Monday, December 04, 2006

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!