To visit the New Forest last weekend, I caught a train from Waterloo and arrived at Brockenhurst 90 minutes later. In contrast to the calamitous post-privatisation rail trips that have dogged my progress in recent weeks, this was a refreshingly smooth journey. The screens that normally relate details of late or mislaid trains were deployed to give the latest soccer scores. Could it be that Britain's trains are settling in for a bout of reliability? Should my colleague Christian Wolmar ever run short of material for his Great Railway Disasters column in the Independent on Sunday, Richard Dean of Stockport has a suggestion.

"Perhaps it is time," he writes, "for your pages to relate occasions of airline absurdity". To kick off the series, Mr Dean supplies a splendidly awful story. He has just returned from a holiday in Texas with his wife Ruth, and seven-year-old daughter Abigail.

"Our return flight with American Airlines was booked Houston-Dallas-Chicago- Manchester. Because of the proximity of Hurricane Dolly, we abandoned the coast and drove to the Texas hill country around Austin. By then, Dallas was closer than Houston."

The Deans sensibly decided to drive straight to Dallas, and therefore miss out the first of the flights. They went to the American Airlines office in Austin to pass on the good news. On the outward journey, one of their flights had been heavily overbooked. So the Deans assumed the airline would be pleased at theit decision to cancel a sector of the journey.

"No such luck! Instead, we were told we would each have to pay $100 not to fly the Houston-Dallas leg. We were also informed that if we did not take the first flight, the following ones would automatically be cancelled. The reason given was that we were flying on discounted tickets, and nothing could be altered on them without financial penalty. We had in fact purchased them for pounds 499 each at Trailfinders, hardly a bargain-basement price."

Disinclined to fork out another pounds 65 for the right to forfeit a flight, Mr Dean and family duly trudged over to storm-tossed Houston. "Arriving in good time for check-in, we were requested by the airline to take an earlier flight." Generously, the Deans agreed. They were given the boarding passes for the whole homeward trip.

"When we got to Chicago - yes, you've guessed - our seats on the flight to Manchester had been cancelled as we had not been on the 'right' flight earlier that day." The family was initially told there were no seats for them, but after a difficult hour space was finally found. No compensation was offered by the airline for the ordeal, but this weekend BBC Radio 4's Breakaway programme (9.30am today, 10.45pm on Sunday) promises to put American Airlines on the spot.

Next summer, the Deans may prefer to take one of the fast and frequent Stockport to Brockenhurst expresses. Overbooking is rarely a problem. And on the pounds 50.40 supersaver fare, there is no penalty to be paid if you decide to abandon your journey at Basingstoke.

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