Hey guys and girls, it's been a while since my last report. I recently returned from a somewhat nerve-wracking trip to Venezuela to close down 2 oil rigs just off of the coast.
My route would take me MAN-TFS-TFN-CCS-MIA-IAH-LHR, Here goes!
Of course, flying to Caracas at last minute isn't an easy feat, so the travel department had their work cut out trying to get the team out there.
The team consisted of myself and 6 others, plus a security detail of 2.
First off, we would fly to Tenerife, stay the night, before having a briefing from the bosses in Houston, and continuing to CCS.Airline: Thomas Cook Airlines operated by Thomas Cook Balearics
Route: Manchester, UK to Tenerife-South, Canary Islands
Scheduled Departure: 06:00
Actual Departure: 06:25
Scheduled Arrival: 10:35
Actual Arrival: 10:28
Flight Duration: 4 hours 04 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A320-200 (EC-MVH)
With our company going through a bit of cost-saving, the days of travelling in the Emirates suites or VS upper are long gone, and we found ourselves back to reality, joining the early morning holiday rush at Manchester Terminal 1. Perhaps the only suited and booted business-pax to board any of the Thomas Cook flights from Manchester this week, joining the mass exodus of families going away for their easter breaks, we waited patiently in the long queue for Bag Drop at MAN.
A very happy atmosphere at the check-in area, with plenty of families and couples jetting off for a long-awaited break.
Check-in was very easy, and I was given 16F, thankfully they managed to sit all of us together.
With the "Priority Package" added to our fares, we were able to check-in via the Premium desk, before using the fast track security, which at this time of the morning is a godsend.
Manchester security has always been a bit of a pain in the arse, potentially the strictest airport security that I pass through regularly. While it is a good thing, the lack of efficiency from staff turn this into a recipe for disaster, with queues forming and never moving.
Thankfully, I could watch with a smug look on my face as I passed security in a matter of minutes.
With the stench of Gin and/or other spirits mixed with the strong smell duty free perfume filling the air, it felt as if I was almost going on holiday myself, before a colleague of mine soon bought me back to earth, pointing to the SkyNews on the TV's showing a brutal riot in Caracas.
"Can't wait", we joked.
Boarding started at around 05:15. The crew were all local, TCUK crew, which was odd as I had thought they would be Spanish TCB crew.
Boarding was efficient, the Priority Package allowed us to board first and thus make use of the limited overhead locker space.
The crew had difficulty playing tetris with the amount of baggage bought onboard, and had to argue with passengers to have their bags checked in.
The cabin stunk of Hawaiian Tropic, and the legroom is a little tight, but was OK for the duration of the flight, the seats are fairly larger than the standard charter A320.
Lots of screaming children on the flight this morning, which made it interesting
After a manual safety demo, we soon found ourselves turning onto the runway near the Airport Pub, and jetting off into an unusually clear sky.
Around 15 mins after departure, the cabin crew passed through the cabin with the drinks/snacks trolley.
Around the same time, drop down screen showed us a moving map, which was a nice touch.
The "Cafe Cloud" menu is OK, it has nearly every type of drink under the sun, but disappointing if you're hungry, with a small selection of snacks.
It took the crew nearly an hour to complete the service, the full flight obviously paying off.
Shortly after, the distributed the pre-ordered hot meals. The kind travel dept had added these too.
A full-english breakfast, with free tea, coffee or orange squash. The meals, by celebrity chef James Martin, are actually pretty good, and i'd probably say it's one of the better meals i've had onboard an aircraft. I got a coffee too, which was OK.
It also came with one of those cuplets of Orange Juice, a Lemon and Poppyseed Muffin and a Strawberry Yoghurt.
It hit the spot, can't really ask for more.
The crew then announced that there were spare meals, available to purchase for £8.50.
Really can't fault the efficiency of the crew onboard the flight, obviously had a high workload between 5 of them on this busy flight, Drinks/Snacks service, Meals, Cleared-in (perfectly timed, unlike on other carriers where they leave it in front of you for an hour), duty free service, second snacks/drinks service.
I dozed off just after the meals were cleared in.
The sun blazed through the window as we made our approach to TFS, a little bumpy but touchdown was smooth, and we made the relatively short taxi to stand.
A straight-forward flight down to TFS this morning, can't fault the flight, maybe the legroom is a little tight but no major complaints. Very good for a charter flight, and lots of happy pax, I do enjoy flying TCX and hope all the uncertainty surrounding them soon gets put to bed.
From TFS, we were met in arrivals, and taken by coach to our residence for the day.
We boarded a Mercedes Sprinter van, which took us 55 minutes North, to Santa Cruz de Tenerife and dropped us off at the Iberostar Grand Mencey. EC-MVH passed directly above us according to FR24, en-route back to MAN, followed by many, many, many other UK bound flights heading North.
A distinct lack of foreign tourists in this part of Tenerife, mostly Spanish families.
The hotel was very peaceful, and the day was very enjoyable, like a mini-holiday.
But it was soon down to business, and at 8pm, all 8 of us entered Conference Room B, to chat with the bosses back in Houston and London.
We were briefed on the current security level in CCS, our routes from the airport, timings and other important information, including, most importantly, the shutting down of the oil rigs.
I enjoyed one last cold "Mahou", before heading off to bed before our long day tomorrow. Airline: Plus Ultra Lineas Aereas
Route: Tenerife-North, Canary Islands to Caracas, Venezuela
Scheduled Departure: 13:20
Actual Departure: 13:19
Scheduled Arrival: 16:05
Actual Arrival: 15:54
Flight Duration: 7 hours 36 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A340-300 (EC-MQM)
We arrived at TFN at around 12:00, there were 3 desks open for our flight to Caracas, 2 for economy and 1 dedicated to business.
The gent behind the counter worked for Iberia, he was very friendly and asked if I had a preference of seat. I asked if the flight was full, he said "No, just 22". 22 pax on an A340. Surely they can't be making money from this?
Security was a breeze, and I soon found myself in the departure lounge. Despite having one, Plus Ultra customers don't have access to the VIP lounge. The departure lounge was dead, a couple of BINTER flights, and an Air Europa to Bilbao, but there was barely anybody around, it was quite eerie.
Boarding started at 12:45 from gate B20. The airbridge had 2 piers attached, however we only boarded through Door 2L.
2 Crew met me at the door, checked my pass and directed me left to the Business Class cabin. I took my seat, and was soon approached by another crew member who offered to take my coat, and offered me juice or cava. Her English was very broken, and my Spanish is non-existent, but we managed to understand each other somehow.
The aircraft is ex-Air France, and the interior is exactly the same, with Air France's old Business lie-flat seats.
On the seat, was a blanket, a very very small square pillow, and a basic amenity kit.
Boarding, as you can imagine, was completed very quickly. 2 members of the Guardia Civil boarded the aircraft and checked our passports and boarding pass again(the crew too), before the door closed and we were off early. Despite having TV's, the crew performed a manual safety demo. Unfortunately the TV's were not used for the duration of the flight, instead Plus Ultra offers a streaming service, which also didn't work.
Around 20 mins after take-off, a member of crew approached me and asked if I would like a drink. I asked for Water, and she shortly returned to pour it in front of me.
Trying to make conversation, she asked "So you're going on holiday?"
I later spoke to her, and turns out she worked for Primera Air from Stansted, before joining Plus Ultra shortly after they went bankrupt. I was shocked to learn that Plus Ultra crew still stay overnight in CCS, despite the recent events with the Air Europa crew, and other airlines nightstopping crew elsewhere.
I was also asked if I would like to eat now, or later on. I decided to eat now, unfortunately there was no options, and lunch consisted of Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and Steamed veg. It was served on smart Plus Ultra branded china. The food was pretty dry, it was massively over-cooked.
It was served with a Feta Cheese Salad, a Bread roll and cheddar cheese.
When this was cleared away, I was given a quite generous "Slice" of Apple Crumble, but it was the same size of the plate, enormous. I was also served some chopped fruit, and coffee. The fruit was good, as was the coffee, the apple crumble was nothing to write home about.
The flight was pretty boring, I couldn't sleep, there was no IFE, and the Atlantic didn't exactly provide any spectacular views. About an hour before arrival, I was offered a packaged Chicken Caesar Wrap, which was pretty horrid.
The arrival was interesting, it was similar to the technique that happens in places like Baghdad, I didn't realise there was a threat to aircraft here. We maintained a constant left hand turn, from top of descent all the way down, before levelling out and hitting the runway almost immediately after, it wasn't a soft landing, several overhead lockers flew open.
We were welcomed to Caracas in English & Spanish. 2 Military vehicles followed us all the way to stand. The airport was pretty dead, a few local carriers but we were certainly the largest aircraft here at the time.
We taxied to a remote stand, and disembarked onto a bus, under the watchful eye of 2 pretty disheveled military personnel sat on the bonnet of a jeep at the bottom of the stairs, one of whom was puffing away on an e-cigarette. The bus took us to the arrivals hall, where we ascended about a billion stairs before arriving at customs.
The terminal was eerie, it was creepy, nobody was around, I was waiting for a tumbleweed to float past. Strangely, every desk was manned. 22 passengers and 10 desks, compare this to MAN when there's 700 pax and 2 desks
I was questioned heavily by the agent, who was again accompanied by an armed guard, they made several scans and dodgy looks at my passport before stamping it and letting me through. Not exactly a stamp I wanted to collect.
Pretty much everywhere you look, there's armed military personnel, on every wall there are warnings of theft and armed robbery outside the terminal. Great.
Venezuelan flags were flown EVERYWHERE, every corner, every light, every door had one. It was surreal.
The baggage carousels in the baggage reclaim hall were switched off, and the bags were delivered by hand and left next to one of the belts. The TV screens inside the terminal were also switched off apart from one in the baggage reclaim hall.
The AF flight from CDG had been cancelled, and the Estelar flight from MAD had a hefty delay.
As we left the terminal building, the "thomp thomp thomp"ing of helicopters blades could be heard constantly, the there were hundreds of riot police just sitting around. It was like stepping back into Basra in 2005 except everything was more modern
We boarded a bus which had an armed guard at the front, and we were escorted by the military 10 minutes down the road to a remote helipad in Maiquetia.
We boarded a U.S. registered, unmarked Bell 214ST, which contained it's own security detail (Who were kitted up to the eyeballs in top-grade tech) who shook hands with the Venezuelan troops before, the door closed and we were en-route. The team of security onboard didn't speak to anybody, apart from what I guess was the leader, a South African chap, who told us they'd be with us for the duration of our stay. I think you and I both know who these guys were.
The flight lasted a mere 25 minutes, and we soon landed on CariacoONE.
Our company has 5 rigs here in this region, 2 owned rigs, which are within Venezuelan waters, and 3 Contracted rigs which are all out of it.
We would be closing the 2 owned rigs, CariacoONE and CariacoTWO. Creative huh.
The staff on these rigs would be at around 100-120 each, however, since the situation here escalated it's been on minimum crew, with only around 20-25 working around the clock operating the essential equipment.
To close the rig, we would have to disconnect the drill, the pipes, the electrics, then finally plug the well. Usually, when an oil rig closes, we move it to a "graveyard" using an enormous $200m ship called the BOKA Vanguard. However, due to the situation, the decision was made to leave the rigs abandoned in-place.
Before we had arrived, my colleagues onboard the rig had already disconnected the drill, and a contracting company were in the process of dismantling the pipe structure beneath the derrick(which takes place largely underwater), as well as plugging the well with cement. This process would take just under 24 hours.
The electrics were switched off, less of a law, and more of the company trying to save pennies, which meant there was no running water or washing/cooking facilities. This meant the helicopter had to fly to CariacoTWO to pick up supplies and bring them back.
The time now was around 11pm, and work was still going on beneath the rig, the blindingly bright lights used by the underwater vehicles dismantling the pipes could be seen from above the water. The contractors worked through the night, and just before 4pm the next day, amazingly, the job was finished.
A pressure test was conducted on the well, and it passed with flying colours. The pipes were dismantled, meaning no oil could spill into the sea.
After a break of an hour, we boarded the helicopter, which took us 10 minutes East to CariacoTWO.
The weather had deteriorated significantly, and was quite windy.
CariacoTWO was a little less easy, as shortly before the order to stop drilling was given, the wellhead had become dislodged, and to stop a spillage, the bore of the drill was placed as deep as possible, to prevent any spillage of oil into the sea. The Pressure in the well should have been equalised through the balancing of the hydrostatic pressure provided by the mud column, however this failed quite spectacularly.
This in turn, meant over the course of 2 weeks, the pressure inside the well had increased dramatically to the point where it was becoming dangerous.
There was no way around it, if we removed the drill from the wellhead, the resulting release of pressure would shoot oil, water, and rock hundreds of feet into the air, causing a severe, potentially catastrophic explosion, and we did not have a remotely operated underwater vehicle.
CariacoTWO was equipped with a high-tech Blowout Prevention system, which would automatically seal the well in the event of a blowout.
So we called in the help of Transocean, who 15 hours later had dispatched Deepwater Invictus to the scene, an Ultra-Deepwater drilling ship.
Firstly, a remote vehicle was dispatched to look at the Wellhead, as well as assess the condition of the Blowout Preventors.
Debris was moved, and together, we fitted a Capping Stack to the top of the wellhead.
Once lowered and latched on the wellhead, a capping stack uses stored hydraulic pressure to close a hydraulic ram and stop the flow of hydrocarbons. Thankfully, the shutting did not present any unstable geological conditions, and the situation was under control.
From here, a "cap & flow" technique is used, where excess is contained, drained from the well and stored in the Deepwater Invictus.
After a pretty uncertain few hours, it seemed like the well was sealed.
The crews of CariacoONE and TWO were flown back to CCS, while myself and the team stayed for another day to monitor the wellhead.
All was well.
It was time to head back to Houston to present our reports, before heading back home.
The same unmarked Bell 214ST arrived on CariacoTWO, and took us directly back to Caracas Airport. Airline: World Atlantic Airlines
Route: Caracas, Venezuela to Miami, Florida
Scheduled Departure: 14:40
Actual Departure: 14:09
Scheduled Arrival: 18:00
Actual Arrival: 18:02
Flight Duration: 3 hours 53 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: McDonnell Douglas MD-83 (N805WA)
We were taken by bus, with our bags out through an airport perimeter fence near "Terminal Auxiliar", and back around outside the terminal building.
The check-in area was pretty busy. Lots of shouting and crying as flights were delayed or cancelled. One dedicated desk for our flight to Miami. Check-in was pretty painful, the computer systems weren't working so everything was being done with pen & paper. There was only around 40 passengers (99% of us from the rigs). Security, was pretty difficult, as the process repeats itself twice, and they aren't exactly the friendliest people on the planet.
The lights inside the terminal kept flickering on and off, at many points leaving the parts of the terminal without windows in pitch darkness.
In the departure lounge, Papa Johns and Burger King are open for business despite the random power outages.
Surprisingly, the WiFi stayed on throughout. Water was a precious commodity here, unavailable for purchase in the shops, BK or Papa J's, only in the vending machines.
Thankfully, the flight boarded as soon as we were all through, as if they were waiting for us, and we ran down the pier and onto the old machine.
The crew were very happy to see us, and were pleased we could soon get going.
With an empty flight, I had row 8 to myself. The legroom was pretty good considering the amount of seats crammed in, but the seats are really narrow.
A manual safety demo from the crew, of course there's no TVs on here
and we were soon rattling down the runway.
I wish I was sad to leave, but as we made a left turn to head North, I was incredibly pleased to be out of there.
Having not really slept, showered, or eaten for the last 3 days, I was exhausted, and soon after take-off I passed out.
There was no service onboard this flight anyway(apart from a water round) so I didn't miss much.
3 hours passed like 3 minutes, and we were soon making our way around to land in MIA.
After a smooth landing, we taxied onto the South Terminal.
A second grilling at customs, this time by the somewhat friendlier CBP, and I grabbed my bag and took off as quickly as I could to the Hilton Miami Airport. I said goodbye to the rest of the team who would now make their way to their respective cities.
After sleeping like a baby from the moment I touched the bed, a 5am alarm soon hit me like a train.
I headed back to the airport for my flight to IAH.Airline: United
Route: Miami, Florida to Houston, Texas
Scheduled Departure: 07:00
Actual Departure: 07:23
Scheduled Arrival: 08:54
Actual Arrival: 08:52
Flight Duration: 2 hours 29 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Boeing 737-800 (N14214)
I checked in at the incredibly boring United Premier access area where the staff obviously didn't want to be.
As I didn't get lounge access, I had to wait around the most dull, boring departure lounge i've ever seen.
Boarding was done in groups, and I was among the first to board.
This 737-800 was quite worn and old-fashioned. The seats were pretty average, good size and legroom, but not too comfortable, especially in fully upright position.
However this plane still featured DirecTV which is great.
The crew offered pre-departure drinks, but I kept it simple with Water.
I was pleasantly surprised with the crew, most times I fly UA, and just their reputation in general, the crew are miserable and unhappy however this crew was energetic, friendly and efficient.
After departure was hot towels and drink orders. Ham, Egg & Cheese Sandwich or Oatmeal were the choices for breakfast.
I took the Oatmeal which came with a Banana Yoghurt and a fruit salad. Bland, is the only word that comes to mind.
I got a coffee which was good too.
The remainder of the flight passed without incident, watch a bit of news on the TV and got to work on some notes for the meeting in a few hours, but we were soon enough starting to descend into IAH.
Touchdown was smooth, and we taxied onto stand.
I bid farewell to the great crew, collected my bag and headed downtown for my meeting.
A few hours later, after a successful meeting where I reported back on all events from CCS, I headed back to the airport.Airline: United
Route: Houston, Texas to London Heathrow, UK
Scheduled Departure: 20:25
Actual Departure: 20:43
Scheduled Arrival: 11:35
Actual Arrival: 11:33
Flight Duration: 8 hours 50 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner (N35953)
Class: Polaris Business
As I was nearly 5 hours early, the kind check-in staff allowed me to drop my bag so I could head to the Polaris Lounge.
The Polaris lounge in IAH is fairly intimate, smaller than other Polaris lounges around the States. There are plenty of work stations which offer lots of privacy, so you can wrap up your work before you board. There are 5 private shower suites, one of which I made use of as I arrived.
The amenities in the shower come from Saks 5th ave, and the staff steam your clothes for you while you shower.
A fantastic a-la-carte menu is available in the lounge, including the incredibly delicious United Polaris Burger.
It would be rude not to get one, so I did, and did not regret it.
Got myself a "Polaris Old Fashioned" from the bar, made of Whiskey, Bitters, Syrup, Orange & Cherry, and decided to settle in for the next few hours.
I do like the Polaris lounges, hands down better than any Galleries lounge.
The time passed quickly, and I was soon relaxing into my seat.
The Polaris seat is incredibly comfortable, bedding occupies alot of space on the seat when you arrive, 2 blankets and 2 pillows.
Finding space for bedding is always difficult, and this makes it a little harder.
One blanket is like a comforter, and the other is like a heavy duvet, not overly bothered about those, but im a big fan of the pillows.
The crew asked if I would like a pre-departure bev, I got a champagne, which was served with a little chocolate, and is served in a strange triangle shaped cup, which cant stand up without a special base.
Once boarding was over, we watched the safety video, and taxied to the runway.
The Dreamliner is very quiet during take off, it's quite scary really.
Shortly after take-off, the crew came and took orders for dinner.
For starter I got the Chilled Appetizer, made of: Smoked Nori-Wrapped Salmon, Edamame, Radish, Edamame Hummus.
I didn't really fill me up, and didn't really taste of anything.
For Main I got Seared Short Rib, which was absolutely delicious.
Dessert I got a cheese board, which was pretty standard.
The whole dinner service was over pretty quickly, which was great as it meant I could recline and get some sleep.
The flight passed without anything of note, I slept pretty much the entire way back.
Breakfast service was the standard Southwestern Omelet or fruit salad, however I just got a coffee.
I was just excited to get back to Blighty.
Some fantastic views of London, as we made our down into LHR. A very soft landing, and we taxied over to Terminal 2.
I said my goodbyes, headed through customs, which was surprisingly quiet, grabbed my bag and headed out to arrivals.
Thank you for reading, hope you enjoyed, comments welcome as always