How much drama can one squeeze into a single month? If you live in Africa, quite a bit. Follow the author from Lagos to London to Hong Kong as the month unfolds.
Chapter 1 : "Guarantee to Kill or Cure, my brother"
Chapter 2 : "Good news is the plane is here. Bad news is that its on fire."
Chapter 3 : "Uh, I think your leg is bleeding."
Chapter 4 : "Hey mom, any plans for the weekend?"
Chapter 5 : "Your meal choices tonight are "some kind of chicken" or "I think this is beef"
Chapter 6 : "Excuse me ma'am, is this seat taken?"
Living in the western world, the term "malaria" sends shivers down your spine. Living in Africa, its just a way of life. Nobody who lives here for more than a few months bothers with a prophylaxis. If you're smart and take basic precautions, you probably aren't at risk anyway. And if you do catch the bug, they sell Chinese ripoffs of Artesonate anti-malarial pills at virtually every street corner - and its a "Guaranteed Kill or Cure in 5 days" if you believe the friendly Nigerian guy with the big grin selling it to you.
Anyway, I came down with the malaria bug on a weekend. This is usually not a big deal since its a good excuse to take a few days off. Unfortuantely, I had an aircraft due in for a maintenance check during the week and those have a habit of going pear-shaped unless someone keeps a close eye on things. Sure enough, Monday morning I get an email from maintenance that they need an additional 24 hours in order to comply with some airworthiness directives. This throws a major spanner in my works since my usual sources of spare capacity are already tapped out and booked loads are above 90%. After frantically working the phones, I find a broker who promises me a JAR-OPS compliant 757 from a Spanish operator I've never heard of before.
I also realise that I need to be in London to handle this situation. Nothing against my fantastic staff there, but there are logistics involved with a subservice that sometimes they aren't equipped to handle. Needing to get into Gatwick before 8am on the Wednesday morning meant that my only option was a connection in lovely Lagos between Aerocontractors and Virgin Nigeria. I enlist Tony from my airport ops department to come along with me and we checkin for the first leg to Lagos on Aero. Unfortunately, the inbound flight is delayed about 30 minutes which drops our connection time to barely an hour. Fingers crossed we take to the skies for what has to be the shortest flight (249 miles) that utilises the airspace of 4 countries (Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria). Service on the short hop was soft drinks accompanied by Aero's trademark mystery sandwich. After all these years, I still haven't quite figured out what the filling is but they are extremely tasty.
Fortunately, we are routed to runway 18L at Lagos which reduces rather significantly the taxi times than the usual 18R which can rival Schiphol's Polderbaan. Unfortunately, we are then taxied to the remote stands on the far side of the F gates where we park behind (yes, i did say BEHIND) the Lufthansa A330. They unload us to the tarmac and we wander to the terminal building under the watchful eye of a ramper picking his nose while sitting on a tractor. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have remembered to unlock the door into the terminal. The ramper tries to raise someone on a radio but the battery appears to be dead. He pulls out his mobile and calls someone. We wait. On the far side of the airport at the D gates I can see our flight to London commence loading, and we aren't even checked in yet! Finally a manager shows up in a colourful 1980s vintage jalopy and leads us up the side stairs of the jetway connected to the South African Airways aircraft. He bangs on the door until someone opens up and lets us into the terminal building. Welcome to Nigeria.
We run across the terminal and make it to the Virgin gate about 45 minutes prior to departure. As expected, the frontline agents are parroting the "flight closed" line, but thankfully the Duty Manager recognises me and orders the flight re-opened to accomodate us. There are no boarding pass printers at the gate though, so we get manually scribbled passes. The load is pretty light today, but spread out. The manager takes a quick look at the seat plan and tells me to grab row 15 and Tony to grab row 30-something as the center sections are completely open there. Today's aircraft is the Airbus 330 wetleased from BMI, so row 15 is in their "Premium Economy" cabin. Excellent. I wait till after takeoff, pop my Artesonate pills and then stretch out across 4 seats to get some sleep.
Gatwick South non-EU Immigration is awful at this hour of morning since IRIS isn't yet functional (Editorial note : IRIS is now up and running), so I call my Duty Manager to come rescue us. Mike shows up a few minutes later and escorts us to the informal Staff/Crew line in the corner. We head upstairs just before checkin is due to open. DCS has questions about the seatmap and I troubleshoot with them on Codeco. So far all seems to be going ok. Tony is on the watch for the 2 involuntary downgrades due to the aircraft swap. Check email and find that poor Jackson, the overnight Duty Manager has been deluged with requests from the lessor's Ops in Spain for the fuel releases for the ferry flight. I call Barcelona and put everything to rest with a quick fax. A quick call to DfT to ensure the subservice permit has been approved and we seem to be set. Checkin has been rolling smoothly and Apron control advises they'll be putting us on stand 20, one of my favourites.
By now, I'm feeling really awful. The Artesonate is wearing off and the fever is coming back with a vengeance. Worse, the shivers are getting quite uncontrollable so I can't really keep myself in view of the passengers. I retire up to the box and ask Tony to get me a Lucozade from WHSmith. I pop my next dose of pills and curl up on the sofa for a quick nap before the plane arrives. James is due to meet the arrival so I can get some extra sleep until she's actually gated.
My mobile goes off somewhere in my pocket and I scrabble around for it. Its James who is meeting the arrival of the ferry.
"Is she in?"
"What? A problem?"
"We have good news and bad news. Good news is the plane is here. Bad news is that its on fire."
Silence for a second.
"You're shitting me right?"
"I wish I was. I'm sitting right here on the taxiway and we have half the bloody fire service making a right racket."
"Looked like something around the undercarriage to me. Can't tell from here though."
"Keep me posted."
At that moment, I knew it was going to be a crappy week.
I headed up to the office with Tony to establish some sort of a control center as we tried to figure out what was going on. James calls up to say that the maintenance support for these guys is with Iberia over at Heathrow. Well, thats about as useful as a chocolate teacup. Call SR Technics out, we have an account with them. And meanwhile post a delay message for the passengers. Next info in an hour.
SRT comes out and we spend an agonising 45 minutes while they diagnose the problem. Aircraft made a hard landing which caused 2 hydraulic lines to sever. Fluid fell on the hot brakes and it flared up briefly. More smoke than fire. Easy fix. Just got to get these two replacement lines. If parts are on station, we can get it done in less than 3 hours. And if parts are not on station? Well, umm, longer than 3 hours I guess. Everyone hits the phones trying to see if anyone has the parts at Gatwick. Monarch has one of the lines on hand but the other might be up in Luton. Wait 20 minutes. Sorry, nothing in Luton either. Excel has one of the lines, but its the same one that Monarch has on hand. No dice.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the waiting passengers and more importantly, the crew. Decision time. I call Barcelona and discuss a longshot idea. They think it just might work. So I call down to Mike who has relieved James at the aircraft.
"Pull the crew off and post 23 Zulu departure."
"The crew will go illegal in 2 hours and the part isn't on station. I want them to go to the Hilton and get minimum rest so they can work the rotation tonight as an augmented turn."
"Lets just wait a few more minutes..."
"No, the longer we wait to send them down, the longer we have to wait for them to come back out. We need to bite the bullet sooner rather than later."
He sees my point. We send the crew to the Hilton to get some rest. Now for the 190 passengers....
It is never pleasant to tell a passenger that his flight is delayed. It is even less pleasant to tell him that he is delayed till midnight. I rally the troops and we head out to the departure lounge armed with a pile of lunch vouchers. Passengers will have the option of waiting out the delay with all meals taken care of by us, rebooking without penalty for a future flight (already oversold tomorrow morning though!) or cancelling for a full refund. All passengers will also be given the "STATUTORY FLIGHT DELAY NOTICE UNDER EU 261/2004" form letters and a compensation voucher valid for a free ticket on purchase of their next flight.
It goes as well as can be expected. It is incredible how many people schedule "life-or-death" meetings within a few hours of their planned landing from an intercontinental flight. And yes ma'am, while you may have also experienced a delay with us the last time you travelled 2 years ago, the sample size is not large enough to justify your assertion that "this happens every day".
Back in the office and I'm feeling like death again. We plan the shifts. Tony is retired off to the hotel and charged with handling tomorrow morning. Mike is packed off home to get some rest and return at 2100 to handle the departure. James will cover till 1800 when he will hand out the dinner vouchers and then call it a day. And me? Well, I'll just curl up in the corner of the office and go to sleep for a while. Finally, Iberia at Heathrow manages to borrow the parts from British Airways and things are moving again. The boys from SRT do a quick job on the fix and everything is cleaned up and ready by the time 1700 rolls around. Pax are resigned to their fate in the dep lounge. There is a MyTravel flight to Brazil sitting on a similar delay and the two sets of pax are getting along nicely. "Lull before the storm" mutters James. "Don't tempt fate", I warn him.
I'm still running a nasty fever and am completely unable to face the prospect of solid food. I've survived most of the day on Lucozade and other isotonic drinks but James brings a box of Krispy Kreme donuts up to the office and I'm suddenly tempted again. I resist, take my next dose of medication and curl up again in the corner until I am awakened by Mike's return at 2100. I call ops in Barcelona and get them to send the flight plan and releases through. Then its time to wake up the crew and get them prepped for their long day ahead. The captain, who looked a bit like the Meatloaf of "Bat out of Hell" fame to begin with now looks a bit like the Meatloaf of last night's leftovers as he has decided not to shave. Mike and myself take them down to Concorde House where we escort them airside through the staff entrance and safely onto an Airlinks bus.
Sometime during the evening, airfield ops have in their wisdom decided to have us towed to stand 42. For those of you unfamiliar with Gatwick, this stand is in the middle of nowhere and requires you to cross not one but two active taxiways simply to access. Hence we are forced to rustle up some coaches to bus our passengers out, despite virtually every bloody gate in the airport being unused at this hour of day. I'm not a happy camper. Meanwhile, the captain advises that he's ready for passengers so we head back to the terminal where the girls have already started boarding. Great job, we might actually beat our posted ETD.
At minus 10, everybody is on board and we seem set to go. The passengers seem quite impressed that we've managed to salvage the situation somewhat and I'm looking forward to getting into a nice warm bed for a few hours. Doors closed and chocks off. Suddenly the ramper removing one of the chocks signals us. My heart sinks. This can only be bad news.
"Oi mate, you got some sort of leak here."
"Left main gear."
Mike is already on the phone to SRT to send an engineer out. I get on the headset to the captain and explain the situation. He thinks its probably residual fluid leftover from the severed line this morning. I hope so too. The engineer comes out and takes a look. He can't spot a new leak and after discussion with the captain decides to give us the all clear. Whew. Lets pushback.
Not so soon. We're now past 2300 Zulu and the night movement restrictions are effect. We can't start up engines until I have cleared a QC slot for departure. Thankfully, I have apron control's number programmed onto my mobile. The girl on duty is obviously new since she spends a while checking the QC value of a 757 (this is Gatwick honey, you can't get more 757s if you tried!!!) and to ensure we have enough QC points in our season quota to permit the operation. Its all good. We taxi and head to 26R and are airborne 2337Z. I send a text message to my Duty Manager on the other end with the ETA and head back to the office where I finally help myself to one of James' leftover Krispy Kremes. Mike gives me a ride to the hotel on his way home and I'm in bed by 2am local after popping another set of pills. Tomorrow morning is Tony's baby, he can handle it. Or so I thought.
7am local and the mobile rings. At least I got a few hours sleep. It's Maintrol. Now, I don't dislike Maintrol. However, as a rule, Maintrol are not very talkative chaps. They never call you to make small talk. When Maintrol calls, its because somebody somewhere messed up. My 767 is AOG in Vienna coming out of the AD mod. This week just got a lot worse. I call the airport and reach Tony to give him the news. He doesn't sound too pleased. We don't have an ETA so we can't post an ETD. I tell him to keep checkin running as normal and we'll hope for the best. Booked load is actually a mild oversale situation, although we anticipate enough no-shows that it won't require us to seek volunteers.
As the morning progresses, the situation worsens. Maintrol keeps sending out "Next update on the hour" messages, which basically means they have no clue what is wrong. Finally at 1100 they have isolated the fault. At 1125 they have located the part to fix it, but its in Copenhagen. I take the decision to post a next info at 1500 and hand out lunch vouchers. This situation is a lot worse than yesterday because we don't have any concrete information to give the passengers. Poor Tony takes the brunt of it. The police are called for backup and show up with their usual automatic weapons and riot gear, which incites the mob even more. One idiot accuses a police officer of being racist and pushes him. Bad idea. He quickly finds himself on the floor with handcuffs. His girlfriend starts screaming at the top of her voice that unless they release him she's going to strip naked in the departure lounge. She's quickly bundled off by the coppers as well. The rest of the mob collect their vouchers and slink away to McDonalds. Nobody can find poor Tony though. We think he's hiding behind a rack in The Body Shop.
Meanwhile it's time to meet the inbound 757 that operated yesterday's horribly delayed flight. Derek and I head down to the Pier 3 Satellite where Captain Meatloaf is looking positively shaggier than last night as he taxies in after a very long duty day. I check my watch and the crew has exactly 7 minutes of duty time remaining after all legal extensions are considered. Looks like yesterday's gamble paid off! As the chocks go on, Meatloaf slumps into his seat. The relief crew for the ferry back to Madrid arrives on Air Plus and we quickly get them on their way, but not before they manage to wangle 16 tons of fuel on my account. "Destination Madrid, alternate Dubai" jokes Derek. Note to self - pursue fuel reconcilation tomorrow.
Meanwhile, we've still got the 767 in Vienna to worry about. Maintrol now says the AOG part is en route on SAS for a 1930Z arrival. That means our best case scenario would be 2230Z before we even have the aircraft on hand in Gatwick. I decide to post midnight local for departure and start mobilising the dinner vouchers. Meanwhile, we need to have relief for Derek and Tony who have been on since early morning. It's James' day off but Derek convinces him to come on out anyway. He arrives and plunges straight into dinner voucher duty. I've got a great night shift from my ground handlers and the mood is actually pretty buoyant in the departure lounge. Even BAA Security joins into the fun for a while.
As the evening progresses, I call Maintrol to get an update on the AOG part.
"Vienna cannot locate it."
"They advise it was loaded with general cargo and has been mixed up."
"Well, tell them to go find it!"
"We are working on it. Next update on the hour."
That was the last straw. I call Steve at home. Steve is the big boss of Maintenance and since his boys have ruined my week already, I figure its only fair that I ruin his evening too. Steve promises to kick some .... Meanwhile, I convene a pow-wow with Mike, James, Tony and Bruce in the ladies perfume section of World Duty Free. I figure this is probably the safest place to hide from the most violent male passengers. We plan for the worst. Then Steve calls back.
"They have the part."
"Give us 30 minutes and we'll be rolling."
He's a man of his word. 30 minutes later he calls back to advise they have pushed in Vienna. 15 minutes later and Ops calls with the movement message. ETA to Gatwick 2315Z. Now to give the good news to the passengers. The PA system at the info desk is inop so I try to shout, but the crowd is too large and cannot hear me at the back. BAA Security comes up with one of the emergency megaphones and I climb on top of the podium. It's quite surreal to look down upon hundreds of faces that wouldn't hesitate to rip me to shreds if the news wasn't good. When I announce that the aircraft has left Vienna, there is a loud cheer.
I call the hotel and activate the crew. James is onto catering. Apron clears the QC movements. Forget the cleaners - its coming off a ferry and the crew can tidy up before boarding. Just after midnight local time, there is a loud cheer from the upstairs bar. James and I go upstairs and watch as our 767 rolls out neatly on 08R and heads to the satellite. All services are waiting and passengers couldn't be more eager to obey our every instruction for quick boarding. We're all set to roll by 115am but the fuel is still pumping the 65 tons we need. Finally, we close up and send her on her way. Airborne at 143am. The dispatcher asks what he should list as reason for delay? "Late inbound" of course. We all laugh.
Back in the office, James checks his voicemail, just to check if his wife has kicked him out of the house yet. We take some of the leftover dinner vouchers and head down to the 24 hour M&S outlet for him to buy her a peace offering. In the spirit of planning for the worst, I tell him from personal experience that the couch in the office is pretty comfortable. He's not amused. As we're walking to the car park, I look up at the arrivals board and see tomorrow's arrival still listed for 725am. I call up to Ops and have them post 4pm as the ETA with a 530pm ETD. Derek has the morning shift and I make sure to leave him a note briefing him to issue ?10 refreshment vouchers to all passengers at checkin itself. Then I hit the sack around 4am. It's going to be another long day tomorrow, and I still can't face the prospect of solid food.
Up around 9am and back at the airport by 11am. Checkin is motoring along nicely. We're slightly concerned by another oversale situation, but at the end we push a few SFUs through (Editorial note : SFU aka "Suitable For Upgrade" is an internal code we use to determine operational upgrade priority) and close out with 4 seats to spare up front and nothing down the back. The passengers are entirely tame today in comparison to the last couple days, primarily because we can give them a definitive answer about departure time.
We have an entirely uneventful arrival (ok, its 7 hours late but thats a minor detail!). The outbound crew are absolutely exemplary - they have everything prepped and ready to start boarding within the hour. The passengers are eager to get on their way, but we're 1 down at the gate. To make things worse, he has 2 bags checked - and they are in different bins. We page him by name throughout the terminal, but no luck. The loaders go diving for his bags and finally get them off - but we've tacked on another 45 minutes to the delay in the meanwhile. As we watch her push back, our missing passenger comes running up demanding to be let on board.
"Sir, I wouldn't like you to think for a moment that I would even entertain that thought, but may I ask you if you would honestly feel safe flying with 226 passengers who you just delayed for an extra hour so you could get some last minute shopping done?"
He gets the point and shuts up. I'm in a generous mood and offer to waive the change fee as a goodwill gesture for the initial delay. Kieran takes him downstairs to be de-controlled while Derek and myself head back to the office. Tomorrow's arrival will be "only" 3 hours behind schedule and we might even hit an on-time departure! Fast forward to the next day....
We operate a route where we get a fair amount of passengers traveling under "removal orders" from Immigration. These folks come in two broad categories - "self checkins" and "custodial". The former tend to be people who have committed some technical violation of immigration law, while the latter folks tend to be more umm.. interesting cases. Today's flight has one of each scheduled to fly out. Everything goes just fine with the checkin and inbound arrival, but thats when things start sliding downhill.
James gets a call from central search. They have apprehended one of our passengers attempting to smuggle a bottle of liquid concealed in umm.. a part of her anatomy. Evidently, the fact that she was unable to walk straight gave it away. The liquid turned out to be just cosmetics, but she was still being subjected to a "full body personal search". Turns out that this lady is our "self checkin" and she is probably pulling this stunt so somebody will deny her travel and she can continue to stay in the UK. James calls down to Immigration's dedicated removals unit and they send an officer up to counsel the passenger. She is given a very stern warning and escorted down to the gate anyway. Sorry honey, better luck next time.
In the meanwhile, our "custodial" case is getting a bit out of control. He is being escorted by 4 burly guards from G4S, but is kicking up a big fuss as well. Unlike the deviously ingenious plan of the self checkin, this guy seems out to simply create a ruckus. He sits down on the jetway and refuses to move. He's screaming about how he will be tortured and persecuted if he returns home, but the paperwork says his asylum claims were deemed non-credible and accordingly denied. He claims to be Togolese, but he tried to enter the UK on a fake Ghanaian passport and his accent sounds distinctly Liberian. Still, 'tis not for us to judge him - but rather to comply with the removal orders. After the niceties don't work to coax him from the floor, the G4S boys physically lift him to his feet and carry him on board where custody is handed over to one of our on-board marshals. They sit together in the last row of seats with the removal by the window and the marshal in the aisle. The effort of his tantrum on the jetway seems to have drained him now and he sits silently looking out the window at the refuellers.
Customs are out at the gate to inspect the departure today. Toby, the Customs currency sniffer dog, is an old friend of mine. You know you travel too much when you are on first name basis with the Customs sniffer dog! His handler has brought a ball down to keep Toby occupied at the gate and I spend a few minutes playing "catch" and "fetch" with him in the arrivals corridor while the G4S boys sort out the removal. The crew suddenly realise that they are short of plastic cups for the beverage service, so I have to get back to work and raise catering to bring some extras out. I'm deadheading back as crew today, so I also need to make sure that I'm properly listed on the General Declaration.
Boarding is finally completed and we close the doors just over an hour late. The last words I hear before the doors close are from James. "I'd say I hope to see you soon, but I'd be lying!" I flick him the bird through the L2 porthole and can hear the laughter as the jetway pulls away.
As the crew scurry around to prep for the demo, I scan the manifest for an empty seat and settle on 7F, the last row aisle of the B-zone cabin in Economy with an empty middle seat next door. There are open seats in Business Class, but the crew today include a couple of good friends working the mid-galley so we can undoubtedly have some fun later on. I use the opportunity of being seated in the back row to make funny faces at the girls while they stoically keep straight faces as Claude, the purser, rattles through the song-and-dance routine.
Once airborne, the crew come around with beverage service and lunch. I decide to partake of a tray of solid food for the first time in a few days. Although the food isn't particularly the greatest, I did serve on the team that developed the menu so I can't really complain much. I polish off the meal and wander back to the galley to chat for a while. Pat and Vicky are always great fun to fly with and we spend an hour or so just chilling and gossiping.
I nap for a few hours but am suddenly woken up by a searing pain in my leg. One of the girls is standing by with a look of utmost horror on her face. I had made the mistake of falling asleep with my ankle dangling out into the aisle. As the girls were prepping for the drink service, one of them forgot to set the brakes on her cart and it had rolled down the aisle and slammed into my leg, pinning it between the cart and the seat. I laugh it off and the girls are very apologetic. I just tell them to be glad it was me and not a paid passenger, or else they would be facing lawsuits for the rest of their natural life.
After we land, I stand up to get my laptop out of the overhead bin. The leg is beginning to feel a bit funny. As I climb down the stairs it gives way and I have to grab on to the handrail to keep my balance. Ben from security helps me down the stairs and looks down at my ankle.
"Uh, I think your leg is bleeding."
Sure enough, my sock is caked with blood. I can't believe I didn't notice this earlier. I ride the crew bus to the terminal and the girls help me stumble through customs. Ben is waiting with a car and he takes me to the office where we extricate the First Aid kit and dress the wound. Turns out the cart caused a couple of puncture wounds on the rear of the heel. It looks a lot worse than it feels as the bruise is turning the whole area a lovely shade of indigo. On the bright side though, I think my malaria has passed.
The last week has been a bit too stressful for my liking and with the long Easter weekend looming, I decide that I need a break. I have to be in London for meetings on Thursday, so the natural choice is to go home to India. I call my mommy.
"Hey mom, any plans for the weekend?"
"Just the usual family thing on Sunday. Why?"
"Well, I may need a ride from the airport on Friday night."
Squeal of delight.
I get on Galileo and hunt around for a good fare. I hate nonrevving over a holiday weekend as loads can be highly temperamental, so I decide to buy an el-cheapo from whoever has a good fare available. Qatar has a wonderful deal for just under 300 pounds roundtrip to Mumbai, outbound from Gatwick and back into Heathrow. I get online and even manage to burn some miles to upgrade the Doha - Heathrow leg to Business Class. This is scheduled to be operated by the new Airbus 340-600, so I am especially excited to try that product.
The flight up to London is routine and I stretch out across a row in B-zone and get a good night's sleep. Meetings all day before I hit the hotel in the late afternoon. Ran into some of the crew in the lobby and head out with them a little later to grab a kebab. Then to the 24-hour TESCO to finish up mom's London shopping list! Some things never change, no matter how old I get!
Qatar Airways usually departs from gate 28 at Gatwick, located right at the end of center pier, a good 15 minute trek from checkin. In fact, it took Mike less time to get there from North Terminal than it took me to simply walk down the pier from the dep lounge! We chatted and then I boarded one of their newer A330s for the ride down to Doha.
Qatar has incredible service, even in Economy, but what troubles me is that this may be coming at the expense of some of the essentials. Case in point, they have an elaborate pre-flight ritual while the aircraft is taxiing for takeoff. This involves distribution and collection of hot towels, sweets, etc... With a very short taxi time from our gate to the active 26L, the crew rushed around and didn't have time to complete their compliance checks. I only noticed this when we hit 10,000 feet and the seatbelt sign pinged off. When I reached down to unfasten my belt, I realised that I hadn't actually fastened it to begin with. I know that it is largely my own oversight, but the crew also have a responsibility to double check things. I'm sorry Qatar, but I'd have skipped the hot towel service just to have a more thorough compliance check. The flight itself was uneventful. I watched a few movies, ate the food, napped for an hour and worked on my laptop the rest of the time.
Doha transit has become a lot more bearable now that the terminal extension has been completed and the Premium Terminal opened. The lounges in the main terminal are now used primarily by the QR elites, so while the buffets are not quite as elaborate as they used to be, you can actually find a chair to sit on and use the Wifi. The connecting leg to Mumbai was quick and painless and I slept virtually the entire way. Immigration in Mumbai is incredibly efficient nowadays and I was outside literally within minutes of touchdown.
After a much-too-short weekend of being spoiled by my parents, it was time to head back to the daily grind. Was pleased to run into a friend who works for Lufthansa while checking in at the Qatar desks. We chatted until it was time to board. I don't know what the service on this leg was like since I slept the entire way to Doha. I do know that it was on A7-AFN, one of the pair of A330s without PTVs in Economy Class.
Seeing that I was flying out in Business Class to Heathrow, I tried to get to the Premium Terminal, but was politely rebuked by the guardian of the doorway to paradise who pointed out that I had just flown in Economy. I guess they were afraid that the cooties I might have picked up from the proles in steerage would contaminate the inner sanctum.
Business Class on this brand new (10 days old) A340-600 was just as impressive as the advertising makes it out to be. The seats are comfy, the AVOD system is quick and responsive and the crew fawns over you just enough to make you feel pampered but not so much as to be overbearing. The Business Class "lounge" area though is just a glorified stand-up bar with a "library" consisting of an oversized magazine rack. The First Class "lounge", which you can see through the open curtains during takeoff and landing, looks to be a completely pointless waste of space. Not one person actually used it during the entire flight.
Meal service was breakfast just after departure and a second heavy snack a couple hours before landing. Service was immaculate, but I felt the menu choices were a bit heavy on the smoked salmon. I skipped the second meal and played "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" on the IFE system until we landed at Heathrow. Immigration lines were horrendous, but the IRIS lane was open and I was through in a blink of an eye. Luggage took forever to arrive though - for some reason the PRIORITY baggage container was the last one to be unloaded to belt. Shuttle over to Avis, M25 over to Gatwick and it was back to the grindstone.
The flight back on Tuesday morning was typically routine, to the point that I don't even recall what went on. Of course, by the time I got to the office on Wednesday morning some work had come up in London that I needed to head right back there for a meeting on Thursday afternoon. This was a bit of a challenge since my Wednesday flight northbound was packed and I needed to be back in the office for another meeting on Friday. Fortunately, Astraeus, the "UK's leading independent charter airline", happened to have a lovely Thursday night 8pm departure with 230am arrival. I have sometimes referred to this as the "Businessman's dream flight", as in the context "a Businessman will only fly that flight in your dreams". Nonetheless, I called a friend there and he was glad to oblige with a seat.
Was fortunate that the northbound captain on my flight Wednesday night was an old friend, so he had no problem with me jumpseating up and napping in the corner of the cockpit. We departed into a nasty equatorial thunderstorm and there was a spectacular lightning display as we climbed through the clouds. The crew woke me up at the top of descent with a coffee and we came in to 26L at Gatwick in perfect weather on a lovely sunny morning.
After a long day of meetings, I headed back to the airport where the Astraeus folks have set me up with an entire row. This is especially useful as the normal seat pitch is quite numbing on a 6+ hour flight. I usually enjoy checking out the competition, but with Astraeus they compete strictly on the basis of price and make no bones about it. We are airborne about 45 minutes late and set course to the south.
The meal on this flight is truly the vilest slop I have ever seen on a plane. I have never been in a Turkish prison, but I'd wager that the fare there cannot be much worse. The flight attendant comes around and offers a choice of "some kind of chicken" or "I think this is beef". I pick the "I think this is beef" and after opening up the lid, I can see why the poor FA was unsure. In fact, after tasting it, I am still somewhat uncertain about its origins. Note to self, next time buy something at the airport.
A very good friend of mine just got hired as a Flight Attendant with Emirates. I had always promised her that when she started flying for them, I'd make the time to come out and surprise her somewhere in the world. With another long weekend looming, I gave her a call in Dubai and checked her schedule for that weekend. Conveniently, she was rostered for a Hong Kong trip. Perfect. The flight times would allow me to fly up to London, pick up Emirates to Hong Kong via Dubai, spend 24 hours with her in HK and then get back to Gatwick on Oasis just in time to meet my arrival on Tuesday morning. I organised the nonrev tickets and told her I'd see her in Hong Kong, but stopped short of telling her I'd be on her flight. Some surprises are best kept for later.
Another routine flight up to Gatwick found me pottering around North Terminal waiting for Emirates checkin to open. To my embarassment, the friend in Emirates sales department who I had asked to list me for the flights had gone ahead and got my seats confirmed in Business Class all the way through to HK. This gave me the opportunity to sample the wonderful new Emirates lounge at Gatwick. This lounge is quite magnificent for an outstation, but complete overkill for their size of operation. It seats over 300 (and knowing the rents at Gatwick, that kinda space doesn't come cheap) and has been done up extremely tastefully. The buffet is exceptional and features the usual assortment of mezze, cocktail snacks, cold cuts, salads, hot snacks and even mini-meals that you can grab while waiting for your flight. I grab a shower and then use the free wifi to get online.
The flight over to Dubai is packed in all classes and I am unfortunately stuck in the awful bulkhead window seat in Business Class on the Airbus 330. Of course, for the price I paid for the seat, I really can't complain but I would be significantly unimpressed if I were a paying passenger. Especially after my fabulous experience with Qatar a couple weeks prior, this simply wasn't in the same league. I quietly recline and sleep all the way through to Dubai.
Dubai is a bloody zoo at this time of morning. Aircraft from every point of the globe have discharged their passengers into the concourse and the cacophony of noise is comparable to what the Tower of Babel probably sounded like. I wander over to the Business Class lounge where it is standing room only. Thankfully, the business center was largely deserted on a weekend morning so I found a desk and internet connection that was able to accomodate me. I call my friend who is just about at the airport and confirm her flight number (there are 3 flights to HKG this morning so that was a safety precaution just in case!). She sounds suspicious, I guess she's known me too long.
"Aren't you supposed to be on your way already?"
"Uh.. yeah, just checking your arrival time and flight number."
"You're trying to get on my flight aren't you?"
"Uh.. no I'm not trying" (little white lie, I have ALREADY tried and succeeded!)
"Ok, see you in Hong Kong"
Junior cabin crew in Emirates are banished to working at the back of the bus, so my Business Class ticket was a bit of an impediment here. I ask the girl at the lounge desk if she wouldn't mind downgrading me to Economy but I think I confused the poor dear. She offered to give me an aisle seat in Business Class instead of the window. I told her that no, I didn't want to fly in Business Class. She said that First Class was full. I don't care about First Class, I want to fly in Economy. But you are on a Business Class ticket. I gave up. We'll sort this out on board.
At the boarding gate, I quietly slink on board and take my Business Class seat just forward of the door. I know someone will be looking for me in Economy so its best to keep the surprise for later. After a while, the ground staff come up and tell the crew that boarding is complete. A familiar voice pipes up with a somewhat disappointed tone.
"Are you sure that is everyone?"
"Oh well, ok"
This is my cue to approach the Business Class purser and ask her if it was ok to move to Economy. She can't understand why I want to do that. I tell her its "personal reasons", plus I'm sure the service at the back is just as good. That makes her smile and she gives me the all clear.
I wander to the back and spot my friend taking her position at the jumpseat by door 3R, engrossed in untangling the harness. Thankfully the seats right across from her are open. I sit down and wait for her to finish.
"Excuse me ma'am, is this seat taken"
There are few more satisfying feelings in this world than seeing a friend's face light up with genuine pleasure to see you. Especially considering the somewhat challenging logistics that had to be put together to execute this trip, the smile on her face made it all worthwhile.
Needless to say, I was well looked after during the flight. Always useful when the Flight Attendants already know your meal and drink preferences in advance. I napped during her duty period and we then chatted during her break and made plans for the evening with some of the other crew.
Arrival in Hong Kong was typically quick and I was on the Airport Express within about 30 minutes of touchdown. Made it to the hotel barely 10 minutes behind the crew, took a quick shower and headed back to the lobby to set off to Lan Kwai Fong. It never ceases to amaze me how today's generation of airline crew are such lightweights in the layover game. It's even more amazing that I'm still on the right side of 30 and was probably one of the oldest of the bunch! By the time 4am rolled around, there were just 3 left standing - the two of us and the First Officer. Back to the hotel where we made plans to meet up around 9am to hit the town.
The next day was somewhat touristy, being her first time in Hong Kong. We went over to TST and then tried to head up to the Peak, but it was too foggy to bother going all the way up. She wanted to hit Shenzhen, but we were a bit concerned about the lack of HK entry stamp causing a problem, so we just went to Mongkok to satisfy the lady's shopping desires. Back to the hotel in the late afternoon, where I packed up and headed back to the airport (or rather to the train station for In-Town Check-In) and she caught a few hours sleep before her flight back to Dubai.
My ride back to London was on Oasis HongKong. They had been offering a special deal for airline/airport staff priced around ?50 one-way and I jumped at it. Thankfully, a friend of a friend had secured me an exit row (Business Class was sold out!) at no charge - it usually costs about HK$300 extra - so I had no problem stretching out. The flight was absolutely packed and for the most part you get what you pay for, viz. nothing. There was a nasty looking meal served after departure that I passed on, preferring instead to catch up on the sleep that had been seriously lacking the previous night! Awakened 8 hours later and bought a pot of instant noodles, some drinks and candy bars for ?5 - decent enough price for the snack. Watched a movie on the PTV system, skipped the equally nasty looking breakfast and then we were on approach to Gatwick. Touched down and taxied to the satellite just before 7am, just in time to surprise Mike who was meeting our own arrival at the next gate over! A few hours later, I'm back in the air heading south towards home.
Just another month in the life of...