Check in and security had been quick, but it was with that world weary and jaundiced eye of a regular traveller that I greeted the Globeground lounge in terminal one at Manchester on Wednesday 29th September. Its not that there’s any problem with the lounge at Manchester, but rather my lack of enthusiasm was down to the fact that I’d just come back from back-to-back business trips to Milan and Paris, and the last thing I wanted was to step onto another airplane. Non the less, step onto another airplane I had to do as this was a vacation, paid for in hard earned frequent miles accumulated over many an early morning departure and late night return at the behest of my beloved employer. The prime purpose of the trip was to go to the Edwards Air Force Base air show in California, which I’d offered to cover for the agency I shoot pictures for – AirTeamImages. Thwarted by the cancellation of the show after I’d booked the flights, I decided to go to California anyway for a holiday and as an added attraction there was still the “California International Airshow” that same weekend in Salinas.
So, there I was – about to board an airplane again. Having availed myself of a couple of hefty gin and tonics at Globeground’s expense, the BMI staff member who escorts premium passengers to the gate showed up unexpectedly early on this Wednesday morning, almost 50 minutes before departure. Slugging back the last of my g&t, a leisurely walk to the usual gate, 29, revealed the “Star Alliance” liveried A330 G-WWBD as our transport for the day (Hurrah! 7 flights on ‘BM, and 5 on ‘BB, and finally I get ‘BD!). Boarding was of course swift – the escort that picked us from lounge swept away all others as the “premium” passengers move to the front of the long line and are treated to immediate boarding. Being seated in row 2 means I turn to left for a change - boarding at MAN always seems to be through door 2L. And what a seat! Bmi position “the business” as a business class product, and whilst it isn’t flat bed there’s little to complain about – as expected, my feet can’t touch the seat in front even when I’m sprawled out as far as I can, and there’s already a comfortable pillow and blanket available. “The Business” is laid out 2+2+2 in four rows, making a total of 24 seats in the area between the 1L/R and 2L/R doors – this makes for a pleasant and compact cabin but provides plenty of space, and the décor is somewhat toned down in comparison to the brighter economy class cabins (which I guess is partly dictated by the nature of the product). Load outbound was 12, meaning that each of us had a set of two seats to ourselves.
3A in "The Business" on A330-200 G-WWBD
Photo © Andy Martin - AirTeamImages
Seconds after sitting down my coat is off to the closet, my post-takeoff pre-lunch drink order is taken, a amenity kit in a nice soft bag is delivered to the seat, and a glass of champagne is positioned on the arm-rest – “OK, I suppose so, if you must” I think! Three glasses of champagne later (they insisted on refilling it, honest!) and a menu card later, we pushed back two minutes ahead of schedule at 12:18. The Trents slowly spooled into life, the “birds-eye” spinners slowly changing from distinct spirals to blurred glow as the engines wound up to idle power. Following Finnair 757 OH-LBT and followed by Pakistan 777 AP-BGK, our A330 inched towards Manchester’s runway 24 right, and then some 18 minutes after breaks release we were treated to seeing some 20 or so airplane watchers waving at us from “The Airport” hotel as we lined up. Washington was 5728 kilometres and 7 hours 33 minutes away.
Now here’s a minor niggle – one thing I don’t like about “The Business”. In the “New Economy” and standard economy cabins on BMI’s A330s, it’s possible to configure the seatback PTVs to show the view from the forward camera during taxi and take off. In “The Business” with its larger fold out PTVs, there’s no opportunity to view the take off as the screens at the front of the cabin are set up to show the moving map throughout the journey. Shame! Anyhow, view or no view, at 12:36 G-WWBD under the command of Ian Patterson powered down Manchester’s 24R, bound for Washington Dulles. Today is cloudy, so no views of the fast-receding English countryside were possible, although the “AirShow” on the screens conveyed our progress out over the Irish Sea towards Ireland, and our expected track to Washington DC. No sooner were we airborne than the pre-dinner drink I’d ordered before take-off (gin and tonic again, surprise, surprise) appeared along with a real hot towel on a wooden platter and a delicate bowl of snacks. The purser soon appeared to “introduce herself” and offer a lap-top power supply, as did the in-flight chef, to establish what I wanted to eat for lunch for which service started some thirty minutes after takeoff.
Pre-dinner drinks over the Republic of Ireland
Appetisers - Summer vegetable soup / Thai tiger prawn kebab with sesame noodles / Char grilled goats cheese and roasted pepper salad / Summer leaf salad
Main dishes - Braised ham hock with parsley sauce, butter bean and carrot crush, asparagus and baby turnips / Chicken breast baked in a bag with butter, garlic, mushroom and white wine, served with thyme roasted potato / Scottish salmon roasted over caramelised aromats, with lemon butter sauce, wilted spinach and warm cucumber salad / Wild summer mushroom and pasta tart with rocket
Deserts - Warm chocolate fondant pudding with cherries and ice-cream / Rhubarb and ginger meringue with vanilla cream / British cheese plate – Somerset camembert and Mull of Kintyre mature cheddar with Duchy original oaten biscuits / Fruit plate / Organic vanilla ice-cream
And to follow - Freshly ground coffee / Twinings English tea selection / Irishman superior Irish coffee / After eight chocolates
Char grilled goats cheese and roasted pepper salad whilst Paul McKenna does the "Star in a reasonably priced car" routine on Top Gear
Chicken breast baked in a bag with butter, garlic, mushroom and white wine, served with thyme roasted potato with an Apache chasing a Lotus Elise, still Top Gear
Tough choices, and the wine selection was equally generous – two champagnes, three white wines plus a guest white wine, and thee red wines plus a guest – and all seemed good even if I didn’t sample each one! Bread (three different types, included a delicious cheesy-bread, presented in individual wooden bowls) with either butter or olive oil (a nice touch) rounded off what was offered for lunch. The goat’s cheese, chicken and meringue were absolutely excellent, although retrospectively I note that the abundance of white wine that followed the champagne and gin and tonics meant that sleep came to me before the Irish coffee!
Time for an afternoon nap
Sleep over, it was apparent that the eastern seaboard of North America was somewhat closer than it was when I nodded off – in fact, Canada almost seemed to be within spitting distance. The cabin crew were very vigilant and only a few moments passed before they noticed my awakening and offered a drink – gin and tonic again I suppose! The fold up screens offered the usual BMI entertainment (plenty of choice but no VOD), and the awesome noise reducing headphones meant pretty much anything except the soundtracks was inaudible, so much so that the crew had to nudge me to gain my attention when it was time for afternoon tea! Film and video selection left me a little cold, not because of what was available but more because I’d seen much of it before (many of the recent releases on other flights, in fact!) – I was actually hoping to watch “Supersize Me”, mainly out of curiosity you understand, but that would have to wait for my return as it was only being shown on inbound flights to the UK.
Cheese plate offered in addition to dessert, after I'd had a snooze!
Afternoon tea was indeed a grand affair:
The mad-hatter tea service – smoked salmon on brown, cucumber and cream cheese on white, warm sausage rolls, almond cherry tart, coconut fancy, mini plain scone, mini sultana scone, strawberry preserve, Cornish clotted cream, fresh strawberries
For what its worth, there was also an “anytime” menu, items from which could be taken at any time in addition to the regular service – bacon panini, fresh fruit plate, ice-cream
As our proximity with the ground increased, so the cabin crew came round to do the final checks – seats up, leg-rests in, PTVs (for us in “The Business”) folded away. I’d been watching the forward facing camera and so the PTV was still out, but unfortunately |I was asked to fold the screen down. I happened to comment to that it was a shame and a step backwards from the “New Economy”, that the screen had to be down because I wanted to watch the landing. He jokingly said I was welcome to sit in economy if I was that desperate to watch the landing – “Err, no thanks, I’ll stay here”.
Landing was past the Smithsonian annexe and onto runway 1R, past numerous United Express and Independence Air Canadairs waiting to depart, and then a gentle left turn to gate C6, which is pretty much the closest gate to runway 1R on Dulles’ midfield concourse. Immediately after the doors were opened, the names of a few business class passengers were called, including mine, and we were asked to check with the agent at the door of the airplane – “Oh no, what does that mean?” I thought. Deplaning was quick, as bmi helpfully position their cabin crew to act as bouncers just aft of the 2L door on both aisles, where they stop the riff-raff getting off before the premium passengers. The name call turned out to be nothing problematic - a United agent gave me a card with the gate assignment for my onwards flight on it (gate assignment for my LAX flight wasn’t available at Manchester earlier), along with an invitation to the United Red Carpet Club lounge and a complimentary drink voucher. Nice touches, saving having to find and scan the huge array of departure screens in the mid-field concourse.
Again I have to extol the virtues of United’s mid-field immigration and customs facility on the ground floor of the C concourse, which is only available to connecting passengers. Having descended the stairs I found five staffed booths available for non-US national immigration and none of them with a single passenger queuing at them. It therefore took a mere five minutes from walking off of ‘BD for me to officially enter the USA. Sadly baggage wasn’t quite so efficient, as carousel C broke down and we were moved first to B and then to D before the bags finally showed on the belt. However, at customs I got the usual salutary nod and having dropped my bag again for it to be conveyed onwards, less than twenty minutes after walking off the big Airbus I was in the United Red Carpet club sipping a drink and awaiting my onwards flight to Los Angeles.
BD702 Washington Dulles-Manchester, 11th October 2004
Having arrived from Seattle on a United 757, I had around an hour and a half to kill before boarding bmi flight BD702 back to Manchester. The United Red Carpet Club offered the usual sanctuary for passengers travelling in bmi’s premium cabin as well as those holding a gold card, and as such I qualified on both counts. Boarding time shown on my boarding card for BD702 was a full hour before the scheduled departure, so after a couple of gin and tonics courtesy of the vouchers I was presented when I entered the lounge, I made my way to gate D14. I’ve noticed on my last two trips through Dulles that the bmi A330 is re-spotted from C6 to a remote gate after all the passengers and bags are off the inbound flight – presumably to clear the international gates for further arrivals, as international gates aren’t needed for departures. This means it’s necessary to take one of Dulles’ fairly unique mobile lounges out to the aircraft, which in turn explains the rather early boarding time. It was apparent that, with only 45 minutes to go to departure when I arrived at the gate, most passengers had already been transported out to the aircraft. I joined the few stragglers on the last bus to the airplane, which soon wobbled its way across the ramp to G-WWCTA (Switzerland)">BB. Positioning close to the 2L door, we were then “treated” to one of the unusual aspects of Dulles’ mobile lounges, as the entire body of the bus was raised on jacks to that it was level with the door – interesting, but slow.
After a pleasant welcome at the door by name, a left turn took me to seat 2A again where after my coat was immediately placed on a hanger and taken to the closet and the obligatory glass of champagne was brought to my seat. Menu cards, a personal introduction from the purser and the in-flight chef, and an invitation to order an after take off drink soon followed, as did an amenity kit, the excellent noise reducing headset, and regular top-ups of the champagne right up until we were almost at the end of runway 1R. Last thing before ‘BB pushed back, the BMI rep in Washington came round, asked us individually by name if everything was OK, and wished us each a pleasant flight. Load was 14 seats occupied out of 24, meaning most passengers had a group of two seats to themselves.
Pre-take off drinks - champagne
Pushback was five minutes after schedule, the slight delay seemingly resulting from the arrival of the last mobile lounge from the terminal. Oh how I missed United’s channel 9 at this point – on my previous flight out of Dulles on UA, it was fascinating to listen to the chatter of pilots and ATC as the flight I was on got its pushback, taxi and take off clearance. This time, the ATC talk was all in my imagination! There was a bit of a queue for 1R, mainly United and Indy Air Canadairs again, but some 17 minutes after pushback it was BD702’s turn and a sprightly take off followed. At it was approaching fall season, the 18:00 departure meant it was dark soon after take off and little could be seen out of the windows as cloud cover obscured the normally excellent view of Baltimore and New York as the flight progressed eastwards. Not that looking out of the window was a priority this time – the drinks were soon flowing and the meal service commenced, and I wanted to watch “Supersize Me”
Appetisers – courgette and brie soup / oriental prawn rolls with sweet chilli dip / warm spinach and pine nut felucca tart / winter leaf salad
Main dishes – fillet of beef Wellington with a twist / roast chicken stuffed with wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese, with vine tomatoes, potato wedges and wild mushroom sauce / ginger marinated salmon with apricot and lemon couscous / potato ravioli with Stilton and Chablis sauce
Desserts – chocolate and coffee cappuccino pot / warm banana cake with ice-cream / cheese plate
Given my choice of movie, I was determined to try to eat healthily! The Japanese prawns, with sushi, was absolutely excellent (and well presented too), and the pasta very good. The wine list was as extensive as on the outbound flight, and new world wine seemed to be appropriate given where we’d just departed from – I found little to object to in the rather nice Californian Chardonnay, even though more traditional wines were on offer. Ah, this is what flying is about!
Oriental prawn rolls - an appetiser!!! taken whilst watching "Supersize Me"
Potato ravioli with Stilton and Chablis sauce still watching the anti-McDonalds film
After the meals were all tidied away and I was left with my lemon tea, the crew came round to ask whether we wanted to be woken for breakfast. Breakfast selection was equally as impressive as was the dinner, and despite recently having finished watching “Supersize Me” and becoming quite concerned about dietary habits, I was determined to try something cooked. The proviso I added was that I would have breakfast IF I were awake, but I wasn’t to be woken. After that, I really don’t remember much – alcohol induced sleep seemed to come fairly rapidly. As with the outbound flight, “anytime” food was available throughout – warm sausage rolls, chucky chips with mayonnaise dip or a fresh fruit plate.
Sometime later… I awoke to find it was still dark. The PTV was displaying the “Air Show” map and it was apparent we were almost over Dublin! Glancing over my shoulder, it was apparent the back cabin passengers had been woken for breakfast, but here up front the priority seemed to be darkness and passenger rest. Individual passengers were eating breakfast, but their personal lights were on rather than the main cabin lights – that’s a nice touch as it allows those who want to sleep to carry on doing so. Very rapidly the crew noticed I was awake and asked if I wanted my breakfast now. No chance, still too full from dinner, so I took just an orange juice and tea – shame, I never did get to try the hot breakfast! Decent soon commenced, but even then the subdued lighting in the forward cabin was maintained, with the crew quietly and discretely moving about and gently encouraging us to fold away the trays, PTVs, and leg rests and to get strapped in.
Breakfast – freshly squeezed orange juice / cranberry juice / yoghurt / cereals / fresh seasonal fruit / warm chocolate bread / warm cinnamon bread / choice of fresh eggs from the skillet – fried, scrambled or omelette / boiled eggs
The window view, on an earlier flight
Photo © Andy Martin - AirTeamImages
Shades were up and the lights of runway 6L was clearly visible through the pitch dark as we turned left base to final just a few miles out – at 6AM Manchester is still largely devoid of moving airplanes and there were no other aircraft to be seen in the air either in front or behind us. A smooth touchdown and gentle taxi past the beautifully illuminated Concorde in the viewing park got us to stand 29 (again!) right on schedule. Again the bmi bouncers ensured we premium passengers got off first, and the baggage was up in the terminal one arrivals hall around fifteen minutes after blocks on – not bad for Aviance at Manchester! I had been given a voucher to use the health club, pool, spa and showers, and to have another breakfast, at the SAS Radisson hotel at the airport – something bmi makes available to all passengers in “The Business” – but on this occasion I decided that the lure of getting home was just too powerful and instead headed straight for the taxi rank.
And that’s about it… Thanks for getting this far if you’re still with me. Both flights were thoroughly enjoyable and a credit to bmi. The only problem for anyone who tries the front end even once is that there will always seem to be something lacking when we have to sit further back next time, no matter how good the product is!