The first week of March, I started to put things in motion. Time off work was booked, and I tried the usual sites for a flight. With all the travel I had been doing during my Mum's final months, price would be the driver - I couldn't afford to be picky. Britannia, Easyjet, Flybe, and MyTravel had propelled me down to AGP before, and I was pretty certain I'd be using one of them again this time. However, it was BA.com that provided a very competitive package: BA7081, leaving Heathrow 1715 on the 3rd April Heathrow. Result - Heathrow is far easier for me to get to - It's nearly always LGW for these trips, which involves a journey that would have Captain Scott spinning in his grave.
Alas, the most economical return option was bloody Gatwick, but that's another report. The outbound flight would be operated by Iberia...."fruity" thought I as I confirmed my booking.
National Express would provide my ride to Heathrow from their little Station in Southampton. I allowed myself a little excitement at the fact that I was actually going to LHR to fly somewhere, rather than to take pictures, and despite the occasion, flying still had the power to lift my spirits and get me excited. I was actually feeling positive about the journey. There was one spanner in the works though. I was recovering from a bout of flu, and I still had bad congestion, the medicine for which can make you feel as if you've drunk fifteen cups of coffee in one go. I'm talking increased heart-rate and temperature. This would become very significant a bit later.
The Bus pulled into Heathrow's central bus station at 1430, after a journey of 105 minutes up a fairly clear motorway. Hmm. Terminal 2 according to my E-Ticket. "This should be interesting" I thought as I headed over the zebra crossing behind the gloomy bus station complex. I hadn't been to T2 in over 10 years, and had largely forgotten what it was like. "Low Ceiling" grunted a-netter Justin Wood when I mentioned my departure point. Oh okay.
As I walked through the doors, I had a pronounced flashback to August 1986, when I came here to go to Lisbon with BA. Odd how long forgotten memories can be triggered by sights and sounds. The low ceiling certainly was...low. About 7ft I reckoned. Presumably a head-injury specialist paramedic unit is on hand round the clock in case a basketball team should ever enter the building. The sign at the entrance gave me the numbers for the Iberia desks, and I walked down the subdued, grey hall.
As I approached I got the impression that this was a busy time for the Iberian staff. Large numbers of colourfully dressed, cheerful Spanish students were milling around, being marshalled by their harassed-looking tutor. Due to the low height of the ceiling, the information monitors are suspended at quite a low height. So low, in fact, that they are bloody hard to read as people's heads get in the way. It wasn't clear to me which queue I should join, so I sought out the information desk where a smart young chap was seated, trying to ignore the small boy that was gibbering away at him in Spanish. He gave me a broad smile, and we had a rather interesting exchange.
"Excuse me, could you tell me where I check in for BA7081?" I asked. He looked at me in the same way he regarded the child and said "What do the screens say?" I explained I was having trouble reading them, and they didn't seem to actually give, well, any useful information. He advised me that the BA7081 check-in was probably not open yet, and I should go back and wait. okay.
The distance between the check-in desks and the rear wall of the building is about 100 feet. More and more people were arriving, and I was less convinced that this advice was correct. Eventually I just barged up to the front of the queue and asked, and was told any line would do - the desks were for all flights. Okay, no problem. I had plenty of time. Forty minutes later, the queue was moving with agonising slowness over the last five feet. The two girls on the check-in appeared to be struggling with the bulk of students that all seemed to be batched together in groups, so I had to wait - they were being patient, so could I. I toyed with pulling my 300D out and getting some high-iso shots, but truth be told, I didn't feel too well, so I left it. Sorry folks.
My impatience was eradicated when talking to the charming Spanish lady on the desk, and she gave me seat 20A, plus an extremely lurid orange hand luggage tag that could have said "Gay pride tour 2005" for all I knew. I headed upstairs and the reason for the low ceiling in the check-in area became apparent - it's to save space. This floor was large and airy, rectangular, with similar dimensions to T4's entrance area. I had a brief stroll up and down it, got severely ripped off by Travelex for not bothering to buy some Euros in advance, and headed through security.
The departure lounge is a bit of a jungle, but pleasant enough with a good range of shops. I stopped at Boots to get some Otrivine to help keep my sinuses clear for the flight, and sat down at the window area, which offered fabulous views of the pier. It was here I sat down and took my one shot of the afternoon. Not great but it gives you an idea of what can be seen:
I sat staring at the view, enjoying the wonderful vibe of all these aircraft doing their mechanical ballet, and admiring Lufthansa's D-AIQL right in front of me. I wondered if the time would ever come that I am bored of this. I hope not.
As it happens, the walk to the departure gate was just to my left, and at 1630 I went through there to gate 3, where EC-INJ was sitting on her mark:
Photo © Chris Sharps
I was thrilled. This was only my third time on this family of aircraft, and the first on a CFM powered example. I'd listened to these at SOU many times and was looking forward to hearing their distinctive song from inside the cabin. I sat and stared out the window, and noticed one of the flightcrew during his walkaround. He was incredibly well attired, wearing sunglasses, immaculately cut hair, shirt and tie, and a very elegant black trenchcoat - sort of a mix between Neo and a sharply dressed city broker. I was also aware of the balcony of the Queens Building off to the left - that favourite of spotters, now long closed. The Alitalia DC-9 in this photograph is where Merida would be sitting over 20 years later. What a view!
Photo © Mick Bajcar
Seat numbers were called, and I began that exciting walk down the airbridge, and onto the aircraft. The cabin of this A321 seemed incredibly long, rather like one's first impression of a 757 when you first board. The crew were very smartly turned out, all under 30 by the look of things. The purser wore a smart blazer with shirt and tie; the ladies were as well turned out, but the uniform was not particularly flattering.
The cabin was clean; the interior panelling had not attracted that aged yellowy tint yet, and the carpet was spotless. When I took my seat, I found it very comfortable, and a modern design I'd not experienced before. There was excellent shoulder support thanks to some well-designed padding, and I found that despite my height and the modest pitch and my 6'3" frame, it encouraged a very comfortable posture without much effort. I looked left over the rear part of the wing and over at an LH A300 that was being prepared for pushback.
As I relaxed in my seat I watched the German carrier's A300 ease backwards, first to the left and then around to face away from us, and actually felt the rumble as she applied power to taxi away. Soon it would be our turn. The crew completed their announcements in Spanish and English (both were spoken by the crew, no recordings were used), and we gently eased backwards. I could feel the rumble through my feet as nr.1 engine started, and then felt nr.2 start on the opposite side. We sat there for some time as the safety announcement was completed, and then a little power was applied to get us going.
In comparison to the IAE powered airbus, the CFM56 makes a very pleasing 'rasp' as it spools up at low power. I'd heard it before in an 737NG (seated in a very similar position), and I have to say it's very distinctive. Also, I heard the infamous Airbus 'barking dog' for the first time, as the transfer pumps operated with this 'clank..woof woof..clank'. As we rolled toward 27L, the Captain remarked that we were 5th in the queue, and I again kicked myself for not having my camera to hand - there was simply stunning light, and several aircraft were beatifully framed just off the port wing.
I looked over to the maintenance hangars at the collection of SAA heavies enjoying the sun, and as the aircraft turned to the final hold I looked over trying to picture Myrtle avenue, but couldn't see too much.Eventually we turned onto the runway, and the engines growled slightly, and I waited for the roar, which came but was actually pretty modest, although the sound was fantastic. Acceleration was slow but despite this we rotated quite early, despite the a/c being apparently full, and settled into a very shallow climbout. Although having backside shoved into the seat and being pinned into your chair with a grin from ear to ear is great fun, I had to admire the absolute smoothness and efficiency that the aircraft demonstrated; to witness technology and humans working so incredibly well together is really something.
Cruise was uneventful, and no meal would be provided on this flight on my ticket. I was however charged EUR2.5 for a can of Coke, which I thought was outrageous, but that's the situation these days. Unfortunately, on descent some of the fluid trapped in my sinuses gave my ears a great deal of trouble, and as we approached AGP's southerly runway I was just about ready to jump out of the window. A smooth touchdown was accomplished, followed by a mild stop as darkness fell on Malaga.
I would definitely use IB again on this run. The aircraft was on-time, the crew were polite and professional, and for such a competitive price it's as good as it gets, easily the equal to any other carrier I've used on the run.
I'll write the return (with BA) sometime this week. Hope you enjoyed reading this.
[Edited 2005-04-11 23:05:59]