Welcome to the fourth instalment of this, the second (and possibly last) Travel Spot of 2020. It covers my recent trip to America, which began when I flew to Boston at the end of February. It’s been shaped throughout by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, no more so than at the end of the trip. I’d originally planned to return at the end of March, but, as you’ll see, that’s not quite what happened.
I’d arrived in Chicago on Saturday, 14th March, having flown in from Atlanta. Everything felt fairly normal as I settled into my usual hotel right on the corner of the Chicago River, although the hotel itself felt rather quiet. The following day was gorgeous, with clear, blue skies, the temperature hovering a few degrees above freezing.
While people were taking precautions COVID-19, the city felt pretty normal. However, by the end of the day, the Governor of Illinois had announced the closure of all bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes except for takeaway customers and I decided that it was time to head home. I rearranged my flights that evening and, the following morning, I left for the airport. When, I wonder, will I be able to return?
You can read more about the trip and how it ended so abruptly after the gallery.
I left Chicago on the morning of Monday, 16th March. When I’d arrived, 36 hours earlier, I’d been looking forward to spending two weeks in the city, although, ironically, I hadn’t even planned on being in Chicago in March. Instead, I was supposed to be in Shanghai for back-to-back week-long meetings, but with the outbreak of COVID-19, the meetings were moved to Chicago at the end of January.
So, I rearranged my travel plans, extending an existing trip to Portland to see Amanda by adding a week in Atlanta, and flying from there to Chicago for the meetings which were due to start that Monday. However, not long after I arrived in Portland, the Chicago face-to-face meetings were replaced with conference calls. Since everything was already booked, including the hotel, I decided to continue with my original travel plans. I could just as easily do the calls from my hotel room as I could from home. Since the calls were scheduled for late afternoon/evening Chicago time it was actually more convenient than doing them from the UK (10pm to 2am), plus it left much of my day free, so I could still explore something of Chicago and catch up with my friends.
As it was, I managed just one full day in Chicago, Sunday, 15th March, which I spent exploring the Wicker Park district, visiting Fairgrounds Craft Coffee and Tea, Purple Llama and Intelligentsia. By the time I got back to the hotel, news of the Governor’s announcement had started to spread (I first heard it from the staff at Intelligentsia).
I’d already made some plans of my own to combat the risk of COVID-19, deciding, for example, that I would not eat out. The hotel had microwaves on each floor and I had a fridge in my room, so the night before I’d bought milk and cereal for breakfast. For the rest of the time, I’d decided to live off ready meals, heated up in the microwave, so before I returned to the hotel, I popped into the local supermarket. It was five o’clock on a Sunday evening and, while the shelves were well-stocked, the queues for each checkout already stretched to the end of the first aisles. Instead, I went to the convenience store around the corner from my hotel, which I had to myself, and bought microwave ravioli.
That evening, after a short period of reflection, I decided that it was time to go home. Even though I hadn’t planned on using them, the fact that the restaurants were now all closed made me realise that this was more serious than I’d previously thought. If I’d stayed, I doubt that I would have been at much greater risk, but with travel bans coming into place later than week, I didn’t want to take the chance of being trapped in Chicago.
It was still glorious outside, so I went for a walk along the river, something I particularly enjoy when in Chicago, one of my favourite cities. Who knows when I’ll be able to do that again? Returning to the hotel, I rearranged my flights, let the hotel know I was leaving the following morning, and set about packing everything away.
My original trip, planned at the end of 2019, had me flying in and out of Boston. As I’ve explained in previous Travel Spots, my intention this year was to avoid taking business class flights to/from the US by returning on the early morning flight from Boston, which arrives into Heathrow in the evening. When it became clear that I was no longer going to Shanghai, I moved my return flight from Boston to the end of the month and booked a connecting flight from Chicago which got me into Boston the night before. So, when it came time to (hastily) arrange my return to the UK, the easiest thing was to stick with the original plan and move those two flights forwards.
Looking online, I had multiple options. For example, I could have flown to Boston the following morning, then took the late-night flight back to the UK, arriving early on Tuesday morning. However, therein lay a problem: even the latest flight would have seen me getting home no later than 9am following, at most four or five hours sleep on the plane. I would have then had to stay up until 10pm for my four-hour conference call.
Given my previous problems with jetlag, I decided to stick with the original plan. I moved my flight from Boston to the Tuesday morning, booked a room at the airport hotel, and then moved my flight from Chicago to Monday lunchtime. This was scheduled to get me into Boston at 3pm, which meant that I’d have plenty of time to get to the hotel before that day’s conference call (5pm – 9pm Boston time).
At this point, I’d like to give a big vote of thanks to British Airways, American Airlines and IHG Group (my hotels), all of whom let me move flights and bookings without any charge. In particular, IHG let me cancel a pre-paid, non-refundable eight-day stay at the hotel, refunding the full amount for the stay. With a heavy heart, I packed up my computer and went to bed.
The following morning, as I left the hotel, I got more clues that something had fundamentally changed. The hotel was so quiet. The restaurant was shut, so there was no-one at breakfast, while the check-in desk, normally so busy, was also quiet. There was just me and the clerk, the same one who’d checked me in on Saturday night. When I got to the lobby, the Infuse Coffee and Tea Bar, where I’d expected to spend the week, hanging out with the staff, was also closed. I wasn’t surprised, but it hit me hard. It was definitely time to go.
My flight was just after noon (12:10 to be precise), so I had plenty of time to get to the airport. Normally I would have jumped on the Blue Line, retracing my steps from Saturday evening. However, this time I decided I would get a taxi, reasoning that with travel demand collapsing in the near future, my taxi driver would need my fare far more than Chicago’s transmit authorities would need my $5.
The last time I flew out of Chicago O’Hare with American Airlines was in November 2017 when I had a pretty smooth experience on my way back to Manchester. However, O’Hare, and its domestic terminals in particular, can be very busy, so I wanted to leave myself plenty of time, particularly since I’d tried checking in on-line and had been told I would have to check in at a desk, probably because of the late change of flight.
I needn’t have worried though.
I arrived the airport at 09:50 and, to be blunt, it was deserted. At 09:50 on a Monday morning. There was a short queue at check in and, after a short delay, where the agent had to phone reservations since she couldn’t find me on the system (definitely a heart-in-mouth moment), I was checked in and on my way to security.
There was another short hiccup while I went to the wrong security checkpoint (the first one I tried was for TSA pre-screened passengers), but even taking that delay into account, I was through security in record time and looking for the lounge. Like bad luck, minor delays come in threes, so, unsurprisingly, the nearest lounge was closed, which, as it turned out, worked in my favour, since I ended up at the much nicer main lounge.
Along the way, I got to walk through a near-deserted airport. It’s not immediately apparent from the photos in the gallery, but Terminal 3 was practically empty. It’s the emptiest I’ve ever seen a major airport. Between flying in from Atlanta on Saturday, when everything felt like business as usual, and that morning, less than 48 hours later, it was as if a switch had been thrown and the world had completely changed.
In common with many airlines at major airports, American has two lounges at O’Hare, the standard Admirals Club (which I’m used to) and the Flagship Lounge, which, due to my status with British Airways, I qualified for. Now, it was surreal enough walking through a near-deserted airport on a Monday morning, but the lounge was even more surreal than that. I’ve been in my shared of quiet lounges, but this was something else.
As you’ll have seen from the pictures, this was a pretty big lounge, but I was one of just eight passengers in there. In fact, there were more staff on duty than passengers at one point! This wasn’t, by the way, because flights had been cut back. American was still running a full schedule at that point, with over 75 departures due in the next three hours. People simply weren’t travelling.
In all, I spent 1¼ hours in the lounge, which (for future reference) was very nice. There were plenty of seats, with a good mix of lounge seating, desks and window-seats. There was even a TV room at the far end! I can’t really speak to the food offering, since American was running a limited service, but even that was better and more varied than those I’ve had in the Admirals Club (and that’s compared to the full service in the Admirals Club!).
I was there just at the change over between breakfast and lunch, initially helping myself to a toasted muffin and some fruit. When lunch came out, rather than offering a full buffet, individual plates were put out, each covered in cling-film to reduce the risk of contamination. I helped myself to a couple of the small plates: grilled tomato, zucchini and cauliflower for one and roasted sweet peppers for the other (there were meat and fish options as well). However, since I was going to be fed on the plane, I limited myself to that.
I also made my own coffee, having tried the in-house coffee (admittedly in the Admirals Club) on a previous occasion (I was less than impressed). So, out came my Travel Press and Aergrind, the hot water supplied by the coffee machine, and I brewed up some of Tandem Coffee Roasters’ West End Blues espresso blend which was, as usually, excellent.
By then it was 11:45 and although my flight wasn’t yet shown as boarding, I made my way down to the gate, taking my coffee with me in my Global WAKEcup. By the time I got to the gate, just five minutes later, the plane had already boarded, so I wandered straight on and took my seat.
After a couple of years of flying short haul on Airbus A319/320/321s, this was the second time in three days that I was on a Boeing 737-800. Once again, I was sitting at the front, but this time on the other side, in Seat 3A, rather than 3F. Next to me was an American Airlines captain who seemed disappointed that the apparently empty seat had next to him had suddenly become occupied!
Like the 737-800 I’d flown in on my way from Atlanta, this was very modern and very comfortable. I can’t really add much to what I’ve already said about the cabin, except that I discovered an interesting slot at the side of the seat beneath the outside armrest. I’m not sure it served any useful purpose since it was hard to actually get anything in there (and then safely retrieve it) with the armrest in the way. However, it did seem very well suited to accidentally losing things down, although I managed to avoid that fate!
I was one of the last people to board the flight, which was almost empty, although the first class compartment (all 16 seats of it) was quite full. However, there were probably no more than twice our number in the back of the plane, which probably explains why we boarded so quickly. The cabin crew came around with a welcome-on-board drink, but as soon as those had been served, the doors were closed and the airbridge retracted.
We spent the obligatory five minutes on the tarmac while we watched the safety video, then, at 12:05 and five minutes early, we pushed back and were on our way. The weather, by the way, had taken a turn for the worse, with the previous day’s blue skies replaced by low cloud. To make things even more interesting, it had started to snow not long after I arrived at the airport, Chicago having decided to give me a real sent off!
The first task at O’Hare is to get to the end of the runway, ready for take-off. Remembering the fun and games I had when I arrived on Saturday, when it took 25 minutes to get to our gate, I settled in for a long ride. However, things were further complicated by the weather. Since it was snowing, we had to go for de-icing before we could take off, and, this being O’Hare, Terminal 3, where the American Airlines flights are housed is at the eastern end of the airport. Naturally, the American Airlines de-icing station is at the far, western end of the airport.
Five minutes later, we arrived at the other end of the airport, where we waited in a queue for five minutes before it was our turn. I’ve been on flights that have been de-iced before, but never when I’ve had a window seat and been able to watch the process, which I found fascinating.
The plane pulls up between a pair of trucks, each with a long hydraulic arm. At the end of the arm is a small control cabin, where the operator sits, which has a further, extendable hose at the side. Once the plane is in position, the arm lifts up and the cabin turns round, extending the hose, which it then uses to spray de-icing fluid over its side of the plane. The whole process takes around five minutes, then the hose is withdrawn and the cabin tucks back in on the hydraulic arm, which is lowered back onto the truck.
After our de-icing, we moved off, but we didn’t clear the area for another 10 minutes, which was puzzling. Of course, now we were at the western end of the airport, but due to the prevailing winds, we were taking off in a westerly direction. This meant we had to taxi back across the whole width of the airport, a process which took another 10 minutes. Finally, we were in position to go and, a mere 35 minutes after we left the gate, we were hurtling down the runway. We took off at 12:45 and about 30 seconds later, disappeared into the cloud!
We broke through the top of cloud at 12:50 as we flew pretty much due east across Lake Michigan, making landfall after 10 minutes. Annoyingly, I couldn’t get the map working on my screen, although my neighbour, the pilot, has his working, so I followed our progress on that.
With an estimated flight time of 90 minutes, and a full meal service scheduled, the cabin crew worked quickly. The dinner service started at 13:05, when a bowl of warm nuts arrived. The food was already being warmed up in the galley which, being right at the front of the plane, I could clearly smell. There was a choice of chicken salad (cold) or mozzarella ravioli in a creamy sauce (hot). Naturally, I had the ravioli, which arrived five minutes later, just as we flew north of Detroit.
My ravioli came with a warm bread roll and a side salad and was excellent, far better than the microwaved ravioli I’d had the night before. The ravioli themselves were perfectly cooked and the sauce really was rich and creamy.
Our route took us across Lake St Claire, with views of Lake Huron in the distance to the north through gaps in the clouds. We had a clear spell as we flew along north shore of Lake Eire before the clouds closed in again. We passed just south of Buffalo then followed a route parallel to the southern shore of Lake Ontario, passing over the northern tips of finger lakes at 13:40, when warm chocolate chip cookies were served.
The pilot announced the start of our descent at 13:50, just over an hour after take-off and, while the map suggested we’d be landing in 20 minutes, the pilot said we wouldn’t be in the ground until 14:15 (15:15 local time). We crossed over the Hudson at Albany ten minutes after that and made our way across Massachusetts, very close to the border with Vermont. By now the clouds had cleared and I got a very good view of a landscape full of lakes, many of them frozen, although what I was actually seeing was Vermont and the likes of the Harriman Reservoir.
We crossed the Connecticut River and flew south of Lake Monomonac, which straddles the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. By now we were tending to a slightly more southerly route, leaving the New Hampshire border behind. We flew almost directly over Lunenburg, but I forgot to wave to my friend Lise, since I was too busy admiring Hickory Hills Lake. The next major landmark (for me at least) was Haystack Radio Telescope, and then we crossed over I495, by which point I could see the Massachusetts coast in the far distance, a sure sign that we were getting close to Boston.
The pilot asked the cabin crew to prepare for landing at 14:10 (15:10 local time) and, five minutes later, we flew over Boston’s Logan airport at a height of about 1,500m, heading due south. This provided some excellent views of the harbour before we back to turn back to the west in a big 225° turn over Quincy to approach the airport from the southwest. This, in turn, gave me some glorious views of the city as we came in over Dorchester and the container port before landing at 15:25. From there, it was a swift five minute taxi to the gate which made such a contrast to O’Hare.
I was off the plane by 15:35 and into a surprisingly busy Terminal B, far busier than O’Hare had been. Within 10 minutes, my bags were on the carousel and all that remained for me to do was get the shuttle to the hotel, which proved to be the trickiest part of the operation! I called the hotel, which said the shuttle bus was on its way, but the traffic outside was completely gridlocked and it took the shuttle 20 minutes to arrive.
From there, we followed the by now familiar route back to the hotel, arriving at 16:20, giving me a whole 40 minutes to check in, unpack and get ready for my call.
The final part of my journey home, the flight from Boston to London, was even more surreal than this flight.
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