To make up for last year’s awful spring break (I did community service for five straight days), I decided to treat myself to something a little more special this year- namely, a weeklong trip to Europe. My credit card comes with discount vouchers on American, so I was able to knock off $100 on my JFK-LHR roundtrip and ended up paying $260 for airfare. Not bad considering my friend bought his ticket off of AA.com and paid $100 more than I did for one less day in Europe. Reading be warned...the following trip report is long and often tangential.
March 7, 2002
I had just finished the last of my midterms and was overcome by the euphoria of jetting off to London completely unchained from anything school-related. I hopped the NYU shuttle bus to the Water Street dorm to meet up with my friend and traveling companion, and then jumped on the A train to Howard Beach/JFK. I have to say that the disparity between the Manhattan-JFK transportation options is astounding: either $1.50 for the subway/shuttle bus or $40 by taxi. Being dirt-poor college students, the A-train was nothing less than an airport limousine service.
About an hour later, he arrived at American’s terminal 8. JFK has become a huge construction site with a twisting network of flyovers (for the new monorail and highways) overhead. The airport was hardly the one I remembered from my childhood, when every terminal was visible and the central area was just a flat parking lot. Terminals 8 and 9, slated to become American’s new “superterminal”, were also in the throes of construction as a skeleton of iron girders began to connect the two buildings.
We checked in more than three hours before departure but were still relegated to middle seats on the 777. Of course, I had the misfortune of having that dreaded middle seat, landlocked in the middle of nowhere with no place to turn but the PTV. But even that couldn’t dampen my excitement. After all, this would be my first time to England and my first time aboard a PTV-equiped aircraft (I’d flown a Thai 777 a few years back – no PTVs however).
The line at security looked long, but we were able to go through in about fifteen minutes. We strolled up the long concourse which was surrounded on all sides by AA aircraft heading to various destinations. By some strange coincidence, we ran into our mutual friend who was taking advantage of AA’s new JFK-Oakland nonstop to see her boyfriend in California. Our flight, AA104, was departing from the very last gate on the concourse. To pass the time, we sat and chatted at the TGI Friday’s at the end of the concourse, watching planes take off and land in the glow of the New York sunset. I was now more excited than ever.
We boarded our 777 half-an-hour before departure. The interior was new and inviting and the extra room in coach was very noticeable. Each seat also had its own adjustable leather headrest. We found our seats and quickly took them, I started to settle in by combing through the seat pocket for reading material.
Take off was peculiar, not so much in the way it was done but because I couldn’t see it. This was the first time I didn’t witness a takeoff firsthand, and the sensation of the engines revving up and the aircraft hurtling down the runway felt sudden and unannounced without the window seat. We were quickly aloft and ascended along the south shore of Long Island. Our flight path, according to Airshow, would take us out to Montauk, then north across to Cape Cod, along the coasts of Maine and the Atlantic Provinces, over Newfoundland to begin our ocean crossing, making landfall over southern Ireland, crossing the Irish Sea and finally following the southern coast of Wales into England and Heathrow.
Cabin service began with hot towels (paper, not cloth) followed by drinks and peanuts. Then, our “International Flagship Dinner Service” began with a choice of steak or salmon. I chose the steak, which was reasonably good. AA’s food portions look very small compared to those on transpacific flights. Nevertheless, the meal was pretty good compared to previous transatlantic experiences (see my JFK-MAD trip report on Iberia).
My friend began to watch Training Day while I simply followed our flight path over the ocean. The PTV turned off inexplicably several times, forcing me to reactivate it each time. Then I realized my neighbor (who was an armrest hog) was resting her arm on the PTV control with her elbow jabbing the power button. I kindly explained to her what was happening and she agreed to be more careful.
I dozed off for a few hours and awoke two hours prior to landing. The breakfast service came around and offered a hot croissant, yogurt, juice, and coffee. The switched on my PTV again and found that we were cruising over Ireland. This time, instead of suddenly turning off, the PTV would flip up and down through all the channels. It seems that my neighbor decided to rest her elbow on the channel control instead of the power button. I gave up on it since we were so close to landing by this time.
After circling in a holding pattern over South London, we touched down at Heathrow about half-an-hour before schedule. On the ground were a handful or Virgin Atlantic and BA widebodies as well as a myriad of exotic aircraft from all over the world. We taxied to Terminal 3 and quickly deplaned.
We made our way to Immigration which seemed frenzied and chaotic. The environmental controls in the terminal were malfunctioning, so the heat combined with the long line and jetlag made for a disgruntled crowd. I found it strange that there were no booths or stations at immigration, just what seemed like wooden podiums or lecturns. Also, HM Immigration officials didn’t wear uniforms like their counterparts in other countries. We cleared customs and immigration and were greeted by a crowded and chaotic Terminal 3. We made our way to the Underground station and caught the Picadilly line for the long journey into London. Of course, signal problems delayed our train for forty minutes, so we decided to get off at South Kensington and catch a taxi to our youth hostel in Russell Square instead.
March 15, 2002
After three days in London and five in Paris, I made my way back to Heathrow’s Terminal three after consecutive travel on the Paris Metro, Eurostar, and the London Underground. I quickly checked in and received my assigned aisle seat 26B. Being five hours early, I decided to stroll Terminal 3 and sat down for a quick bite at the food court. I had some chicken korma and watched a parade of aircraft taking off, ranging from BMI 737s to BA 747-400s…God, I love Heathrow.
After wandering through the duty free areas, I decided to proceed to Terminal 3’s airside, which was a huge mistake. Terminal 3 was a desert beyond the security checkpoint, as there were no restaurants, shops, or even newspaper stands (I think I recall a sign warning me about this as I left the security area). So I milled around for four hours, taking the people-moving back and forth, watching aircraft arrive from around the world.
When AA107 was finally displayed on the departures screen, I made a quick dash to gate 19 where the flight was leaving from. While waiting in the departure lounge, another strange coincidence occurred as one of my college friends strolled toward the gate. He was in England during the break too and we were both taking the same flight home…it’s a small world.
Boarding soon began and that beautiful home-bound 777 awaited me at the end of the jetway. While walking back toward my seat, I overhead a couple who were hoping to sit together by trading seats. It turned out that I had the seat they wanted, and I was more than willing to give it up for the window seat they were offering. I quickly took my new seat, 24A, which offered not one but two windows.
Pushback was a few minutes late as some bags had to be unloaded from the plane since their owners never boarded. Quickly though, we taxied to the runway past a long line of BA narrowbodies. Takeoff was quick and smooth and we were soon ascended westward on a course toward Wales. Looking down on suburban London at sunset, I was amused at seeing the congestion on the M5 with the red-lights on the left side and the white-lights on the right. Our course to JFK was almost identical to that of the inbound flight.
Once again, a hot towel service began and was quickly followed by drinks and nuts. Dinner quickly followed, with a choice of chicken or salmon. I chose the salmon this time which was delicious. It was accompanied by a salad, a piece of chocolate cake, and some crackers. I flipped on the PTV and followed our progress over the British Isles.
As we began our ocean crossing, I started to watch The Last Castle with Robert Redford. The crew came around with some chocolates at this point. After that, I watched the CBS programming with The King of Queens, 60 Minutes, etc. By the time that was over, we were already cruising over Canada and the snack service began. A personal pan pizza was served with some fruit and crackers.
Finally, we began our descent into JFK over the eastern edge of Long Island. I knew we were getting close to our destination when the monitors began to display maps of JFK terminal 8. Landing was a bit rough as the plane seemed to sway from side to side on the runway. We arrived about twenty minutes before schedule but had to wait for a tug to tow us to the gate because of construction around the terminals.
I arrived home half-asleep after twenty-four hours of nonstop travel. I woke up on 3/15 at 7:00 AM Paris time (1:00 AM Eastern time), caught the Metro to the Gare du Nord, took the Eurostar to London Waterloo, connected to the Northern line, transferred to the Picadilly line at Leicester Square and took it to Heathrow, hopped on a seven hour transatlantic flight, took the JFK Port Authority shuttle bus from the terminal to the subway station, took the A-train to Penn Station, and finally took New Jersey Transit from Penn Station to my home near New Brunswick. I stepped into my house at exactly 1:00 AM on Saturday, 3/16. In one day: three countries, three cities, three time zones, three different currencies, two different languages on two different continents. In a word...exhausting.
Thanks for reading.