Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Newcastle to Vancouver – British Airways

Some people think that the best time to go on holiday is when the boss does. That way, nothing can happen while they’re away that the honcho can pick up on. Others take the view that the boss being away is as good as a holiday, so why waste the becalmed atmosphere that prevails in their absence by being away yourself? Me? I ended up not only booking my major client’s holiday for her and her husband and then taking mine at the same time, but also putting them on the same flight as me. Fool.

Anyway, notwithstanding that slight faux pas and mitigated by the fact that the common travel arrangements extended only as far as Heathrow, I set off to pick up my folks to begin our trip. Having safely fetched them and brought them back to CC Towers, there was time for a quick coffee and a last passport check. The now sadly defunct Windsor Cars were waiting outside for me 10 minutes before the booked time to whisk us off to Newcastle. A nice Volvo S80, which was a bit of an oddity amongst their fleet of Chrysler 300Cs, Vianos and 7 Series. Comfortable, reliable and good value anyway - a shame that they're no more.

On Line Check In had worked flawlessly and we arrived at Newcastle with loads of time to spare. Fast Bag Drop is, relatively speaking, anything but at Newcastle – compared to any kind of alternative. Having said that, it was more of an LBD – Leisurely Bag Drop – and we were on our way to Security relatively speedily. I was ready to try out the aggregate British Airways' policies of guest access to lounges when travelling First Class, and access to lounges at domestic regional airports when connecting to a First flight and, in so doing, getting the client and her Him Indoors into the NCL Terraces. In the event, they elected to shop and Starbucks (or somesuch swill) and I’ve yet to prove that the combined policies do indeed work.

The Newcastle lounge is spacious and fairly under-used since the demise of the oft-lamented Gatwick, Bristol and Aberdeen connections. There are sofas and easy chairs, steamers and parasols, a TV, coffee station, wine and spirits bar and a selection of snacks to suit the time of day. Washrooms are in the lounge and despite the management being outsourced to Swissport, it’s not a bad place to be. It looks directly on to the BA gate as well.

One of Newcastle (and England’s) most famous sons was in the lounge at the same time, but dignity and valour prevent me from identifying him. That and the fact that one of my jobs is looking after a number of famous faces from time to time, none of whom would I dare to out on the ‘Celebs’ thread. His presence made lounge photography a little difficult too.

Boarding was called on time and the newness of the waiting Airbus A321 was heralded by the smell of leather at least halfway up the jetty. So, not much surprise to find the aircraft clean, fresh and showing off BA very well indeed. Given that newness, it was however a surprise to note that the safety demonstration was carried out ‘a la main’ with no screens in evidence at all. Odd. Another surprise was to find, amongst a cabin load of just 113, that my good friend Fadia was on board. Fadia is a beautiful, elegant, classy Jordanian who lectures at Durham University (where I’m a pastoral tutor) and you must immediately order one of her books – shameless link.

She was off to a conference in Basle, connecting to another BA flight, so this would present a great opportunity to test out the Concorde Club Room guest policy at London Heathrow.

Takeoff was on time and a sandwich choice was offered. Frankly, I think it would have been nigh on impossible to tell the difference between the choices, such was the frigidity of them. In fact, they were so cold, I could well be the first sufferer from lettuce-induced tongue frostbite. Bar service and Tea/Coffee was presented at the same time, and I traded some fresh milk for the promise of a completed questionnaire.

Landing at Heathrow was slightly ahead of time and we taxied onto the last North gate at T5. We said goodbye to Client #1, intercepted Jordanian author #1 and passed swiftly through Flight Connections.


So this is Terminal Five! It looks fantastic. The shops? The bars? The restaurants? Magnificent! A signpost? Don’t be ridiculous.

How in God’s name can you design a terminal from the ground up, for one airline, with supposedly the finest lounges in the World – and then give absolutely no indication whatsoever as to their whereabouts? Incredible. So, thanks to a friendly (if eye-rolling) assistant at Travelex and the amassed recollections of earlier conversations, we eventually rocked up at the ‘secret’ door to the Concorde Room. “Three and a guest please.” Not a whiff of a problem and in we are ushered. Same at the desk of the Inner Sanctum.

It’s lunchtime. We take a seat in the Dining Room. Now, this is nice. It’s the day that the second wave of flights transfer into T5, but all is calm. Too calm. There’s no sign of any kind of service, so I go and find some. We order drinks and then, not too long later, someone comes to take a food order. Perhaps surprisingly after the initial delay, the food comes quickly too – Burgers for CC and FCC, Eggs Benedict ‘sans jambon’ for the veggie MCC. Fadia, the BAA lamb that she is, sticks to Apple Juice because she wants to go shopping.

The food is good, but we wait an age for the plates to be cleared or dessert to be offered, so off I go to find a body myself. This really does strike me as poor. I mean, how difficult can it possibly be for one of the unfailingly smiling, helpful and courteous staff to make a leisurely loop of the dining room every couple of minutes to see how folks are getting on?

The desserts are rather nice though and then we retire to the main CCR lounge for the remainder of our wait. Here, where the staff have clear lines of sight, the service is great. Free wifi is working perfectly all over the lounge, until you venture out on to the (rather warm) terrace however. Since there’s obviously a chance of the proletariat nabbing some bandwidth out here from their retail-dominated hell below, the router doesn’t stretch this far. Sitting here though, we’re repeatedly checked on to make sure that we’re not in need of tea, sympathy or something stronger. I’m quite happy to take advantage of the free-flowing Perrier-Jacquart Rose, thank you very much and, since lunch had been the priority and I’m now in no condition to subject myself to it, we forego a trip to the Elemis Spa. Next time, perhaps.

We decide to leave the lounge and head over to the T5B satellite terminal a little before the screens prompt an enforced exit. So it is that we glide from the CCR, do all we can to ignore the fetid masses below in the so-called premium shopping ‘experience’ and wait all of 90 seconds for a train ‘thing’ to arrive at the transit station. Moments later we arrive at B and ascend to a similarly airy if somewhat less retail-obsessed space and find BA85 boarding already. There’s no queue for Club World, First Class or shiny card-holders and we are on board in a moment. I have to say here that the initial ascendency to the gates is very impressive indeed – bringing you up as it does from subterranean depths to nosewheel and then cockpit level. Quite the most memorable gate arrival I’ve encountered.

This is MCC and FCC’s first First and, despite all the conflicting preferences, I have them in Row 1. We are greeted by name at the door and the Purser moves to take us to our seats. MCC always looks happy but FCC has already spotted that the maintenance panel on the back of his 1K is wonky and, sure enough, the seat is (temporarily, thankfully) inoperative. He knows this because on every flight I have ever taken him on that has involved some kind of flat bed, he insists on checking the horizontability of said device before he’s stowed his cabin luggage. God love him. Anyway, a bit of a jiggle and a poke later and we have full operation again. There are other ways (ones where things are designed and built properly, maintained correctly and updated regularly) and there’s British Airways.

Anyway, we’re strapped in, we’re doors to automatic, the sun is shining and I’m on my second Bollinger Grand Annee ’99, so who cares about 1K? I’m in 2A and rather pleased that we’ve got this far.

The flight itself is smooth. On Demand Audio and Video packs in after about 35 minutes, but two reboots gets it flying again. Amenity kits are offered and sleeper suits are available on request, including plenty of the elusive Medium-sized ones. The Bolly flows freely and MCC/FCC buddy-up for lunch. I take FCC’s 1K and we have a jolly time in the pointy bit. It really is like a private party and even the lovely Cabin Services Director comes up to join us for a good long while, heading back to the galley to fetch more fizz. Poor dear insists on resting on her haunches the whole time; she must be a martyr to her knees ‘n’ heels. I like to think that she’s treating us especially well, but really she does the same with all the First passengers in a full cabin and chats with all of them by name.

The rest of the crew are excellent too – engaging with each of their charges and finding out bits and pieces about them. In fact, I believe (but stand to be corrected) that we’re never spoken to by any of the crew throughout the flight without being addressed by name. I accept that the job was made easier by there being three of us with the same name, but it was lovely nonetheless. The food and drink are really very good and it seems little or no time before afternoon tea is served and we begin our descent into Vancouver.

This daytime flight gives me the opportunity to enjoy the childish fun of the famous F toilet window, which is opaque on entry and then clears when the door is locked. The ultimate loo-with-a-view. Childish fun is one thing, but taking a camera to the toilet is just plain sad. So, sadly, here is what it looks like:

The Captain heads us out over the Pacific before lining up on the sewage outfall for our final approach into Vancouver Airport. After a smooth touchdown, we have an interminable taxi the length of the runway, the width of the terminal and then half the length of the parallel runway back to stand. In a shock to all those used to Heathrow arrivals however, the airport operators appear to be expecting the arrival of one of those aircrafty things and have taken the rare precaution of arranging guidance and a jetway operator. They must be psychic. Or professional.

The International Terminal at Vancouver is one of those rotten places that is guaranteed to get on the wick of your average Brit. It is clean, spacious, calm, organised and generally so proud of its own damn perfection that you just wish a Thomsonfly to Ayia Napa would get horrendously lost, disgorge its load there and have it vomit a belly-load of Stella all over it. Bile aside, we were at Immigration in a flash and there had to face the barrage of inane questions that apparently only Canadian Border Control have yet mastered. Past them and we head to Baggage Reclaim.

Here too, the effect of LHR handlers and their loading of priority labelled luggage, for our three wheelies came off variously 4th, 204th and 404th. Then past the utterly pointless agriculture control and, at last, relief. Yes, blissful relief in the form of the utter decimation of any pretence whatsoever that this place is perfect, with the lengthy and circuitous trek to the Hertz desk to pick up the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (or similar). The clue is in the parenthesis…….

Final verdict for British Airways First (taking into account high expectations and including T5 CCR): a very commendable 8.5/10. Roll on ‘new’ First to take up at least some of the remaining 1.5.

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