Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Caracas? Yes, BA staff are really angry...
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The Independent Travel

If you encounter British Airways cabin crew with faces as long as the flights they work on, the reason could be simple: they have had to bid farewell to the beach at Macuto, barely a trolley-dash from Caracas airport.

If you encounter British Airways cabin crew with faces as long as the flights they work on, the reason could be simple: they have had to bid farewell to the beach at Macuto, barely a trolley-dash from Caracas airport.

BA has lost its love of Latin America, and is cutting two more South American cities from its network. Flights from Heathrow to Caracas and Bogota are to be abandoned from 6 February. The airline has operated from London to the capitals of Venezuela and Colombia for 17 years, but cannot make the route sufficiently profitable.

However much it vexed the accountants, the cabin crew loved the trip. The schedule sometimes meant they would fly out on a Sunday to Caracas, and spend the following four days by the pool at the Sheraton Macuto Resort on the Caribbean coast. On day five, they would temporarily leave the beach for the least onerous trip in the book: the 90-minute each-way flight from Caracas to Bogota's well-named El Dorado airport and back. The weekend would be all theirs to spend on the glorious beach, before the flight home to Heathrow late on Sunday night and the prospect of a well-earned rest at home.

The displeasure of the cabin crew is matched by the dismay of the tourist trade in both Venezuela and Colombia. The national carriers, Avianca of Colombia and Viasa of Venezuela, used to operate from Heathrow to Bogota and Caracas. But the former withdrew and the latter went bust. Both countries are to be left with no scheduled links from western Europe's biggest city, though BA is passing on the business to its alliance partner, Iberia of Spain.

British Airways' recent history in Latin America is one of progressive withdrawal. Havana, Cancun, San José and Santiago have all been erased from the network in the last couple of years, and travellers bound for Rio and Buenos Aires must make a stop at Sao Paulo. This is curious, since the Latin America is enjoying a surge in tourism.

Visitor numbers to Venezuela, in particular, are rising after the elections earlier this year stabilised a unsteady political climate. There is even talk that the national carrier may soon be back in business: Viasa could yet re-emerge from the ashes.

"Sorry about your bike experience," writes Andre de Mendonca of South American Experience. He is referring to my tale last week of underwriting American Airlines' huge losses by paying an extra £55 in order for my folding bicycle to accompany me. In fact, a London representative of the airline says that the rules were applied too rigorously, and that I am entitled to a refund of most of the charge.

Mr de Mendonca observes that check-in staff have a lot to put up with: "I remember once being phoned by the livid Iberia desk at Heathrow who said that one of my passengers had turned up on a moped and was insisting that that it should be counted as half of his two-piece luggage allowance."

One airline practice that is less easy to comprehend is reconfirmation: the need to call the airline 48 hours before departure to verify that you intend to travel. Ros Hosking e-mails to say she, too, is baffled that some agents and airlines still require it. "Is this for our benefit or the airlines?" she asks. "Heathrow just has a voice message saying you don't need to do it. Abroad you often struggle to find the right number only to be met by an uninterested response at the other end. Is it still necessary or a relic of an earlier regime?"

In my experience, the latter. On a couple of occasions in the 1980s, it proved either pointless or downright unhelpful. The second-to-last time I reconfirmed was after trekking halfway across Hong Kong Island to the British Caledonian office, on the travel agent's instructions. I was greeted with the cheery news that I had wasted my time: "Oh, you're on an Apex ticket so you needn't have bothered."

The very last time was at a student travel office in Istanbul: the staff there told me the departure time on my ticket was incorrect, and that the Gatwick flight would take off 90 minutes later than shown. Regrettably, the ticket was right and the office was wrong. Twice bitten, I have not reconfirmed anything since then.

The habit seems to be rooted in the past, when most tickets were both expensive and flexible. The vast majority of passengers these days have heavily restricted tickets, in which case they'll lose all their money if they fail to turn up. The lucky few have flexible full-fare tickets, with no penalty for being a "no-show", whether or not they have reconfirmed. So neither has any incentive to call the airline.

I can see only one purpose for reconfirmation, and that is to act against the passenger's interests. The procedure has been used by some unscrupulous carriers as a device to allow them to overbook and avoid paying compensation to the grounded passengers. Certain carriers know that not everyone will remember or be able to call 48 hours ahead: it is tricky to make phone contact from, say, the highlands or islands of Thailand to the reservations number in Bangkok.

Backpackers' hostels in South-east Asia will usually have at least one aggrieved traveller who was told his or her seat had been sold, and that there would be a three-day wait for the next flight via Moscow. Curiously, British Airways - which is above that sort of thing - until recently insisted travellers flying from or to Lagos and Beijing reconfirmed their flights.

Surely the practice is obsolete and should be abolished. Imagine a theatre insisting that you called three days before the performance to confirm you would be attending, and threatened not to let you in if you failed to do so.

Can someone in the industry provide any evidence that reconfirmation benefits the traveller?

AIRLINE SINKS WITHOUT A TRACE

Another one bites the dust. In case you were not aware of Air Polonia, this no-frills Polish airline survived for three years before going bust this week. A catastrophe for the company and its staff, of course - but passengers may hardly have noticed. If there is ever a good time for an airline to close down, it is during the dark days of November and early December. With plenty of empty seats flying around Europe, other carriers step in and offer to carry the passengers who have lost money for only the "taxes, fees and charges" - in other words, enough to cover their marginal costs. Ryanair did so last month, when Volare of Italy was grounded, and SkyEurope stepped in to help Air Polonia's customers. The Government and the mainstream travel industry seems intent on bringing in a cumbersome bonding scheme that would add a pound or two to all air fares within Europe, in order to pay out when no-hoper airlines go under. But rather than adding layers of bureaucracy and increasing the cost of travel for everyone, the airline industry should be allowed to clean up the mess itself.

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