Thursday, December 28, 2006

Regional Airports Work!

Looking back through the archives, two opinions emerge about airports in the UK: Heathrow sucks and Birmingham wucks! And how this came clear just before Christmas! We had booked a few days in Paris, buying cheap tickets on Air France from BHX to CDG (that's Birmingham International to Paris Charles de Gaulle, now you understand why airports have three letter acronyms!)

For several days the London-centric media ranted on about how many flights were canceled at Heathrow. These were mostly flights that could be substituted by rail journeys, including all domestic flights as well as Paris and Brussels. There is a gross falacy about such decision making in that most people who don't live near Heathrow use it as a hub, flying, for example, from Newcastle to Heathrow to Bermuda. Heathrow has nothing material to add to the journey except to provide a means for flying from Newcastle to Bermuda. Substituting a rail journey from Newcastle to Heathrow doesn't make any sense at all if your final destination is on another continent and the plane isn't going to wait!

We read the media reports with interest, noting that BHX reported few delays and even fewer cancelations. When it came our turn, our Air France flight, the second of six daily scheduled flights, left on time and arrived in Paris ahead of schedule with about 20% of the seats unfilled on the Friday before Christmas (according to the media the busiest day of the season). Meantime at Heathrow passengers had been living for several days in marquees supplied with free coffee and blankets for their trouble. Approximately 110 miles away from BHX!

The conclusion is reasonable: use your regional airport whenever you can but check first that your airport of choice has the latest navigation equipment. Nearby Coventry was closed for several days and all their passengers were transfered to BHX.

A new passport needed. . . .

This post is for all British citizens. After two and a half years my passport is full. It's those African full page visas plus the stamps they add every entry and exit. Europeans don't even get their pages opened, never mind stamped, Americans have small chops that take up little space. African visas are a money making enterprise. It appears that the UK Government agrees.

So, a day long visit to the UK Passport Agency in London. Except they've changed the name to "Identity and Passport Agency" in preparation for issuing ID Cards at some future date. You book a time to show up and must show up at that time. Arrive early and you will not be admitted. I bet most people, thinking how unreliable public transport can be, arrive early.

Once admitted the queuing system makes no sense whatsoever. Then you go through a security check, passing signs that inform you that the staff must be treated with respect and civility (should not that be a two way street?) before receiving a number. Because I will have to apply for visas, my passport had to be processed as a priority (cost £108), with the finished product available in four hours (don't show up earlier, you will be turned away!). I observed to the clerk that in France there is no charge for a new passport that replaces one that is full before its expiry date. When I asked for a jumbo passport I was told that they are not currently available - maybe in two months time! I was also told that, because it was assumed that my visas were for business (presumptuous!) then the cost was not really a consideration!

Finally, I took two sets of photos which was just as well. The first set was rejected because I was smiling! "But I always smile!" I said, smiling even as I said it. How will you know it's me if I am not smiling in my passport? No direct answer: "Pay the cashier over there."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas!

In case you are wondering, we've been very busy recently. No Christmas letter this year. We have the idea of publishing a letter at some random time in 2007. So it won't be a year end missive. But, just in case you are wondering, we're doing fine and we are looking forward to a little R&R.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Kinshasa to Birmingham - a timeline

December 15 - 2:00 p.m. Check out of hotel in Kinshasa. Minor panic, appear to have lost passport. Find it in suitcase, not at all in keeping with my normal organization, a place for everything and everything in its place.

December 15 - 2:30 p.m. Car arrives to take us to Kinshasa Beach, on the southern bank of the Congo River and ferry terminal. Note potholes in Kinshasa's road are getting larger by the day but regional stability appears to be settling in after the recent elections.

December 15 - 2:45 p.m. Arrive at the Beach, drive through to the VIP area (this costs extra but it is worth it!). Hand passports to agent who disappears. We go to the VIP lounge and enjoy the air-conditioning for a few minutes.

December 15 - 2:55 p.m. Our immigration paperwork complete, we walk across to the jetty and board the "Trans Vip" the executive ferry service across the river to Brazzaville. The river is in full flood, this being the rainy season. Brown muddy water carries floating islands of vegetation past the ferry boat. Locals fill buckets with river water and wash themselves and their clothes in the turgid liquid. No photography is allowed at either beach. I understand the BBC recently had a camera destroyed for filming in this area. My D200 stays hidden!

December 15 - 3:10 p.m. A lot of shouting on the pontoon next to the ferry - in local Lingala dialect - and I learn that someone is late and his secretary (a young lady carrying a parasol - another missed photo opportunity) has been sent to hold the ferry. We wait. The ferry master sounds the air horn in frustration.

December 15 - 3:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes late and we cast off into thr swift current and turn to cross the mighty Congo. Out comes the camera. Subjects include panoramas, pirogues (dugouts) and floating islands. Not as interesting as the beach scenes, but you get what you can get.


Floating Islands

December 15 - 3:40 p.m. Arrive at Brazzaville Beach. The usual hassle as officials decide which way we should go. Our passports disappear again, this time in the hands of our Congo Rep. representative. We retire to the VIP lounge for a short stay.

December 15 - 4:00 p.m. Our immigration clearances are approved and we drive through the solid steel gates onto the streets of Brazza. We drive past several bombed out buildings that are reminders of the 1998 civil war. A hotel, a supermarket, an office building. Then we drive up into the diplomatic area and the Meridian Hotel.

December 15 - 4:30 p.m. The Meridian Hotel. We find seats in the lobby and order drinks. And wait until it's time to go check in at the airport.

December 15 - 6:00 p.m. Off to the airport - a short drive (compared with Kinshasa which is about 25 kms from the city center along poorly maintained and lit roads jammed with ancient minibuses). At the airport we check in - first suitace check, then passport check, then ticket check, then check in at the Air France desk. Someting isn't quite right - my ongoing ticket is no longer the 7:35 a.m. flight to Birmingham, it's the 9:55 a.m. flight. No explanation offered. Explanation requested. Response is a sheepish grin. Later find out the plane is late arriving and will leave over an hour late.

December 15 - 7:00 p.m. Back at the Meridian and in time for dinner. After the haute cuisine in Kinshasa the menu in Brazzaville leaves a lot to be desired. Beef Bourguinone is tough. Oh well.

December 15 - 9:00 p.m. Off to the airport again, this time to leave Congo (we hope). With boarding pass, immigration form filled out we quickly pass the first hurdle, immigration. Then the security check. One passenger in the roomn at a time, the machines appear to be working. But the exit door is locked and a rather sad looking Congolese woman demands money to open it. "CFAs?" she says. "Euros?" she repeats with the same pleading inquiry. I hand over 5,000 CFAs ($10) and explain that that will have to cover all our party. She doesn't look happy (thought: could she look happy?)

December 15 - 9:20 p.m. Departure lounge and duty free shop. This is no free enterprise haven. Dirty, poorly stocked with broken airport seats (the sort you cannot sleep on even though you are often asked to wait hours into the night with nowhere else to go) and with no PA system, no TV screen. Fortunately there is only one international departure - Air France to Paris. Just as well, I am not sure they could handle two flights at once in Brazza!

December 15 - 11:35 p.m. After over two hours I decide it's time to join the diminishing line for hand baggage security check. They have set up their table in a dark area of the lounge. It takes forever to check everyone on a full Airbus 330-200. I then walk down the stairs to have my boarding pass checked, re-checked and then cross-checked against my passport. The agents again work in near darkness and take forever to compare photo with face, straining to see the photo in the lights of a passing fire truck.

December 15 - 11:55 p.m. I board the bus and wait. It's hot and humid. The bus tries to leave but someone has parked a container in its way. The driver gets out to move container and the door closes behind him. I wonder if he's locked out. Fortunately he isn't.

December 16, 00:10 a.m. On board at last. Crew don't feel inclined to offer refreshments until just before take off. Gulp.

December 16, 00:30 a.m. Take off, seat reclined, asleep. Just like that.

December 16, 4:00 a.m. Wake up freezing cold. Passenger next to me has her blanket and mine wrapped up around her chin. Go to request extra blankets, but there are none left. Change into warmer clothing reserved for Birmingham arrival, drink glass of water and fall asleep again.

December 16, 7:00 a.m. Beginning descent into Paris with a glass of orange juice and a croissant. Land at Terminal 2F, the same place the Birmingham flight departs from. That's good. Or is it?

December 16, 7:20 a.m. Deplane at Terminal 2F, join security line to re-enter terminal 2F. Experience once again the new liquids and gels restrictions.

December 16, 8:00 a.m. Finally pass through security and into lounge. My boarding pass for the flight to Birmingham is reprinted and I sit down for an hour and a half wait.

December 16, 9:25 a.m. Decide it's time to look for the Birmingham departure. After a problem with the ticket reader we are off onto the bus. The flight is about 25% full. The bus takes off on a journey that seems to be taking us out of the airport - are we being hijacked? No, our plane is just on the other side of Charles de Gaulle airport, and when we finally reach it, it is still being cleaned. We are confined to the bus for 15 minutes. Finally we are allowed on board and I find my seat is in the wrong class. But there is plenty of room to move around, so that's OK!

December 16, 10:15 a.m. Take off. Remarkably quick but then it's obvious: we drove the length of the airport in the bus so the was no further room for the plane to taxi! Things start to look up.

December 16, 10:10 a.m. 55 minutes later we land in bright wintry sunshine at Birmingham International. An airline employee guides us through four (4) locked security doors from aircraft to immigration hall. I am first in line and whisk through. Even more surprising my bag soon follows onto the carousel and by 10:30 a.m. I am driving out of the airport. Oh that the rest of the journey could have been so slick!!!!!

If you add up the time spent standing (or sitting) still, it adds up to 495 minutes! That's more than 8 hours!

CBSO Podcasts

Early podcasts were pretty basic - the UK's Daily Telegraph was a good case in point where journalists simply read aloud their written pieces. But podcasts are coming of age and here is a really good example of the genre:

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has a special place in our hearts so it was with great pleasure that we discovered its podcast series that started back in September. Expertly produced with interesting interviews and recorded diaries, special pieces on each section of the orchestra as well as the occasional snippet of CBSO excellence, these once a month thirty minute podcasts are highly recommended. Of particular interest was the description of a five day, five city European tour this past September, seen through the eyes of management and a second violin member of the orchestra.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Created in Birmingham

Introducing a brand new website, Created in Birmingham, a professional blog that, in the words of its editor/journalist/correspondent/interviewer/researcher:

will evolve with time. In order to deal with something as massive as “The Creative Community of Birmingham” I’m treating it rather like a travel journal as I explore this strange environment. At this stage my main areas of interest are as follows:

Who’s out there? What work is actually being done in Birmingham? And who are the people doing it? I want to put a human face to the portfolios and websites.

How do people do their work? What is it about Birmingham that helps or hinders creative people?

How do people come together? From informal collaborations to collectives to business forums. What’s the map of Creative Birmingham like?

How does Birmingham as a city relate to its creative community? What are the means of communication? What structures are in place? What aspects of the redevelopment are relevant? That sort of thing.

How could it be done better? That’s the big one. I don’t expect a comprehensive and objective answer any time soon, but aiming for one should be illuminating.

So far one item is up, an interview with digital fine artist Rob Youngson. This looks to be an interesting blog, definitely one for the Bookmarks Bar.

Not one of the best journeys. . . .

It didn't help that I was suffering from allergy-induced bronchitis with attendant sinus headaches and so on. But even so, the experience of flying from Luanda to London and on to the Cotswolds by train was not one I would wish to repeat even in a robust, healthy condition.

To be fair, the British Airways flight (BA-076, Boeing 777) was not the culprit.

Leaving Luanda is never easy, even on a local flight to, say Pointe Noire, but a Triple Seven is a big plane and so the formalities tend to take quite a while. With a departure time of 23:55, I left the hotel at 21:00 and arrived at the airport at 21:20. There I joined the back of the line to check in. This line crawled forward at a pace that would make a snail look like a hare, but eventually my ticket was examined (1) and I then waited to be called to the ticket counter. Here (2) I was given a bording pass and my bag was checked in. Except I noted that it wasn't and no tag had been attached. Ten minutes later I left with a baggage claim receipt that matched the tag on my bag. The next line (3) allowed us to wait for entry into the immigration area. Once through the door, another line to the immigration desk (4) which seemed to take forever. Finally, with yet another stamp on my passport it was a quick stride across to the Angolan security check (5). For Africa this was quite impressive and it would appear that both personal and hand baggage scanners were working. I was also asked to remove belt, shoes and so on, again most unusual for the region. Successfully through security, the next stop is customs (6) where you are asked if you still have any Kwanzas, the local currency. I didn't, knowing that if I did they would confiscate it.

At this point there was time for a short hiatus and it was getting close to 23:00 hours, enough time to have a drink of mineral water and meet up with some colleagues who had already gone through the same six steps as I had.

Official boarding time was 23:10, so we decided we should make a move and joined the back of the queue for the British Airways security check (7). This involved a reasonably well executed hand search of cabin baggage as well as a good frisking down. I'm all in favor of this, by the way, as long as I know everyone else on the flight has been subjected to the same treatment. Then we joined another line to show our passport and boarding card (8) to an official. After this I gave my boarding card to the lady in charge of a computer and I was ticked off the list (9). A wait to get on the bus and then a short drive to the plane. At the foot of the stairs we showed our boarding pass again (10) before climbing up to the door of the plane where we were welcomed aboard. That's ten steps and it took two hours!

Now we are on the plane and the two voices over the PA system (Pilot/Captain and Cabin Services Manager) extend a confident aura that we will finally be on our way. We do indeed take off slightly behind schedule but with a promise of an on-time arrival at London Heathrow.

Then, in the middle of the night, the Pilot/Captain wakes us up with a request for any doctor on the flight to make him/herself known as there is a problem with a medevac patient in First Class. Ten minutes later a somewhat more urgent request: Is there anyone on board with medical experience? Thirty minutes later we are informed that a decision has been made to divert to Algiers to unload the patient. This, of course, was not a decision made lightly so it can be assumed that the patient was indeed probably not going to make it for another 2-1/2 hours without a doctor and other medical facilities. It must have been a difficult decision to make as I am not sure I would opt for an Algiers hospital in a life or death situation.

So we landed in Algiers, and, after about 45 minutes, took off again for London. Breakfast was served and we settled down to wait for arrival at Terminal 4.

Now Heathrow is not my favorite airport. In fact it is a place I try to avoid as much as possible. So it was no surprise at all that the first problem was the lack of a gate and buses were used to get us to the immigration, customs and baggage claim hall.

Immigration was easy as was baggage reclaim. So far so good, all I have to do is get to the Central Bus Station for the coach service to Reading Station. But that's not at Terminal 4, so a short (free) ride on the Heathrow Express is required. I just miss one so it's a 15 minute wait for the next train. Once at Terminal 1/2/3 and everything else that is the original Heathrow Airport, it's a long underground walk to the Bus Station. Easier for those who know which way to go for the signage is far from complete (and never mind if you don't understand English, you could get lost at Heathrow and never leave the place at all!). Finally, the Bus Station is reached but the elevators are mal-functioning and it takes 15 minutes to rise up to ground level. At this point I feel I am nearly home. Big mistake, there are still more hoops to jump through. There is a special line to buy tickets for the Reading Coach and they are supposed to be able to sell combined coach/rail tickets. But my request for a Senior First Class Single to Moreton-in-Marsh cannot be accepted by their computer. They do sell me a Senior ticket for the coach journey and I go and look for the coach. The coach is there but no driver, so we wait in what is a pleasantly cold and blustery morning for him to return. Finally, I sit down on the coach. The driver is a joker. I am tired. The jokes don't work. Quiet isn't an option.

Sunday morning traffic in Reading is hopeless (do they all go to church in Reading?) but we arrive at the station in good time and I line up to buy the next ticket. The agent cannot explain why I couldn't have bought one ticket at Heathrow. I then have time for a large cup of hot chocolate at the station concourse (Reading Station is actually not a bad place) before proceeding to Platform 4 where my train will be the third to arrive (the indicator board actually says so!). A train for Penzance arrives and leaves, then one to Swansea does the same. I look down the tracks toward London and see my train arriving. But it isn't going to arrive at Platform 4! I look up at the indicator board. It still says Platform 4. Then the Public Service Announcement. There has been a platform change. Please go to Platform 8. This involves crossing the tracks by a footbridge, knowing all the time that every second must count. I make it in time to board the train and find a seat and collapse, wheezing, for the hour long journey to Moreton. It took me all of that hour to recover my breath.

Home Sweet Home!

Comments on the above. In some ways the experiences in Luanda and London have their parallels. It's almost like traveling from one third world country to another. Heathrow really is not an impressive gateway into Britain. They are currently building Terminal 5 which I am sure will be quite impressive when opened. But what about the existing infrastructure? Half the escalators, elevators and moving people carriers are out of commission, the signage is terrible even for English speaking passengers, there is no help or assistance available when you need it and the entire place looks like it could do with a good clean. Which is kind of what you experience in many Third World Airports!