P.S. I Love You

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Ok, dear reader, let’s not get carried away.  That P.S. isn’t a romantic little postscript.  No – the P.S. – that’s Palm Springs.

I’d booked flights to LA some time ago – at least in part to try Air New Zealand’s new Club seat  – but then totally forgot to plan anything else for the long weekend.

Time was short but you can pack a lot into four days.  I briefly considered whether it might be possible to drive across the States – Gumball Rally style. Or whether I should try my luck getting to the summit of Mount Whitney in winter.  Or even run a section of the Badwater Ultramarathon (somewhat easier in December than July)

But after a rather high-octane few months, I thought it better that I re-learn the skill of lounging by a pool. I had an uncharacteristic urge to sit quietly and read a good book by day, before gorging on high-calorie American food by night.  If that’s what you want, there’s no better place to do it than at the Parker in Palm Springs.

Famous as the late-1950s hangout for the Rat Pack, Palms Springs is very much cool again.  Nestled at the bottom of the Coachella Valley, it’s dwarfed by the San Jacinto Mountains to one side and the San Bernardino Mountains to the other.

Two hours East from LA, Palm Springs and its Mid-Century Modern architecture, felt like the appropriate destination to celebrate what I was trying to pretend wasn’t a significant birthday. Still a little sore from a race earlier in the year, I figured this would be the first step in my rehab. So I flew to LA, picked up a rental car – a little two-seater cabriolet since you ask – and headed East on Interstate 10.

Today Palm Springs is a retro-chic resort town. With wide main streets and an easily walkable centre, it’s got the best of American motorcar culture, without all the downsides. There’s something charming about resort towns just outside peak season (it’s why I love Chamonix in May).  The restaurants, shops and hotels are still open, but you virtually have the place to yourself.  It’s like the whole town has a moment of breathing space.

And what air to breath. On the edge of the desert, Palm Springs has that crisp dry desert air, somehow every breath feels restorative.

And so to the Parker. A quirky 1950’s motel that’s been tastefully restored into a full-service resort hotel. It feels like a Conde Nast photo-shoot.  Yet out of peak-season, you don’t have to put up with the celeb hangers on.

So I took on the Parker’s manifesto, raided the minibar and spent the next two days having a good steam and a nice soak in the hot tub, and generally pampering myself in the whimsically named Palm Springs Yacht Club. The grounds of the hotel are perfectly setup for doing very little – the hammocks were my favourite. I had the odd gentle run up into the mountains – I couldn’t resist. Sea level to 3000ft in one hard slog.

Palm Springs might fail my ‘Provincial Test’ – it’s impossible to buy a copy of the FT, or any international paper for that matter – but it feels more open than many American towns of its size. It reminded me of the Short North in Columbus – artsy, interesting buildings and good food. Throw in a nice pool and good room service, and you’ve got a perfect lond-haul weekend getaway.

Powerless at LAX

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“Please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, put your seat into the upright position and stow your tray tables for landing”

You know the drill: the familiar sound of the flaps descending; the whoosh of air as the undercarriage deployes.  The end markers of the runway come into sight, then – hopefully – the gentle thud of the gear making contact with the ground.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. But Los Angeles International airport – LAX to its friends – was having a bad day last Wednesday. The worst windstorm in 10 years so they said.

We spent a while circling, not particularly uncommon at peak times. Not that I was complaining. Watching the nighttime urban sprawl of LA never gets tiring.

But we were getting bashed about by the wind. Not since I flew into Munich the day this was filmed have I had such a rough approach.

Yet the flaps came down, the gear deployed and the runway markers came into view. The problem was they were only in view out of one window as the pilot struggled to keep the plane level. Out one side was nothing but runways out the other nothing but sky.  Not a good way to land.

Seconds later the two massive General Electric engines whirred to life and the plane, now all but empty of fuel after a long flight across the Atlantic, and much lighter, soared skyward like a rocket.

A flustered-sounding pilot quickly came over the intercom to say something about wind sheer and how we’d be coming around for another try.  We circled bumpily over the pacific again, me happy to have more time taking in the view.

Second time around was only marginally less bumpy than the first.  I wasn’t particularly confident that the pilot wouldn’t fluff it again. But in a rather assertive move, he forced the undercarriage onto the tarmac with a thwack and we eventually came to a rather shaky stop on the taxiway.  Even at standstill, the wind buffeted the plane like a child’s toy.

As the tow truck lugged us to the gate, a couple of bright flashes lit up the sky. With a cloudless sky, it wasn’t lightening but, it turned out,  an electrical substation blowing.

Immediately the floodlights on the airport apron fell dark, then a few seconds later so did the lights in the terminal.  The huge LAX airport was plunged into darkness, including, rather alarmingly, the control tower.

The pilot came back over the intercom to say that it might be worth making ourselves comfortable whilst the ground crew came up with a plan to get us off the plane. Clearly the jetways wouldn’t budge without power and with a terminal in darkness, it was probably better for us to wait on the plane. Besides, the ground crew had other priorities, like fetching stray baggage containers that were being blown about the airfield.

The cabin crew, who must have been tired after a long flight, quickly got to work raiding the galley and handing out water, crisps, coffee, newspapers, magazines – whatever they could find, they put to use.

The contrast with last week’s debacle at Heathrow couldn’t have been starker.

After about 45 minutes, power was restored and LAX flickered back to life.  The doors were opened and I made a dash for immigration.

But not before I thanked the crew and asked – to myself – if they could provide training for British Airways.

To Fly. To Serve. To Can’t Be Arsed

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To fly. To Serve. This is British Airways’ new advertising slogan. Sadly they weren’t doing much of either last Sunday when I was due to fly back from Brussels.

Fog had yet again crippled Heathrow, whose resilience to bad weather is comically poor.

My first flight was cancelled. And the second delayed by nearly five hours.  Hungry and mildly irritated, I breathed a sigh of relief as we touched down around 23:30 on Sunday evening. With no luggage I thought I’d be out and onto the Heathrow Express in time to catch the last tube home. Or so I thought.

After parking, the pilot announced that there were no steps for the plane because “lots of planes have arrived at the same time”. Isn’t that the sort of thing that usually happens at airports? Then there were “not enough staff to bring the steps to the plane.” So we waited and waited.

Once we were finally off the plane and into the terminal, we met a huge mass of people – at least a thousand deep – waiting at the border for passport control.  I counted just three officials slowly processing passports. Perhaps they too were surprised by passengers arriving at an airport.

Welcome to Britain.

I’ve written long ago about queues at immigration and the problems with new biometric passports. But this wasn’t so much a queue, as a crowd.

Half an hour passed. Then an hour. We had hardly moved.  And hadn’t seen a single member of staff – not from BA, Heathrow or the UK Border Agency.

Having been delayed for hours we were all tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m sure we had passed hoping for a bit of hospitality from British Airways.  A bit of humanity would have sufficed. Just handing out bottles of water would have been nice. Even if only to families with crying babies.

There was no one to organise the queue. Some people started pushing to the front, others started complaining. I’m surprised no fights broke out.

Eventually some people further back started shouting “there’s three of them and three thousand of us.  Let’s just all walk through together.” The crowd started cheering.  Others started shouting.

It wasn’t long after this that things started moving.  My guess is that one of the border officers must have pushed a panic button and decided to fasttrack things to avoid a riot.  Ultimately if several thousand passengers had decided they were fed up of waiting to enter their own country, the few staff on duty would have been powerless to stop them.

Few staff on duty – that is the problem. That is always the problem. Every time I’ve been stuck at Heathrow, the problems could have been solved by ramping up the number of staff available to help.

When things go wrong, the customer service phone lines get jammed and websites crash.  People get angry because there is never any official representation to explain what’s going on.

When I finally got through immigration, a little after 1am, the tube and Heathrow Express had closed for the night – leading to more queues for taxis and more fuming.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Paradoxically it’s when things go wrong that airlines can actually pick up good will amongst passengers. All it takes is a simple emergency action plan and a few more staff.

When things go wrong it’s time for everyone to muck in.  Couldn’t BA cabin crew be asked to stay a bit longer after work during bad weather to hand out bottles of water to soothe waiting crowds.  Couldn’t BA management start shovelling snow when the weather turns? Rather than shovelling blame.

Couldn’t a few staff stick around to advise passengers how to get into town after the public transport had shutdown.  Couldn’t someone have thought to ask passport officers and baggage handlers to stay on a bit late when delayed flights were expected. Even train some staff to help out with other jobs when needed.

Of course it’s always the same answer – ‘it’s not my job’.  And with shoddy management who can blame them.

We don’t need new airports or new runways. We just need someone in charge to show a bit of initiative, to treat their staff like they’re the most important part of the business. And then perhaps they’ in turn will treat passengers like the slogan suggests.