Flying eh? I hate turbulence, take-off is apparently the most dangerous time, and landings have been described by pilots as a "controlled crash". I really don't like flying, it is just 20 minutes of terror at each end, with a long boring section in the middle. However, apart from getting me where I want to go, it does also offer some of the most spectacular views that you could imagine. Some of the things I've seen from a plane surpass most of the things I've seen from the ground. I've seen several mountain ranges, including the Alps, the Zagros mountains in Iran, the Rockies in Colorado and the Himalayas. The London-Hong Kong route flies across the top of the Himalayan plateau, and if you are lucky as I was, you'll get a full moon and little cloud, allowing you to watch the snowy peaks pass slowly by the plane. The peace and tranquillity below seem divorced from the plane and it's hundreds of sleeping passengers, and it lasts literally for hours, mile after mile of hilly snow. It's almost like watching TV, and just serves as a further reminder that there's a 80 degree temperature difference between the air around your face and the air 15cm away on the other side of the window. Whilst passing over this plateau the first time I flew this route, there was also a thunderstorm, but not near enough the plane to do anything, just far enough to watch the fluffy clouds glow as the lightning inside them lit them up. Mountains also make for spectacular sunsets, as I have seen whilst flying over the Alps and watching them slowly fade into darkness from the peachy orange colour the sun makes hitting the snow.
The London-Hong Kong route also passes over the endless Russian steppe, which is also spectacular, if a little boring after while. I've seen many cities from the air also, including London both during the day and night, Chicago at night, which is a like a big orange square with an even brighter orange grid over the top of it, Istanbul, Birmingham, New York, Delhi and Bangkok. Most places seem to look pretty similar from 30,000 feet, especially at night. Even coming in to land they don't seem very different until you're really close.
I've had my share of good and bad flights, and long and short. My current record for longest flight is a 14 and three quarter hour nonstop flight from Kuala Lumpur to London, which was made worse by the proclamation of the guy sitting next to me who 10 minutes after take off said to no-one in particular, "Right, I'm off to get drunk". Happily, "I'm off" was exactly that and he disappeared to who knows where on the Boeing 747 for at least 5 hours. The worst landing I've had was during a tropical thunderstorm/monsoon at Bangkok's Don Muang airport, which was only done after the pilot had circled for 30 mins waiting to see if it would get better. It didn't. The worst thing I've heard before landing was on a Lufthansa flight from Istanbul to Frankfurt, where the German pilot (Bless, English is not his first language after all, I'm sure he meant well) said over the intercom "We hope you have had a pleasant flight, and we will be landing soon. There is a little wind so it may be bumpy on the way down. Thankyou for flying Lufthansa and wish for us all a good landing". Wish?? Wish is too close to"pray" for my liking. It was a bumpy descent, but a smooth landing, especially compared to some I've had where the landing gear has slammed hard into the concrete. The best thing I've heard over the intercom was on an Air Canada flight, "This is Air Canada flight 736 to Newark, If you are not flying to Newark today, then you are on the wrong plane, please make yourself known to any of the cabin crew."
I've been on quite a few airlines. There doesn't seem to be much to choose between them, but Singapore airlines have good screens in the backs of the seats, pretty decent food and cute hostesses. They also give you the most complete "activity pack" on long haul flights, with socks, eyeshades, toothpaste, bag and toothbrush. Singapore was the first Airline I used where I saw the map on the screen that shows you where the plane is, and how far you are from your destination. Watching it for more than 1 min can be like watching paint dry though. Time to destination: 10 hours and 37 mins. Oh no, how am I going to fill so much time? Watching 3 movies in a row will only fill half of this. It's like being in a high speed tubular prison with wings. Thai Airways are pretty close to Singapore in all these quality areas too, as are Cathay Pacific. Malaysia Airways are also ok, if a little bland. In my experience of Asian airlines, I have found most of the pilots are either Brits or Australians. Emirates Airlines have tastefully coloured beige interiors and seats, with a stylish and flattering hostess uniform too, but both Emirates flights I took were late. Lufthansa predictably have very german grey leather seats on their planes, the only airline I've used with leather seats. All four recent flights I've made with Lufthansa were late, one of them by 90 mins. I'd been flying regularly for 10 years until I experienced my own flag carrier, British Airways. Apart from being late, the service was fine. As a fine for them being late enough for me to miss my coach from the airport, I now own a blue BA blanket tagged with the label "Not to be removed from aircraft". The worst airline I've used is the charter holiday line JMC, flying to Crete. Cheap but predictably low quality of service and small, narrow seats, with the cabin crew in jeans and jumpers. It's funny, when I started flying a lot in 1994/5, all the planes I used were Boeing or McDonnell Douglas. Now I seem to be on an Airbus more than 50% of the time. I like Airbus, because at least you know that they're new, rather than something which has experienced 20 years of metal fatigue. I've flown on propeller planes a few times as a child, taking a city hopping Fokker Friendship plane to Dublin and back. More than anything, I'd love to fly on JAL Japan Airlines, but they were a lot more expensive than British Airways when I flew to Tokyo, so cash wins over desire.
Airports are generally dull places, though the best of this bunch I've experienced so far is Hong Kong's new airport, Chep Lap Kok, which at least has some decent architecture and newness to liven it up. A few are now starting to get Internet cafes which is by far the best way of passing the time. The internet cafes are free in Kuala Lumpur's new airport. If you've a lot of time to kill, then the best airport is Frankfurt in Germany, as the city centre is only 11 minutes by train from the Airport and since it's Germany, you know it really will be 11 mins, on time, no more and no less. It's only 3.30 Euros each way, which is nothing when you've 6 hours to fill before your next flight. Dubai airport is a giant shopping mall, but unless you're rich then you're not going to get anything there in this world of Rolex, Gucci and Rolls-Royce.
I have an irrational fear of crashing whilst flying, but this is balanced by an equally irrational superstition of choosing to watch a film with a plane (and often a crash) in it during the few weeks before long trip. Movies I have watched before taking flights include Die Hard 2, Final Destination, Fearless, Executive Decision, Alive and Red Eye.
One of the more recent flights I've taken was amongst the worst for fear factor. Only 50 mins between Dublin and East Midlands, but it certainly was memorable and for all the wrong reasons. 1) The disembarking passengers passed me by whilst I was queing at the departure gate and more than 50% of them were muttering to themsleves or each other that they were glad their flight (the inbound version of my flight) was over. 2) We were further delayed as our runway was switched at the last minute because of the wind. 3) Despite the unflinching faces of the cabin crew, everyone else aboard was looking unhappy as the engines gave our a piercing screaming on takeoff, which lasted for a good 15 minutes. I've never heard engines make that kind of noise before, they sounded like they were dying on the wings. I wondered if he had them on 110% 4) Everyone was kept buckled in and sitting down for the duration of the flight because of turbulence. Luckily it was at least only a short flight. 5) The landing at East Midlands was in pretty strong crosswinds, you could easily see the plance moving side to side as it was coming in for the landing approach. What's more, I swear the plane landed on one side before the other, but I didn't really want to enquire afterwards. Its a bizarre feeling, with the warmth and relative comfort of the inside of the 737 compared to the cold and wind outside. It's pretty easy to disassociate your environment with the one not very far away, the plane feels like it can't possibly be part of that world. Flying could all be some elaborate trick and the distance covered achieved by some other unknown means. That is until it starts being buffeted by the wind, and then comes the realization that you're really just helplessly sitting in a metal tube hurtling towards the ground far faster than you could ever drive a car. Still, as they say, it's safer than crossing the road.
After my trip to Las Vegas, I have been reminded just how bumpy it can be to sit at the rear of the plane. Both my flights on Virgin Atlantic found me either a few rows from the back, or right at the back. This is not a great combination with the air pockets caused by the hot weather around Las Vegas. The descent into LV was a series of steps. A few of the passengers were making noises like they would if on a rollercoaster. When leaving Las Vegas, the takeoff was also not very smooth. The plane is shaken for a good long time after leaving the ground. None of this is any reflection on Virgin Atlantic however. I'm sure BMI, Southwest, Continental and all the other airlines that serve LV have the same problems. On the whole, Virgin seems a good airline to fly on, there's plenty of food, decent movies and the hostesses are friendly - although they cannot touch Singapore Airlines for cuteness.
I read a lot about Air China on the internet - after I booked my tickets. I booked purely on price and availability, which at the time (Oct 2006) was £470 for return flights to Beijing, with a free return flight from Beijing to Shanghai thrown in. This is not bad. Most of the reviews commented on the age of Air China's planes. I can say they are not new, not for long-haul anyway. The internal flight planes were a lot newer and they also code-share with Hong Kong based DragonAir, so the flight back from Shanghai was with DragonAir. However, the main thing is the long-haul, which involved a pretty grumpy looking group of cabin attendants, and the oldest Boeing 747 I have ever flown on. The configuration of the rear end galley and toilets was unlike any I've ever been on before, and somewhat less efficiently laid out. I'd guess that a long long time ago, Boeing changed it. But this plane is older than that, and it sure did look very worn out, as did the flight attendants. I was happy to get off. None of that TV in the back of the seat business either. All you get on the back of the seat is advertising for China Citic Bank, who I promise not to bank with now after being forced to stare at their logo for 12 hours, twice. There is also advertising on the fold down table too, once you fold it down. The in-flight entertainment is handled the old-school way of TV screens placed every so often hanging from the ceiling, and a larger screen on the bulkheads. There is a choice of Chinese films and a few western ones. So, on the downside, the planes are not very new at all, and the IFE is lousy. On the upside, the food is ok and the landings were very very smooth. The stewardesses did speak reasonable English, unlike some of the reviews I had read. I'm not sure I'd use Air China again for long haul, but I'd certainly use them for domestic flights within China, as then it's a whole different experience, with new planes and a happy crew. The only down thing was beyond their control, a 1.5 hour delay, sitting in the plane at Shanghai waiting for Beijing's busy airport to allow them to takeoff. (They were already planning the landing slot at this stage).
If you are looking for more opinions on airlines and airports, I'd reccommend this website www.airlinequality.com
Below is a complete list of the flights I have taken.
British Airways: 27 flights
Emirates: 22 flights
Easyjet: 15 flights
Lufthansa: 14 flights
Ryanair: 12 flights
Aer Lingus: 11 flights
Air China: 7 flights
Cathay Pacific: 5 flights
Singapore Airlines: 5 flights
Norweigan Airlines: 4 flights
Malaysia Airlines: 4 flights
United Airlines: 4 flights
Thai Airways: 4 flights
American Airlines: 4 flights
Deer Air: 3 flights
EVA Air: 3 flights
jet2: 3 flights
Like this article? Hate it? Then let me know.
Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2005 - 2015