Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Why airlines are happy to be inefficient
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The Independent Travel

Jet aircraft are bad for you, whether you fly on them or merely inhabit the planet around which they travel. As you know, planes consume fossil fuels at a prodigious rate, aided by international agreement that jet kerosene should be the only universal duty-free purchase. Engines are certainly cleaner, more efficient and quieter than they used to be, but try standing in the wake of even the most modern plane and decide whether "whisper jet" is an entirely appropriate term.

Jet aircraft are bad for you, whether you fly on them or merely inhabit the planet around which they travel. As you know, planes consume fossil fuels at a prodigious rate, aided by international agreement that jet kerosene should be the only universal duty-free purchase. Engines are certainly cleaner, more efficient and quieter than they used to be, but try standing in the wake of even the most modern plane and decide whether "whisper jet" is an entirely appropriate term.

You may cherish, as I do, the freedom to travel further, for less, than any previous generation. But you would probably accept that fewer planes, flying with more seats occupied, would be a good thing. For most scheduled airlines, a healthy load factor (the proportion of seats occupied) is 75 per cent. In other words, airline accountants are content when three out of four seats are occupied.

Passengers are pretty happy, too, when flights are less than full; a study by Boeing concluded that having the seat next to yours empty is perceived as the equivalent of eight extra inches of legroom.

Yet fewer, fuller aircraft have huge advantages for the planet - and for travellers. If the empty seats could be filled and one in four flights grounded, significantly less space would be taken up by airports (not counting California's Mojave desert, where excess planes tend to end up).

Delays caused by a shortage of runway space at big, overcrowded airports such as Heathrow would drastically reduce. And the skies would become clearer, too, resulting in speedier journeys for everyone.

Instead, the world is moving towards yet more aircraft. This week, I needed a short-notice flight from Jersey to somewhere - anywhere - on the UK mainland. For the shortest hop, to Southampton, FlyBE wanted £125. So I checked the fare to Coventry with Thomsonfly, which started flights to the West Midlands airport on Wednesday.

Twelve years ago, Britannia Airways sold all its old Boeing 737s to, among others, Ryanair. Britannia concentrated on flying bigger planes packed with charter customers. Now that the no-frills airlines have taken so much of the charter market, Britannia has had to grab some second hand 737s to try to compete under the name of Thomsonfly - which would qualify as silliest airline name in the UK, were it not for MyTravelLite. This is the preposterous title for a Birmingham-based airline, whose name contains three capital letters and a mis-spelling. Both these airlines represent last-ditch attempts by charter companies to cash in on the no-frills revolution.

Price is not everything in aviation, as anyone who has survived a flight on Cubana will confirm. But among good-quality, safe airlines the fare counts for a lot. When the Thomsonfly website responded to a request for a flight from Jersey to Coventry with "£0.00" , I assumed the aircraft was full. No, it meant the basic fare was zero, though the airline added £12.45 in fees to stem its losses. Such is 21st-century travelling life: flying twice as far costs one-10th as much.

In the 1970s, Warwick University boasted a club known as the Society for the Appreciation of Ancient Monuments. This was a thinly-veiled front for borrowing the students' union van for elaborate pub crawls in attractive parts of Britain. Nowadays, the van is an ancient monument, and undergraduates and academics are able to fly to have a beer in the sun for next to nothing. At least one Warwick researcher, Stian Reimers, was on board the flight from Jersey to Coventry - I recognised him from having sat next to him on a MyTravelLite plane a couple of years ago.

Most of us had paid about £15 each way for the 200-mile flight. Alex Hunter, chief commercial officer for Thomsonfly, was also on board. He pronounced the flight a commercial success, and rejected my suggestion that flying has become frivolous. "If people want to pay to fly, I'm more than happy with that."

At least Thomsonfly has enjoyed reasonably full planes; another German-owned company, Lufthansa, has vowed to keep some of its seats empty.

The German airline has come up with a cunning plan to boost earnings: sell fewer seats. Starting this week, Lufthansa has introduced the policy in business class on European routes. The airline promises that the middle seat in each row of three will be unoccupied (keep quiet at the back - no, it's not the forward gunner's position). The idea is to justify the premium charged for business class.

The effect is to leave 14 seats empty in a typical 42-seat business-class cabin. The middle seat is always unpopular, but most travellers would be happy to put up with trifling discomfort in order to get home fast. Indeed, on a heavily-booked flight, the airline could auction the middle seat for a small fortune.

Instead, on a busy Friday evening departure from Heathrow to Frankfurt, Germany's national airline would rather send passengers to its competitors, keep its seats empty and add to the toll that air travel takes on the planet.

THE SMALL ISLAND WITH A BIG HEART

Charity begins in Jersey. That is not a reference to the Channel Island's disproportionate number of shops selling second hand goods in aid of worthy causes; it is a tribute to the generosity of Jersey's Independent readers.

Last week I mentioned a plan to fly to Jersey and cycle around it. On Monday, an e-mail from Nick Owen was waiting. "I live close to the airport, and have a bike you could borrow."

As luck would have it, my folding bicycle last weekend folded in new and unintended directions, and I was indeed one bike short of a circumnavigation.

So Mr Owen met me at the airport with his mountain bike.

My island triathlon began with a whizz along the old railway path that connects Jersey's lonely Land's End at La Corbière with the capital, St Helier, through forest glades and hidden valleys.

Part two of the triathlon: saying hello to the island's top celebrity. La Capannina is the St Helier restaurant where Jack Higgins, author of The Eagle Has Landed, takes lunch on most days. Having enjoyed the implausibly good £12 set menu, I can see why. And the great man was, like his fellow islanders, generous with his time.

The final triathlon event was triggered by another charitable reader. "A great way to see Jersey is by sea kayak," wrote Kevin Mansell, who runs the excellent website www.seapaddler.co.uk. "We could meet up and I could take you out for a short paddle."

The sky brightened over St Brelade's Bay. The sea worked itself into a Biscay-like frenzy. And Mr Mansell and his partner in surf, Chris Jones, initiated me in the art of paddling your own canoe while trying to avoid too close an encounter with Jersey's magnificent red granite cliffs.

Today I shall be on the less dramatic shores of the Thames; any challenges in the London SE1 area happily considered.

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