I didn’t take my first air flight until my mid 20s but I’d have to admit I’ve made up for it since. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of but in my time I’ve held gold cards with three different airline groups (British Airways, KLM and SAS) and in more recent times I’ve done interim management jobs in Spain by effectively commuting weekly between Luton or Stansted and Barcelona.
My last business flight would have been 27 Aug 19 but I was diverted by the cardiac consultant (click here for that story) and although we did fly to Indonesia before Xmas last year our May trip to Italy fell victim to Covid. There’s not going to be much flying in the future so I might as well reflect on what’s been.
1 First flight (London to Amsterdam): I’m guessing this would have been in 1971 when I was working for Shell in London. It put all its new graduate staff through an induction program which was split between London and The Hague. That meant a mid-week flight on British European Airways or KLM from Heathrow to Amsterdam Schipol. I remember little about the flight other than noting that I was travelling faster than I ever had before.
I don’t remember much about the course either. There were probably 30 or so of us participating, lots of Dutch of course, probably no women but that reflected the world of work in those days. We must have been told a lot about the company and the oil industry. We had a trip round the Pernis oil refinery and being proudly shown Shell’s answer to atmospheric pollution in those days: a tall stack, simply push the pollution higher and it’ll go away.
2 First first class experience (new York to Houston): in 1973 I was not doing baldy at Shell but I’d felt that I should see what was possible if I moved companies. One of my commercial colleagues found a role at Mobil Oil which was following Shell into LNG and he suggested I join him. After a little toing and froing Mobil invited me over to New York for an interview early in 1974. At the same time I’d been talking to another company, Bonner & Moore in Houston, which I’d met as they ran a course which I’d attended. It had already offered me a job subject to me getting a visa and when I told them I’d be in New York they sent me an air ticket so that I might fly down and see them. It was a first class ticket!
Actually it wasn’t, not quite. It was a ticket all right but there was no room in first class on the flight which I was to take. So I had to wait, fingers crossed, and then at the last minute with the requisite no show I was given a boarding pass.
It was either United Airlines or Eastern Airlines but it didn’t matter. For me it was pure luxury: a drink before take off, a decent meal (airline food in economy was even worse then than it is now) and liqueurs with coffee. I asked for a Cointreau and was offered it ‘on the rocks’. Of course in those days I thought the American obsession with ice was a little loopy but I accepted nonetheless. I’ve not drunk Cointreau any other way since.
3 Worst flight (PanAm to Miami via New York): fast forward to the late 80s and the Swiss decided to reset the school year which meant we got a one-off two week break in May. That in itself meant that we got access to off-peak holiday deals and that Charles still qualified for half fare air flights because he wan’t six until 26 May 89.
We booked for two weeks in Florida: first week at Club Med and the second touring to include Disneyland and the Keys. Our flights were on PanAm via New York which was not going through the best of times and this was exacerbated by its Lockerbie event earlier in the year. I’d used my contacts though Dow to book a limo to take us from Miami airport to Club Med.
The flight started badly at check-in with no seats available in no-smoking. That was of course in the days before telephone check-in and we were on PA001, PanAm’s round the world service, which already came half full from its last stop. Finally we got seats and took off pretty much on-time for a full flight to New York. That wasn’t great fun, US airlines weren’t famous for their cabin service, but at least we got to New York on time.
We were greeted by long queues at immigration, some things never change, and then news that our connecting flight had a four hour delay. I rang the limo company and we just had to be patient.
So we arrived in Miami at least four hours late and only just before the next scheduled service. There was a rep from the limo service there to meet us, you could do that in those days, and he told us that there was a problem with the car but that they’d arranged a replacement. I imagined a Toyota Corolla. However he had a side-kick with him and she took Juni and the kids out to the car and left us to pick up the bags.
The bags took for ever to come though but finally one arrived. Another came on the next flight shortly after and the third didn’t turn up, it finally arrived a couple of days later.
So with just two bags we headed off to the car where I found that it wasn’t a Toyota Corolla, it was a stretch limo. At least that would have impressed Clare and Charles. Instead of early evening we arrived at club Med after midnight.
After this inauspicious start we had a super holiday and the flights back were smoother. But PanAm still managed to lose our bags. But it did improve. It lost all three this time.
4 Concorde (New York to London): in the days before budget airlines the skies were dominated by national carriers who competed to attract premium passengers to fly via their hubs. So if you started your flight outside the UK British Airways would offer you a deal to route it via Heathrow. This was manifest in the early 90s in a not to be missed opportunity to fly your return leg on Concorde if you chose BA to fly you to New York.
I was peddling plastic at the time and my biggest customer was IBM which was still in the PC business and made them in Scotland. We were IBM’s supplier of choice in Europe and the US but found ourselves on the receiving end of some rather aggressive purchasing. This came to a head with a ‘summit’ meeting with IBM in New York. I was to attend and that resulted in one of those crazy business trips: flight out on day 1, meeting day 2 and return day 3. And what made it even crazier was that I got a BA deal and flew back on Concorde.
It was a daytime flight and I would have got myself there in good time for breakfast in the Concorde lounge before take off. I guess we boarded on time but that’s when the craziness continued because Concorde was only allowed to take off in one direction for noise reasons. Problem was all the other flights were taking off in the other direction. That meant we had to sit there and wait for a gap in the traffic before being ‘cleared for take off’.
I really don’t remember much about the flight but it must have been pleasant enough. The seating was like the old fashioned, pre-business class era, first class: a little more room but nothing like the seat pitches you get today. It was very much not a wide bodied jet with just two seats on either side of a narrow central aisle. Of course the service would have been impeccable but nothing exceptional by comparison with today’s business class. People say that Concorde flew so high you could see the curvature of the earth. I don’t remember that.
Because of the delay at the start of the flight we arrived just too late for me to make my connection to Zurich. That meant an enforced overnight at a Heathrow airport and I remember enjoying an overnight allowance ‘appropriate’ for a Concorde passenger. That meant a three course evening meal with half a bottle of wine in my suite whilst watching Denmark win Euro 92.
5 Best upgrade (São Paulo to London): in 2013 I stood for re-election for a second time. It wasn’t a fun campaign and to motivate myself to get out and do a little more canvassing I promised myself a trip to Machu Picchu if I got re-elected. I was successful so later in the year I went.
I had a choice of routes: via Miami with American Airlines or via São Paulo with TAM, Brazil’s second airline. I chose the latter because transitting in the US is a pain and because TAM was a member of the Star Alliance for which I had a gold card. That meant easy check in and use of its lounges even though I would have a cheap non-endorsable economy class ticket.
The holiday was excellent and Machu Picchu easily met expectations even if the food was not consistently good and a couple of the hotels were not exactly classy. But that’s another story.
Coming home I decided to pay the premium for extra leg room seating when I checked in in Lima. That didn’t seem straight forward and the check in lady seemed to go out of her way to accomodate me. I seem to recall having to pay an extra USD100 or so but she was successful and gave me two appropriate boarding passes and I was away.
I had a long transit in São Paulo, that’s where being able to use the lounge was a bonus, and then got to queue with the 300 or so others on the London flight for boarding. It was quite a scrum and I felt pretty smug that I’d managed to secure an extra legroom seat.
I got myself settled and then when the plane was almost fully boarded a man with a uniform came to me and asked to see my ticket. I wasn’t sure what to think but handed it over. He took it and checked my name and then spoke the magic words ‘upgrade’ and ‘business class’ and gave me back another ticket with a seat with a low row number. I was being upgraded. So instead of an uncomfortable 10 hours in an economy class seat, albeit with extra legroom, I got a fully reclinable business class seat, decent food and fine wine. I was truly blessed and it was a splendid end to an excellent holiday.
Of course it should not have worked out that way. Upgrades are selected by an algorithm according to defined priorities and with a cheap non-endorsable economy ticket you don’t get any priority even though you’ve got a gold card. I can only imagine that in order to give me the extra legroom upgrade in Lima the check in lady had been obliged to reclassify my ticket and then because it looked like a full fare economy ticket my gold card came into play and the computer liked me. No matter, it happened the way it did. Sometimes you just get lucky.