x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

flydubai's flights to India: and then there were none

Traveller's world flydubai's new routes to Lucknow and Coimbatore should have started last week, and Chandigarh next week, but they all been postponed.

A week can be a long time in the world of travel. In last week's column I reported on flydubai's Indian venture. Its new routes to Lucknow and Coimbatore should have started last week, and Chandigarh next week. Last Saturday, just four days before the first flight was due to take off (and on the day of the Travel section's publication) the budget airline dropped the bombshell that all flights had been postponed, which was reported in The National on Saturday. The airline apologised profusely to its customers and offered compensation in the form of a free flight as well as full refunds, but has consistently failed to offer any explanation.

Reports coming out of India say that the Indian Air force had refused permission for flydubai to land in Chandigarh. The flight was scheduled to arrive at 11pm but civilian aircraft are only permitted to land before 10pm. It would appear that flydubai jumped the gun and started to sell plane tickets before it had finalised the landing rights. Of course, this doesn't explain why its flights to Lucknow and Coimbatore were also cancelled. The problem with being secretive is that it attracts speculation. What could possibly have happened that cannot be shared with disappointed passengers? India is renowned for its red tape - a technical problem about landing times would be dismissed as an inconvenience to some, and that would be the end of it. Sticking to the line, "we have nothing to add to the statement" and avoiding phone calls makes you wonder what the airline is trying to hide. It is not good for any business to become tainted with the stigma of unreliability, but for an airline it is serious stuff; trust is core. The likelihood is that the problem is administrative and will get resolved. The million-plus Indians living in the Emirates will surely be hoping so, but they are also bound to be a lot more wary of the budget airline from now on.

What price would you put on getting to where you want to go on time? The 100 or so passengers waiting to board a Singapore Airways flight to Bali last Tuesday morning put its value higher than the airline. As a transit passenger, I arrived at Singapore airport 75 minutes before my connecting flight - well in time for the flight, but the last customer to book in for my pre-booked and confirmed seat. "Mrs Ryan, we would like to offer you $100 and a business-class seat if you would like to volunteer to catch a later flight," the lady behind the check-in desk said. I thanked her but declined. After more whispered conversations, she came round with a piece of paper on which a new offer was written: $150 in cash, a $50 voucher for in-flight sales, a business-class seat and a room at the Crowne Plaza inside the terminal building for the intervening period. But I still declined.

The manager, a nice man with a hard job, scurried off to the lounge to ask for volunteers. There was not a whiff of interest. He came back crestfallen - there was no seat for me. My three-day trip was being cut by one day and there was nothing either of us could do about it. The global recession has taken its toll; demand on this particular route is strong but the airline, along with many others, has cut the number of flights. Over-booking is routine, though clearly not a good idea on this route as evidenced by a further sweetener - a pen in a presentation box labelled "With sincere apologies from Singapore Airways."

Wearily I accepted a small wad of notes and signed a piece of paper. Only afterwards did I realise they had given me Singapore, not US dollars (worth around US$100) and that I had signed a letter saying I had "volunteered". On board, seven hours later, I looked through the shopping brochure; with my voucher of 50 Singaporean dollars I could get some Lego, a small model aeroplane or a converter plug but not much else. By adding my own money to my voucher I bought some mascara. So I lost seven hours and gained a small amount of cash, a pen and some mascara. No wonder the other passengers did not volunteer.

The most noticeable thing about Singapore's Changi airport - which has the biggest, and dreariest, duty-free area- was the number of people wearing face masks.Top of the list of nationalities was the Japanese; almost every one of them was wearing a blue hospital-style mask. Leaving Bali I was struck by the use of the word "foreigners" on the notices for non-nationals to pass through immigration. It seems so much more polite to say non-UAE or non-EU. But, apparently, in Tokyo the boards refer to "aliens".

Business at India's most photographed hotel, the iconic Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, Rajasthan, has got more to contend with than just the recession. Instead of being surrounded by water it is currently sitting in the middle of dry land.

There are fears that much of the country is on the brink of drought. According to estimates from India's meteorological department, rainfall during this year's monsoon has so far been 43 per cent below the long-term average. For the Lake Palace which has experienced such problems before but not quite on this scale, it means that guests have to be driven across the lake bed, rather than being taken by boat. It is reported that children have been playing cricket on land which is normally three metres under water. Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, whose family owns the hotel says the drought has had a huge impact on tourism, especially the hotel industry. "We have slashed prices but are still unable to increase tourist footfall," he said.

The novelist Irvine Welsh was recently interviewed by the Financial Times about his travel habits. Asked about ideal travelling companions he said for romance it would be his wife, for fun it would be three of his Scottish mates, but for travelling in a war zone he named me. I am still trying to work out if that is a compliment.