Category Archives: England

Singing the Air Travel Blues

“Some day, my ship will come in, and with my luck, I’ll be at the airport.” So says a woebegone Charlie Brown on a treasured refrigerator magnet given to me long ago by a friend. After three weeks of travel and eight flights, I think my ship is in, and it must be the size of an aircraft carrier – and my husband has a matching one. Here is a summary of his, my and our air travel delays during a just-completed transatlantic trip.

October 4-5: Denver to Manchester, UK. Our British Airways non-stop from Denver to London/Heathrow (LHR) departed one hour late. Our BA flight to Manchester was one hour late in pulling away from the gate, and then, we sat on the tarmac for an additional hour before taking off. My husband and I both got our bags, which put us way ahead of some others attending the same convention as we were.

October 10: Manchester to the Isle of Man. If the EuroManx flight was delayed, it was by so little that no one seems to have noticed.

October 12: Isle of Man to Manchester. Our EuroManx flight was canceled. We were given a £5.00 meal voucher and several hours later, boarded a flight to Liverpool, from which we were bused to Manchester Airport, arriving something like five hours later than we expected. The good news was that we and our bags made it to and from the Isle of Man on the same planes we did.

October 13: Manchester to London (me). I took a series of three trains to London Gatwick LGW), where I picked up a rental car. The first train was 25 minutes late, which backed up my train plans. Manchester-Denver (my husband). He was ticketed Manchester-LHR and then on the LHR-DEN nonstop. His first flight was so late that he missed the Denver flight. He was rerouted via Washington-Dulles, connecting to a nonstop to Denver. That flight was also so late that he missed the last flight to Denver. BA put him up at a Holiday Inn overnight. When he arrived in Denver at 1:00 p.m. on the 14th, his bag was still in London. It was delivered at 10:00 p.m. the following evening – more than 48 hours after he and it were supposed to arrive at home.

October 18: London/Gatwick to Lisbon (me). I arrived at the airport uncharacteristically early, because I was quite eager to get rid of my rental car. My 4:00 p.m. The TAP Air Portugal flight was delayed until 5:05 p.m. My bag did arrive in Lisbon.

October 22, 2007: Lisbon to Madrid (me with a small journalist group). TAP Air Portugal flight that was scheduled to depart at 11:20 a.m. actually departed at 12:15 p.m. In order to delude passengers that they might actually be closer to on time, the gate agents scanned boarding passes, peered at passports or EU identity cards and allowed us to stand in a corridor and on the jetway for half-an-hour. A group of energetic young travelers entertained each other by making a lot of noise in this hard-walled tube. I don’t mind standing for half-an-hour, but I felt sorry for people who have a hard time being on their feet. Our bags did arrive — not on the carousel where our flight was posted, but on the next one that announced the arrival of bags from the Canary Islands. But I didn’t care, because my bag was on it.

October 25: Madrid to Denver (me). The London/Heathrow-bound Iberia flight took off 55 minutes late. In the Economy section, Iberia charges for everything, — even water (1.50 euros for about a 12-ounce bottle). I had lots of time at Heathrow, which is a good thing, since I arrived at Terminal 1, was misdirected to Terminal 2 where I cleared immigration, had to return to Terminal 1 to reclaim my bag and recheck it, because it seems that interline baggage transfer is not possible at Heathrow (or perhaps anywhere in England) and then to Terminal 4 for my US-bound flight on British Airways. London to Denver. That nonstop took off “only” 25 minutes late. My bag did make it on both flights.

Not counting my husband’s much-delayed return to Denver from Manchester via London, I calculate that my flight delays in the course of three weeks came to about 12 hours – plus the 25-minute train delay.

More Airline Consolidation in the Air?

First came word that Delta Airlines might be hooking up, corporatively speaking, with Air France and KLM, that fly under their old liveries but have already combined forces. Earlier in the week, the three carriers announced a transatlantic joint venture that will add four daily flights from London’s Heathrow Airport, beginning in April, and could eventually impact all of their combined services between Europe and North America. In addition to New York, service to Atlanta, Cincinnati and and Salt Lake City can be anticipated.

Now, Delta’s boss Air Lines chieftain Richard Anderson told analysts that he and is people are looking at further consolidation. Northwest Airlines, for which Anderson once worked, is a likely takeover target, even though a marriage between Northwest and Continental had once been all but assured. The New York Times quoted Anderson as saying that further mergers “could make sense for Delta if it’s done thoughtfully from a position of strength.” Odd to view Delta as being in “a position of strength” when it was flying under bankruptcy protection not long ago.

Whenever these consolidations occur, the airlines’ spin is that it will eventually be good for travelers: economy of scale, increased service, still same smiling personnel, blah-blah-blah. But color me skeptical. Things tend to improve for business travelers flying on the company credit card, but rarely for Joe and Joan Schmo wedged back in the economy section. Plus, the more the carriers consolidate and code-share, the harder it seems to be to use frequent flyer miles any time that one actually wishes to travel.

Farewell England

UnionJackI was sorry to leave England — except for the driving part. I had a gloriously sunny week — uncharacteristic for October. The English and the Americans are “two peoples separated by a common language,” as Sir Winston Churchill famously observed. His father was English and his mother American, so in addition to his stratospheric intelligence and native wit, he was in a good position to know.  A few random thoughts on the country I’ve recently left.

What?

My nomination for the linguistic obfuscation winner is the following, printed in large black type (not small lawyerly type) on a ticket dispensed in a parking structure:

SURVEYS UNDERTAKEN & COMPLETE SCHEMES SUBMITTED WITHOUT OBLIGATION

My favorite (or should I write, favourite?) for highway whimsy:

POSSIBLE QUEUES ON SLIP ROAD

That means there might be a backup on a motorway exit ramp (because there’s a damned roundabout right at the top of it).

More Reasons Why Driving in England is Confusing

These two sign posts are on opposite sides of what we would call the village green in the town of Staplefield. You will notice that the only names that appear on both signposts are Handcross, Waringlid and Slaugham — and one of the posts presents two suggestions for reaching Waringlid. If you were looking for any other village and were looking at the wrong signpost, you would not have a clue.

Product Names and Brands that Amuse Me

A pencil eraser is called a rubber, which makes sense because it is (or originally was) made of rubber and it rubs out pencil marks. The American vernacular carries quite a different meaning.
Non-dairy creamer for coffee is called whitener, which Americans associate with dental bleach.
The timeshare apartment where I stayed has a wall-mounted, pull-chain-operated space heater made by Dimplex in each bathroom. The fridge is made by “LEC The Fridge People.” The electric cooktop (generically called a hob) is made by Candy – but the wall oven inexplicably by Zanussi. The dishwasher is a Hotpoint, the only familiar appliance name here. The shampoo and conditioner at one hotel I stayed were labeled Pecksniff, which could be an olde Englishe Companye – or just dreadful branding.

No-Injury Ground Crash Gummed Up Heathrow

A little more than a week ago, British Airways chief Willie Walsh told delegates to the Society of American Travel Writers convention that the airline and British Airports Authority were working to lessen the “Heathrow Hassle.” Improvements can’t come soon enough. Congestion in the terminals and on the tarmacs and taxiways was underscored yesterday evening (Monday) when two planes collided on the ground. Fortunately, it was more of a tap than a crash, and there were no injuries. However, even a tap between a Boeing 747 (BA’s) and an Airbus A340, belonging to SriLankan Airlines, can cause massive delays to an already choked-up airport.

According to preliminary reports of an investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, Britain’s equivalent of the US Transportation Safety Board, it appears that the SriLankan plane was taxiing to a runway while the BA plane was stationary. A British Airways spokesman said, “Our engineers are inspecting the plane and we are continuing to look into the incident.” SriLankan Airlines characterized it as “a minor incident involving a British Airways aircraft when taxiing to the runway at Heathrow.” If it had been any more than a tap or a brush, the incident could have been a major accident. Both planes were outbound, fully fueled for long flights. The BA aircraft was bound for Singapore with 328 passengers on board, while the Airbus was headed for Colombo with 286 passengers and crew.

A BBC on-line report includes a map of the incident site; scroll down to the bottom of the page to see it.

A Long Post About a Long Day in the UK

UnionJackI haven’t dropped off the face of the Earth, but I’ve been traveling in England and to the Isle of Man. When I’ve had time to post, I haven’t had Internet access — and vice versa. So please bear with me, and don’t take this blog off your ‘favorites’ list.

The English countryside and the English seashore are lovely and make for a wonderful getaway. Flying to the UK – primarily London and Manchester – from numerous North American gateways is straightforward, albeit often delayed. I’ve been here for over a week, first at a convention in Manchester and then to a pre-arranged post-convention trip to the enchanting Isle of Man. Now, I’m planning to see something of southeast England over the next few days. My base of operations is Brantridge Park, a stately home turned into a timeshare complex for which I proudly scored a trade. That was the good news. The bad news is that I spent hours looking for the bloody place, which why I now know what my “next time” trip tactics will be.

General Observations & Next Trip Tactics

If at all feasible, I will take the train, especially if I am traveling alone. First off, I really like public transportation. British trains and buses go virtually everywhere. A BritRail card is convenient and not excessively priced for a trip that involves many train rides. Otherwise, pay-as-you go works. Furthermore, renting and driving are turn out to be both expensive and frustrating –and I’m not referring to the expected adjustments of driving on “wrong” side of the road and shifting with my left hand.

Car rental rates are very high. I got a “bargain” from Enterprise – £134 for five days. That’s nearly $240. Also, gas (“petrol”) prices at nearly £1 per liter comes awfully close to $6 per gallon. And in many places (such as the Best Western Gatwick Moat House to which I retreated after fruitlessly searching for the place in the country where I actually should have been staying when I arrived), parking is extra. This motor inn at an airport, not a luxury center-city hotel, charges £6 ($12) a day for parking, even for overnight guests. And yes, guests also must pay extra for shuttle service to and from the nearby airport, and for local phone calls, and for Internet access. How do you say “nickel and dime” in a country that does not have nickels or dimes?

Highway Nomenclature

From here on in, I will only rent a car if there are two or more of us. Signage is by and large not terribly enlightening. Once off the limited-access highways (“motorways”), most intersections are roundabouts, driven clockwise and often at fairly high speeds. Advance warning is non-existent. It isn’t until you about to enter a roundabout that you find out how many degrees around it you must travel to the road on which you want to proceed. Sometimes route numbers are also painted on the pavement just before or in a roundabout, but in heavy traffic, that might be too late. Even motorway on- and off-ramps (called “slip roads”) are not marked much better. On this lush island, where everything grows lavishly, trees and bushes obscure many signs.

Traffic in a roundabout, rightly, has the right of way, but merging in can be tricky and merging outward is even worse. Usually four but up to six and even seven roads converge on a single roundabout. Anywhere from one to three lanes of traffic merge in. Drivers usually move into toward the center if they are going 180 or 270 degrees and usually stay on (or move to) the outside when they are exiting. Usually. Signaling a change of lanes seems strictly optional, and most drivers don’t bother. Other drivers roar into each roundabout. These drivers know were they are going, and they seemingly don’t care whether other drivers are similarly enlightened.

The British, usually quite polite in person, are as aggressive as anyone else behind the wheel. Tailgating is a way of driving life. When a stranger slows down a tad to try to get oriented, a sharp blast of a very loud horn is common. I’ve been forced out of the circle and ended up heading who-knows-where, because once out of a roundabout, there are no signs indicating what road you are actually on until you reach the next roundabout. That means once you have committed, by choice or by vehicular coercion, you can’t rectify a mistake quickly, and if the next roundabout is also a complicated one, you are toast. The Brits’ secret to all this is: they know where they are going.

My Automotive Odyssey — or Vehicular Labor of Sisyphus

Being without a navigator, or not being the navigator while my husband or someone else drove, I made some hopeless mistakes. I asked for directions from several very nice people, each of whom sent me a different way in roughly the same area. “How far?” ask I, the befuddled foreigner. “Not too far” or “Just a little way,” is the usual answer. Following written directions is not an assurance of reaching your destination either – or at least, they didn’t help me.

When I was trying to find my lodging in the afternoon, I was told to start on the M23, which becomes the A23. The M23 motorway does spill into the A23, but the A23 also passes near Gatwick Airport, which was the root of my initial problems.

Asking for directions can be less than helpful. At one point, early on, having been derailed into a residential neighborhood and asking where the M23 motorway was, a nice young man, gesturing vaguely, said, “Go left and then go straight over and then go left and there it is.” My efforts to find out whether these opportunities to “go left” were at roundabouts or regular intersections were fruitless. “Just keep going left,” he said in the way of clarification. I went left twice, and never found the hint of a motorway.

Later, when I reached Handcross in the fast-waning light, a T-intersection was described to me as a fork in the road (one direction sign had a couple of villages on it, the other didn’t). The very helpful, very pleasant young man had told me to bear right at the fork, so I turned right at the intersection, which got me very close to my destination.

True Dialogue Lost Foreigner Driving Around the Countryside in the Dark (Me): Which way is to Brantridge Park?
Pleasant Local in a Village Pub (He): Go back the way you came and take your first left and then take your first right and a little way from the end of the road, it’s there. It’s all got signs.
Me: Is that left at a roundabout?
He: It’s your first left.
Me: How far is it?
He: Not far.
Me: Does the road have a name?He: I don’t know, but it’s not far.
Me: Once I get to the road it’s on, how far is it to the end?
He: It’s not far.

But once I reached Handcross and Balcombe, the villages nearest to Brantridge Park, things did not improve. The written directions and reality do not match. According to he RCI resort information sheet and Brantridge Park’s own directions, “…exit at Handcross Turning. Take the B2110 signposted Turners Hill. After a mile bear right just after the Victorian brick water tower, then turn right again into Brantridge Lane signposted Staplefield. After 200 yards, turn left into Brantridge Park entrance.”

In reality, the brick water tower is set back from the road, difficult to see in twilight and impossible to see at night. I was looking for a Brantridge Lane or Brantridge Park sign. What I saw and passed several times was a bright yellow sign on a signpost pointing to Ditton Place. The scarred white wooden signpost barely visible at that intersection is not signed Staplefield at all, but Balcombe and Worth. And, as the lady at reception acknowledged when I finally checked in the next morning, “Our sign is broken. So sorry.”

In daylight, I saw that there is indeed a Brantridge Lane sign, down near the ground and placed at the wrong angle to be visible in the headlights coming from the direction I had, having overshot it because I never saw the water tower. I now know that I did pass it several times. How silly of me not to know that I should have been looking for “Ditton Place” instead of “Brantridge Lane,” and “Balcombe” and/or “Worth” not “Staplefield.” And while Brantridge Park is sort of between Balcombe and Handcross, Brantridge School is in Staplefield.

In any case, I knew when I was defeated. I was becoming increasingly uneasy to be driving at night down unfamiliar narrow, winding lanes lined with tall hedgerows and punctuated with periodic deer crossing warning signs, so I eventually hightailed it back to the airport area, checked into an overpriced Best Western and tried again in daylight.

I finally understand why England hasn’t been invaded since William the Conqueror in 1066.

Hotel Services: Included? Extra? Fair? Foul?

I am staying at the historic Midland Hotel in Manchester, UK. Many VIPs have stayed in this gorgeous and historic hotel since it first opened its doors in 1905. Mr. Charles Stewart Rolls and Mr. Frederick Henry Royce first met here. I love walking through the lobby and along the wide corridor lined with historic photographs and other interesting framed items en route to my room.

However, and there’s always a “however,” such ambiance carries an unexpected and unwelcome price. It is costing me £15 for 24 hours of high-speed Internet access to check my E-mail, do on-line research or post new items on this blog. At the current miserable dollar-to-pound exchange rate (miserable from the American viewpoint), that is $30. If I wished to make a direct local phone call from my room, it would cost me £1.60 ($3.20). If I wanted to access certain premium TV channels, a day’s access would add £10 ($20) to my bill. I cannot imagine what it would cost to park a car wherever the valets whisk vehicles, if I had one here. All this is usurious.

I have often wondered why many fine and expensive hotels do not include the same kinds of services that mid-priced hotel or motel chains manage to offer free. Just as an single example, Choice Hotels (Choice Hotels, Sleep Inns, Comfort Inns, Rodeway Inns and other brands) provides free high-speed Internet access and free local phone calls to guests across the price ranges of their brands.

Other mysterious aspects to this hotel involves my room, a standard guest room facing an interior courtyard — not landscaped but a wide open-to-the-sky area that in New York would be called an air shaft. It is small, which is OK. There is a lovely armoire for hanging clothes, but not a single drawer. No bureau; no even a small drawer in each of the teensy nightstands. That would be OK too for a night or two, but this hotel is right across from the convention center, which means I am one of many guests who are here for multiple nights. Living out of a suitcase is not pleasant. The bathroom is small, and that’s OK too. But one small bar of soap is provided every second day both for face and body. The other toiletries are shampoo, conditioner and shower gel but no moisturizer.

Before departure, guests are invited to fill in an on-line commentary form. And I will, if I haven’t used up all of my $30 Internet access fee.

British Airways and Heathrow – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

On October 4, my husband and I set out for Denver International Airport (DEN) on a clear, windless weekday afternoon. We arrived in the airport, and no one was ahead of us in the ticketing line. Splendid. The pleasant ticket agent gave us fine seats, 15 A and 15B in the two-across bulkhead seats. Window. Aisle. No middle seat. Terrific. Then we learned that the 8:15 departure for British Airways’ had been pushed back an hour. Why?

After an uneventful seven-hour flight, made more comfortable thanks to the bulkhead seats , we landed not terribly late at London’s Heathrow (LHR) on another cloudless, windless afternoon. We wound our way from Terminal 3 (international flights) to Terminal 1 (domestic flights). We made our way through the terminal labyrinth, went through passport control, caught an inter-terminal shuttle bus and walked through another labyrinth to Terminal 1, gate 5, where we were told our ongoing flight would be an hour delayed.

In the last minute, the flight was switched from gate 5 to gate 7. No big deal. We boarded the plane, which waited for some delayed flight(s). The doors finally closed. We taxied for so long to such a distant departure point that I mused we might be driving to Manchester (MAN). We landed there to a scene of, to be politically unPC, a functionally nonexistent baggage claim area. The conveyor runs along one side of a fairly narrow corridor. Unclaimed bags encroach on the right side. The conveyor occupies the left, with people waiting for luggage taking up most of the floor space between as they peer at the conveyor.

The bags did finally come in, and we learned that we were fortunate to have them, because we later heard that some people at the convention we are attending have been waiting for theirs for up to three days. THEN, we sat for more than half an hour in the motorcoach that was to take us to our hotel for because some people on our flight (some in our group) were trapped behind an automatic glass door that wouldn’t open. Sparing you the details, we finally arrived at our hotel too late for the welcoming reception, and six full hours after we landed at LHR.

Fast forward to October 5, when the convention’s luncheon speaker was Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways. I learned that LHR has been operating with only the original two runways with which it opened more than 60 years ago. British hopes to eliminate or at least mitigate what he admitted was the “Heathrow Hassle” when the luxurious new $8 billion, British Airways-only Terminal 5 opens in March 2008 (hopefully). There are also plans to build a third runway, a short one for smaller aircraft. That should help the Heathrow Hassle, but I wonder what about Manchester Mayhem.