What started off as an innocent trek over to my company’s home office in Henley-on-Thames, England a few weeks ago turned out to be a much bigger event than I’d planned.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010, American Airlines Flight 142, JFK-LHR, Boeing 777-223/ER N791AN "One World" scheme
I've always favored the daytime JFK and BOS flights over to LHR - there's time on arrival to have a good night's sleep and a productive following day, since I have trouble sleeping on the red-eyes. The trade-off is getting up at 3 a.m. to catch an 8:05 a.m. departure from JFK, but I figure it's worth the effort. I'd finagled a night at the LHR Renaissance and the following day free for photography or other activities around LHR. On the front end at least, the trip kicked off without a hitch - the drive was a breeze, check-in at Terminal 8 quick, and departure right on time. Another big benefit of the morning JFK departure is that we were #3 for takeoff vs. the usual #45 or so during the evening rush. We left on 4R; as we crossed there was plenty of evidence of the infamous construction job on 31L/13R. The flight was packed to the gills without an empty seat in sight. Normal AA service, nothing special with breakfast served shortly after departure and a light snack before our on-time arrival on LHR's Runway 9L. I ran into a couple of my colleagues in the immigration line, having just arrived on AA's Boston morning flight (757 service now vs. what was not long ago a Triple-7). Immigration took longer than normal, but soon enough I was off to the Renaissance on the 285 bus.
The Renaissance is quite frankly getting pretty long in the tooth and is at least due for some new carpet and furnishings. Still, the view can't be beat, although the best they could do this time was a 2nd floor room (4th floor rooms are the best, but they're club-level rooms and Marriott Silver status isn’t enough to get me up there, at least not at the rate I paid). I ran into a snag using my calling card to phone home, and after several tries with the hotel operator I had to resort to phoning home from a pay phone in the lobby. I let the manager on duty know in no uncertain terms I wasn't happy about this, and also told him I'd be back for the weekend and if he wanted to make things right he could put me on the top floor. He told me he'd see what he could do. For this night, the 2nd floor room didn't really matter since the weather was grey and unpleasant.
The next few days were in meetings in Henley (I took the bus to Harlington & Hayes, then a First Great Western train to Henley, transferring at Twyford). The hotel in Henley was the Red Lion - one of those places that is considered "quaint" if you know what I mean. I’d probably use a different word to describe this hotel or any of the other lodgings where I’ve stayed in Henley. I wasn't in bed before 3 a.m. so the accommodations didn't really matter much.
The meetings ended Friday afternoon, but I'd built in Friday-Saturday nights at the Renaissance to satisfy my LHR photography craving. And accordingly, the weather cooperated, giving me sparkling clear skies for both days. The manager from earlier in the week had been true to his word, and upon check-in I was given a top-floor room, hospitality room access and free Internet and breakfast coupons. In short, he made things right and I went away a happy customer. Only problem was, there were no airplanes moving. Not a single one. See, there was this volcano over in Iceland - perhaps you've heard the stories? In the event, my flight home to JFK wasn't until Sunday, and it seemed inconceivable that the flight disruptions would last that long. I was scheduled to leave New York for an Orlando family trip with the kids the following Tuesday, and that thought made me a bit uneasy about what was going on. Rather than spend my time hanging around the dead airport, I went into London Friday night and Saturday to enjoy the sights. Just wandering around, I heard plenty of buzz about the flight disruptions and I spoke to a number of people who were stranded. Upon arriving back at the hotel Saturday night, I found that my flight the next day was cancelled and that my colleagues had been trying to reach me - they hired a van and driver from Henley to take them down to Spain (the van was loaded on the train to cross the Channel!). I'm still in the dark ages with my mobile phone, which doesn't work in the UK, so they were long gone by the time I got back into communication. The reality that my family vacation in Florida was now in jeopardy began to set in, and I spent a couple of hours trying to work out a trip back to the States. It was late, I was tired, and nothing I tried worked in time to get me back in time to save the holiday. I reluctantly phoned my wife with the news, and it was clear she was very disappointed. Amazingly, I was able to extend my Renaissance room for Sunday and Monday nights at the same £65 rate I'd booked before the flight disruptions.
Sunday, April 19, 2010 – Eurostar 9040, London St. Pancras – Paris Gare du Nord
The next morning I awoke with renewed conviction and using Expedia as my primary tool, cobbled together an itinerary that involved Eurostar from London to Paris, overnight in Paris, then a Europcar rental from Paris to Madrid. From there, I'd pick up LAN to Miami via Guayaquil and Quito. It seemed insane, but if it worked it would get me to my vacation on time. The missing Miami-Orlando segment was the least of my worries; I’d take Greyhound if I had to. I had a couple of hours to get cleaned up and get some lunch at the Three Magpies, then it was a Tube trip from Heathrow over to St. Pancras to catch the Eurostar to Paris. Getting to the train’s boarding area required passing through x-ray and scanners, and there was what seemed to be French border formalities, which surprised me (but I did get a passport stamp out of the deal). The Eurostar was exhilarating, great train. The only ticket I'd been able to snag was business class (the lady at the ticket window told me to hang on to it with my life as trains were booked solid), and a proper meal and free drinks were served en route. I was in one of the face-to-face sections on the 1-seat side of the train (1-2 arrangement in business), meaning there were five people sitting in my area. All five of us were Americans headed to Madrid to try to get flights home. By this time I'd found that most of my colleagues had mysteriously abandoned the van trip and stayed in Paris, leaving one guy and the driver to take the van to Madrid. I figured at least one of my colleagues would want to hitch a ride to Madrid, so I didn't offer to share my car. Too bad, as none of the colleagues wanted to go as it turned out and I was solo on the trip.
We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord exactly on time, and I made my way down to the rental car counters, which were a mob scene. I'd booked the car for 8:30 the following morning, but on the train trip I'd started to do the math more carefully and decided that an 8:30 pickup would be cutting things mighty close for an 00:15 departure from Madrid. I hoped I'd be able to pick up the car immediately, but found quickly that I was out of luck on that front. What's more, I heard the Europcar guy telling several inquisitors that they didn't have any cars that night and they might not have any in the morning. Yikes. The Avis counter next door was not crowded, so on a whim I stepped over there to see what they could do. The rate they gave me was slightly more than Europcar, but I could have the car now. Sold to the man with the spittoon haircut! One more customer behind me got a car, then I heard the Avis staff telling people they had no cars left. The ensuing drive from the station to the Marriott Courtyard Neuilly was not one of my favorite experiences, but I did make it without damaging my car or hopefully anyone else’s. Good meal in the hotel restaurant, then on to bed to facilitate a 6 a.m. departure from Paris. Shame, as this was my first visit to Paris other than to change at CDG.
As planned, I was out the door by 6 a.m. into a quiet and dark Paris, and per my wishes I beat any rush hour traffic. The first leg of the drive was 300 miles or so from Paris to Bordeaux, passing through some very pleasant scenery consisting of rolling hills and farmland. Before leaving home I'd watched a television show with my kids concerning the crumbling American infrastructure. As such, I paid a lot of attention to the European infrastructure on this trip. The A10 highway I was on was impeccably maintained - not a single pothole or chip in the pavement. However, when I hit the first toll booth I began to understand how this was possible. I got a bit freaked out, as I'd only brought about €50 with me, and this first toll was enough to eat up most of that money - it didn't seem credit cards other than oil company cards were accepted as payment. Fortunately, I found an ATM at a service area and got out enough cash to cover me. Long story short, the 300-odd miles between Paris and Bordeaux commanded about a $75 toll. Coupled with $6.30 per gallon diesel, how the French could afford the nicely-maintained highway (and TGVs, etc., etc.) became abundantly evident. Total road tolls between Paris and Madrid were more than $100.
The route of travel was the A10 between Paris and Bordeaux, passing through Orleans and Tours. From Bordeaux I took the E5/E70 through Biarritz into Spain, then picked up the A8. Near San Sebastian I picked up the AP1, which took me all the way into Madrid. The scenery on the first hundred miles or so of the Spanish segment was breathtaking, very mountainous and loads of bridges and tunnels – and despite all this massive engineering work, the tolls were a lot less in Spain than in France. Closer to Madrid it became flatter and much drier, with a landscape that reminded me a lot of the areas just to the east of San Francisco. Luckily since I was in a hurry, Barajas is on the north side of Madrid, the direction from which I was approaching. There were plenty of good signs directing me where to go, and it took all of five minutes to return the car once I got to the airport. I was at the LAN counter by 8:15 p.m., just over four hours to spare but I wouldn’t have wanted to cut things any closer.
Monday, April 20, 2010 LAN Flight 1733, MAD-GYE Boeing 767-3Q8/ER HC-CGZ
LAN is in the new Terminal 4, specifically in T4S, which is a satellite reachable by an underground train from the main T4 terminal. Despite Madrid being the ash-free departure point of choice for those urgently trying to get flights, there wasn’t much activity and the agent told me I could expect a comfortable flight since much of LAN’s feed was absent due to the flight disruptions. Unfortunately, once I boarded I found that my row in the center section of the 767 was filled. I’d at least hoped for an empty seat next to me for this 12-hour flight. There were lots of open seats elsewhere, however, and I scammed a completely open center row shortly before the doors were closed.
LAN is great, a real unexpected treat. I’ve had worse domestic first class service on American Airlines than LAN gave in coach. All of the F/As I encountered spoke English, and cabin announcements were made in English after the Spanish version was delivered. The two LAN 767s I flew on this trip were about 12-13 years old, but had brand-new interiors with a proper AVOD system and generous 32” pitch. Near as I could tell, I was the only non-Latin person on the aircraft, but I was made to feel at home. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t sleep well on airplanes, but the combination of the nearly 800-mile drive and the three seats I’d commandeered conspired to put me out for about eight hours, unheard of for me. It made for a very short flight and I actually felt quite rested on arrival at Guayaquil, which unfortunately was in the pre-dawn hours – bad for photography. I’m not sure what I expected from Ecuador, but the gleaming new José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport caught me by surprise. It’s not a big facility, but it was very well appointed and a good place to kill 90 minutes or so. LAN and TAME dominated here, but I also saw Aerogal and Copa, plus an American 767 that looked pretty tatty next to our spotless LAN aircraft. Despite the fact that our flight continued on to Quito, all passengers had to disembark. I expected to have to clear immigration here, but I was instead directed toward the transit lounge, which, after passing through the scanners and x-ray, simply deposited me into the international concourse of the airport. As departure time grew nearer, several times I heard something on the PA that sounded familiar, but not quite. When the flight began to board, I heard it again, this time followed by the word “Americano”. Hmmm. I stepped over to the agent’s desk, and I asked if he’d been paging me. Yep – the authorities wanted to search my luggage and I guess I had to be present. At this point it was 10 minutes before departure, and I was whisked down the outside stairs of the jetway to the tarmac, across a busy service road and under the building to the baggage sorting area. Here, a number of grim army fatigue-wearing “Policia” staff were searching through bags. I was led to the guy in front of my suitcase, and I found he was actually a pleasant fellow. He did a fairly cursory search of the bag, then sent me on my way. Close call here, but I made the flight. Even though the flight number remained the same MAD-GYE-UIO, the bus we boarded took us to a different 767 than the one we’d taken from Madrid. We boarded through a rather large set of airstairs.
Monday, April 20, 2010 LAN Flight 1733, GYE-UIO Boeing 767-316/ER HC-CHA
Same deal here as on the Madrid segment – I found myself in a fully occupied center section. And, like on the previous flight, I managed to scam another open row, although at 35 minutes flying time this was far from necessary. We took a 25-minute delay for some reason, then got off on Runway 21. Good scenery along the way with lots of lush green mountains, capped off by our arrival into a very hilly Quito. The flight from here went on to Miami, and once again we were asked to get off the aircraft for a search “due to US security”. Instead of the transit lounge, upon exiting the aircraft the passengers immediately went through a bag search, x-ray and pat-down, then got back on the plane. Liquids are obviously allowed in carry-ons in Ecuador, as many passengers were having shampoo bottles, lotions, etc. confiscated. The young lady in front of me was quite upset when she had a perfume bottle in the shape of a nude woman taken from her. What a shame.
Monday, April 20, 2010 LAN Flight 516, UIO-MIA, Boeing 767-316/ER HC-CHA
Okay, so we’re getting close here – last lap to the United States. Just the opposite here from the situation at Guayaquil – the flight number changed, but the aircraft remained the same. Things were going suspiciously smoothly, and upon lifting off from Runway 35 at Mariscal Sucre International Airport it began to sink in that I might actually pull this crazy scheme off. Once again I had an empty row, this time along the window and I enjoyed the view as we flew off the west coast of Panama, finally crossing Panama and going over into the Caribbean. From there we made a beeline to the Florida Keys, then came the familiar crossing over the Everglades and an on-time arrival on MIA’s Runway 9; we parked at Concourse H. I’d made it to the United States! I was one of three people in the US immigration lane, and never before has an immigration official’s half-hearted “welcome home” sounded so good. I retrieved my bag, then headed off into the depths of MIA to find American Airlines at Concourse D. My wife had booked me on an MIA-MCO flight and I simply needed to check in and wait for departure.
Monday, April 20, 2010 American Airlines Flight 1299, MIA-MCO, Boeing 757 (didn’t catch the rego)
Nothing remarkable at all about this short flight, which is a good thing. Since my wife made the arrangements, I didn’t know what to expect on the aircraft front; I figured MIA-MCO would be an Eagle flight. Upon check-in the agent told me I looked like I could use an exit row seat, and switched out my boarding pass accordingly. The middle seat remained empty; interestingly, the aisle was occupied by a British businessman who was in opposite straits from where I’d been: he was stuck in the United States, and simply made arrangements to work in his company’s Orlando office vs. trying to rush back. Flying time was less than an hour, and our MCO arrival was right on time. Total time from the Paris hotel to getting off the plane in Orlando: 40 hours, 40 minutes.
All in all, this adventure turned out to be a little stressful, but also enjoyable in many respects, not something I’m likely to replicate again. The best part of the journey was the Paris-Madrid drive, and one day I’d like to get back to do at least part of that journey at a slower pace. I’m sure there are some bottles of fine wine near Bordeaux with my name on them. I just checked my AAdvantage account, and found that 7223 miles were deposited from the LAN flights – so I even came out ahead on that front (LHR-JFK is only 3542!). Upon doing a debrief with my colleagues over dinner on Wednesday night, I found that the enterprising van driver that had taken the bus down to Madrid from Henley had managed to load it up at Madrid Airport for the trip back to England – good for him!