Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

International flight is a miracle of timing

In this age of travel marvels, the greatest wonder is flight. Thousands of times each day, men, women and machines perform the elaborate ritual necessary to get an aircraft off the ground and safely to its destination.

In this age of travel marvels, the greatest wonder is flight. Thousands of times each day, men, women and machines perform the elaborate ritual necessary to get an aircraft off the ground and safely to its destination. The plane must be fit to fly; filled with fuel, passengers and (with luck) their luggage; launched from an awesomely crowded airport into alarmingly congested skies; and guided at close to the speed of sound to a destination that may lie on the far side of the world, while the passengers are fed, watered and entertained.

For the past three years, almost every airline that you and I are likely to use has accomplished this feat with an immaculate safety record. Millions of us arrive, alive, at our destination to sight-see, swim, shop or otherwise indulge, and are brought home safely afterwards. And are we grateful to the airline and its staff? Not particularly. Indeed, some travellers are so unappreciative that they keep records of how each airline and airport performed during the year. Accordingly, here is data from my personal travel log for 2004 on that most basic of indices: getting passengers to their expected destination at the promised time.

On New Year's Day I took my first flight of 2005, on British Airways from Milan to Heathrow. To my surprise it was on time: I say "surprise" not through post-festive grumpiness, but because, on average, each of the 15 flights I took to or from the UK's busiest airport last year was half an hour late. This column's annual assessment of punctuality suggests that the less you pay, the more likely you are to arrive on time - or even ahead of schedule. Of the 59 flights I took last year, nine were on Ryanair. All but one arrived early at the destination. The odd-one-out involved a half-hour delay at Pau airport in south-west France (apparently due to a failure to allot the necessary time during the "turn" to provide the help required by pilgrims going to Lourdes). Despite this blip, the average flight on the Irish airline arrived seven minutes early. You might land at an airport in the middle of nowhere, but the chances are Ryanair will get you there ahead of time.

* It is traditional for the maiden flight of a no-frills airline to be delayed, and so it proved for both Thomsonfly (from Coventry to Jersey) and EUJet (from Manston to Dublin). But both quickly compensated for their half-hour delays, with their final flights on the first day arriving 15 minutes early.

The original no-frills airline, easyJet, performed less than impressively: six of the nine flights I took were late, with an average delay of 15 minutes. This year easyJet celebrates its first decade, during which it has grabbed a large share of the business market, and forced rivals such as British Airways, BMI and KLM to cut fares by around half. But along the way it seems to have picked up its competitors' apparent systemic tardiness: BA's average delay was 10 minutes, while KLM and BMI flights were a mean 30 minutes behind schedule. As with those three airlines, easyJet pilots tend to be economical with acknowledgements of, and explanations for, delays. On the only occasion when a captain apologised for a 20-minute wait at Luton, he explained that two passengers had gone missing and that he "wouldn't like them to miss any of their holiday"; the other 148 of us silently calculated that the resulting delay sliced nearly 50 person-hours from our combined trips.

* The first flight of 2004 was aboard the world's biggest airline, American, and represented cut-price travel at its best: the economy cabin of the Boeing 777 had acres of room in which to stretch out. The flight left Heathrow right on time, and arrived at an uncongested JFK 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The next five flights on American were less impressive, with an average delay of 20 minutes. It is also the case that the closer you get to Latin America, the less legroom you get on the airline's planes.

* The only airline to "bump" me in 2004 was BMI. An agent asserted that the airline's minimum check-in time at Heathrow was 45 minutes, which I had narrowly missed; by the time I discovered that BMI's actual deadline was 30 minutes, the plane had filled up and taken off. In the absence of proof that I had arrived on time, BMI declined to compensate me. Should this ever happen to you, ask a fellow passenger to take a photograph of you at check-in with a clock in the background, which may help with subsequent negotiations.

* Singapore Airlines cut the flight time to Australia during 2004 to barely 18 hours between take-off at Heathrow and touch-down at Perth, thanks to a 45-minute connection at the airline's hub. The flight I took to Singapore arrived 50 minutes late, which wrecked plenty of connections. Yet by the time the Jumbo landed, every affected passenger had been told which flight they had been re-booked on. My remaining three Singapore Airlines flights were all on time, and the in-flight experience was superb, even at the tail end of a packed 747. This bodes well for the introduction of the "Superjumbo" A380 by the airline next year.

* Your flight is early or late only according to the airline's schedule, of course - which is where "padding" comes in. For the 200-mile hop from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow, BA and BMI allow up to 90 minutes, even though the flight should take barely half an hour. But congestion in the air and on the ground means that both carriers have learnt to allow ample time. As an example of the absurdity, at 7.45 each morning two flights are scheduled to depart from Paris: Air France to Manchester and BA to Heathrow. Both are due to arrive at the same time, 90 minutes later, even though the Air France jet has to travel twice as far.

Never Mind The Delays, Try The Chicken

To worry about the odd hour's delay is surely ridiculous given all that is wrong with the travel industry and the world at large. Siberian Airlines thought so, too; flight 3501 from Novosibirsk took off three hours late after what was rumoured to be "a technical problem". Shortly afterwards, it arrived - at Novosibirsk - after the same technical problem manifested itself 35,000ft above Siberia.

Those who have travelled aboard the Tupolev 154 will know that this kind of carry-on does not inspire the passenger with confidence. A mere 15 hours behind schedule, the ageing jet made a second, successful attempt at take-off. Only those unfortunate enough to accept the offer of a portion of chicken that had sweated for most of the day in the Siberian summer suffered long-term ill-effects; for most, it was enough that the plane landed safely.

Readers of the Kathmandu Post this week may not have been reassured by the ad for cabin crew training, which promised "Crash Courses".

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