Monday, February 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Airlines - and Four Airports

As previously mentioned, Dan & I recently travelled to London.  It was the realization of a dream I’ve had since I was seven years old, when I first became interested in all things British.  Beyond the obvious benefits of R&R, travel can be an opportunity to expand your horizons, challenge your perceptions, and question your beliefs.  This trip afforded me numerous opportunities for that, starting with getting to our destination.

When we arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, it was as we’ve expected since last year, when United Airlines announced they were eliminating their Cleveland hub: quiet.  There was no one waiting in line as we checked in with the very nice attendant from American Airlines, and only three people ahead of us as we made our way through security.  It was shortly after arrival at our gate that I had a panic attack as I suddenly couldn’t recall if I’d locked the door to our home.  Fortunately, I was able to log onto Hopkins’ free Wi-Fi and contact a friend via facebook, who was able to go to our house and confirm the door was properly locked.  As we waited to board the plane, there was little foot traffic to be seen, and I mused to Daniel that, more than ever, I believed that Cleveland should close Burke Lakefront Airport and divert the traffic to Hopkins – freeing Burke’s valuable property for redevelopment.  Eventually we boarded the Embraer RJ145 for a quick, bumpy flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

As we made our way between terminals at JFK, looked over the paltry selection at the food court, and discovered that the airport charged for Wi-Fi, I couldn’t help the thought that the former President would spin in his grave knowing such a mediocre airport was named after him – a man who advocated for technological progress at every chance.  I also thought of my mother as I gazed out the airport windows toward the borough of Queens, where she spent her first 15 years.  How I wish she’d lived to witness me travelling to the land of our ancestors, with the man I love.  The four hour layover seemed to stretch into eternity as we waited to board the British Airways Boeing 747 for our flight to London Heathrow Airport.  And that’s where our perceptions were really challenged.

The BA plane was laid out like your typical jumbo jet: first class at the front, economy toward the rear – with a central row of four seats bordered by two aisles, which in turn were bordered by the outer seats.  Even though we were just a few rows from the back of the fully sold out plane, the seats seemed larger than those we’ve encountered on American carriers.  Waiting for each of us on our seats were a blanket, pillow, and a small plastic bag with headphones, toothbrush and toothpaste.  After the usual instructions from the smartly attired (with ladies’ hair pulled back, men cleanly groomed and wearing ties) flight attendants, taxi, and takeoff – we were treated to a choice of complementary wine, beer or mixed drinks.  About an hour later, as we were enjoying the in-flight entertainment (I watched Paddington, mostly for the London sights), we were brought a hot meal – which consisted of choice of chicken or vegetarian dish, dinner roll, small salad, and dessert, along with another beverage.  I’ve been travelling via plane since 1979, and I well remember when this kind of service was standard on American carriers.  But those of a younger generation will have only experienced the way things are today – with passengers crammed in and treated like cattle.  I cannot help the thought that this is largely due to the viscious cycle of deregulation and mergers, resulting in a race to the bottom as carriers chase the lowest price point. 

As we approached Heathrow, our flight attendant handed out cards for us to complete and give to their Border Control officers, codifying where we would be staying while in London and when we expected to leave.  Heathrow is easily the largest airport I’ve ever seen, but orderly enough that we were able to make our way to Border Control and were welcomed to the UK by a very pleasant yet professional officer.  There was never any sense of tension despite the recent terrorist attacks in France.  Security was present but not obtrusive.  

From there, we retrieved our baggage and then followed the signs to the Heathrow Terminal 5 Underground Station.  Dan had done his research and recommended we each purchase an Oyster Card with seven days unlimited use for Zones 1 and 2, with an additional £20 for further trips.  We were soon on the Piccadilly Line which had us within a few blocks of our hotel in under an hour.  (I will blog about London’s rail transportation in an upcoming post).  The whole process from disembarking the plane to hotel arrival took less than two hours.

Nine days later, we reversed the process and headed back to Heathrow Terminal 5a via the Piccadilly Line.  As we checked-in, the very pleasant BA officer presented us with United States customs forms to complete before our arrival in Chicago.  We hadn’t purchased anything beyond the usual touristy stuff – clothing, refrigerator magnets, tour books, and three tins of tea – so completing the forms was a snap.  From there, we proceeded through the most orderly security screening line I’ve ever seen into the departure terminal.  Dan & I had a few hours to kill, but with all the money we’d spent on our trip, we avoided the duty-free shops and made use of Heathrow’s free but rather sluggish Wi-Fi while we waited to board our plane.  The flight to Chicago was on a Boeing 777, which is more up to date than the 747 we took from New York.  Unlike our initial flight, the return trip was less than half sold.  Again, we were offered a free alcoholic drink (I chose white wine), hot meal, further beverages, and a sandwich toward the end of the flight.  I was too keyed up to sleep, so I watched Lucy, Fury, and the final episode of True Blood before our arrival.

·         After Heathrow, disembarking the plane and entering Chicago’s O’Hare airport was like leaving Starfleet Headquarters and finding oneself at a stagecoach depot.  Signage leading to Border Control was virtually non-existent, with airport officers merely shouting “THIS WAY to Border Control, keep moving people!”  The Border Control officers looked like retirees who’d rather be anywhere other than their jobs.  We then retrieved our baggage, went through customs control, handed over our forms, and we’re asked if were bringing any food into the country – I didn’t witness anyone’s baggage being searched.  Despite the presence of bag sniffing dogs (Beagles), I couldn’t help the thought that someone could easily sneak contraband, or worse, into the country.  Dan & I then rechecked our baggage and headed to another terminal for the final leg of our flight.  The trip through security was a sad contrast to what we witnessed in London – confusingly laid out, with people cutting in line and TSA officers seemingly uninterested in maintaining order.  The wait at O’Hare’s Terminal 3, with free Wi-Fi limited to 20 minutes and heavily throttled, was interminable.  As we boarded the Embraer RJ170-195 for the bumpy ride home (including a landing where it seemed we skidded on the snowy runway), I felt utterly spent – shorn of patience and disappointed in my home country.

I love America.  I really do.  We Americans have been brought up to believe we’re the greatest country in the world.  But beyond the money we spend on our military and the percentage of our own people who are incarcerated, I seriously doubt we’re number one in much else.  What must foreigners think when they enter our country for the first time, and see out-of-date, unwelcoming airports such as JFK and O’Hare? 

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