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Palmy skies

The Dorset travel company, Palmair, recently celebrated their fiftieth birthday. Paul Burbidge went on holiday with them as a way of finding out more about the company and its history.

A Vickers Viking carried the very first Bath Travel tour abroad

One thing I have become accustomed to in my many departures from Bournemouth Airport is the battle of elbows it comes to boarding the plane. Those who fly with budget airlines will be able to picture the scene: over a hundred people laying siege to the departure gate in an unruly gaggle. People edging forward like school children boarding a bus at the end of the day. I have even seen travellers adjusting their boarding cards with a biro to get into the earliest boarding group.

But when I arrived for my flight to Tunisia with Palmair, I felt the urge to do none of these things. After checking in, I was sent in the direction of Palmair stalwart Teresia Rossello, who organises the on-board seating plan, a job she has done for around fourteen years. This is the first time I have ever seen such a complex task done by hand rather than on a computer.

Teresia, who first joined Palmair as their Majorca rep in 1987, puts the plans together at her kitchen table the night before, ensuring that her frequent fliers get their choice of seat and that groups and families are seated together. Her reassuring and friendly presence in the terminal building has seen her become the face of Palmair at Bournemouth Airport since the passing of the company’s legendary owner, Peter Bath, in 2006.

PJ, as he was affectionately known to his staff, took over the Bath Travel operation from his father, Reginald Ernest Bath, who founded it in 1924. The creation of Palmair happened almost by accident back in 1958, when PJ was chatting to a friend, Ray Barker, who was managing director of Lunns Kingsflights. Ray was considering cancelling a two-week trip he was promoting to San Agustin in Majorca due to lack of interest. PJ stepped in and persuaded him to run the flight from Bournemouth. He pledged to fill all 36 of the seats aboard the BEA Viking aircraft and, after advertising the holiday in the Bournemouth Daily Echo, he managed to sell every place within four days.

Peter Bath sees off a Palmair flight at Hurn Airport in the 1960s, as he was to do throughout his career

This marked the birth of what is now Britain’s oldest tour operator. The company was one of the founder members of the ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) protection scheme, holding licence number 0003 – numbers 0001 and 0002 are vacant. It was also was the start of rapid growth for the Dorset airline. After operating two trips to Majorca in 1959, Palmair soon began flying regularly to the Spanish island, before adding Malaga as a destination in 1962 and the Costa Blanca the following year.

Majorca remains one of the company’s destinations to this day, as does Tenerife, where they began to send winter flights in 1969. Corfu and Minorca were added to the Palmair brochure in the 1970s, before the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik joined the programme in the ’eighties. The Bournemouth company, which has its head office in Albert Road, now flies to twelve different locations from Hurn, including the Algarve, Fuerteventura, Lake Garda, Lanzarote and Madeira. Holidays to one of the world’s newest countries, Montenegro, have been added to the brochure for May and June 2010.

Palmair also launched their popular day trips during the 1990s. Their first one-day excursions to Quimper and Chambery in north-west France left in 1994 and now Palmair offers journeys to Jersey, Venice and the Isle of Man. There will even be a tour of Iceland on March 27.

In the midst of all this growth, one thing remained constant – Peter Bath’s presence on the tarmac at Bournemouth Airport to wave off each departure personally until his death almost four years ago. In an industry where everything from buying tickets to checking-in can be done online today, it seems almost unimaginable that the chairman and owner of an airline would offer such a personal level of service.

Today, Teresia Rossello is the face of Palmair at Bournemouth Airport

Clearly things did not always go to plan for Palmair. On one occasion when their plane suffered a technical fault, which was going to take at least two hours to fix, PJ told his passengers that they had enough time to ‘go home and mow the lawn’.

Peter Bath’s achievements have been widely recognised and Palmair received huge national media coverage when they were voted the world’s fifth best airline by Which? readers in 1997. They then defied the might of big money rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic once again in 2003 to ascend to top spot. PJ was inducted into the British Travel Industry’s Hall of Fame in 2003, and was honoured with an MBE for his services to charity in 2005. While he may no longer be around to wish Palmair’s passengers ‘bon voyage’, Teresia’s militarily precise organisation still ensures that passengers leave Bournemouth in holiday mood. Palmair call their passengers forward row-by-row and, thanks to their policy of allocated seats, I cannot remember being as calm when boarding a flight as I was on this occasion.

We were flying on Palmair’s new Boeing 737-500, which they launched in May 2009 and aptly named ‘The Spirit of Peter Bath’. It replaced the company’s iconic BAe 146 Whisper Jet and offered cleaner and quieter engines. However, most importantly, it ensured that fuel stops for more far-flung destinations such as Lanzarote, Tenerife and Fuerteventura were a thing of the past.

It shows how far the company has progressed that they were able to purchase a new jet in the midst of a crippling recession. The shining new plane was just as impressive on the inside. At six foot tall, I did not find the legroom to be any greater than that I have enjoyed on numerous budget airlines. However, the plane was spotlessly clean, with Palmair’s famous touch of adding fresh flowers to the toilets. The cabin crew excelled when helping passengers fill out the landing cards which are compulsory for entering Tunisia, and generally seemed to be geared towards ensuring that their customers had a better flight, rather than trying to sell everything from hire cars to lottery tickets.

The quality of the in-flight service – including the famous flowers in the loo – has much to do with the awards that Palmair has won

Palmair’s representative in Tunisia, Denise Samuels, served as a headteacher in her previous career, so she was the perfect person to educate us on the dos and don’ts in this mysterious land. Denise has probably experienced every trick in the locals’ book and her fluent Arabic makes her a huge asset to Palmair’s travellers. She was particularly helpful in organising excursions to the Sahara desert, Tunis and the Cap Bon peninsula; Palmair have a policy of not hard-selling excursions, but can cater for those who do not wish to spend their entire stay on the beach.

There were also no stresses on our return to Bournemouth. After being bussed back to the airport, we just had enough time to visit duty-free before Palmair opted to make an early break for Bournemouth because of adverse weather. This was a very popular decision among the passengers and Palmair deserve credit for having the common sense to realise that since all the passengers arrived by coach at the same time, there was no point in our hanging around for hours in the terminal.

It was difficult to fault any aspect of my maiden voyage with Palmair, and my only question is whether they will be able to maintain this standard as the airline grows and grows. With a fleet of one aircraft and a small team of staff, it is considerably easier to provide the service which has made Palmair so popular with the county’s holidaymakers. But following expansion since that first voyage of 36 passengers to Majorca 52 years ago, it is inevitable that more destinations will be offered and more aircraft needed in years to come. If they can cope with this while maintaining their sky-high standards, there is no doubt that ‘The Spirit of Peter Bath’ will soar to even greater heights.

Boeing 737-500, ‘The Spirit of Peter Bath’, in the skies above Boscombe Pier

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