8 August 2009

My trip to the UK [long]

It’s July 23. I’m in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It’s a relatively small airport, rarely crowded, and with an open and airy feeling. The queue to get to security screening was short, as usual. I gave my best performance of Security Theater; my liquids and gels were pre-packaged in a ziplock bag, which I dumped into a plastic tray along with my shoes. I’ve made a habit of removing all metal from my person before I even get to the airport. This makes getting through security screening less error-prone, though it does mean I have to keep pulling my trousers up as I stand in line. I’m surprised nobody markets metal-free travel belts.

I had to wait for rothko to clear security. While CPAP machines are explicitly listed as allowed carry-on items, actually traveling with one seems to be a good way to get asked to step aside for additional security screening. Presumably the sound of snoring must echo around the mountain caves of Afghanistan every night. No wonder Al Qaeda are so angry, they must be chronically sleep-deprived.


Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. The superstition dates back to the 17th Century, though its precise origins are obscure. It is a comparatively widespread phobia in the USA, with around 1 in 13 people admitting to it. For that reason it’s fairly common for skyscrapers to have no floor numbered 13, skipping straight to 14 instead. Aircraft seating often has no row numbered 13.

Franklin D Roosevelt didn’t realize that it’s bad luck to be superstitious. He refused to travel on the 13th of any month, and if attending a lunch or dinner party of 13 people he would ask his secretary to join to make an even 14.

The Great Seal of the United States features 13 arrows in the eagle’s talon, 13 stars above its head, 13 stripes on the shield, and 13 leaves on the olive branch. On the reverse is a pyramid with 13 levels. It’s a wonder FDR dared be President.

Charles Manson is a name with 13 letters. So are Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Harold Shipman. So, for that matter, is Bernard Madoff.

Apollo 13 was launched at 13:13 Central Time. On 13 April, one of its oxygen tanks exploded.


It’s now 14:15. I’m at Gate 13.

I’m waiting for our flight to Dallas/Fort Worth. The flight is scheduled to leave at 14:50, and arrive in Dallas at 15:54. We then have until 17:35 to locate the plane that will take us to Heathrow. Our tickets were purchased from British Airways, but the short hop to Dallas is operated by American Airlines as flight AA698, which will later leave Dallas and proceed to Tampa, Florida.

The AUS-DFW portion of AA698 is on time 76% of the time. When it’s not on time, the flight is delayed by an average of 19.0 minutes. The delay time varies with a standard deviation of 38.1 minutes. I know all of this because I looked it up last week on the Internet.


I grew up in Buckinghamshire, which is one of the few counties in England that still has a state-run selective secondary education system. That is, children are given exams, and then assigned to schools on the basis of how smart they seem to be. There are grammar schools for smart kids, regular comprehensive schools for middle-scoring children, and presumably also some educational establishments that specialize in finger paint.

The alleged benefit of this approach is that the smart kids get to go study algebra without having to wait for the less-smart kids to master basic arithmetic, and so on. Some people feel that this is unfair, and would rather that the future rocket scientists be kept in the same classrooms as the future glue sniffers, in the hope that the latter might be challenged and inspired to better things by the former. Yeahright.

Anyway, I took the so-called Twelve Plus examination, and in the August of my 12th year I was due to move up to a new and more challenging school. In spite of my academic promise I wasn’t a confident child. I fully expected to be surrounded by kids bigger than me, smarter than me, and probably better prepared than me — especially the ones who had been privately tutored.

The day of my first day at grammar school also happened to be the first day of any kind of school for my younger brother, James. The day before that, my mother came home from hospital after giving birth to my youngest brother, Edward.

My mother isn’t the most punctual of people at the best of times. James’s school day started first, traffic was bad, one thing led to another, and I arrived at my new place of learning 10 minutes after the school day had started. There I discovered to my horror that all the other new students had already been given photostat-duplicated information sheets telling them about the school timetable, and providing a sketch map of the locations of the various classrooms. All the other new students were sitting in the main hall, listening to some sort of introductory presentation. Also in the hall were the teachers who had handed out the information sheets. I seemed to be the only one who was late. I stood on my own in the playground and waited until everyone came out, then tried to find out what was going on.

Twenty years later, I was still having occasional nightmares about being in a new school, and being the only one without a timetable or map of the grounds.

I should mention that I don’t hold any grudge against my mother for this. It was just one of those random childhood traumas. If it hadn’t been my bad luck to be the one late to school, James probably would have been late for his first school day ever, and he would have ended up the neurotic one instead.

Regardless, the whole experience is probably the major cause of my fear of travel. It’s not that I’m scared of flying, it’s more that I’m scared of being late, or of not having some important piece of information. The nightmare scenarios are endless: Perhaps I’ll arrive late at the airport without my flight itinerary, and they’ll be unable to find me in the computer. Maybe I’ll suddenly realize something important is missing from my luggage, but it will be too late to do anything about it because I’ll already be behind schedule. Maybe I’ll get one of the times wrong, and be left standing on my own at the departure gate.

I deal with my travel fears by planning to excess. By the time I get to the airport I have a full printed itinerary, printed receipts for the tickets, and I’m usually over an hour early. If I’m going somewhere new, I have a map of the destination. Sometimes I have a GPS too. I also have all the information in my BlackBerry, in case I lose the paperwork.

When a flight connection is involved, I’ve usually done some calculations as to the likelihood of missing it. Back in the ancient pre-Internet past, I’d just allow ridiculous amounts of time; now, I can look up actual statistical information to fuel my concern.


So now it’s 14:38. Behind the desk by the door to the jetway, a flat panel monitor shows that our flight is delayed by 9 minutes. I am performing mental arithmetic.

Two standard deviations of 38.1 minutes is 76.2 minutes. Add the average delay of 19.0 minutes and you get 95.2 minutes. Add those minutes to our scheduled 15:54 arrival in Dallas, and you get 17:30 or so. So, even though we’re one of the unlucky 24% for whom flight AA698 is delayed, there’s still a 95% chance, statistically speaking, that we’ll be in Dallas before our flight to Heathrow departs.

Of course, this doesn’t account for the time taken to get from our arrival gate to the next departure gate, which tends to be in a different terminal when you’re changing airlines. Nor does it allow for the requirements airlines place on how many minutes before departure you must be on board the aircraft; the days of dashing up at the last minute and getting on board seem to be over. On the other hand, I think to myself, my calculation also fails to account for the possibility that our transatlantic flight will also be delayed. I’m optimistic like that.

My left eye is twitching slightly. This is one of my normal signs of stress.

There are a large number of middle-aged people in identical red polo shirts milling around Gate 13. An embroidered logo on each says “Walk Worthy Missions”. They are talking about whether they will get their connecting flight to Brazil. I deduce that they are Christian missionaries of some sort. I thought Brazil was already pretty Christian, what with that big statue of JC in Rio and all, but maybe they’re going to do volunteer work for street kids or something.

I joke to rothko that if something goes horribly wrong, presumably the red shirted people will be the first to die, like on Star Trek.


It’s 14:55. Our flight is finally boarding. As we wait for our group number to be called, one of the redshirts offers us a New Testament. We politely decline.

Boarding proceeds in the usual manner: people crowd the gate, making it hard to get by when your number is called, and as I walk to my seat I see the usual selfish idiots scattered in the front half of the coach section–the ones who board early so they can grab extra overhead locker storage, even though it means they end up delaying everyone else by blocking the aisle.

By 15:15 the plane is on its way to the runway. My tray table is stowed and my seat back is in the upright position. As I try to relax, I realize that my cell phone is still switched on. What’s more, it’s in a side pocket of my carry on luggage, stowed in the overhead compartment.

I consider my options. The plane is moving, the seatbelt sign is illuminated, and my guess is that this is the worst possible time for a passenger to unexpectedly clamber out into the aisle of the plane. On the other hand, the airlines are always very insistent that cell phones and electronic devices must be turned off during takeoff and landing.

The question of whether cell phones endanger flight safety is still controversial. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has concluded that they can interfere with pre-1984 avionics equipment. Even much newer planes can have old equipment on board, due to equipment being swapped in and out during servicing. However, a 2006 article in IEEE Spectrum concluded that well-maintained aircraft have heavily shielded equipment, and that phones are of little danger. It stated that phones are not allowed mainly because neither the FAA nor the FCC will spend the money to perform extensive safety tests. Boeing has spent a lot of time trying to get cellphones to cause glitches in their avionics equipment, and has failed. So overall, chances of a cell phone causing a major air disaster seem to be pretty remote. Studies have also concluded that on most flights, at least one cell phone is left switched on due to passenger non-compliance.

I am that passenger.

After careful thought, I decide that trying to do something about the problem will only make the situation worse. I settle for feeling guilty instead.


There’s a motor noise from the wings as the flaps are deployed. The plane accelerates down the runway and takes off. Austin slowly falls away as I look out of the window.

It’s 15:20. We’re late, but there’s still plenty of time for us to get to Dallas and make our connecting flight. The plane banks gently northwards. A few second later, the pilot activates the intercom.

“American, American. This is American Airlines flight six ninety eight declaring an emergency. Returning to Austin.”

The intercom clicks off and the plane banks smoothly but steeply.

I’ve always wondered how I would actually respond in an emergency. Everyone likes to think that they will be calm and capable. Governments and corporations, on the other hand, seem to think that we will panic if not reassured and given explicit instructions.

Before now, my guess had always been that I would remain calm. Working as a system administrator, I’m used to situations that make people panic. When multiple servers crash simultaneously for unknown reasons, my general reaction is “Hmm, this is an interesting situation, I wonder if I can work out what’s going on?”

As the seconds tick past on flight 698, similar thoughts are going through my head. Something interesting is clearly happening. I’ve never heard an announcement like that before. Yet at the same time, the plane doesn’t seem to be crashing, the oxygen masks haven’t dropped down, and nobody has told us to get into crash position.

I decide that it’s probably some stupid equipment fault. I start to feel annoyed that something so trivial is going to force us to return to Austin. That’ll mean waiting while they put the plane through diagnostics and repeat the pre-flight checks. It’ll probably delay the flight by half an hour, minimum. We’ll miss our connection, I think angrily.

A few other thoughts go through my mind too, but none of them amount to “Oh my god, we’re going to die.” Fear remains absent. I just sigh.

The pilot activates the intercom again. “Sorry about that earlier announcement, folks. You weren’t supposed to hear that. I pushed the wrong button.”

There’s nervous laughter in the cabin. My mind is flashing back to the movie “Airplane!”, which featured exactly this scenario as a joke. Yet this isn’t a joke, because we’re descending.

The pilot explains the situation. As the plane had turned northwards, a sensor had triggered an alarm on the flight deck indicating that one of the engines was on fire. Since this is generally a major problem when taking off and ascending to cruising altitude, he had declared the emergency situation. As soon as he had turned the plane around, the alarm had turned itself off. He was pretty sure the engine wasn’t actually on fire now, but for obvious reasons he wasn’t going to take any chances.

The landing is like every other landing, except that a fire truck speeds up to the plane with sirens wailing; then it just sits there for a minute or so. The pilot tells us that the fire crew can’t see any evidence of fire, so he’s just going to taxi the plane back to the gate in a relaxed fashion and get the engineers to investigate.

We reach the gate, the seatbelt light goes off, and I retrieve my phone and turn it off.


Half an hour later I’m still on board the plane, trying to pretend I don’t have a wristwatch. On the plus side, I’m alive and I’m not on fire, two things I’m a big fan of. On the minus side, I’m pretty sure we’ve missed our flight to the UK. I try to read a book and not think about it.

Every fifteen minutes or so, we’re told that engineers are investigating the situation, and that there will be some actual news real soon now. This doesn’t do anything to help my efforts at stoic calm. The flight attendants bring us water and orange juice. A few people demand to leave, and are allowed to do so.

Finally, at 16:45 the pilot informs us that there definitely was no fire, and it was a sensor error, but that the engineers can’t work out why the sensor system is still misbehaving. They’ve tried replacing the sensor, they’ve tried resetting the system, and they still aren’t sure what’s going on. Without a working safety system for detecting engine fires, the flight is canceled. We shuffle off the plane, back into the terminal.


Back at gate 13, American Airlines has allocated one lone member of staff to rearrange the travel of everyone on the flight. A long Z-shaped line stretches from the counter.

In my experience, this kind of situation is pretty much standard operating procedure for American Airlines. If you search for flights online, AA are usually the cheapest, so IBM love them for business trips. I’ve flown on AA dozens of times, and I’d say something has gone horribly wrong about 75% of the time.

I think the problem is that AA cut costs as far as any reasonable person would cut them; and then they cut some more. To get an idea of how determined they are, look at one of their planes.

AA planes are all shiny metal, with just a thin red and blue stripe to provide branding. That’s because aircraft paint costs money, and repainting planes to keep them looking good costs money too. A thin stripe can get scuffed up and still look pretty good; so can bare metal.

The planes also look the way they do because paint is heavy. By not painting the planes, AA make them a few kilograms lighter, slightly reducing the fuel required for each journey. I’m not making this up; I read it in an AA in-flight magazine.

The same focus on cost-cutting extends to ground staff. Generally speaking, any time something needs to be done by someone, AA will have exactly one person in place to do it. If anything unexpected happens, like a plane possibly catching fire, that person will likely be overwhelmed with work, passenger journeys will get backed up, and a chain reaction of epic fail will ensue.

I am reminded of all this as I stand in line.

The redshirts are discussing their situation. They’ve picked one representative to queue on their behalf. I overhear that there are 29 of them, and they are all traveling to Brazil together. They’ve missed their connecting flight, which consequently is likely to be a lot more empty than the airline would like.

There are several people in the line who sound English. I guess that they were trying to get to the same flight as us. We talk to one of them, and my hypothesis is confirmed. He tells us that he has managed to phone and get rebooked on another flight, so rothko calls American Airlines.

The AA representative listens to the problem, and says that we need to call British Airways. So rothko calls British Airways, who say that since it’s an American flight that has been canceled, it’s up to American to book us on an alternate flight. So rothko calls AA again, and tells them this. They respond that since BA owns the booking, they’re the only ones who can update it, and we need to call BA.

There’s an element of truth to this claim. American Airlines set up the Sabre system, developed for them by IBM in the 1960s, and spun it off as a separate company in 2000. It still runs today, on mainframes located in Oklahoma, and now handles all the airline reservations for around 400 airlines. Meanwhile, British Airways use their own system called Travicom, and refuse to allow Sabre permission to issue tickets for BA flights; something to bear in mind when you read about BA and AA’s “oneworld” alliance.

I hate telephones, but clearly this is a situation where a dual-pronged attack is needed. I call American Airlines and sound like a confused English person, and rothko calls British Airways and sounds like a confused American.

The woman at AA realizes that the “You have to call BA” approach is not going to work this time, and admits that there’s another flight to Dallas at 17:35, but that it’s completely full. So is the flight after that. She says that she might be able to get us seats, by putting us on standby; and if we can get to Dallas, there are two more American Airlines flights to Heathrow later this evening, and we can probably get a seat on one of those.

I politely point out that we paid extra for British Airways’ World Traveller Plus seats across the Atlantic. American doesn’t have anything like that, so could they try and get us something equivalent–say, a Business Class seat?

The AA woman asks me to hold while she calls another desk.


It’s around 17:05 and I’m listening to tinny classical music in my left ear. There’s still only one American Airlines staffer at the counter, the line has hardly moved, and people are starting to get visibly irritated.

The music stops, and the voice of the woman from AA returns to my phone. She is telling me that she has managed to get us two seats on the 17:35 flight that’s departing from gate 15, and we just need to go to the counter and pick them up. I’m extremely skeptical, but we tell our single serving friend what has happened, say goodbye, and walk briskly to gate 15, where boarding is already in progress.

Another lone American Airlines staffer is handling the entire boarding process. Once he has finished dealing with everyone else, we show him our boarding passes for 698, and give a brief summary of the story so far. He does some intense typing at the Sabre terminal, and tells us that he’s done something very complicated and not entirely orthodox. He can let us on the plane now, but we’ll have to get everything rebooked properly in Dallas. There’s no time for paperwork, not even boarding passes. We hurry down the jetway.


It’s 17:48 and I’m sitting in a business class seat on flight AA1774 to Dallas/Forth Worth. I feel like I want to cry, mostly out of relief that we’re actually going somewhere, but that wouldn’t be businesslike.

I realize that my question about seat upgrades had persuaded the AA customer service rep to contact their business class priority bookings desk, and they had placed us in two of the three empty business class seats. If we hadn’t paid for upgraded seats, we’d still be in Austin.

We’ve missed our UK flight, and we might not be able to get booked onto the two remaining flights this evening, but I feel that if we can at least get as far as Dallas, we can stay in a hotel overnight and get a flight tomorrow.

There’s no beverage service in cattle class on this short flight, but in business class they are handing around free drinks and a bag of assorted salty snacks. The bag has a warning on the back saying “This food was processed in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts.” Those warnings always irrationally annoy me, because peanuts are not nuts, they’re legumes. Like I need anything else to be annoyed about right now.

Business class also get a second in-flight magazine, “Celebrated Living”. It seems to consist mostly of advertisements for expensive things nobody needs, like fancy watches and holiday villas.

I try to relax, but I have a knot in my stomach.


It’s 18:12 and the plane is definitely descending. Better still, it hasn’t caught fire.

“Flight attendants prepare for landing please.”

We enjoy a bumpy touch down at 18:27. Connecting gates are announced as we taxi in. The plane shudders to a halt. “Time for a brake job,” mutters the guy sitting next to me.


It’s 18:40. I walk off of the plane into DFW terminal B. I meet up with rothko again, and we walk briskly to the transit point, and get the train to terminal D as quickly as possible. Once there we hurry to gate 22, which is the departure gate for the next flight to the UK.

My eye is twitching again.

There are three AA staff at this desk. One man is dressed a bit like a pilot, and is doing something complicated with a Sabre terminal. A second man is dressed like a baggage thrower, and doesn’t seem to be doing anything. A woman is sitting impassively waiting for the next customer, with a scowl that suggests she’s either at the end of a very long shift, or has been sucking on lemons to pass the time.

I stride up to the desk, putting on my best harried-but-affable expression, and attempting to smile. I politely summarize our tale of woe, trying to keep things as succinct as possible.

Keys are tapped, eyebrows are raised, and colleagues are consulted. Given our lack of boarding passes for the previous flight, plus whatever it says in Sabre, I get the impression we really shouldn’t be here. Clearly we are, however, so our presence is filed away under unexplained phenomena, and by 19:15 we’re rebooked on flight AA78 to Heathrow. There are no premium seats left on the flight, so we’ll be stuck in cattle class for eight hours, but at least we’ll get to our destination.

Our checked luggage, I’m less sure about. When you submit your luggage to the tender mercies of the airlines, it gets tagged with a unique tracking ID and logged in a big database, which I suspect runs on an IBM mainframe somewhere. If you are rerouted or transferred to a different flight, your bags are supposed to be rerouted automatically to match. However, since we had to rush to catch our successful Dallas flight, chances are our bags won’t have managed to make the same journey. Even if they have, they’ll be flagged for loading onto BA0192, which they’ll have missed, so all bets are off.

Being a fairly experienced traveler, I’ve got everything valuable or essential in my carry on bag; the checked luggage is just clothing, so I’m not overly concerned about it. We’ll get by. If the worst happens, there’s always Marks & Spencer.

With our new flight arrangements, we’ll be arriving at a different time, at a different Heathrow terminal. I can’t be sure my parents will read their e-mail before departing tomorrow morning to meet us at the airport. This seems like a legitimate reason to call them at 1 a.m. their time, so I do. Mindful of the cost of international cell phone calls, I try to keep the conversation short and to the point. I reassure mother that the plane wasn’t actually on fire at any point, that we are safe, that we definitely have seats on the next UK flight, and that we will arrive the next morning only three hours later than planned.


It’s now 19:30. With all immediate obstacles overcome, I’m suddenly feeling hungry. I wander DFW terminal D in search of food.

There’s an Einstein Bros Bagels, which is closed. There’s an allegedly gourmet burrito place, which is also closed. There’s a Fuddruckers, which seems to be the only thing open, and has a long line stretching out of the door. I cuss, trudge back to gate 22, and unwrap a Clif bar from my shoulder bag.


It’s 19:45 and I’m sitting on flight AA78. It is running 30 minutes late. This doesn’t bother me at all.

The plane is a 767. The overhead lockers above the central rows of seats move up and down, rather than swinging down like in most planes. When they’re up, there’s a curiously open and airy feeling inside the plane. The extra headroom makes it feel a lot less claustrophobic.

Of course, that doesn’t make the seats any more comfortable. I try to nap over the course of the flight, but don’t have much luck.


It’s 11:30 British Summer Time, and we’ve just touched down in Heathrow. British summer is in full effect, complete with thick gray cloudy skies and slow drizzle.

There’s another plane at the gate ours is supposed to arrive at. We sit on the plane, and the plane sits on the taxiway, for another 20 minutes. Finally we reach the gate, the seatbelt sign turns off, and I stand up. My back is sore, but not aching. I’m sleep-deprived, but more or less OK.

As I suspected, our luggage will not be joining us. We file paperwork with the American Airlines lost luggage desk. They check the computer, and rather worryingly announce that they can’t find any record of where our bags are. They say they’ll call us when they know.


Our bags finally turn up in Dallas a day later, and are delivered to us a day after that. Nothing is missing.

© mathew 2017