‘Ello from England! Last week we left off from Sydney and I told you I was going to do a kangaroo hop from Australia to this week’s secret destination. Normally, the kangaroo route is via Asia but I went via America so I could go home for a few days and collect my mail and switch out my clothes. Since getting there is always half the fun, I will give you a flavor of V Australia’s premium economy product and a detailed play by play of what it was like flying British Airways Club World … you know, beyond the curtain. We’ll also explore Heathrow’s new multi-billion dollar Terminal 5 and I’ll tell you about my first medical emergency landing.
V AUSTRALIA’S PREMIUM ECONOMY
From the Four Seasons Sydney it took less than 20 minutes to get to the airport and it was Monday at 5:30pm. My driver said the busiest day on the road is Friday so be sure to leave extra time.
WARNING: Taxis charge a 10 percent fee for using a credit card to pay. In England they charge a £2 surcharge … so always ask. Check-in for V Australia’s premium economy took two minutes. My Russian agent was friendly but told me there was no chance for an upgrade to business class since the flight was oversold. I didn’t mind too much since I already had a seat in premium, which is like business class on most airlines. V Australia’s premium economy class has 40 seats with 38 inches (96.5cm) of legroom and a nine-inch (22.9-centimeter) recline. These seats are set up 2-4-2 while the 288 economy seat section is 3-3-3.
I had a couple of hours to kill and since I was flying in premium economy, I got an express pass for immigration so I bypassed the long line. It took me three minutes to clear and get my Australia exit stamp. NOTE: You have to fill out a short departure card, which you get when you check-in. There was no line at security. You can keep your shoes on and coins in your pockets but laptops come out. The agent told me to always hold on to my passport, which I normally do but in Britain they make you screen it. Why can’t security procedures be uniform? The departures area doesn’t have a lot of food options so I had a slice of coconut mango bread from Gloria Jean’s coffee. I bought some duty free using as many Australian dollars as I had and then paid the rest on credit. Be sure to always pay in the local currency, not US dollars, no matter where you are otherwise you’ll likely get a terrible exchange rate.
There are three lines to present boarding cards and the gate agent wasn’t that friendly when I asked if I had an open seat next to me. She said the flight was full but there were a few empty seats in my section and in business class. For boarding, they use two jetways. Business class passengers cruise right through. Premium economy and coach passengers are treated like cattle unless you are the first in line.
SYDNEY TO LOS ANGELES
Flight time for the 7,490-mile flight was a quick 12 hours and 42 minutes. It’s much faster flying east because of the jet stream. Premium economy makes the flight easy as can be. It’s like first class on most U.S. carriers’ two-class domestic planes. There’s no built in leg rest but they have hassocks that they bring out after takeoff. They also have clean, comfortable blankets, amenity kits, a pillow and a bottle of water is on your seat. They even serve welcome aboard drinks – champagne, OJ and water and have the same semi-noise canceling headsets as their business class.
The flight crew was amazing, the way they welcomed everyone on board. In premium economy, they come around addressing you by your name when it’s time to order. They served lunchthen breakfast when it should’ve been the other way around since we took off at 8pm and arrived at 4:30pm local times. The food was pretty good and there’s a mini self-service bar in front with spirits, water and snacks. But there’s not much space to talk in. LAX made the welcome a nightmare for visitors. US citizens cruise right through but the non-US citizens had insanely long lines. What’s wrong with these people? The customs line for everyone also had queues that were about 30 minutes long.
Flying 5,440 miles from Los Angeles to Heathrow (LHR) in Club World (business class) on British Airways is like a dream with their flat seats, entertainment system and fine food. It makes a 10-hour, 10-minute flight seem way too short. If you can’t get your company to flip the bill or use miles to upgrade, don’t think for a second it’s not worth the trip. I’ve made it a bunch of times in economy and it’s fine. You just feel a bit more tired when you arrive but they have the same fine service and entertainment systems, just smaller screens.
My trip began about 24 hours before departure when a reminder message popped up on my computer screen alerting me it was time to log on to BA and check-in. It was the earliest I could assign myself a seat and I was stoked to see that one of my favorites on their 747-400 series was still available. 20A is a window seat in the last row of business class on the main deck. I like it because it’s almost like your own private apartment when the divider is up and there’s an unobstructed little walkway so you don’t have to jump over your seatmate’s legs if they are reclined. What’s interesting is that SeatGuru.com doesn’t pick it as one of their favorite seats. Their four highlighted seats are the windows on rows 62 and 64 of the upper deck. I love the upstairs because there are only 20 seats and it’s much quieter and similar to a private jet. However, those plush seats go quickly and were already pre-assigned and taken by British Airways’ elite frequent fliers who had early access. But who are we kidding? When it comes down to it, all of BA’s business class seats are special.
I arrived at LAX at 2:15pm for a 3:40pm flight. I printed my boarding pass at home and went straight to security since I wasn’t checking bags. The security line was about 35 people deep but the agent checking IDs said that since I was traveling by myself and had been nice to him (all I said was, “Hi” and “How’s your day going?”) he let me go to the line reserved for flight crew. I made it through in seconds.
I took the elevator up to the fifth floor to the One World lounge; it’s shared by British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas. I was sorry I had just had lunch because they had all kinds of hot and cold food: Asian dishes like Rendang (they called it Colorado beef), noodles, salad, sandwiches, soup (pomodoro and chicken noodle), fresh fruit, cookies, alcohol and soft drinks. Showers were available as well as a slew of computers (free Wi-Fi too) and the place wasn’t crowded at all. The passengers who printed their boarding passes at home were paged so an agent could confirm they were actually there. When she officially checked me in she said, “Ooh, 20A. You have a great seat!” See that? I know how to pick ‘em. We left the lounge about 15 minutes before boarding since it’s a long walk to gate 103 and we arrived a minute before they called business and first class passengers at 3pm sharp.
The two flight attendants assigned to my section were just okay. They were cordial and did their job but they just weren’t standouts or overly friendly. I was surprised because usually on BA they are top notch. Maybe they were having a bad day or they’d just been in it too long. However, on my flight home, I had a younger crew and the flight attendants were brilliant. To give you a feel for what it was like on the LAX to LHR flight, I took detailed notes so here’s the play-by-play.
I put my carry-on bags in the “lockers” above my seat (747s have a ton of space, except on the upper deck). I took my seat at3:05pm and the flight attendant came around with glasses of water, orange juice and/or champagne at 3:21pm. A minute before (at 3:20pm) a young, privileged American couple with their three kids in tow — including a screaming newborn — take the middle section of seats across the aisle from me. The seats in BAs business class are uniquely configured. It’s set up 2-4-2. The windows all face backwards. The aisle seats face forwards and the two center seats are backwards (couples will probably prefer these).
3:22pm My seatmate sits down. We are now awkwardly staring at each other as she wasn’t that friendly until we were landing. There is a divider but you can’t put it up until after the safety demonstration (OBSERVATION: the button to put it up and down is on top). We were forced to pretend we weren’t looking at each other.
3:31pm Flight attendants come around to collect glasses and put individual TV monitors in position for the safety video.
3:34pm Pilot gets on the PA to welcome us aboard and tell us some flight info: Flight time is 10 hours and 10 minutes, a little longer than usual since there weren’t any strong tailwinds and that after our takeoff over the Pacific, we will make the turn and fly over Long Beach and Palm Springs. He informs us that the complete flight path will be available on our live journey map.
BACK TO THE REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAM
3:35pm I can’t take the darting eyes any more so I break the ice with my Scottish seatmate but found myself speaking uncontrollably in a British accent that I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know how long I could keep it up once I’d started and didn’t want to make matters worse by looking like I was mocking her (which apparently, my inner friend was doing) so I cut the conversation short. Oddly short.
3:36pm I use the loo, which was stocked with fine Elemis products and huge mirrors. This is where I discovered I had peanut butter all over my mouth that was left over from breakfast, not lunch. I’d made myself two whole wheat waffles and made a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich out of them – YUM!
3:38pm The baby won’t stop screaming and I feel like it’s my duty to go over and kick the father’s a** for booking four tickets in biz class but I hold back to avoid jail time.
3:39pm We push back — one minute ahead of schedule.
3:47pm Safety video ends and the flight attendants in the aisles look at each other in horror since the baby won’t stop screeching.
3:48pm The rich family’s other baby chimes in to form a chorus and now I’m seriously contemplating if the slammer would be more peaceful.
3:48pm (and 30 seconds) My seatmate puts the divider up. It must have been my bad peanut butter and rendang breath but I was relieved.
4:15pm Immigration forms passed out to non European card holders (moi).
4:20pm Flight attendants distribute “wash bags”, an amenity kitby Elemis.
4:21pm A flight attendant resembling Susan Boyle pre-makeover scares the heck out of me when she reaches over the divider to hand me the menu; the others walked down my aisle so I could see them coming.
4:30pm Seatbelt sign is turned off.
4:35pm Drink cart comes out — I’m parched. I guzzle the small glass of water and pass on the gourmet macadamia nuts.
4:40pm I place my order: White asparagus salad to start andchicken tikka for my main.
4:50pm Drink cart comes by a second time. More water, please.
4:52pm I get up to use the loo and on the way, the flight attendant tells me they are out of the asparagus salad but offers the salmon. I kindly decline since I don’t eat much fish. I wasn’t that hungry but if I had been, I probably could have rustled up some peanut butter from my unshaven face.
4:55pm Dinner is served; I’m last since I’m in row 20.
5:10pm I pass on the cheesecake and the fruit and cheese plate because my belly is growing like a pregnant woman’s. However, I can’t resist the two Lily O’Briens chocolates (my favorite) that were in a small box on my tray so I pop them in my mouth. OK, fine. I ate them before the chicken tikka arrived.
Once the flight attendants had collected the plates, their serving job was pretty much done until the sun came up. It’s a night flight and most people prefer not to be bothered while they sleep. However, I couldn’t sleep since I took such an early flight so next time, I will probably take one of BAs two later departures. Instead of tossing and turning, I opted to plug my laptop’s electrical cord in the outlet (no adaptor needed) so my battery wouldn’t die and worked for a good portion of the flight. I also watched a movie and stared out the window at the bright stars in amazement and thought how lucky I was to be flying — especially in style.
MID-FLIGHT SNACK AND BREAKFAST
If you’re thirsty or hungry, British Airways sets up a self-servicesnack bar which is loaded with all kinds of juices (I had mango), bottles of Highland water, candy bars, sandwiches, fresh fruit… I visit it a few times to stretch my legs. 65 minutes from touchdown breakfast was served. We were given a choice of fruit or cereal (Special K) and the scary flight attendant came by with a “bacon roll”, a dry mini hoagie roll with a slab of Canadian bacon. Also on the breakfast tray was a smoothie and yogurt.
The flight was uneventful (the best ones are) and the babies went silent shortly after takeoff and were good until about two hours out (always bring earplugs, an iPod and/or noise canceling headsets; for those in Club World, BA provides two of the three.) However, my flight home was everything but uneventful. We didn’t have any babies but we did have a medical emergency on board, causing us to land in Canada before arriving in Los Angeles. More details to come. At 10am, we landed at Heathrow’s new £4.3 billion Terminal 5. While taxi-ing to the gate and seeing all of BAs 747s parked at the gates and imagining where all those planes were coming from and going to got me all pumped up to travel! I was ready to make a connection to Asia, Africa or the Middle East!
TOUR OF T5
I took a tour of T5 in January 2008, two months before it opened. As you’ve probably heard, the terminal experienced all kinds of problems at first, especially with their state-of-the-art automated baggage sorter but now everything is fixed and the place is amazing! You don’t see much of the amenities when you land (at least I didn’t) unless you are transferring. Walking to passport control, I could feel the similarity to Madrid’s Terminal 4. The architect, Richard Rogers Barajas, designed both. The place ishuge. The whole T5 site is 260 hectares, which is equivalent to the size of Hyde Park. It’s bright, has high ceilings and a good amount of agents working. I went from the plane to the exit in less than eight minutes and that’s including going through immigration/customs and using the loo!
On the way back I got to roam around the departure area which has 96 check-in kiosks (in five languages), 144 stores and restaurants. Stores include ones found on Bond Street, like Gucci, Prada, Coach and Tiffany and more affordable shops like on High Street, HMV, Boots, etc. In addition, there’s the second largest Harrods in the world and a separate Harrods food court. Speaking of food, Gordon Ramsay, England’s acclaimed chef, has a restaurant called Plane Food. But for excellent Italian food, go to Carluccio’s, which is landside — before security. I had theCaprese Salad (£6.75) and the Penne Alla Luganica (£7.60). As a premium passenger, there are six lounges (BA spent 100 million on them) to choose from and if I was transferring. I would’ve taken a shower (they have 95 of them) but I was fresh and clean so I just sampled the free food and drinks. I was tempted to go to the Elemis Spa, but instead I was a good boy and logged on to the Internet using one of their many PCs (they also have free Wi-Fi) and did some work.
Heathrow’s security has a good system; you never seem to have to wait for a bin and there’s an agent moving the line along. However, it wasn’t as plush as I thought it would be and as they promised on my 2008 tour. I was in the premium line and it took me 15 minutes to clear and they made everyone take their laptop and liquids (three ounces or less!) out. Shoes stayed on. But let me tell you: I had a private tour of the facility and was treated like an employee (I needed to apply for a temporary worker ID) and I went through their behind-the-scenes security. Wow! It’s impressive. These guys search you like you are going into meet the President. I’ve never been so frisked in my life and they went through everything and I mean everything – even papers. The whole process seriously took about an hour.
LEFT BAGGAGE CENTER
If you ever go through the British Airport Authority’s employee security, don’t make the mistake of bringing your carry-on bag with you. There is a Left Baggage Center in the arrivals hall, all the way down the hall near Marks and Spencer. Each bag costs £8 for 24 hours or less.
DID YOU KNOW?
There are around 1,300 takeoffs and landings a day at Heathrow? British Airways has 40 percent of them. Heathrow is the busiest two-runway airport in the world and it’s the busiest international airport from country to country. Atlanta Hartsfield is the busiest airport in terms of number of people and takeoffs and landings.
On the way home I sat in seat 17K (another window seat in the center of the main deck of business class). Flight time home was scheduled to be 10 hours and 25 minutes but we ended up dropping off a sick older gentlemen and that added about two hours to the flight time. Have you ever had a medical emergency landing before? It was my first time and it’s nice to know that if you really become ill, the airlines will do everything they can to help you.
MEDICAL EMERGENCY LANDING
Due to inclement weather, we were on a real northerly route. We went over the top of Iceland, the center of Greenland and northern Canada, which made for some great bird’s-eye-view sightseeing. About the time we were over Baffin Island, the flight attendant made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board. There was, which luckily always seems to be the case. I’ve heard that call at least a dozen times and there’s always been one and my flight attendant said in her experience, nine out of 10 times there’s one. The passenger was in economy and the doctor and the captain were in communication with a medical team in a select hospital on the ground.
EDMONTON AIRPORT: YEG
A couple hours later the captain got on the PA and said, “Listen up,” and everyone listened up. He informed us that we would be making a pit stop in Edmonton. No one was complaining since they were all happy there wasn’t a problem with the plane and that by stopping, this man would get the help he needed. I was wondering why the live map said we had two hours before landing when it really should’ve been four — the pilot didn’t announce our plans until 25 minutes prior.
WHAT IF WE WERE IN AN A380?
We landed in Edmonton (YEG is the airport code) for my first time. From the air it was picturesque, flat farmland. The captain asked everyone to stay seated for about 10 minutes while the EMT came on board. About six of them walked down the aisle (they didn’t run) and a few minutes later, they wheeled the older, still conscious man off the plane in a chair. He looked okay and hopefully he was. No one was allowed off the plane and we were on the ground for about an hour or so. I took advantage of the time by downloading emails using my Sprint wireless card which I rent from RovAir.com and making a couple phone calls. We took off again at 1:45pm, the seatbelt sign went off within two minutes and our second meal was served 15 minutes later. I wonder if the YEG airport gets many 747s and what if we were in an A380? Not many airports can hold that mega-bird so what would they do in an emergency? Anyone know?
Next week we tour London and check in to one of its refurbished, iconic hotels. We also find the best way to get to the city center. Stay tuned.
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