Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Very British Airline

"It was a cold and wet December day
When we touched the ground at JFK..." (U2 - Angel of Harlem)
I started to watch this fly-on-the-wall documentary not really expecting much and planning an early night, but it was actually interesting enough to hold my attention for its full running time. Even if it did feel like a very long advert. The action, such as it was, alternated between JFK and Chengdu airports and a cabin crew training centre close to Heathrow.

BA flying over Clapham, London
The training centre quickly made it clear that I wouldn't last five minutes as an air stewardess. Aside from probably tipping someone's dinner into their lap, I just couldn't cut the mustard on the appearance stakes. I would find it physically impossible to apply that amount of make-up. My hair would refuse to be doughnuted. And I can't walk anywhere in heels, let alone a narrow aircraft aisle pushing a trolley through a bout of turbulence. Although here the role-playing scenarios and aeroplane mock-ups seemed to be in an ordinary classroom, without any special turbulence or cramped legroom effects. Nonetheless, someone still managed to be thrown off the training scheme for not wearing enough lipstick, which is so disgustingly sexist it leaves me speechless. (Can it even be legal?) To be fair, the girl in question had also been late on a few occasions and turned up to the exam having left her uniform hat and scarf in the car, but seemingly it was the lack of lipstick that did for her. Another girl was praised for her customer service skills, but told her language wasn't up to BA's gold standards when she offered a pretend passenger a choice of cola that was either "diet or full fat". Such wit is clearly Ryanair's domain. Although they no doubt charge their passengers for being told that they might be overweight.

Trying to educate these ladies and gentlemen about wine was another part of the training programme. All to get the cabin crew ready for that important Club World service. One girl said that she usually mixed red wine with Diet Coke and was that weird? Well, it might not help you distinguish between a Cab Sav and a Merlot too easily. And how can it in any way taste nice? Clearly a lot to learn.

Meanwhile, over in Chengdu, they were trying to sort out the in-flight menu. The BA employee in charge of organising, well, everything to do with this new route, held up samples of the airport snacks currently on offer at the Chinese end, which included "dried duck's tongue". So obviously, he said, their aim was to make things a little more accessible for British travellers. A top chef had been employed to design a Sichuan-influenced menu. But our BA man (of Chinese ethnicity but Essex bred) said he found Sichuan food far too spicy and craved bangers and mash.

The stereotypes were out in force. A crazed perfectionist choreographer was trying to lick a load of dancing pandas into shape in a Chengdu shopping mall, screaming at her charges in true Tiger Mother style. Two blokes at Heathrow boredly painted a panda face on to an aircraft. (This is all anyone at BA knows about Chengdu - it has pandas, and spicy food.) Cabin crew handed out fortune cookies in London's Chinatown in a bid to recruit Mandarin speakers into their midst. Then the dancing pandas had to dress up as British stereotypes - like footballers or princesses. One panda was told to behave more respectfully as it was carrying the royal baby. Once the first flight from Heathrow had finally landed (in terrible smog, with the Internet down) at Chengdu, the red carpet was laid out for boss Willie Walsh, with no royalty in sight. Then there was a lavish banquet, entertained by yet more stereotypes, like a grenadier in a bearskin and a very sweaty bagpiper. Who should have just been thankful that he hadn't been made to wear a bearskin.

The smog at Chengdu looked dire, and so did the snow on the other side of the world at JFK (definitely "a cold and wet December day"). BA at JFK has its own terminal, with plenty of Noo Yoikers with (a very refreshing) attitude on its staff. However, in charge is a very fastidious Brit, who liked wearing pink ties and removing scuffs from the floor with his highly polished shoes. A graduate trainee had been sent over from London to join him. The trainee law graduate quickly realised he would need to require more of that Noo Yoik attitude, especially when they laughed at him for calling everything "tip-top".

We flew into JFK once (the U2 lyric made us want to do it, much to the annoyance of the friend we were visiting, who had begged us to fly to the more passenger-friendly Newark). Needless to say, we got nowhere near the luxury first class passengers' exclusive Concorde lounge that we were shown round on this programme. I can't imagine what it would be like to fly first class on a long-haul flight. Is it really that amazing, and worth all that money and free champagne, when you're breathing the same shitty air as everyone at the back of World Traveller? I don't suppose I will ever find out.

But actually, the closest I have ever come to an upgrade was on that outward flight to JFK. At check-in, the airline had been unable to seat me and my boyfriend together. Now that I have been married to the same man for nearly ten years, we'd probably not be that bothered about spending five hours apart, but back then, given that we weren't even living in the same city as each other, it was a big deal to miss out on the start of our holiday together. We explained our plight to the lady taking boarding cards at the gate, and she did her best to help us. Briefly, she looked to see if an upgrade was possible. But the plane was so full (she claimed) that one wasn't. So instead she made us sit in the departure lounge watching everyone else going past getting an upgrade -"Ah, you will have a nice surprise on board, madam", "Turn left on entering the aircraft, sir". I think she had actually taken a brief look at us, rather than at her computer screen. I should definitely have dressed posher. Actually, I probably couldn't have dressed less posh; my aim when flying to be as cool and comfortable as possible. And my husband, with his thick stubble and Celtic colouring, has the sort of suspicious appearance that always seems to get him frisked at security. Thankfully, once we were on board, we managed to persuade a man who had been sat next to a family with a screaming baby to swap seats with us. Funny how little convincing he took.

I miss Concorde. The only one I got to go on was at the air museum at Duxford when I was a little girl. I was too young to have actually been on a normal aeroplane at the time, so couldn't really make any comparison. But I have seen Concorde fly over the skies of London many, many times. It used to go over, punctual to the second, at 20 past 5 every day when I was living under the Heathrow flightpath in Clapham. There was simply no missing it, even at speeds well below the breaking of the sound barrier. My aunt used to specialise in noise pollution and spent a lot of the time standing at the end of London runways with a decibel measuring gauge. She said Concorde sent it off the scale.

But this programme would be disappointed to hear that I once had a very bad experience flying British Airways. I was booked on a flight from London Gatwick to visit a friend in Baltimore, only to arrive at Gatwick to be told that the flight to BWI had "gone tech" (cynics might read "undersold so cancelled as not financially viable") and that I would have to fly from Heathrow to Washington Dulles that afternoon instead. Irritated that they had assumed everyone flying to BWI (Baltimore-Washington-International) was going to DC rather than Baltimore, I asked the grumpy check-in clerk if there would be any transfer arrangements to take me on to where I wanted to go once I had arrived Stateside. "No idea, but here's a coach ticket to take you round the M25 to Heathrow." When I said I urgently needed to contact my friend, who was planning on picking me up from BWI, she handed me a BT Phonecard. The Phonecard lasted for all of two minutes once I had managed to wake my poor friend by calling her at 5am her time. This was all before the days of Skype and Facebook and either of us owning mobile phones, you see. I was pretty narked, and the only compensation offered by the check-in clerk was a sandwich voucher to spend at Heathrow. Anyway, it all ended well - my lovely friend drove sixty miles in the wrong direction to pick me up from Dulles. And BA, after a stiffly worded letter from me, sent me a big enough travel voucher as an apology to get me a free flight to Montreal the following winter.

We ended up flying British Airways to Verona last September, the first time I had been on board with them for many years. Despite BA's current campaign to persuade people to spend more on flying with them rather than with Easyjet (and the premise of the television series is to show us how they are doing it), BA was actually our cheapest option to start with. Flying with "budget" airline Monarch from Manchester would have cost twice as much for the dates we needed to travel, even after adding on the extra petrol and hotel accommodation required to enable us to depart from Gatwick early in the morning. It was such a pleasant surprise, after years of travelling with Ryanair and Jet2, to remember how flying to Europe used to be in the good old days, when taking a suitcase was included in the price and you got something to eat for free on board. Members of staff were available and willing to help at every turn, which is so very much appreciated when you've just spent a sleepless night with a toddler who decided to throw up her dinner all over a Premier Travel Inn restaurant the evening before.

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