Simon Calder: Fuel, trolleys and passports: the Cuban connection
Saturday 26 July 2008
* By Monday, the disenchanted staff at Britain's passport offices should be back at work after their three-day strike this week. They are unhappy at a below-inflation pay offer – and, given the rate of passport inflation, who can blame them?
In the past decade, average air fares to Europe have halved in absolute terms. Yet since the start of 1998, the price of a standard passport has quadrupled. Evidently, the cash has not gone to line the pockets of the long-suffering staff.
Soon, though, they may have less of a workload – and the £19bn hole in Britain's tourism account may diminish. This is the UK's best chance for a decade to persuade us to stay at home, because the price of leaving the country is rising fast in all sorts of ways, as passengers flying out of Luton airport today will discover.
The Bedfordshire airport used to be, relatively speaking, a pleasure to use: small and manageable. But then it sprouted a terminal extension that created a labyrinthine retail gauntlet between check in and departure gate. Air travel in the 21st century provides quite enough hurdles to overcome without adding extra impediments – but, from this morning, that is exactly what Luton airport is doing: "Bagport, the leading provider of high-quality baggage services, will supply and manage baggage trolley equipment."
Finding a trolley will become trickier. And when you track down at one of only eight "stables", you will pay a pound or more for the privilege of loading it: "The cost of the trolleys will be £1 or €2, which is non-refundable," the explanation continues.
How does the airport justify charging for a facility that, for decades, has been financed by the passenger service charge that it levies? "The charge for the trolleys covers the increased operational costs incurred to ensure high service-levels."
Hitherto, I have not fretted much about trolley service levels; but now I come to think about it, Luton airport's avarice provides a reason to give the passport its very own holiday. And here comes another one.
* "Relax and enjoy your flight": that is how the US Airline Pilots Association signs off at the end of a full-page advertisement placed in America's only national newspaper, USA Today. The union represents pilots working for US Airways. The problem with their invitation is that the preceding message accuses management of "intimidation": "US Airways management has recently begun pressuring your Captain to reduce fuel levels for your flight in order to save money.".
The airline has every reason to save money; for each passenger flown between April and June this year, the airline lost $26 (£14).
"We are carefully looking at all of our fuel-burn metrics," says US Airways. "Loading more fuel at the start of a flight actually means the aircraft will burn more fuel en route because of the extra weight of the fuel." Eight pilots were identified as adding significantly more than the statutory minimum, and they were invited "to meet with our training department so we could understand their experiences". But the union maintains that the nature of these "training" encounters "could result in the termination of their careers".
* One country can feel relaxed about collective belt-tightening: Cuba, whose economy imploded in the 1990s when the Soviet Union disappeared, along with billions of dollars of subsidy from Moscow in the form of cheap oil.
Fidel Castro duly ordered the most efficient form of motorised urban transport anywhere on the planet, the camelo – a humped, articulated bus that has a theoretical capacity of around 150 but often boasts a "load factor" of 200 per cent. He also acknowledged that "only tourism can save Cuba", whether all-inclusive resorts or visits to learn boxing with the world's greatest amateurs (see page 21).
It was 55 years ago today that Castro became a street-fighting man. Tonight the Communist Party is going to party like it's 1953; by next 26 July, they will have more to celebrate. I bet you $10 to a peso that the next US president will end its economic embargo, allowing Americans to vacation in Cuba for the first time in two generations – taking up the slack left by us British travellers, dispossessed of trolleys, confidence and passports.
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