Checking-in at Gatwick for a charter flight to Prague, the ground staff were pleased to tell me that the airline had opted for free seating. "Free seating" sounds like one of those concepts, like civil rights, that you really ought to favour. The subtext, however, seemed to be: "We haven't got any seating plans that fit this particular Soviet-built aircraft, so you're all going to have to fight your way on board".

The departure gate resembled a heaving scrum. The extent of the smoking section was decided by the simple expedient of allowing smokers to crowd on board first and to fill up the plane from the back. Then the rest of us piled on.

The plane was a Tupolev 134, an ancient copy of the even more elderly Caravelle. The two rasping engines at the back made a bit of a fuss getting us off the ground, but once aloft the service was spot-on, with disproportionately good food and drink considering the ticket cost only pounds 99.

Airlines from what used to be called the Eastern bloc have sometimes been unfairly maligned. I used to clean out planes at Gatwick. The air crew who showed the most civility were invariably the stewardesses of Aeroflot and Balkan Bulgarian, who used to sneak us glasses of fruit juice. On a hot summer's day on the melting airport apron this small kindness was greatly appreciated. In those days "communist" aircraft were parked at distant stands and guarded for the duration of their stay by members of Special Branch, while we cleaners fraternised clandestinely with the "enemy", drinking entente cordial.

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