The Little Carrier That Can

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine this for summer air travel: No holding for a human being to answer the reservation line. No chaos at the airport. And no problem tracking down the chairman of the airline--he's at the gate, seeing off most flights.

"Goodbye. Have a lovely time. Enjoy your holiday," Peter Bath, the owner of the single-airplane Palmair, said to passengers boarding a recent flight to Portugal.

As youthful protesters demonstrated against the evils of globalization in Genoa, Italy, the 74-year-old Bath extolled the virtues of "small is beautiful" in Bournemouth, seaside home to his airline and travel company.

With just one aircraft, Bath can spot-check the cabin for cleanliness and be on a first-name basis with his pilots and flight attendants. He doesn't have to schedule flights at night or the crack of dawn--hours that make life difficult for travelers. And he can be there to board the passengers row by row, admonishing them not to block the aisle.

A quaint business and an eccentric boss? Possibly, but Palmair was voted the third-best airline in the world and the best British carrier in a survey of 20,000 air travelers conducted by the Consumers' Assn. for the travel magazine Holiday Which? this year. Palmair came in behind Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines but beat out national rivals such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic for all-around customer satisfaction.

Granted, only 38 of the respondents said they had ever flown on Palmair, compared with hundreds who had flown on each of the large carriers. Nonetheless, those who knew Palmair gave it one of the most positive ratings when asked whether they would recommend the airline to a friend.

The company got high marks for comfort and service--opinions that were echoed by passengers on a Thursday morning flight to Faro, Portugal.

"You do feel rather than being just a number, they treat you like a person, if you know what I mean," said Paul Instrall, 53, an engineer in search of the Portuguese sun. "It's not like a cattle market."

"It's hassle-free and wonderful to fly out of a local airport," said Pamela Bowles, 57, an accountant. "When you return, you can be out and home in the time it takes you to get your luggage at Gatwick Airport. I'm going to Canada in October, and I have to go to Heathrow. It's a nightmare."

Of course, it helps that they live near the regional airport in southern England. But across the country, Britons increasingly are opting to fly out of smaller facilities on low-budget carriers, whose business has ballooned in the last few years. Travelers are drawn by the economically priced seats on Ryanair, EasyJet Go and Buzz and by the ease of smaller regional and suburban airports such as Luton and Stansted, which offer less confusion and fewer delays than giants such as Heathrow--the busiest international airport in the world, with more than 60 million passengers on more than 90 airlines and more than 425,000 flights a year.

Technically, Palmair isn't a low-cost airline but a charter company operating like an airline, with regularly scheduled flights that take off even if the aircraft isn't full. (Charter companies often postpone or cancel a flight if nearly all of the seats aren't taken.) Palmair travel agencies try to sell holiday packages, including air travel and hotel reservations, but it's possible to book a Palmair flight without buying the rest.

Ticket prices are comparable to the lowest fares offered by the big carriers out of the big airports. They are more expensive than the lowest fares offered by budget airlines out of regional airports. Ryanair is the only other airline operating out of Bournemouth, with flights to Dublin.

Moniker Inspired by Fun in the Sun

Bath founded Palmair in 1957, when Britons decided they were tired of their cold beaches and began to spread their wings in the direction of sunnier European climes. The Spanish island of Majorca was a clear early favorite, and Bath named the airline after the island's capital, Palma.

He subsequently added weekly flights to other holiday spots in Spain and to Portugal and other European resorts. Now Palmair offers about seven round trips a week and has 50,000 passengers a year. Controlled growth, Bath would call it.

Palmair upgraded its plane from a 146 Whisperjet to the larger Boeing 737 to expand fuel capacity for nonstop flights to the Greek and Canary islands and to accommodate more passengers, although Bath had a row of seats taken out of the plane to give it more leg room.

But it's still just one plane, which is why the bigger tour operators and low-cost airlines don't see Palmair as a great threat.

"In nearly 50 years at this airport, I've seen more companies go bust as a result of overexpansion," Bath said over a cup of tea after closing the flight. "We do very well. It's better to operate one airplane to its maximum capacity and have it 95% full than to have two aircraft at 50%."

In fact, says managing director David Skillicorn, the airline has to book 90% of the seats to make money--at 80% it loses. It used to fly to Corsica, but it could fill only 70% of the plane, so it canceled the route.

By contrast, Palmair is running a few loss-incurring flights to Dubrovnik, convinced that Croatia's spectacular beaches, so popular before the Balkan wars, will stage a comeback.

Bath cocked an ear for the familiar sound of his plane taking off. When he heard the engines' roar, he checked his watch.

"Right on time," he said.

An avid gardener, Bath planned to go home for a few hours' work outdoors and return in the afternoon. The plane, meanwhile, would bring the previous week's travelers home from Portugal and be readied for a flight to Malaga, Spain.

"The worst thing is changing from my gardening clothes back into my suit," Bath said.

"He's retired three times already," Skillicorn said with a laugh. "This is a hobby for him now. Still, he has very definite ideas about how it should be run."

Conditions at Major Airports Deteriorating

They're ideas that work as the conditions in mainstream airports continue to deteriorate, with heavy traffic and long delays punctuated by labor strikes and lost luggage.

"We used to go to Cyprus and we still prefer Cyprus, but not if it's a question of flying out of Gatwick," said teacher Kilkenny Browne, 46, who flew Palmair to Faro with her husband and three children.

"This is our local airport," she said. "You see what's available from your local airport and go there. So we're going to Portugal."

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