The following is an account of a trip I made to visit my father and stepmother over Christmas break. It was my first trip to the United Kingdom and was a memorable experience. It is quite long, but it there's a lot to cover.
December 13, 2001
American Airlines Flight 54
Departed 7:55pm, arrived 8:45am (next day)
Flying time: 6 hours, 53 minutes
I arrived at O'Hare Terminal 3 around 5:45 pm, which turned out to be not nearly enough time. The international check-in counters were overwhelmed with AA passengers bound for about seven different European destinations. By the time I got checked in and got my boarding pass (a chore in itself since my bags had to go through the InVision screener not once, but twice) it was almost 7 pm. Then I had to navigate T3's newly redesigned security checkpoint, which features a snaking line and blaring loudspeakers, like something one might find at Disneyland or Six Flags.
Departure was from Gate K11 and I arrived just as boarding for first class passengers was beginning. I was in Group 2 (Seat 41A, behind the wing -- my favorite place to be in any aircraft.) I boarded around 7:40pm.
The aircraft had been updated with the new interiors which are much nicer than that tired old pattern AA has had for as long as I can remember. I'm especially fond of the adjustable headrests. The flight was almost completely full, so boarding took longer than anticipated, and the FAs didn't close the doors until well after 8pm.
We pushed back and the crew started the engines fairly quickly and began taxiing for Runway 32L, O'Hare's longest strip at almost 14,000 feet. From the left side of the aircraft I had a great view of all the different airlines parked at International T5, as well as a constantly arriving stream of AA and UA jets on Runway 27L.
We turned onto 32L about 4,000 feet down its length, which as far as I can tell is fairly standard procedure at ORD. Takeoff was smooth... I love the feeling of acceleration that comes from sitting behind a wing-mounted engine. We headed northwest-by-north over Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights before being swallowed up by dense clouds that remained under the aircraft until we were well over the Atlantic.
About an hour and a half after takeoff the FAs began serving dinner to the rear coach cabin. I opted for a not-so-original Salisbury steak and rice pilaf option (the epitome of airline meals as far as I'm concerned.) It was good but not great, and service by the FAs was professional without being very warm. The movie was 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion' featuring Woody Allen; unfortunately the 767 was not equipped with the individual screens and AAtractions programming I had been expecting (as an aside, does anyone know if AA plans to retrofit its transatlantic 767s with this feature?)
After the meal and part way into the movie, it became apparent that most of the coach cabin was now attempting to go to sleep, so the FAs went from row to row asking passengers to lower their windowshades. Their reasoning was because "the sun will come up in a few hours and it can get pretty bright." Naturally I wanted to be able to look out so I kept mine open a crack, even though we were now out over the Atlantic and there was nothing but thick clouds to see anyhow.
With most passengers sleeping, that was of course the cue for some rather intense turbulence to begin and continue for almost an hour. We could feel the plane ascending and descending, looking for a smoother altitude, although the captain refrained from making any announcements over the PA system. I tried to get some sleep myself, but for some reason I have never really been able to sleep on long flights. I think it's a combination of the dry air and my fear of missing something interesting, but I have a hard time of it. All told I probably got about 45 minutes of sleep total for the flight.
A pretty boring few hours passed. The cabin was almost uniformly dark (no reading lights on). Sure enough though, at about 7:00am Manchester time the sky started to change from black to a deep blue, then to a pale blue. The clouds broke up slightly and I raised my window shade to get a better view. The FAs began serving a very light breakfast (cereal and fruit) and handing out customs forms to those passengers who were awake. It was not too long before the captain came over the speaker to announce our position about 200 miles northwest of Manchester, and called our attention to the lights of Ireland twinkling through the clouds below.
Landing is my favorite part of flying so bear with me as I go into some detail... things became much brighter outside as we started on our way down and the aircraft became much quieter. The brown waters of the Irish Sea appeared beneath us and several passengers spotted oil helicopters flying around far below. The clouds broke up completely and gave way to a sunny sky.
We flew over several flaring oil platforms before making our landfall over the mouth of the River Dee; I could see Liverpool and Southport very faintly through the early morning haze. England looked exactly as one would expect it to - a patchwork of fields that were remarkably green, even in winter. The captain lowered the flaps initially and we banked over a number of small towns and some pretty enormous factories, including a nuclear power plant with six cooling towers. Finally we made a sharp left turn over Cheshire to line up with Manchester's new Runway 6R, and started down the final approach path.
Final approach took us over a very English-looking manor estate (Tatton Hall, I believe), the M4 motorway and a smattering of small villages. The gear came down and the flaps were lowered into landing configuration. The airplane passed very low over fields and farms and finally frighteningly close to a string of powerlines before the concrete expanse of the runway opened up below. We touched down and rolled out in tandem with a BA A320 taking off on Runway 6L for a short time. Turning off the runway I had my first glimpse of MAN's rather expansive terminal area. T1 was dominated by the green tails of JMC Air, although some KLM uk and Airtours aircraft were visible as well. T2 was out of my range of vision, although I saw a US Airways A330 and the tail of a PIA 747.
We pulled into gate 53 at British Airways' modern and impressive T3, alongside several BA 737s and a 767 just in from New York JFK. I was able to clear immigration and customs rather quickly and went out to the meeter-and-greeter area to meet my dad.
December 28, 2001
British Airways Flight 2903
Departed 9:00am, arrived 10:05am
Flying time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Before flying back to Dallas I would have to transfer through Gatwick. It would appear that AA no longer operates the MAN-DFW route (can anyone verify this?) although I remember them flying it just a few years ago. I left our home in Lytham at about 6:00am for the hour's drive to Manchester Airport. On arrival T3 was busy but not too packed and I was able to check in with little trouble. I said goodbye to my dad and decided to do a little exploring at MAN before I went through security.
I made my way to the T1-T3 connector and into the food court area where a panel of huge glass windows gave a great view onto the apron and runways. Unfortunately, the early morning sun was brutal and I started getting a headache. I went into T1 to pick up some timetables and then decided to take the World's Longest Walk over to T2. If anyone is familiar with the never-ending elevated walkway that connects T1 and T2, you know what I'm talking about. T2 was jammed with early morning transatlantic arrivals (DL, CO, US) so I didn't stick around long.
I went back to T3 and went through security into the crowded and smoky departure lounge. Eventually we were called to our gate; if memory serves me correctly it was Gate 43. Our 737 was painted in the 'Union Jack' that is quickly becoming the BA fleet standard. I went aboard and was surprised to find the World Traveller seats in the BA economy cabin to be extremely comfortable. My assigned seat was 6F, on the right-hand-side, although the flight was only half full and I was able to move to 21F behind the wing with no problem at all.
We pushed back and taxied out to the threshold of Runway 24R. It was a very windy day in Manchester and we could feel the wind buffeting our 737 as we taxied. A Monarch 757 and A300 departed ahead of us, while a BA ERJ and a Sabena ARJ followed. Takeoff was rather slow and loud, but our delayed rotation gave me a great view of the terminal area on climbout. We made a sharp left turn and headed south towards London, and clouds soon obscured the view from my window.
I was surprised to receive a full hot breakfast on the short flight; it was something that American carriers have conditioned me not to expect. Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise. BA's staff were very professional and friendly, and it was not long before they were announcing our descent into Gatwick.
The captain announced "cabin crew, ten minutes to arrival" and we flew south of the airport, then turned back east and west again to arrive on Gatwick's Runway 26L. The clouds broke up as we neared the airport, and things were visibly more green in the south than they were near Manchester. We came in over a number of towns and fields full of sheep (always interesting to be able to see sheep from an aircraft!) before roaring in low over a motorway and a fairly expansive parking lot. Finally we glided past LGW's South Terminal and touched down rather roughly on 26L. Our rollout was long despite full reverse thrust and spoilers, and we turned off at the end of the runway to begin our long taxi back to the gate.
There were lots and lots of airliners parked at the remote stands, including quite a few BA 747-400s. We nosed into a jetway at the North Terminal, where I disembarked and made my through the innards of the terminal to the secure bus that takes passengers to the South Terminal.
December 28, 2001
American Airlines Flight 79
Departed 1:15pm, arrived 5:35pm
Flying time: 9 hours, 33 minutes
This was the really long haul and a pretty boring flight. After spending about three hours trapped in the South Terminal's cavernous Departure Lounge (basically a glorified shopping mall with a small number of windows that look out over the apron) I made my way to Gate 17 on the central pier to board AA79 for Dallas/Fort Worth.
The 777 is a beautiful aircraft, and this was my first trip on one... I really like the interior, especially the design of the overhead bins that gives much more headroom. The flight was very full, however, so it was hard to escape the feeling of being on an aircraft with lots and lots of people. Also, it seemed that there wasn't as much legroom on the 777 as there was on the 767 that had brought me to Manchester, but that could be all in my head.
My seat in 33J meant that my view was completely obscured by the 777's massive wing, which was a disappointment as well. However, I did have the touch-screen AAtractions programming, which more than made up for the lack of a view. We pushed back right on time and taxied out to 26L to depart. A Virgin Atlantic 747-400 left just before us, then we turned onto the runway and made what felt like an extremely powerful takeoff. The sheer size of the 777's wing on takeoff was obvious, as it bent and flexed with its heavy fuel load.
I followed our progress on my monitor over Cardiff and across the Irish Sea, where we flew over a cloud-obscured Ireland and headed for the north Atlantic. Lunch was a nondescript piece of steak (again) with mixed vegetables and a brownie for dessert. Pretty uninspiring, but it was coach so I wasn't expecting much.
For the next six hours or so I watched AAtractions programming and obsessively checked on our position (the drawback of the flightpath display is that it's tempting to check on your progress and it makes the flight seem that much longer.) For a short time we flew parallel with, but slightly below, a Continental 777, which was interesting.
Our flight took us past Iceland, just below Greenland and across Labrador into Canada. We crossed Michigan and headed south over Chicago and down towards Texas. Dusk was falling as the FAs (finally) announced our initial descent into my home city of Dallas. We made a slow approach from the northeast, coming in over McKinney and Lake Lewisville before turning south and flying directly over the suburbs towards Runway 17C. Final approach was over Highways 635 and 114, then down onto the runway. Reverse thrust on touchdown was very quiet and the 777 turned off the runway after using up only about 8,000 of its 11,500 foot length. We arrived at Terminal A (the home of all AA international flights until the new Terminal D is completed in 2005) and again, customs clearance was quick and easy.
That's my England trip in a nutshell. All in all, an enjoyable time on memorable flights. I'll be making the same trip again this summer, although possibly with a slightly different routing. Thanks AA and BA for a good trip!