Spare us the pain of ash-gate

This week I did a piece for the travel section of The Sun on people’s rights if they have been stranded abroad by the fallout of ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption (you can read it here if you want). One of the things that struck me while writing was the speed in which the travel industry, and particularly the large tour operators, have responded to the crisis.

Thomson, for instance were claiming yesterday that everyone would have been repatriated by last night and even Ryanair (though more on them later) have got all their passengers to their destinations.

There have of course been a couple of companies that have tried to take advantage of the situation. Michael O’Leary at Ryanair’s bluster earlier this week that he would take it to court if he was to pay for accommodation for those stranded was short lived (one hopes he made the decision himself but one suspects he was slapped down by the authorities) and travellers would be wise to boycott insurance companies that refuse to pay out. But other than that, as with the XL crisis, some pretty amazing things have happened.

While I have every sympathy for people who were about to go on holiday and ended up stuck in Blighty, I’m starting to loose patience some of those stuck abroad, though.

Clearly some people, such as those stranded in Bangkok airport as explosions take place a couple of miles away, are having a hard time, but there are others that need to get off the phone to BBC news and get back to the pool. Tour operators are spending thousands of pounds keeping them in hotels, food and drink while they are ‘stranded’ in some luxury resort plus they have the perfect excuse to phone into work and blag a couple of extra days holiday.

There was one woe-is-me chap this morning being interviewed on TV who has been on honeymoon in St Lucia for two weeks and has to now stay until May 6 until Virgin Holidays can get him home. ‘There’s so much misinformation,’ he whittered on, making me want to put my foot through the TV.

Mate, you’re on honeymoon, you’re in St Lucia, you’ve managed to get an extra two weeks holiday at someone else’s expense, you’re every whim and need is being catered for and you’re complaining you can’t come home? Put down the phone, pick up the pina colada and give me a break.

Redesigning the boarding pass

American designer and frequent flyer Tyler N Thompson was on a flight last year and took to dissecting his boarding pass. One of the problems he saw, and I tend to agree, is that much of the information on a boarding pass not only looks unattractive but is also hopeless for highlighting stand out information you need to know before flying.

He decided to have a pop at redesigning the pass, began to blog about it and loads more people have added their twopenneth. You can even download an Adobe Illustrator template if you want to have a go yourself.

See some of the – often brilliant – results at his website here

Ever lost something on a plane? (and did you get it back?)

Quite a while ago, when I was travelling what seemed almost every weekend, I was in the middle of one of those mad sets of trips travel writers tend to do at some point.

My memory is sketchy as to the actual series of events – the jetlag, not too much booze in business class – but over four weeks I did something like:

Ten days in Texas; one back in the UK; three days in Perth with a day layover either side in Dubai; two days in the UK; three days in Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant (that, I admit was a boozy trip); a day in the UK; two days in Rome; three days in Boston…

On the first leg of my flight to Perth, I left the plane, went through Dubai’s passport control, picked up my case and then remembered I had left my suit carrier onboard. Now given an Emirates cabin crew had taken the carrier off me, attached my boarding pass to it and put it in their wardrobe, you’d think it was their responsibility to give it back… but I accept, my suit, my fault…

What followed was a three-hour palaver as I sat nervously waiting for about three different members of staff to try and retrieve it… all who failed. Thankfully, it ended up coming by taxi to the hotel much later that evening.

(Lost) Property of Mr KS Meeke (seat 3c)

Why do I bring this up? Well because my good pal and colleague Kieran Meeke left his glasses on a plane on Monday and has just had a frustrating week ringing lost property at Heathrow every few hours to see if they turned up, but naturally no one EVER answers the phone (TFL Lost Property is just as bad by the way). Way to go Heathrow, you can stick up new Terminals and try and build extra runways, but you can’t get someone to answer the phone.

Kieran was flying business class with a leading airline and you’d think that when someone leaves something in a business class seat it can’t be that hard for someone at the airline to locate the owner…

After all, for the duration of the flight, you have been fawned over by the crew: yes Sir, no Sir, can we wipe your bum Sir? And most of the time they address you as Mister Blah (I have never been called Mister Ellis anywhere but on a plane).

Then of course there’s the passenger list. ‘Who was in 3C? Ah, so and so… the chap who’s bum I wiped.’ So surely it can’t be THAT difficult to make sure an object returns to its owner.

Or is it a case of when the person’s off the flight and the dollars have been banked, any semblance of service has to stop? Perhaps airlines have an unwritten rule about it.

Imagine – I know for you that know him, it’s a stretch 😉 – that Kieran had been heading to some high powered conference where he couldn’t read his speech as the glasses were lost.

He’s had to give up now, shelling out another small fortune for a new pair, but really, what’s the point of airline service and lost property departments if neither are any good to you when you really need them?

Hola from Cape Town and some words on customer service

Well, the new Mrs Ellis and I have just arrived in Cape Town and checked in at the very grand Table Bay Hotel after a somewhat testing flight…

Not because Virgin Atlantic are not good at what they do but because Laura seems to have picked up the 24 hour bug that is going around and spent about six hours of the flight in the loo being sick.

Her absence gave me the chance to have a think about the cost cutting Virgin Atlantic is undergoing and how that affects the travel experience but to also compare their crew with those on our EasyJet flights to the wedding last week (see my previous post here).

While the two obviously differ in terms of what they offer in terms of service, they are both cutting costs and cabin crew on both airlines are still the customer facing side of the business

From Virgin’s perspective, the onboard masseuse seems to long be a thing of the past, but I never used them anyway so it has absolutely no affect on my flight experience

You also no longer get a printed menu in Upper Class, rather the dishes are announced over the PA and then you choose when the cabin crew takes your order.

On previous flights, everyone I saw read the menu always asked the crew to ‘remind them what was on offer’ when they came to order anyway so again, not a great loss.

The type of food on offer has also been ‘downgraded’ – think sausage and mash rather than steak – but the quality is still pretty high.

It’s the kind of cost cutting that would seem prudent at a time like this. Downgrade slightly and make up for it with superior customer service. And its’ where the crew on our South Africa flight really made the difference; they could not do enough for Laura to try and make her more comfortable and likewise the rest of the passengers around us.

It was all such a far cry from the grumps on EasyJet last week where there idea of cost cutting is to halve the size of the onboard Snack Pack but charge the same price and where customer service came with a snarl rather than a smile.

Travelling… it's not child's play

So mine and Laura’s wedding is now out of the way and thanks for bearing with me while I’ve been away.

I’m currently in the final stages of planning our honeymoon to South Africa and, after much to-ing and fro-ing it looks like it is coming together.

We fly out tomorrow night to Cape Town, have four nights there – including one day where we go diving with great white sharks – followed by three days in the wine region.

When we come back, we plan to walk off some of the good life with a three-day hike from Cape Town to Cape Point on a new hiking trail that has just opened, the Hoerikwaggo Trail. The trail is built on ancient paths taken by the Khoisan and is already being compared to Peru’s Inca Trail.

We’ll be following this with a trip from Cape Town to Jo’burg on the Premier Classe train, the cheaper alternative to the super-luxury Blue Train and three days in Kruger over Christmas.

Ahead of New Year, we plan to drive back through Swaziland and on to the Dolphin Coast for some beach time just north of Durban. I’ll be doing my best to do daily updates of the trip both here and on my running blog

Over the last few days Laura and I have had to travel quite a bit with my sister, her husband and their four kids up to the wedding venue in Inverness and back and, for the first time ever, I got to feel for parents on flights.

Some of you may remember a guest post by Michael Green on here about the troubles he had the first time he took his progeny abroad and I have to admit, I thought he was playing the whinging parent a little.

In fact, until now, I’ve always been one of those people who shudder when I see kids getting onboard a flight and sitting anywhere within my immediate vicinity.

Having seen the way my sister and her brood where treated by both fellow passengers and the airline, I have to now say, travelling parents have my empathy.

On our first flight up to the Highlands with EasyJet, we were delayed for boarding by one of her boys who suffers from autism needing the loo and arrived past our Special Assistance boarding time (for those who don’t know, EasyJet board in order of Speedy Boarding, Special Assistance for the disabled and those with kids under five, boarding group A and boarding group B).

When we got onboard, you would have thought we were a bunch of lepers… One woman in the middle of a row of three refused to move to either the window or aisle so my sister’s four-year-old could sit with his dad, meaning the child had to sit alone until take off.

Then when her 25-month-old was freaked out by take off and landing, the cabin crew refused a belt extension so he could sit on my sister’s lap. The reason? He was one month older than what is ‘allowed’ – despite parents of older kids clearly lying about the children’s ages so they could sit on mum’s lap.

On the return flight, my sister was given grief by the cabin crew for taking a dirty nappy (only ones, not twos) she had changed BEFORE boarding but had found no bin to dispose from her seat to the plane.

‘That’s disgusting’ bemoaned the crew member.

So next time you’re on a flight next to a whingy kid or parent, have a little patience, it might not be all their fault.

Strictly Come Polluting

Hey Bruno, look at my airmiles

With the climate change conference starting in Copenhagen next week, my mind’s been turning to the green issue of travel again.

Earlier this week fellow Leeds fan Darren Cronian of Travelrants touched on the issue on his blog it’s a wide and complex one that still has the industry flummoxed.

One way to cut down though could be to ban Strictly Come Dancing. Our version of the ballroom show runs concurrently with the US’s Dancing With The Stars and two of the judges, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli appear on both.

By my calculations, they to and fro across the Atlantic from London to LA (Dancing With The Stars is filmed at CBS Television City), passing judgment on the efforts of C-listers for 12 weeks.

Given it’s a 10,800 mile round trip, that’s 120,800 miles each per season – the equivalent of flying round the globe five times each.

I’m sure it’s doing their air mile accounts the world of good, but as I’m told they travel Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic, they’re taking up more space and increasing their footprint even further.

While travelling is essential for most people, doing so needlessly for the sake of a couple of TV shows seems reckless. Can’t the Americans find their own judges? Or even better – have the shows at different times so Len and Bruno can just up foxtrot oscar over to LA for a while?

The world's largest sprig of mistletoe?

Nice little publicity stunt from my friends over at Heathrow’s T5 where they’ve put what they claim to be the world’s largest piece of mistletoe.

Unfortunately, it’s not real though: the ten foot by eight foot structure weighs 43kg and includes more than 50 feet of steel tubing and 25 stainless steel balls… Probably just as well though, in ancient times people believed mistletoe grew from bird droppings.

Willie Walsh live

At a BA cocktail with The airlines boss, Willie Walsh. He’s talking as I type.

He’s confident merger with Iberia will go through.

It’s been a tough year. Enjoyed the Las Vegas inaugural which was over his birthday. 32 hours of biggest birthday party ever.

New New York all business calss from London City is going well. People have questioned whether they lost their marbles but he is confident it will do well and travel will pull out of recession.

He says dynamic packaging is also doing well for them.

Prize draw for tickets on London city to JFK. Winner are Stephen Bailey and April Hutchinson.

The pilot who forgot to land and two cool new online travel tools

flightcasterI’ve heard some daft excuses for delays, but the pilot forgetting to land the plane?

Apparently, it happened last Wednesday when a Northwest flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St Paul overflew its destination by 150 miles until the pilots either were told by air traffic control or realised their error and turned back. The flight was delayed by an hour and a quarter!

I found out about the unprecedented error from a cool new and relatively new flight delay prediction website, The site uses algorithms that takes into account past performance, current weather on departure and arrival and what other aircraft are in the sky to predict whether a flight will be delayed and by how long. The claim to be able to predict delays six hours ahead of an airline announcement.

skystatusAnother nice social networking tool I also recently discovered is Lufthansa’s My Sky Status that sends sends altitude, location, departure and arrival updates automatically to your Facebook and Twitter pages. Add the airline, flight number, date and destination and the site links to your chosen social network to provide the updates.