As it always happens to me, I had to leave my office in haste so as to get to the airport on time. On this occasion, the culprits were a memorandum on tax matters (yuck!), and a shareholders agreement proposed by opposing counsel, which my boss did not have time (i.e., did not care) to review himself. Another cardiac rush to the airport was in store for me. However, one of my guardian angels (a/k/a the law- and common sense-defying cabbies from the Pabellón Bosques taxi base, who can get from Santa Fe to MEX in 50 minutes or less even on "paycheck" Fridays) was waiting for me downstairs and the mere knowledge of that comforted me. As I ran towards the elevator dragging my bags, I kept repeating to myself, as a mantra, like a prayer, "I'm almost there". It was not clear to me then (and still is not clear to me now) what "there" meant: the elevator, the taxi, the airport, the plane, Australia, the arms of a beautiful Aussie? Nonetheless, I kept on telling that to myself.
Indeed, I got to MEX (soon I will have to write MEX T1) on time. Sure, Mr. Fantaxi illegally drove many blocks on a confined lane for trolebuses (weird bastard children of buses and tramways that were thought to be, in the sixties, the answer to Mexico City's traffic problems), and paid no attention to amber lights and perhaps even one or two red ones. In the end, none of that mattered (in fact it was exciting!), as he got me to MEX right in time; needless to say, the driver got an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role in Driving Mr. Eddie, ahem, a very generous tip from a nice young man who was about to spend his best two weeks in many years.
Check-in was quick. I already had a pre-assigned seat and my SkyMiles number entered into my AM reservation, so getting my pass from the attentive AM agent was a breeze. After getting some Franklins, Lincolns, Jeffersons and Washingtons to sustain me while abroad, and resolving some last minute emergencies over the phone (the damn contractor that I sent to replace a section of the wooden floor in my new apartment mistakenly broke a water pipe and my cute Ciudad Juárez-born tenant almost had a coronary since her parents were on their way to Mexico City to spend Easter with her), I was finally ready to get past the security checkpoint and find my gate.
The phone calls re: the breaking of the pipes lasted quite a bit, so I did not do the requisite stop at the duty free shops. I got to the gate at the required time for boarding, but the plane was not even there. I asked the AM person at the gate how long we would be delayed but very confidently she told me that the plane was landing as we spoke and we were going to leave on time. "Weisst du doch nicht, du dumme Sau" was the first thing that came to my mind... how in hell she intended to have 124 passengers and their bags deplane, have the AM crew clean, cater and load the plane with our bags, and board 124 passengers (of whom 111 did not give a shit about the boarding order and much less about the privileges of Clase Premier and SkyTeam elite passengers) in 15 minutes or so was mind-boggling, so I decided to take my chances and get a well-deserved sandwich at La Mansión near gate 19. The fact that I sat at the bar rather than a table notwithstanding, opening my beer and concocting my tuna sandwich took more than the sweet time that the desserts-chef at Café O on Monte Líbano takes to make his wonderful chocolate cake filled with hot chocolate sauce. Anyhow, at some point, the woman sitting next to me put her sudoku book aside and we became immersed in a very nice conversation about our imminent flights... too bad it turned out she was on her way to IAH to spend Holy Week and Easter with her boyfriend who was already there, as she was very nice (a tad old for me, but perfect for a no strings attached affair). What was terribly spooky was that, when I said goodbye to her to go to my gate and finally board my LAX-bound 73W, she said "Goodbye Eduardo, enjoy Australia". I never told her my name during our conversation, and my boarding pass was at all times safely stored inside my shirt's pocket, hence the spookiness. She must have seen my name on my credit card after it was brought back to me by the waiter; still, it sort of gave me the creeps.
737-700W XA-AGM (new livery)
A nanosecond (literally) after I reached my gate, the naïve AM agent (yes, the same who forty minutes earlier said we were going to board on time) called Clase Premier passengers and SkyTeam elites for boarding. What ensued, though, was a huge chaos, with people getting up from their seats and walking towards the counter in the most terrible disorder. I feel for the airline personnel in Mexico who have to put up every single day of their lives with all these illiterates who refuse to follow indications.
I found my seat inside the new-liveried bird, opened the overhead compartment and stored in there my retro-Deutschland 1974 Welt Meisterschaft carry-on bag (once in Sydney, a lovely old lady decided I was German merely because of my bag; since she was not only blind -I am 5'8", have black hair and dark brown eyes, and was born with natural protection against the sun- but also a bit hard of hearing, I decided not to correct her and instead say "Ja" repeatedly throughout our brief conversation). I took my seat, buckled up and asked God to give fortune to my taxi driver. I could not spot any noteworthy airplane from my seat, as it was that time of the day at MEX when you only see Mad Dogs, 737s (-200s, -300s and NG), A32xs and the random 752. I did not even bother to take pictures; widebody-time was still a couple of hours away.
The flight was fully-booked. My row partners were two scrawny teenagers from the Prepa Tec, Campus Monterrey, who were spending three weeks in China with the rest of their class (also on board my plane) and a couple professors (something like, I guess, EI787's annual trips to China). These two kids did not seem interesting at all: for starters, none of them was a pretty Regia with green eyes, naturally-pink cheeks and big boobs, but rather, both of them, pimple-faced, dorkish guys who needed an urgent haircut. To make matters worse, they were the unpopular kids of their class (as became more evident once we arrived in L.A. and their classmates only showed disdain for them), and decidedly shy. After I resigned myself to yet another flight without the fortune of sitting next to a cute girl with whom to hook up later, I put on my headphones and decided to make a mark-up of a document that I later faxed to my office from Sydney. Like Anonymous Lawyer says, you have to find the hours wherever you can get them from.
During our taxi, I saw one noteworthy plane, an IB A340-600. Unfortunately for you, kind readers, the camera was stowed in the overhead compartment, so you will have to be satisfied with the mental image of a long, dirty and retro-liveried quad European plane.
Take off happened almost an hour after the announced time, which in a sense was good because I was not looking forward to my long layover in LAX. The flight was uneventful; Denzel Washington's Déjà Vu was showed in the drop-down screens, but I was busy working, so I decide to stick with the audio programming. Screech in the middle seat slept all flight long, but fortunately I did not have to get rid of the beers I had had at La Mansión, so I left him and his clone in peace. During the flight, a sandwich that looked crappier than the tuna sandwich I had eaten earlier was served; it came with a mini-salad. I had a beer during meal service and a second one afterwards to remind myself I was already on vacation. My system did not process these two beers right away either (as is usually the case), which was pretty remarkable and, for the nerds, quite lucky.
I finished my mark-up right before we started flying over the Sonora desert and spent the rest of the flight looking out of the window (like any self respecting a.netter would do). The sand dunes were awesome! Since I was seating on the eastern side of the plane and the sun was already parallel to the plane on the west, the sunlight illuminated the engine cowling visible from my window, and the fuselage cast a cool reflection on the cowling. I do apologize for not capturing this image in pixels, as I am sure you would have liked it. About 15 minutes before landing, we started flying over water, in order to make our final approach to LAX. As we started flying towards terra firma, the thick layer of brown smog that has made L.A. infamous became more and more apparent and disgusting... as I was staring into the horizon realizing how our spaceship was going to be swallowed by a huge space cloud of antimatter in a matter of seconds, one of the two fans of Mr. Spock next to me asked me whether that was L.A. I was going to answer that to the right he could still see the O.C., that we were flying over Santa Monica and that to the left he could maybe see Santa Barbara, but then I realized he only needed a "yes", which is what he got from me. Seconds later, I felt a bit guilty for not being illustrative to our future generations, so I added "and its suburbs". The anorexic Cheech and Chong look-alikes seemed quite satisfied with that. We finally landed parallel to a UA 767, which was pretty cool. After a longish taxi, we finally docked at DL's Terminal 5.
The walk to the immigration section was quite fast, but there were only a few officers, so going through was a horribly long ordeal. Fortunately, once all U.S. citizens and residents went through, a dedicated line for the Tec de Monterrey kids was opened, thus relieving the queue. Collecting my bag and going through customs was fast and easy, and I still had plenty of time to kill before the departure of my QF flight bound for SYD. When I checked my bag at MEX, the kind AM agent checked it all the way through to SYD, which meant that after clearing customs in LAX I could drop it off at the conveyor belt of T5. Instead, as I had still many hours, I decided to take it with me and check it at the QF counter.
I do not understand why the QF LAX-SYD and LAX-JFK flights leave from AA's horrific T4 rather than from Tom Bradley. Oh well, I could not do much about it, so I just went with it. The line for check-in was still short, even though my flight was leaving within minutes of another SYD-bound QF flight. I gave my paper ticket (a relic from the past) to one of the AA agents serving QF, together with my passport, my immigration stub and my AAdvantage number, and soon I was ready to drop my bag with the TSA guys and find my way to the gates. For some stupid reason, I decided to go through the security checkpoint immediately, rather than walk out of the terminal building and hunt for a cigarette (I don't smoke but I sort of felt like having one), even though I still had almost four hours prior to the commencement of boarding. I soon realized my mistake but it was too late to change things. After walking back and forth in T4, I sat down and started reading Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country" (recommended by Magyarorszag) to familiarize myself with Oz. The more I read the book, the more I wanted to get to Australia!
The anxiety was almost unbearable, so I decided it was time for yet another beer (don't worry, my bladder was now empty in case you were wondering if I was a human camel). Of all the terrible places for food located in T4, I picked Chili's, as it had been years since I had eaten in one of those obese-farms. I had a couple of Amstel Lights and an order of buffalo wings, and took very seriously the "take your time" remark of my waitress when she brought the check. "In a Sunburned Country" was such a great read, that I kept on reading it at Chili's like for an hour after the check was brought.
I have never had fortune on my side, especially when it comes to on time departures, and March 30, 2007 was not the exception. As the indicated time for boarding approached, I inquired with the QF gate agent about the status of our flight and she indicated that the plane had arrived a bit late from JFK and the tow truck that was bringing it to the gate had had some sort of problem, which meant we were going to be delayed. Porca miseria! What was the bloody deal with all these delays? I wanted to scream like one of the partners of the firm whose bad temper and worse manners are only surpassed by his karma and the hatred that the gods bestow upon him: "Why me, goddamit!!!". Fortunately, I got my act together, rushed to Starbucks to try their new Cinnamon Latte crap and decided to read my book some more. Australia'd better be good!
ETA: 07:25 (+2)
Finally, we were called for boarding. This time seatguru.com was right and the seat I chose was awesome. Row 70 in the 744s is the first row where the seats are 2-4-2, and it seems that seat pitch is also more generous. I had plenty of space for me, myself and Bill Bryson, and you can see from the pic below that legroom was quite good.
I felt more joyous when I heard the purser inform the passengers over the speaker that our plane was a 747-400ER; I have been in 747-400s several times (LH, AF, CX and BA), but was really looking forward to being on a QF -ER variant! Moreover, I found in my seat pocket the AVOD IFE guide, and my excitement was confirmed when the purser announced that, by now, all the 744s in QF's fleet have been upgraded with on-demand entertainment.
My row mate was an average-looks woman in her early forties (or so it seemed), who slept all the time, so at least I did not have to worry about socializing. An hour and a half or so after take off, dinner was served. I chose the beef and it was quite okay for airline standards. I had some Australian Shiraz with it (nothing to write home about) and, once the trays were removed, I quickly fell asleep. I had earlier spent a good ten or fifteen minutes putting together a killer playlist featuring U2, Robbie Williams, Madonna, Scissor Sisters, Coldplay and other cool bands, and suddenly I was asleep. What a waste! When I woke up some four hours later, my contacts had almost solidified, and I called myself names for letting that happen. After all, I always carry my contacts' compartments filled with saline solution in my pocket when I fly long-haul, and my Harry Potteresque glasses in my carry-on bag, but when Morpheus attacks, none of that matters.
When Sleeping Average Woman woke up and went to the restroom, I quickly followed her. Once I had peeled my contacts from my eyes and disguised myself as the coolest wizard to ever set foot in Hogwarts, I took a long walk all around the coach cabin. As far as I could tell, the flight had an over 95% load factor; in fact, it could have been full considering that the empty seats could belong to people in the lavatories and walking around like me. Since the cabin was dark and almost everybody was asleep, I decided it was time to go back to my seat and watch some movies. I went for "A Night at the Museum" and, after it ended, I switched to the radio and programmed my screen to show the flight's map. It was at that point during the flight that the QF flight attendants gave each passenger a plastic bag containing a bottle of water, chips, candy and mints.
After watching more TV, listening to my cool playlist, getting up once more to stretch my legs and steal some goodies from the galley, and dozing off a few times, I realized we were finally getting closer to our destination, so I started becoming very anxious. The entry forms were distributed by the crew and breakfast was soon served. We were given the option of a light breakfast consisting of juice, cereal, milk and a roll, or a more substantial breakfast including omelette and sausages. I went for the latter and it was okay. After the trays were removed, people started opening their shades, which meant our arrival was imminent. Soon, land was visible. We flew over Sydney from south to north. It was a beautiful sight. From my window seat, I could see the CBD, the Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, Hyde Park, North Sydney and lots and lots of suburbs (my first thought was that life should be awesome in Sydney). A few minute after flying over the harbour, the plane made a 180 degree turn and we started going back south. I could not believe how lucky I was because I was able to see, once again, the harbour, the Opera House, etcetera; I think this is the best landing approach ever! Eventually, we landed on SYD about an hour after the scheduled arrival time. A day later, I was able to witness from the La Perouse beach in Botany Bay several landing approaches to SYD, and that was breathtaking too!
From inside the plane, SYD did not look as complicated and massive as the big U.S. hubs like ATL or ORD. The taxi was not too long and it was very pleasant, because I had the chance to see many cool planes. I saw QF planes of, possibly, all types, including the A332. There were also numerous JQ and DJ planes, plus one NZ A320. The most welcome sight, however, was a parked VN 772ER, which became visible when we reached our gate. VN's livery is one of the best I have seen! I did not take a picture from inside the plane because I thought the angle was a bit awkward. After I deplaned, there was a window from which I could see the plane, but I was sure I could get a better picture if I got closer. At some point, the corridor that led from the gate to immigration was devoid of windows, so I lost my chance to take that picture. I was very disappointed and angry at myself
Aussie_ had warned me that going through immigration and, especially, customs, was a very lengthy process, and even more so at the time of my arrival. He was absolutely right and I hated it! In addition to our flight, there were people arriving in a UA flight, the VN flight, the LA flight and God knows what other flights. I am sure there are flights from SIN, BKK, HKG, NRT and other Asian cities arriving in the early morning too. I must say that there were some people that tried (and some succeeded) to take advantage of the chaos to move ahead of the line, including a trio of Asian women (I thought of them as the Asian versions of the Nanny, the fat mother and Yetta). As I got closer to the counters, some dogs from different breeds were brought in for purposes of sniffing the carry on luggage of the people in line... finally, it was my turn to have my passport stamped. The officer who called me to his counter was swift. In a matter of seconds, I was already going towards the conveyor belts to retrieve my bag. If going through immigration was horrible, waiting on line to get my bags scanned was worse. It took ages but fortunately I was not requested to open my bag for inspection. In a breeze, I was at the Thomas Cook stand exchanging some currency and then off to one of the most amazing cities I have ever been in.
AM was good, as usual, except for the delay. As for the food, I do not complain because I grabbed a bite before boarding and the time of the flight was very awkward (too late for lunch and too early for dinner), so no complaints, but I mention it because I am sure that for many people the lack of a proper warm meal in a 3.5 hour cross-border flight with a Mexican carrier is unforgivable.
LAX T5 (arrivals) was not very pleasant and the biggest gripe I have is the size and staffing of the FIS facilities. The departures area is thousands of times better! T4 is horrendous; while the check-in area is quite okay, the gate area is really horrible. I hope I don't have to use it again.
QF was awesome! I love it. I think I can say it was on par with AF (flew long-haul in coach in 2004 in a 744) and CX (flew long-haul in coach in 2002 in a 744 plus other shorter flights within Asia) or perhaps even a bit better (no AVOD personal IFE in my AF and CX flights). The space was great; seems legroom is also more generous in the back of the plane, and the 2-4-2 configuration definitely helps a lot!
SYD is a nice airport. I really regret that going through immigration and customs is so painful, but I understand it. On the one hand, there are thousands of people arriving at the same time from all over the world. On the other hand, Aussies take very seriously the enforcement of their importation policies and I am glad they do... they have a country that is very beautiful and unique and it needs to be protected.
I promise that I will find the time to write about my domestic flights in Australia and my return journey. I took several pics prior to and during those flights, so those reports should be more visually appealing. Please leave your comments and feel free to ask as many questions as you want. Thanks for reading!