Travel: Pioneering airlines set standards that today's carriers could only exceed

Simon Calder
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:09

"ALAN MURRAY'S memory would seem to be about as reliable as the locks on the seat-back cubbyholes concealing in-flight meals," writes Bob Milne Holme, of High Wycombe. "Court Line, not Dan Air, introduced this unfortunate idea in the early Seventies."

Today marks the start of the full summer schedules for Britain's charter operators - and is the right moment to celebrate those pioneering airlines who set standards that today's carriers can only exceed.

Mr Milne Holme was one of many readers to update us on the hilariously misconceived idea of "seat-back catering". The idea was that two meals were embedded in a single seat-back tray. One helping was intended for each leg of a charter flight, but Alan Murray, of Viking Aviation, had earlier revealed that "with the ingenious use of a nail file or coin, one could open the inbound meal and have seconds".

Colin Murison Small, who runs the holiday company Hidden Greece, says the plan was intended to save money, reduce congestion in the cabin and give punters the chance to decide when to eat their meal: "This was, of course, in the days when most meals were served cold - at least on such comparatively small machines as the BAC 1-11. To say the meals were unremarkable is probably an understatement."

Initially, says Mr Milne Holme, "neither of the compartments was lockable, so outbound passengers possessed with a powerful appetite and a strong stomach could munch their way through the ageing chunks of Mother's Pride intended for travellers on the return sector". Later, locks were installed, but determined passengers armed with simple safe-breaking tools could jemmy their way into the culinary secrets of the lower cubbyhole.

Was all that effort worth it, though? Mr Cox observes that "there was a food hygiene problem, I believe", while Mr Milne Holme reckons that greedy flyers "probably did the passengers on the second sector a favour - especially if the flight was delayed on some baking Iberian apron, by which time the already tired offering would take on all the toothsome appeal of a high-mileage Reebok".

The airline was able to strike back, however, on behalf of deprived passengers. JB Hamilton of Hertfordshire recalls spending pounds 19 on a short break in Benidorm in the Seventies, flying on a pink Court Line 1-11. "As all the seats were pre-allocated, it didn't take too much difficulty to work out the names of the guilty passengers who had devoured two meals. When these passengers returned home and looked for their meals, they found a hand- written note from the crew saying that as they had already eaten their meals on the outbound legs, there was nothing available for them."

Court Line was linked with Clarkson's, the holiday company that collapsed spectacularly at the height of the 1974 summer season. David Cox of Bedfordshire recalls the airline well: "I was operations manager of Britannia Airways in Luton at the time, and it was a good joke locally - the seat-back catering, that is, not the collapse."

"On another historical point," continues Mr Cox, "you described Dan-Air as short-lived. Not so! In fact, Dan-Air existed into its 40th year (1953- 1992) under the same name and ownership, longer than any other British airline before or since."

David McKaigue, of the Wirral, recalls that the now-defunct airline "would deliver its passengers to their chosen destination whatever the difficulties, when more staid outfits merely cancelled, diverted or postponed the flight. Because of its buccaneering style, it was nicknamed Dan Dare."

Mr McKaigue gives an example of this spirit: "In 1978, I found myself travelling from Liverpool to Venice. This sector is, apparently, near to the technical limits for a fully laden BAC 1-11. Dan-Air had all the passengers weighed so the aircraft could load the maximum fuel for take- off. There was some relief when we lifted off at the end of the runway, confirming that the captain had done his sums correctly."

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