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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Crossing the pond

Long ago I lost count of how many trips I have taken to Europe. I am writing this during my fifth westbound crossing of the Atlantic in 2011. Does everyone have a routine for long flights? I do. Maybe you'll find mine interesting, or you'll share yours.

On the way over, I take an all-daytime routing if possible. There are only a few daytime flights going east, and I cannot always take one because they are often priced higher than overnight flights. But if a daytime flight is available at a competitive price, I leave RDU at sunrise, change somewhere in the U.S., and arrive Europe at night. Otherwise I take the overnight RDU-London nonstop, which almost always has an empty seat. If my destination is on the mainland, I connect at Heathrow and arrive mid-day. Some folks dislike Heathrow, but I don't. 

Annual membership to the Admirals Club of American Airlines isn't cheap, but it's worth every penny. I joined way back in 1988. The club personnel treat passengers well and occasionally do things for me, like changing a seat assignment, that agents at the ticket counter or the gate cannot or will not do. The clubs are comfortable, stocked with liquids to stay hydrated, and quiet compared to waiting at the gate. They also have nice restrooms. (Yes, ladies, this matters to men too.)

Leaving the house, I don a cheap TImex watch that has two time zones. At wheels up, I ceremoniously set the watch to the time zone where I'll land. I try not to look at the watch again until half the flight is over.

I make sure I'm fully hydrated before I board, and I drink enough water during the flight to stay hydrated. If I'm thirsty at boarding time, I'll buy a bottle of water from a gate-side shop to bring on board. After takeoff I limit my liquid selections to water, tonic water or ginger ale, and hot tea. If I'm lucky enough to escape "cattle class" and get complimentary upgrade to business class -- hasn't happened yet this year -- I have a sip of champagne before takeoff and one Amaretto after dinner, but that's it. 

Meals are what they are. In this context one eats to live, not lives to eat; I don't turn up my nose at airline food. On an overnight flight, I skip the dinner entree and eat only the tray setup. Breakfast will follow in five hours.

There's an MP3 player and earphones that I keep in a drawer at home just for long flights. The MP3 player holds 8 hours of eclectic songs that I never tire of, mostly The Doors and Steely Dan. Music accelerates the passing of time and it doesn't consume my energy. At Christmas I hope to get the Bose active noise cancelling headphones. Over-the-ear headphones aren't the most comfortable, but suppression of the roar of the airstream is worth the discomfort. The Bose technology is superb and unmatched by competitors.

I rarely watch the in-flight movie(s). The two movies on this flight aren't worth my time, and neither was the movie on my eastbound flight four days ago. I like American Airlines, but honestly their in-flight entertainment options for economy class passengers are miserable compared to airlines of Asia. I don't carry a book on board because I strive to minimize the weight of my carry-on bag. I take too many gadgets already to fuss with a Kindle or an iPad. On the homeward leg I'll swipe a local newspaper from the hotel or the Admirals Club and read it cover to cover. That kills time and is educational about the countries where I do business.

Sleeping on an overnight flight to Europe is over-rated. I do nap, and if I can get an extended nap on an overnight flight, that's serendipity. But I don't count on it, and I won't get frustrated if the nap is short. The truth is, If I can't function in Europe most of the business day after an hour's nap on an overnight flight, I had better find a new line of work. The trick is making sure that I slept well the night before departure. 

Turbulence is an irritation. It doesn't frighten me, but prolonged turbulence saps energy and I prefer not to endure it. Turbulence is more likely on eastbound flights because airlines will hug the jet stream to minimize fuel consumption. It's a myth, by the way, that large aircraft aren't affected by turbulence. A big plane with nearly empty fuel tanks -- such as a transoceanic flight near its destination -- can be a real pig in rough air. Read up on wing loading.

Although I earn lots of frequent flyer miles, I don't burn them to upgrade from coach to business class on the European flights. (My old employer paid for business class to Europe, but they went bankrupt. My current employer says, coach only.) I use a seat selection strategy: an inner aisle seat in the last several rows. On a 767 with 2-3-2 seating in coach, a middle seat in the back is usually the very last to be allocated. Thus, the seat adjacent to me is often empty. The problem with this strategy when flying the London-RDU nonstop is that it can take a very long time to clear US CBP at RDU, so I change my strategy on those flights and get a seat as far forward as possible. At other ports of entry like O'Hare, JFK, and Heathrow it doesn't matter where one sits, with respect to getting through border formalities.

One thing I miss from business class is access to an arrivals lounge. The UK government doesn't allow arriving passengers to use the Admirals Club. If my flight lands at Heathrow early, the queue through UK border entry will move so quickly that I'll be curbside by 0730. My employer's office in Chiswick will not have opened by the time a taxi drops me there. So, I have to kill time somewhere. I don't like to remain in the public areas of Heathrow landside any longer than necessary; that's a security risk to me and particularly my wallet. There is a reason why Heathrow was nicknamed Thief-row, although most airports and train stations in Europe have the same attribute. I haven't found a good solution to this yet. If you know of one, by all means suggest it.