Travel: The Orly flight gets there late: Charles de Gaulle won the Great Air Race, beating its rival Paris airport, says Simon Calder

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The Independent Travel
A magical summer morning in the French countryside, the pale sun anointing the misty fields with pastel specks of light. Unfortunately I am watching this entrancing scene through the window of a bus, wending its tardy way across the pastoral fringes of an international airport, and my plane is due to leave in two minutes. The Great Paris Air Race is not going very well.

This week saw the launch of services between London and Orly, the second Paris airport. After a furious Euro-squabble, the French government finally allowed airlines to start using the route on Monday. I went across on the first flight, and spent the next two days shuttling between Heathrow and Orly and Charles de Gaulle and Orly and Heathrow, checking out the claims that Orly is ultra-convenient. This took the form of a race; comparing travel times from both airports to the centre of Paris.

The first flight from London touched down at Orly 10 minutes late. Then our plane veered away from the terminal building and went off to park at some obscure corner of the airport. There were no signs, but if there had been they might well have said, 'Area reserved for airlines we don't much like'.

Someone went off and found some steps and a bus. We disembarked and went for a little drive around the airport. Five minutes later, we pulled up outside the terminal building and clambered up steps and along corridors to become the first passengers to arrive from Heathrow for 15 years.

There was no welcoming crowd: they were all in the departures area, where staff of the French independent Air Liberte were demonstrating against freedom of the skies. French carriers at Orly are worried that BA's connections with its partner airline, TAT European Airlines, will lose them passengers. The demonstrators managed to delay flight departures by 30 minutes; meanwhile my onward journey to the city was held up by mechanical breakdown.

The machines in question were supposed to dispense tickets for the train ride into Paris, but neither was working. Eventually someone showed up to sell me a ticket for the Orlyval link, at a tarification speciale. Speciale in this case translates as 'expensive', Fr45 ( pounds 5.50) for the 15-mile journey into Paris.

You board a driverless airport shuttle train, which is just like any other airport shuttle except that it suddenly breaks free from the airport perimeter and starts to saunter off through the countryside. After 10 minutes, the runaway train grinds to a driverless halt at the RER (suburban metro) station of Antony. You and your luggage then have to negotiate some fearsome barriers before you can join the commuters packing the platform.

A glance at the map shows you are no nearer Paris than when your plane landed at Orly 40 minutes earlier. A second glance reveals the potential confusion of the RER for those without vingt/ vingt vision. Not only is there the link to Orly, from which you have just emerged, there is also a station called Orry. (Passengers heading for Charles de Gaulle airport at Roissy, meanwhile, must distinguish it from both Boissy and Poissy).

A rattly old train finally arrived, and started and stopped (but mostly stopped) along a stuttering course to Paris. After a quick change at Chatelet for the Arc de Triomphe, I emerged into the swirl of traffic feeling distinctly train-lagged. The touchdown-to-Triomphe journey had taken 75 minutes, at a modest 12mph. Add an extra five minutes to allow for the longer flight time between London and Orly than between London and Charles de Gaulle, and Orly's northern rival had to beat 80 minutes.

It was party time at Charles de Gaulle (CDG). The strange, circular terminal, threaded with transparent tubes, is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. CDG seems to like British Airways; in the anniversary poster, the only identifiable airline colours are those of BA, and the airport even lets BA park its planes at the terminal building rather than several fields away.

BA's evening flight from Heathrow landed 10 minutes early, and the moving walkways spirited passengers to the central area so swiftly that immigration was cleared five minutes before the next incoming flight was due to arrive.

The rail link to CDG does not get as far as the terminal; you have to board a navette (shuttle bus) to get to the station. Still, this is quicker than the buses trundling around Orly. Despite the greater distance (20 miles from the capital), the train fare is only Fr35 ( pounds 4.30). In September TGVs (high-speed trains) begin services, but at present there are four fast RER trains an hour into the capital.

That is the theory. On Monday night the system ground to a halt at the suburban station of Aulnay-sous-Bois. The race degenerated into a debacle when a signal failure signalled the failure of CDG to build on its racing start. I spent an hour watching the drunks in the village square and waiting for rouge to turn to vert, and arrived at the Arc de Triomphe 95 minutes after touchdown. After this fiasco I changed the rules and compared the times from the Arc de Triomphe to check-in: Orly 60 minutes, Charles de Gaulle 48 minutes. As far as Parisian airports are concerned, je suis un Gaullist.

Neither of these airports provides the optimum solution. The best Paris airport closed down 20 years ago: Le Bourget, a truly elegant terminal much closer to central Paris than either of the other contenders. It is still standing; indeed, you pass it on the journey between Charles de Gaulle and the city centre. The problem is it now serves as an Air and Space Museum. If they could clear the prototype Concorde from the runway, and remove the Bleriot biplane from the terminal, the Great Paris Air Race would be a walkover.

Air France (081-742 6600) and British Airways (0345 222111) both fly four times daily between London Heathrow and Orly; the lowest fare is pounds 83 return. Two of the BA flights are operated by its associate TAT.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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