Simon Calder: As your world shrinks, keep your eyes fixed on the horizon

Summer traditionally begins with a thud. As the clocks spring forward over the last weekend of March, lighter evenings are traditionally accompanied by ever-wider horizons for travellers – symbolised by the arrival in the post of the April edition of the OAG Pocket Flight Guide.

Even in a digital age, this monthly compendium of hypermobility has the edge over online sources, whether you wish to count the Polish cities served nonstop from Doncaster (six) or identify the one day of the week when it is possible to fly from the UK to the dreamily beautiful island of Terceira (Wednesday, 2.10pm from Stansted, Ryanair). 

Never have bigger, stronger pockets been needed for this guide. After a lean winter, the airlines gather strength and confidence. They lay on hundreds of new flights and count the cash as it rolls in for late-notice Easter breaks, early summer holidays and lucrative July and August departures. Reflecting the record-breaking summer schedules, the OAG April 2020 issue has 1,216 Bible-thin pages, each containing travel dreams encapsulated in microscopic font.

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Ever-expanding horizons, better value, safer journeys: that has been the constant quest for the travel business since the dawn of time, or at least the start of the Jumbo jet age 50 years ago.

Right now, though, the industry of human happiness finds itself in despair.

Desperation is most intense among travellers who find themselves on the wrong side of a world beset by barriers. As flight bans creep across the planet, they yearn to be home: to access medication, to care for family or friends who need them, or to return to their jobs in the NHS.

Normally I have the privilege of recommending great journeys to readers. Instead, I have spent much of this week advising people on escape routes.

Denise’s son is stranded in Nicaragua: “See if the British Embassy in Managua can provide him with documentation to travel to San Jose in Costa Rica so he can fly out on one of the Iberia rescue flights to Madrid”. And Laura finds herself detained in Durban by South Africa’s sudden international flight ban: “If you can cross to Mozambique by Sunday there’s an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa with a connection to London.”

The prospect of distant horizons has turned into a hasty and muddled retreat, and travel is currently calibrated in degrees of distress, not joy.

Where were you planning to be this weekend or over Easter? Perhaps sipping coffee in a cafe in Amsterdam or Paris as you contemplate which magnificent collection of art to visit next; carving your way, elegantly or not, down a snowy mountainside; or lazing on a beach while your cares ebb away with the tide.

Instead, our travel plans have been crushed by coronavirus. You may, like me, spend part of your days of reclusion trying to extract your failed investment in future travel – whether from an airline that is manipulating its website to try to deflect refund claims for cancelled flights, or from a holiday company that is flouting the law.

Ryanair is rolling its schedule back to circa 1995, with a handful of Irish Sea services and a couple of Continental links. British Airways’ scheduled operation for April sees, on the few routes still operating, as many flights in a week as previously took off in a day.

And I’m the man who pays his way but currently can’t, now a recluse clutching a copy of a once-reliable reference source that has become a work of fantasy. 

Distant dreams: the Pocket Flight Guide, April 2020 (Simon Calder/OAG)The Pocket Flight Guide for April 2020 will be seen henceforth as a historic document of dashed aspirations. The May edition may turn out to be as flimsy as a flat-earther’s arguments. But it will provide a starting point for anyone who believes the world is the better for tourism.

For the sake of the tens of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on travel, to satisfy the human aspiration for adventure, and to have a dream to hang on to, start planning your next journey.

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