As regular readers of Brian’s Travel Spot will know, while I was travelling extensively for work, I stopped trying to write up my Travel Spots as I went, leaving me with various unfinished journeys, so to speak. Today’s post is one of those, a throwback to 2018 and the very end of my five-week long trip across America, which started in Boston at the end of February. I took the train from Providence, Rhode Island, down the northeast corridor to Manassas, catching the Crescent to New Orleans before taking the Sunset Limited all the way across to Tucson, Arizona. From there, I drove to Phoenix for work, before catching my flight home, which is the subject of today’ post.
This post was prompted by last week’s news of the final flights of British Airways’ remaining two Boeing 747s. Although my return from Phoenix wasn’t the last time I flew on a 747 (that was in January 2019, when I was unexpectedly upgraded to First Class on my way out to Phoenix of all places!), it’s the last of my 747 flights that remained without a write-up, so it seemed a fitting way to mark the retirement of British Airways 747 fleet.
You can find out how I got on after the gallery.
Although I’m publishing this to mark the retirement of British Airways 747 fleet, this will be a regular Travel Spot post, covering my flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor to London Heathrow (which, as you will see, wasn’t actually the end of my journey). Since it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever fly in one again, I’ve also published a second piece, a tribute to the Boeing 747, which summarises my 20+ years of flying on the Queen of the Skies.
Getting back to my trip, I’d arrived in Tucson on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans in the middle of the previous week. After exploring the city centre and visiting a solitary coffee shop, I picked up a hire car to drive around/hike in the mountains on either side of the city. Then, on Saturday, I drove up to Phoenix in advance of my meeting, which ran from Monday to Thursday. Normally I’d spend more time in the area, but having been there for a couple of weeks at the start of February, I flew back on the Friday evening, spending the day in Scottsdale, visiting Cartel Coffee Lab, Fourtillfour and Berdena’s, before returning my hire car to airport.
I arrived at the rental car center just after five o’clock and for once I was early. Having learnt from experience, I took my time, even lingering at the rental car center to write the last of my postcards. This is important because the only mailbox at the airport is outside, right at the drop-off point for the bus from the rental car center. I learnt this the hard way the first time I flew back from Phoenix in 2016 when I went all the way through security only to find that there was no mailbox. I was early on that occasion as well, so ended up going back outside, mailing my postcards and going through security for a second time!
This time I got to the airport at six o’clock, dropped my postcards in the mailbox and headed over to check-in, where I pretty much had the place to myself. Although I’d flown out in economy, I was flying back in Club World (aka business class), which meant I could use the priority check-in lane to skip the (non-existent) queues…
It was a different story at security where there was no priority lane, but, of course, there was a queue. However, it was all very efficient, particularly since for the queue I was in, the security people told us to leave everything in our bags, including laptops. I still had to remove my boots/belt and empty my pockets, but it was far easier than normal. I was convinced that with everything in my bag, I’d get pulled over for an inspection, but instead, I breezed through inside ten minutes.
My flight wasn’t due to leave until 20:40, so with two hours to spare, I could have visited Cartel Coffee Lab at the C Gates, but I’d already had enough coffee that day, so went to the gate instead, where I discovered that the flight had been delayed 50 minutes. The gate, which had a lot of seating, but nowhere near enough for a whole 747’s worth of passengers, was already overflowing, so I made the most of my Club World privileges and headed straight for the lounge, where I settled in for what turned out to be quite a long stay.
It was less than two months since I’d caught the same flight at the end of my previous trip. Learning from that experience, I’d already decided to eat in the lounge. That way I could maximise the amount of sleep I got on the plane. This turned out to be an excellent decision given the delay to the flight, which meant that if I’d have been eating on the plane, I wouldn’t have got my meal until 23:00 at the earliest and probably wouldn’t have got to bed until well after midnight.
As I mentioned the previous time I flew from Phoenix, the lounge is one of my favourites. Although it’s fairly small, it only serves passengers on this one British Airways flight, so it’s never crowded and has a friendly, relaxed feel to it. There’s a seating area on one side, serving coffee and snacks, and a more food-orientated area on the other, with a cold buffet and a full bar. Since I was eating, I went into the second area and ended up with the same seat I had on my previous visit, tucked away in the corner by the bar.
I helped myself to a bowl of soup and then went back for the buffet (which I forgot to photograph!) before settling in to get some writing done. Before I knew it, 2½ hours had flown by and it was already past our original departure time. Although this was scheduled for 20:40, the flight had already been delayed at the point when my boarding pass had been printed, so this showed a boarding time of 20:50. Despite this, and the fact that the staff in the lounge call the flight when it’s ready to board, people started getting twitchy as it approached nine o’clock.
Before long, a few got up and left. I think because of that, others got up and followed them and, soon after that, I had the lounge to myself! Finally, the staff came around and (politely) made it clear that they’d like to go home (they can’t leave while the lounge is occupied), so I packed up and headed downstairs to the gate, where I arrived at 21:10. Despite all the delays, the flight still hadn’t started boarding at this point, with things eventually getting going at around 21:20.
At this point, I’d flown in Club World on a British Airways 747 just twice before, the first time returning from Chicago the year before, with the second time coming less than two months before on my previous trip to Phoenix. On both occasions, I’d been in the main cabin, the first time in one of the middle seats, while on the second occasion I had a window seat, which was right at the back, one of the best seats in British Airways’ Club World cabins.
I tried to check-in online before the flight, hoping for the same window seat, but the system was down, so I had to wait until check-in before I knew where I was sitting. To my surprise, I found that I was upstairs!
If you’ve ever seen a Boeing 747, you can’t help but notice there’s a bulge at the top, with the cockpit and a small seating area behind it. Before their retirement, in the British Airways fleet, this formed a very exclusive Club World cabin. Since it’s much narrower than the rest of the plane, there’s just a single, central aisle, with pairs of seats on either side. It’s also not very long, so there are only five rows of seats, three rows at the front, right behind the cockpit, then two more rows following the emergency exits. Finally, there are the stairs down to the main deck and beyond them, right at the back, the cabin has its own galley.
It was amazing up there, like flying in our own small, private jet, a world away from the large Club World cabin of the main deck. I had seat 61J, which was in the second row, an aisle seat on the right, which faced forwards. It was a standard Club World seat, although I noticed that the window seats (which face backwards) get little bins between the seat and the edge of the fuselage where you can store your belongings (to make up for lack of access to the overhead bins). Even better, when they’re closed, they double as a shelf to put things on, so I was more than a little envious of that!
All-in-all, it was an amazing experience and one, now that the British Airways 747 fleet has been retired, I will never get to experience again. I did have one final chance to fly upstairs on a 747, not that I knew it at the time. At the start of 2019, I was on my way to Phoenix again, and I’d reserved my seat as soon as I had booked the flight, getting perhaps the best (Club World) seat on the plane, the window seat on the right in rear-most row. And then I got to the airport and discovered that I’d been upgraded to First Class! Oh well, you can’t win them all!
After our delayed boarding, I was on the plane by 21.25 and settled in upstairs. It helped that I was one of the first ones on, even though there was a queue at the priority boarding lane, and it also helped that the stairs to the upper deck were directly opposite the door where we boarded.
Boarding was completed by 21:45 and we pushed back five minutes later, just over an hour after schedule. Despite the late hour, the airport was fairly busy and we did the usual taxiing game. The pilot didn’t call the cabin crew to take their seats for takeoff for another 15 minutes and it was another ten minutes before we finally trundled down the runway and took off at 22:15.
Although I wasn’t eating on the plane, I had ordered a glass of port when I took my seat, and this arrived within 20 minutes of takeoff. My grand plan had been to get some sleep, but I was enjoying being in our own private world, which was even more so once the dividers between the seats went up. Then you really were in a world of your own, particularly those in the window seats.
I ended up staying up for over an hour, eventually making up my bed and settling down to sleep at 23:45 (although that was, by then, 06:45 UK time). I can’t say I slept well, but I never do on planes. However, compared to my normal experiences, this was pretty good. I slept fitfully, although there were at least two bouts of turbulence both of which, while not terrible, were enough to wake me up.
However, I was still fast asleep when one of the cabin crew woke me up at 05:55 (12.55 UK time) with my breakfast, which I’d pre-ordered (you get a little card to fill out when you board, saying if you want breakfast and when you want to be woken). At this point we were still 1½ hours out from Heathrow, so there was plenty of time to enjoy my two-course breakfast. The first course was fruit, with a freshly baked croissant, followed by a cooked breakfast, with a cheese omelette, served with potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms. This was particularly good and even the coffee was drinkable (remembering that this was in the days before Union Hand-roasted started supplying coffee to British Airways).
Breakfast was cleared away by 06:30, and we were still, at that point, more than 45 minutes from landing. We’d taken a very southerly route: I’m used to coming in over Ireland, but this time we flew south of Ireland and over Cornwall/Devon, which was similar (in reverse) to the route I took when I flew to Miami at the start of the year.
As it was, we were slightly delayed in our final approach and didn’t land until 07:30, or, more accurately 14:30 UK time. Ten minutes later, we were at our gate in Terminal 3 against a scheduled arrival time of 13:35. So, while we hadn’t made up any time on the flight, we weren’t any more delayed than when we left Phoenix.
However, I had a problem. I had a connecting flight to Manchester that was scheduled to leave at 15:10. From Terminal 5. And I was in Terminal 3. Did I make my connection? The short answer is no: you can read the full story in the second part of this Travel Spot.
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