Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Flights are fine - but what about the airport?

It really has never been easier to get around.

Air travel is no longer restricted to the rich and famous. Anyone can now book tickets to destinations all over the world quickly and easily using the internet, often at costs cheaper than a train ticket from London to Birmingham. For this we should remember and thank Sir Freddie Laker, who back in the 1970s started his own airline and offered flights to New York and Toronto for less than a hundred pounds each way. I used his Skytrain service to Toronto a couple of times, on wide-bodied, three-engined DC10 airliners, and they were great. Comfortable seating with plenty of leg room, a decent on-board food and drinks service, all included in the ticket cost. The in-flight entertainment was rudimentary, of course, as was the norm in those days. One movie was shown, projected on a couple of unstable screens that unrolled from the cabin ceiling at strategic places along the cabin, and the headphones were cheap and flimsy and often only worked in one ear. Contrast that with today’s offerings: Qatar Airways, for instance, offers all passengers, whatever their travel class, a choice of over 4000 films, tv shows, and music CDs in a variety of languages, all piped to seat back screens the size of a decent laptop and with sound through high-quality over-ear headsets (in First and Business they are top of the range Bose noise-cancelling sets).

But the thing about Skytrain was that it brought long distance air travel to the masses. Before Laker, it was the domain of huge national carriers like BOAC (as BA were then), the now defunct TWA and Pan-Am from the US, Air France, Lufthansa and so on. These airlines shared routes not on a competitive basis but by cosy agreements that ensured they all had more or less equal market shares. They were able to charge high prices for an admittedly often high quality product, and made decent money from every flight on every route. Sir Fred changed all that. These days he would be termed a disrupter, and a fine one he was too. Because of the cheap flights, people began to flock to his little airline for their trans-Atlantic flights, most of which tended to be for family visits and leisure rather than business. BA and its American “rivals” - more correctly, cartel partners – were forced to match Fred’s prices, and even exceed them, and having deeper pockets (they were national carriers, after all, and benefited from a much wider network of international flights to subsidise the price war) were able to lose money on every flight. Laker complained they were out to bankrupt him, but the Governments of the time, and the airlines themselves, insisted this was not the case: they were only offering competition. The inevitable happened. In any price war, Laker was bound to lose, and this he duly did. His airline went bankrupt within months of the price war starting, and the days of cheap trans-Atlantic travel were over – for a few years at least.

But eventually, more disrupters came along, including Richard Branson, who decided making money from selling records was all very well but there was more fun to be had (and much more money to be made) from travel, and started Virgin Atlantic airlines. Despite a sticky start (BA et al tried their price cartel tactics against Virgin as well) his deeper pockets and probably better business acumen enabled him to succeed where Laker had failed. Admittedly his prices were not as cheap as Skytrain, but to offset the higher charge Branson offered a more entertaining trip. Food and drink was better quality, the IFE was much more varied and more modern than rivals offered, and he frequently hopped on scheduled flights to meet and greet the passengers, chat to them about their experience and what could improve it – something the executives of his flag-carrying rivals would never have dreamt of doing. Sure, a lot of it was not much more than a publicity seeking gimmick – but Branson did listen, and his product evolved in line with the customers’ preferences. The result? Virgin flourished, as it continues to do to this day. Along the way, he introduced features that were revolutionary but are now considered mainstream. For instance, when he introduced his Upper Class (business) services, he not only sited the premium cabin on the top deck of the 747s he was by now using on his trans-Atlantic routes, completely separate from the economy travellers, he also introduced separate priority check-in desks, better quality in-cabin service and a limousine pick up from the traveller’s home or hotel direct to the airport. It worked: on the Heathrow – JFK route (and later Gatwick to Newark and elsewhere) Virgin Upper Class became the carrier of choice for many businessmen.

It forced the flag carriers to follow suit with their variations on the theme, and this in turn has led to the hugely profitable (but hugely expensive and highly competitive) business class market that now provides fully enclosed suites in Etihad and Emirates First Class, flat-bed and half-enclosed Business Class seating in just about every other airline, and little perks like pyjamas and slippers, and amenity kits for Business Class passengers on long-haul routes. Tickets may well cost several thousand pounds per trip, but there is no shortage of takers and on most routes for many airlines, the Business and First Class passengers effectively subsidise the economy class fares.

But to get back to the first couple of sentences of this piece….

Over the last ten to fifteen years, while the business class offering has improved, so too has the choice for the economy class market. This has come about through the rise of the no-frills airline – the successors to Freddie Laker’s Skytrain services. All over the world, airlines have sprung up that provide low price tickets on single class aircraft, where food and drink and even baggage are classed as extra price options. Some of the products are good, in other cases the quality is appalling. There have been good products that failed - in Eastern Europe, for instance, an airline called Sky Europe offered a decent range of routes, including to the UK, at sensible prices that included food and drink, but they went bust after a couple of years of struggle. A Polish airline, OLT Express, offered flights between Gdansk and Warsaw for PLN20 (against a train fare of at least PLN120) and a flight time of 30 minutes (by train 4 ½ hours minimum), and was introducing flights to the UK for a range of fares including 25% of seats on each flight guaranteed at PLN50, when their owner became embroiled in a commodity trading and insurance scandal that resulted in the airline closing its doors after 6 months or so (the scandal is still rumbling through the courts today, five years later).

Other, similar carriers have flourished. Wizz Air, based in Hungary, were widely tipped to collapse two or three years ago, but are still very much in business, offering a huge range of flights around Europe and beyond (as far as Tel Aviv and Dubai and Tbilisi) at very reasonable prices, and with a fleet of airplanes that is expanding almost weekly with new aircraft being delivered. As with all low-fare airlines, food and drink and baggage are optional extras or purchased on board, but the costs are not excessive. Their product clearly works. British carriers like EasyJet and Ryan Air similarly dominate, with extensive networks and high volumes of passengers, but tend to be more expensive that Wizz. Ryan Air in particular sell seats at very low prices, but then bump them up with a huge list of extra costs – a £15 charge for payment on a credit card that is not Ryan Air branded, for instance, an additional fee for non-internet booking, £50 for a checked bag booked on line (a fee that trebles if you leave it until you get to the airport), £15 for taking a laptop on as cabin baggage….. They also fly to airports that are nowhere near the published destination: a flight to Brussels, for instance, actually lands at Lille in northern France (not even the same country!) from where you have to get a bus to the Belgian capital (at additional cost, of course).

The same pattern has emerged in the US domestic market, and across the Far East and India, and Australasia, South America…… Clearly, low cost airlines are here to stay. But at present, they are mostly short haul – that is, a flying time of under about 4 hours. Intercontinental routes – between Europe and US, for instance – are still served pretty much exclusively by the big airlines like BA, Air France, American Airlines and so on. This is primarily down to sheer economics. On prime routes such as these, the fuel burn is of course, much higher, and the landing costs (charged by airports for each landing on a given route, and limited in number) are also higher. Because of the route distances, either bigger aircraft are needed or more modern and fuel efficient (and hence more expensive) planes. So far, no-one has been able to make the economics work.

But that seems to be changing. More disruptors have entered the market over the last year or so that are trying to take the no frills concept intercontinental – and seem to be meeting with some success. They are doing this by using newer, larger, leased aircraft, and flying from smaller airports. Again, the focus is on the trans-Atlantic routes, but if they meet with a similar level of success that Wizz and Ryan Air and EasyJet have reached in the short-haul market, no doubt they will expand their intercontinental networks.

Based in Europe, the main players are Norwegian Airways and Wow! Norwegian is the larger of the two carriers, and has established a hub at Gatwick in the UK as well as its home base in Oslo, and offers an expanding route network around Europe and to the US. Right now, its offering includes a meal service where orders can be placed and pre-paid when buying and checking into flights on-line, as well as through the plane’s IFE system – which is also offering a decent selection of films, tv shows and music. Wi-fi connectivity is also offered to passengers in flight, all at reasonable prices. Ticket prices are also highly competitive, and the airline is picking up some decent business.

Wow!, meanwhile, offers a similar level of in-flight service and costs, but is based in Iceland and thus routes many flights through there. Reykjavik airport is acting as a hub connecting Wow!’s European network with some of its trans-Atlantic ones. But not all of them: there are other direct trans-Atlantic services, for instance Barcelona to Los Angeles: this is a 10 hour flight, but carries an identical service pattern to the airline’s European services. It, too, is picking up some decent business and is looking to expand its offerings.

Nothing is certain, but if Norwegian and Wow! succeed – as seems quite possible at the moment – then a potentially huge low-cost market will be opened up, and as travellers our options will be limitless. No doubt new competitors will take to the skies, and the big flag-carriers will be forced to compete too. Prices seem set to fall, which will of course attract yet more customers.

This is all good news for us, as travellers.

What concerns me a little in all this is what happens before you get on your flight, because in my humble opinion an awful lot of airports are simply not keeping pace with developments in the air. I guess this is not surprising, given how long it takes to get any kind of expansion plan approved, at least in the UK. Heathrow has been at pretty much full capacity for a few years now, and trying to agree an expansion project for the same amount of time, but is bogged down in round after round of public enquiries, planning applications and consultations – and of course appeals. There seemed to be a final decision made last year, but it was overturned (on appeal, of course) and a new round of consultation is underway. Earliest completion date now seems to be 2025 – and that is just for a new runway (no buildings….).

Luton, meanwhile, now gets my vote for the World’s Worst Airport – and when you think about some Third World monstrosities and New York’s JFK, that is really saying something. It’s always been a small, regional airport, home to a handful of small charter airlines catering for the package tour market. But the explosion of low-price carriers led to Wizz Air, Ryan Air and EasyJet establishing bases there and hence an incremental increase in flight numbers. There are no jetways at all – boarding and exit from planes is done by strolling across the tarmac from the terminal to removable steps. At the gates you wait in line (nowhere to sit) until your inbound aircraft arrives, at which point you are processed through and stand on four flights of stairs, until such time as the plane has emptied, re-fuelled and re-supplied. Do I hear safety hazard? Oh, yes! Then and only then is the exit door unlocked to allow you to board. There is an expanding choice of overpriced shops, restaurants and bars in the waiting area, but insufficient seating, so waiting there for your gate announcement – by screen, no PA – is never pleasant and always overcrowded. Passport control and security is understaffed and equally overcrowded, with staff that is uniformly rude and unhelpful. Did I mention traffic? No…….well, it’s worse if that’s possible than anything inside the terminal building. There is a one way system that is poorly designed and badly signed (especially on the way out) and used by cars, taxis and buses alike, with only one passenger drop off point. Buses meanwhile come into a semi-circle of bays from which they have to reverse to leave (so there is constant waiting to both get in and out). They are also irregular – only 2 per hour to the various car parks and the car hire centre – and the bus stops themselves offer no shelter at all from wind and rain. It has been like this, due to an “airport expansion” program for a couple of years now, and shows no sign of improving any time soon. On a scale of 1 to 10, I have no hesitation in awarding it a generous -50.

Stansted in Essex, also home to EasyJet and Ryan Air and a host of other carriers both low-cost and flag carriers, is not much better, although its road system is much better organised (despite security barriers in surprising places). The check in area is ok, but the security and passport control are always overcrowded and housed in a single football pitch-sized hall with a single line snaking through it. It’s never taken me less than 40 minutes to get from the entrance to the x-ray machines. Once through to the waiting area, there are clear similarities to Luton – overpriced shops, bars and restaurants and insufficient seating. There is the novelty, for some gates, of having to catch a shuttle train from the waiting area to a satellite building, but at least the gates do have jetways, even if they are not all in use.

Elsewhere, outside of Britain I’m afraid, the situation is better. My local airport in Warsaw used to be very much like Luton, but in the last 5 or 6 years has been completely re-developed. The entry and exit road network is efficient and well planned, there is a new rail service to a station under the terminal, and a constant stream of buses and taxis that make getting into town and back very simple and very cheap. The terminal itself has grown from perhaps 8 or 9 gates (when I first moved there in 2000) to nearly 50, housed in a single big building (that contains the original terminal as a central part of its design) so that getting around is very easy. There are several banks of departure screens, gates and changes are also announced in both Polish and English, and an excellent selection of shops, bars and restaurants to keep you amused. They are a little expensive, but at least there is also plenty of seating at the gates themselves, and all of these are served with jetways. Security checks can be a little slow and disorganised, especially if you’re departing during the morning rush hour (from about 6 to 9 on weekdays with Monday being the worst – naturally enough) but by and large the airport is a pleasure to use.

Schiphol in Amsterdam is a huge airport, in acreage about the size of the Isle of Wight (perhaps an exaggeration but still – it goes on forever, with a network of about 5 runways and connecting taxi ways for the planes, and at least three public motorways and a main railway line running underneath them) but it’s surprisingly easy to use. There are dozens of self-service kiosks to print your boarding card and deposit your checked bags (all very simple to do – who needs gate agents?), and security is very quick and efficient. Plenty of reasonably priced shopping, a good selection of bars and restaurants, and lots of seating areas, including outside with runway views and deckchairs for those rare Dutch hot and sunny days. It’s probably my favourite airport.

I quite like Frankfurt too, similar in many ways (including size) to Schiphol, but my favourite German airport is undoubtedly Munich. Great lay out, great selection of shops and food places, and all managed with Teutonic efficiency. On reflection, I think it might just be better than Schiphol (though a good bit smaller). Zurich is good too, as is Vienna, but I’m not so keen on Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where getting around is less easy and the staff less friendly (at least in my experience). It also seems to lack the shopping and eating variety offered by the Germans and Dutch.

So it seems to me the future is rosy for those of us who travel by air, whether for business or increasingly for pleasure. There is plenty of choice and good value to be had now, and this will continue to improve still further over the next couple of years, it seems to me. It’s the airports themselves that now need some attention, especially, I’m afraid to say, in my homeland. Flying into a dump like Luton or Stansted is nothing less than an embarrassment for this Englishman.

Whether the British government has the interest in making the badly needed investment any time soon, with everything else that is going on in my country (in particular the B-word, and crises in both the NHS and education services) is open to question. The state of British airports is but one element in an essentially broken transport infrastructure that will need a significant pile of money to fix, and it will not all come from the private sector (as our politicians desperately hope). If the economy does tank after 2020 – as many experts believe – then difficult funding decisions will need to be made by courageous, forward thinking politicians. And they, I’m sorry to say, are pretty thin on the ground.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Delays, diversions and cancellations - when things go wrong.

Considering the number of flights I take – and have taken over the last 19 years or so – I’ve had relatively few big problems. Leaving aside small delays, which are a fairly regular occurrence no matter which airline or route you fly, I can think of only two late cancellations, one missed connection and two unexpected diversions. That’s not bad out of well over a thousand booked flights, both within Europe and intercontinental. Of the problem flights, every one was unique – there is no common thread of inefficiency or incompetence, so this piece is not in any way a stick to beat the airlines with. Indeed, three were down to the weather, acts of God, over which no airline (indeed no person alive) can have any control.

I had one missed connection by courtesy of the UAE Royal family. I had spent a pleasant couple of weeks in Abu Dhabi and was returning via Paris. For a pleasant change I even had a business class seat, and had settled down with my welcome drink, a good book and the music library on my phone awaiting take off. Departure time came and went with no sign of the engines being started or the doors closed. There was no announcement from the flight deck, so we were completely oblivious to what the problem might be. Nearly an hour passed, and I was getting a bit concerned, given my transfer time in Charles de Gaulle (not the most passenger friendly airport in Europe) was under two hours, and I knew I had a terminal change to make. I asked a flight attendant what was happening, and explained my concern. She was very apologetic, and explained that there was a late passenger arrival. I suggested politely it was a little unreasonable to hold the flight this long for a single passenger….. She merely smiled and said it was “a very special passenger”.

He arrived ten minutes later, sweeping on board in his flowing robes and accompanied by his personal assistant and probably two wives, turning left into the First Class cabin. And off we went. We made up some time en route and arrived in Paris fifteen minutes before my connection to Warsaw was due to take off. I had spoken again to the flight attendant, who promised me I would be met by an airline rep at the gate and hurried through – but first of course we had to wait for the Prince and his entourage to leave, and he was in no hurry. Then it was my turn: the crew held everyone else back and escorted me off the plane, where I was indeed greeted by the rep. He was very helpful in getting me through the security and off to the other terminal, then through a second security check, but it was all to no avail. As I ran, sweating, to the gate I could see my flight taxiing out. The airline (this leg was Air France) were very good, and re-booked me on another flight leaving in three hours and gave me a food voucher, so apart from arriving home much later than planned it was actually quite a pleasant journey.

Both late cancellations were weather related and involved pre-Christmas flights, one from Rome to Warsaw on a Friday evening. It had been another cool but sunny day in the Eternal City and I was looking forward to getting home for the Christmas break. I got to the gate in good time and found every other passenger was either a priest or a nun. Again, flight time came and went, this time with no sign of the plane. Then the gate agent started making an announcement, in Polish. Within one sentence she was besieged by a horde of angry and shouting clerics waving boarding passes and all yelling at once (as is the Polish way). I left them to it, having guessed I would not be flying that night.

Eventually, they all left, grumbling in a most un-Christian manner, and I approached the gate agent, who by this time looked stressed and exhausted. I politely asked what was happening. Tearfully, the poor girl explained the inbound flight from Warsaw had failed to materialise because the city was in the grip of a blizzard and there was nothing she could do. I smiled and said no problem, what about checked bags? She directed me to the baggage hall, wished me a Happy Christmas and bolted. So I ambled off to get my bag, and while doing so called my company travel people and explained the problem. Within 10 minutes they called me back with a room at the airport hotel and a flight booking via Munich for 7:30 the next morning. By the time I got to the hotel desk, the e-mailed flight booking was waiting for me. Painless.

I had a good meal and an early night, and caught my flight the next morning. It left on time, but Munich was snowy and windy, so we had to amble around over the city for 20 minutes – and my tight connection time was rapidly disappearing. But Lufthansa excelled themselves. We parked out on the apron, so faced a bus ride to the terminal, but at the foot of the stairs stood a rep with my name on a card. He led me to a minibus, and escorted me to the terminal entrance, where we were met by a security team, who jumped in the back of the bus, checked my passport, wished me Happy Christmas, left, and then the bus sped off to my waiting flight to Warsaw. I was the last passenger to board – and we left on time. Service with a smile. And I still have no idea what happened to the angry clerics.

The other late cancellation also featured Warsaw, a blizzard and a pre-Christmas flight. It happened a few years before the Roman one, before Warsaw joined the EU so security was much tighter at Okęcie airport than it is now. It was also only a few months after 9/11….. I had been living in the country for over a year, and had a very pleasant apartment in town (paid for by the bank where I worked). On the Friday I was not working, but was booked on the late afternoon flight back to Heathrow, the last of the day, along with perhaps a dozen work colleagues. The snow had started the night before, but was very light and no big deal. I took the Metro out to the apartment I had recently moved from to return the keys to the owner, then returned to my new flat for my bags. While I was underground, the snow strengthened to a full-scale blizzard and the taxi ride out to the airport took much longer than expected.

By the time I got there, the crowd around the check-in was chaotic – it turned out half the people were waiting for the preceding flight that had still not left. No-one seemed to know what was going on, so I joined my colleagues at the front of the queue and started chatting. Then, without warning, the destination screen showing the BA flight details went blank, and then replaced by another flight with another airline. We asked what was happening, and were told that check-in was suspended, we needed to go away and wait until it re-opened and then come back. We pointed out that this would mean losing our places in the queue, and the gate agent merely shrugged her shoulders and made to walk off.

One of my colleagues suggested they took our names and queue positions, so that we could be prioritised – this was before the advent of on-line check-in and seat selection – as we all had BA Executive Club cards of various colours (mostly Gold) and business class seats (those were the days!), but again the girl had no interest in helping us.

Go,” she said, brusquely and in fractured English. “Is not my problem.”

It was like waving a red rag to a bull – cue much shouting and anger. By this time, passengers for the other flight were arriving and demanding attention, as well as our two BA flights-worth of passengers, all desperate to get home for Christmas Eve tomorrow. So we all sat down on the floor, and refused to move until we had been guaranteed our places in the queue. The ground staff were going crazy, yelling and threatening all kinds of sanctions, but we stayed put. Then a couple of security gorillas in full body armour and toting machine guns strolled over, demanding to know what was going on. Amid much arm waving, the ground staff explained – presumably calling us trouble-makers, Communists, terrorists and every other epithet available in the Polish language. We remained sitting on the floor, encouraging each other.

They won’t shoot us, don’t worry.” At least, we hoped that was the case.

It’s the airline’s fault!” Which it patently wasn’t.

We’re not making any fuss, just protecting our rights.” Ummmm – let me think about that.

And so on.

The guards looked at us, big smiles on their faces, shrugged their shoulders, said something else to the gate agents, then walked off, clearly completely disinterested. The gate agent picked up the phone, dialled a number, and had a heated and unintelligible conversation with someone. She sat down again, arms crossed, glaring at us. The screen flickered, and the flight disappeared. Pause a minute. Back came the earlier BA flight. We all stood up again, as the announcement was made.

Flight BA351 to Heathrow at 12:50 now open for check-in.” It was now almost 3:00. “Flight BA 354 to Heathrow at 4:50...” (our flight) “….cancelled. Have four seats available, please contact…..”
Cue more chaos as a dozen Exec Club members leapt forward to claim those four seats. I was pushed to one side, and missed out. Gold Card or not, I was not on that flight. In the event all four seats went to lower graded Blue Card members who had sharper elbows. I got to the desk next, and asked what was going to happen to all of us who were left. The girl shrugged her shoulders – clearly she wasn’t bothered.

Tell you what, I said. “I have an apartment in town. If you can check me in to the first flight out tomorrow, with a decent window seat, right now, I’ll go back home and sleep there. One less passenger for you to worry about.” She hesitated. “Please,” I said. “It’s Christmas.”

She shook her head, but held her hand out. “Passport”.

Done. I got a cab back to my flat, through a blizzard showing no signs of letting up, and relaxed, boarding card for the 7:50 flight next morning in my pocket. I slept well, had a pizza and a beer from the fridge, and next morning headed back to the airport. Blue sky, no snow but bitterly cold. The flight left on time and I was at Heathrow by 9:30. As I walked through the Baggage Hall my mobile rang – it was one of my colleagues.

Where are you?” he asked.

Heathrow. And you?”

He was not happy. It turned out the delayed 12:50 flight had taxied out to the end of the runway and sat there, engines running, for an hour waiting for the snow to stop and the runway to be cleared. Neither happened. The plane returned to the terminal and everyone was re-booked on flights later today, then bussed off to hotels for the night. It all took until about 9:00. No-one had been on the morning flight, and most of them on the 4:50. So Christmas Eve was basically cancelled. I did laugh.

And a postscript to that affair. It turned out to be the last Christmas I spent in England. When I flew back to Warsaw on New Years Eve (I was going to a ball with some friends) I found to my surprise that my girlfriend of two months had moved her stuff into my apartment. 16 years later, we are still together, married and still very much in love, with two beautiful children. Funny how things turn out sometimes….

And my diversions?

The first was a couple of years ago. It was the day’s last KLM flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw, due to land about 10 in the evening. The flight was uneventful, until we started circling somewhere close to Warsaw. It turned out the entire city was blanketed in a fog so thick the airport had been closed – even instrument landings were forbidden. So we turned around and flew back to Poznan. There we waited on the plane for another half an hour or so before it was decided the fog wasn’t going to lift, and we were de-planed and taken to the terminal. The airport is a small regional one, and evidently not used to having an Airbus A-320’s entire passenger complement (maybe 170 of us, plus crew) descend on them at this time of day. All the cafes and bars (three of them) were closed, and there were no more than a dozen people in the building, most of them cleaners.

There followed the usual Polish chaos, with one poor young guy who worked there being badgered by a hundred plus angry Poles. It was like Rome all over again, but this time the conflict took place on the pavement outside the terminal and there was not a priest or nun in sight. Eventually we were told buses were beings arranged to take us to Warsaw, but they were having to drive some distance to get to the airport so there would be a delay. Well, yes – over two hours. They eventually arrived at about 2:30 a.m. - and both vehicles carried Warsaw number plates. It turned out there were no local coaches available at short notice and in the middle of the night, so these two had been summoned from the capital just under 200 miles away.

Boarding was, of course, a free for all, with everyone pushing and shoving to get on first and bag the best seats. Bags were left on the pavement while our friendly neighbourhood airport worker tried to load them with no idea whose bag was whose. I would not be in the least surprised if some were left behind or given to the wrong people at the end of the drive. I was travelling with hand baggage only (I had left most of my stuff in an apartment I was using in Amsterdam) so had no problem. The drive to Warsaw took another three hours or so down an increasingly foggy motorway, and we were eventually dropped at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. I had phoned ahead and my wife was waiting for me – in bed and asleep by 7.

And my second diversion was this week – and it got me thinking along the lines that have led to this little set of traveller’s tales. This time the route was Warsaw to Luxembourg, the morning flight on LOT. With departure at 7:40 this always means a brutal 5:15 alarm call, so I try to sleep on the flight – I don’t usually manage it, but this week I was lucky and was out like a light within a minute or two of take off.

A pilot’s announcement woke me two hours later, advising us that Luxembourg airport was closed due to bad weather so we were diverting to Dusseldorf, some 250 km from our destination. We would be given more information when we were there. We landed in brilliant sunshine, a lovely late winter morning, not a cloud in the sky. I called the office to let them know I was running late, and was told by a surprised boss that it was a lovely sunny morning in Luxembourg…...all most odd. I later found out from a mate who lives a mile or so from the airport that there had been a blizzard at 8 that morning, and lacking much in the way of cold-weather gear there had been no option but to temporarily shut the shop.

Anyway, after half an hour’s inactivity, the captain made another announcement – we were returning to Warsaw. We were all invited to remain on the plane and when we got home would be booked on the next available flight back to Luxembourg, but with no guarantees we would not encounter the same problem. Alternatively, we were welcome to leave there and then and make our own way to Luxembourg, but in this case as it was personal choice, the airline basically washed its hands of us. I asked the senior flight attendant if we would be reimbursed our additional travel costs (i.e. train fares) if we decided to make our own way, and she was indifferent – we could try but it was probably not possible.

My view was that since every flight on this route, no matter the day or departure time, was invariably full – typically no more than a handful of empty seats, if any – it might take all week to get re-booked. So I decided to leave, catch a train and send the bill to LOT. I would argue about it later on. With a distance to travel of only a couple of hundred kilometres, it shouldn’t take that long. I got that wrong..

We bussed into the terminal (perhaps a dozen people made the same call), and hopped on the monorail to the main terminal where there was a Deutsche Bundesbahn station. I bought a first class ticket (figuring I had more chance of a seat that way) on a train departing in 10 minutes, with a single change in Koblenz. Simple. At work not much after lunchtime.

My geography was way off. Koblenz was a two hour train ride, that wound its way south easterly along the Rhine valley and stopped at Cologne and Bonn on the way. Then a half hour wait for a connection that headed pretty much south-westerly, much of it alongside the Moselle river and through some rather beautiful hills that were covered along one side of the valley by mile after mile of vineyards. It stopped at a further 13 stations – an express train it was not! The journey was probably closer to 350 kilometres than 250, and took over 4 ½ hours. But, I have to say, it was one of the more pleasant train journeys I’ve had over the years.

DB are, as you would expect, highly efficient and their trains run strictly to timetable. My train pulled out of Dusseldorf airport precisely on time, and kept its schedule to the second all the way to Koblenz. My seat was comfortable, and I enjoyed watching the views outside my window unfold. I couldn’t help but think that much of this area had been devastated by the combined might of the RAF and USAF during the closing months of the War, as the Allies sought to destroy the Nazi industrial machine located along the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. Dusseldorf itself had been badly damaged, Cologne virtually wiped from the map, and Koblenz too suffered huge damage. And yet within a couple of decades the cities had been largely rebuilt, the network of roads and railway lines that served the industrial zones and municipalities relaid, and factories restored to full productivity. The Rhine valley remains an industrial heartland, and on both sides of the main line there was a constant parade of chimneys and industrial zones in view.

From Koblenz I was on a regional train with double decker carriages, so settled into an upstairs seat – the view is better. The first half of the journey took us through scenery that reminded me very much of a favourite route of mine, between Zurich and Geneva. There is a section on that trip where you emerge from a high tunnel and see the whole of Lake Geneva stretching away on the left, and high banked vineyards on the hillsides to the right as the line runs down to Lausanne. Between Koblenz and Bullay, the country was very much like that, except that the Moselle river was to the left instead. We passed through a number of small villages nestling between the river and the vineyards, all with narrow winding streets and small half-timbered houses. There was hardly any traffic on the roads there, and few people, but the villages looked prosperous and well-kept. Each had a big wooden gasthaus (that’s guest house) with outside terraces or gardens. I thought that I could happily lose myself in this neglected corner of Germany and lead a nice peaceful life with my books and my writing and beautiful countryside for exercise….

Beyond Bullay to the Luxembourg border just beyond Trier the land changed and steep hills gave way a greener and more rolling countryside that reminded me of the North Downs in Kent, around Sevenoaks and down through my home town of Edenbridge to the Sussex borders – well ordered green fields cut through by narrow winding lanes and lots of woodland – and this remained the view for the rest of the ride to the outskirts of Luxembourg city. I had seen it described as a Tolkienian landscape, the Shire in middle Europe as opposed to Middle Earth – that’s not too far from the mark. I could settle happily there, too – although I would guess, given the affluence of both Germany and Luxembourg compared to that of Yours Truly, that is highly unlikely. Worth planning a week of touring there in better, warmer weather though…..

And that was it. We pulled into Luxembourg Central station, bang on time at 15:35, and there was hardly any snow. It was very cold, though, and on the final few kilometres between Sandweiler and the city, quite close to the airport, lay the deepest snow I had seen all day. But it was still no more than a dusting, so I still have no idea why the airport had been closed just a few hours earlier. From what I understand from work colleagues, it must have re-opened while we were sitting on the tarmac at Dusseldorf…...a 10 minute delay leaving Warsaw would have avoided the whole affair.

Which would have been a shame.

So is there any point to the foregoing 3700 odd words?

Well, nothing Earth-shattering, to be honest. It’s a collection of reminiscences from my Travelling Life that demonstrate that, when things do go wrong and your travel plans are disrupted by reasons beyond your control, there is always some kind of compensation if you just go with it.

There is no point in getting angry and yelling at the unfortunate groundstaff when you are hit by a cancellation – it’s not their fault. For all their anger and abuse, I would wager that I was back in Warsaw long before that planeful of priests and nuns from Rome. I know I was home in England well before my queue jumping colleagues that snowy Christmas, and my holiday plans for Christmas Eve were unaffected – and I had the added bonus of sleeping well in my own flat and listening to my own choice of music, rather than tossing and turning in a hotel bed watching badly dubbed cable tv. At other times, I was helped and looked after well by airline staff and had the bonus of a meal on them.

Put simply, no matter how meticulous your planning, no matter how early you arrive at the airport, no matter how much you pay for your tickets, sometimes things will go wrong. Getting angry at innocent people, finger pointing and laying blame on airline staff who are only doing their job, and screaming abuse at all and sundry does nothing to change that – it only increases your stress levels and is therefore unhealthy (as well as unbalanced).

Relax. Have a coffee. Or a beer. Call the wife to let her know you’re ok and see how she and kids are. Take your time to decide what to do – whether re-book to the next flight, catch a train or get a hotel room (or a combination thereof) – and then do it. If doing that takes you somewhere new and unexpected, embrace it and enjoy the experience.

Life is too short to get upset by such small irritations!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Return of Travellin Bob

If there is anyone reading this – hello! Welcome to Around the World In 80 Expense Claims.

I’ve been writing this Blog for just over 7 years now, increasingly sporadically. Looking at the Archive figures, it all started in a burst of creativity with 20 essays in 2010 (in just under 4 months), then followed a peak of 38 the following year, before gradually tailing off year-on-year until last year’s nadir of a mere 2 pieces. Nothing at all since the end of February 2017.

It’s not as if I’ve been really busy the last few fallow years (2015 and 2016 were not much better than last year) with my day job preventing me from writing anything. Ever since I’ve been writing it, my work elsewhere has been pretty steady, some years better than others, but I always found time to knock something out. Truth be told, I’ve been suffering from Writer’s Block I think……

I’m approaching the age when I can retire and follow my dream (not too strong a word) of writing full time – or at least those hours when I’m not reading from my extensive and back-logged library, lazing around doing not very much, or riding my bike in an effort to keep fit and healthy. But with no salary coming in, just a probably meagre pension, and no need to get up at Stupid O’Clock to catch a flight somewhere every Monday morning to return home Depressingly Late on the Friday, there will be no excuse really NOT to write.

My equally neglected novel will be finished (I wrote it over 20 years ago, and I’ve been re-drafting it on and off the last couple of years) and published somehow. I’ll probably go for doing it myself as an e-book, given the apparently closed and locked doors to mainstream publishing. I can finish too my memoirs (started a couple of years ago, and proving harder to write than I expected) even though I imagine its audience will probably be restricted to my immediate family. I might even try to re-mould the pieces here into a more substantial and expanded volume of travel writing.

So it’s really crucial that I get the creative juices flowing again, more reliably than they have done lately.

So it’s time for a re-boot of this Blog.

It started as something to keep me occupied during slow workdays while in Trinidad on a long-term project (that was annoyingly truncated a third of the way through by my then employer without warning…..but that’s another story). I had read a lot of travel pieces in magazines and on web-sites, plus some of Michael Palin’s books - amongst others - and thought, I can do that. Having spent, at that time, 11 years criss-crossing the planet for work purposes I had been to a lot of places, experienced a lot of different cultures, eaten some great (and a lot of disgusting) food, and had a lot of laughs. And the odd tear. So there was plenty of subject material. A travel blog seemed the obvious outlet.

As these things do, it morphed as I went along, and a mix of essays on other subjects started creeping in…….an obituary for Steve Jobs. Book and record reviews. Some political op-eds. Family stuff. An article about goalkeeping, for God’s sake! In short, somewhere along the line it lost focus. Perhaps that led to this Writer’s Block, I don’t know – it certainly was one factor in that creative constipation, I think.

I also changed work, of necessity: at the end of 2013 I was made redundant, and at the ripe old age of 60 was faced with early (forced) retirement, trying to find a new employer, or starting my own company and trying to carry on what I had been doing since 1999. For purely pragmatic reasons (for which read “financial”) I took the third option, and spent most of 2014 starting my business. It was hard work, took a lot of time, created a huge amount of stress – but in that year my Blog output was still a respectable 19 essays. The following year, spent pretty much fully employed on a couple of projects, I managed just 6 – and the die was cast. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and working, and an equal amount of time benched and at home with my family – precious times, those, and spending time trying to write seemed less important. It still does…..but I need to do it.

During this period, too, the world began to change in ways no-one seemed to have foreseen. Refugee crises all over the world, but particularly in Europe that ultimately led to Britain’s referendum vote to leave the EU; the rise and rise (and hopefully retreat now?) of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; war in Ukraine prompted by Russian aggression in annexing Crimea. The rise of alt-right politics that led to Trump’s election and the Twitter fest of his Presidency, the rise and fall of UKIP and other far-right political parties on the near-Continent, all of them seemingly based on racism and anti-Islamic sentiment, and the continuing financial crisis, 10 years after Lehman’s collapse. These changes are still going on, and I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where it will all lead. I certainly can’t.

As a serial optimist, I found it all very depressing – and I still do. And that sense of anger and depression triggered first a collection of essays that did not find their way onto this Blog but found a home on LinkedIn, where my manic political ranting seemed more at home (and indeed was reasonably well received). And second, it exacerbated that damned Writer’s Block. I couldn’t see the point – if I could find nothing happy and cheerful to write about, then why bother? So I didn’t.

So the Blog ground to a halt. I tried to keep my hand in by working on my books, but that too has suffered. I had really expected to be in a position to launch The Match (that’s the neglected novel I mentioned earlier) on an unsuspecting world in mid 2017, but I’m stuck on the second (or third? Fourth??) revision still. I even launched a website, called optimistically Books by Robert Cooper, as a vehicle for sales and distribution, and somewhere to bring all my writing together in one place. It’s equally becalmed.

But the optimist in me is waking up again, I think. I’m seriously convinced that writing, still very much a hobby, is something I can do and do pretty well. Whether well enough to support me in the future I have no idea (just a sneaking suspicion it might, given the additional time to hone it) but I enjoy it so what the hell…...I’ll continue to do it.

Around The World…. Mark II starts with this little round up. The aim is to publish at least one essay a week, It will remain, primarily, travel related, and I will try to keep the other stuff on the website, together with the progress reports on the books. There are some essays on there, too, so feel free to take a look: you’ll find it at There’s an associated e-mail account so I would welcome your comments, both on the website and this Blog.

So, again, welcome to my world – or at least, my take on Our World.