I finally decided to go for the cheapest possible option instead, my bitterness at AA simmering away. This turned out to be Northwest Airlines – by a wide margin, so the booking was made. I was expecting the worst, this was not AA after all.
Northwest Airlines flight 43
London Gatwick (LGW) to Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP)
Depart LGW: 13:05 Arrive MSP: 15:10
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30
Photo © Frans Zwart - Dutch Ops
London Gatwick can be concisely summed up as a dump. It looks grimey, the air stinks, and you feel dirty just walking around the place. Pacing around the south terminal, 3 hours before departure I went in search of the Northwest check in desks. Suddenly they came into view, with a tiny queue in front. Getting in line, a security guy approached to ask the standard luggage questions and check passport photo ID to save these questions at the check in desk. Within 5 minutes, we were at the check-in desk, where a pleasant lady began the process with great efficiency. Staring me in the face was the application for a KLM Flying Dutchman card. Maybe it was the Gatwick air, or the bitterness over AA letting me down, but I picked it up, and spotted the temporary card in the back. The check in assistant went through it with me – fill it in, present when boarding, and you can start earning miles today! Excellent! Take that AA! Before you could say Flying Dutchman, the check in process was completed, and the assistant sent me on my way wishing me a ‘great flight!’ – friendly, fast and efficient.
We went through security, into the shopping mall – sorry – ‘departure lounge’. The wallet stayed in my pocket. BAA was not getting a cent out of me.
Our flight was departing from a gate in a detached satellite, which had to be accessed using a monorail/tram. This did offer great views of the ramp, and the planes parked up. My colleagues looked increasingly nervous however as the DC-10 came into view. Surrounded by 777s, A330s and 747s the DC-10 looked really old. The heavily fading paint did not help in the slightest.
“Are we really flying on that!?” one exclaimed.
“Absolutely” I replied.
“F**king hell! Are you sure its capable of flight!?”
“Well, its been cruising the skies since before you were even born”
Several jaws that were approaching 30 years old dropped quite suddenly at this moment.
The gate area was surprisingly spacious, so we took up some seats waiting for the aircraft to board. The gate agents started putting up some screens on each side of the gate, which indicated one thing – last minute pre-boarding searches. Boarding was done in phases, with only certain rows allowed to board. Despite this, the entire gate area was crowded with people stood around who had not been called, making the process awkward and unorganised. Why do people insist on crowding the gate if they are not being asked to board?
In the queue I was bumped into by some British travellers. So I took note of what they were saying, as you do.
“I’ve never seen this type of plane before” said one of them rather loudly. “Who makes it?” he asks.
By raising his head and looking around, it was a clear invitation for anyone to answer.
“I think it’s a McDonnell Douglas” I replied.
The guy looked shocked for a moment, before declaring “maybe I should ask them if I can transfer to the Tupolev!” This raised many laughs.
I thought I was in good luck, I just happened to choose the queue that passed by the women security officials, who concerned themselves with randomly checking women. A female colleague in front of me almost got past but was fished out of the queue. I might have smiled for a moment, but a bloke on the other side of the queue pointed me out and called me over for a search. Damn. This was relatively painless. A quick root through my hand luggage plus a pat down and I was done. Once the rest of my group was through, we headed down the tunnel, into a time warp back to the 1980s.
The flight was full with a surprisingly high amount of American kids on it. I feared the worst, but the behaviour was outstanding. I was expecting the excitement of leaving Britain to overwhelm them with uncontrollable joy, but it was not to be, and I had no problems with any of them, even the ones who eventually sat behind me.
A plump but immaculately dressed flight attendant greeted me at the door of the plane.
”Welcome aboard, Sir!” she said with a great accent and smile. We were in America already… perfect. After showing her the boarding pass, she directed me to the correct aisle to find 33C. One thing you really notice on the DC-10 is how old fashioned the plastic fittings look. However, the plane was clean inside, as much as it could be cleaned. Plumes of dust would rise when sitting down on the seats and the seat covers and pockets had seen better days. It was still functional though, and comfort was just about adequate, though not spectacular.
I am a big fan of MRTC on American, with 34 inch seat pitch, so I was not looking forward to the 31 inch pitch on Northwest. However, rather shockingly, it proved adequate, and I could stretch my legs out straight in front of me and beneath the seat in front. Great. Except for that metal thing in the seat at my lower back that was uncomfortably digging at me. The blanket was folded appropriately to even out the discomfort and the seat became passable. Sat down, I observed the other passengers bringing their houses (hand luggage) on and using up all the overhead bins. They are not the biggest of places on the DC-10. Why don’t we just sit on the cargo deck, get rid of checked bags and carry everything on and place it in extravagant deck high overhead bins. It would save time! Anyway, I am getting distracted – you can tell big carry on bugs me.
We were all aboard in time for scheduled departure, and that’s when the fun started. With every fluctuation of the engines, the air conditioning ramped up or down very distinctly unlike few other aircraft I have been on. Worst of all, the engines sounded horrible. The Diesel-10 name is well deserved - it wouldn’t be a bad guess to presume it runs on the stuff given the noise. Then the smell entered the cabin – of gasoline. Rather pungent too. Most people could smell it.
“That’s normal” remarked someone who looked calm enough. Okay. Just ignore the smell of gas as you reverse out and you will be fine. I’m here to tell the tale right?
In no time at all we are crawling out to the runway, the engines roaring away. That’s when a friend asked me “has the pilot said hello?”
No, he had not. They had not said a peep, other than to tell the flight attendants to prepare for departure. Did the passengers even exist? Were we placing our lives in their hands? If it was shyness, then it was a poor excuse. I know they are busy, but there are three of them up there, take a minute to introduce yourself. This was rather unsatisfying.
Despite all of the newer and bigger aircraft I had been on, the DC-10 still impressed me with its size. It seems massive inside. Perhaps it was the smaller overhead bins, but the cabin seemed very roomy. Looking up, the roof appeared so high. The windows were amazingly large too, offering brilliant views and bringing plenty of light into the cabin. A very nice touch I never remembered from before was the ‘DC-10’ titles on the grip used to bring down the window shutters. The interior of the DC-10 did not immediately give away the fact it was 30 years old – maybe 20, but not 30!
At the end of the runway, we drew to a halt. This was to be a ‘standing start’, which I always enjoy more than the ‘running starts’ as I call them. It would also allow me to fully appreciate the DC-10s power. After about 15 seconds the engines begin to roar. The noise was incredible. Being just after the wing, the sound of thrust was amazing. My colleagues - normally used to modern A320s etc looked terrified by the noise; it was definitely of a higher order. The acceleration was quite amazing for such a large aircraft, and comparable with even the best endowed modern twinjets. The cabin was shaking and vibrating quite dramatically by now, with the ground whizzing past outside. Were we on a rocket or a commercial airliner?
Just then there was a huge clang and crash of metal in the back of the cabin. I quickly determined it to be the sound of several trays or pots in the galley falling due to improper storage, but that sort of sound just before rotation does nothing to help nerves. Neither did the sudden opening of an overhead bin towards the front of our cabin with a loud bang. Soon we were airborne, and after a steady climb out the crew began in-flight service.
The crew did a good job to be honest, given the age of the aircraft they had to deal with. They were very senior flight attendants, with a token younger and very attractive attendant (who just so happened to serve me). All of them were friendly enough despite the apparent lack of vocabulary. “Tea… tea… tea……. coffee… coffee… coffee…… water… water… water.” Lets just say there were ample beverage services, with full cans of soda, alcohol and small bottles of wine being handed out. I don’t think an hour went past without some sort of beverage offered – made possible by regular water services throughout the ‘quiet’ time in the middle of the flight.
The food offered was either beef or pasta. I took the beef, which was Chinese style with rice. Alongside was a chocolate pudding, salad, bread, and water. The beef and rice was surprisingly good, with plenty of beef. The salad was a bit too bitter for my likings, but others around me thought it was great. The rest was pretty acceptable, making the overall meal experience quite satisfying – something I was not expecting.
In-flight entertainment was simply awful though. The forward screen was way too small and difficult to see through all the heads and seats. Background light made it very pale anyway. The shows from TLC were perhaps the most uninteresting material ever produced, with two turn-off films to follow: Duplex and School of Rock. The music channels were similarly horrific – it was perhaps good that there were so few of them anyway. I gave up with the in-flight entertainment and passed the time myself instead. They did display the flight map several times on the screen, but it was too difficult to see to determine exactly where we were, other than over the great lakes somewhere etc. It was noisy on board the DC-10, this is undeniable, but it was otherwise a smooth ride.
After 9 hours in the cabin of a DC-10, you are glad to land. Thankfully the Northwest service made this time tolerable. Unfriendly, slack and poor in flight service would have combined with the cabin to drive me crazy. Instead, the attendants were friendly, the food good, the drinks regular and spirits high – which rubs off on the passengers and makes the time acceptable. The service finished with pizza, cheese and crackers, plus some great ice cream before arrival in the twin cities.
Checking my watch, we would be arriving exactly on schedule, which I always regard as good on a westbound flight into the headwind. The DC-10 must have it where it counts after all. The approach was smooth, although the pilot had made no effort to describe it, leaving this to a flight attendant who did her best to be informative. I swapped seats with a friend for the landing, so I was in 33A. I had described the wing literally ‘coming apart’ on approach so she wanted to move. The flaps on the DC-10 are indeed awesome on landing, with the wing almost entirely transforming. They sure were shy, but the pilots pulled off a flawless landing. After a short taxi we were pulling in at the gate. They must have been quick opening the doors, because I barely had time to retrieve my carry on when it was time to depart.
The interior after the flight.
Off the plane, we walked for less than a minute and arrived at immigration. I was in disbelief. There were so many counters open! I walked up to a desk and was first in line! There was one person in front – who was being dealt with! Remember I was almost last off the plane too, being seated in row 33! Unbelievable! I looked around at the lack of queues, in awe. I saw some other Brits, who looked to be in similar amazement at how efficient the operation was.
“Next!” called the immigration officer. It was my turn already! I had not been stood here 40 seconds! I stumbled over, and handed my papers over. “You have a good flight?” the chap asked me.
Being a regular flyer into JFK, this was unusual. The immigration agents there are the definition of bad attitude. Was this some kind a trick?! No… this guy was smiling.
“Yeah, pretty good” I replied.
“How long you staying for?”
“Just one night”
“Awww, you not going home are you?!” he said, looking genuinely concerned.
“I’m flying on to Vancouver”
“Oh right, where are you staying?”
“The Fairfield Inn”
“Excellent! You gonna go have a look around and have a great time at the Mall?”
My passport was stamped, and my documents handed back. “You have a great evening okay!” he said.
“Will do, thanks”
Still in a daze at the efficiency and service, I stumbled on, the baggage claim straight ahead of me. Was I dreaming… or was that my bag moving in front of my eyes?! It was my bag! My colleagues bags were behind it too! I walked forward and picked them off. Everyone was through immigration and the bags were all collected… everything was happening too fast to think of what to do next.
I commented to a friend “This is brilliant, they’ve got it sorted here. Minneapolis is where I’m flying to when I come to the US in the future – its fantastic!” An airport official was walking slowly past, and he obviously heard me. He looked at me with a big smile and gave a thumbs up!
Now it was just customs to go. Retrieving our blue forms, we went over to the customs desk, handed them in and passed through without delay. Within a couple of minutes we were outside where our hotel shuttle bus just happened to be.
I checked my watch. I must have been dreaming. I was off the plane, through immigration, had collected my checked baggage, cleared customs and outside the airport within 15 minutes of touching down from an international flight to the USA. The smile on my face from confronting immigration to getting outside was unshakable – I had never been so impressed with an airport.
After a great night at the Mall and some sleep, it was time for the second leg to Vancouver.
Northwest Airlines flight 1763
Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP) to Vancouver (YVR)
Depart MSP: 09:00 Arrive YVR: 10:45
We arrived just over two hours before the scheduled departure time, and our hotel shuttle dropped us off at a quiet hallway near the parking. We walked in to be confronted with a small room featuring several electronic check-in machines. Oh dear. We had paper tickets (as most UK travellers with NW seem to have). We must have looked confused, because a split second later (as we were still walking towards the machines) a Northwest official, a great old man asked if everything was okay. A colleague blurted out that we were not sure what to do. With a smile, the guy told us not to worry and said he would check us in at once. A few minutes later, this brilliant fellow had checked us and our luggage onto the flight. Handing us our boarding passes, he directed us to the main terminal and security, which involved crossing a bridge.
After many thanks to this star for our instant check-in, we proceeded over the bridge to the terminal and headed to security. There was no queue here either, and within seconds, we had cleared security and were walking around the great Lindberg terminal. It was clean, spacious, and had loads of facilities. We had no problems wasting some time before it came to depart.
The flight to YVR was not full. There were lots of empty seats, so boarding was quite straightforward, despite commencing a couple of minutes late. A warm welcome was received when boarding, from smiling flight attendants, who might have been slightly younger than the LGW-MSP crew. This time the pilots did introduce themselves, and described the route in great length. They seemed confident on being able to arrive on time in YVR, before handing us over to the good care of the flight attendants.
The A320 seemed to have more legroom than the DC-10, and I had no problems stretching out again. The take-off was hardly as exciting though, despite rolling down the runway for 50 seconds with such a light load. The seat did not need modification to become comfortable either. So far so good.
The flight attendant came over the speaker system, announcing that a beverage service would be provided, and a meal would be offered for purchase. This surprised us all. We had to purchase a meal!? We had a cooked breakfast between Manchester and London on British Airways – a mere 1 hour flight – were NWA not going to give us anything on this much longer flight? I was actually quite disappointed, despite my mood being so unusually good. A minute later the flight attendant made another announcement.
“Sorry folks, to correct the previous announcement, we have a meal on board for everybody. We all eat breakfast this morning! Thank you”
Excellent. The breakfast was slightly bland, but it was good solid food. A bagel, spread, banana, biscuits, cereal and milk. It was much better than the British Airways breakfast which I always find disgusting. This flight was sadly lacking any entertainment provision, so we had to keep ourselves busy, which was not too difficult with the mountains below.
An old women suddenly collapsed in the aisle. The attendants rushed over and helped her up. They took her to the back, where they assisted her as they could. It must not have been serious, since we continued on to YVR, which didn’t seem to take long to reach. The descent was rather steep and rough through the clouds. The actual landing was acceptable, but no engine reverse was employed, leading to a gentle slow down.
Knowing that I was going to have to pay for the privilege of using it, I was expecting Vancouver airport to be something spectacular. Lets just say it wasn’t. I preferred MSP. Customs/immigration consisted of a long queue, taking about 25 minutes to clear. Then we had to wait for the baggage to arrive. Not impressive – after experiencing MSP.
Northwest Airlines flight 1764
Vancouver (YVR) to Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP)
Depart YVR: 12:00 Arrive MSP: 17:29
Walking into Vancouver, I demanded to be impressed, knowing I was paying $10 just to use the place. An official directed us to the Northwest desks as soon as we walked in. Nice – but someone did this in Calgary too. The Northwest check-in desk consists of a few electronic check in machines only – but we had paper tickets! No worries, a NWA official offered to help immediately, and informed us that she was checking us in all the way to London. Once this was completed, she directed us through the elaborate US immigration and customs system operating in YVR. This was rather convoluted, but it worked in the end. A colleague also got some unnecessary attitude from one of the US agents – nothings perfect I guess.
We also had to pay the airport improvement fee. For the remainder of my time there, I was trying to determine what warranted such a fee. The airport was NOT THAT GOOD. MSP was just as good – if not better, and they did not charge us a silly fee. Anyway, our flight was boarding on time, with a full load. The check-in agent was there at the gate boarding us. “Small world isn’t it?” she joked with us.
This flight had so many kids on it. Thankfully, they were all well behaved – good show all! The flightdeck door was open for what seemed like forever. Everyone was aboard before they finally bothered to close it. The Captain introduced himself and welcomed us to the flight, saying our timing would be perfect.
The take-off roll was sluggish, as was to be expected with a heavy load. A similar efficient and friendly service soon followed, this time with a choice of ham or turkey sandwiches. I took the turkey, which was quite acceptable. In flight entertainment of the screened and audio variety was lacking, so other forms had to be employed.
The great in flight entertainment seemed to help the flight pass quickly, and several drinks later we were approaching MSP for a bumpy approach. The landing, as had become standard on NW was flawless. After turning off the runway, the pilot seemed to do a 10 minute tour of the airport looking for somewhere to park. I took this time to look for our mighty DC-10 that would take us to London. I finally spotted it – but it was moving out!? What was happening to it? I didn’t see any other DC-10 - that had to be it – surely?
Northwest Airlines flight 44
Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP) to London Gatwick (LGW)
Depart MSP: 18:55 Arrive LGW: 09:00
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30
Having already cleared customs and immigration in Vancouver, we were able to walk out into MSP airside and connect with the next flight. Staff directed us to the correct concourse for London, so we made our way to there. MSP really is a big place, but thankfully it had plenty of places to eat. We grabbed some food, and while eating there was an announcement regarding the London Gatwick flight. We couldn’t quite understand what it was, so we went over to the departure screens. Flight 44 had been put back to 19:30 – and moved to another concourse. Now the moving DC-10 made sense! With an hour to go we meandered over to the new concourse. On arrival, we noticed the distinct lack of any DC-10 at the gate. Where was the beast? Then an announcement, the flight was being put back to 19:45. What was going on?
A fellow passenger updated us – the plane was out of action and couldn’t fly. There was a ‘leaky strut’ – whatever this was. Still, there was no plane outside. What were they planning on flying us out on at 19:45? Outside I saw what I presumed to be our DC-10 being towed past, its door still open. Then a DC-10 pulled up at an adjacent gate. At about 19:30 the gate agent came on the speakers and announced they would be waiting for the Amsterdam flight to arrive, which they would turn around and send us out on. It would arrive in 20 minutes.
Photo © Michael Nikel
N225NW seen in Amsterdam before departing to pick us up in MSP on April 11th.
Sure enough, in 20 minutes it arrived and the agents said we would board as soon as it was cleaned and prepared. 45 minutes later the agent came on and said they were almost ready to board us. Nice turnaround time for a DC-10! Being restless and late already, passengers were getting prepared to board when a hesitant gate agent made another announcement.
"I know you are all eager to get on your way, but after inspections, the mechanics have identified a technical fault on this aircraft also” Groans and laughter emerged from the crowd – which would fill every seat of the DC-10. Was this for real? “More mechanics are on the way to try and deal with the problem”
Then it was announced that they would give an update in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the other DC-10 started boarding, which was heading to Amsterdam. After 25 minutes, the gate agent announced that they were going to try and fit a spare part, but it would take some time to complete and then test. The pilots walked off our plane. This did not look good. Within 10 minutes, the Amsterdam gate agent came on. A mechanical fault had been identified on that aircraft too! Sure enough, I spotted a ladder going into the belly of the plane! Boarding was then ceased, and passengers disembarked.
This was highly amusing. Northwest had three (3) clapped out and non-airworthy DC-10s on the tarmac at one time. Could they replace three planes at the same time?! Our repairs were dragging on, but the gate agent was apologising profusely. Our several hour delays seemed to be making the AMS passengers uncomfortable. I was just glad that we had CNN available to pass the time. 45 minutes later, the gate agent announced the part had been fitted and the mechanics were confident it would work, so they were to prepare for boarding. Filled with confidence, everyone started shuffling around. Another 15 minutes passed – the tests had been completed and boarding would commence immediately – 2 and half hours late. The disorder and crowding of LGW was repeated, and after many apologies we were on board the DC-10. This time I was in 32J. I looked outside, and was shocked by the size of the wing – it looked massive compared to the little A320 we had been on earlier.
This flight was much the same as the outbound DC-10 flight. In fact, the meal was almost identical, but was slightly tastier. Drinks were regular, the service friendly enough, and the in flight entertainment poor and obscured from view. It was saved only by a Pink Panther episode! Sitting by the window on take-off, the noise from the engines was somehow louder than I had heard when departing London. It was incredible. The pilot did take some time to talk about the flight (after departure), where he apologised and described the fault. One of the cockpit computer readout screens to monitor the engines etc was not resetting or something like that – but it was fixed now and working as he spoke. Nice to know. He told us to enjoy the flight and get some rest while he tried to make up some time, which he was confident we would manage given a strong tailwind. He was good to his word, since we arrived at London in close to a mere 7 hours. The landing was immediate, and there was no circling required. It was executed well, coming down smooth. The reverse noise though was intense, and something I don’t want to torture my ears with again!
Compensation was provided for the delay by the attendants. This included… an airport meal voucher worth $10. Now useless we were airborne. A $10 phone card to use in the USA – useless again. 2500 miles for WorldPerks/Flying Dutchman – thanks. Plus a $100 booking discount on flights costing $400 or more – thanks again.
Gatwick was horrible – as usual. A real let down after YVR and MSP. Walk through immigration for EU and UK citizens was convenient, but sadly inadequate. The baggage collection was like a football match – you could hardly move. There is no honour here, and I got stuck in and finally retrieved all the bags. All I had to do now was race from the airport into the streets and away from the grime of Gatwick.
So there we have it, I had finally completed a trip to North America that was not flown by AA. What was my overall opinion of Northwest? Mixed. The DC-10s look awesome from the outside – but inside they are not the nicest places to be for 9 hours. The aircraft really did let Northwest down, whether it be with poor entertainment, comfort or reliability. I would not book another flight on Northwest from the UK. The 777 operated AA flights remain superior and thus my choice.
However, I will keep my KLM/NW loyalty card. Why? As soon as Northwest replaces the DC-10 with new equipment on the UK routes, I would rebook again without hesitation. The overall service and experience was far above and beyond what I usually receive on AA, it was just poorly let down with the equipment (DC-10) they had to use. The connections from MSP looked excellent, while the airport was efficient, clean and friendly.
When Northwest introduces the A330 on UK services, I will give them another chance to capture my heart. I have a feeling it won’t be difficult, given what I know about the aircraft, and how impressed I was with all other aspects of the Northwest service. I like things simple, friendly and efficient – that’s what I got.
Anyone know the best seats on the A330?!
[Edited 2004-04-17 00:57:22]
[Edited 2004-04-17 01:02:13]