The fewer bottles of inflammable liquid flying around Europe, the better

Humbugs incur VAT at the usual rate, so why shouldn't beer and bicycles? Scrooge would be all in favour of the European Union's initiative to remove duty-free allowances in 1999. And I am afraid that I am, too.

On 1 July 1999, the EU will remove the right to buy 200 cigarettes and a few litres of booze free of duty and VAT when travelling from Britain to one of the other 14 member countries. The alarms are already being raised. Take Britain's biggest charter airline, Britannia. My flight tickets for a charter from Gatwick have just arrived, but they were hard to locate in the ticket wallet, such was the flurry of duty-free publicity.

If the EU's plan goes through, we are told, in-flight standards will fall at once: "The airline would immediately reduce its cabin crew complement by one on each intra-EU flight." Crew would be hit, as well as passengers: "Across the whole of its network, Britannia estimates that more than 200 jobs ... would be lost."

And did you know that, on average, each cabin crew member earns pounds 1,500 per year in commission on duty-free sales?

This is according to a new survey by Coopers & Lybrand, commissioned by Manchester airport. But Britannia says cutting staff is just one of many options that is being considered. Before inspectors from the Inland Revenue get involved, Britannia says the earnings by cabin crew is actually pounds 1,200.

Other statements and assumptions in the report intrigued me, too. A total of 680 people in the North West would lose their jobs as a result of the ending of duty-frees, the result of transferring pounds 35m worth of sales elsewhere. Yet this pounds 35m of spending would not add a single extra job in the High Street.

I think we have to be careful about the propaganda from the duty-free industry. Costs of travel will certainly rise after 1999, but if ferry operators and airlines want to concentrate on providing safe, efficient travel rather than selling stuff, that is fine with me. Hoverspeed, for example, boosted pre-Christmas sales by offering a mountain bike for pounds 75, and for the same again you could buy 24 gallons of Ruddles. Try balancing that on your handlebars.

More seriously, there is an important safety consideration in cutting duty-free sales for air travellers: the fewer bottles of highly inflammable liquid that are flying around Europe, the better. The image of the British Airtours 737 tragedy in 1985, was of some survivors escaping from the wreckage of the Boeing still clutching their precious plastic bags of liquor and tobacco. This happened at Manchester airport, which is now so forcibly pushing the case for selling duty-frees.

These pages aim to inspire and inform. Marilyn Lloyd of Swansea writes to say a recent story on New York's Hudson River Valley inspired her, but she felt the information misdirected her.

"It is possible to travel from Grand Central as well as Penn Station to Poughkeepsie. In fact, it is quite a lot cheaper - $10 instead of $17". Seven bucks better off, Ms Lloyd disembarked at this Hudson River settlement. Then she wished she hadn't.

"The station master warned us: `This is no place for tourists. It's a tough, violent town, a frontier town. If you stay here you'll get robbed or shot.' So we took his advice and caught the next train to Cold Spring, and discovered an extremely pretty (but expensive and twee) town overlooking the Hudson, with one lovely, old hotel, The Hudson House - $150 per night B&B. We enjoyed an hour's stay there.

"Then we returned to Grand Central Station, New York. Yes, the train journey is delightful and we enjoyed our day. Such a contrast in such a short space of time (75 minutes) to the skyscrapers of Manhattan."

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