EARLIER this month, Lucy Baily of Cheshire was flying back from Delhi to Britain by British Airways with her husband and three children, having reserved seats at the time of booking. 'We confirmed the flight by telex four days before. We arrived to check in two and a quarter hours before the scheduled departure, to be faced by an immense queue.' The family queued for two hours ('not easy with a three-, eight- and 10-year-old during the small hours') - only to be told that the flight was overbooked by some 70 people. 'The manager was charming, unlike another member of the BA staff who informed us that we were at fault for failing to arrive for the check-in on time]' Mrs Baily learned that the flight to Heathrow had been overbooked for four days.

''At 3am we were transported to a hotel, having been told that, as long as we were at the airport by 9am, we should be on the next flight.' At the hotel, they found that BA's hospitality extended to food but not soft drinks. As they had spent all their rupees, the children had to drink, inadvisably, tap water.

Mrs Baily accepts that airlines occasionally overbook, 'but it is my impression that a degree of overbooking is practised on Indian flights that would not be tolerated on other routes because the airlines believe they can get away with it.' All the apparent sophistication of computerised booking and prior seat reservation evaporates under these circumstances, she says. 'You discover that who gets on the plane is determined solely by who can get to the check-in desk first.'

However, Patricia Cross of Merseyside writes to praise BA. On arriving at Barcelona airport with her family after a weekend break, she was greeted by the check-in person who said: 'Hello, Mrs Cross. I've kept you three seats together as this flight is fully booked and I thought you might be delayed.'

For travellers keen to book seats in advance, Peter Hobbs, editor of the Helvetia Philatelic Society Newsletter, writes: 'You can reserve your seats from Heathrow to Switzerland by ringing the Swissair desk on 071-439 4144 within the 24 hours before flying.' Travellers flying with Swissair from Switzerland can check in at 23 Swiss railway stations.

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