A-Musings: Flying High

Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind. For the purpose of these articles, a-musings are thoughts that might amuse, entertain and even enlighten.

Flying High

As followers of these A-Musings might recall, my family and I started our love affair with St Lucia in the early 1970s when we travelled back and forth between Scandinavia and the Caribbean via Luton Airport in England with Monarch, when flying, compared with the relative comfort of today’s flights, was still, over forty years ago, quite an adventure.

On the outbound flight from Luton, if I recall correctly, we actually received assigned seat numbers so we knew where we were going to sit. Those of us who plied the route regularly quickly learned that certain rows were to be avoided in the old Boeing 720 aircraft because the air conditioning tended to collect condensation, which dribbled happily on to the heads of unsuspecting passengers about two hours into the flight and did not stop until the landing.

We were never quite sure of the routing because of the aircraft’s inability to fly all the way non-stop; more often than not we flew via the Azores, which enjoy a temperate climate, but sometimes we had to fly via St John’s in Newfoundland. At both stops we had to leave the aircraft while they refueled. In the Azores, the transit hall was more like a transit telephone kiosk into which a couple of hundred of us were crammed for the duration of the stopover. St John’s, on the other hand, had a spacious transit hall that could only be reached after what seemed an eternity of a traipse in freezing temperatures and sometimes driving snow, especially if we had come dressed in shorts, ready for the Caribbean.

The videos of these memories were playing in my head as I travelled back to the island after my latest bout of globetrotting, and I came to the conclusion that in the old days, perhaps due to the gloss of passing time, the flights were lots of fun. Do any of you remember the mad dashes from the terminal in Barbados to the aircraft on the outbound journey before the advent of seat number allocations on good old BWIA?

Yes, some things have improved but some things have got worse. Take Virgin’s Upper Class, for example. For many years I enjoyed the comfort of British Airways First Class service to and from the Caribbean. As the numbers dwindled, it became obvious that First Class made no sense for the airline. With time, more often than not, we would be only a handful of passengers ‘up front’ and sometimes I even had the cabin to myself with a crew of five to pamper me. So BA upgraded the Business Class and for a while it was very successful. Then Virgin came along with its Upper Class – and what a revolution that was. Yes, Upper Class was not inexpensive, but the value for money was amazing. It felt like First Class, and even surpassed First Class on every US airline, even though it did not quite reach the impeccable standards of BA’s long haul First Class accommodation.

Being a really frequent flyer makes you demanding; you like to be pampered; and way back then, my work took me constantly from continent to continent for 200 out of every 365 days. The ground service was immaculate; First Class and Business Class lounges, not to talk of Concorde’s lounges, were oases of comfort and tranquility. British Airways offered lounges with sleeping and showering cabins for long layovers between connections at no extra cost. Virgin offered free limousine service to and from the airport. BA paid for your hotel the night before a flight if you arrived the previous night. In New York you could get a helicopter ride into Manhattan; those were the golden years.But back to Virgin and today’s excuse for Upper Class. Open any tin of sardines and you will get a good impression of how passengers are packed into their Upper Class cabin. Couples can not only not sit together, they can’t even see each other because of the high partitions between the seats. Anyone with shoulders of any significant width will find themselves jammed tightly into their coffin-like box. The individual video screen fits into the sidewall and can be maneuvered into a position right before your face, which prevents you from seeing what is on the table in front of you. By the way, on my last three Virgin flights, the video screen had to be prised open with force, the table would not come out and then would not stay down, and I wasn’t the only one with problems. The “beds” had to be made by the attendants because the mechanism of lowering and flattening the seat was too complicated for any normal human brain. And once on the bed, anyone longer than about 5 feet 5 inches would find their feet sticking out into the already narrow aisles, and of course, once the decision about a sleeping position had been made, that was it, there was no room to twist and turn. The sad thing is that Virgin, who set the standard for price-worthy Upper Class travel, no longer offers anything like its original comfort.

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