Welcome to another Travel Spot, all about my first trip of 2022. I’m starting 2022 as I ended 2021, heading back to Boston, once again flying with British Airways in World Traveller Plus (premium economy to you and me). In a change from my usual habit (on trips to the USA at least), I’ll also be returning from Boston when I fly home in mid-February (World Traveller Plus again). It’s not quite a repeat of the trip I made at the end of last year, since on that occasion I flew to Atlanta, but otherwise it’s pretty close.
The reason I’m off is to spend three weeks in Maine with Amanda (as opposed to spending those three weeks by myself in Guildford). As I did when I flew to Atlanta in November, I’ve already written a separate post about the various pre-flight processes now in place when flying to America during the COVID-19 pandemic. This Travel Spot will therefore focus on the flight, along with the usual bits and pieces about getting to/from the airport, etc.
As usual, since this is a very long post, I’ve split it into the following sections:
- RailAir Coach to Heathrow
- Heathrow and the First Class Lounge
- Boarding my Flight
- World Traveller Plus on a 787-900
- The (Almost) Never-ending Sunset
- Dinner and the Mixed-up Order
- Making my Own Coffee
- Landing at Boston Logan
- Concord Coach Lines to Portland
Right at the end of last year, when I started looking at flights to/from Boston for this trip, things looked to be returning to normal. British Airways, which already had two daily flights to/from Boston, had scheduled a third flight for early 2022, which included my favoured daytime flight back from Boston.
Then the omicron variant of COVID-19 really started to bite, demand collapsed, and British Airways hastily cut back to just one flight a day in each direction. On the plus side, that meant choosing which flight to catch was fairly easy (American Airlines also has a single flight each way, which you can book through British Airways as a code share, but unless there’s no alternative, I prefer flying British Airways).
This meant leaving from Heathrow Terminal 5 at 16:40 (the same flight Amanda and I caught when we flew to Boston in February 2020) which in turn meant a relatively leisurely start for me. For once, I got a decent amount of sleep the night before, got up, did my packing, then wandered down to Guildford train station to catch the 13:00 RailAir coach to Heathrow.
I’ve used (and written about) the RailAir coach on several occasions, the most recent being when I flew to Atlanta in November. There’s not much to add to what I’ve said before. It’s a convenient, hourly service and, if you buy your ticket using the RailAir app, it’s just £9.50 one way (up from £9 last year) or £17.00 return.
I arrived at the front of the station at 12:55 to find that the coach was already waiting, so I got straight on. There was just me and one other passenger, so we set off on time, taking the usual circuitous route through Guildford to (not stop at) The Chase, before making our way to Woking train station, where we picked up another three passengers.
I note, in passing, that the RailAir coach leaves Woking at 25 minutes past the hour, so if you just missed it at Guildford, you could, in theory, catch a train to Woking (which leaves at four minutes past the hour!) and pick up the RailAir coach from there. Not that I intend to put this particular theory to the test, especially since you’d only have a couple of minutes to buy a train ticket and make it over to Platform 5. However, it’s comforting to know that there is a backup option (more realistically, if you did miss the RailAir coach, take a taxi from the rank outside the station to Woking).
Anyway, back to Woking, where we took the familiar route out to the M25, passing our third stop (McLaren, although, like The Chase, no-one ever seems to use it) on the way. The last stretch, along the M25 from J11 to J14, was plain sailing and we arrived at Heathrow right on schedule at 12:55.
There was a time when I never would have considered arriving almost three hours before my flight, but these days I’ve changed. Partly it’s down to COVID-19, with the concern that the airport might be really busy, but it’s also because I now have lounge access, the lounge being an infinitely more pleasant way of waiting for your flight compared to sitting around in the terminal or at the gate.
As it was, any worries that the airport would be busy were completely unfounded. Unlike when I flew in November (admittedly on the first day most people had been permitted to visit America after 18 months of restrictions), the airport was incredibly quiet. There were hardly any queues and none at the dedicated first class check-in area, where I walked straight up to a desk.
Although I was flying World Traveller Plus, I still have Gold Status with British Airways, which allows me all the privileges of someone who is flying first class. This includes access to first class lounges around the world, as well as use of Terminal 5’s dedicated first class check-in area. Perhaps the best part of this is its dedicated security lane, which is located at the back of the check in area and feeds straight into the lounge. It’s little things like this which really takes the pain out of airports, so I am really going to miss my Gold Status when it expires in August!
In all, including security, it took me five minutes from arriving at check-in to reaching the lounge, which is a new record for me. This included a passport check and showing the my pass in the VeriFLY app. This is so much quicker (and easier) than the check-in staff having to verify my individual documents (there’s also an element of piece of mind: by verifying everything ahead of time, there’s no danger of being turned away at the last minute!).
Although I’ve used the first class lounge a few times, British Airways has recently added a sleeping area, called Forty Winks, which has replaced the old office/computer area. This has seven “energy pods”, semi-open, fully-reclined pods, where you can take a 20-minute nap. I didn’t have any use for them this time, but am now contemplating a nap on my return journey, when I will be passing through Heathrow. As long as my flight from Boston isn’t delayed, I should enough time.
By the time I’d had a look around, it was just gone two o’clock. Having not eaten since breakfast, I had sandwiches and a salad for lunch, along with some sparkling water and a glass of port (a rather fine Warre’s 2009 Colheita). If you’ve not flown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, British Airways has done away with its buffet service and now you order everything on-line, with your food brought swiftly to your table. Afterwards I tried out the new Union hand-roasted coffee machines, ordering a cappuccino and a rather fine Danish pastry. Sadly, you can’t operate the machines yourself at the moment (you could in pre-pandemic days), which meant that I couldn’t weigh my shot or time the extraction.
The lounge, like the airport in general, was very quiet, unlike the previous time I was there. The only thing that disappointed me was the level of mask-wearing, which is compulsorily at Heathrow. As sizeable number of people weren’t wearing masks, with the majority of them just sitting around (or talking on the phone) rather than eating/drinking (when you don’t have to wear a mask). Fortunately, since it was quiet, I was able to get a set of four armchairs to myself and keep my distance.
As usual, the time flew by. Before I knew it, two hours had gone by and it was time (15:55) to head over to the gate.
My flight was departing from Gate C54, which is in the second of two satellite blocks at Terminal 5 (the A gates are in the main block, the B gates in the first satellite, while the C gates are in the second). Although it’s as far away from the lounge as it’s possible to be, it still doesn’t take very long to get there, thanks to the short underground transit shuttle which runs between the three blocks, accessed via a long escalator in the middle of the main block.
From leaving the lounge to arriving at the gate (which, admittedly, was conveniently at the top of the escalators up from the transit shuttle) took less than 10 minutes. I had a brief glimmer of hope as I arrived at the top of the escalator that the flight had been upgraded to an Airbus A380, but that turned out to be at the adjacent gate. Instead, we were on a Boeing 787-900 (which I was expecting), which makes a change from the 777-200s that British Airways normally uses on the Boston route.
It was 16:05 when I arrived at the gate and I was surprised to find that the flight was boarding. While a boarding time of 15:40 was printed on my boarding pass, I’ve never known a flight to board that early. As it was, there was a queue of about 15 ahead of me which I dutifully joined, only to have several people ahead of me drop out when the gate staff announced that Priority Group 4 could start boarding. It turns out that groups 1 to 3 (which was the queue I was in) had been called just before I got there, but several people had jumped the gun (understandable given that the screens were saying that all passengers could come forward for boarding).
With the queue thinning ahead of me, it still took five minutes to get to the head of the queue, where passports/boarding passes were being manually checked by a single member of staff. While this slowed things down considerably, it meant that there was no queue on the air bridge, so I was able to go straight onto the plane and down to my seat, 16B. For once I was on the left-hand side of the plane, whereas I normally I get the equivalent seat on the right-hand side for some reason. I even went for that seat when booking the flight, but checked myself and deliberately chose the left-hand side. As it turned out, I made the right choice, but you’ll have to wait to find out why.
I was a little worried that, given boarding had already started, the World Traveller Plus cabin might be rather crowded, but the opposite was true as I was the second person there. As it was, the flight was very quiet. Of the 39 seats in World Traveller Plus, just 11 were taken, which is interesting since when I checked my seat selection four days before flying, there were 15 seats shown occupied! Whether they moved their fights, were upgraded or just didn’t show, I don’t know.
Club World (which I had to walk through to get the World Traveller Plus) looked similarly empty, while the single World Traveller cabin at the back of the plane was about a third full. I don’t know about First Class, but I doubt it was any different. I quickly settled in, getting an entire overhead locker to myself. The cabin crew came around to say hello and offer me a welcome drink (orange juice or water, one of the perks of Gold Status).
After pushing back on time at 16:40, we spent the obligatory five minutes on the tarmac between the B and C satellite terminals while the cabin crew gave the manual safety briefing. Then, because we were taking off to the west, we set off to taxi to the far (eastern) end of the north runway. When I flew to Atlanta, sitting on the right-hand side of the plane, I had great views of the various terminal buildings as we trundled alongside the runway, with a constant stream of aircraft taking off to our left.
Part of my motivation for sitting on the left this time was to watch the aircraft taking off. I even switched seats to the window seat (which was vacant) for a better view. Unfortunately for me, unlike in November, Heathrow was really, really quiet. The departures monitor for the B and C gates at Terminal 5 showed just six flights in the 2½ hours between 16:00 and 18:30, while across the whole airport, just 20 flights left between 16:00 and 17:00, an average of one every three minutes. Which explains why, when I looked out of my window and across the runway in the gathering gloom to the northern perimeter road, I didn’t see any other aircraft take off.
In the absence of any congestion, it takes about 10 minutes to taxi the three kilometres from Terminal 5 (at the western end of the airport) to eastern end of the runway, where we arrived at 16:55, coming to a complete halt. The pilot announced for the cabin crew to take seats for take-off (usually an indication that it’s five minutes to go) and then we sat there for five minutes while very little happened. Another British Airways flight took off on the runway a couple of minutes later, but other than that, I didn’t see anything that would hold us there, unless it was purely to keep everything on schedule.
Looking ahead, there were two more British Airways flights waiting to join the runway. At 17:00, the more distant of these moved onto the runway and took off, while we moved up to take its place. As we moved into place, so the other one pulled onto runway and took off. Then it was our turn.
At 17:05, we turned onto the runway, the pilot opened the throttles, and we were off, thundering down the runway, past the various buildings that make up Terminals 2 & 3. In less than a minute, we were airborne and, for once, it was a clear day (recently I’ve been taking off then disappearing straight into cloud). Sadly for me, it was also dusk, so I really couldn’t see very much.
After a couple of minutes, we disappeared into the clouds, emerging a minute later to the wonderful glow of a golden sunset ahead and off to our left. At 17:10, five minutes after takeoff, the seat belt signs went out and we were well and truly on our way.
In many ways, this was a repeat of the trip I made at the end of the last year, when I flew to and from America with British Airways in World Traveller Plus. Although on that occasion, I flew to Atlanta, it was in a Boeing 787, so it was a very similar experience. If you are looking for differences, however, while I’ve flown to Boston many, many times in the last 20 years, this is the first time I’ve done it in World Traveller Plus (despite having flown back from Boston in World Traveller Plus or premium economy three times in the last few years).
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t have that much to say about the aircraft or cabin, other than to repeat what I’ve said before (which you can read about here). Although I was on a 787-800 to Atlanta, and this was a 787-900, all it meant was that the cabins arrangement is slightly different. The 787-800 doesn’t have first class, whereas the 787-900 has a tiny first class cabin right at the front, consisting of just two rows. Club World is still split over two cabins, which is slightly bigger than the 787-800’s two Club World cabins combined, while right at the back, there’s just a single World Traveller cabin, compared to the 787-800’s two World Traveller cabins, which, when taken together, hold slightly more passengers.
Of more immediate concern to me is the World Traveller Plus cabin. This was slightly bigger, with the seats arranged in the same 2-3-2 configuration. Whereas the 787-800 has just three rows in the middle, and four rows down either side, here there are an additional two rows, making for five in the middle, with six down either side. Although this is quite an increase in the number of seats, the cabin still has the same small, intimate feel that I enjoy in World Traveller Plus, helped by the flight being so quiet.
Of the available 39 seats, just 11 were taken, with a single person in the second of the middle rows, five single travellers in the pairs of seats on the right, while three rows behind me were two couples, with the row behind them empty. That meant I could recline my seat without worrying about encroaching on anyone behind me, although the best part was having the seat next to me unoccupied.
I used to this to my full advantage during take-off and landing, where I swapped over to the window seat make the most of the views, while the rest of the time, I used to spare seat as additional storage space. It can’t be good for the airline, flying with a plane so empty, but it’s a great experience for the rest of us!
Toilet provision is also slightly better on the 787-900. Both aircraft have four toilets, shared between the World Traveller Plus and World Traveller cabins, but the split is better, with two in the middle, just behind the World Traveller Plus cabin, and two at the back, one on either side of galley. There are also potentially fewer passengers waiting to use them, 166 on a 787-900 compared to the 787-800’s potential 179 passengers. Not that it mattered on this flight, where World Traveller was about one third full as well.
The flight to Boston is one the shorter long-haul flights I do. Although not as short as the return flight, it was estimated at seven hours, which, given our departure time, would have had us landing at Boston Logan at midnight UK time (19:00 local time), half an hour ahead of schedule.
There’s a certain rhythm to these flights in economy (World Traveller or World Traveller Plus). First, the curtains are drawn between the different cabins, which happens as soon as the seat belt signs are turned off. Then, about 15 minutes later, comes an initial drink and a small packet of pretzels, although the timing depends on where you are in the cabin, since the cabin crew start at the front of World Traveller Plus and work their way back.
I usually opt for sparkling water and/or ginger ale, although recently I’ve taken to asking for a cup of coffee. Although the coffee in World Traveller/World Traveller Plus isn’t up to the standard of Club World (where British Airways uses Union hand-roasted), I’ve found that the first coffee of the flight, made just after the machine has been turned on (and, perhaps, made when the plane is not at its full altitude) isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, I’ve had less success with coffee served later on in the flight. The only downside to getting coffee first up is that it comes in a paper cup, so I had my HuskeeCup on hand, and immediately transferred it over. As expected, it was pretty good.
I spent the first part of the flight glued to the window, where I had some fantastic views of the Severn Estuary (which probably would have been even better in full daylight). However, for most of the time, I was watching the slow sunset on the southwest horizon. One of the nice things about flying at this time of the day/year is that if you’re going west, you are effectively chasing the setting sun, so you experience these prolonged, glorious sunsets. On the flight out to Atlanta, I was on the wrong side of the plane, but this time, sitting on the left, I had its full glory.
It was still going strong an hour later, when, at 18:00, dinner was served, and there was even the last vestiges of the sunset an hour after that, full dark not really arriving until 19:30, at which point we were well out over the Atlantic. This is definitely one my favourite things about flying at this time. Perhaps the best experience I had was on a flight to Phoenix at the start of 2019, when we took a really northerly route, experiencing two sunsets (with a sunrise in between!) as a result.
The main meal service starts once the initial drink/snack has been cleared away, which, typically, means about an hour into the flight. Once again, the closer you are to the front, the earlier you get served, which means that World Traveller Plus goes first. The exception to this is anyone who has pre-ordered a special meal, since these are brought out before the main meal service begins.
Normally this includes me, since I have my preference set for a vegetarian meal on my British Airways profile. However, on this flight, something had gone wrong and my preference hadn’t been loaded onto the manifest, so no special meal for me. In theory this wouldn’t be a problem, since I can always choose the vegetarian option from the main menu (which always has one vegetarian and one meat option). In fact, I often prefer the main menu vegetarian option since the vegetarian “special” meal usually defaults to a vegan meal, which means I miss out on desserts such as cheesecake, which I really enjoy.
However, on this flight, there was also a problem with the vegetarian meals, so just before the dinner service started, the cabin crew came round asking everyone if chicken would be acceptable. Now, in defence of British Airways, the cabin crew were excellent. As soon as I explained the situation, they were off, looking for a solution. This, it turned out, was a vegan cottage pie smuggled out of first class (previous experience has shown that first class is almost always over-catered for, since the last thing British Airways wants is first class passengers not getting their preferred choice of meal).
In the end, I definitely got the best part of this deal. While the food in World Traveller Plus is usually good, this was one of the best meals I’ve had when flying World Traveller/ World Traveller Plus. Even better, I got my pie served on a normal World Traveller Plus meal tray, which meant I got the regular dessert. And what was that? Cheesecake! And another bonus: the head of the cabin crew came to see me afterwards with the gift of a Club World amenity bag to make up for the confusion!
In recent years, I’ve taken to catching a movie on each flight, watching the first half over dinner, and then catching the rest of it later in the flight when I need a break from the laptop. This time I went for the excellent “Six Minutes to Midnight”, a thriller set in England at the start of the Second World War, starring Judy Dench and Eddie Izzard (who I only really knew as a stand-up comedian before this, so it was really interesting to see him doing a straight role).
What was particularly nice about this flight was having the seat next to me empty. This meant that not only could I use the seat itself as extra storage when my meal came, but I could use both monitors, watching the movie on mine and keeping track of our progress across the Atlantic on the other one.
Dinner was done and cleared away by 18:30 and at 19:00 I got up to stretch my legs, exactly at the point that the cabin lights were dimmed for the rest of the flight. I got back to my seat and settled in for the remaining five hours of the flight.
With the lights off, I settled down to work at my laptop (some actual paid work for once, rather than writing this Travel Spot). I got up at 20:30 to make some coffee, a rather tasty Horsham Coffee Roaster decaf that I’d picked up from Krema Coffee before I left. Once again, I used my Frank Green Ceramic Cup to collect the hot water from the galley and then retired to the toilets to grind the (pre-weighed) beans with my Aergrind hand-grinder. The final step was to make the coffee in my Travel Press, using my Frank Green Ceramic as a rather handy surrogate pouring-kettle, something I discovered by accident on my way back from Boston in December last year.
I watched the rest of “Six Minutes to Midnight” while I drank my coffee, then went back to work. After almost five hours of flying, four of them spent crossing the Atlantic, we crossed the Canadian coast at 21:55, passing over Cape Saint John on Newfoundland Island. Throughout the flight, we’d been shown as arriving ahead of schedule, first being projected to land at 19:13, then 19:06, before a projected seven hours’ flight time had us landing at 19:00. Somewhere across the Atlantic, however, we’d lost a little bit of time, since the map showed 2¼ hours remaining, putting us into Boston at 00:10 (19:10 local time), although on the plus side, this was still 20 minutes ahead of schedule.
Although we’d crossed the Canadian coast at 21:55, we quickly crossed it again, heading down the Gulf of St Lawrence before crossing the coast a third time an hour later at 23:00, passing north of Moncton in New Brunswick. By then the cabin lights had come back on and the cabin crew were serving us a light snack, in my case a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich along with a KitKat which was by far the best bit. I passed on the offer of coffee though.
Typically, when I fly back from Boston, the route takes the plane over the Gulf of Maine. However, just as we had when I flew to Atlanta in November, we were following a more inland route, crossing the US border and flying over Bangor, Maine, with about 45 minutes to go, heading straight for Portland. However, with about half an hour left, and just I was getting ready to wave to Amanda, we took a turn to port and headed out over the Gulf of Maine for our final approach.
At 23:45 (18:45 local time), the pilot called 20 minutes to landing, which means it’s time to put everything away. Another sure sign that we’re close to landing is when the curtains between the cabins get pulled back. I got everything stowed away and had settled into the vacant seat next to mine at 18:55 when the pilot told the cabin crew to take seats for landing.
I had thought that we’d come straight in from the northeast, but, looking out of the window, I could see the lights of Quincy, to the south of Boston. In fact, we’d made a big loop across Massachusetts Bay and were approaching from the southeast over Nantasket Beach and the Boston Harbor Islands.
Landing at Boston when you come in via this approach is always interesting and, once again, sitting on the left had proved to be an inspired choice since I got some great views of downtown Boston lit up at night. However, the main southeast/northwest runway literally starts at the water’s edge, so looking out of the window, all you see is water as you descend until, at the very last moment, the runway lights come into view and you immediately touch down.
We were on the ground at 19:05 and taxied straight to the terminal, which is conveniently located at the far end of the runway on the left. Even though we had to go to the far end of the terminal, we still made it to the gate by 19:10. And what did I find waiting for us? An Emirates A380, sitting at the adjacent gate.
The airbridge was attached by 19:15 and we started disembarking by groups, a new procedure for COVID-19. Instead of the usual free-for-all, passengers are required to stay in their seats until their rows are called, which, if I’m honest, is a much nicer way of doing things. With the flight so empty, we disembarked really quickly, with first class (rows 1 and 2) going first, followed by the whole of Club World (rows 6 to 13). Then it was our turn in World Traveller Plus and by 19:20, a whole ten minutes ahead of our scheduled landing time, I was off the plane and on my way to passport control.
There was one potential snag: the US authorities were conducting random documentation checks, asking to see people’s passports and COVID-19 documents. Whether vaccination certificates, test certificates or both, I don’t know, because while the person in front of me was pulled aside, I was waved through.
I got to passport control where, like at Atlanta, all the automated machines had been taken out of service. However, unlike Atlanta, where there was a massive queue, I walked straight up to a booth, showed my passport, had my photo taken, and was sent on my way. At least this time I got a stamp in my passport.
By 19:25, I was on my way to baggage reclaim, the whole process having taken five minutes (and, of that, four minutes was walking from the gate to passport control). Unsurprisingly, I got to baggage reclaim ahead of my bags, but these were forthcoming in a timely fashion and, by 19:45, I was heading out of the terminal into the cold Boston night, where it was -3°C.
Concord Coaches runs a regular passenger bus service between Portland and Boston/Logan Airport, with departures every hour during the day, although by the time I was travelling, that was down to every 1½ hours. Before the flight, my main worry had been whether I’d have enough time to catch the 20:15 bus. With my flight scheduled to arrive at 19:30 and with US passport and customs control taking anything up to an hour, I had thought it would be really tight.
However, Amanda had reassured me by pointing out that the scheduled departure time was for Terminal A. As I’d discovered when I’d taken the bus to the airport on my way home in December, the bus calls at Terminal A, B, C1 and C2 before it reaches Terminal E, the international terminal. As a result, the bus typically leaves Terminal E 10 to 15 minutes after the stated departure time.
In that case, I could expect it at 20:25, giving me almost an hour to get out of the airport. And then, of course, my flight landed 20 minutes early and it took me less than half an hour from leaving the plane to get out of the terminal. Now my problem was killing time rather than rushing to catch the bus.
I decided to wait inside the terminal building where it was warm until 20:15, then head outside to the bus stop, just in case the bus was really early. As it was, it rolled up at 20:25, picking up me and another passenger, who joined the handful of passengers already onboard. The driver then came through and checked all our tickets. I’d bought mine online ahead of time and printed it out (which you have to do, handing over the paper ticket to the driver), but if you don’t have a ticket, you can buy one at the Portland Transportation Center at the end of the journey, the driver holding onto your passport to ensure you don’t run off.
We left Terminal E at 20:30, but rather than go straight to Portland, we swung by South Station first (where I’d caught the bus to Portland on my previous trip). This was a relatively straightforward detour, which involved driving through the harbour tunnel, arriving at South Station less than 10 minutes later. In fact, we made such good time that we had to wait there for five minutes before pulling out right on time at 20:45.
I note, in passing, that it is slightly cheaper ($24 compared to $30) to catch the bus from South Station, so if you really care about the $6 and you’re sure you have the time, you can take the free Silver Line bus, which runs from the airport to South Station, then head up to the bus station (from memory, the Silver Line has a platform in the basement) to pick up the bus to Portland.
There’s not a lot to say about the journey, particularly since it was dark, so I have no photos. If you want to know more about Concord Coaches and the route from Boston to Portland, take a look at what I’ve written about previous journeys. On this occasion, we had a smooth run from South Station along the by now familiar route up US 1 and I-95 to Portland, where I arrived at 22:30, ten minutes ahead of schedule, to find Amanda waiting for me.
That concludes my first flight of 2022. It was a fairly uneventful trip, although I did manage a couple of days out on the Downeaster, which you can read about on the trip’s Travel Spot page. You can also read about my journey home when I flew back in mid-February.
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