Simon Calder: The man who pays his way - News & Advice - Travel - The Independent

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

In these difficult days, the golden rule for every airline passenger is to allow plenty of time. A combination of utilitarianism and sheer hassle has expunged the last remaining residue of glamour from aviation. All a passenger can do is seek to limit the damage to nerves and dignity by setting off early. Having time to squander on every hurdle from traffic jams to security checks makes you a more tolerant traveller, and you reach your destination in better shape.

In these difficult days, the golden rule for every airline passenger is to allow plenty of time. A combination of utilitarianism and sheer hassle has expunged the last remaining residue of glamour from aviation. All a passenger can do is seek to limit the damage to nerves and dignity by setting off early. Having time to squander on every hurdle from traffic jams to security checks makes you a more tolerant traveller, and you reach your destination in better shape.

That, at least, is what I preach. A number of readers have enquired about a remark I made on a live television programme eight days ago. At 7.25am, I said I was flying from Heathrow to New York 55 minutes later. Since I was in a studio in west London rather than at an airport, was that not a trifle ambitious? Er, yes, and I would not recommend it as a stress-free start to the day.

My ticket, to Quito in Ecuador, was "bought" with frequent-flyer miles. That puts you close to the bottom of the aviation food chain: just ahead of friends of airline staff travelling on free tickets, but well behind deportees. A glance at the American Airlines route map shows the obvious connection point is Miami, but the allocation of frequent-flyer seats on the non-stop flight from Heathrow later in the morning had gone. The only way to make the Quito connection was to fly out on the 8.20am to New York and transfer to a domestic flight down to Miami. Just the small matter of that television interview to contend with.

Twenty-four hours before I was scheduled finally to arrive in Quito, I boarded a bus in London. When the Piccadilly Line is closed, the N9 shuttles between central London and the airport. The 4.15am left on time, and I travelled business class - well, upstairs at the front. By 5.30am I was queuing at the American Airlines check-in at Terminal 3. The line was not moving, because the desks do not open for another quarter-hour. So I looked at the posters warning that everyone had to be at the gate 45 minutes before departure, and listened to recorded announcements warning that the cut-off time is in fact 30 minutes. Since there is clearly no agreement, I contended feebly, it would be reasonable to split the difference and call it 15 minutes.

By 6am my backpack was on its way to the aircraft; I felt there was a part of me already on board. And I was heading back into London, or at least I would be as soon as an Underground train arrived. The Tube stuttered east with all the enthusiasm of a recalcitrant camel, but I still reached BBC Television Centre by 7am.

The interview over, I had 55 minutes to get out of the studio and battle through 12 miles of rush-hour traffic to Britain's busiest airport; get through security; and reach the aircraft. The only possible way to do this was waiting outside: a shiny red motorbike. It belonged to Russ, who was standing next to it. Wrapped up, I climbed on behind him and we took off like a rocket all the way to the first set of roadworks, about 200 yards down the road.

The way to judge traffic, he told me as we threaded between trucks and cars queuing to join the M4, is to look at the body language of the drivers. After 15 years as a dispatch rider and motorcycle chauffeur, he can tell from a glance in their wing mirrors if anyone is likely to make a sudden change of lane.

After 15 minutes on the back of a motorbike battling through sclerotic streets, I concluded the best way to enjoy the journey was to close my eyes and chat. Yes, Russ has had that Richard Branson on the back of his bike on more than one occasion; he works for Virgin Bikes, which began life ferrying Upper Class passengers to Gatwick and Heathrow for Virgin Atlantic flights, but is now available to anyone short of time.

Ever had one of those dreams in which an apparently simple task is confounded by insurmountable obstacles? At 8am exactly, I unravelled myself from the borrowed bikers' gear, sprinted into Terminal 3 and into a lift to departures. After several tries, the lift doors gave up, so I ran upstairs instead. The queue for the security check was uncannily short; Terminal 3 predominantly handles long-haul flights, which are thin on the ground at this time of day.

The worst part of the mini-nightmare was finding a way through the shopping mall that is designed to detain passengers; all very well for those with plenty of what the retailers call "dwell time", a pain for people with a flight to catch.

Were gate 19 any further from the entrance to Terminal 3, it would be in Berkshire. As I lurched for the finishing line at 8.10am, the automatic doors slammed shut with a crushing finality. The last time I arrived at the departure gate with only 10 minutes to spare, United Airlines told me there was not another flight for two days, then promptly flew off with my luggage. Happily, at Heathrow the gate agent unlocked the doors and let me in.

In other circumstances, being addressed by one's name might be a gratifying personal touch. But on this occasion the staff at gate 19 had correctly identified me as the missing ingredient for AA115. To stretch the tension even further, my number had come up for a random gate search. In the middle of an empty departure lounge, I took my shoes off and unpacked my cabin baggage, and we all waited for the explosives detector to report back.

At 8.18am, I found a spread of four seats at the back of the plane and sat down. Two minutes later, the Boeing pushed back from the stand, and Russ the motorcycle chauffeur sipped his coffee as he waited for an altogether better class of passenger: the actor Ewan McGregor, arriving from America, with plenty of time on his hands.

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