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In which our correspondent battles through Heathrow, gets a look at Lenin and risks a Russian airline, before finally bagging that elusive upgrade…
In and out of Europe in a day means early starts and late finishes, which is tiring, but I just about blew a gasket on one specific trip in March. This was due to a combination of the car journey, the Heathrow spur road and the moderately new British Airways check-in policy, which cannot be avoided, even when you try the old chestnut “but I am a gold card holder”.
A 7.30am flight to Germany out of London Heathrow on Monday morning had me out of bed well before 5am and in my car en route by 5.30am, assuming a 60-minute journey across London. However, the spur road was backed up all the way onto the M4. Fortunately my driver knew a way via the in-field road, which took me by the Concorde model, meaning I got to Terminal 1 at 6.35am – all good. (Thank god it wasn’t a week later, or I’d have been stuck in T5 hell…)
I went to the dedicated BA check-in zone, along with the rest of London, and queued to use the very efficient ATM check-in, only to get referred to the check-in desk, which normally suggests some query with the booking from my out-sourced travel department. I waited in line like all good English people do and got to the desk at 6.47am (according to the clock behind the BA person) and was told the flight had closed at 6.45am, so tough luck. The supervisor who was on hand was resolute (she had clearly done this a thousand times before or was just very good at learning her script). I explained I was on time and tried to get her to change her mind, but it got me nowhere and my meeting was consequently delayed. I made a mental note to myself that, no matter how tired, I should never forget to check in online the night before via the BA website and print a boarding pass.
Another day, another trip, and armed with a fresh Russian visa I had a week-long road trip from London to Moscow. My friend, who does the trip constantly, thinks this must be the single most profitable BA route, since not only is it sold out for almost every flight as opportunity and capital collide in the CIS, but BA uses tired parts of the fleet with the classic 2-3 Club Europe configuration, which may be okay for a 45-minute jump to Brussels, but is horrible for a four-hour-plus flight. The timings are brutal as well – a UK departure at around 10pm, four hours flight time, and three hours time difference mean you land at around 5am with almost no sleep. At best, you have snoozed for 15 minutes while drooling on your fat neighbour just before the plane starts its approach. Still, if it were easy everyone would be doing it. I shower and change in the day room at a hotel near Red Square, and after a good breakfast feel super-charged for the day. My meetings finished early, so I was able to wander back through Red Square, past St Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s tomb.
I was then on an Aeroflot connection to Dubai for the next leg of my trip and was anxious, having heard horror stories about missing seats and grotty unsafe planes. This was not helped when I got to Sheremetyevo airport, having previously been in and out of Domodedovo. It was a grim throwback to an outdated 1970s airport. I half expected to see DC10s and a Sopwith Camel biplane on the tarmac.
So when I finally boarded the swanky new A320 with comfy leather business seats and equally friendly staff I sighed out loud with relief. The flight was more than five hours, but the service was good, the food was tasty and the in-flight entertainment was a smart tablet preloaded with a good range of new and popular films. I was very impressed, but admittedly off a low base.
Dubai changes every time I go, but staying at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers is always a good experience. They cater well for overnight arrivals, knowing flights in from east and west land in the early morning. My meetings went well and I even managed to buy my wife a gift from the chi-chi-la-la shopping mall in the hotel’s basement, which is like Bond Street but in the desert. Getting back to London was painless and I finished with a flourish, care of my friends at British Airways upgrading me to first. Did it make up for the earlier experience? Until the next time, yes.