It’s 2.45pm GMT on the 19th March, we’re flying at 36,000 feet over the west coast of Ireland, still in the clouds, and on our way to visit the family in Hutchinson, Kansas, USA.
The journey by taxi to Heathrow was uneventful except that we met,for the first time, Sam, the proprietor of Swan Cars. I’ve communicated with Sam many times by email but normally he sends another driver for our airport journeys. This was a bit of an honour. Sam originates from the Indian Subcontinent and was keen to discuss the politics and religion of the region today. He explained that like many of his friends he has not been to the United States since 9/11. In his view based on the real experience of his friends, the US security people seem to assume that anyone who looks Asian and/or has an Asian name must be considered to be suspicious. It doesn’t matter if, like Sam, you have a full British passport and practice no religion, you are treated as a suspicious character. He says he couldn’t stand the hassle.
He also talked about the levels of corruption in Indian business and political life. In India, in his view, a senior political position gives you a licence to print money. All kinds of personal deals are done by business men with politicians to gain business advantage. The backhanders are often measured in millions of pounds.
It would be good to continue this discussion but all too soon we are pulling into the Terminal 3 parking area, Sam loads our cases onto a trolley, we pay the very reasonable fare and it’s off to find the check-in area for American Airline flight AA47 to Chicago.
There’s a very short queue – must start calling a ‘queue’ a ‘line’ if we want to be understood in the US of A – for the airline security desk. There we are greeted by a very pleasant young girl who seems to be in her first day at the job. She has all of the questions that she has to ask off pat but is not experienced enough to be diverted easily from the script. There are the usual questions, “did you pack your bags yourselves?”, “could anyone have tampered with them?”, “has anyone asked you to carry anything for them?”, “are you carrying any electrical equipment?”, then a new one for us, “how long have you had the equipment?”. For most items, cameras, phones, etc, that is easy to answer, either months or years, but I am carrying a brand new Netbook, bought to replace my previous one that had developed some very expensive faults and wasn’t worth repairing. So I answer truthfully “two days”. This brings out the question “where did you buy it?”. I answer “John Lewis” and that seems to be a good answer. What would have happened if I’d said Ebay? She moves on to a final couple of question and lets us through.
Whilst waiting in line – got it right! – for the bag drop desk, Margaret remembers that we haven’t labelled our cases with the address in Kansas. A friendly attendant gets us an address label each, they are soon filled in and attached to our cases. One of the real benefits of flying on a scheduled airline is the much easier baggage restrictions when compared to charter flights. The limit today is one piece of hold baggage weighing up to 23kg, one piece of carry-on baggage of a reasonable size and weight plus a purse (US speak for a handbag) or a laptop bag. Our cases are comfortably below the weight limit and no check is made of the carry-on luggage. Very civilised.
The last formality is the airport security screening. Once again the queue – oooops, the line – is very short, there is no requirement to remove shoes and we’re through. Actually we had a ‘first’. Normally Margaret triggers off the alarms of the security arch but today she walked straight through without the sound of any alarm.
In the duty free a bottle of whisky is purchased as a present for our son Oliver and we head to our usual T3 eatery Chez Gerard. It is no longer there but has been replaced by something that looks fairly similar called ‘Oriel’. We decide to give it a try. Gone from the menu is our usual favourite of scrambled eggs on a brioche with smoked salmon, but there are a tasty looking range of similar offerings. Margaret chooses “The Canadien” which is a pile of smoked streaky bacon on pancakes with maple syrup whilst I choose “Eggs Florentine” which is poached eggs on spinach and a toasted muffin with a hollandaise sauce. The food come quickly and is excellent. The Americano’s are hot and strong with hot milk for Margaret. Very good value at just under £20.
It’s soon time to make the long trek to the gate. Normally it takes about 15 mins going from one travelator to the next, round corners, up and down staircases and along corridors. Today we are in luck. AA47 is leaving from the very first gate, almost directly behind our seats in the restaurant. How lucky can you get?
Boarding is as civilised as such an event can be and soon we are in our pre-booked double seat, window and aisle, with reasonable legroom. Everyone is soon seated and the safety briefing begins. Another ‘first’, there are no cabin crew standing in the aisles juggling with lap straps, oxygen masks and life jackets, rather a team of airline staff enact the whole briefing on the seat-back TV screens. It’s very effective. How long before other airlines take this approach?
In Chicago we will have a very short time between the scheduled arrival time of this flight and the departure time of our connecting flight to Wichita, Kansas – about 1 ½ hours. That may sound comfortable but we will have to go through immigration, collect our cases and go through customs control then change terminals. The minutes can pass very, very quickly in those situations. Anyway, the plane pushed back from the stand on time so that’s a good start. As we start to roll out onto the taxi-way, the pilot comes on the address system to announce that we are going back to the gate. The reason, they’re missing some paperwork for the dry ice that has been loaded in the hold!! So back we trundle and as we approach the gate the pilot announces “cabin crew, doors to manual for arrival”. One of the shortest flights ever. When eventually we get rolling again and nearly a half hour has been lost. We’ve visions of an overnight at O’Hare but, once airborne, it is announced that we will arrive on schedule. Whether we’re going to be taking a shorter route or if the pilot will be putting a bit more wellie on the accelerator, that sounds like good news.
If you’ve ever flown on an American airline, not just AA but Delta, United, Continental etc, you will be used to, not to put too fine a point on it, the elderly and grumpy cabin crew. There is an explanation for this. An American friend, an airline stewardess in her younger days, has told me that the well paid jobs on long haul flights are seen as the perks and are in the fiefdom of the senior unionised staff. A good living can be made by just flying two round trips in a month. Today the cabin crew were a bit younger, very smiley and even charming. What a change. Maybe it is because AA has filed for bankruptcy protection (Chapter 11) whilst they restructure the airline. Over-staffing and work practices are key areas that they are planning to tackle. Looks as though it may be good news for the customers. Drinks were served with no charge for the wine, an edible meal was produced and the debris was cleared away very efficiently. Definitely 10 out of 10.
I like to follow the flight-path of the aircraft on the seat-back TV. Even though we are now out of the cloud there is a lot of low cloud below so you can’t actually see anything. However the screen shows that we are now passing the lower tip of Greenland and that’s something I can picture. The next land will be the bleak North East of Canada where we will cross the coastline between Ungava Bay and Goose Bay. With 4 ½ hours to go, we’re not quite at the halfway point. There’s something exciting about seeing the names of places below. To the north is Godthab, the capital of Greenland, which conjures up a picture of a desolate township, knee deep in snow and a small harbour sheltering boats from the Arctic Ocean. To the south is St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland a massive island province in the delta of the St Lawrence River, and further south is Halifax, Nova Scotia. When I was a lad, i.e. a long time ago, planes from Europe to North America called at Prestwick in Scotland or Shannon in Ireland for fuelling before heading out across the Atlantic to Gander in Newfoundland for another refuel. What a contrast it is today to be flying over those places without a second thought.
In between showing the flight-path, the screen shows adverts. By modern standards they are surprisingly crude with little visual impact. The first one is for Rockwell Collins, the people who do the flight-path system and which, bizarrely, gives the software revision number to umpteen decimal places. The second is for Avis car rental and the third for a charity called Airline Ambassadors, which seems to provide people aid to third world countries. The adverts are each a single page with a simple graphic or photograph and a few words in uninspiring fonts. Not exactly memorable – as you ask, I’m writing this whilst watching them, not from memory!!
It’s now 13.45 Central US Time (18.45 GMT) and we’ve just crossed over the coast of Labrador at 38,000 feet and have technically Crossed The Pond. There are about 1,500 miles to go and a little over 3 hours flying time. According to the on-screen map we will be flying over Labrador then Quebec whilst keeping to the north of the great St Lawrence River.
Place names that are strange to me appear on the map. The current list includes Sept-Iles, on the St Lawrence, Chicoutimi, near Quebec City and Timmins between Hudson Bay and Lake Huron. Must do a little research to find out why these particular places have been selected for international fame.
Our route will take us across Lake Huron, the third largest of the Great Lakes, the US State of Michigan and finally over Lake Michigan before landing in Chicago. It’s unlikely we’ll see much of this as the cloud cover is persisting. I spoke to soon. Over Martin’s Lake, to the north of Georgian Bay a major inlet of Lake Huron, the clouds start to disperse. The view is down to a land of frozen lakes, forests and tundra but not much snow. Even Lake Huron is solid ice. Then the cloud comes in again and the view disappears.
Just a little quirk about the time change to Summer Time. North America moved their clocks forward by one hour last weekend, the 10th/11th March. This means the time difference between our home in Richmond and our son Oliver’s home in Kansas is temporarily reduced from 6 hours to 5 hours. Of course whilst we’re in the US, the UK will move to BST just to confuse matters further.
It’s now just less than 1 hour to O’Hare and the wonders of US Immigration. What will they have in store for us today, slow, plodding officialdom or the charm offensive? Let’s hope it’s the latter.
We’re now sitting at the gate for our next flight down to Wichita, Kansas, with plenty of time to spare. American Airlines has been very well organised for the arrival of our flight with express channels set up for passengers connecting to other AA flights. As we disembarked we were met by ground staff with a big notice asking for passengers with connecting flights to places including Wichita to step to one side. They had boarding cards waiting for two families with our name. At first they tried to give us boarding cards for Denver but the mistake was quickly rectified and we got the correct boarding cards in a large, bright orange folder. The instructions were to look for staff wearing orange uniforms and they would guide us through all the potential bottlenecks.
Step one was to walk what seemed like 10 miles to the Immigration Hall but, as promised, there we were met by a girl dressed in orange who directed us into a very short line and we were rapidly processed, our fingerprints and photos were taken and our passports stamped. Less than 10 minutes to get through US Immigration was a ‘first’ for us. Next we had to go to the carousel to collect our bags, which of course seemed to take forever – no fast track at this point. Then it was through customs and on to the flight connections desk. En route we had to pack the bottle of duty free bought at Heathrow into our hold luggage to avoid it being confiscated by airport security – that would have been a disaster. At flight connections our bags were taken from us with no ceremony and we were told to take the shuttle train to terminal 3. This involved two escalators and a run along a passageway to catch the next train. Sweating profusely we boarded the train for the short ride around the airport.
Off the train and it’s another up escalator followed by a walk into the terminal and onto a down escalator. There is now the airport terminal security to go through but, true to form, an orange clad girl is waiting and directs us to a fast gate with no line. A cheerful security guard greets us and checks that our paperwork is in order before directing us to the scanner. As usual everything removable has to be put in trays, including our footwear, and sent through the scanner. We are then directed, one at a time, into a full body scanner, another ‘first’ for us. I still have my watch on and am told to take it off and hold it above my head. Out the other side of the scanner the security guard is clearly not happy. He proceeds to do a full pat down and finds the offending object – a neatly ironed and folder hanky! You cannot get anything through these pesky machines – it’s surprising you’re not told to strip given that the machines show you in ‘the buff’!! Margaret was stopped, not by the body scanner, but by the bag scanner that detected a bottle of water that she’d brought from the last flight. It doesn’t seem to matter how many security screenings you go through they always seem to catch you out.
Then it’s off again and on another 10 mile hike to the gate where we arrive with time to spare. In fact, the flight is running a little late so by the time it is called we are a little more relaxed. On to the plane, a Brazillian Embraer with three seats in each row split one and two by the aisle. Our bags are just small enough to fit in the cramped overhead bins but some are less fortunate and have to have their bags labelled and stored in the hold – no big deal really.
The one and only steward looks fairly straight-faced but turns out to have a real sense of humour when he makes the announcements. We’re told that any electrical equipment has to be turned off. Not just in airplane mode or vibrate mode or standby mode but O..F..F mode. Then the pilot comes on to explain that there is bad weather between O’Hare and Wichita and we’ll be taking a diversion. He then provides unwittingly an excellent demonstration of the expression “divided by a common language”. He says we’ll be going to the ‘backside of the weather which doesn’t sound so good in English English. The normal route would be southwest to Kansas City, Missouri then on to Wichita but today we are told the route will be due west over Iowa to Nebraska then south to Kansas and Wichita. So we head off into a lovely sunset. Soon we begin to feel the bad weather with lots of turbulence. The sky, even at 36,000 feet, is full of thick black cloud. Anyway that doesn’t last long and soon we are cruising comfortably way above the cloud line with the sun disappearing in the west and the dark blue of the night sky starting to appear.
This turns out to be a short-lived relief as the cloud thickens below – and above us – and before long we’re back into turbulence. Outside has been transformed into a black, impenetrable mass of cloud. It’s at times like this that you’re glad that the pilot has rows and rows of instruments and is as interested in getting safely back to terra firma as you are. Soon we hear the change of note of the engines signalling that the descent has begun and, on cue, the pilot comes on the PA to tell us that we will be landing at Wichita momentarily, as they say in the States. As we come in to land the clouds lift and, although it has clearly been raining, it is now dry. The plane hits the runway with an almighty thump and goes into serious reverse thrust. What’s the problem? It’s only this crew’s last flight of the day and they are just keen to get to the stand asap.
Getting off this plane, or ‘deplaning’ as they say, is easier said than done. A combination of the small overhead bins, low headroom and a full plane makes for lots of congestion. Fortunately all of the passengers are well-behaved, helping each other to get things out of the bins, and soon we’re off the plane. As the last passenger leaves the plane the crew pick up their bags and follow along behind us. Wichita Airport is purely for domestic flights so it’s easy to get from the plane to the arrivals hall where Oliver and our grandson Henry are waiting. It’s hugs and kisses time!!
We get our cases from the luggage carousel and out to the ‘van’- ‘people carrier’ in English English. It’s now 20.30 local time (01.30 GMT) and it’s over 15 hours since we left Richmond to cross The Pond and there’s still an hour’s drive to Hutchinson where they live. On the journey we hear that Oliver has been offered a promotion and they will be moving to Little Rock, Arkansas this summer. Time to start planning our next trip – which will still mean CROSSING THE POND.