This is your captain speaking...

A pilot's eye view of the charter from hell: a flight to Faro. By Robin Rackham
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The Independent Travel
Our Boeing 757 is running three hours late. On board is a chaos of cleaners, catering boxes and ground staff. My co-pilot and I escape to the quiet of the flight deck. Air traffic control gives us a departure slot 50 minutes from now. No problem, I think. But then the No 1 stewardess appears.

"Captain, we have a problem. They have catered for only 84 passengers and we have a full load of 233. It will take at least three hours to get the meals together. What do you want to do?"

Having kept our passengers hanging around in the airport for three hours, it seems we now intend to starve them.

"We'll have to go without full catering. I'm not delaying this flight any longer. Will you get the passengers on as soon as the cabin is ready," I say, trying to contain my exasperation.

"Yes, sir, but we have another problem. The seats in row 21 are broken. The engineers are trying to fix them, but we might have to off-load the three passengers - a couple with a child."

"That's a great way to start your holiday: a three-hour delay, then they off-load you because of a broken seat. All right, get the rest on board and I'll check with the engineers," I reply.

I thread my way back through the aircraft to find three airline engineers sprawled on the floor trying to get the seat into the track.

"Dare I ask how long it is going to take?" I venture, fearing the worst.

"Should only be 10 minutes, skipper. There, we've fixed it. Just have to get it into position," he says, disappearing under the seat again.

I make my way back to the flight deck as the passengers start to board. Time is slipping by and we will have to negotiate another slot for take- off. I delegate that task to my co-pilot, who has a charming manner.

No 1 stewardess appears and announces that the seat is now in position and we can finish boarding. Pete has got us another15 minutes. Things are looking up. Then No 1 appears again, this time not looking so happy.

"We have a lady passenger who will not take her seat. She says that when she bought her ticket she asked not to be placed near any children, and there is a seven-year-old girl in the seat behind her. She wants to talk to the captain."

"All right, send her up."

The passenger appears at once with No 1 in tow. Highly agitated, she insists that she was guaranteed a seat away from any children. I listen patiently, promising myself that I will not lose my temper.

"Madam, we have 42 children on this flight and there is no way we can guarantee a seat where there are none. You will just have to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation Now would you please be seated or else we will lose our slot and delay this flight even further."

She trounces off in high dudgeon, insisting she must speak to the ticketing agent, while the passengers in the front cabin take a continued interest in the proceedings. I feel frustrated that for safety reasons there is no way we can off-load her, as her luggage would be left in the hold.

"Better see if you can get another extension on our slot time, " I sigh. I make an apologetic announcement to the other passengers. We get another 15 minutes' extension, but if we miss this slot there could be a further delay. If that happens, we will have to go off-duty and the airline will have to call in a standby crew. I try not to contemplate that possibility.

I decide to go into the cabin to see what is happening and find our lady friend in a shouting match with the ticket agent outside the aircraft in the loading arm. I am about to give her an ultimatum that she either gets on the aircraft or we go without her, when another passenger, who is sitting near the entrance, intervenes.

"Don't be so silly! You can have our seats if that will make you happy," she says. A round of applause suddenly erupts from the other passengers and I return to the flight deck, not believing our luck.

We taxi out to the runway. By now the skies have darkened and it starts to rain. We are cleared for take-off and climb into the low, grey clouds. Within a few minutes we break out into brilliant sunshine as we route down to the Welsh border country.

I slide my seat back and sip my cup of coffee. We slip into the normal rituals of flying, checking the weather along the route and catching up on company chat. Pilots are, without a doubt, the biggest gossips. It is a way of alleviating the many hours of boredom that come with the job.

We land at Faro, where within one hour we disgorge our passengers, refuel, clean, and re-cater the plane, and load up with the next group of punters. Then we set off back to Manchester.

What they mean when they say...

We regret to announce that your aircraft is delayed for operational reasons.

Your aircraft is 2,000 miles away.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board, I hope you are all comfortable.

We are well aware that you have no legroom and that your knees are up by your chins.

I do apologise for the late departure which was due to air traffic control delays.

The French air traffic controllers are negotiating their annual pay rise.

Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your seats. We are expecting some slight turbulence so I am switching on the "Fasten seatbelt" sign.

Weather radar has packed up, but we know we are about to get one hell of a pounding from thunderstorms up ahead.

We have a small technical problem which our engineers are trying to resolve.

The computer which costs half a million dollars is on the blink and the nearest one is at the Boeing factory in Seattle.

Welcome to Corfu airport. I hope you have an enjoyable stay.

It is 100F in the terminal, Olympic Airways is working to rule, and there is only one conveyor belt working. Next year try Cleethorpes.

Captain Robin Rackham worked for Ambassador Airways until last year when the company ceased operating. Captain Rackham is now working overseas for Sunways of Sweden.

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