Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

With Wimbledon sure to finish any week now, summer must be soon to begin, bringing with it the promise of warm days and long evenings somewhere more exotic than home. But first you have to get there

With Wimbledon sure to finish any week now, summer must be soon to begin, bringing with it the promise of warm days and long evenings somewhere more exotic than home. But first you have to get there, often in a crowded aircraft – where, to read some recent accounts of cramped seats on long-haul flights, you will be lucky to escape merely with agonising discomfort rather than deep-vein thrombosis.

With Wimbledon sure to finish any week now, summer must be soon to begin, bringing with it the promise of warm days and long evenings somewhere more exotic than home. But first you have to get there, often in a crowded aircraft – where, to read some recent accounts of cramped seats on long-haul flights, you will be lucky to escape merely with agonising discomfort rather than deep-vein thrombosis.

Are the seats being crammed closer together? Are people getting taller and wider? Or are travellers simply becoming fussier? To find out, I took a trip back to the Seventies, to the RAF Museum at Cosford in Shropshire. Despite the military name, Cosford includes a fine collection of civil aircraft, from the Viscount (RIP) to the Comet (ditto). Biggest of all is a Boeing 707 in the colours of British Airtours, which has just gone on public display.

British Airtours has nothing to do with the tour operator Airtours – instead, think of it as a 1970s version of Go. British Airtours, just like Go, was part of British Airways. It was set up to compete with the rapidly growing low-cost sector, which at the time meant charters.

The airline was one of several charter outfits, along with Dan-Air and Caledonian Airways, whose speciality was taking old scheduled planes like the Comet and the 707, cramming more seats on and giving the aircraft a new lease of life flying British holidaymakers to the Med – or, in the case of this elderly Boeing, across the Atlantic. Until Sir Freddie Laker was allowed to fly Skytrain in 1977, the only cheap flights to America were charters. You had to commit three months in advance, and pay around the same as you do now. But a £160 return to New York in 1972 required a month's work at the average national wage, rather than a couple of days in 2002. For this you got to travel in a jet that, even 30 years ago, had seen better days. (A rumour used to circulate at Gatwick airport that Dan-Air, which sadly went bust a decade ago, owned the first 707 ever to fly the Atlantic. Pan Am tried to buy it back to put it into a museum, but Dan-Air refused and kept flying it.)

Aboard the 707 in Cosford, I sat down as best I could, with kneecaps pressed against the seat ahead. I judge the "seat pitch" – the distance between the front of one seat and the front of the next – to be 30 inches, slightly worse than scheduled flights these days, slightly better than some charters. Jim French, an aviation veteran who is now managing director of British European, later confirmed this estimate.

Scheduled passengers typically enjoyed a couple of extra inches of room. They could also pay £3 for a pathetic plastic stethoscope which enabled them to listen to the tinny soundtrack of an out-of-focus film being badly projected on to the backs of other passengers' heads.

The charter traveller, meanwhile, had nothing but a joyless, frill-free experience. But the main purpose of travel is not to enjoy the inflight movies; it is to be in strange and wonderful places with strange and wonderful people

If ever you feel your plane is too crowded, pause to think about an El Al flight in 1991. The Israeli national airline sent a Boeing 747 to Addis Ababa to fly 1,087 passengers to Tel Aviv, as part of the Operation Solomon mission to airlift Ethiopian Jews. It was a passenger/cargo Jumbo that had been specially fitted out with 760 seats for the airlift, but with the armrests up the capacity was increased by about 50 per cent. That is about 2.5 people for every seat aboard the most densely populated Jumbo in passenger service.

The effectiveness of El Al's security was once again highlighted at Los Angeles' airport on Independence Day, when a gunman attacked the airline's ticket desk. The incident will heighten still further the sensitivities of US air travellers – especially those heading to Washington's Ronald Reagan airport. The usual approach path follows the Potomac river, passing close to both the White House and the Pentagon. The airport stayed closed for a month after 11 September, while additional security measures were devised. Once it re-opened, the Federal Aviation Authority (whose HQ is also close to the arrival path) insisted that no passenger leave their seat on any Washington-bound plane within the last half-hour of the flight. If anyone does so, the captain is under strict instructions to divert the aircraft to an alternative airport, on the assumption that the passenger is a potential hijacker intent on crashing the plane in the American capital.

Tough rules, especially for United – the second-biggest airline in the US, and the one that describes itself as "the friendly skies". Jeff Zeleny, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was on board a flight to Washington when Captain David Miller stepped out of the flight deck to address the passengers: "I would like to let you know that I have six children. My wife says she has seven. Use your imagination on that. I did have a first-class passenger look at me and say, 'You have 13 kids?' His wife had to explain it to him."

Captain Miller then spelt out the rule about access to the cockpit. "Down at the bottom of that door is a a metal strip that runs across that floor. That's a demilitarised zone. A part of your body crosses that line, it's mine. You are not going to get it back in the same condition that it crossed that line in." He concluded: "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have a job. And I couldn't afford 13 kids. I recognise that personally. Please accept a personal thank you, from me to you, for being customers of United Airlines."

"You can't do that on here." Back in Europe, such commands have been barked in dozens of languages by ticket inspectors on Europe's railways in the past 30 years. Officials have put an end to all manner of in-train infractions, such as smoking, sex and leaning out of the window, sometimes all at once.

En route to Cosford, my offence was to plug a laptop computer into the inviting 240-volt mains socket aboard a Virgin train. All the company's trains have these power supplies, but apparently passengers are allowed to use them only on some. I was about to advance the argument that, as an unwilling occupant of his train (which was stalled somewhere outside Smethwick), I should be able to boost my battery. But he spiked any further discussion by pointing at the socket and making the shocking revelation that "25,000 volts comes out of there". No doubt this is somehow involved in culling excess Inter-Railers. If ever your batteries need recharging, literally or figuratively, travel on someone else's train.

After a weekend on the rails, or the road, what you crave is an extended hot shower. I spent three days cycling through Bavaria, covering some stretches by squeezing on to trains full of Inter-Railers. Eventually I made it across the Austrian border to Salzburg, and checked into the Yo-Ho hostel. I eagerly anticipated a prolonged soak, followed by Julie Andrews; the hostel celebrates the home of the von Trapp family by screening The Sound of Music every day.

At check-in, guests are given a token for a shower. It lasts precisely six minutes. In my experience, 360 seconds is not enough to wash away the blood, sweat and odd bit of stray lunch that tramping across Europe entails. Consequently, the dorms are alive with the aroma of not-fully-washed backpackers. Travellers are packed in like sardines, with an odour to match. In the gents', meanwhile, someone has scrawled a puzzling graffito: "I claim this toilet in the name of Albania" – the only European country to have steadfastly held out against the tide of Inter-Rail.

travel@independent.co.uk

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