"Get me on a flight now." Every day, trills the narrator introducing travel television's weekly dollop of déjà vu, "brings a fresh crop of troubles at Luton airport." Distil a year's worth of unhappiness into 18 programmes, and grief arrives thick and fast. "Your reservation has been cancelled." "It's Virgin's fault we're late.""I hate to tell you but it's going to cost £250."
Travel can be stressful. Things often go wrong, and people get upset when they do. Scottish football fans, when delayed at an airport, are not averse to strong drink. These assertions have been confirmed in each of the past five series of Airline, the everyday story of no-frills folk. An ITV fly has been glued to the wall at Luton airport following the fortunes of easyJet since antediluvian times, relatively speaking. And viewers have been glued to their screens – Airline was the "best-performing factual series" in Britain last year.
Commercially, stroppy punters have more audience appeal than Nationwide League footballers. So Airline returns for an implausible sixth series of 12 programmes on Monday at 8.30pm. I have had the good fortune, if that is the right term, to preview the first episode.
"Some of the problems passengers face are self-inflicted," the narrator reminds us, unnecessarily. As in series one to five, the docu-soap's drama derives from people arriving late or with out-of-date passports. (At least no one was so dumb as to turn up at Luton for a flight departing from Gatwick.)
If it sells, it's art – and the millions of viewers who are buying justify the existence of Airline. But does the programme do easyJet any favours? It suggests that with enough tears and tantrums the "rescue fee" for missing a flight can be halved; a £250 fare for a new ticket can shrink to £10, with a hotel room thrown in; and the half-hour check-in limit is as flexible as the rule that requires Scottish football fans to be sober when boarding an aircraft.
When easyJet consisted of only two borrowed planes, the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity rule applied. But it is now cultivating an image as big and businesslike, for a breed of passengers who rarely collapse in tears at check-in. So why has the chief executive, Ray Webster, endorsed a run of programmes stretching into the autumn? An easyAnswer: "When the Airline series runs, our bookings increase."
A sequel called Airline II: the Secrets Revealed is called for, to provided answers to the questions the programme raises. Such as: how does Jeremy Kerner, a passenger to Palma, come to have no fewer than two out-of-date French passports, plus a British one that he has left at home in north London? And why is he still allowed to travel? Most puzzling of all: how could a half-hour programme about a British airline manage not to include at least one total shutdown of the air traffic control computer in West Drayton?
I left my trunks in Toulon. They were last seen a few weeks ago, drying over the radiator at the foot of the bed in room five of the hotel La Residence – just another unwanted donation to the patron's collection of lost property.
It is the travellers' lot to unburden themselves by leaving a trail of belongings across the world. Mostly, clothing is forsaken in hotel rooms – places that appear designed to persuade you unwittingly to part with your possessions, especially when compounded by an early start to catch a train, bus or plane. All those wardrobes, drawers and radiators to be overlooked in the haste to pack, not to mention the cavernous void beneath the bed that beckons belongings.
Losing items of luggage is so serious a problem that it has spawned an entire branch of travellers' lore.
It is said that the best way to assess the honesty of hotel workers is to leave a couple of pounds' worth of loose change in the ashtray; if it stays, goes the theory, the cleaners are honest. (There is an obvious double-bluff complication here, involving staff ignoring the change but nicking notes.)
In less scrupulous establishments, allege some, chambermaids are prone to move your belongings around the room, placing high-value items in odd drawers or cupboards in the hope that you will forget them when you leave.
In my experience, fellow guests are far more likely than staff to pilfer possessions. And the only time I ever asked for something back that I had left in a room, my trousers were posted without hesitation or charge from a Labour Party conference hotel in Blackpool (don't ask).
Yet Jamie Bowden, doyen of the airline public-relations industry, is hopping mad. He owns a pair of Columbia "gravel crusher" walking boots, a perfect fit at size nine and a half. Since he bought them a year ago, they have seen service in Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Argentina, Uruguay, Easter Island and Chile (it's a tough life in airline PR). The trouble is, the boots are now 7,238 miles apart.
A month ago, Mr Bowden checked out of room 401 of the Hotel Imperio in the Chilean capital, Santiago. He packed everything except his left boot, for the short hop to Mendoza, across the Argentinian border. (Luckily, it was the last leg of his trip.) Back in west London, he called the hotel, where a lady called Roxana confirmed she had discovered the article stewing quietly in a corner of his room.
"Here's my credit-card number, please send it back," said Mr Bowden.
You might imagine that posting, second class, a single boot from Chile to Kew would be a few trifling pounds. But the hotel was quoted US$154, which at £110 is considerably more than the pair cost in the first place.
Mr Bowden has a better plan. He will lend the left boot to the first British traveller with the same size feet, planning a sojourn in South America, to contact him. They need only hotfoot it to the Imperio (a short hop from the railway station), ask for Roxana and, fairy-tale like, try the right boot for size. The rescuer may then use the footwear, within reason, so long as it eventually comes back to this country.
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