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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits