Welcome to the fifth and final 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. At that point I’d expected to spend five weeks in the US, culminating with two weeks in Chicago for work. However, as I explained in the previous instalment, the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic saw me abruptly cut short my trip the day after I arrived in Chicago, when I decided to head home.
I flew from Chicago to Boston on Monday, 16th March, staying overnight in an airport hotel so that I could catch my hastily rearranged flight back to the UK the following morning. It was a surreal experience, arriving at a near-deserted Chicago O’Hare airport on what should have been a busy Monday morning. However, that was nothing compared to my flight back to the UK, which is the subject of today’s Travel Spot.
It was as if someone had thrown a switch, changing the world almost overnight. When I’d flown to Chicago from Atlanta just three days before, the world had seemed pretty normal. Now it was anything but…
You can read more about my return home after the gallery.
I left Chicago on the morning of Monday, 16th March, arriving in Boston at 16:20 that afternoon. Part of the reason for doing the trip like this, split over two days, was that it left me free that evening to take part in a four-hour conference call for work. This, in turn, had been hastily arranged to replace the Chicago meetings, themselves the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I reached my hotel 40 minutes before the start of the call, giving me just enough time to check-in, set up my computer and, most important of all, make some coffee (using the excellent Papua New Guinea single-origin I’d picked up exactly a week before in Firelight Coffee Roasters in Atlanta). In terms of unpacking, that was the limit of what came out of my suitcase, since I would be leaving the hotel at six o’clock the following morning!
We had a half-hour break in the middle of the call, just long enough for me to run down to the hotel bar to order some food. In a sign of how quickly things had changed, while the hotel restaurant was still open, I was only allowed at the bar long enough to order. I then had to go back to my room, where I’d be called when my food was ready. I’d just made myself an Aeropress of (decaf) coffee when the restaurant called and down I went to the bar again, this time to collect my dinner.
Although the call was done by nine o’clock, I wasn’t that sleepy and I somehow managed to find enough things to keep me busy until midnight, when I finally went to bed. By then, everything was packed away, so all I had to do the following morning was wake up, get dressed and head down to the front desk, having reserved myself a slot on the six o’clock hotel shuttle.
I rarely sleep well before a flight and this was no exception, so although I’d had nearly six hours in bed, when I found myself down by the front desk, I’d had far less than six hours’ sleep. It turned out that I was the only passenger on the shuttle, which is just how it had been when I’d made the same journey in August last year. I even had the same driver! Back then, however, the hotel had only just opened; this time, it felt like it was closing down. As far as I know, I was one of just five guests that night.
Unsurprisingly, we made good time getting to the airport, and, unlike the previous time (just last month), the driver didn’t forget to drop me off at Terminal 5 (that was a different driver, I hasten to add)! By 06:10, I was at the airport, getting ready to check in.
Arriving at a near-deserted Chicago O’Hare airport the previous morning had been surreal enough, but this was something else. Bear in mind that this was the third time I’d taken an early morning international flight out of Boston, so I was used to the airport being quiet. Here, however, it was at another level of quiet. There were just a couple of fellow travellers at check-in and security and, within 10 minutes, I’d arrived at the lounge, where another surprise awaited me.
When I’d flown to Chicago from Atlanta just three days before, the lounge was operating normally. Two days later, on my flight into Boston, the lounge at O’Hare was serving individual portions of food, wrapped in clingfilm. Now, just one day later, the lounge here at Logan wasn’t serving anything. No food, no drinks, not even bottles or cans. Even the coffee machines had been turned off.
Whether this was purely down to COVID-19, I couldn’t tell. After all, a month earlier, the lounge had been fairly quiet, and that was when things were operating normally. We were the only flight that morning (the next flight, to Tokyo, wasn’t until five hours later) and there were just two other passengers in the lounge. With that in mind, maybe it made sense not to put on any kind of food service, which would have required the presence of several more staff (as it was, there was just one solitary member of staff on duty).
Of course, that meant no breakfast and, more important, no coffee, so I returned to the (near deserted) terminal to the only place that was open: Starbucks. Although I’m not a great fan of Starbucks, it has proved itself to be a great source of hot water at various airports around the world, and it didn’t let me down in my hour of greatest need. I also got breakfast, a porridge pot, reminiscent of the one I’d had on the train to Atlanta (only this one was nicer).
I used the hot water to make some coffee with my Travel Press, which I took back to the lounge. With nothing else to do, I set up my laptop at a window overlooking the plane and got on with some work while the sun rose over Boston. Well, I say the sun rose. Even though it had been glorious when I arrived the day before, Boston, like Chicago before it, was giving me a miserable send-off. It was a grey, cloudy day, with the temperature hovering just above 0°C and frequent sleet/rain showers.
Technically, my flight was supposed to board at 07:30, but there was no chance of that. As it was, we were called for boarding at 07:50, using our own dedicated gate at the back of the lounge. I packed up my things and made my way down to the plane, not wanting to keep the poor, lonely member of staff waiting any longer than necessary.
Technically, my flight was supposed to board at 07:30, but there was no chance of that. As it was, we were called for boarding at 07:50, using our own dedicated gate at the back of the lounge.
At this point, I have a confession to make. Readers might remember that in January I said I’d avoid flying in Club World (aka business class) to/from America this year by returning on the day-time flight from Boston. And yet here I am, back in Club World. In my defence, I had every intention of flying in World Traveller Plus (aka premium economy) but when I came to arrange the flight back, a seat in Club World was, bizarrely, cheaper than one in World Traveller Plus.
We boarded quickly, and I found my seat, 11K, which was the second one along on the right-hand side of the plane. I was on a Boeing 777-200, which has a relatively small Club World cabin, with just six rows of eight seats. I’ve written a lot about British Airways’ Club World cabins in previous posts, so I won’t say too much about this one (one day, I hope to collect them all together in a handy cabin guide).
The flight was relatively empty, with just seven of us in Club World (out of a total of 48 seats) so social distancing wasn’t a problem! What was bizarre was that when I’d hastily re-arranged the flight about 36 hours earlier, most of the seats were shown as taken. Whether this was a sign that people were booked to travel who then didn’t, or whether it was a (very successful) attempt by British Airways to keep us all apart by making many of the seats unavailable, I don’t know.
As it was, once we were onboard, I could have had my pick of practically any of the seats. However, I was pretty happy with my choice (11K), so I stayed where I was. I like the window seats (as long as I avoid 12A / 12K, which each have a missing window, a mistake I’ve made before now), and my only issue on other flights has been the need to climb over the person in the seat behind when getting in and out. However, since there wasn’t anyone in that seat (or in any of the seats around me), it wasn’t an issue this time around.
I mentioned that the flight was relatively empty, with just seven of us in Club World. Later on I went for a walk and, to my surprise, discovered that the whole World Traveller Plus cabin (where I should have been) was empty, while back in World Traveller, I counted around 40 people. Chatting with the cabin crew, I discovered that First Class was also empty, with all the crew I talked to mentioned how strange it was, particularly in contrast to the flight they’d had on the way out to Boston on Sunday evening (which was when I was arranging my return home).
That flight, they told me, had been full, although that wasn’t surprising, since by then, the American authorities had announced their ban on travel from the UK/Ireland. Coupled with the ban on travel from Europe, which had just come into force, I expect that the plane was full of people trying to get into American while they still could.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. By 08:10, we were boarded, with the doors closed and, for the first time I can remember, we left 15 minutes early!
We pushed back at 08:15, spending the obligatory five minutes on the tarmac for the safety video. We then started our taxi out to the runway. Fortunately, although the weather was foul, it wasn’t cold enough for us to need de-icing, so we went straight out to the runway. Well, I say straight out, but although people were starting to cut back on their flying, the airlines were still running a nearly full schedule (I’d seen a few cancellations on the departures board in the terminal), so we were in the usual queue.
After 10 minutes the pilot announced seats for takeoff and we inched forward each time a plane took off. After five more minutes, it was our turn. We swung around 180° onto the runway, and, at 08:30, our scheduled departure, we were airborne, disappearing into the low cloud about 30 seconds later!
We took off heading south, but, unlike my flight back from Boston six weeks before, when we’d swung around to the north to fly over the city, here we made a sharp turn to the east, heading straight out over the harbour. We spend a comparatively long time climbing through the cloud, finally breaking through into the clear blue skies at an altitude of around 5,000 metres, roughly ten minutes after takeoff.
With the pilot estimating just a six-hour flight time, the cabin crew were quickly into action with the meal service, although they may also have been aware that there’d been no breakfast in the lounge. Either way, I ordered coffee, which arrived at 08:55, with my food coming along 10 minutes after that.
Although my frequent flier profile with British Airways has me down for a vegetarian meal, somehow this had been translated into a low-calorie meal for that flight. Fortunately, we were significantly over-catered so the cabin crew were happy for me to order off the main menu, an option which I gratefully accepted. My starter, smoked salmon with a hard-boiled egg, arrived a few minutes later at 09:05 and was excellent. This was followed by my main, an equally fine spinach and cheddar omelette with mushrooms, roast tomatoes and potatoes (although I was very tempted by the buttermilk pancakes).
My omelette arrived at 09:30 by which time we’d settled into our route across the Atlantic, taking what is probably the most southerly course I’ve ever flown. We’d initially headed due east out of Boston for about 20 minutes before turning northeast to fly parallel to the coast of Nova Scotia, albeit some way out to sea. With breakfast out of the way and unable to settle to any work, I decided to watch a movie, which killed another couple of hours.
I finished the movie at noon, at which point I had a second cup of coffee before getting up to stretch my legs, which is when I realised how empty the rest of the plane was! I know that six hours sounds like a long time to be on a plane, but for me, it really is a short flight. By the time I returned from my stroll, there were only two hours to go, so I decided to get some work done.
This was particularly well-timed on my behalf since as soon as I’d sat down, we ran into some turbulence and the seat-belt signs came on. We had a second bout of turbulence about half an hour later and, shortly after that, we reached the west coast of Ireland. As we made our way across the Irish Sea, the cabin crew came around with was either a late lunch (it was 13:40, Boston time) or a light dinner (since it was 17:40, UK time). I had a vegetarian panini, by the way, which was very good.
We crossed the South Wales coast shortly after that, the pilot announcing that we were 40 minutes from Heathrow. Our route took us south of the airport, flying over Weybridge at 14:05, when the pilot asked the cabin crew to take their seats for landing. After executing a big S curve over south London, which saw us flying over the likes of Walton and Twickenham, we made a 180° turn just south of the Isle of Dogs, which brought us in on a direct approach to the airport. Not that I saw much of this, since it was really cloudy down below, although I did get a nice sunset above the clouds.
We commenced our final approach at 14:15, finally passing through a thin layer of cloud (600m to 400m) before we landed at 14:20 on the north runway. For once, we made it to our gate in double quick time, pulling up at the far end of the B Block at 14:25, or 18:25 local time, a good 35 minutes ahead of schedule. I was off the plane, had retrieved my bags from the carousel and was out of the airport at 19:00, just when we had been scheduled to land!
For those of you who are confused about the timings, I did do the maths correctly. The US goes over to summer time a few weeks ahead of the UK, so for a short while, Boston is only four hours behind London (which is also why this flight left Boston an hour later than the corresponding flight I took at the end of January).
And there we have it, my return to the UK and, quite possibly, the last flight I’ll take a long while. Before I go, I want to pay tribute to all the staff I encountered on my return home, from the hotel staff in Chicago and Boston to the cabin crews and airport staff. I know (because I talked with many of them) that they were all worried about the future and what the COVID-19 pandemic might mean for their jobs.
For me, the COVID-19 pandemic is an inconvenience, but for them, their livelihoods are under threat. Despite that, without fail, everyone I dealt with was professional and courteous throughout. I look forward to the day when the travel restrictions can be safely lifted, and they can get back to work.
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