What a journey. I arrived at JFK from Los Angeles at 3:15 in the afternoon on what was to turn out to be the first leg of one of the longest and most arduous experiences in my not inconsiderable history of commercial air travel.
American Airlines are clearly taking their pursuit of economy to new heights; we were told that we could purchase “deli sandwiches” and snack-boxes from the attendants. However, it appeared that they only had eight sandwiches on board as they had run out by the time they reached me, in the fifth row of Goat Class. I was offered a “snack box”, for which I grudgingly parted with five dollars, only to discover that it contained a variety of such obscure and intensively processed items that a better description would have been “dog treats”. You would really think that as they now charge you for anything and everything that they would be racing up and down the aisle with almost fanatical zeal, their carts positively heaving with tempting little high-margin goodies designed to extract another note from your wallet, if for no other reason that you are bored rigid. Flaming sambucas anyone? Organic salad with scuba-dived scallops, lightly grilled and drizzled with a miso-ginger infusion? No such bloody luck. The flight attendants smacked my elbows with their carts just twice, once at each end of the flight. It occurred to me that perhaps, in order to cut costs, they are no longer paid by the hour, but by the least kilo-joules of energy expended. If I was running American I would immediately contract Spago to do in flight catering, put the flight attendants through a full bar-tending course and give them a cut of every sale they make. The airline would be never be in the red again.
Arriving at the gate in JFK for my flight to London, I was naturally pleased to see it was on time. But as the minutes ticked by and none of the usual pre-boarding activity seemed to be happening, I grew apprehensive. There was the usual cluster of upgrade hopefuls, lurking like so many vultures, just close enough to swoop in for the kill at a moments notice – but nothing happened. Sure enough there was a mechanical problem – probably something serious like the wheels of the food carts had rusted up – so they had to get a fresh 777 out of mothballs in Mojave and clean it up pretty sharpish. Our 6:15 departure turned into 7:15, which prompted renewed queuing activity by people suffering from connection panic. Suddenly it was 8:15 and then 8:45. Connection panic became an epidemic and several less hardened travelers began showing signs of mild hysteria which they demonstrated by requesting to get off the flight altogether. Quite why you would suddenly decide that your trip to London wasn’t worth doing if you were a couple of hours late is beyond me, but the result was the dreaded “baggage search and remove” exercise, which is akin to finding a needle in a haystack and has a tendency to make the Gate Agents very bolshy indeed. And forsooth, there was bolshy-ness. 8:45 quickly turned into 9:15, by which time a sort of good natured camaraderie had erupted in the waiting area as complete strangers commiserated with each other over the dreadful inconvenience caused by being late for Aunt Winifred’s birthday party.
Finally on board and ready to go, the cabin staff discovered a woman who had arbitrarily decided she should sit in business class, even though she was clearly assigned seat 324B. Apparently she felt the delay alone was sufficient reason for her to be upgraded rather than suffer the indignity of a hypothetical sandwich in Goat Class. So, in this day of book it yourself, carry it yourself, feed yourself travel, she decided to upgrade herself. Nice concept, but she was quickly rumbled. Not wanting to give up without a fight, she steadfastly refused to move until the Purser matter-of-factly informed her that she could certainly sit there as long as she understood that when she got to London her credit card would have $5,000 less credit on it. Seat 324B was quickly occupied and at 9:30 the doors were closed, cross-checks performed and things began to hum in a satisfactorily mechanical way. Nevertheless, it was 10:30 by the time we at last experienced the thrill of a little G-force and loaded to the gills, lumbered into the air. Not exactly “The Right Stuff”, but better than a poke in the eye with a stuffed mongoose. The first drink, they announced magnanimously, would be on the house. The first drink? Gosh … thanks. It turned out one was enough and my thoughts soon gave way to the fractured sleep of trans-atlantic travel.
In London, the request that “passengers kindly remain seated to allow those with tight connections to de-plane first” ensured that as soon the seat belt light pinged off, 350 passengers simultaneously leapt into the aisle and dragged 500 pieces of hand luggage out of the overhead lockers with a perfectly reckless disregard for the fact that they may have shifted in flight. Half an hour later, when I had successfully wrestled my way to the gate I was told that I should head for Terminal 1 and speak to the “connections agent”. Four escalators, half a mile of corridor, one bus ride and a security checkpoint later I was told I was on standby for a BA flight to Munich. I rushed through the terminal and to a gate some miles away, only to be told “sorry mate, it’s full”. Next chance to get to Munich .. . via Frankfurt. What the hell, I love Frankfurt Airport, so I pile onto the plane, they shut the doors and look British-ly efficient until the Captain announces that due to high winds we have been assigned a take off slot sometime next week and that we are going to taxi to a far flung corner of the airport and wait. So he drove us to the outskirts of Slough, parked and switched off the engines. I went to sleep to pass the time. Some time later we fired up the good old Rolls engines again and headed off for Frankfurt. As we began our approach, the Captain said that he couldn’t figure out quite how we had managed it but that due to tail winds we would actually be arriving 2 minutes before our originally scheduled arrival time. Whoopeee. My delight was short lived. Frankfurt required (of course) a terminal change … which involved an overnight train-ride and a small decathlon. The flight to Munich was, inevitably, delayed. And when we boarded, it turned out to be a big fat all Goat-Class airbus – the biggest, in fact – and 375 people were flying the half hour hop to Munich. There I was, expecting a puddle-jumper. No sooner had we lifted off than the cabin staff catapulted out of the galleys from both ends and hurtled down the aisles, flinging drinks at people like some sort of rogue agricultural muck-spreader. There was barely time for them to finish before we began our descent into Munich and by the time they had wrestled the alcohol-spreaders back into their garages and sat down, we were on the ground. As I waited, I wondered what the chances were that my bag had followed my itinerant wanderings across Europe? Slim, I concluded. I was right; it was definitely not there and a very nice boy with an eccentric choice of variegated hair-color informed me cheerfully that my bag was in London but was going to arrive on the next flight. As that was in 45 minutes and I was so late anyway, I thought I might as well wait for it. No problem, he said, but I would have to go a different terminal to pick it up. Oh Shit. It’s now 8:00pm and I was supposed to be here at 12:45 this morning. I get a special pass to allow me back into baggage claim and once again launch myself across the airport to Terminal Zwei. I wait and wait, but finally my bag appears. I find myself utterly thrilled to see this piece of beige canvas and scuttle off to locate Hertz with a new spring in my step. Hertz is located about as far from the terminals as you could possibly locate anything without providing overnight accommodation. Collecting the car, at least, went smoothly and I soon found myself blasting down the A9 Autobahn towards Nuremburg with the comforting voice of John Cleese providing directions from my GPS system. Sadly, my Ford Fiesta was not really up to much fast-lane fun, so I had to content myself with a frisson of vicarious pleasure each time a BMW or Audi thwoooomed past me at 130 MPH, gently rocking my little car in its slipstream.
After exactly thirty-three hours of mind-bendingly awful travel, I arrived in the center of Eichstatt.