Simon Calder: Cleared for take-off: the recession dividend

For the traveller, one of the more disconcerting sights is to see the lights of a trans-European train retreat into the darkness and the distance just as you arrive on the platform.

Mark Smith, the "Man in Seat 61" whose online guide to train journeys around the world (seat61.com) is an indispensible travel tool, tells of sprinting recklessly across the tracks at Bucharest Nord station to avoid such a scenario. As his much-delayed Bosfor overnight sleeper arrived in the Romanian capital from Istanbul, the Transbalkan express to Budapest was starting to leave. To the cheers of onlookers, he miraculously caught up with the moving train in the manner of a silent movie and was hauled aboard complete with his baggage. He celebrated all the way to the Hungarian capital.

Many Junes and many moons ago, my trip to Budapest ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. In the early 1990s, with no prospect of finding a cheap plane ticket to Budapest, Vienna provided the lowest-cost approach. To capitalise on the demand a direct bus was laid on from Schwechat airport in the Austrian city to Hungary's capital, an arrangement that might have had Ryanair labelling Vienna as "Budapest West".

The Budapest connection depended on reaching Vienna in a timely fashion – and, as I sat and stewed on the Boeing on the longest, hottest Friday of the year, the prospects of reaching Hungary that night looked bleak. British Airways flight 704 was then, as now, due in at 6.10pm, which theoretically left plenty of time to reach Vienna West station before the last train of the week, the Dacia Express, depart for Budapest at 7.30pm.

Practice prevailed over theory, and after a one-hour air-traffic control delay I reached the station in the Austrian capital at 7.31pm, in time to see the red glow of the train's tail lights disappearing towards the Danube. The repercussions were considerable: I took the underground to the nearest motorway junction, and started thumbing for a lift as a midsummer storm burst around me. The position I'd chosen clearly had the lowest traffic flow of any intersection in Vienna, but the fortunes of the road were about to change.

A battered old Volkswagen stopped and the Serb who was driving it announced that he was heading ultimately for Belgrade. Since civil war was still tearing apart Yugoslavia, I declined the chance to accompany him all the way to his home city; his route, though, took him past Budapest and I was welcome to join him on one condition: that I drove, because he had already been on the road all day from Cologne, where he worked.

In a week in which the Foreign Office has reminded us to behave responsibly abroad, I hesitate to confess that I accepted the terms of the transaction. Instead of my plan to sip beer in the train's dining car as central Europe slipped past the window, I found myself guiding a Golf containing a slumbering Serb across alien territory for which I was neither prepared nor insured. And all because of a late plane.

My driving has not improved in the intervening years, and neither have the prospects of British Airways: it is in a "fight for survival", according to the chief executive, Willie Walsh. Yet the tougher things get for airline staff and shareholders, the better life becomes for the passenger. This week the Civil Aviation Authority revealed a dramatic improvement in punctuality. In the first three months of last year, three out of 10 flights were more than 15 minutes late (and therefore, in the curious calibration of the travel industry, officially late). That has now fallen to two out of 10 across the UK's leading airports.

Heathrow's timekeeping has improved even more dramatically: in 2008 two out of five flights were late, which has half to just one flight in five this year.

"By far the biggest cause of delays is air traffic control," says Richard Goodfellow of British Airways. "We operate about two-thirds of our flights to and from Heathrow, which is the busiest two-runway airport in the world, and one-third to or from Gatwick, which is the busiest single-runway airport in the world."

Not as busy as they once were: Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based air-traffic control organisation, says there were 9 per cent fewer flights in April compared with a year earlier. Of every 11 flights, one has been grounded – making the other 10 more reliable, reducing the amount of wasteful "stacking" and cutting carbon emissions.

With better timekeeping, the whole travel experience is improved. Far fewer bags go astray; BA last month mishandled only one in 100, compared with three times as many at times last summer. And anyone with tight connections to make in Vienna will be heartened to learn that BA704 has been arriving consistently on schedule this week.

Right size, wrong flight

Every year, as soon as Abta, the travel association, reveals the dates and location of its annual convention, I book my flights. From experience, I have seen how fares rocket once delegates start booking en masse. For the Abta event in Barcelona this year, though, I have just been told the BA flight has been cancelled. The airline is "right-sizing": looking closely at its loads, and if a flight looks uneconomic cancelling passengers are electronically offloaded. But another BA strategy is providing economy travellers with the chance to sample Club Europe for a minimal upgrade fee on flights which real business people are unlikely to fly, such as on Saturday afternoons.

The formidable travel industry figure, Neil Taylor, flew from Athens (pictured) to Heathrow last weekend, and agreed to pay £150 for Club. "Our fellow 20 passengers in business class were as sun-tanned and as unbusinesslike as we were. BA made an extra £3,000 and we had a peep at a world that, had it not not been for the recession, we would never have seen."

The worst of times for the travel industry, the best of times for the traveller.

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