on the first Sunday of April. The intervening week is a nightmare for airline schedulers. With so many flights involving quick connections in America or Europe, losing an hour causes travel chaos.

Australia follows the European dates – with the exception of Tasmania. In the island state, summer began three weeks ago. The Falklands welcomed summer even earlier – it began in mid-September, and extends longer than any other southern hemisphere nation apart from Tonga.

When you move east, a whole new set of rules applies. Western nations traditionally make the switch in the early hours of Sunday morning because that is when activity is at its lowest; in Islamic countries, the day of rest is Friday – which is when many nations choose to change clocks. Finally, Israel makes up the dates as it goes along, although the law stipulates that summer must last at least 150 days. If only.

The people of Cairo showed considerable grace and tolerance in hosting the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) annual convention, not all of whose delegates are noted for observing local traditions to the letter. Luckily, the conference centre was way out of the city centre, many miles from real life.

Abta prides itself on recruiting top-class motivational speakers from outside the travel industry for its get-togethers. This year the celebrities included Anita Roddick of Body Shop fame, and the immensely brave Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has survived several skirmishes with frostbite while exploring the earth's extremes without the benefit of Body Shop carrot cream.

My friend and fellow travel journalist Richard Hammond, who runs the website, was running late for the conference, so he decided to get a cab from the hotel. A distinguished-looking gentleman was also trying to hail a taxi to the same destination, so they shared.

Along the way Richard made small talk – had he been at the sessions the day before, no, that sort of thing. When they got there Richard turned to his new friend and said: "Oh, a word of warning, the air conditioning is pretty fierce – you might get a bit chilly." Three hours later, he realised he'd been talking the great explorer.

"Do we sometimes piss people off? Of course we do," says Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary. "But 60 per cent of the complaints we get are people looking for refunds of what everyone knows is a non-refundable ticket. And the answer to that will always be, 'No, you're not getting a refund, we told you it was non-refundable, go away.'"

Say what you like about Ryanair, but you cannot accuse the Irish airline's boss for raising passengers' expectations too high. This week, though, the European Parliament voted to make airlines pay compensation for delays, cancellations and overbooking.

It is nearly a century since powered aviation began, but passengers still have precious few rights – a ticket is nothing more than a vague promise to take you from A to B, possibly via C, at a time of the airline's choosing and with or without your baggage. Air travel worldwide is still governed by the 1929 Warsaw Convention. A replacement was agreed in Montreal three years ago, but has yet to be ratified.

So surely the new rules that the European Parliament has passed, which will force airlines to pay up for meals and hotels when flights are delayed, are to be welcomed? Not necessarily. Of course all passengers welcome the prospect of being treated more humanely by carriers – and to some extent the airlines have collectively brought this upon themselves by failing to treat people decently. But the stricter legislation is likely to mean higher fares. If Britain's air-traffic control collapses again and causes the sort of chaos passengers experienced on several occasions earlier this year, the cost for airlines under these new rules could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Could the new law affect safety? If delays become extremely expensive occurrences for airlines, it is not inconceivable that one aircraft captain will one day feel impelled to fly when he or she is not 100 per cent happy about the condition of the aircraft. Better to leave it to the market to set compensation levels for the travelling public. When I fly on Ryanair I am taking a bet that the plane will fly to something like the scheduled time, and I am prepared to face the consequences when it does not. Conversely, other airlines offer much more in return for higher fares. This weekend two British airlines are promising a new deal for travellers. Flybe and Bmibaby are saying they will no longer overbook, and both airlines set out the compensation they will pay when things go wrong.

Mr O'leary could be doing us all a favour this week. Those same Members of the European Parliament who voted to force the airlines to pay out will, from Hallowe'en, benefit from lower fares between London and Strasbourg. Ryanair is offering the chance for British representatives in Europe to save taxpayers a fortune on MEPs' travel expenses by starting no-frills flights from Stansted to one of the European Parliament's homes. So how much will this save us taxpayers? I called Richard Balfe, the MEP who defected from Labour to the Conservatives earlier this year. He is one of five Quaestors – the committee that looks after members' interests.

What travelling expenses, I wondered, are our representatives entitled to?

"They can claim a full economy, fully flexible fare, or such amount that they care to claim that is less than that."

So how many claim less than the maximum?

"We keep all financial effects of members at a confidential level."

Quite right – how absurd it would be to let voters know how their money is spent.

Just so you know, return fares from Stansted to Strasbourg of £24 are widely available in November. A full economy, fully flexible fare on Air France costs £532.