Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Is the stewardess sleepy? Perhaps she's moonlighting...

The peaceful invasion of Poland is soon to begin. Airlines have been strangely slow in starting services to the largest of the eastern European countries to join the EU in May. Poland's population of 40 million eclipses that of its smaller rivals, and the average citizen's propensity to travel is evident from the convoys of coaches shuttling between Britain and Poland.

The peaceful invasion of Poland is soon to begin. Airlines have been strangely slow in starting services to the largest of the eastern European countries to join the EU in May. Poland's population of 40 million eclipses that of its smaller rivals, and the average citizen's propensity to travel is evident from the convoys of coaches shuttling between Britain and Poland.

At last, easyJet announced this week that flights from Luton to Warsaw and Krakow will start on Hallowe'en. The cosy duopoly that British Airways and LOT Polish Airlines have enjoyed on those routes for decades will end, fares will fall and UK travellers will start to explore the cities, coast and countryside of a much-neglected nation.

A taste for what lies behind the belt of rust once known as the Iron Curtain is evident in one of the summer's rare success stories for Britain's package-holiday industry: Bulgaria. At last, this beautiful if eccentric country seems to be getting its tourism act together. As the story on page 6 explains, UK visitors to Black Sea resorts have nearly doubled this summer.

Say what you like about Bulgaria's national airline, but it has cleaned up its act in the past 20 years. I first flew on Balkan Bulgarian from Gatwick in 1984, on a skiing holiday implausibly arranged by the tour-operating arm of British Airways. On board the Tupolev, I had an aisle seat. This meant I was well placed to oblige when, during the take-off roll along the runway, the chief steward wandered through the smoking section asking for a light for one of his newly acquired American cigarettes.

BULGARIA HAS not exactly taken the first available departure to the tempting landscapes of liberal democracy and mass tourism. The country's hotels have traditionally been among the dodgiest in Europe (not counting Albania and Middlesbrough). Many appear to have been built to a set of badly photocopied Soviet blueprints. Traditionally they were run according to the kind of exacting customer-service standards established by the KGB.

In the past few years, quality has improved because Spanish hoteliers have brought their management experience to Bulgaria's coast. The Iberostar, Iberotel and Rui chains have invested cash and expertise to try to upgrade the former Costa del Communism and turn it into a cut-price version of Spain. But the eastern European newsletter Transitions Online reports that one unfortunate facet of Spanish tourism c1970 has blighted the start of the summer: "Work was supposed to have ended by May at Sunny Beach and Golden Sands, but loud machinery and muddy sites were still in evidence in June. The delayed finish meant thousands of tourists who had booked rooms at the Golden Sands resort had to be moved to other places."

To survey the seafront for yourself, you could pay as little as €30 (£21) for a standby flight from Liege in Belgium to the Black Sea airport of Varna on Bexx Air, Bulgaria's no-frills airline - an unconventional outfit that was launched a year ago by a group of German investors.

The standard refrain from most airline bosses is that everything is going fantastically well and they are having the time of their lives.

Not Bexx Air's chief executive, Dirk Weisemann: he frankly admits that the past 12 months has been grim: "Setting up a company facing competition with Lufthansa, Bulgaria Air and Austrian Airlines is not easy and no fun at all."

Undeterred, Herr Weisemann is overseeing the expansion of Bexx Air - and asking other airlines' cabin crew to moonlight for his company. "We are looking for part-time employees who would like to serve one or two Bexx Air flights per week. If you work for another airline - no problem!"

No problem for Herr Weisemann, perhaps, but a concern for the other airlines, who insist that staff should not work for the opposition - not least on safety grounds. The Civil Aviation Authority stipulates a minimum number of days off for cabin crew. These are intended for sleeping, shopping or fishing - not flying for another airline.

Candidates tempted by this offer should note the requirement to "have a type rating on the TU 154"; that'll be the old Tupolev, then. To check out this aircraft, look at the Swiss website devoted to ex-Soviet planes, www.russians.bird.ch. It shows an attractive picture of another of the type, taken in June 2001, with a chilling caption: "In the current livery of Sibir Airlines, Tupolev 154M RA-85693 taxies to the departure runway with the outskirts of Irkutsk in the background. The same aircraft was lost over the Black Sea on 4 October 2001."

Two more hurdles for anyone still tempted by Bexx Air: you must be under 30, and female.

For job applications or cheap flights to Bulgaria: Bexx Air (00 359 2 983 9406; www.fly-bexx.com). For cheap flights from Luton to Poland: easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyJet.com)

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