Extra space is Boeing, Boeing gone

Squeeze up. Twenty years ago, Dubai was little more than a service station in the desert, where British Caledonian jets refuelled en route from Gatwick to Hong Kong while the passengers topped up their reserves of cheap drink and cigarettes. Today, the Emirate is by far the most popular destination in the Middle East among British travellers. Indeed, it is almost too popular, which is why you will need to keep those elbows tucked in on flights from Heathrow to the Gulf.

Emirates, an airline that did not even exist two decades ago, is now the fastest-growing international airline in the world. Few other carriers would have both the nerve and the cash to spend £12bn on dozens of Airbus and Boeing planes. Buying while no one much else is, as has been mentioned here before, can be a rewarding business. Playing one manufacturer off against the other helps to force the price down even further and, in turn, feeds through to lower costs, cheaper tickets and fuller planes.

The airline has built up a substantial fleet of Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s. From a distance, they are hard to tell apart: each is a wide-bodied, twin-engined jet. Plane-spotters will point out the dinky little winglets sprouting from the Airbus's wings. As a business-class passenger there is little to choose between them. Turn left as you enter either aircraft, and you enter a cabin with seven comfortable seats in each row.

Turn right into economy, though, and the experience is very different. The Airbus has eight seats abreast, making the wide-bodied aircraft feel about as spacious as any of us have the right to expect in the cheap seats these days.

The internal diameter of the Boeing's cabin is 19 inches wider than the Airbus, the breadth of an economy-class seat. Yet Emirates squeezes in not one but two extra passengers in each row. While every other scheduled airline that I know of with Boeing 777s has installed nine economy seats abreast, the Dubai-based airline reaches double figures.

The extra seat in each row has not unduly affected Emirates' ability to win awards; it regularly figures among the top three long-haul carriers, along with Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. But informed economy travellers heading from Heathrow to Dubai have, until this month, opted for the 10.30pm departure: the only one of the three daily flights to be operated by an Airbus. Or so it was. Emirates announced last week that, to meet extra demand, the A330 has been replaced by a 777. If you yearn for the wide-open spaces of an Airbus, head instead for Birmingham or Manchester for that flight to Dubai. Your girth will be less constrained - and you are 25 per cent more likely to get a window seat.

Airline sponsorship of football teams is a risky investment, especially when relegation looms. Headlines like "West Brom for the drop" or "Sunderland going down" do not sit comfortably in proximity to an airline's name. Even so, over four seasons Emirates is ploughing about a Boeing's worth of cash into Chelsea FC; if you are one of those lucky enough to get a window seat, you can often see the Stamford Bridge ground on the approach to Heathrow.

The Emirates deal expires in 2005. Since the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took over the club, only one airline can be a contender to take over as the club's sponsor: Aeroflot.

Russia's international airline, in which Mr Abramovich also has a stake, must soon apply its communist-era logo to team shirts. Across in east London, West Ham United fans will be as sick as queasy passengers to see the hammer and sickle of Aeroflot appear on the Chelsea team strip. The changes at Stamford Bridge will be dramatic. The carrier does not enjoy as good a reputation as Emirates, and the sign outside the Chelsea complex yesterday, promising "a great place to eat and drink", is not a claim often made in Aeroflot's home town, Moscow.

No more slices of orange at half-time: Chelsea Dynamo (as they will surely be known) can expect rock-solid slabs of food of indeterminate origin washed down with a worryingly luminous soft drink that will put some in mind of Chernobyl.

OUT GOES the trainer's pain-relieving sponge, in comes a shot of high-octane vodka. The Shed End stand will be refurbished with redundant seats from Tupolevs that have toppled off to Russia's aircraft graveyard. In the corporate hospitality suites, refreshments will be administered not by comely young women but by rugged aspiring weightlifters whose gender is most kindly described as vague.

Given that some early Aeroflot planes included gunners' turrets (nothing to do with the Arsenal squad), penalty shoot-outs could become more exciting.

If free flights on Aeroflot are part of the package, the team will find that the airline's 777s are fitted out with just nine seats abreast in economy. Better still, the first-class cabin of the airline's Ilyushin 62 holds exactly the first XI plus the coach; the reserve team, plus overpaid football agents and underpaid sports reporters, can be confined to steerage.

Footballers are forsaking their traditional holiday haunts of the Costa del Sol and the Algarve for a dry (though not alcohol-free) corner of the Arabian Gulf. No doubt the Chelsea player Eidur Gudjohnsen (left) flew to Dubai for his holiday on his current sponsor's airline (though Aeroflot charges only £1,500 in first class, against Emirates' £4,000). He stayed at the flashy Jumeirah Beach hotel. You can track holidaying soccer stars on the website www.football365.com, where Nick Hayes reports his sighting of the Chelsea striker in the company of a woman who, he says, "was extremely easy on the eye". Mr Hayes spied Blackburn Rovers' Andy Cole in the same hotel.

Across the Emirate at the Deira City Center shopping complex, Luke Howard encountered Paul Gascoigne, once the great hope for English football, later an obese pastiche of a wasted genius. But Gazza is tackling the weight problem: "He looked fit, and not a kebab in sight," says Mr Howard. "Which is odd considering you get the world's best kebabs in Dubai for only 50p."

How appropriate: the British public, having paid billions of pounds to create a machine that flies the high and mighty few while disturbing the peace of the many, are now expected to pay through the nose for the slim chance of experiencing Concorde before it is laid to rest.

Even in its death throes, the supersonic jet is costing us a small fortune. To mark Concorde's final week in passenger service, beginning 20 October, the plane is making a "special supersonic farewell tour of the UK". Residents of Cardiff, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester and Belfast will find their windows rattled and pets petrified as the plane arrives for a farewell tour.

Concorde will not take the shortest route between those points, but instead will burn extraordinary quantities of fuel over the Atlantic, turning each 20-minute hop into a 100-minute supersonic trip around the Bay (of Biscay).

To get aboard one of these flights, says BA, you should dial a premium-rate number, 09069 150 001, "and answer a simple question": what is the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic from New York to London by Concorde? You must call by midnight on 20 July to stand a chance of winning one of the 325 pairs of tickets. Even if I tell you that the correct answer, for which you should press button 1, is two hours 53 minutes, the call is going to cost you £2. But I can reveal that you can enter free by sending your name, home telephone number, postcode and the answer above to, wait for it, National Concorde Competition, British Airways Freepost, SCE 12858, PO Box 365, Harmondsworth, West Drayton UB7 0GZ. Is so long an address really necessary, or is it simply to deter cheapskates?

What a palaver. "We want as many people as possible to experience supersonic travel before Concorde retires at the end of October," says Martin George, British Airways' director of marketing. If so, why not sell standby seats on the supersonic jet's scheduled service between London and New York every day for the rest of its life for, say, £500 each way? The airline would earn more money, and those poor Basque fisherfolk in the Bay of Biscay will avoid their daily deafening from the daytrippers' sonic boom.

"A country larger than France," was Peter Hain's subject in the House of Commons on Thursday. Was the Leader of the House describing Venezuela (twice the size of France) or Ukraine (a mere 10 per cent bigger)? Neither of the above: he was talking about Iraq, a nation one-fifth smaller than France. This oversight was all the more curious because Mr Hain is also Secretary of State for Wales, the country traditionally used as a unit of comparison for area (one Iraq equals 21 Waleses, while France equals 26 principalities, in case you wondered). If Mr Hain wants to check my sums, I shall fearlessly reveal my source: the CIA World Factbook.

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