The Man Who Pays His Way: The 'ghost flights' that should frighten us all

The "Tripoli 37" know all about waste. They were a group of unfortunate passengers aboard last Sunday's British Airways flight from Heathrow to the Libyan capital. After lining up for passport control, they were sent back on the same Airbus from which they had just disembarked.

The reason: literally overnight, the Libyan authorities had turned the clock back and reimposed an old rule that every prospective visitor must have the personal details from their passport translated into Arabic.

This sudden stipulation resulted in the immediate deportation of 37 of the new arrivals, and reduced their business and holiday plans to tatters. All the ineligible passengers suffered a stressful, wasted Sunday – and probably a Monday as well, as they raced around to get the right translation and to rebook flights. The same suddenly constructed bureaucratic barrier thwarted passengers aboard the P&O cruise ship Artemis, who were due to spend a day in Libya.

Nations are free to set whatever conditions they wish about who they allow in; even British travellers to Libya who have the correct Arabic-language paperwork face a wasted journey if their passport contains evidence of a visit to Israel. And as with many other countries, the people who control the borders of Libya have a radically different agenda from those seeking to promote the nation to visitors.

On Monday, the World Travel Market opened in London's Docklands. (This annual bunfight resembles the United Nations of the tourism business, but without the peacekeeping forces.) The tourism authorities in Libya had invested tens of thousands of pounds to entice visitors to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, only to have their good work undone by officials turning away new arrivals. What a waste.

ENOUGH OF the Tripoli 37 – have you heard about the "BA Two"? The pair comprise a captain and first officer working for British Airways; the precise individuals change from one day to the next. But on a scandalous 23 occasions this month, the two pilots have been the only people on board BA passenger jets flying across the Atlantic. The underlying reason is that lame old excuse: staff shortage. And the response of the airline undermines everything it does to limit the damage to the environment.

British Airways is an excellent airline, with very good people working for it. But this month something has gone horribly wrong with the cabin-crew allocation system.

November should, in theory, be the calmest of times at the Compass Centre at Heathrow, HQ for BA's cabin crew. It is the lowest of low seasons, with no school holidays. Yet somehow BA has found itself with insufficient people to crew all its long-haul flights.

Regrettable, but understandable. If you think organising a family Christmas is tricky, try making sure that 15,000 cabin crew are in the right places for more than 5,000 British Airways flights each week. Three-dimensional chess doesn't begin to describe the complications of managing crew. They comprise a group of employees – part-time as well as full-time – who, by the nature of their work, can't keep still. Robust legislation specifies maximum working times and minimum rest periods. So drawing up crew rosters is a complex and thankless task, which can occasionally go awry – as it has this month.

Coping with a few cancellations in November should present no great problems: BA has plenty of spare capacity on its long-haul network, as do rival airlines, who are happy to help out by carrying BA's passengers – and pocketing the fare.

Yet the airline's bosses chose the most damaging solution imaginable: telling passengers on affected flights (all of them to North America) that the service had been axed, which it hadn't, really. Because BA flew the Boeings to the US or Canada anyway with only the pilots on board. The passengers were cancelled, not the flight.

On a typical 747 transatlantic flight, 100 tons of aviation fuel is burned, which represents a £50,000 bill for the airline – and a vast cost to the planet. According to the "Climate Care" corner of the BA website, a London-New York trip produces 440 tons of CO2.

It gets worse: because no cabin crew went out with the "ghost flight", passengers could not be carried on the inbound leg. So BA's highly professional, highly paid pilots wasted their time in ferrying a wide-bodied Boeing aircraft to America and back. Why?

"The reason that flights operated without passengers was to protect the operation and to minimise the disruption to passengers. All the aircraft did have cargo on board, which is an important part of our business," said Sophie Greenyer, a spokeswoman for BA.

When the staffing problem came to light, British Airways had a choice. The sensible response would have been to confess, "We've messed up, we're sorry, have some compensation"; no one would have minded much. But BA's passengers, staff and shareholders – not to mention the citizens of planet Earth – should be furious at the airline's squandering resources in such an unnecessary way.

"We care about our world and the people who share it," says BA. "We lead our industry in seeking to minimise the environmental effects of air travel." If other carriers follow BA's lead in flying empty aircraft around the world, heaven help us all.

Like the travel plans of the Tripoli 37, the "green" credentials of our national airline are in tatters.

Winning words

As the sorry saga of my (mis)translations continues, it is clear that I shall never win any prizes for languages. (Two weeks ago, when discussing "kiss-and-fly" travellers, I appeared inadvertently to be commending lust and larceny at French airports.) But two Independent Traveller writers have won awards for their excellent use of language.

For the second year running, Jack Barker has won the most prestigious award from the British Guild of Travel Writers: the "Major Contribution to Consumer Travel Writing" for stories published here and in The Independent on Sunday. Also two years in a row, a story by Ray Kershaw has been selected as the best newspaper article on France by the Association of British Travel Organisers to France. He won the prize for his article, "In the Footsteps of Gustave Courbet", published by The Independent Traveller in March.

The authorities on France's Côte d'Azur airport get no prizes for their translation abilities, according to David Starkie of Newbury: "Go to Nice airport and you will see clearly marked on the terminal approach gantry a separate lane marked 'Kiss and Fly'."

On the airport's website, though, the practice of dropping off or picking up passengers is known as arrêt minute, meaning that drivers may stop for up to 60 seconds. Yet the rules reveal that drivers pay only lip service to the name; the romantic French are allowed to linger, with up to two minutes for a long goodbye.

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