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Why I love flying Ukraine International Airlines, the world’s strangest carrier

Two burly men wearing high-visibility jackets approached each other across the airport apron as though they were about to embrace. But as one lifted his arms high and the other moved in for a good rummage, it became clear that a security guard was frisking a baggage handler.

As I gazed from the window of a stationary Boeing 737 at Kiev’s main airport last weekend, this brief, brusque dance was repeated each time bags were loaded into the hold. Presumably theft from luggage in transit is never an issue on Ukraine International Airlines (UIA).

Ukraine’s national carrier may have only a passing acquaintance with punctuality, but any flight with the airline is guaranteed to be eventful. You never quite know what is going to happen – mostly, in a good way.

I started flying with UIA mainly because of its market-beating fares.

If you need urgently to be in Kazakhstan tomorrow, then a flight via the hub at Kiev’s Borispyl airport is likely to be the cheapest way to go (though don’t try it if you are in a hurry: since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the flight has to fly south for an hour before beginning its eastward journey in order to skirt the Black Sea peninsula).

The airline has the final departure of the day from Gatwick, notionally scheduled to leave at 11pm. Anyone who enjoys a drink before take-off is out of luck: as the passengers of PS114 move through to departures, the airport’s bars, restaurants and lounges put up their shutters for the night.

With no later flights to obstruct, the crew evidently feel little pressure to leave the delights of the Sussex airport on time.

Checking PS114’s flight history for the past week, none were remotely punctual.

An hour’s delay must be infuriating for the sleep-deprived residents beneath the Gatwick flight path. But for the passenger, a midnight plane to Kiev is no bad thing. The official arrival time is 4.20am, which is a wretched time to turn up anywhere. An hour later, as the pale light of dawn dapples the countryside, you can synchronise with a new day. And once you reach the city of Kiev itself – rumbustious and friendly, mighty yet ornate – you feel instantly energised.

The homeward flight was notionally scheduled for 10am, and I had planned my trip out to the airport accordingly: a Metro to the suburban station of Darnitsia, from where the express to the airport leaves. But rather too late I discovered there are two stations called Darnitsia, and they are three inconvenient miles apart.

An ambitious taxi driver dropped me at the terminal with barely an hour to spare before departure. A frustrated Frenchman who had just been bumped from the Paris flight invited me to step ahead of him in the queue.

Check-in at Kiev was baffling. “You’re too late,” the first UIA representative insisted. Since the airline stipulates its deadline is 40 minutes before departure, I changed queues for a second opinion.

Another member of ground staff agreed I was in time, but pointed out a detail I had missed: “If you haven’t printed your boarding pass you must pay €15.”

Yet her colleague simply handed over the precious paper with the words: “Have a good flight.” I don’t recall that happening on Ryanair.

The captain allowed plenty of time for passengers to enjoy the Tarmac tango between the ramp staff, before finally setting off for Gatwick.

Eventually the brim-full 737 touched down about half an hour late. I fondly assumed the plane would taxi to the terminal then shut down. But UIA did it in reverse, leaving us languishing in a taxiway while miscellaneous onward connections disappeared.

The jet eventually reached the gate, where the doors were disarmed – and so were the impatient passengers, by the charming farewell message from the cabin crew: “Goodbye. And all the best.”

UIA may not be a great airline, but is an endearing one.

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