The Man Who Pays His Way: Slowest common denominator

Reading this back, I wonder why I ever bothered getting on a plane this year. As Frank and Orville Wright pioneered powered flight 104 Decembers ago, you might imagine the world has got the hang of aviation by now. You would be wrong. Indeed, the excuses for delays in this column's annual survey of flight timekeeping suggest airlines' antics are becoming increasingly eccentric.

"We've not quite made schedule," observed the pilot of a Heathrow-Budapest flight after landing in the Hungarian capital on the day after it was due. He works for British Airways; of the 22 flights I took with the airline this year, just three got away on time.

It was never made clear what the cause was for reaching Budapest on the wrong day, but there were plenty of exotic excuses for upsets on rival airlines. A Stansted-Bilbao flight on easyJet departed an hour late because of "French air force manoeuvres in the Bay of Biscay", while a one-hour hold up for a Virgin Atlantic departure from Montego Bay was caused by "offloading a passenger and bag due to HM Revenue and Customs' request", as the captain put it.

Prize for the most opaque explanation for a delay goes to the member of cabin crew on a Thai Airways 747 stuck for no apparent reason on the ground at Bangkok. As the chances of my making a connection at Heathrow dwindled, I asked why the flight was late. "Because of a delay in departure," the steward solemnly revealed, then went to illuminate someone else.

At least those flights all eventually flew where they were expected to go. This has been the year of the detour. In January, I bought a ticket from Montreal to Huatulco on Mexico's Pacific coast, but found myself arriving and clearing customs at Canc* on the Caribbean shore of Mexico. The reason: "a crewing anomaly because of an unusual pairing earlier in the week". The result: the plane had to fly first to Canc* to pick up a spare crew, then head across Mexico to the far shore.

One airline managed to combine the award for longest delay with runner's-up prize for oddest diversion. I was due to fly on Ethiopian Airlines from Gondar, with a 15-hour buffer in Addis Ababa before my onward connection to Nairobi. Unfortunately the flight to the Ethiopian capital was 15 hours and 15 minutes late, and inevitably the ground staff at Addis Ababa refuted all the promises made in Gondar about the connection being held.

I was duly booked on the next flight to Nairobi. One small problem: the plane set a different course and flew to Arusha, Tanzania a country not in my travel plans, and which even by Ryanair standards comprises an extreme version of "Nairobi South".

Clear winner for the strangest of the 79 flights I took this year was Emirates EK005 from Dubai to Heathrow. What began as a routine, if slightly delayed, Sunday afternoon departure turned into a magical mystery tour. During the flight, the airline's HQ identified a problem. Staff in Dubai computed that the Boeing would not have time to land, offload passengers and cargo, take on the return load and take off again before the midnight curfew closed Heathrow for the night. So EK005 was diverted to Gatwick, which has no such restriction. All the passengers and ground staff were moved to the Sussex airport, but one crucial detail was overlooked: making sure the pilot knew he was supposed to change course.

It was a credit to 380 passengers that, when told they had landed at the right airport but would now be forced to fly to the wrong one, they reacted calmly. The "15-minute hop" to Gatwick took over an hour, as another aircraft was blocking the runway at the Sussex airport. The aviation rumour mill suggests that our flight was within two minutes of being diverted to ... Manchester.

Emirates may have been the first airline to fly a Boeing 777 full of passengers from the intended destination airport to somewhere else, but it is not quite at the foot of the timekeeping league. The measure is departure time, not arrival time, so the average delay on Emirates was just 46 minutes.

Ethiopian Airlines is the clear winner, with average tardiness of one hour, 50 minutes. Virgin did not fare well, at 41 minutes; the longest delay was a Boston-bound plane held on the ground at Heathrow for nearly an hour in a vain attempt to fix a broken toilet.

British Airways kept me waiting a total of nearly eight hours, with an average delay of 20 minutes an improvement on last year.

Lufthansa, Thomsonfly, Thai and easyJet were all around a quarter-hour late on average. Ryanair slipped from its punctuality perch, with a mean delay of six minutes; last year it averaged seven minutes early. And each of the three flights I took on Click Mexicana was meticulously four minutes late.

It wasn't just the airlines; I turned up late, just once on aesthetic grounds. In March I was lucky enough to visit the Isle of Lewis. Before I flew from Stornoway back to the mainland I visited the memorial cairn to a group of islanders who, 120 years ago, were "driven beyond endurance by destitution and oppression" to raid a farm. This handsome stone creation, a mile or so from the airport, proved so engrossing that I reached check-in 10 minutes after the "closed" sign went up. But as a civilised airline on a civilised island, Highland Airways let me on as well as a groom en route to his stag-night celebration in Glasgow, who turned up even later than me. I hope he made the wedding.

Early risers

Four airlines share the honour of best timekeeping, by virtue of departing ahead of schedule. I took only one flight on each, so the results may be pure fluke, but they bear repeating. All were short-haul, low-cost flights.

In fourth place, Kulula, the main no-frills airline of South Africa (six minutes early); in third, Flybe (seven ahead); second, Air Southwest (10 early, though the airline lost my bag which cost me a lot more than 10 minutes); and in first place, Monarch (12 early).

Tim Jeans, managing director of Monarch, dismisses my suggestion that his airline is simply better than the others at "padding" its schedules to flatter its timekeeping record.

"Good punctuality is down to good planning. We have aligned aircraft, engineers and slots into a resilient flying programme. And we also have a 'hot standby'." This might sound like an unappetising warm inflight snack, but turns out to be a Boeing 757, with crew ready to go at a moment's notice from Gatwick (pictured).

If the strikes at BAA go ahead as planned, and close the UK's biggest airports on 7 January (which, on Thursday evening, seemed likely) a "hot standby" is what we all need.

As with tickets for Amy Winehouse gigs, so with flight bookings; if the event goes ahead as planned, you will probably have a great time, but there are no guarantees. As always, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Happy travels.

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