But if you will stick on with me, you'll witness an adventure which took me through a sleepless night at an airport, endless train journeys and desperate rushes across snow-covered pavements.
It was, like a friend of mine summoned up yesterday, a “Top gear-style race”, the only difference being I wasn't up against Jeremy Clarkson in a fancy supercar, though.
I was simply trying not to miss the most important appointment of my life.
Hello A.netters, and thanks for reading this TR from mine!
It's November and, speaking about holiday, in Italy it's time for planning rather than going. I witness every time I stand up queueing at a travel agent's to buy a regional train ticket: fashionable people, sitting on comfy chairs in front of all-smiles sellers, flipping through the pages of glossy catalogues, trying to decide whether to book a chalet for the forthcoming Christmas holiday or, instead, going to a faraway beach to get their pale skin tanned. So, will it be Courmayeur or Thailand? Madonna di Campiglio or Santo Domingo? Will it be the Olympic mountains around Turin or Malindi, to enjoy the African wilderness in the safety of a Flavio-Briatore-approved resort?
Well, one thing is sure: Mr. I-own-an-Audi-and-I-wear-Hogan-shoes won't enjoy my company as he sunbaths in Madagascar. Indeed, November will be the scenery for a different, albeit smaller, trip: this time, in true let's-flee-the-autumn-misery fashion, I'm bound to Scotland.
This trip saw its light on a gorgeous mid-August evening, at the Kings of Convenience gig in Turin. A friend of mine, while we waited for the Norwegian chaps to appear on stage, told me he was due to go to Scotland for an university project. “Why don't you come visiting?” he said. “I know Interpol are gonna play at the end of November, it'd be cool to go seeing them”. I was immediately charmed by this idea and the invitation was still valid in October, when I drew up a plan: being my friend based in Dundee I had at least three airports to choose which one (or ones) to arrive to and depart from: Dundee itself, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Dundee was the first option to be axed since every flight arriving there was either ridiculously expensive or departing from a faraway airport, or both: seriously, AF Cityliner isn't cheap at all, even for Air France standards which, in my opinion, are way too high on one-way tickets. Edinburgh offered a safe (or so I thought!) alternative, Easyjet, while Aberdeen gave me the much-awaited thrill: a flight by BMI, on their gorgeous Embraer 145, from Heathrow. These birds are getting increasingly rare in Europe and, as A.net user Airpearl told me, they're really fun to fly with: I had to try them.
Finally, by mid-October, the plan was set:
The route as I planned it. As you'll read, things went developed in a quite different way...
- MXP-LHR on the trustworthy Lufthansa Italia;
- LHR-ABZ on BMI's flying pin;
- EDI-MXP on the orange boys, hoping that the only low-cost segment of the whole experience wouldn't let me down as EZY seems alarmingly inclined to recently.
Booking was a relatively more complicated affair, including a misfire by BMI which, instead of an e-mail confirmation, sent a message telling me that my “booking has failed” and no other means of contact than an UK number to be called from Italy. Fearing of a phone bill as expensive as an heart surgery done at an American hospital I did not call: instead I pressed the “back” button on Mozilla, knowing already it wouldn't work. Instead, it did! I didn't like very much the experience, since BMI refused to acknowledge the existence of my Miles&More card and added some unwanted lines to my bill:
- Credit card fee All credit card bookings are subject to a charge of 4.50 GBP per passenger (excluding infants) per booking.
- Air Passenger Duty (APD) GB United Kingdom GBP12.00
- Passenger Service Charge - GB United KingdomGBP13.60
Anyway, after some bickering my whole trip was finally as real as only a bank transaction and a “-” on my account could be. Everything left to organize was the boring part, i.e. getting to the airports. I decided to sort out the trip to MXP last, since I wouldn't know where I'd be the day before leaving until, erm, the day before leaving. Instead I focused on arranging the Scottish part of the ordeal but, I have to confess, I had little idea of the whereabouts of Dundee or, even worse, Aberdeen. All I knew was that Scotland looks something like a head wearing a hat, and that Dundee, Edinburgh and Aberdeen were all lying on the “nape” of the “head” (cutting geography lessons from high school wasn't a good idea after all, Mr. Prodi or whoever was in charge back then). It was with great surprise, then, that I found that ABZ was actually farther from Dundee than EDI was. Brilliant operation, you idiot! Now what?!
Luckily, however, National Rail rushed to the rescue. Dyce station was just a short hop from ABZ airport, and a cheap (for British standards) £9.90 ticket allowed me to reserve a seat on a train to Dundee. The other way round, instead, was worse. Getting to Edinburgh took more or less the same time than the other, longer, leg and, at £20.20, wasn't cheap by any mean. So you can image how crossed I was when my friend e-mailed me on Facebook writing not to worry, because he had booked an hostel in Edinburgh city for the night of 27th when we'd have had a pub brawl after the gig. Gee.
Everything went on well until a couple of weeks or so before the trip, when I was told by the professor tutoring me for my final dissertation that the discussione would have been on Monday, 29th November. I don't know how it works in other countries, but in Italy every university student has to prepare an essay, or a thesis as it's called here, regarding a topic related to one of the subjects studied during the courses. My discussione would have been a very important one, since I was ending a 2-years masters' degree, which in Italy is called Laurea magistrale. I mustn't miss that chance, as it would have been difficult to postpone it earlier than March. I was quite anxious about that, never had such strict schedules to meet, but I felt confident. I would be arriving more than 20 hours before it and, being I the author of the 217 pages I was to discuss about, I knew the subject as well.
THE OUTBOUND LEG
Spirits were high as I carefully closed my home door, trying desperately to avoid any noises. Nothing to do, the bloody tool clanked as loudly as if I haven't tried to be gentle. Damn. I rushed to the lift, which was at my floor, and I literally jumped in, obliging to the ageless impulse which makes you say “Wasn't me!” after you, guilty as charged, have done something you shouldn't had.
However, I hit the road and started walking the two kilometres stroll which would have taken me to the bus terminus. It was awfully early, no bus around and no other choice than my own foot. Not a problem as it was just about half an hour and I only had a rucksack to carry on my shoulders.
I arrived to the bus terminus just to find the place deserted, with the exception of few lights from a 24H bar and a similarly all-day open kebab shop, where I went for a much needed caffé americano. The bus was nowhere to be seen, being I 30 minute early, but it seemed I was not the only customer on this shift: other sleepless souls were tottering on the pavement and inside the cafés. A quick glance revealed the usual bunch for the MXP-bound bus operated by SADEM: immigrants with heavy luggages heading back to Egypt, or India, or Morocco; Erasmus students going somewhere to get a little more wasted than they're accustomed to in Turin and, finally, people like me, travellers with no car.
The bus arrived and the driver swung into action; after a coffee break (hadn't started his shift yet but he had to interrupt it) he started to check the passengers' ticket with a palmtop while sending some orders down the line: “bags for Terminal 1 on the right side of the bus. Terminal 2 on the other”. I love the SADEM bus crews as they're clear, fast and not vulgar, unlike the yobbos from Autostradale, the rival company.
The general mood among the crowd was “Let's get seated and sleep”, and I did agree. After all, I knew every single petrol station, junction and overpass on the A4 motorway so I wasn't missing anything special. Predictably, then, I tried to snooze as soon as I get seated, but a bunch of American students and, worse of all, Italian chicks had other intentions. Indeed they kept on laughing and talking nonsense. I started to snort very loudly, but without success, until a Nigerian lady came to my help, shouting a “You lot! Shut up now, my boy needah sleep!” which blowed a cemetery-like silence into the back of the coach. I'd hug you ma'am, if you promise your husband won't knock me down as soon as I try to.
Sleep lasted until the bright lights of the galleries of the SS336 awoke me up. MXP was glowing in the night, its newest addition, the Sheraton Hotel which AlwaysOnAPlane had tried and reviewed not so far ago, adding a fair share of coolness to the ensemble. I was among the first to get off the bus, sprinting towards the arrivals door through the cold air, then straight upstairs via the escalators. My beloved departure hall was really empty, and I was the only one toying with the Lufthansa check in kiosks. A quick blink to my passport and it was done, boarding pass for the first leg issued, seat 24F. Time to get down for security.
An empty departure hall and one of the ever-present Dolce&Something ads. I know Milan is well known for its role in the fashion business, but isn't covering every surface of MXP with such ads a bit too much?
The only hub of activity this morning: some Spanish-speaking pilgrims en route to somewhere. Rome perhaps?
I'm aware that almost every caption in this TR should carry an apology for my poor photographic skills, but it'd be a too long affair. The problem is my camera lacks a stabilizer and I'm hopeless at photography. However, this are LHI birds resting a little bit more before their morning rush.
There's not much to do once passed in the sterile area, especially if you're feeling tired. I headed to Satellite B for a newspaper to read on the chaise longues placed here and there across the terminal, and witnessed the boarding of today's shift for the SIA flight bound to Barcelona and, later, Singapore. The girls were chirpy, way chirpier than me in that cold morning, and perfect. No spots on their coats, no foldings on their kebayas, impeccable hairdo and make-up. Some, catwalking close to me, even decided to donate an heart-warming smile to that scruffy Italian pretending to be reading Internazionale as a desperate attempt not to doze off. Boarding a SIA flight to anywhere, that's the next thing on my must-do list.
Malpensa has not been designed with people in mind. This row of FIDS is too high at approx. 2,5 meters, too small characters for anyone but eagle-eyed chaps, and are located right in the middle of a corridor, an obligated passage for those willing to reach Satellite B. Collisions are assured, I guarantee!
After a couple of minutes, instead, I walked back and headed downstairs to the newly refurbished area called 3/3, hosting gates from 26 to 30. Yeah, we're boarding remote, bah. It's cold, there, and I don't like the new outfit which, I believe, will sooner or later be given to the rest of the terminal: the floor is badly paved with grey and white stone and the general whiteness hurted my eyes.
Borders! Here the past, there – maybe – the future. And, you know what? I'm not very pleased to meet it.
One of the new boarding gates. I might not be too fond of the new floors, but I do like these installations. If only MXP had a laminated floor...
Another old-new comparison: this is gate B13 on Satellite B, the one I used to board flight JL418 a year ago.
There were two flights due to board from there, an Alitalia for Cairo with his load of young males heading home and businessmen, and ours which looked quite packed: some members of the Blackberry-and-garment-foldable-bags tribe, tourists and a group of young Americans judging by the accent, but not those I met on the bus. Boarding was called, and the usual kilometre-long line inched forward; I joined them at last and still managed to grab a copy of La Stampa, Turin's major newspaper, and the Herald Tribune, on offer with other two Italian papers.
LH 3770 MXP-LHR
Departure 7:10 AM (Scheduled) 7:10 AM (Actual)
Arrival 8:05 AM (Scheduled) 8:07 AM (Actual)
Aircraft Airbus A319-114 D-AILH “Norderstedt”
I was one of the very last to board and, as the pursuer Marco Gomez told us in a slightly German accented Italian, realised the flight was “full”. Indeed there was no storage space available in the overhead bins. I have to say that the last two rows of LH's Airbuses are quite disadvantaged since their storage space is occupied by a loudhailer, some life-saving equipment and some other unidentified stuff.
The view from seat 24F
Now this is an interesting one! Here you can grasp, rather than see, a C-17 Globemaster III in Qatar Airways livery. According to Boeing the Qatar Amiri Air Force operates two C-17s, both of them wearing the Amiri's airline livery.
Waiting for our turn to leave the Italian soil, destination Heathrow. The flash of light you see in the second picture is an Air One 320 about to land on runway 27R IIRC.
We taxied along MXP's T1, catching glimpses of Thai A346, SIA 77W and a Qatar Airways C17 resting, then a quick turn left, a couple of minutes waiting for the EZY birds to take off and then it was our turn. The airplane creaked and squeaked as it ran down the runway but, eventually, lifted off, offering us a gorgeous sight as long as we flew over the Alps: here you have some pictures of the spectacle which managed to shut up my chatty seatmates.
Up! Lake Maggiore, Italy's second largest lake, with its characteristic shape. Behind you can see some of the already snow-covered Alpine peaks.
Alps. See that snowy peak just an inch left of the sharklet, the big one in the distance? Behold the magnificence of Monte Cervino, Matterhorn for the German-speaking friends on the other side of the border. We'll get a closer look later on.
This is the reason why I love flying to LHR: after a gentle turn eastwards we use to fly over Biella, the town known for wool (Zegna and Cerruti anyone?), Banca Sella and, incidentally, the town I was born in.
This is Val d'Aosta, unfortunately engulfed in a sort of sun-lit fog. However, on the left you'd see the black pyramid of Monte Cervino. The valley on the right is Lys Valley, the easternmost valley of val d'Aosta. It's also known as Walleschu in Walser dialect since this place, unlike much of the rest of the region, has been occupied by Walsers, people of Germanic origin. On the right, instead, lays Ayas valley, the place I've spent most of my childhood summers. Those two valleys run from south to north, ending up at the foot of Monte Rosa massif, whose highest peaks are already lit by the first sun rays. I wish I had better pictures to show you, sorry.
Getting overcast and so it'll remain until arrival.
The complimentary knee shot: I'm feeling quite cramped today, but I'm not complaining!
As soon as our airplane levelled up at cruising altitude the cabin crew sprang into action, pushing their cart up and down the aisle to hand over breakfast, consisting of some dull biscuits, a nice albeit cold pastry and one of those Actimel by Danone, of whom I'm not big fan but which I drank with pleasure. The weather did worsen over France and there was nothing to be seen apart from sun reflections over the clouds: a beautiful scenery but, after an hour or so of it, quite boring. I turned my attention on the LH magazin, as I had the chance to say before one of the best in-flight mags I've ever had my hands on. This time was no difference, with a special coverage about Africa.
Slop time! The rather poor cookies, the tasty pastry and the Actimel. I also had a good, big cup of black coffee later: many passengers would have preferred an espresso, but I was just fine.
Unfortunately though, good things always come to an end: a brief spot of land between the thick clouds revealed the White cliffs of Dover and, seconds after, the 319 nose started to point down. In a matter of seconds the fasten-your-seatbelts sign pinged in and we were ready for another landing in London.
Circuiting over London offers some great sights.
Landing in London recalls, to my mind, a couple of things, not all of them positive: first there's the breathtaking view over the City, of which I weren't about to enjoy a single glimpse since it was overcast and, however, I was seating on the wrong site; then there's the holding pattern, which made us wander about for some time, eroding all the advance we had earned until that; third and last, turbulences: I don't know what's all about London, but every landing I made in the British capital had involved a little bit of shaking and twisting. This time was no difference, with some sudden bumps which maked girls scream until a man, after the umpteenth bump, says: “No worry everyone, it's just the pilot who's not good at changing gears!”.
First glimpses of London: I don't know if those tower blocks are from Acton or not, but this certainly isn't the view of the City I had hoped for!
Landing occurred almost in tie, and then I was off, chasing the transfer desk to board my flight to Aberdeen: after some queueing, passport checking and another security check, I was free to enter the main hall of Heathrow T1's departures, wondering – as I'm sure many of us will do – whether all this Big Brotherly inspections are actually useful or not. Especially after we've all discovered that, while us passengers are asked to take our shoes off and have our orifices searched, parcels ending in the hold beneath our feet aren't given a second glance.
It's been a long time since I've been to T1 last and didn't like it very much. This time it was no difference, the usual overcrowded, overstuffed, overheated Portakabin on steroids. At least moquette hasn't been paved on every surface at disposal. I dodged crying infants, couples on the edge of a very nasty public quarrel and headed to the Tin Goose bar which, unlike the rest of the area, had some view on the outside. I managed to secure a table by the window and do what I love most: watching planes.
Heathrow is, I'm sure you all know, the planespotter's sancta sanctorum. In the hour or so I've spent there, downing two pints of bitter served by a very friendly mate from Krakow, I've spotted various birds such as BA 777s, American and Air Canada 777s and 767s, a lonesome 330 from Cyprus and an A300 arriving from Tehran. Still, I was missing the A380: I've missed every chance to see the double-decker whale I possibly had and this one was, by far, the best one. If not at Heathrow, where else without leaving Europe? Alas, it seemed I was damned and the only chance to see one was to board one. Tasting the bitter smell of defeat I headed towards the domestic departures where, oh joy!, another document check was waiting for me.
However, the gate area behind this last Caudine Forks held a much welcomed surprise: a calm, airy room with plenty of natural lights, wide glasswalls overlooking one of the runways and a refreshing fragrance of coffee. What an airport should be according to me.
The view from the holding area around gate 8s: El Al 747-458 4X-ELB, “Haifa”.
Icelandair's Boeing 757-208 TF-FIP "Snæfell" taxing towards its gate, while a BMI 319 is deploying its brakes on the runway.
A spotting-friendly area.
My two favourite pictures of the whole trip: people staring as ship G-VIIU, a British Airways Boeing 777-236(ER), taxies by.
The waiting was cut short by an announcement: “Flight BD668 to Aberdeen ready for boarding at gate 8a”. Time to move.
BD 668 LHR-ABZ
Departure 1:00 PM (Scheduled) 1:15 PM (Actual)
Arrival 2:40 AM (Scheduled) 3:00 PM (Actual)
Aircraft Embraer ERJ-145EU G-EMBJ
“So”, I thought as the queue snailed towards the BMI lady collecting the boarding passes “will it be an Embraer?” I had high hopes the day before when, doing OLCI, I chose seat 8A in the distinctive E-145 layout, one row with one seat and another with two abreast. Now it was just time to see whether we had an equipment change or not: I was terribly excited, I'm not afraid to confess it, and stepped down the stairs as fast as I could without running over the bored businessman in front of me. It was cold outside, just a degree over freezing, and the poor BMI lady in charge of leading us towards the airplane was trembling like a leave inside her too thin coat. I thanked her with a comprehensive smile and she smiled back, her eyes saying “I can't wait to get assigned to our Amman base” or something like that.
G-EMBJ stood uninterested in the cold as she received the new load of passengers, all wealthy looking businesspeople, plus some other bloke dressed with North Face technical gear which, at a closer look, revealed several oil companies' logos. I was learning which was Aberdeen's core business: hydrocarbons. G-EMBJ was in all-white livery, with BMI logo painted on the fuselage, a leased bird from FlyBE, I think. The cabin looked spotless and warm, but not exactly spacious: I had some issues standing up, as my head kept on banging against the ceiling with Holly, the FA, great amusement. Well, glad to entertain the girls.
Anyway, my issues with the fuselage weren't replicated when I sat down. Ok, it ain't a first class suite like those I read about on other Trip Reports, but it wasn't bad at all. In true Embraer fashion, this seat was wide, comfy, soft and with plenty of space to stretch even if I'm as tall as the average Dutchman. If only it wasn't SO damn hot! I wore off my jumper within seconds, remaining my my tee, seemed like we were roasting in there.
Knee shot on G-EMBJ (quite an appropriated registration, isn't it?) Great legroom anyway.
Seats 8B and 8C remained unoccupied, which gave me the opportunity for some seat photos.
Definitely an Embraer.
I was anxious about leaving ground and, perhaps, settling the thermostat on 22 rather than 30°. Unfortunately neither thing happened, and we kept on waiting in tropical heat for about 15 minutes, when we finally relieved the brakes and started doing some queuing prior to take-off. Here's some pictures made despite the scratches disfiguring my window.
Can anybody tell me what on Earth is that green thing near the Virgin Atlantic hangar? Looks like somebody had taken the Boeing-McDonnel Douglas merger too literally!
American Airlines Boeing 767-323(ER) N368AA queueing on our left
Stokesay Castle, the one which flew the last 757 flight for British Airways, now sadly parked on a remote stand, waiting to be transformed in a cargo aircraft. Against many thanks to those A.netters who wrote about this last epic flight, notably FlyingFinn76 and BA319-131.
Delta, JAT and Kenya Airways @ LHR.
Seconds before take-off, however, I manage to spot an EK A380 parked at T3. I couldn't snap a picture of it but my mission was accomplished. Relieved, I enjoyed the powerful – and noisy, believe me – take off.
The reservoirs off Heathrow, looking extremely similar to the rice fields so common in my region.
The captain came on the intercom as soon as we rocketed through the clouds, apologizing for our delay and promising that he and FO Nick Something would “peddle as fast as they can to make it to ABZ in time”. Faithful to his word, the man in the cockpit hit the throttle as the small Embraer dashed over the English skies. It was a rough ride, noisy and quite wobbling, but I did enjoy every second of it. The in-flight service was just for sale and prices were quite high, so I decided to kill time reading the airline magazine, with a very interesting interview to Paulie McCartney, and looking outside. Sooner than expected we started our approach to Aberdeen, which took us over the North Sea, in&out the clouds with their accompaniment of turbulences.
A thick layer of clouds was our only view for much of the flight.
Terra Firma!But..is it snow?
...indeed it is.
The first glances of Scotland offered a not-so-welcoming sight: high cliffs and, behind that, snow-covered pastures, villages and woods. I thought snow wasn't so frequent at sea level up there, a belief that, as I'll show you as we proceed through the journey, turned out to be quite wrong. We did a good landing however, despite the white blanket and some flurries. ABZ was buzzing with activity, many blue and red Puma helicopters, probably doing some sort of shuttle service towards off-shore platforms, some FlyBE Dashes and Saabs, and two lonesome jets: a KLM one bound to Amsterdam, and a BA 320 due south.
ABZ in poor light conditions. I'm intrigued by the ziggurat-lookalike control tower...
A Puma helicopter, some props and two jets. Again, sorry for the poor lighting.
Leaving G-EMBJ at Aberdeen-Dyce (Picture taken with my mobile)
TO BE CONTINUED!
[Edited 2010-12-10 07:59:49]