Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Dodge the tax man at 30,000 feet
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The Independent Travel
Over the millennia, Lebanon has achieved plenty of which to be proud. But whether it is wise to use its highly individual tax system as a model for revenue collection in 21st-century Britain is another matter.

Over the millennia, Lebanon has achieved plenty of which to be proud. But whether it is wise to use its highly individual tax system as a model for revenue collection in 21st-century Britain is another matter. Nonetheless, that is what Gordon Brown has decided to do to sort out the "poll tax of the skies". He has adopted a system of taxing air travellers that originated at Beirut, and was subsequently picked up by Pakistan. From tomorrow, the amount of Air Passenger Duty (APD) you will pay depends on what class you are.

The Chancellor has finally come up with a policy that is a triumph for the proletariat (a term derived from proletarius, meaning a citizen of the sixth and poorest class in ancient Rome). Those travelling in the lowest class of travel on a flight will find that the tax they pay to leave the country halves tomorrow to just £5 on flights within the European Economic Area (for this purpose, the EU plus Iceland, Norway and two Swiss airports).

Anyone in a more comfortable seat on the same flight pays £10. To places outside the EEA, the price of leaving the country rises to £20 for proles and £40 for the posh seats. If there is a discernible difference between one part of the plane and another ­ even so slight as a curtain across the cabin separating identical seats ­ the people in the upmarket part will pay double.

Customs and Excise, which administers the tax, allows only two small loopholes: sitting in an emergency exit row in economy, with the extra legroom that usually entails, is not to be charged extra; and if the airline upgrades you, without your paying anything for the privilege, then the "agreement for travel" is deemed to be unchanged and you need not pay extra. This last rule also covers the case where, as with some Alitalia and British Airways flights within Europe, some economy passengers get to sit in more comfy seats than others because the barrier with business class is flexible.

Already the system looks as complex as the politics of the Levant. And it gets worse. Each of the three leading UK scheduled airlines ­ BA, BMI and Virgin Atlantic ­ has launched an enhanced economy product on long-haul flights. The extra legroom on offer is just the thing for passengers wanting to minimise the risk of deep-vein thrombosis. But unless you fly on BMI, the space means extra tax.

HM Customs' no-nonsense rules insist that only those in the most basic class pay £20. "We charge £40 tax for Premium Economy, because we have a separate cabin," says Virgin. BA concurs; its World Traveller Plus is a measurable improvement on its lowest economy class, so the tax doubles.

But BMI ­ the airline formerly known as British Midland ­ has apparently secured an exemption for its extra-legroom economy section. The airline says: "The APD on New Economy will be £20" when flights begin in May from Manchester to Washington DC and Chicago. "New Economy" passengers get a tax break on legroom.

The outook gets hazier still when you consult the computer reservations systems, those globe-girdling networks that can book a flight from Birmingham, Alabama to Perth, Australia while you're in Birmingham or Perth, UK. The information provided by at least one computer system suggests that the higher fee applies only to "business-type" classes.

The digital device becomes semantic at this point, arguing that because premium economy is an "economy-type" class, tax on long-haul flights should be only £20.

The message for those who aim for a cut above proletariat status without paying the Chancellor more for the privilege is clear: book through a travel agent whose computer system charges only £20, not £40, or go New Economy on BMI. Or, implausible as it may sound, wait for Concorde to start flying again, which according to the latest BA prediction will be in "late spring or early summer" ­ as an all-economy plane, says the taxman.

The mother of all tax avoidance schemes will benefit supersonic flyers between London and New York, who will pay the lower rate of £20.

If ever a passenger deserved to be squeezed until the credit card squeaks, it is the person paying around £7,000 return for the right to fly to America and back twice as quickly as on a normal aircraft. Ken Clarke invented Air Passenger Duty back in 1994 precisely because he wanted to tax aviation fuel but global politics stopped him doing so.

Concorde is George W Bush's kind of plane: it uses more fuel per passenger than any other airliner. Yet because the supersonic jet has only one class, Customs & Excise regards its high-flying passengers as belonging to the proletariat. So they are taxed at the same rate as those of us crushed into the back of a 767 flying at half the speed, half the altitude and half the comfort.

The biggest mystery of all, though, is why one part of the Government is spending a fortune on advertising designed to persuade people to explore Britain, while another part is making it more attractive to go abroad.

"Holiday at home ­ your country needs you." That is the message from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. But the Treasury whisper is: "Psst ­ it's about to become even easier to leave the country. From tomorrow, if you fly to Europe, you'll save a fiver." As the cheap seats get cheaper, the winner is the Continent.

Saturday 31 March: Alcohol units 0, cigarettes 0, manatees 16.

Bridget Jones is not a sad, self-obsessed neurotic, at least when planning long-haul travel. A careful study of the annual report from the conservation charity, Earthwatch, reveals that its typical volunteer on scientific projects to maintain biodiversity matches the profile of Helen Fielding's creation: a thirty-something metropolitan woman. But Ms Jones is more likely to spot a ring-tailed lemur than find a man in the tropics; on Earthwatch projects, male volunteers are an endangered species, outnumbered two to one by women.

Sex and cycling tend to be mutually exclusive activities (although some who have tried both ­ not at the same time ­ say they feel tired, damp and a bit uncomfortable after either). But people at the extremities of Britain fear sex is rearing its ugly head in the shape of bold new mileposts planned by the cycling charity, Sustrans.

The imaginative "street furniture" is to liven up the 5,000 miles of the National Cycle Network, from Cornwall to Caithness. But some local worthies worry that the design of the mileposts may excite the normally placid pedaller.

"Cyclists' 'phallic symbol' signs are thrown out", trumpets the Aberdeen Press and Journal, above a report about plans to, er, erect several signs east of Inverness. Councillor Chrissie Cumming is quoted as saying one of the mileposts was "nothing more than a phallic symbol ... it's disgusting".

At the other end of the UK, the West Briton reports "a number of people were offended by the sign, which is next to a village seat, and had asked for it to be moved to a more suitable location".

To judge for yourself, you could get on your bike ­ except that much of the Sustrans traffic-free network is closed because of foot-and-mouth disease. So here's a picture (above, left) of the offending milepost to view while you plan that cheap flight to France.

simon.calder@independent.co.uk

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