Flying for the first time ever

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The world’s most incredible views: from the sky

As I marched through Southampton airport, I was focused on getting a large cup of tea before boarding a Sunday morning dawn flight to Spain.  I approached the queue at security feeling smug because all my toiletries were already in a regulation plastic bag, my laptop was out of my holdall and I had unzipped my boots ready to put them into the grey plastic tray and saunter through the electric gate like the veteran of flying that I was.  I initially didn’t notice the 50-something lady with the straw hat and immaculate make-up looking somewhat bewildered next to the smiley and sad face buttons of a ‘how have we done here today’ machine in departures that you’re supposed to press on your way through as an ‘on the go’ customer survey.  I stopped because she was the only person not rushing around furiously or carrying a sombrero.

While fingering an IKEA ziplocked bag with miniature shampoo and conditioner in it, she asked if her choice of container would pass muster with the bulldogs at security; “I’ve never flown before so this is all a bit new to me”, she said.  We compared plastic bags and I told her she would no doubt be fine, while gasping inwardly.  How, in 2018 had she never flown before.  Judging by her appearance (and it is dangerous to judge any book by its cover) and the makes of the toiletries in her bag, she was smart, probably educated and had spare cash.  So how was she one of the apparently only 22% of Britons who have never travelled in a plane (according to a survey by Kayak, a travel website)?  I asked if she was nervous or excited and she answered “a bit nervous but mostly excited; I’m going to visit a friend who’s moved to Spain”.

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Later at the departures gate there was a bit of a commotion in the queue ahead of me when a passenger told the Flybe operator that they were not comfortable in an exit seat. Seats had been allocated randomly and the Flybe employee had asked the question on the assumption it was a no-brainer. Exit seats have much more leg room so tend to be at a premium.  But it was my friend on her maiden flight and she wasn’t “at all sure I could open the door if I needed to”.  I told her if it came to that we were all in trouble and that flying was the safest form of travel, but she was clearly not going to enjoy the flight with the burden of even the slightest of probabilities.  So I offered to swap seats.  I was her rather embarrassed hero as I settled into her original seat, the spacious and neighbour-free 1A on the propeller-driven Q400 Dash 8 aircraft, and she made her way back to the considerably more cramped seat 11A.

This was just a 2 and a half hour flight to Spain on a budget airline and even though I absolutely love flying, I was focused on just getting to destination and getting the job done.  On this occasion I had been completely taking the journey for granted.  So as we pulled out of our stand, I tried to put myself in this lady’s shoes, seeing all this for the first time:

I actually watched the safety demonstration closely.  If you really think about it, it is somewhat alarming – albeit necessary – that someone stands there calmly telling you how to inflate a lifevest, “topping it up here” and “with a light and whistle to attract attention here”.  I mean, where else do you go where the first thing you’re told is what to do in the worst-case scenario?  Hardly something to fill you with confidence on your first ever trip; no wonder she didn’t want to have to contend with opening the emergency door too.

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Ready for take-off

I got a pang of disappointment on her behalf that she was experiencing flying in the modern age of budget travel and had missed out on the glamorous old days of flying where you were offered a drink on take-off (usually served on a small square napkin with some peanuts and always with lemon and ice even if you’d only asked for water).  You were then served a meal (included in the price of your ticket) and it was served with metal cutlery and a warm smile (with the notable exception of one 26-hour Alitalia flight when I was about 10 years old where the air hostesses made absolutely sure we felt their pain too) by an immaculate air hostess.  To be fair, Sarah and her colleague – now called cabin attendants – were lovely and very professional.  Both even had the colourful scarves tied around their necks at a jaunty angle, harking back to British Airways adverts in the 1980s when the airline’s logo was “We’ll take more care of you” and they really did. Now you get the hospitality and warmth of that VIP treatment, but only if you’re paying the VIP prices.

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Dawn above the clouds

The lady did get one priceless treat though; we took off as the pink dawn broke over clear skies and we flew low over the unmistakable wide Thames snaking through Greater London. Small marinas dotted around the tributaries and on the coast, the toy yachts carefully lined up in their berths. She couldn’t have picked a better day to see the world from the air.  We reached the top of the climb and you could almost touch the white fluffy cotton wool clouds as we passed them and settled at cruising altitude just above the duvet with a golden glow from the early sun.

Arrival in Alicante was equally spectacular.  With only the odd wisp of cloud, the temperature was “nudging 30 degrees” according to the Captain.  The rising tower blocks of the Costa Brava and the scattered bright blue squares of swimming pools nestled incongruously against the moonscape of the limestone peaks of the Alicante mountains.  The sea, dotted with pleasure boats and larger ships further out, stretched as far as the eye could see.

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The Alicante mountains

We touched down with barely a bump and trundled round to our stand.  It was textbook and probably the ideal flight on which to travel for the first time.  As I disembarked, my mind went back to business and I strode off to find the sign with my name on it in arrivals.  I hope the lady in 11A enjoyed her first flight and – holiday notwithstanding – cannot wait for the return journey.  She certainly helped to remind me of the magic of flying.  Even on the shortest flights and even in an age when commercial imperatives have binned much of the glamour and the fast pace of life has taken some of the sheen off, it remains one of the wonders of our age.  No amount of budget packaging or familiarity should take away from the fact you can eat breakfast on one continent, lunch in the air, and be ready for dinner on the other side of the world.  We can admire the most spectacular views in the world, all while somehow travelling at hundreds of miles per hour up at 30 thousand feet in a tin can.  I don’t know about the lady now relaxing in Alicante with her friend, but I’m already looking forward to my next take-off.

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Landed safely

 

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GOODBYE HEATHROW TERMINAL 1

Airports are loud, bright, busy places where no-one and nothing stands still.  Of all these beasts, the ever-improving, ever-expanding London Heathrow was, until last year, the busiest in the world. 24-hours a day, sombreros, flip flops and tanned limbs jostle with skis, puffer jackets and woolly hats. Ibiza party-goers gulp pints of lager at dawn in the ‘olde English pub’ style drinking holes, honeymooners sample bubbles and caviar perched atop the chrome stools around the minimalist shiny glass bar at the pretentious but delicious seafood stand. Babies in the wrong time zone scream while harassed parents with ruffled hair and a dazed look trail battered suitcases and pushchairs piled with cuddly toys, Louis Vuitton matching luggage gets wheeled across the concourse on a trolley while its owner teeters through Duty Free in the highest stilettos and ‘Jackie O’ style designer shades en route to the executive lounge.

Heathrow’s terminals have borne witness to heart-wrenching goodbyes, obscene mementos brought back from far-off tourist traps that never look quite the same when they get back home, unbridled screaming matches between tired travellers in a multitude of languages, tearful reunions and joyous departures to long-awaited sun-drenched destinations.

So it is sad to watch one of these behemoths be put to bed. Terminal 1 has just days before it is closed down. And demolished. It’s making way for further expansion and no doubt more caviar stands in the gleamingly new Terminal 2. It apparently has aspirations to match the retail and hospitality experience that is currently Heathrow’s T5. I can’t say I blame it – I’ve on occasion almost missed my flight I’ve been so busy enjoying the trappings of the British Airways hub and dancing across its vast shiny hangar-sized concourses. Which terminal wouldn’t want to be T5?

In fact, I have become so familiar and attached to my T5 ‘experience’ that on a recent trip to Jordan, I turned up there on automatic pilot assuming my British Airways flight was there waiting for me. It was news to me that some (or just that one, I think) BA flights still depart from Terminal 1. So that was how I came to see the old lady in her final days.

After a mad dash on the transit shuttle, we emerged from a lift into a dark and unoccupied check-in hall. I thought we had accidentally been ferried into a parallel universe like the ones in films where everyone has disappeared and the protagonist is alone on the planet running around in the deserted school corridors and shopping malls of his life. I might even have seen some tumbleweed but I can’t be sure.

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Terminal 1 Check-in hall – where is everyone??

I self-consciously walked across the huge hall up to a line of unmanned check-in desks, almost walking on my tip-toes to try and dampen the single echoing sound of my flip flops slapping the floor.

One lady in a stretched and faded British Airways navy blue uniform (the new crisp tailored ones must be reserved for the high-flyers in T5 – excuse the pun) had been left behind by the invading aliens, ostensibly to provide a semblance of normality.

She smiled and was cheerful, over-compensating I thought, for the deathly quiet, or perhaps just relieved to be getting the chance to speak to another human-being during her shift. I almost asked her what she had done to deserve to be sent to what seemed to be Heathrow Airport’s most remote outpost but decided it would be mean to rub it in.

Security and passport control went by so quickly I almost felt guilty for not giving them more to search through after they’d gone to the trouble of turning on their machines and lining up the plastic trays for me to choose from.

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London Beefeater welcomes no-one in particular in darkened arrivals hall

By the time we returned to Terminal 1 two weeks later, I really did think our captain had parked his aircraft in the wrong place. First off the plane, we strode down dark corridors. The life-size Beefeater and London Taxi driver welcoming us into the UK from the billboards were left waving at nobody in particular. I almost walked straight through passport control, barely noticing the diminutive Customs and Excise lady nodding off at her terminal.

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“Reclaim Closed”

The whole place looked like closing time in a shop, where the tills have been totted up, they’d rather you didn’t buy anything thank you and could you please just go home. We followed the half-lit yellow signs underground to the baggage collection area to find silent carousels stationary and all signs showing an apologetic “Reclaim Closed”.

As I typed texts into my phone absent-mindedly, a sign flashed up suddenly announcing “Reclaim 1” for my flight from Amman. But like a ghost house in a movie, reclaim 2 behind me whirred into action inexplicably, with a steady thump thump thump of rubber catching on the worn rivets in the mechanism.

No sooner was my suitcase catapulted onto the deck, and I was out of the “Nothing to Declare” channel in a shot, seeking daylight and normality, and to reassure myself that the world had not ended during my time within the grey walls of Terminal 1.

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Arrivals and baggage collection

London Heathrow’s Terminal 1 will close at 21:15 on 29th June this year. It has served us for almost fifty years, starting out as the biggest short-haul terminal of its kind in Western Europe. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1969, it is somehow fitting that it should be replaced by the recently opened and now expanding Terminal 2, the ‘Queen’s Terminal’.

Basra airport reopens for business

First published on the Ministry of Defence Website on 21st Dec 2007

As British forces were handing over Basra Province last weekend, Iraqi airport staff were taking control of one of the country’s gateways.

Bustling with passengers like any other international departure lounge, the recent handover of Basra airport signalled a new era for the people of southern Iraq. For the first time since 2003 the airport is being run by Iraqis having taken four years of training and cooperation to get to this point.

For the staff this is the busiest time of year. Every year over 1.5 million pilgrims travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and back in order to undertake the ‘greater pilgrimage’ or the Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam. And for Iraqis this year, the airport is key.

Group Captain Mike Wigston is the Officer Commanding 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, the unit which has been carrying out all the training of Iraqi airport staff:

“It’s never been the gateway to South East Iraq that its designers thought it would be,” he said. “Now we’re on the threshold of that actually becoming reality and we’ve got a superb chance to use the Hajj period to showcase this to the locals as to what a precious commodity they’ve got on their doorstep.”

This year about 31,000 pilgrims travelled from Iraq, including over 3,600 by air from Basra. For Air Traffic Controller Mu’ayed Yousif, it’s a momentus occasion:

“We are very happy because we have returned to our jobs and we are very much looking forward to taking control of the tower.”

Every month there are over 250 civilian flights into and out of Basra by commercial airlines including Iraqi airways, Royal Jordanian, Jordan Integrated Air Cargo, Gulf International and Valan. Destinations they serve include Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan, Tehran and Bahrain, as well as a number of major Iraqi cities.

Airport Director, Mezxer Shnawah Zaheed, explained:

“My aim was to bring Basrah airport up to international standards. I’ve worked with maintenance to rebuild the airport, so that it is comparable to any other international airport in the world.”

International airlines will only land here if it’s safe. So the Royal Air Force has had teams on the ground training their Iraqi counterparts to internationally recognised standards in firefighting in the event of an incident on the airfield, and in border control, a key skill in a country still marred by sectarian violence.

The RAF has now handed over responsibility for the airport and the management and training of its staff to Iraqi control.

And after a successful Hajj, it’s hoped the international airport will bring wider trade and economic development to the country as a whole.

Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, said of the airport handover:

“The growing number of passengers and planes using BIA represents a real step forward, both for the regional economy of Basrah, and more broadly for Iraq. We’ve seen a significant rise in capacity just in recent weeks with the Hajj and I think it represents a real opportunity for the regional economy here in Basrah now and in the future.”

It is hoped that both the handover of Basra Province and the airport to Iraqi control will bring the success that local people are striving for.

BLOG – What NOT to do on an inter-continental flight….

Just when you think you’re well-travelled, just when you think you’ve got the packing, the transfers, the finding your way around an alien country in the dead of the night totally sussed and you are the special forces operatives of adventures….you get caught out.  It doesn’t matter how often I march off on a new adventure or how many bags I pack and unpack, I never get rid of that small niggling feeling of controlled panic that hits me when I’m on my own in a foreign land, it’s the middle of the night, I’m in the wrong time zone, a bit smelly after a long flight, and I’d rather lie down on my bags than actually try to get to the bottom of the fact that the driver I should have been meeting hasn’t turned up, he has the keys to the apartment I’m meant to be staying in, and I have no idea where said-apartment is.  Of course the feeling passes as quickly as it appeared, as I tell myself to ‘man-up’, find the phone number of the contact on the ground and hump my bags to the nearest obvious pick-up point (no, not that kind of pick-up point).  But it’s still there, waiting to rear its head after years of doing this kind of thing.  Keeping me on my toes.

What threw me literally off my toes recently however was what will now be classed as my most embarrassing travel episode.  I was taking my flight back from Nairobi to London for a break.  I had made it through the chaos and remote airstrips that represent the geographically short but in practice convoluted and bureaucracy-heavy journey out of Somalia.  I had spent an entire day (longer than the duration of my actual flight home) in the airport in Nairobi.  So far so good, although I could have done without the group of Scottish musicians having one last blow-out in the airport before heading off to bother other passengers at their next destination.

I boarded the Kenyan Airways flight to London and after the dinner trays had been cleared, curled into my best pretzel position to try and get a bit of kip.  If I’m honest, I was feeling a bit smug that I’d nabbed one of the ‘emergency exit’ seats so had loads of leg room AND had remembered to take my travel pillow out of my hand luggage before stuffing it into the overhead locker.

The next thing I knew, I was flat out of the aircraft floor, with half a dozen air stewardesses peering down at me (a desirable dream for some but not my own), a cold wet flannel on my forehead and some chap with a concerned ‘doctorly’ look on his face, holding my wrist.  My instinctive feeling was one of mortification.  I remember years ago coming-to just as I was being loaded into an ambulance after I’d been found unconscious on a coast road in Ireland following a biking accident sans helmet – the first thing that came to my bleary half-conscious mind was the realisation that I must be in the middle of ‘causing a scene’.  It didn’t matter that I had a trashed knee, a head like elephant man and had left a pool of blood on the tarmac; I started trying to get up off the stretcher and telling the paramedics that really I was fine and could they please stop making such a fuss.

Exactly the same thought came into mind on the deck of the Kenyan Airways flight.  How embarrassing, I’m fine, please talk amongst yourselves.  And what the hell am I doing down here??

I had apparently gone to sleep, then some time afterwards slumped across the aisle in my seat.  When someone tried to rouse me and get me to move (trolley coming through no doubt), I was out cold and didn’t respond.  The alarm was raised and I was lifted onto the floor of the cabin where a cardiologist – who fortuitously was on his way back from honeymoon with his GP wife – was called over to sort things out.  Poor chap spent the rest of his flight taking my blood pressure (“in my boots” according to him), my pulse and making me drink gallons of water then making me go to the loo with air hostesses on ‘keel-over-watch’ with door ajar.  My hero-doc was a star and very sympathetic; putting up with my repeated “but this never happens to me, I don’t get ill, oh how embarrassing” burbled statements, and the fact that by this time I was a sweaty (sorry, glowing) mess with the shivers from the aircon which had now been turned up to the max by the air hostesses, to stop me from dying on them, and causing the rest of the aircraft to request extra blankets.

The rest of my family will tell you I’m not averse to story-telling and being the centre of attention.  As my sister will also tell you however, I tend to prefer to be the one who ‘saves the day’, rather than be the damsel who collapses in a dribbling mess and needs saving.  Particularly in such an undignified heap in amongst my grimy desert boots and collection of glossy mags.  So not quite the five minutes of fame I had in mind.

But I like to look on the bright side; I was fit enough to decline the golf buggy and wheelchair on arrival at Heathrow and managed to make a pale and reasonably dignified jog out of there as quickly as I could.  Dignity almost recovered.

My Somali adventure. First stop: airport ‘no-man’s land’

It doesn’t matter how many times I go through an airport, whether it’s for business or pleasure, or how many corners of the world I visit.  Every time I pick my way through the crowds of people all intent on making their flight, not forgetting their belongings or children and selecting last-minute overpriced ‘genuine craftwork’ paraphernalia to take home for friends and relatives, a childish wonder and excitement wells up in me at the exotic destinations announced over the intercom and the fascinating lands they suggest.  This time was no different and travelling at night added to the sense of embarking on an adventure.

I had to negotiate my way through a couple of Chinese tour groups waiting for a flight home; their trolleys linked into one long snake, and a family destined for a flight to Abu Dhabi who had lost their boarding passes.  Then there was the very nervous gentleman who had insisted on wrapping every last suitcase, bag and box in luminescent white plastic – preventing not only a would-be dodgy baggage handler but I fear also himself from ever gaining access to the contents again.

Seamlessly through my photo shoot at passport control, the ladies and gentlemen wafting the explosive-detector wands slowed me and the rest of Terminal 4 down on our quest to reach the blissful no-man’s land of the departure lounge.  I spent half an hour loitering for my bag, during a security scan so heightened that every man, woman, child – by this stage already barefoot, holding up their trousers with clenched fists and having emptied their pockets of any small change and remaining dignity – got patted down and every bag, belt, boot and plastic container of toiletries rummaged through manually after having already been zapped by the xray machine.  It may have delayed my progress through airport bureaucracy but it did afford an unexpected opportunity to peer into my fellow passengers’ belongings and therefore their lives, as they were unceremoniously laid out by latex gloves like evidence in a murder trial.  And there’s nothing more amusing than that aloof and ill-mannered superior woman who’s brushed past you in the queue, to whom the rules clearly do not apply being stopped in her tracks by an unflappable security operator.  An obsequiously delivered “madam, is this a bottle of perfume?…then. It. Must. Go. In. The. Separate. Plastic. Bag.……And is this an IPad? Then. It. Must. Also. Go. In. A. Separate. Tray….” And pedantically, patiently on, item by item, as her ladyness’ face makes its way progressively from the expensively rouge’d-at-the-cheeks look, to a rather less desirable dark puce of hopelessness, humiliation and barely contained rage.

Having just about managed to contain my guffaw at the now-deflated superior one still nodding her way through each painstaking question and item presented, I had ample time to find all sorts of lotions and potions that I absolutely HAD to have (well, it is very difficult not to when the packaging is so shiny and anyway everyone knows money spent in airport no-man’s land doesn’t count).  Ample time in part because I’m very particular about being punctual – you can take the girl out of the military and all that – but mostly because on checking in, I found out our Kenya Airways flight was delayed by at least two hours due to a technical fault.  No complaints from me as they compensated us with a meal voucher and I can think of worse airports than Heathrow to have a few hours to kill.  So I settled on a stool at the seafood bar on the main concourse and sipped a chilled glass of Chablis while people-watching over the top of my newspaper.

I had my boarding pass, I’d made it through to airport no-man’s land.  I was on my way to my next adventure.