October 11, 2008

Sycophancy and Scorn As the Travel Trade Heads South

By Simon Calder

Choosing street names is not the most challenging task on the municipal agenda in Spanish towns and cities. Saints, military heroes and nobility provide plenty of scope, as demonstrated by a sequence of plazas in the middle of Madrid named for San Miguel, Comandante Moreras and Isabel II.

Yet in the resort of Maspalomas on the island of Gran Canaria, street names comprise craven corporate flattery, aimed squarely at the travel industry. I discovered this when I checked in last Saturday to El Palmeral Bungalows in the resort, where I stayed for the Abta Travel Convention. This good-value self-catering complex (27 a night with Hotels4U.com) is on a scruffy little street named Avenida Touroperador Alpitours. You need not be the world's greatest linguist to work out that the first part of that name translates to "Avenue" and the second to "tour operator"; Alpitours is an Italian holiday company.

On closer inspection, the full extent of the local authority's crawling becomes clear. From Cosmos to Kuoni, everybody gets name- checks. The grandest thoroughfare - a broad, palm-lined boulevard - is assigned to TUI, the biggest holiday company in Europe, which owns Thomson and First Choice.

An airline gets its own avenue, too: Lufthansa. No sign of XL Airways Plaza, unless they swiftly changed the signs after the airline's demise; nor is there an easyJet Street. But the airline that Stelios started, and that now flies frequently from Gatwick to Gran Canaria, cannot be accused of fawning to the travel industry.

Since easyJet took over GB Airways earlier this year two things have happened: direct UK-Canaries flights no longer offer Club class; and some easyJet planes depart from North Terminal.

Justin Fleming is the president of Abta. But last Saturday afternoon he came up against the uncompromising face of low-cost air travel. Mr Fleming, along with many other senior figures from the travel industry, was booked on the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Tenerife. He went to the South Terminal, realised his mistake and went to catch the inter-terminal shuttle. At the crucial time he needed it, though, the transit system broke down. The problem was quickly solved, but not before Mr Fleming and some other late- running passengers had opted to walk. He arrived 10 minutes after the deadline, and was told he would not be allowed on - even though the flight was delayed by over an an hour.

El Presidente managed to bag the last seat on a later Thomsonfly service, and arrived in the early hours of Sunday morning.

THE CHAIRMAN of British Airways, Martin Broughton, had a less stressful journey, flying via Madrid on Iberia, which does have a business class. He came to Gran Canaria to address the travel industry, and made an unreserved apology for BA's less -than- glorious opening of Heathrow Terminal 5:

"Those first couple of days were mortifying, there's no other word for it," he said. "We screwed up the opening because we didn't have sufficient contingency plans."

Mr Broughton also gave an exclusive interview to The Independent (available in full at independent.co.uk/mb), in which he called for natural selection to take its course in the airline business.

"There are far too many [airlines] - there needs to be a further shake-out. Instantly, it affects customers whose flights have suddenly been cancelled because the airline has gone bust. Medium- term, a smaller number of bigger groups - whether that's a smaller number of low-cost airlines in Europe, or whether that's a smaller number of global airlines - that's good for the customer."

"WALKING DEAD" was how the British Airways chairman described the Italian national carrier, Alitalia. He also told the assembly an off- colour joke about a rival.

A man goes into a hotel bar and sees an attractive flight attendant. He can't quite recognise the uniform, so he decides to try out a few airline slogans.

"World's favourite?"

She ignores him.

"Spirit of Australia?"

She gives him a withering look, but he continues.

"We are United?"

The woman finally snaps:

"Why don't you piss off, you obnoxious little shit?"

Then realisation dawns:

"Ah, Ryanair."

Thanks for nothing

Today is the second anniversary of a flight I never took - yet it cost a small fortune. On 11 October 2006 I turned up for Air Berlin's evening flight from Belfast City to Stansted. The flight was cancelled without explanation, and with no further departures, passengers were left to fend for themselves. We were given a list of hotels, and left to get on with it.

I eventually found a bed, and bought a flight for the next morning on Flybe. Total cost: 260. Add the statutory EU compensation, and my original fare - which the airline has kept - and I reckon that the German airline owes me 400.

Yet all I have had in the past two years is the correct assertion that "in case of delay passengers are entitled to care and support services" and the fib that "these provisions were fully observed".

Oh, and the airline says that the receipts I posted to its customer service office never arrived. Convenient for Air Berlin; not so handy for me.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.