Thursday, January 19, 2006

Faster than the speed of sound

I have been collecting air-miles as a bit of a hobby for many years now. When I was a seasoned traveller in my younger days, the main perk of flying was in accumulating points in order to improve the level of frequent flyer club access. I managed to get myself up to a BA Silver membership but I flew too many different airlines to various places to actually reach the heady heights of Gold (which sometimes got you free upgrades to first class and the like). I have only flown First Class once and that was on a short haul in the Middle East so the food was fine and you got a hot face towel but it was a glorified club class and it meant not having to travel with the great unwashed in the back (often literally the case in the Gulf).

In later years, I qualified for an Aer Lingus lounge card which was actually quite useful as on my regular trip there was a four hour layover between landing in Dublin from the Galway flight and taking off for Manchester or Leeds/Bradford so unfettered access to phone, internet (via dialup), papers, nibbles and Orange Juice/pop/coffee was a real boon to while away the time away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. (The lounge did have hard stuff as well but I invariably had my car at the other end of the journey). Dublin Airport isn’t particularly inspiring, although it does sell proper Guinness, of course!

I also started staying a lot at a Marriott Hotel near Cheshunt for regular visits down to Harlow. They used to give 50 air miles for a visit and also gave 250 bonus air miles every five visits so a month of stays would earn enough points to be able to travel to Paris. I merrily accumulated large numbers of points and then BA introduced a new scheme (in 1998?) called BA miles (they previously administered the air miles scheme but they then decided to set their own up). The exchange rate was 1 air mile = 10 BA miles but as an incentive to scheme-hop, they offered a transitional rate of 14 BA Miles.

Eventually, I settled down, stopped flying and became a dad. In the spring of 2003, I seem to remember that I was facing the potential of some of these miles expiring (I think they lasted about five years) and I had rather a lot of them so I trawled around to see what I could use them on that all of the family could enjoy. Unfortunately, children used up the same rate as adults and catering for three diluted the potential range of destinations. However I worked out that both Karen and myself could spend a long weekend in New York and travel there in style, First Class each way. I can’t say I was looking forward to the return flight (I can’t sleep very well on planes at the best of times) but if we went from London instead of Manchester, some flights had near-beds rather than recliners so that would have been preferable. Of course, flying from Heathrow, there was another possibility, the supersonic paraffin budgie known as Speedbird One, better known as Concorde.

My first encounter with Concorde was in visiting an HM Customs & Excise building in 1980 located right next to the runway on the fringes of the Airport. It had a very large open plan office area with big windows and everyone stopped for a moment to watch Concorde thunder by with an almighty roar. Apart from seeing it once or twice in the sky or across the apron, the only other exposure I had to it was in the form of a well-known Concorde impersonator by the name of Chris Luby (who also could do marching military bands as well as various other bygone planes). Chris would always ask the crowd if he wanted the impression “with or without afterburners” and the crowd always clamoured for with, although how most people would have been able to tell is anyones guess.

Anyway, it seemed we had enough miles to fly out to New York on Concorde but we would have to slum it on the way back in sub-sonic Club Class rather than First Class (as Concorde was twice the points of regular First Class). Concorde had not been that long back in service after the terrible accident in France and popular opinion was that it wasn’t sustainable as a service longer term so on the basis that we might never have had another chance to fly it, we opted for the Supersonic out/club class back.

Arrangements having been suitably made, we turned up at Heathrow, checked in and made our way to the Concorde Lounge with a celebratory glass of champagne. This was about 9am and the lounge was very busy indeed. The plane itself was about 10’ away through the window, with the famous droop-swoop nose looking close enough to caress. When the flight was called, however, it turned out that most of the other passengers were just ordinary scum travelling on normal First Class flights and not sonic boomers at all. Concorde is something of a letdown inside, being rather long and thin with tiny windows, two seats either side of the narrow centre aisle.

Concorde didn’t have video screens but it did have a particularly high quality audio system with decent headsets (that we couldn’t keep, alas). As it taxied to the end of the runway, I noticed that the old bird could still pull a crowd and there were a large number of plane-twitchers at the perimeter fence.

The take-off didn’t seem massively faster than regular planes but the acceleration was deeper and more sustained. The pilot had to throttle back for anti-noise measures over the South East and of course has to remain sub-sonic until well out to sea. There isn’t the Mach meter on the front bulkhead any more and I was disappointed to find that the toilets were somewhat ordinary and not the Conran designs featured on the telly the previous year. The Stew explained that about half of the fleet had been upgraded so far but they were very expensive to do (in both fitting costs and lost flying time) and BA was being careful with the pennies so they wouldn’t be all completed for another year.

Due to some quirk of the booking system, us air-mile proles were at the very back of the divided cabin whilst the people who had paid real money were in the front (perhaps a dozen of them). There were only four of us in total in sight (we were in the back row to port and another couple to starboard) but as a consequence of the flight being so underbooked we received highly attentive service and the crew were very friendly and down to earth.

They say that you can see the curvature of the earth when at full altitude (which is 50,000’+ in the stratosphere rather than the normal 35,000’ or so of the regular jet plane atmosphere) but I peered through the jam jar bottom that passed for a window and couldn’t actually tell. I could tell when the afterburners kicked in though, there were four slight but distinct kicks as they were switched on, think when a turbo kicks in to get a similar effect but forty times faster!

The food and drink were absolutely superb and I particularly enjoyed the vintage crusted Port that they served after the meal. The consequence of this was that we de-planed at Kennedy airport at breakfast time both in a rather squiffy state indeed. You land before you take off and as we wouldn’t have been able to check-in until noon, we had decided to take the leisurely subway trip from the airport to downtown Manhattan. This involved catching a courtesy bus at the airport that seemed to visit every short and long stay car park on the way to the subway station.

Sitting on the subway as it rattled its way through graffiti lined stations on the way to downtown, I couldn’t help contrasting the two extremes. Concorde- exclusive, price £££ silly money. Subway- common, price $1:50. We had the common sense to remove our luggage labels off the hand baggage as we didn’t want to get stared at too much! (You could take regulation hand baggage onto Concorde but if you didn’t need it on the flight they spirited it away into an accessible bit of hold space as the locker-space is minimal).

It was Karen’s first time to the Big Apple and only my second time. We stayed in the Hotel New Yorker, which is a skyscraper right opposite Madison Square Gardens and we had stunning views from our room only a few floors from the top. Our highlights included Ellis Island, Battery Park (where the somewhat trashed sculpture from World Trade Centre Plaza now sits) and seeing Les Miz on Broadway after buying half price tickets in Times Square (although the children had extremely local accents).

Lesser events were the trip to Radio City Music Hall (which whilst still impressive was now much more of a grockle tour than when I did it twenty years ago), also the easter bonnet parade which was more of a promenade- you turned up with a hat and strolled.

Inevitably, we were drawn to gawp at the giant hole that was the World Trade Centre site. In order to visit the viewing platform, you had to go to a booth at the harbour on the East side to pick up tickets for a timeslot the following day. There wasn’t really very much to see in the hole, other than a residual lump of steel girder formed into a makeshift cross. However, the outpourings of grief, condolences and support around the area in the form of placards, plaques, photos and even dust stained windows all tell the tragic story in their own way.

One of the museums we visited over the weekend had a very poignant photographic exhibition about what happened to many of the Firemen & women that day- some stations lost their entire shift crew on the 11th of September 2001. Photos of makeshift memorials and even a pining dalmation dog were in some ways more unsettling than the site itself.

However, the Big Apple has bounced back. People may never fully come to terms with what happened or why it happened but life goes on. They are fighting back and have reclaimed the streets again. There is a bond of unity that can be felt as an outsider looking in, a shared horror that makes people face up to their demons, push out their chins and carry on. It is in thousands of windows, bumper stickers, T shirts and wrist bands. It may be a flag, a slogan or symbol, but it all says the same thing- up yours, Osama Bin Laden.

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