Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Last Leg of the Flight.. Heathrow to Dulles

The last flight leg—Heathrow to Dulles, Washington D.C. This will close out the last of the 37,000 miles in the last 121 hours. While I was in London, I checked up on my flown miles count, and it was up to San Francisco, and was up to 92,000 miles. The last two South Africa flights are each over 5,000, and this flight home is over 3,000, so I will be well over my requirement for 100k.

This flight is another 777. It has first, business and economy class. It has ~18 first class seats, galley, 3 sets of business class seats 2x3x2, another galley, 5 sets of business class seats and the rest of the plane is economy. I’m in the middle sets of seats on the window side aisle seat. It’s 11D.

3:58 elapsed time, 1669 miles to go, 3:16 PM EST arrival ground speed of 524 mph, alt 36K. We have passed under Iceland, Greenland, about to pass over Canada between Stephenville and Kuujjuaq (passed over on the SFO to Heathrow leg..) somewhere near Goose Bay and Wabash. That will be followed by an apparent arch down the coastal areas of Canada and on down to Dulles.

I realized as I read the blog for the last few days, I left out part of the political commentary on South Africa, and feel that I have to comment on what I heard and what I saw. But I'll discuss it one on one with people, because I don't know enough as to whether I'm passing along fact or not. I'll do more research in the future and will engage in conversations with anyone who would like. I heard many stories from many different points of view. All I can say, is that 13 years into it's new experiment, it has far to go to break down barriers between their citizens.

We just crossed over land in Canada. Stats on the map are altitude 36K, 1367 miles to go, 4:32 elapsed time, and 2:55 to go.. ground speed 527 miles, distance traveled 2352.
Looks like we will cross over an arc over Chicoutimi and Montreal if we continue current trajectory. Though the map seems to be showing a steeper turn passing much further south of Goose Bay and closer to Stephenville than what I said in my previous location paragraph.

They have done the “night” simulation deal once again, which I find odd, since we left at lunch GMT, and will arrive at around 3 in the afternoon eastern. I guess, I thought this leg would have been done as a “daytime” flight, instead once again the “night-time” concept has been implemented and most are asleep. Oh well… I’m awake for once, except for my normal “take off roll nap”. Ground speed is slowing a bit, wonder if that is the slow turn we are executing, or the jet stream or all of the above..

All in all, I’m amazed I’m doing as well as I am. I’m not feeling sick, have no sneezies, no cough, no cold, no nothing! I sort of expected that I’d not be at work on Thursday or Friday because I would probably be sick. But that just isn’t the case, unless something catches up with me from here on. I’ve take consistent allergy medicine, vitamin c, and slept relatively well. Friday night sleep was three – 3 hour sessions, I think first Sunday night was about 5 hours, 2nd Sunday night was about 4, Monday night was 7 hours, Tuesday night was 7 hours. My lowest energy state was on arrival into Heathrow from San Francisco—but that was improved by cleaning up and walking around a bit. I’m not sure I’d recommend “world tour” to others, but it has been much less taxing than I would have thought. Challenges?? Connectivity, finding places in public places to plug in and charge up, because I was not spending any appreciable time in hotels. (Total time in a hotel during this entire trip (from check in to check out) was 3½ hours, I believe.)

By the way, the comparisons between the SAA flights in the Airbus 340-600 and this 777 are glaring in the display technology. Over the entire trip, 777 or 747, they’ve had movie channel problems where channels were either noisy, or just flat out not visible. On this flight 4 of the 6 movie channels are impossible to view. Also, the fact that they can’t restart the movies until the longest of the movies completes (and someone remembers to restart the tape). Compared to the video on demand as well as all the other offerings in the Airbus flights—this feels like a comparison from 70s to the 21st century.

Continued navigation information, coming through Maine, above Fredericton, Bangor and Madison, almost overhead of Moosehead Lake Groundspeed now 486, 36K altitude. ATC asking all to change spacing, longer spacing put in place for today. Distance 608 smiles, 6:05 hours elapsed time, estimated arrival 3:17pm EST. Just got handed over to Boston center, requested altitude up to 38K and received it. (Prior center had denied it for multiple times). Now up to 38K and ground speed up to 580 mph. arrival now in 59 minutes at 3:13 (making up a few minutes)

Well, we landed, and Tyler, for your information it was runway 19R at Dulles. Went through customs and immigration with not a hiccup. So no, there is no software looking for really weird flights like mine. I know many had speculated that somewhere on the world tour, I'd start being asked harder questions as to what I was doing for only 6-8 hours in each stop. Maybe they are smarter and know I'm just a nice person!

I plan to post a few other items over the next week...such as hints for travelers at each of the airports, hints for minimal packing...and probably a few others. I've learned many things this trip of the mundane... But mostly I've learned that there are fantastic people all over the world that give of themselves and are kind to strangers...time and time again.

Heathrow, Ready to Go Home....

Not much time here in Heathrow.. arrived around 6:45 am, and boarding begins at ~11:15. I cleaned up a bit, and spent the rest of the time here at the Red Carpet Lounge taking my notes and scribbles and getting them into the blog for the updates. So long for now... time for me to go find a ladies room (nicer in the airport than in the lounge!) Next stop Dulles and home---and a bath tub soak! Last blog to come later....when I arrive at home...

Cape Town and the return flight to Heathrow

So, I exited the terminal looking for Taxi’s… there’s a line, but you have to go get the man in the terminal and tell him what you want, and he picks who’s going to take you. The drivers themselves negotiate the fare, unless you are just going to do a standard metered ride. I asked for a ride to Table Top Mountain, and then a price for driver to stay there and take me afterwards to V&A marina area. The driver suggested alternative… drive me to Table Top, but I take a taxi from the queue there to V&A, and then call him and he’d return me from V&A to the airport. Had a very interesting discussion on apartheid, and the current situation in South Africa… he showed me the shanty-towns on the way… there are thousands of shantys, none of which have running water or sewer hookups. They all steal electricity from poles in the area (see lines, running like tent staves from every pole to the little shantys). The shanty’s have microwaves, other electric appliances, but still have the appalling lack of water and sewer. Though there is a much more casual attitude to sewer/sewage. The airports sewer lines run open to trenches around the airport—one of the improvements that the new building spurt may fix, but not a sure thing yet.

We got to Table Top Mountain in about 20 minutes, but the cable cars to the top were closed, because there were high winds…and the two cable cars were now attempting to come down at less than a snail’s pace to not aggravate the situation. (glad I wasn’t up there on those!). I asked the driver if he had other suggestions, and he said Cape of Good Hope… I pointed out my time constraints, and he said we would make it easily, and we could also take in a few other sights along the way. We renegotiated the fare for the considerably longer (~4 hour total) and went to find a gas station to refuel and to pick up waters for me and cokes for him. All along the trip he would talk about the situation in South Africa—which many of his concerns were echoed with conversations I had with others before I left SA… He recommended the first part of the trip be along the Atlantic side, which is more picturesque, and then return along the Indian Ocean side, which had another attraction and was a much quicker drive back to airport.

With my own driver, I could ask him to pull over at any “scenic” spot and take pictures and he was quite amenable… I finally stopped, because there were so many beautiful scenes that after a while they blended in…. many beautiful bays, the “12 Apostles” mountain configuration, beach after beach, beds of “Christmas Flowers) known to us as alyssum (big white and purple balls long stalks, come out late spring, early summer)…

Every time I thought we had finally arrived, we’d look around another bend and there would be another mountain to edge around… I began to worry when would we ever get there! There was no T-Mobile cell service for most of this, though driver’s phone worked until last 3rd of the journey. We went through park preserves, wildlife reserves, baboon reserves…. Then finally arrived at the Cape of Good Hope---where we paid another park fee, and then got to drive another 10 minutes to the parking lot… there you paid another 25Rand to ride the funicular rail up and back to the “almost top”. Meaning where it ends, you get to walk up at least 110 very tall rock steps up to the top where the lighthouse is. All the time battling 40+mile winds with occasional higher gusts. You felt like you had to hold on or you might get blown away. On the way my glasses were blown off my face, and only survived because a man caught them in flight before they flew off the top off the cliff. The last two flights were a battle against my fear of heights, between the vertical nature and the wind, it was a real struggle. But I finally made it up. It was amazing view with breakers and rifts where you could see the two bodies of water fighting… On this day, it was the Indian Ocean winning the dominance game…I’m told it’s usually the other way. Wild life.. there are wild protected baboons all over, but I didn’t see any. Half the park had been completely burnt earlier this year, so one side of the rode going in is charred and ashes, and the other side of the road is alive. Protea grow wild as weeds, with their exotic blooms all over the place. Some different birds with red/black/white markings, but not much in bird life because of the high winds perhaps, today.

In the middle of the confluence of the oceans, there is this quiet bay/beach just on the Atlantic side that has none of the raging seas seen everywhere else. Sand is white and the water was an azure blue with lagoons of aqua…

From there, I was getting nervous about getting back, but driver assured me we’d make it, and that I couldn’t leave having come this far without seeing the penguin colony. So we went off to the next—on the Indian Ocean side, and went to see the Penguins. This is another nature preserve where you can walk on decking down almost to the beach, and all along the way you see penguins… and at the bottom there are rocks and beach area where you see many many many penguins all congregated with their beaks all leading into the wind. From there is was pretty much back to the airport with occasional stops to look at mountains… We got back to the airport around 4:45 and I went in search of my airline friend and my bag. Found it with no problem… and she told me she had tried to upgrade my seat, but couldn’t, but instead had found me a center row where they had blocked all four seats so I could stretch out. She suggested I tell the crew that it was blocked for me when I got there so people wouldn’t “rearrange” themselves into my space.

When I got to the plane I settled in and one of the crew noticed I had placed items on two of the seats next to me… and said it probably wouldn’t work to save the space. I told them that the agent at SAA (woman I had sat next to) had blocked them for me… and the crew member said well, then we can fix that, and brought back a “crew seat” sign for two of the seats… No one encroached and I spent a very nice evening stretched out on my “lounge”.

Uneventful flight return, though very bumpy over the northern stretch of Africa.. Once again we were late, though this time only 30 minutes late on the return. 11 hours 30 minutes return time.

Heathrow to Cape Town, South Africa

Well, this was the hardest part of the journey…London to Cape Town and back. Basically there was no computer capability for the entire trip, either on the plane or off the plane. The trip was on a United code share partner, South African Airways, and as such I was able to get aisle seats, but they don’t honor upgrades from United.

South African Airways international flights – are an eye opening experience! For one who is used to the aging American fleet of planes on most airlines… this new Airbus 340-600 is quite a nice technological and ergonomic experience (the one I was on was less than 2 years old). There are 75 rows total in this configuration for SAA. There is one Business Class, with about 25 seats, then the rest of the plane broken up into three sections with three separate galleys. Every seat in the plane, not just Business class has a pillow, a “comfort pack” and a blanket nicely folded on each seat. The overhead compartments on the aisle side are a little less deep (my carryon had to go sideways on the aisle side) but that is balanced by the stowage space over the middle aisles. The lavatories have their own improvements including sinks that drain, and touch sensors for turning on cold/warm water that stays on for a while instead of holding the faucet continuously. Next, every seat has it’s own entertainment screen… which is larger than any other in seat configurations I’ve seen. They have games, video, television shows…and it’s all set up on video on demand. Each user can pause, fast forward, slow down and control their own play space. The controllers in the arm rests can be removed and are on a hard wire tether to the seat for electronics. This is a combination phone, game controller, and video controller. The SAA configuration also comes with two cameras, one mounted on the plane’s tail, and the other on the underbelly. Both are visible at all times (though at night, all you see is the lights flashing…..) I remember United used to have a camera under the carriage so you could watch take off and landing, but I believed they discontinued that after the Chicago crash, which had that configuration.

The meals were airline meals, but the fresh fruit offering were particularly nice. They have a totally different culture of in-flight safety. You know how when you are on a US domestic flight and the seat belt light comes on, how the flight attendants come through and check and make sure it’s fastened even if you have a blanket on etc… No such thing on SAA. If it comes on (even in the middle of “sleep time”) there is no PA announcement, no crew through the aisles, just quiet. (Benefit is that sleeping passengers continue to sleep.) If you get up when the seat belt signs are on, they don’t have any problem. You can go back and ask them for a snack or a drink while they are on and they don’t say a thing.

They do set all these international flights to try to make you go to sleep, it seems. They serve food and then turn all the lights off in the cabin, and start asking people to be quiet, if they want to remain up to consider the others sleeping. I got the best naps on these planes …. The major focus was on keeping the passengers quiet and for most part asleep. The flight plan took us over France, Spain, the Mediterranean, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria then out to the water off the east coast for the rest of the ride down Africa.

One other configuration I heartedly approve of is a very limited recline capability in Economy class seats. Basically the neighbor in front of you can’t recline the seat to the point where you can’t use a laptop, or where you feel their head is practically in your face… I highly recommend this for US carriers—I’m tired of idiots who simply don’t care if they make you incredibly uncomfortable, or make your workspace completely unusable.

So, I had a nice woman in her 40’s who was seated in the aisle seat next to me (51H to my 51G). We got to talking and she asked what I was planning to see in Cape Town, and I pointed out I was just there for the day…and that made her ask, what was I doing, and so the world tour story to maintain my 1K status came out. She was amazed, and then divulged that she is a sales agent for SAA, and she visits various SAA domestic sales hubs to keep them all operating the same, and she was just coming back from two weeks in England on business. She told me my hope to take a bus tour to go to the Cape of Good Hope (Indian Ocean meets Atlantic Ocean) was not practical in the time I had. She said they might not meet their schedules and they have lots of side trips, so my return would put the next flight in jeopardy. She suggested Table Top Mountain, which has a cable car ride to the top where you can see for ever, and way out into both ocean side and land side. Also, she thought the updated marina/shopping area called “V & A” would be fun. She also said that in the morning before landing I should take her window seat so I could see the beaches/mountains and the desert areas as we approached Cape Town. She said she didn’t think SAA would ever command that level of loyalty.. I noticed as I was leaving that they must also be having problems in that both American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are offering the exact same service offerings, within 10 minutes either side… and there doesn't seem to be enough demand to fill up three planes every day back and forth…

The night was uneventful, though in economy close quarters, you feel bad turning on the lights to write or read, because no matter how tightly focused the lights are, they bother your neighbors—and it is nowhere more noticeable than in a cabin that otherwise is completely dark! In the morning, about an hour before landing, we swapped seats. The first land I saw was desert meeting the ocean with these incredible blue/aqua areas of ocean…the most beautiful pristine beach area (of course it is, there is nothing for 100s of miles around!) My seat mate said I was seeing the coastal area of Namibia. There were beautiful bays, and desert outcroppings, but nothing else to be seen.

That progressed to more rocky and semi mountainous terrain and then to vegetation and habitation, and roads, which was about half the way into flying the coast of South Africa. We followed the coast all the way along until we turned for final approach. Smooth landing, no markings as to what the runway designation was, so unfortunately, can’t tell you what it was. We were late enough we had to park on tarmac and then bus into the terminal. It’s a very small international terminal (undergoing expansion) but appears to only handle 5 planes simultaneously at the building gates.

My seatmate said she’d get through passport control quicker and would meet me on the other side while she waited for her bags to come. I joined her and she suggested since she had to work the 1-7pm shift at the domestic terminal, that I leave my luggage with her so I wouldn’t have to haul it around. She had a photo id, and many other employees had spoken to her, so I ended us deciding to take her up on it.. So I removed the camera and a few other things and my little over the shoulder bag, and started out on my Cape Town adventure. That will be in the next post!

Monday, December 17, 2007

San Francisco and San Francisco to Heathrow..

Landed in San Francisco and took the shuttle to the Hyatt for a room and a glorious shower.. (actually, I took two). Concierge tried hard, but no one in the bay area has spare batteries. Dell's on-line fulfillment scenario is so good, no one wants to stock batteries... So I was actually at the hotel a grand total of 3 hours, got a great bowl of potato leek soup... then back to airport and on to London.

Directional Guidance… From San Francisco to London, Heathrow
Straight over Winnipeg, going to go over La Grande (southern part of Hudson Bay) and then over Kuujjuaq (3456 ground miles to destination, time since departure 3:20 hours…Time to destination 6:23 hours ) Altitude now is 35000 feet and speed is 573 MPH ground speed.

This flight, SFO to Heathrow, London is a 777. I’m missing the elegant monster guppy 747-400 that I have spent 27 hours in the past few days on. I’m in seat 11G, another aisle bulkhead, in the middle of the business class section (Business class is usually two sections separated by the B-class galley and lavatories.)

It's another flight where they make you "go to sleep" and wake you up in the morning. It was a shorter flight.. I slept about 4 hours this flight.. when I woke up...had 495 miles to go, we were at 37K feet high and the temperature was -64C.

ONLY ONE BAG AT HEATHROW. No way to circumvent. To deplane, unless you are exiting the airport, you have to go through 1 bag security inspection... 1 bag, whether its a purse, a carryon, a computer bag etc. Took 90 minutes to go through security to get to the Red Carpet Club...

I've got to get going ....took some time to get t=mobile up, and I have to change terminals to catch my next flight, and it may take 90 minutes... so I gotta go....

DOn't know what my connectivity for the blog may be in South Africa. May be silent until I get back to Heathrow. See you on the flip side!

So, I will be blogging manually on the next two flights, because they don't have power in the seats.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sydney back to San Francisco-on time post!

Picked up my stored bag and got checked in and went through security to go to the international terminal. Here it was much different than San Francisco. In San Francisco, if you want you can exit and go back to the domestic terminals… and then go back into the international terminal (yeah a hassle, but possible). Well, in Sydney, it’s one way! Once you are in, there isn’t an option to go back out. And oh by the way, the international terminal is a giant duty free shopping mall. One Sushi stand up bar, one coffee bar. The Red Carpet Club was a major disappointment in the International terminal. It was small. It had OK food, and an open bar.. but the two important things I go for are power plugs and the ladies room. There were a grand total of 4 plugs for computers etc. and I was out of luck. The ladies room consisted of ONE stall and two sinks. There was a constant line to get in, and I was trying to “freshen up” at one of the sinks and it was just a pain. So, that’s why there was no blog from Sydney.

While on the plane getting ready to takeoff, I called the Concierge at the SF Hyatt, and told them my dilemma of a dead Dell battery, and in the middle of world tour—he said there was a possibility they could get me one on Sunday within my time limitations. He said to come to desk as soon as I arrived – they didn’t want to get the wrong one… so there is hope of a real battery! Thanks to Brad, Tyler and Biff!

So.. I’m on my way back to San Francisco. From the beginning, the flight showed an expected flight time of 13 hours (less than the 14 going west). Normally the difference between east and west bound bi-coastal flights is an hour, I expected it would be greater on this trip…but I guess I hadn’t thought about the fact we spend a lot of time going north-east… not just straight east on the jet stream across the country. Ground speed averaged around 636 mph, and we spent half the trip at 31000 feet and the last half at 36000 feet.

On the trip back I’m in seat 12B which is in the upper deck of the 747-400. Up where the pilots are on this big guppy plane. It’s configured 2x2 and I’m in the left bulkhead aisle seat. It’s up a short straight flight of stairs from the main deck. Up here, the overhead storage won’t hold carry-on luggage, just briefcases, etc. As you walk in they have you stuff it in an over grown cubbyhole to the right of the stairs going up. There is a galley at the back of the upper deck. There are two lavatories at the front on the deck on the right side (why I choose the left bulkhead, because its back another 5 feet from the lavs compared to the right bulkhead seats. The reason that is, is because there is a pilot crew quarters from the left bulkhead up to the cockpit door. There are two pilots, and two others in the crew quarters. I got to see pilot change out… at 6:30 hours into the flight, they closed off the lavatory area with the wire gate deal. One pilot came out to use the lav, and a moment later a second one came out…. then they went back in, and two more came out…. The other two pilots never came out and roamed the plane..just stayed in their little room!

The configuration of the upper deck has 3 sets of two on right side then a big open space for raft etc and emergency door. Left side is seven sets of two with only somewhat wider space at the left hand emergency door. Dinner was a beef, chicken, salmon choice, but apparently the upper deck is the last served, and this time only choices were chicken and salmon.

Once again it was dark for most of the flight… Sunrise came a little earlier this time and two people had left the windows open so people woke up about 3 hours prior to arrival.

I got less sleep than “last night” but still all in all slept pretty well. HMMM… it appears there are 5 crew in the cockpit/pilot quarters… Five crew breakfasts went in…..(they got a different breakfast).

So, signing off for now. Almost there, slowing down, groundspeed now 524 mph, altitude 25000, air temp up to -35C… time to destination is 17 minutes! Looking forward to that shower! Signing off, I’ll post this when I connect in the room (after that shower!)

Touring around Sydney-delayed post

By the way, if you fly First or Business into Australia, they give you an “express pass” on the airplane that gets you into the expedited lane for processing. DON’T THROW THIS AWAY… IT’S EQUALLY VALUABLE FOR YOUR RETURN CHECK IN THROUGH CUSTOMS! Since I have no checked baggage, I’m first out on my flight to the agriculture, suitcase checking area. Three Pakistani/Indian women in front of me have large amounts of food in their suitcases, so they have to go to agriculture screening..they start to pass me into that line, but I looked at the woman, and said, OK, but I don’t have any food products… and she said, sorry, just been dealing with so many that are bringing in all these foods like rice…

So I’m out and about in the terminal now.. found a plug converter for US to Aussie… no plane converters…. Decided to buy some more currency. Talked to the information bureau which confirmed best way to Sydney harbor was the train and gave me more details on how…. AND they told me I could check my bag while I trotted around at the “SmartCarte” baggage stowaway place. Which was a true gift to not haul all that stuff around for the next couple of hours (simultaneously subliminally shouting tourist, steal my purse!)

Called Biff, told him about my challenges, and he checked the connectors at home and when I called him next he suggested I check my bag again, because he didn’t see it at home. So, when I rooted through my suitcase in an area where it was light.. I did finally find it.

Got to the train station (short lift ride down to bottom of station)… ticket machines, but ticket person….who I talked to explained I should just get an airport combo day tripper, since I might want to do another hop or so on the train, and I wanted to go on the ferry. Cost me a little over $30. Rode train about 7 stops to Circle Quai (said “key”) which is where all the ferry docks are.

Got down to ferry… I had originally thought to go to Manley where there are farmers markets and botanical gardens (from reading the guide book), but I had since realized I was leaving at 4:15, not 6 or 8 pm as I thought. I was told the Watson Bay trip would be shorter with good views.. Turns out the Watson Bay trip was about 40-50 minutes, so the Manley trip would have been longer… It had stops at Garden Island, Rose Island, ?? and then Watson Bay. From Watson Bay it made a straight trip back to the Circle Quai docks.

I took a lot of pictures. Hope some of them are usable—it was a light gray overcast and hoping the Opera House pictures will be distinguishable. It is really cool looking, but I must admit it’s smaller than I’ve always thought! Pictures of the bridge. Lots of skyline pictures, lots of bay pictures. All the hills surrounding the bays are full of homes from little to big. Condos, townhouses (some look quite old) and then some monster mansions. It never did get to the 80s predicted.

Tyler found a friend who found a hotel for me in San Francisco. I hadn’t worried about it because I had lists of hotel by every airport on my travels from SAIC travel..but with laptop in question of working before arrival in San Francisco, I was looking for a place to stay. The place Tyler’s friend Brad found also had a reputation for a great concierge. Biff got me reservations and sent me the confirmation information.

When I got back I wondered around the area and found a Starbucks! Got my standard Vente iced decaf Americano… But the Vente in Australia is shorter than the Vente at home. They don’t have the extra tall straws either (because they don’t need them). Picked up a few little souvenirs and some post cards. Was stymied trying to mail Christmas cards and post cards…couldn’t find any stamps! I guess they will go out from Heathrow??

Grabbed a light lunch at the Quayside CafĂ©..and then headed back to train station. Just as I got to train station it started to rain. So I’m sitting in the train station and Biff calls me to remind me it’s 3 hours til departure and shouldn’t I be getting back?? The return trip on the train was uneventful—almost. I was watching the monitors which tell you when the next train is coming and what stations it will stop at.. I was on the right platform, but the airport stations weren’t on the list. A quick consult to the map and realized even though I didn’t switch trains on the way to the harbor, I needed to switch at Central station to get over to the spur that takes you to the airport stops. It was a quicker ride back than it was going to the harbor (17 minutes vs. 30 minutes on the way out)