Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #9: Affair of flying

I have no fascination with planes, much as I don’t with cars; but work has created love affairs with flying and some messy divorces.

I’ve flown with many of the world’s major airlines. I’ve had the luxury of flying first class and on Concorde, thanks to work. (They always gave passengers sterling silver gifts on Concorde flights, and I usually gave mine away to friends with whom I stayed with overnight en route.)

I’ve also flown on what my wife calls juk-juk’ (tiny) planes, for private travel, not just puddle jumpers in the Caribbean (LIAT, you’re unparalleled), but ‘bigger’ airlines for what are ‘sketchy’ airlines (the Turkish central bank booked it, so I had faith). I’ve travelled by helicopter and found it generally terrifying, more so with a baby in tow—between Conakry and Freetown—and the sight of vodka bottles under the pilots’ seats was as frightening as you’d imagine. I’ve flown alone and with family, friends and colleagues. I’ve met interesting people on planes but also some absolute cuckoos: I’ve played hard of hearing for an 8-hour flight to avoid the prattling of a be-pearled old lady who just seemed too nervous to stop talking. I’ve had flights leave early and arrive late; flights that left late or not at all, including sitting on the tarmac wondering for 3-4 hours.

I’ve learned over the years that almost anything can happen with flights, and now travel with ‘insurance’: change of clothes, toiletries, snacks, mainly. My family get a royal ribbing if they are sitting in a lounge like me and walk out without at least a bag of peanuts. When they say “Daddy, do you have anything to eat?”, when the crew explain they cannot serve anything will we wait on the runway another hour, they know ‘the look’.

I’ve lost luggage in transit and had items stolen on a flight (I’ll be generous and say that someone saw something they liked unattended on a seat and…). I’ve had people grab my luggage, swearing it was theirs, even after I showed the tags that identified them as mine. I’ve had luggage damaged, and (touch wood) never had an issue getting compensation for that. My most recent experience was one of the funniest, when I travelled to London last February, when Virgin Airlines’ rep told me she’d just process a refund rather than go through all the fuss of having me submit a claim etc. She’d seen the photo of the damaged bag and the luggage tag, taken as I’d collected the bag at Heathrow, and that was enough. I thought, I had to argue…not 🙂

I’ve gone through whole business trips where my luggage never reached and came back to me after I got home.

I’ve had airline staff act the total fool about damage or loss claims and they are now in mental, if not physical, intensive care. My wife doesn’t engage airlines, she just says “You deal with them!” My daughters know how I operate and now regale me with stories of how they got their just desserts and more from ‘acting like Daddy’ 🙂

I can play the fool, but I don’t suffer fools gladly.

I’ve had to tear up my travel itinerary at the drop of a hat. I’ve switched airlines at departure when my airline cancelled but I had another airline option at hand—one of the benefits of premium travel. Sudden changes made me a ‘suspect’ on the US Department of Homeland Security lists and I was subjected to ‘random’ checks almost every time I flew from Dulles Airport after 9/11. I had to take on DHS to get the ‘red flags’ removed from my profile. Those who say they think that reactions were calm, even ones I admire like Paul Krugman, must be in a deep freezer.

I’ve rarely had issues at immigration; most of my business travel was on a UN laisser-passer (including the rarer red ones for ambassadors). On visiting Libya, I’ve yet to see what the entry process is, having been whisked to a VIP lounge, the truly whisked at high speed into Tripoli to the hotel.

But, I had a Russian Customs official admire my watch so much and so suggestively that I had to tackle the ‘bribe’ moment frankly and just say he was wasting his time.

I’ve had an airline try to bump me from business class for a president’s relative, I’ve had a plane hold its door for me to arrive before departure. I’ve taken an international flight (many times) without having to go through immigration and Customs, either sitting in the VIP lounge, or just going straight to the plane on the tarmac. Once, my friend who was a transport magnate, got the call for the flight while we were dining and drove me there himself 🙂 Now, that is special!

Virgin Upper Class offers a limo service—excellent. I’ve a friend now who’s a London cabbie, who’s ready to do my pick-up and drop off as soon as I message him, no matter how many years since we last saw each other. We discovered by chance that we’d played football together sometime in our earlier lives.

Arrivals and departures during ‘normal’ hours can seem a luxury. I think it was about 3am in the morning when I arrived in Addis Ababa, then the shock of thin air as the altitude hit me. Trips to Guyana always involved midnight/early morning arrival/departures; it took many trips before I saw the airport road in daylight. Trips there involved undoubtedly the worst stopover at the airport hotel at Piarco, Trinidad, the most vivid recollections of which are the size of the cockroaches.

You might not note it, but smooth checking in can matter. German efficiency from Lufthansa was only bettered at times by BA’s Concorde desk. Fast track used to be really fast until 9/11 made all travel slow and painfully slow. Air France in Conakry was unmatched because it was ore-check-in and my bags etc could go from my office and all I had to do was present myself at the airport.

Amenities are interesting. Lufthansa gave some neat toiletries in a little leather case. British Airways first class offered them in a series of cotton bags with printed flying scenes; I still use one regularly. Concorde bags were sleek; mostly given away, especially if I could grab a extra one. Kenyan Airways was nothing to talk about. Virgin and BA offered nice jump suit pajamas; my youngest loves wearing one I snagged for her.

Lounges can make or break a trip. Virgin have the best for imagination and variety and design. American tended to be just so. BA’s always excellent at Heathrow and Dulles, especially for pre-flight dining. I love transiting London for a spot of old English grub—bacon 👍🏾🇬🇧

My favourite airport? Heathrow, even with its immensity, but once direct rail access was added, it was one of the easiest to reach and leave. I loved Stockholm in m-transit. Really don’t like De Gaulle. Frankfurt has great free luggage carts, but is enormous. Schipol and Brussels get honourable mentions. Really dislike Piarco 😡Dakar could be interesting in an odd west African way 🤔😂But, Singapore! 🙏🏾👍🏾👍🏾👍🏾

In-flight entertainment goes to BA and Virgin; Air France, you’ve work to do.

Finally, airline food and drink. Best of both was usually British Airways (BA); Air France was surprisingly meh, often. I especially love BA offering a snack bar that had some chocolates bars that took back years. 👍🏾😳 Service with a snarl was usually an American carrier; I avoided them trans-Atlantic at all costs. Touch wood, I never got food poisoning from flying.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)