Christmas 2010: Flying to the UK

As you may have seen on the news, the UK has been experiencing some freakishly cold weather. The weekend before Christmas was marked by a sudden record breaking cold snap. Chesham in Buckinghamshire hit -26 Celsius, a temperature I don’t think I ever experienced during the years I lived in the area.

Heathrow airport was engulfed in snow and ice, thousands of passengers were stranded at the airport for days, and it started to look as if our Christmas trip to see my family was going to be canceled at the last minute. That would have been ironic, as it was pretty much arranged at the last minute.

The Spanish company that now owns the airport hadn’t foreseen that this winter might be like… well, last winter, which was also freakishly cold and snowy. There weren’t enough staff on hand to clear snow, so by end of day Monday there were still buried planes, and almost all flights were canceled.

On Tuesday, rothko found the BAA web site and discovered that it was publishing a daily list of the lucky planes that were being allowed in or out. That day, the early evening flight from Houston to London was one of the lucky ones. On Wednesday it was listed as a winner again, so we gamely set off for the airport.

In spite of all the TSA horror stories, I have to say that I’ve never had any problems with the staff at Austin. As usual, security theater was a painless procedure, and everyone was friendly. We were soon sitting at the gate for our connecting flight to Houston, sipping a couple of lattes and trying not to feel foolish wearing winter boots. Unfortunately, our mood was rather spoilt when our flight’s departure was delayed by an hour. I’ve come to expect this sort of thing, and this year I had taken multiple precautions. Firstly, I had booked our flights with a two hour gap in Houston. Secondly, I had booked us on the earlier transatlantic flight–so if we missed that, we would still have the possibility of being bumped onto the later flight. It turned out that we arrived in Houston and had time to walk to our departure gate, getting there just as the flight was just starting to board. We got to our cattle-class seats and settled in, and I tried to relax.

It being an overnight eastbound flight, my plan was to skip all caffeine and try to sleep on the plane. I switched my watch to UTC and unpacked my latest piece of experimental travel sleepwear. Desperation has led me to try a lot of purported solutions to the problem of sleeping on planes.

There’s the chemical approach, of course; I tried melatonin, and found that it did indeed make me sleepy and give my body clock a good kick into UK time. Unfortunately, it also left me feeling weird and spacey, and on one business trip I spent a perfectly normal day in the office working with colleagues, only to discover the next morning that I had absolutely no recollection of anything I had done or said. So, now I avoid melatonin unless I can’t get to sleep any other way.

The main problem with sleeping in an economy class seat is that they don’t recline significantly, and your head ends up lolling around and waking you up. So after the melatonin experiment, the next thing I tried was one of those neck pillows shaped like a letter C. Mine was cheap and inflatable, but there are all kinds of fancy ones with buckwheat filling and deluxe covering. My experience is that they’re useless; they don’t stop your head from falling forward at all, and they don’t stop sideways movement enough to prevent a painful crick in the neck.

After that, I tried a wedge-shaped inflatable pillow device that you’ve probably seen in the SkyMall catalog. The idea is that you inflate it, and it fills the space between you and the seat in front. You then lean forward onto it and sleep. The first problem with this plan is that as you sit and inflate what looks like a misshapen beige beach ball, you can’t help feeling like a colossal tool. Once you deal with your pesky self esteem issue by reminding yourself that you will never see any of the people on the plane ever again, you discover that the pillow is designed on the assumption that the person in front will remain in their seat for the duration of the flight and not keep reclining and un-reclining. It also helps if you don’t have anything to eat or drink, and so don’t need to use your tray table. I tried to look past all those snags and sleep on the thing, but it turns out that the inflatable surface naturally ends up bulging outwards, and my head would keep sliding off to one side or the other. I tried letting some air out, but that just made the thing fail to maintain enough shape to rest on. Imagine trying to sleep by hugging a PVC beach ball and resting your head on the back of the seat in front, and you’ll get the idea. Utterly, utterly useless, even though it looks really plausible. Then again, isn’t that the case for so many SkyMall items?

This trip I had a new device to try, and it actually works. That is, it solves the head lolling about problem; there are still plenty of other difficulties you’ll face trying to sleep on a plane, but at least you won’t wake up every time your chin hits your chest. This latest gadget is called Nap Strap. You start by wrapping a belt-like loop of Velcro around the headrest. Once that’s securely in place, you put on an elasticated headband which has two Velcro elastic side pieces that stick to the headrest strap, and gently hold your head against the headrest. The headband also has a soft fabric eyeshade. As far as the tool factor goes, it doesn’t look all that different from the sleep masks people wear on planes all the time. The only gotcha is making sure the strap doesn’t get in the way of any in flight entertainment being enjoyed by the person in the seat behind. Well, that and the price–the Nap Strap seems to sell for an utterly outrageous $99, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay that much when I bought it a year or three ago.

So, the head strap did its job, and I slept a little. That is, until the poor ergonomics and hard seat cushion of the seat itself made my butt start to ache… So next time, I’ll be trying a pillow of some sort to sit on.

We arrived at Heathrow on time, and the plane touched down gently–and then started swerving from side to side in a terrifying manner until the pilot brought it under control. But we were down, we had made it, Christmas was saved. I sped through immigration with my EU passport, collected our luggage, and waited for rothko, then we emerged into the arrivals hall where my delighted parents were waiting to greet us.