Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Fortress USA blocks tourism
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The Independent Travel

You know how flying works, or at least the initial stages of a flight. A dispatcher ensures that the aircraft's passengers and cargo are all present and correct. The door is closed. The pilot requests permission from the control tower to push back, to taxi, and to take off. And off you go to, say, Washington DC. That, at least, was how it used to be. But in 2004, some transatlantic flight crews apparently require the go-ahead from another 25 people: one from each of the 24 US agencies that delve into flight manifests on the airline's reservations computer, plus Tom Ridge. He appears to be chief air-traffic controller at both Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle as well as holding down his day job as US Secretary for Homeland Security.

Remote air-traffic control now appears to involve insisting that British Airways' Boeings remain at the gate at Heathrow for an average of three hours beyond the scheduled departure time, or simply cancelling the flight.

The new travel world order, as illustrated by BA's afternoon departure to the US capital, has proved revealing. Slots for transatlantic flights at Heathrow, we are constantly told, are among the most precious commodities in the world. Yet BA flight 223 to Washington DC can apparently linger on the stand at Terminal 4 for days until the last American official has signed off the flight - whereupon, at the drop of a US sky marshal's cowboy hat, it promptly taxies for take-off, even though the plane's official slot elapsed several hours earlier. If gates can be occupied and take-off slots found with such ease, is Terminal 5 and a new runway at Heathrow really necessary?

TO SHED some weight following an indulgent festive season, BA 223 is the flight for you. Passengers are obliged to check in at lunchtime for what is fondly described in the schedules as a 3.05pm departure. By 6pm, after an afternoon going no further than Terminal 4, you will be starving. The reason no meals are served, says the airline, is because the captain may suddenly be given permission to leave. Another motive for the paucity of refreshments could be the latest instruction from the US authorities that queuing for the inflight loo constitutes an unAmerican activity and is henceforth forbidden.

Across in Washington, passengers obliged to wait long into the night for the aircraft that is due to take them to London are luckier: BA staff are providing sustenance, while rearranging all the missed connections that reverberate from BA223's blighted existence.

How much does all this cost? Over the past week, the airline has calculated a blunt rule of thumb that aggregates everything from the charges made for the stand at Heathrow to hotel accommodation for passengers who miss connections. For every minute that the plane is late, the airline loses £100. By the time the Boeing has sat around for an hour, any profit that may have been expected from the flight will have evaporated. After three hours of waiting for clearance from the remote-controllers, which has been the average delay for flight 223 this week, BA would have been better off to hand back everyone's cash and fly them, for free, on other airlines.

IN THE unlikely event that your flight takes off on roughly the right day, and you manage both to dodge the sky marshals' shoot-out and to control your bladder, your problems are only just beginning. The all-powerful Department of Homeland Security is doing its best to keep terrorists at bay, but the effect is to "paint a big picture that the United States is becoming a destination that is too difficult to enter, too expensive to visit, and simply not worth the effort". Is that the assertion of a rival destination? No, the view of US Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

IN A year when Britons should be leading a revival in transatlantic tourism, Washington is turning the nation into a fortress more impenetrable than the Soviet bloc at the height of the Cold War. The USSR never insisted on interviewing visa applicants, nor fingerprinting new arrivals. On the Axis of Exasperation - those nations that make life especially difficult and frustrating for visitors - the US is now way ahead of the world's surviving Communist fossils, Cuba and North Korea. Are Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro ready for the tide of tourists who will choose their socialist paradises as paths of least resistance?

The other big announcement from Washington this week: illegal immigrants may stay within the US. While it is pleasing to see the world's wealthiest nation offering to expand its legitimate workforce and allow millions of Mexicans to stay, the message to prospective British visitors is an odd one: if you wade across the Rio Grande as an unlawful migrant, just wait a while and you'll be made welcome in an amnesty. But plan to take the family from Gatwick to Florida for a fortnight and you must endure bureaucracy more onerous than anything even the East Germans and Bulgarians could dream up.

IS THE world becoming safer, or just more anxious? The acronym for the bundle of new rules designed to thwart terrorism is US-VISIT. I suspect a good proportion of people previously intending to travel to America will respond VISIT? US? NO THANKS. And a great country will be the poorer, in every sense, for our absence.

Nothing is calculated to spread confusion more quickly than a poorly communicated decision about travel documents. In 1999, the UK passport service introduced a small rule change discontinuing the practice of adding children to a parent's passport - a decision that affected a tiny proportion of travellers. But the message from the Passport Office in Petty France was perceived as a need for every child, even those already safely detailed on a parent's document, to have their own passport. Soon, the passport service gummed up in a welter of applications.

To use the word of the week, the totality of America's robust new attitude to prospective tourists causes great uncertainty. Anyone still considering a trip to the US needs some answers:

Q I have an ordinary British passport. Will I need a visa to visit America this summer?

A No, nothing changes before 26 October. Anyone who qualifies for the Visa Waiver Program - travelling for a short business or leisure trip, with no record of an arrest and/or conviction anywhere in the world, and able to tick all the other correct boxes - can still get in simply by filling in the I94-W form you get at the airport. You will not be photographed or fingerprinted on arrival.

But anyone with a passport due to expire in a few years' time, and who expects to be travelling repeatedly to the US, could apply for a new passport before October. That is when the crucial new rule takes effect. A new travel document issued after 26 October will not be accepted for visa-free travel to the US unless it is an "intelligent passport" with a chip bearing biometric information on your face, fingerprint and possibly iris. Getting a fresh passport before that date could save hassle - though you lose the value of the time left on the existing passport.

Q Why don't I wait and get one of those new "intelligent passports"?

A Because they don't exist. The International Civil Aviation Organization has issued guidelines for such a document, but no country I know will be ready to issue them before summer 2005.

Q Why is getting a visa such a bad thing?

A It didn't used to be. Until 1986, when the Visa Waiver Program was introduced, every British visitor to America needed a visa. But it was free and you could apply by post. These days, you must attend an interview at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate in Belfast and pay £65, whether or not the visa is eventually issued.

Q What about our children?

A They must apply, too. No one is exempt from the war on tourism - sorry, terrorism.