Sunday, November 28, 2010

What a fine airline!

Now even I would be the first to admit a certain lack of impartiality. Riding, as I am, well restored by a couple of beakers of the concentrated soul of the Italian sun, in the business class cabin of a bmi plane heading back to Tbilisi, I am extremely comfortable, and prone to offering compliments.

However, bmi, now a part of the Lufthansa Group following the remarkable fiscal foresight of its founder, Sir Maurice Bishop, is a wonderful airline.

I have been flying long enough to remember the days when aviation was not only fun, but glamorous. One dressed up to fly; why I am not quite sure in retrospect, but we did. Aeroplanes made extraordinary things possible; they were pretty odd, too. I remember flying from Southend to somewhere on the Belgian coast in a Carvair; the plane looked disarmingly like a tiny or prototype Boeing 747 and carried cars, allowing my Dad to take us to “The Continent” for a holiday or two.

Bmi might have existed then too, I am not sure; I do remember British Island Airways, Air Anglia, Air Ecosse and all sorts of regional derivatives operating some remarkable flying machines.

I did fly with bmi in the recent past; thirty years ago or so, when they were called British Midland, they flew elderly aircraft on dull routes. A Fokker to Amsterdam, an ageing BAC to Palma, that sort of thing; now it is all about A320s and 321s to Khartoum, Beirut and Tbilisi no less. Bishkek and Freetown show up on their route map as well; no end of oddness that bmi flight crews endure. And good for them; folks need to get to these places, and as established carriers pull out for a variety of reasons, smaller folks dive in.

And it is the crew that is actually remarkable. From an old Aviation Salt like me, prising praise loose from my inherent cynicism is not an easy task; these folks deserve it all. I fly a great deal, and it is an odd way to live. Hurtling from place to place at 500 miles per hour in a metal tube seeking a new idea or contract to keep the family and troops in new shoes takes its toll. Particularly on the liver, but that’s another story.

But, bmi wins out. Yes, they have the most fabulous business class lounge I have been in, and yes, they fly to interesting places, and yes, their food is terrific and the wine list entertaining, but get this, their crew’s eyes are open and thinking!

Just minutes ago a flight attendant, noticing that on the passenger print-out they have, no frequent flyer program was marked, he came to me to solicit membership in the bmi program. Above and beyond, I would say, and indicative of this carrier.

In fairness, I have to admit that the night I spent with United, two nights ago to be precise, flying from Chicago to London was fabulous. First Class should be, of course, but this was a terrific trip. A great crew, absolute comfort, five hours sleep and a jug or two of a rather memorable Chablis made for a terrific trip.

As it should, of course, for those paying for First Class passage from Winnipeg to Tbilisi would be parting with the best part of eighteen grand. I understand why folks would pay this; heading away to conclude billion dollar deals, money to burn through an extremely fortunate genetic quirk or even hard work. However, for most, the practical way to enjoy this level of comfort and pampering is the accumulation of frequent flyer points.

Aeroplan; one has to love it.

And that’s why I had no active frequent flyer designation on display for the ever-vigilant bmi flight attendants; I am travelling on points.

Why they fly to Tbilisi is another question. The final leg from Baku will carry only twenty-seven of us there. It is a pity really, because Georgia is a wonderful place.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Queen Mary: On board in the future

One of the more surreal parts of an endlessly surreal week is officially being somewhere that I am not, and in the future, to boot.

Let me explain.

Cunard think of everything, and to this end have provided a UK immigration officer on board the ship in order to facilitate our arrival in Southampton. During the crossing, at allotted times we present ourselves and passports to her, and are duly admitted into the United Kingdom. I did wonder what would happen to an undesirable alien who she did not wish to admit to the UK, but can only suppose that this eventuality failed to present itself.

However, the odd thing is that she stamped our passports with “October 8, 2010”; I have never had a stamp in my passport six days beyond the present. What if I died before we reached England? Having already been admitted, would this cause a problem? Should, in a James Bond moment, I be whisked away by helicopter to an Alien Foreign Power, could this stamp be considered proof of my admittance to Britain on November 8th, even though I was making mischief elsewhere? You see the point. Were the ship to be taken hostage by Somali pirates, although I will concede that the North Atlantic is somewhat out of their probable range of attack, on November, would we have issues with insurance companies, reluctant to cough up compensation, because of our proof of arrival at Southampton two days later?

Time passes both slowly and quickly on board the ship. There seems to be the luxury of time for thoughts to percolate into ideas, yet the map shows our relentless progress toward Europe. We lie aghast at the knowledge that in an ever decreasing number of hours, we will be ashore and back into the common world.

It is the great strength and attraction of the Queen Mary 2 that we live in a continuously gracious world. It is not simply the flake of grace that we enjoy from an evening at the opera or a fine and distinguished club; not the lingering memory of even a fine weekend at a country hotel. No, this is continuous; it is beautifully mannered and endearingly comfortable. It is days of afternoon tea, paneled libraries, exquisite dining and a sense of engaged formality. It is a glimpse, perhaps, to the rose tinted past, and an opportunity to enjoy a truly relaxing time.

The ship is massive and my walks continue; two laps of the promenade deck (deck 7, if you are that interested) are equivalent to 1.9 kilometres, and three laps equal 1.1 mile. Calculating how far six laps are (in something nautical, like fathom or chains perhaps) illustrates the peak of intellectual activity. And physical activity for that matter; after the bulging buffets, and endless feeding, one needs a walk or two.

Even divine intervention for that matter; and there is evidence of this possibility here on the ship that seems to supply everything. On a routine trip to the washroom, I couldn’t help noticing a cane hanging on a hook on the wall. One doesn’t often see canes lying apart from their owners, and I immediately speculated on this separation. Did the toilet have some Lourdes-like properties, or was the cane some kind of theatrical prop? Was I now to be revealed as being on Candid Camera, or was the cane’s owner beaming enormously and striding confidently down halls proclaiming the miracle?

It is an interesting ship. There are, apparently, some twenty-five “Gentlemen Dancers” employed to engage the over 500 single women (most, of more than a certain age it should be noted) in a quick twirl about the ballroom floor. It has to be said that it is not difficult to distinguish between a member of this gallant fraternity and Fred Astaire, but then again it is the thought that counts.

And so it rolls around to dinner once more; formal tonight, so I am looking forward to Murray sporting the Hero of the Revolution medal once more, and trying to explain to our dining-neighbour, curious at Murray’s role in the war, about its provenance.

What a fine place to be

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Sedate Atlantic

Rarely am I reduced to silence; in particular as I travel. This journey, however, is rather different, and as I find myself hurtling across the Atlantic Ocean at a sedate 25 miles per hour, safely cocooned by the overwhelming comfort of the Queen Mary 2, one’s mind drifts. Not, I have to say to writing, but to observing one’s fellow passengers and thinking.

Thinking firstly about why on earth I am here, and then to why everybody else is. I booked passage during the peak of the Icelandic volcanic crisis earlier in the year; in a fit of pique, and temporarily blinded with an overwhelming distaste of flying, I booked passage to London and the annual World Travel Market on the ship.

I have, of course, calmed down since and flown back and forth a few times, but this booking remained, and here I am; floating at this moment roughly mod way between New York and Southampton. And, I have to say, that I am loving every moment.

The Queen Mary is an Ocean Liner; not, simply a cruise ship. The distinction is quite clear in my mind, and those of many fellow travellers. Cruising, we feel, is a protective activity; sailing from place to place protected from foreign influences, and having aggressive young things making up games and generally disturbing the peace. This liner is a direct descendant of the ships that plied the routes between Europe and the New World in the early decades of the last century.

Simply, we are not on a cruise, we are on a crossing. We have chosen to book passage between two countries in a sedate, unhurried and genteel manner. Pampered, it must be said, with more food than one should really eat, superb wines and tempting cocktails. Superb big-bands, excellent concerts and chats about everything from dead bodies to the crustaceans of the deep sea floor.

And so time passes. Simultaneously slowly and fast; relentlessly watching the sea and gazing periodically at the sky full, in the afternoon, of westbound jets carrying their passengers at six-hundred miles an hour toward America. And believe me, speeds like that simply make no sense from where we look.

The treat of the ocean liner became apparent even at check-in in Brooklyn. The process of dropping off bags, obtaining our boarding passes and ship-card, passing through a cursory security inspection and walking up to the ship took no more than fifteen minutes. Our bags were delivered soon after, and there we were, seeking inspiration at the champagne bar. Well, one has to really.

And so it started; a daily grind of exercise (yes, six brisk rounds of the deck equalled two miles, and passed about thirty minutes), eating, snacking, dozing, being lectured to, dressing for dinner and eating again became normal behaviour all too quickly. Actually, I didn’t dress too much for dinner, taking the easy option of sombre business attire; my friend Murray, however, did bring a dinner jacket, and to show my approval and support of his dress code, gave him a Heroic Worker of the Revolution medal that I had picked up in Moldova a year or so ago, and it looked well on his jacket. He got some odd stares, of course, from military types with failing eyesight, but in my view, really topped off the occasion.

The last ocean voyage that I took was about a year ago, crossing the Black Sea on a rather interesting East German boat, the Greifswald. Needless to say, there are striking differences between the two vessels and their passengers, but I have enjoyed them both. The sea, after all, is the sea, and passage at a relentless but sedate 25 miles per hour beats incarceration in a metal tube, and hurtling across the oceans at speeds approaching that of a sound wave.