Simon Calder: Selling the dream – but not the reality

The man who pays his way

Two conflicting views of flying: a plane is a plane; and "If it ain't a Boeing, I'm not going". The first opinion belongs to those who regard aviation as a necessary chore to be endured en route to somewhere delicious. They could not care two inflight pretzels whether they board an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737 for a short-haul flight, or an A330 or a 767 for a longer stretch. They just want to arrive alive and on time. True, at the XL end of the aircraft spectrum, you might notice the distinctive double-deckerness of the original Jumbo (747) and the so-called Super Jumbo (A380). But since Concorde stopped flying 10 years ago, most jets look and perform the same.

The second attitude prevails most strongly on pick-up truck bumpers in the Seattle area of the north-west USA, where for decades Boeing has built some of the world's greatest aircraft. The saying arose from the manufacturer's formidable reputation for safety and reliability. "Refuse Toulouse" was another slogan aimed at Airbus, which is based in the French city.

Today, when there are just two manufacturers of full-size jets, I can't imagine any frequent flyer lives by the rule. Airbus has an equally robust attitude to safety. Besides, the airline that sells you the ticket can despatch you on whatever, and whoever's, plane it likes.

Buy British Airways, fly Ryanair: that was the what some passengers found during the cabin-crew strikes three years ago. BA chartered in capacity from rival carriers, including the Irish airline, to fill some of the gaps in its schedule. On this occasion the Ryanair jets were "wet-leased", ie BA hired the planes complete with crew. A "dry lease" is where you rent only the aircraft. And a "damp lease": plane and pilots, but no cabin crew.

When easyJet has run short of equipment, I have found myself aboard the ad-hoc charters of Titan Airways (though they wouldn't let any of us sit in the posh seats at the front). Last summer, many Monarch passengers found themselves aboard a jet wet-leased from Aurela Airlines, based in a former Soviet Baltic republic. Even though the Civil Aviation Authority was content with safety standards, not everyone was happy to be flying on a jet from Lithuania.

For many Thomson Airways passengers, the problem is not Lithuania, but lithium. Thomson is the launch customer for the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner", and has scheduled it to fly transatlantic from East Midlands, Gatwick, Glasgow or Manchester, starting 1 May. But the metal used in the batteries that provide essential power for the systems of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has not proved as stable as the makers expected. After two scares involving the lithium-ion devices catching fire, the plane was grounded in mid-January.

So far, there is no indication about when the aircraft may be allowed to carry passengers once more, nor what needs to be done to eliminate the problem. While engineers and officials frown and fret, no Dreamliners can be delivered. So about 30,000 passengers booked with Thomson Airways in May or June to Florida and Mexico won't be going. Well, they will, but not on a Boeing 787.

If you had set your heart on the Dreamliner, all you can do now is dream the impossible dream.

Boeing, Boeing gone

The Dreamliner is the first plane properly to put the passenger first. Refinements such as higher pressurisation make long flights more bearable. It is more fuel efficient, and makes new routes viable, such as Gatwick to Phuket in Thailand (from November, safety officials permitting). Thomson, naturally, sought to extract maximum value as the first UK airline with the 787:

"If you could design your own dream plane, what would you come up with? Comfier seats? Supersized windows? Whatever tops your wish list, the end result would probably look a lot like the Thomson 787 Dreamliner."

Now that the dream is over for thousands of passengers, Thomson says: "We fully understand how very disappointing this is for our customers, and hope they will appreciate these circumstances are completely outside of our control." Fair enough. But the aftermath is completely within Thomson's control. The firm is hanging on to the cash (except for handing back the £10 per flight Dreamliner premium), and rebooking passengers on a dull old Boeing 767. Disappointed passengers who booked only because they wanted to be first to fly on the new plane in British colours are allowed to switch to an alternative holiday, but refunds are refused.

Catch the Airbus

An hour after Thomson's cancellation of its 787 programme in May and June, British Airways started selling its first Airbus A380 tickets. BA finally joins the Super Jumbo club this year. You can book to fly the world's biggest passenger jet from Heathrow to Los Angeles at 4.15pm on 15 October. Could BA also risk upsetting passengers? No. All it is saying is: book flight BA269 to Los Angeles from 15 October onwards, and you can expect to fly on the A380. But you will not be the first; BA will fly the jet well before 15 October – but makes no promises about when or where.

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