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

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


It was a pretty inauspicious start. I mean, it was absolutely tipping it down with rain and the taxi was 15 minutes early. No diplomatic plates or flags on the bonnet, but a nice enough car and a driver who was good value with lots and lots of stories about pointy end flying, his 12 years as manager of the restaurant at Sydney's poshest golf club, and a whole host of cricketers he'd met/served/driven. The weather stayed torrential and he dropped me off at SYD terminal 1. I'd been led to believe that there'd be someone kerbside to check me in and escort me through, what with flying first class, but there was no-one. He just handed me my bag and said "right, go inside, head to zone D, have a good day".

Zone D was pretty near the door but the first class check-in bit wasn't as easy to find as it might have been. In fact it was nothing more than a slightly sectioned off couple of desks, with no particular flash about it - certainly nothing like the (merely) business class check-in lounge at Singapore! Had to wait for the couple in front of me to finish, and then went ahead. The lass on the desk was very friendly and explained to me both where the lounge was and the desks for claiming tax back on purchases. She handed me an express path slip and I headed to security just as soon as I'd filled out my departure card.

Express path is, again, nothing special, just a short cut to the front of a couple of queues. I'd been warned that the tax refund can take anything between 5 minutes and an hour, and thankfully it was pretty empty when I got there and I got seen by far the fastest of the clerks. That's another £40 taken off my iPad Air price.

The lounge is up a couple of escalators, past an initial doorman, then up another escalator to the main reception and desk. Qantas's first class lounge in Sydney is, as far as I know, renowned as one of the best airport lounges in the world. I'd been here before during my brief foray as a gold card holder in 2008 and remember it being fantastic. Today, it seemed basically identical. Very full though, and I didn't have a huge amount of time. The food is made to order, if you like, though there is also a buffet. I didn't bother with any, as there was a massage appointment to keep in about half an hour's time. I grabbed a seat and poured myself a beer, watching as the staff went up personally to basically everyone else but I just kinda got ignored. Huh. I mean not that I was after anything - though a glass of champagne wouldn't have gone amiss - but still, I felt kinda invisible, or at least not getting the full first class treatment. Hopefully there would be some champagne on the plane.

Turned up at the spa at the time I was told to, and had to sit in their reception area to wait for my masseur to be free. Two others turned up and walked straight in. Hang on...

The massage itself was a full half hour whole back/neck/shoulders treatment, with oils and stuff. Incredibly effective, especially as I'd opted for firm pressure. I walked out feeling a million dollars, and it was almost time to board - the display said the gate was open, though I popped out and found that not to be true. Time for another beer, which I finished just as boarding was finally announced.

The A380 is still a beast. There were separate airbridges for every class of service, so I took the first class one. There are only 14 first class seats out of way over 400 seats in total on this plane, and I'd picked 3A - the centre of the cabin, just so as to not be to near the loos and galleys. Maximum privacy was my aim, but tbh there are no bad seats in first fucking class for fucks sake and they are all super private. You get a suite - the seat faces forwards to begin with and has more leg room than most planes, and once you're airborne you swivel it to face the giant TV screen, a position in which there is enough space for it to turn into a bed longer than 6 feet.

There's a mega fancy handsets for controlling the entertainment, there's a plug socket and two USB sockets - which also have charging power - three tables, mini cupboards in which to store headphones, tablets, laptops, etc, some decent noise cancelling 'phones, and you get handed a Qantas first branded pair of pyjamas (a "sleeper suit") and pair of terrible slippers. Also there's a posh amenity kit tailored to your gender, from SKII - so for men there's a razor, foam, aftershave, deodorant, flight socks, ear plugs, toothbrush and paste, etc etc. So this is all like business class, except better. I'd never had such space on a plane before, which isn't surprising as I'd flown first class just once - on BA back in January 2009. This was a world apart.

But, still, I kinda felt invisible. Lots of other passengers were being greeted or otherwise attended to by the cabin crew, whereas it felt like an age before I got more than the initial hello from when I'd boarded. I had read on flyertalk about hot and cold crews, and what's more Qantas have just announced 5000 job cuts so I suppose morale is low. But, c'mon, customer facing staff, can I have some love? And maybe some champagne?

Ah. Hello. Here's Nathan, the man who'll be serving me on this sector from Sydney to Dubai. And here's the guy whose name I've forgotten, the cabin manager, welcoming me back again. (What?) And, whoa, here's the captain, here to explain that there's a slight problem with two of the crew intercom phones and so boarding has been paused, they were going to reboot the whole plane, and we might have to get off. I'd best neck these olives and almonds and the champers Nathan had given me (Pol Roger Winston Churchill 2000, don't you know. Is that good? It tasted good to my pikey buds).

Maybe I wasn't invisible after all.

The intercom problem got solved without those on board needing to get off, so it recommenced and I had another glass of champagne. I was also asked what drinks I would like once we had taken off, so I asked for another champagne and a gin & tonic, plus some water. And then, when ordering food, I changed the gin to a bourbon, since I'd spotted my favourite brand on the menu (Woodford Reserve).

Hot towels were handed out and I got utterly drenched. I think mine had been stored in a bath. We took off 45 minutes late and I watched it on tailcam. Like the one on the Malaysia Airlines flight except this time it's an actual channel on the entertainment system. I could watch it whenever I wanted. Oh my. Would I fit in any TV or movies? God, I loved watching it. I swear the quality was better than last time, even though it couldn't have been because an A380 is an A380 and that's Airbus's call, not Qantas's.

Seatbelt sign went off and it was time to start playing with the seat. You can control everything - the direction it faces, the arm rest, the lumbar support, the headrest, the footrest, etc etc. The control system has lots of granular controls but also a set of preset positions each with optional extras, so I went for "lounge/read" with the window blinds down and privacy shade up. Drinks arrived, and the bourbon was a massive double.
Then I scrawled WHAT HAVE I DONE?? in my pad. This was ridiculous. I was in the most amazing, posh, expensive, stupidly exclusive and luxurious public transport I'd ever seen. I loved it, and here I was, only an hour or so onboard, wondering how I'm ever going to cope with flying down the back ever again.

Then, something crappy happened. It's not perfect, y'know. The menu had a whole bunch of choices and I got told they'd run out of the one I picked. How can that happen? There are only 14 people in this cabin and it's first class. Surely you pack one of each just to make sure everyone gets everything they want? Ah look, my heart isn't in this paragraph, it feels like an exercise in seeing just how stupidly churlish and 1% and first world problem I can be. It plainly wasn't a problem, I'd have the salmon. Oh, and could I have another champagne?

Family Guy on the box. I let loose a very loud bubbly fuelled snort at Brian saying "but no-one can ever know that" in an episode I now can't find online. Damn it. I was hoping to link to it so you could all believe me that it was that funny. Anyway, 2 episodes down during which I was taking photos of all the stuff in the suite and Nathan gave me some more champagne.

American Dad was up next, and the laughing out loud continued. I let on the obvious, telling my mate Nathan "as I'm sure you can tell, this is my first time in first class, I treated myself" "Not a bad treat, is it". He set up the giant table, big enough to have plates for two - which is handy, because there's also still enough space at the other side for someone to sit on the ottoman companion seat. There's a sign saying "no more than 2 people per suite", and there's enough space that such a sign is actually necessary. Did I mention I was enjoying myself yet?

It was a 6 course meal washed down with champagne and, oh, go on then, refill the bourbon why don't you? I was offered a chocolate or a salted caramel, and my brief indecision led them to say "or just have both". Why not? And then a plate of cheese and quince and crackers arrived. I've written down that I watched the film Closed Circuit, but I'm not sure I believe that because I just looked it up and the plot is wholly unfamiliar. So I guess I watched something else.

The A380 is a double decker plane. At the front of the top deck, the way Qantas have had the interior done, there's a little "bar" area - without a bar, but a couple of sofas and a TV and a load of magazines and snacks/drinks you can help yourself to throughout the flight. It would have been a real waste for me to not go see this, so I took my iPad and champers up there to chill for a bit. The cabin manager came to have a chat - he was the guy who'd welcomed me back, but I had to correct him. There's someone else who looks like me that travels in Qantas first? Is it Frankie Boyle?

Two people came and refilled my champagne. The second one was apologetically a glass from whatever they were serving in business class, as apparently someone had been at least partly responsible for them running out of the first class stuff. Bastard! Who is it? I'll tear them a new... oh, oh, OH...

It was time for bed. While I'd left, they'd made mine up - it's not just a seat which reclines to flat, they actually put sheets and a duvet and blanket and pillows on it. I got changed in my sleeper suit and grabbed 5 hours of wonderful uninterrupted kip, with all the space in the world. Woke up and watched The Butler, during which I leaked floods of tears at all the heavy emotional/righteous bits. This happens a lot - I've cried more at films on planes than on the ground. It helped this time that it's a great film, and this was much less embarrassing than when I once welled up at a Lindsay Lohan rom-com. Eurgh.

A tea service and bottle of water arrived, as did a period of turbulence. Once that was over it was breakfast time, so some quiche and peach juice and a fruit plate came along. After that I queued for the loo to get changed back into civvies, and packed my bag up. We were coming into Dubai, about an hour late at 0140 local time. Even those who are heading on to London have to get off and take all their stuff. Each member of staff came and shook hands, thanked me for my custom, hoped I had a good time and would be back soon.

I don't remember much about Dubai airport from my previous and only visit, back in 2006. I know my BA flight left at about 0130 and it had been a real hassle getting through to security, the lounge was lacklustre, and the flight mediocre but I'd enjoyed the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. This time was a little different. Qantas have a huge relationship with Emirates, the home airline, so they share a terminal and lounge and stuff. And also it's 8 years on and I'm in first class. So let's see how it is.

Massive queues for security, which everyone has to go through regardless of if you're arriving, transferring, or merely in transit. The queue jumper slip got me through the central, fast line, and then I was in what could have been any airport anywhere: a glorified shopping mall with a load of planes. It's about, I dunno, 0200 by now. I spotted the sign to the lounges and headed up the escalator.

Oh, wow, that's a big set of posh doors to the first class lounge. Well, here goes.

HOLY SHIT. That's not a lounge. That's an entire floor of the terminal. Every gate has a set of lifts taking you directly there, and the lounge has its own high end shops, champagne bar, cigar bar, restaurant, showers, sleeping rooms, business area, vast amounts of seats, another restaurant, wait, is that another restaurant? And another bar? And a Hendrick's Gin bath. This was amazing.

Wandered into a restaurant bit without realising I had to wait to be seated. A girl took me to a table for one and introduced me to my waiter, who offered me a drink. Could I have a champagne? Why, of course sir. Would you like the menu, or to use the buffet? Y'know, the menu will be fine. I think I'll have the alaskan crabmeat to start and paneer achari for main, thanks.

NOM NOM NOM. Would I like some more champagne? Well, why not. Back on the plane I'd stopped writing down each time I had a drink and was just keeping a tally. This "lounge" was the scene of glasses 11, 12 and 13.

Then, boarding was announced. In fact, not boarding, but last call. I'd finished eating and drinking so packed my stuff up and walked in a bit of a hurry towards the gate. "London, Sir?" "Yes" "There's no need to hurry" and my gait slowed a little. Showed my boarding pass at the gate and was told which lift to use because, yes, there's a first class lift depositing you on the correct airbridge, while all those people who are allowed in the lounge due to the card they carry but not where they seat, they had to use the other lifts. HA! Take that! Or something.

Back into seat 3A and a whole new crew came to introduce themselves. They were playing a song called "Homeward Bound" over the tannoy, well played Qantas. Yes, I think I'd like a champagne and some almonds please. This flight was entirely overnight, leaving at 0300 or so and arriving just before 0700 and taking only 8 hours compared to the first sector's 14. I chose not to have a full meal service, opting only for a cheese plate. And some champagne.

I thought about sleeping, but actually y'know what? I'm in first class, bitches, I'm gonna stay up and enjoy the seat and etc. So I watched my second super-politically-correct feature of the journey, having done the race card with The Butler I now went for Battle Of The Sexes, the story of feminism in 1960s and 70s America as told through the tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. I'm such a champagne socialist. Oh, champagne? Thank you. (He spilt it on me; "Don't worry, I've had much worse liquids spilt on me")

Then I made a mistake. I was meant to be staying awake to enjoy the ride, but two things happened. First, I nodded off during the film I put on and this caused them to clear away my glass. Final tally: 17 glasses. Maybe that was enough? And second, the film was Man of Tai Chi, a kung fu movie which is Keanu Reeves's directorial debut and he also stars in it. It is FUCKING SHIT. And I've seen a lot of bad kung fu movies and consider my opinion to have some basis to be trusted. Seriously, it's FUCKING AWFUL. "You owe me a life", oh get fucked Keanu. You fail.

Suddenly I realised something. It was about 1am GMT on March 3rd 2014. I start my new job in just over 48 hours. Eek. Why do I have to work? Why can't I just fly around the world like this the whole time? How can I become properly rich enough to live like this ALL THE BASTARD TIME? That's the problem with "once in a lifetime" experiences: when you don't win them, but have managed to engineer a situation in which you could actually afford it yourself, you instantly don't want once to mean once. How can I do this again?

Anyway. Time for a massage. The seat has loads of massage settings which are mostly ineffective. I watched a documentary on JFK's assasination which referred to it as "the most unsolved crime" in history. You what? And then a terrible documentary on Lance Armstrong's history of cheating. Then Futurama and, oh, a nice cooked breakfast. No, really nice. But without bacon. Then an episode of Veep but before I knew it we were coming in to land. The adventure was pretty much over. Thanks to being late, it was daylight, and I watched us cross London and land perfectly via tailcam (and got a video of it, hurrah!) and, damn it, it's over. Time to get off the plane.

There was some problem with the first class airbridge so we had to traipse upstairs and go out the business class one. That's no great shakes of course, but the woman in the seat behind me had been wheelchaired on and off and on again at Sydney and Dubai so I had no idea what they were going to do for her. The queues at Heathrow for immigration were utterly immense, and though I had a fast track pass this really isn't meant to be used by Brits, because our lines are supposedly fast enough.

As it goes, I was put off by the British ePassport gate lines so wandered up to Fast Track which was even worse, so went back and queued up. Took 20 minutes to get through, and as I emerged I found myself alongside a fellow Qantas first passenger who had taken exactly the same amount of time. All's fair then. Wandered down to the baggage carousels and our flight's bags weren't coming out yet and besides, I needed a shit. Even first class passengers do that y'know. After that my bag was already out and I strolled to the Qantas chauffeur desk landside in Heathrow Terminal 3. My driver was waiting for me and we took a long walk into the car park to his Merc. And there I am, 9am on a Monday, back home in Surbiton.

What a ride.

(Next up: Moscow in April)

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