I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Breaking MAD

So there I was, finally on a BA A380. It's my third A380 trip of the year, the first two being Malaysian airlines from Paris to Kuala Lumpur in late Feb and Qantas from Sydney to London a couple of weeks later. They were a bit more auspcious than this, but nonetheless first impressions were good.

OK, yes, it's economy, but the legroom was again surprisingly OK. I didn't have any grief with my knees on either of the long hauls. Sure, the seat could be a bit wider but as previously mentioned I wasn't going to pay a £600 premium for that. More importantly, the inflight entertainment system is a world apart from the awful piece of crap on the 747. This was a fancy, accurate and responsive touch screen, a decent size, and with a correspondingly fancy remote (which I never once needed to use). This plane also had a bigger library of entertainment - more movies, more audio, and more episodes of the same TV shows. I dove straight back into Happy Valley and binged through the whole series, enjoying it immensely though finding the ending a bit meh.

A380 entertainment system. Woo.
The moving map service was also very fancy, and kept telling me we were going to arrive before 5am. My connection to Madrid was scheduled to leave at 6.20am with boarding closing at 6am, as tight as on the way out but the consequences of missing it a lot worse. I tried to put such thoughts out of my head as the food and booze arrived, a chicken curry served in - what the deuce? - not plastic! The cutlery was still plastic, but the dish itself was actually ceramic. In economy. Colour me surprised.

I made a note to also watch the Marco Pantani documentary that's based on the book I've read twice, and 21 Jump Street, a recommendation from August's random boozeathon in Birmingham. Midway through the former I was very properly nodding off, so decided to actually just try and get some sleep. I managed, but it was much worse quality than on the 747 on the way out. Once I decided to give up, and put the screen back on, things got even worse - I tried 5 times to watch 21 Jump Street but the in-flight system was rebooting every 30 seconds or so. Not just mine, everyone's - despite most people being asleep and with the screen off, the reboots were causing them to all come on with a splash screen before timing out. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Nothing was said about this by any of the crew's announcements at the end of the flight, and I'm going to frivolously complain to BA just to see if I can't wangle some bonus Avios.

At the end of the flight it had been fixed enough for me to catch another 3 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love Larry David. Breakfast of a cheese omelette with sausage arrived, and the moving map stuff was so detailed it even had the correct livery on the plane. I love that attention to detail.

Anyway, we ended up landing at about 5am and I'm already nervous. Sitting in the back of the plane wasn't sensible since I was always going to take a while to get out, but it didn't help that the entire section ahead of us was occupied by a group of youngsters who wouldn't know a sense of urgency if one came up to them and said, hello, I'm a sense of urgency. Fidgety Darren is fidgety.
Appetising breakfast is appetising.

We've landed at T5 satellite C, the furthest from the main terminal (aka A). There are flight connections desks in each part of T5 and monitors showing the gates for flights. I am, of course, flying from A. God damn it. My fellow passengers saunter very slowly and hinder expertly, and at the monorail I have to sprint to get in before the doors shut. We stop at B before A and there is confusion and we fill up. At A there are shitloads of people - super early doors is when a lot of red-eye A380s and B747s arrive. I'm really hoping not many of them are getting on another plane, and also that not many people topside are doing something so daft as to catch a 6am flight on a Sunday.

The first part is fine; the connection desks are as easy as on Friday night. Security is a different kettle of frogs, as very few scanners are operating and the queue I'm instructed to join is not moving. Neither is the conveyor belt. I'm staring at the big departure screen clock and it's 0535, and I'm stood behind what I estimate to be 25 people. And because two queues turn into one at the scanner, I'm feeling like I have a genuine chance of missing my flight.

And then, a miracle occurs. The second I step to the first dog leg of my queue, the conveyor next door opens up and I steal in, becoming 2nd person in the queue. I dump everything in a box and just as I'm about to get scanned I'm told to stop, because once again I'm behind Metal Mickey. A minute of patting him down and I'm allowed through, setting off no alarms. But my bag and stuff takes an age. This is a bag which has gone through x-ray machines about 6 times in the last 40 hours, I mean c'mon...

OK, Darren, relax. It's now 0545 and I'm through. I briefly think about going into the lounge but don't, instead searching for gate A5 immediately. It's the closest one to both where I'm standing and the lounge, as it happens.

Knowing that I am now actually going to make my flight, I check-in for my Madrid to London flight. To remind you: the main ticket I'm flying this weekend is the outbound leg of a Paris to Madrid ticket, which just happens to go via Johannesburg. Well, I need to get back from Madrid and so I bought a separate ticket for that. I have around 2 hours and 15 minutes between scheduled landing and departure, so if I'd missed my outbound I'd have been in real financial grief: BA would have kept their part of the deal and got me to Madrid, but I'd have been too late and that separate ticket is none of their business! So thank fuck I made it.

Obligatory exit-row-legroom shot
Talking of business, when I checked in my phone said "well now, before you do this, do you fancy upgrading to business? It's €109". Quick currency conversion and I'm thinking, yes, yes I fucking do. So I try, and it says "well you can't, unles you want to pay €389". Oh fuck off. That happens about 5 times as I hope and hope and hope for it being a glitch, but boarding starts so I check-in in economy and scowl a bit. Fuck you, BA! (Dear BA, I love you really)

At the plane I'm greeted by a steward who tells me I have the best seat on the plane with 27A, "and I don't say that to just anyone!". It is indeed a virtually-unlimited-legroom seat, being an exit row on a 767 (two aisles, even for short haul, dontcha know). I settle down, a seatmate arrives and goes immediately to sleep, and we set off.

I spend most of the flight writing the previous blog post. It's not an interesting flight, the most noteworthy part being the captain's description of the route being "and then we take a detour because we have to avoid some rich people's houses". There's no entertainment, it's 2.5 hours but there's only the tiniest of service - an orange juice and "sausage and tomato mayonnaise croissant" plus optional cup o'tea, no booze and not even a second service despite the length of time. C'mon BA, I've had 2 beers on a Manchester to London hop before!

For the last half hour, my seatmate is awake and we have a chinwag. He's heading to Madrid to work, and his work is jumping off mountains in them suits that make you fly. Wow. He's running this startup business in south Wales all about niche/adventure sports and I said I'd pimp it on my blog, even though (and I told him) I only have about 10 or 15 readers. So, you lot, see if Geckgo floats your boat. DISCLAIMER: I've barely looked at it, and the real full launch is the festival next April. Expect lots of rough edges, I think.

For my part, I explained to him what I was up to and he didn't seem particularly fazed. Good stuff. But saying it out loud did make it seem all a bit mad. I mean, madder than I already realise it is. I've just got off a flight from Johannesburg, changed onto a Madrid flight, and when in Madrid all I'm doing is ... getting on a plane back to London? Fucking behave.

Flyertalk had told me there is no security at Madrid airport if you arrive at Terminal 4S and are leaving from the same one. Sadly, this is not true, and there was a big queue 'n all. Nonetheless it was largely hassle free and the Iberia lounge was easy to find.

First impressions are that it was great. Airy, excellent views of the runways etc, lots of seats and food and booze. I found a seat fairly easily and got on the free wifi, which lasts half an hour only. Posted my blog and grabbed a diet coke and some salty stuff. That done, and falling offline, I went in search of more food and booze.

Hmm. The booze selection is actually pretty dire and I can't spot any beer. Most of the plates of food set out for breakfast are only good for dregs and I charitably assume things will improve as we are possibly at crossover o'clock, it being around 10.30am.

Things don't improve. I find beer at the very opposite end of the lounge - it's largely a mirror image with reception in the middle, but the far end also has a big wine selection and some showers. The beer is a Spanish brand of which I've never heard before, and the can is passable enough. The whole lounge is now very busy and seats are at a premium.

I decide to pay for internet. This is a mistake. The signup process is horrifically broken and it takes me three attempts and two browsers to finally make a payment, only for the "congrats, you're online" redirect to fail and I've ended up spending €5.50 on fuck all. So instead, I go back to reception and ask for another half hour free and they happily give me that, but the username and password first doesn't work and second time does the same as my paid attempt. Third time works though, and I waste my half hour seething and not really doing much else.

I grab a second beer, a bottled sort of Lite stuff. It's not calorie free nor alcohol free, it's a mere 3.5%. And it is fucking disgusting. The plates of food are still pretty ropey and I get some unsatisfactory salmon, cheese and ham. Bleh. Unhappy with everything I pack my bag up and go to at least find a better seat. The lounge is now heaving with people seated on floors, all sense of calm or separation from the riffraff now gone and the place basically being a bad self-service Wetherspoons.

The sixth of six.
I just about manage to grab a seat that someone is vacating as I pass. It's comfortable enough such that, combined with my now vastly apparent tiredness, I fall asleep. This is bad. It's only about 40 minutes 'til my flight and if I miss it I am in as much schtuck as if the inbound had been late after all. So I get up and go to the loo, which finishes off my dissatisfaction by having only 3 urinals and a long queue. Fuck this, I leave and go into the main terminal. It's less crowded, and there are more loos.

I stop briefly at the vending machines selling electronics, including €799 for an iPhone 5S. That's some vending machine! But before I know it I'm at my gate, people are already boarding and I go straight to seat 15D, my only aisle seat of the trip. There had been no window seats available and as with every plane so far, almost, the thing is rammed. The middle seat is occupied by a commuting member of cabin crew, in uniform.

As with the outbound, this is a mediocre flight. Only one service run, I have a beer and the chicken sandwich. There is no choice, and those who ask for something vegetarian are largely denied food because they only loaded 5 of that choice. The couple of hours pass uneventfully and at Heathrow I have my worst arrival experience for a long time.

First, get a remote stand, so have to wait for buses to take us to the terminal. It's raining as I walk across the tarmac. In the terminal building the hinderers are out in force and we have arrived at the same time as two other planes next to us. Immigration is as busy as I've ever seen it, even the queue for the e-passport gates is long and people at the front are failing to cope with the staggeringly simple instructions (wait to be told, do as told, leave booth). Grargh.

Baggage reclaim is a zoo despite me not even needing it, and at customs there are 6 different people having their goods examined. I overhear one "so, all these cigarettes are for personal use?". Heh. Landside I source diet coke and an egg-based sandwich and get the tube to Hatton Cross. Citymapper tells me an X26 is due in 5 minutes to I eschew the rammed 285, and the X26 takes another half hour to arrive. But I get a seat and don't sleep past my stop; at Kingston three different people ask me if they've missed the X26 and I have to deliver the bad news to them. But then, just before 4pm and the Man Utd vs QPR game, I'm at home and on my sofa.

Truth told the whole thing was much less horrific than I expected. The uber-snob in me was dreading the thought of all those miles in economy given my usual travel habits, but a man's gotta earn miles somehow and y'know what, that's perfectly doable down the back. Sure it's physically punishing, but I've just done back-to-back red-eye long hauls with 4 short hauls bookending them and no proper sleep, no time spent horizontal, and I'm totally in one piece and had a whale of a time. Good job too, since I repeat it (except with added brutality) in reverse in a couple of weeks' time :)

The final tally: 52 hours out of my flat, 6 flights, 5 airports, 4 lounges, 4 countries, and 13233 miles travelled. When the tier points hit, I should move up to the Bronze tier in BA's scheme, and the Avios earned get me that much closer to a future business or first class leg for which I've got a much less take-for-granted appreciation now. Huzzah!

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