Friday, March 02, 2018

First Class May Not Like Me

Spoiler alert: white people problems!

I sometimes fly business class. This is a luxury, sometimes a decadence, but it's one of the few I allow myself and I shop around for reasonable prices. Over the last few years British Airways has become my go-to airline for business flights between Europe and San Francisco, a trip I make at least twice a year. And I hate flying, and it softens the blow. Woe is me, etc.

For the current trip there was a relatively good price on First Class tickets. "Whoa," thought I, "First must certainly be better than Business, and I've never tried it, so..." I was, frankly, more interested in checking out the First Lounge on my six-hour layover. I wondered what it might have in store.

TL;DR: I still wonder.

Flurries in Albion

I packed, I futzed around, and I slept my customary three hours before an early morning flight. I got a cab, I went out to Budapest's Ferihegy Airport, which the right-wing nationalists have renamed after an epically philandering musician with excellent hair. Everyone still calls it Ferihegy.

And upon checking in -- for flights to the US one does not check in online -- I was informed that the flight was three hours late. "Mechanical?" (As if I had the conviction to not fly when there are mechanical failures.) No, the plane arrived late the night before, and the law mandates a reasonable rest period for the crew. Which I wholly support, though it seems within the realm of the technically possible for a Flag Carrier to send a text message when they know twelve hours in advance that the flight will be three hours late. I talked with other passengers: nobody was informed. Not even an e-mail.

I understood what was really up when we got to London. But first the waiting, which I hope is less boring in the telling.

Budapest Ferihegy has two "business" lounges: one in the Schengen area, i.e. flights to the rest of Europe, and one past the passport control for those bound for non-European destinations such as Delaware, Bamoko, or London. The former lounge should be avoided at all costs unless you absolutely, positively can not pay for a drink, even on credit, at one of the numerous kiosks. The latter is acceptable as long as you're not hungry and you have a good understanding how the global services octopoid Celebi manages expectations.

Having bought my Economist (cash) and my first drink and sandwich (apology voucher) in the normal Schengen area, I got my passport stamped with a B for Brexit and headed over to said Celebi lounge. Some bubbly, cookies with jam, a nap, and the useful knowledge that the other passengers had not been informed of the nature of the delay. I felt a miniscule sense of superiority, surrounded by my economic betters, in knowing exactly why we were all swilling the "Hex" bubbly and dozing our best two-minute dozes. After all, had my ex-in- laws not believed I was a spy?

We boarded exactly three hours behind schedule and proceeded to wait another twenty minutes for a runway slot. Celebi, expectations, see also. The flight itself was uneventful and the crew quite pleasant, which was unsurprising considering the rest they'd gotten. When we got to London Heathrow we had to wait another 15 minutes or so before landing. At this point the people with tight but feasible connections started getting nervous.

Landing was uneventful, and there was the lightest dusting of snow on the edges of the runway, as if the Fairy of Winter had stopped by for a coffee but only had time for a ristretto and a kiss on the cheek before heading off to Finland.

This, it turns out, counts as a severe weather event in London. Apparently Old Blighty can absorb an unlimited quantity of rain, but a few millimeters of snow grind it to a screeching, if mostly polite, halt.

The aircraft reached its standing position. The jet bridge failed to budge. Within a few minutes our Captain engaged the microphone to inform us that the jet bridge was broken and we would use the stairs, as soon as a set of stairs could be obtained, which surely would be within minutes.

Minutes passed.

After another ten or so we were given to know that we had a staircase and needed only to attach it to the aircraft and we could be on our way. Those who had not already rebooked their onward flights, and those who had rebooked to short connections, breathed a sigh of optmistic relief.

For another ten minutes passed, during which our fearless Captain went so far as to open his window (who knew this was possible?) and shout at the ground crew. We were again informed: apparently another plane needed the stairs first. Heathrow is a busy place. We're next in line.

Some minutes after that the story shifted slightly: we need two staircases, presumably one fore and one aft; the second has to be brought from Terminal 5. Having made this connection a half dozen times before, I knew that the mandatory bus ride to Terminal 5 takes about ten minutes without a rolling staircase in tow. I started to worry for my own connection.

Another ten minutes and we had our stairs: one case of them, attached at the aft. Everyone out into the bus!

The bus was completely normal, and when the ground crew said it was full and could only take two more people -- of whom I was one -- I felt a guilty gratitude. When I boarded the bus I saw it could easily take another 10-15 people, and in the end that's what it did. We all fit, and entered the intentional labyrinth of Heathrow, having sacrificed a four and a half hours to the incomprehensible phenomenon of snow -- Snow! -- in Albion.

Holy Grail Lounge

Having made it into the maze, a maze I fortunately knew from previous trips, it was really down to time. One needs an hour, minimum, to get from arrival at Terminal 3 to the departure gate at Terminal 5. I had 45 minutes and a burning desire to see the First Lounge.

At this point I realized that seeing the First Lounge would require that I encounter almost no resistance at the various waypoints: the many walkways and stairs and escalators, the trans-terminal bus, the security check, and the mini-rail within Terminal 5. In the best case, with a little hustle, I figured I might have 15 minutes clear in the lounge, enough to look around and use the private washroom and throw back a Gordon's & Fever Tree. My plan was to make it with at least 10 minutes clear and overstay the printed boarding time by another 10. Hey, First, they'll wait for a bit.

Things worked out differently, but in the end it wasn't so bad.

First, I made all the connections with minimum friction. There was a long line for the Terminal 5 bus, and the two busses available filled fast, but despite a little chaos I was on the second. (I'm sure there were those behind me who missed connections, thank you LHR.)

Second, having been very diligent, I knew from the info-screens and also from Big Brother Google that the flight was on time and I should go to the general vicinity of the C Gates. This I did.

Having arrived with about 10 minutes clear, I started looking for the lounges. No luck. A helpful gentleman selling apothecary goods told me there were none, I'd have to go to the B Gates. Whence I had come, more or less, on the little tram.

I tried that but failed to find the way, owing to difficult signage combined with fatigue. I ended up, frustrated, back at the C Gates, looking around in vain. Finally I noticed the flight was delayed by 30 minutes, a new development since I'd gone looking for the tram. Sir Apothecary told me in detail what I'd done wrong, and off I went on foot (no tram from C to B!) to seek the coveted First Lounge. Now I had, I thought, at least 20 minutes clear.

In B-Land I found the lounge... but only the Business Lounge, which I knew well and do still like. I asked for help. I learned:

  1. There is only one First Lounge, seek it not amongst the B's and C's!
  2. BA requires your presence 20 minutes before takeoff, not 60.

The lovely receptionist told me to chill out and come back in 30 minutes to check the flight status.

In 30 minutes in the Business Lounge you have exactly one G&T (Latin Strength) and a relaxed visit to the Washroom, hallowed be thy name.

After which, the lovely receptionist suggested I'd just hit boarding if I left right now. First Lounge remained a Grail.

Leave I did, and I caught the boarding wave just in time to be "randomly" selected for additional security screening. Among 10 "randomly" selected passengers there was exactly one woman, who happens to be sitting next to me in First as I write this. We computer folk would strongly question the cryptographic strength of that rand function.

3... 2... 3... 2...

Now, a little tired, having been travelling since 4am Albion Time, at about 15:00 I boarded. Immediately I was taken by the arm, addressed by name, and shown to a window seat. I had reserved an ailse seat, as the windows were (and generally are) all reserved before they start dropping the prices for ruffians like me.

I mentioned the ailse reservation to my concierge, and he said British Airways apologized for the trouble today. Things started looking up. I settled in. I instagrammed.

And then along came the rightful occupant of the seat, an older and presumably richer California ex-hippy type, who was very kind but hey, it was her seat and First on British is always full. She probably owns Burning Man and 0.2% of Google, and yet she was totally cool about it.

I was unceremoniously relocated back to my viewless accommodation. Though viewless is not quite the word: there is the beautiful securitized neighbor typing away on her beat-up Intel Inside PC; there is the Running Man on the Exit sign (running where?); there is a TV with a hundred channels, and mint tea, and wine until you give up or pass out.

Meanwhile... the snow. Or let's just say the cold.

Departure was 15:30.

Security checks (blame the Americans) added at least 20.

Then various parts needed to be de-iced.

Through all of this I was given top-shelf bubbly, and eventually I dozed off. I awoke at 17:00, yes 5pm, to our accelleration. For a brief delirious moment I was sure we'd not reach escape velocity, but we took off without incident.

Two hours late. Or, if you like, seven hours late.

Since then it's been a pleasant ride. I learned that Plane Pyjamas are a Thing. I learned that in First all the staff remembers your name, just like in the fanciest business hotels. (How do they do that? Could it be monetized?)

And of course I was reminded why I fly British Business even when the lightest snow flurry puts their Queen and her Corgis in a twist. The seats are nice, the flight crew is for the most part awesome, and they are bottomlessly indulgent to those of us who wish to keep the terror of air travel at bay through the magic of a strong and steady buzz.

But still, dude, you couldn't manage an SMS at midnight?

As we cruise over Calgary I look back on the experience. There's no telling which of the early screwups were British Airways' fault, versus Heathrow's, versus London's, versus the Act of God that resulted in a little ice and that light dusting of snow. On the plane, the divider between my sleep pod and my neighbor's didn't work. The in-flight entertainment system didn't work for half the First Class passengers (a faulty cable perhaps). The noise-canceling headphones only canceled noise when plugged into the entertainment system and not when plugged into my phone. They ran out of water bottles, though not potable water, so that may actually be a positive thing.

Is First worth any more money than Business on BA? Without the First Lounge experience I can't really say. I only paid 100 EUR more in the end thanks to BA's weird habit of charging for seat reservations in Business. For that small difference I'd say the larger sleep-pod is probably worth it, but I get the impression First is more malfunction-prone than Business. Or maybe the world was just having one of those days.

Note to Future Self in any case: download some classic binge-watchables on iTunes next time I fly British, and bring my own noise-canceling headphones.