Perils of flying

2008-05-10 00:00

STATISTICS show that flying is one of the safest means of travelling in the modern world, but arriving at one’s destination intact does not tell the whole story. Cold statistics do not take into account the conditions of travel by air. They do not tell of the indignities of being processed like cattle before take-off; they do not tell of being cramped like sardines in what is euphemistically termed “economy class”; they do not tell of almost inevitable delays; they do not tell of missed connecting flights. Above all, they do not tell of what happens if the airline on which you are booked ceases operating without notice or warning.

Cheap flights, which have been offered in recent years, have been a boon in opening up the possibilities of travel, international and otherwise, to a wider section of the population. No longer is air travel confined to the wealthy. Many people are quite happy to save money on their fares by paying for any food or drinks that they might require during the flight. But when the budget operation is not underwritten by a bigger airline with deep pockets, it can prove problematic.

Such has been the case of Nationwide this week. The airline’s woes began when an engine fell off one of its aircraft soon after it took off from Cape Town last November. The Civil Aviation Authority compelled the airline to ground its fleet for a protracted period in December while all the aircraft were checked. Inevitably, this has affected passenger numbers, and even although Nationwide subsequently was allowed back into the skies, it was wounded, and recent increases in fuel costs have provided the mortal blow.

Another of the hazards of flying is the uncertain fate of one’s luggage. Nowhere was this more dramatically illustrated than in the recent opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow where the baggage-handling system imploded dramatically on the first day, causing unspeakable chaos, the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the accumulation of a mountain of more than 50 000 pieces of baggage, many of which have not yet, more than a month after the event, been reunited with their owners. While OR Tambo Airport has not managed a disaster on such a monumental scale, the figures released in Parliament this week — that 7 868 items of luggage belonging to SAA passengers have gone missing, either lost or stolen, in only three calendar months — are deeply disquieting.

In Europe, the sheer unpleasantness of air travel seems to be turning passengers back to travel by train. Certainly there is much to be said for the old South African Railways slogan: “Let the train take the strain”. If one can afford the time, one is far more likely to arrive at one’s destination relaxed and with one’s luggage intact.

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