Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Branson's battle of the beds
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The Independent Travel

Life as a bailiff must be exciting. I met a couple of them for the first time yesterday. We were outside 14 Archer Street, in Soho in central London, opposite the Bunny Club and an adult video shop. They had been dispatched by a court to seize goods on behalf of a number of creditors.

Life as a bailiff must be exciting. I met a couple of them for the first time yesterday. We were outside 14 Archer Street, in Soho in central London, opposite the Bunny Club and an adult video shop. They had been dispatched by a court to seize goods on behalf of a number of creditors.

"We're at Hire for Lower," one of them told a colleague back at the office on his mobile phone. "There's not really enough to cover the cost of breaking in. There's some tired old computers in the back office, some desks and two sort-of-OK chairs."

No one was answering the door. Eventually the pair decided that the cost of replacing the glass they would be required to break to get inside would be higher than the value of the stuff they could take, so they went off empty-handed. Which is exactly how thousands of Hire for Lower customers will be feeling this morning.

The company is a car-rental broker. It does not own any cars itself, but instead acts as an intermediary between travellers and a range of big rental companies. The Independent travel desk has received dozens of complaints from unhappy customers, telling the same basic story: you turn up at an airport abroad with a voucher issued by Hire for Lower, or one of its trading names (including Autos Abroad, Direct Car Hire, Go Car Hire and USA Rent-a-Car). The voucher tells you to go to a specific rental counter. But when you get there, the car company says it no longer accepts Hire for Lower bookings, and invites you to make a fresh reservations - almost inevitably at a higher price. Hire for Lower has promised refunds for original bookings.

I had an appointment yesterday to interview Nick Marney, the company's supplier contract manager, but he was unavailable for comment. Unlike the bailiffs, who left with a cheery: "They've gone. We're off. Good luck."

Disgruntled customers are the ones who need some good fortune. The advice given by Hire for Lower to those trying to get their money back is to "contact Mr D I Hamilton who is dealing with our account to secure your immediate refund". The number given, for a bank in the City of London, reaches a recorded message that refers callers to their credit-card issuer.

Those who paid by credit card should be able to get a refund, but many face the pressing problem of possessing a booking with no way of knowing if it will be honoured. Probably the worst plan is to turn up and try to rent locally - prices are likely to be much higher for "walk-up" customers than those who book ahead in the UK. So contact the main rental companies, or other car rental brokers such as Suncars (part of First Choice), Auto Europe (affiliated to MyTravel) or Holiday Autos (part of LastMinute.com).

Yesterday Doug Sawers, managing director of the UK division of Holiday Autos, promised that his company will match the price paid by Hire for Lower customers, and indeed "it might even be cheaper". He has set up a special helpline for Hire for Lower customers: 0870 400 0002. But you will have to make a fresh booking, and pay again.

On Wednesday, there I was aboard the Clapham omnibus, talking to Sir Richard Branson. About snuggling up. Well, I was on the bus - number 49, which dribbles down the west side of London from Shepherd's Bush to Clapham Junction - while the Virgin tycoon was in Crawley. Travel is such a glamorous business. At least it will be soon for those who are able to afford a flight aboard Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class.

Probably like you, the closest I have ever got to Virgin's highest grade of travel is walking through the cabin on the way to the back of the plane. But it has recently been looking jaded compared with British Airways' Club World: with seats that magically turn into flat beds, this has become the gold standard for business-class travel. Time for the Branson empire to strike back.

Oh dear. "Tennant's Extra": that is what it says on the can of beer that previously belonged to the man behind me, but which is now - thanks to a sudden stop for a red light - rotating at high speed towards the front of the bus, spraying its intoxicating contents over everybody's shoes. That sort of thing doesn't happen in Upper Class.

"We think we've leapt ahead five or six years," says Sir Richard, unaware of the torrent of Tennant's that is spraying its way to the front of the bus. It's a funny business, designing business class for your airline: as soon as you've launched your new product, which the Virgin boss did only three years ago, two things happen. First, rival airlines study what you've done and copy the best bits; next, you immediately have to start work on improving on what you have just created.

Virgin's boffins have been busy. "We have come back with all guns blazing," says Sir Richard, as the bus driver emulated a fighter pilot while swerving around badly parked cars in Kensington. The new cabin reveals that the airline has leapfrogged not only Club World, but also BA's First Class product. Until now, Upper Class has been categorised as business. But for the first time since the airline took off in 1984, Virgin Atlantic will be selling its top class as First.

So what do you get for your £4,500 (the fare between London and New York, which would alternatively buy you 6,700 rides on the 49 bus)? A seat that you are permitted to keep reclined for take-off and landing, and which flips over to form a 6ft 7in bed; no sniggering at the back about the fabled instruction to "Return the stewardess to the upright position". On the basis that most of us do not take lunch in bed, Upper Class passengers can wander across to a bar area for an aperitif (though not Tennant's Extra) and a meal.

A post-prandial massage, Madam? With extras such as limousine transfers, Sir Richard expects to lure "five per cent of BA's business-class passengers and 10 per cent of their first-class passengers". He predicts taking £125m of revenue a year from British Airways, but BA will not take the battle of the beds lying down.

On the approach to Battersea Bridge, a large lady with stacks of cabin baggage - sorry, shopping - sat down next to me, while Virgin Atlantic's chairman was talking about snuggling up. He has long promised the prospect of double beds in private cabins on long-haul flights. "We're halfway to the double beds. You can take down the partition and snuggle up to your neighbour if you want. The privacy will be coming soon."

Not on the Clapham omnibus, it won't.

The Virgin tycoon was in the global headquarters of one of his four airlines, Virgin Atlantic. Four airlines? Yes, count them. Besides Sir Richard's original creation there is Virgin Express, his Brussels-based no-frills operation; Virgin Blue, which is Australia's second-largest airline; and now Virgin America. At a time when US airlines are losing millions of dollars a day, Sir Richard is looking for a chief executive to launch a new domestic airline in America early next year.

Head-hunting top bosses is an expensive business, so to help out I spent the remainder of the no-frills bus ride on the phone to the airline guru Jamie Bowden, speculating about the man or woman for the Virgin America. The obvious candidate is, or rather was, Barbara Cassani, who set up Go on behalf of British Airways. Ms Cassani wouldn't even need a Green Card to get through US Immigration, since she was born in Boston. But she is now otherwise engaged, leading London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Tim Jeans, the chief operating officer of MyTravel Airways who attended the airline school of hard knocks (ie spent seven years working at Ryanair), must be a contender. Then there are two brilliant easyJet marketing men: Tony Anderson, who was the airline's first marketing director, and David Magliano, the present incumbent. But the sentimental money must be on the man who started the first and only no-frills transatlantic service: Sir Freddie Laker.

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