Simon Calder: Delays, diversions and Lisbon's little yellow tram

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The Independent Travel

The slogan on the latest of British Airways' slick ads is "Get on and see where it goes". The photograph shows one of the little yellow trams that tackle the steep hills of Lisbon. An odd choice, given the message: the route depicted is a short run of perhaps 500 metres from a hill on the west of the city centre down to river level. You need not be Sir Ernest Shackleton or even Bruce Parry to figure out where you will end up: anyone with normal distance vision standing at the top of the line, where the photograph has been taken, will be able to see the southern terminus.

This beautiful old tramcar is condemned forever to shuttle along the same line in the Portuguese capital. A Boeing 737, though, is not so constrained; while compiling my annual assessment of airlines' on-time performance, I revisited a couple of trips to airports that were not on my flightpath.

In January 2008, I was booked on the South American airline StarPeru from Lima to the Amazonian city of Iquitos. After a two-hour delay and an aborted departure because of a technical problem, the flight departed to Iquitos – or rather, to within about 80 feet of the runway, whereupon the landing was abandoned because of heavy rain, and the jet flew for an hour to the remote Peruvian town of Tarapoto. It made a second attempt and arrived on the following day. No one on board had any grounds for complaint; we were, after all, still alive.

It is 20 years ago this week that the last UK airline suffered a fatal accident involving a jet aircraft: on 8 January 1989, 47 passengers died when a British Midland Boeing 737 crashed beside the M1 at Kegworth in Leicestershire. This tragedy provided many lessons that have helped to keep British travellers safe since then, in particular developing "crew resource management" to improve flight-deck communication and reduce the risk of human error. And the aviation industry's obsession with eliminating danger means you sometimes end up in surprising places.

A couple of years ago, I took the early Ryanair flight from Stansted to Baden- Baden in western Germany, but ended up diverted to the French city of Strasbourg because of fog. This October, I boarded the same service and heard the ominous words from the flight deck: "It's a little bit misty at our destination, but I'm sure it'll clear by the time we get there." We flew in circles around the Black Forest for 20 minutes before diverting to Basel in Switzerland; halfway there, a report of better visibility persuaded the pilot to turn around for another attempt, but he rejected the landing again. We returned to Basel, arriving 65 minutes and 110 miles from where we should have been – once again, in a different country to that anticipated, but once again, safe.

"Get on and see when it goes" would be a more appropriate slogan for BA. My final flight of the year, last Monday from Gatwick to Malta, epitomised the unequal contract passengers have to accept. As a traveller, you can't be a minute late for a BA flight – but, in my experience, neither can you expect it to depart on time. Agreed, departure was barely more than 15 minutes behind schedule, and we arrived less than half-an-hour late. That, presumably, is why no one bothered to apologise for the failure to deliver the service promised. Of the 10 BA flights I took in 2008, only two departed on time; the average delay was 11 minutes.

BA's big rival at Gatwick, easyJet, performed even worse, with just two on-time departures out of 13, and an average delay of 21 minutes. Ryanair managed three on-time departures out of 10, and a mean delay of seven minutes, making it the second-best performer of the year. The only airline to do better was Virgin Atlantic, which I flew twice; Heathrow to Miami left five minutes late, while the return trip departed 15 minutes early.

Plenty fared worse, notably Delta (average 19 minutes late), American Airlines (35 minutes), Aerolineas Argentinas (36 minutes), and Clickair (40 minutes).

Last place, suitably, goes to another South American airline: at the downstream end of my Amazon voyage from Iquitos in Peru to Leticia in Colombia, the Aero Republica flight from Leticia to Bogota departed over three hours late – but arrived in the right place, on more or less the right day, in one piece.

48 hours with Jamie Oliver?

This is the 20th anniversary year of The Independent Traveller's "48 Hours in..." feature. The very first assignment nearly became 168 Hours, due to my late arrival at Istanbul's Ataturk airport for the homeward flight. In 1989, there were just two charter services a week from Turkey's largest city (pictured) to Gatwick, on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was booked on the Wednesday flight, and my tardiness became obvious when I tried to check out of the hotel. At reception, I encountered a scrum of people checking in – carrying loaded plastic bags that revealed them to be recent customers of Gatwick's duty-free emporia.

A taxi driver who relished a challenge, plus a flexible ground handler and an understanding pilot, meant that I made the plane. The series was born – and, 20 years on, continues to spawn imitators. After rival newspapers and inflight magazines picked up the proposition, the latest publication to borrow the title is Jamie Oliver's new magazine, Jamie. The cover of the first edition promises 48 Hours in Stockholm.

Wherever your travels take you this year, I hope few of those precious hours are spent at the airport.