Sky's the limit for air madness

From the window of this Airbus, the scale of the aerial absurdity that occurs at dawn each day becomes clear. As the people of Essex try to sleep, at least three wide-bodied aircraft are circling over their homes. Each plane is unable to finish its journey just yet. Instead, they are burning up fuel over Brentwood. And all because too many travellers want to fly to Heathrow.

The original plans for Europe's busiest airport, drawn up 60 years ago, called for a star pattern of eight runways. Today, Heathrow has just two. The airport's owner, BAA, is clamouring for a junior airstrip to be built where, inconveniently, the village of Harmondsworth happens to be.

The Government's announcement on airport capacity in the South-east will be made soon. Meanwhile, to make the most of the available space, planes have to float around in rotating reservoirs over the Home Counties. They are then released to land in an elaborate sequence. Smaller aircraft like the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 must be kept away from the vortexes created by "heavies" such as the 747 or A340, the plane currently taking me on an aerial tour of South-east England. Its ultra-heavy big brother, the A380, starts flying in 2006 for the launch customers, Emirates and Singapore Airlines.

No prizes for guessing the initial destination for the double-decker jet. This is a plane made for Heathrow, to soak up the excess passenger demand for London's main airport. Airlines will deploy the new super-jumbo on their premier routes to and from Heathrow - which, at this moment, is disappearing behind us as we take yet another turn to head back whence we came.

Our origin was Bahrain, where I finally achieved my aim of stepping aboard a flight coded 007 (yes, thank you, I will be getting a life soon). The opportunity was afforded by Gulf Air 007, licenced to spin endlessly over Essex. Disappointingly, the commander of the aircraft is not Captain Bond. Captain Fantastic, more like, given his confident assurance that we would touch down 25 minutes ahead of schedule. Luckily for Brentwood, we stay aloft at his appointed hour and continue to whirl around the fantasy world that 21st-century aviation has become. Life in the sky is more Alice In Wonderland than Die Another Day - although, right now at 12,000 feet over Chingford, I hope I do just that.

Perhaps the optimistic pilot had been misinformed, in the same way that Eastern Airways captains might be if they believe everything their executives say. Later this month, the airline (01625 680 600, www.easternairways.com) is to start flying from Birmingham to a new Scottish destination: "Inverness in the Western Isles", according to Graeme Ross, whose title is Director Scotland. Those familiar with the city rooted firmly on the east side of the Scottish mainland, where the river Ness meets the Moray Firth, may be surprised to see it so described.

As we circle, Heathrow seems as far away as the Western Isles (wherever they may be). My mind begins to play tricks on me. I become irrationally convinced that America's richest state had chosen Arnold Schwarzenegger as its governor. That would be about as mad as Hollywood deciding to adopt a British television docu-soap about aviation. When I landed, I was shocked to discover that both had come true.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, easyJet's founder, freely admits that he based his creation on Southwest, America's most successful airline. But now the Dallas-based airline has decided to copy easyJet. It plans to give its passengers their 15 minutes of fame in a carbon-copy of ITV's Airline, to be shot at Los Angeles rather than Luton.

Some Southwest cabin crew deserve a show of their own; I have already urged the production company (airline@granadausa.com) to consider Duane Redmond, a camp-as-Kansas flight attendant. His safety demonstration routine begins "Place the mask over that big old mouth and nose of yours, and breathe like this: aaaaaah, ooooooh, uuuuuuh".

Now there's an idea for an aviation film: Carry On Up To 30,000 Feet.

Here on GF 007, there is no such carry-on. Thursday's edition of Airport (the BBC's terrestrial docu-soap effort, based at Heathrow), showed an angry Gulf Air passenger at check in. But on board, everyone was placid. Perhaps it was the free food and drink.

One problem: no eating irons. British law states that airlines may carry as many bottles and glasses as they wish, but anything as dangerous as metal cutlery is banned. On the connecting flight from Muscat to Bahrain, the exact opposite applies: stainless steel knives and forks are readily available, but alcohol is not.

Thirsty executives transferring to London do not have to wait too long. Even before 007 takes off from Bahrain, Gulf Air's passengers are plied with champagne.

Is that an Air 2000 plane I can see somewhere over Chelmsford? Not for much longer. The charter airline that has been unkindly described as "three years past its fly-by date" is finally to change its identity. I was keen to find out what imaginative new title would be adopted by First Choice, which owns the carrier. Will it choose the far-sighted name Air 20-20, or buy an entire millennium of breathing space by upgrading to Air 3000? No: after three years' brainstorming, the company has selected First Choice Airways.

Those who like their airlines to have numbers, not names, can take comfort in Finland. After years of getting muddled with the troubled airline of Bosnia, the Finnish domestic carrier Air Botnia has decided that Blue 1 is a more appealing name.

The skies will become a little less crowded two weeks from today, when Concorde is grounded. The supersonic jet's thirst for fuel comes uncomfortably close to the maximum capacity of its tanks, so it has always had an informal "gold card" that allows it to jump the queues. "Speedbird Two", the call-sign for BA flight 002 from New York, allows Concorde to slip straight in to Heathrow. The jet's demise also frees up the two most prestigious numbers that any airline can have, 001 and 002. Many airlines apply these numbers to their flights to and from Heathrow. Yet British Airways is missing a marketing trick: it has no plans to recycle the digits.

They could be applied to the first BA flight of the day each way between Heathrow and JFK. This would retain a Concorde connection with the supersonic past. On occasion, it might even gain a time advantage from a forgetful air-traffic controller, if there is such a person (which I sincerely hope there is not).

An air-traffic controller remembered about the existence of GF 007 and at last set us on a course for Heathrow's northerly runway. The jet touched down as far as it is possible to be from the assigned gate. Some dawdling while other aircraft crossed our path added to the delay. Finally, we were allowed off - only to run into ground congestion. The corridor to Arrivals was roped off to allow Copenhagen-bound passengers to reach their gate. No sooner was this barrier removed than another was put in place, this time to enable a traveller to glide regally into the Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge, while a planeload of peeved passengers watched and waited.

Why do so many travellers willingly pay high fares and endure delays in exchange for such wearisome treatment? Simple: supply and demand chase each other. Because so many passengers want to use Heathrow, it can offer a better frequency to the world's leading destinations than any other airport. These connection opportunities in turn attract more travellers.

Sometimes, the connections don't work, and the unfortunate passenger finds it necessary to head for a local hotel. This is the final example of our aviation eccentricity: at every other airport, passengers on public buses must pay, while the courtesy bus to a hotel is free. At Heathrow, the opposite applies. It is customary to slip the driver of the bus from a US airport to the hotel a dollar or two. But at Heathrow, it is compulsory to slip him a minimum of £3.50 ($5).

This is the one-way fare on the "Heathrow Hoppa", the shuttle bus that ferries travellers all of one mile to the local hotel strip. Yet every few minutes, red double-deckers set off from the airport bus station to the same destinations for free: fares on ordinary buses kick in only outside the airport area. There may be no such thing as a free flight, but free bus travel is alive and well and circling around Heathrow.

"New York is now a safer city than London." It must be true because Ian Duncan Smith said so on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday. Yet there is a murder every 15 hours in America's largest city - three times more frequent than in our capital, even though both have similar populations. Perhaps the Conservative leader has his own definition of "dangerous"; sadly, I could not find specific figures for backstabbing.

travel@independent.co.uk

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