Pondhopping  - Tales of a Transatlantic Nomad

As recently as the early 20th century, a trip across the Atlantic Ocean was the highlight of a lifetime. It symbolized an escape from persecution for some, a chance at a new life in economic prosperity for others. It was a journey wrought with peril and many an intrepid voyager did not live to tell the tale (let alone write his trip report).

Today that has all changed. The skies above the Atlantic are dotted with aluminium tubes that criss-cross each other with monotonous regularity. While transatlantic air travel has not yet penetrated every stratum of society, there are some for whom it has become a humdrum affair. With parts of our existence firmly ensconced in multiple continents, our lives become a game of connect the dots with airline route maps as our canvas. We are the pondhoppers, and these are our tales.

Trip One : Going Cold Turkey (actually, frozen turkey)
(Toronto - Montreal - London - Mumbai)

December dawns. Canada is cold and miserable. The sun has taken up residence behind a thick grey cloud, the rarified air freezes my breath as I speak and the grass has gone into hibernation under the snow that has been accumulating for some weeks. The saving grace is that Christmas is almost upon us. For an exiled nomad like myself, Christmas means a trip to the other side of the world where the grass is browner, the sun always shines and the air is so thick with pollution you can cut it with a butter knife. Yes, it is time for my annual pilgrimage to India.

Thanks to a remarkable coincidence of Darwinism, there seems to be a severe lack of edible turkey in India. On a whim, my father decided almost twenty years ago to liberate this flightless bird from its earthly bindings and flew a large frozen turkey down from London to our Christmas dinner. This was wildly popular among the turkey starved masses and hence developed into an annual logistical nightmare whose baton has now passed to the only son. With my formerly baby cousins having now grown into teenagers with voracious appetites, this year's order is for 20 lbs.

My itinerary of choice involved using la belle Montreal as my launching pad across the seas, so I decided to throw in a day or deux vacation in that lovely city en route. Thanks to JetsGo's loonie (sic) Sundays promotion I had managed to snag myself a $1 (plus tax for a total of $60-ish - yes I know Canada taxes suck) ticket from Toronto to Montreal, about the only fare that I am willing to pay for the indignity of seating myself aboard a jet festooned with lime green smiley faces.

Now maybe its just me, but the sight of JetsGo's cute flight attendants in their leather jackets and crooning sweetly with their delectable french accents is enough to arouse stirrings in the loins of even the most emasculated specimen. I had seated myself in the exit row when one of these surreal angels approached me with a wide smile asking "Monsieur, parlez vous francais?". I nodded my assent and she proceeded to deliver the exit row briefing in lovely smooth francais. Then, being the horny bastard I am, I pretended that I didn't understand a word she had said and made her repeat the entire spiel in English. Ah l'amour. The things we do to make the hotties talk to us!

The flight over to Montreal was typically nondescript. I paid $1 for a can of coke, ironically the same fare that I had paid for my ticket. It was a cloudless night and the lights of centre-ville provided a glittering backdrop for our descent into Dorval. We arrived at one of the Aeroquai gates, which meant more ups and downs to get landside than your average male experiences in a week.

The morning of my departure from Montreal was spent in a great turkey hunt. After leaving a number of depanneur staff wondering if I was from outer space with my "avez vous un dindon gele?" questions, I finally stumbled upon a 22lb specimen at an IGA downtown. I packed the turkey up in a nice insulated blanket made from garbage bags lined with newspaper, added 2lbs of Schwartz's smoked meat for ballast and sealed the whole thing up in a tote bag. Onward to Dorval...

The British Airways staff at the Elite checkin desk didn't believe me when I told them that I had 22lbs of frozen turkey in my luggage (what? nobody else travels with their frozen turkey?), but after I invited her to slide open the zipper and feel the rock hard contents within she took my word for it. I fear that I flustered the poor girl so much that she mistakenly issued me a lounge invitation (oneworld Ruby doesn't get lounge access on a World Traveler ticket), but maybe it was just my irresistable charm.

Like all the international carriers, British Airways boards from the international Aeroquai which meant another spelunking expedition into the depths of Dorval before I finally clambered aboard the 777 patiently waiting to transport me to Blighty. I had managed to snag a bulkhead seat via online checkin which alleviated some of the pain of 6 hours in cramped quarters but only served to breed pangs of envy for the lucky sods in World Traveler Plus on the other side of the curtain.

After takeoff, the crew dished out some concoction that was supposed to be a meal. For years I have ignored the complaints of Eurosnobs who claimed that "British Cuisine" was an oxymoron, but tonight I fear that I owed them my apologies. I have long maintained that airplane food that looks like it came out of an overflowing toilet bowl probably tastes the same, yet I received not even a perverse satisfaction from having my hypothesis proven.

Then I slept. There were movies on the PTV system, but I didn't care to watch any of them. I woke up just before we began our descent, freshened up while the flight attendants rushed around in a typical hurry-up-and-wait Heathrow approach pattern and finished filling out my landing card scant moments prior to our bouncy touchdown on 27R.

There were no jetways available at Terminal Four to receive us, so we taxied to Hatton Cross tube station before the captain finally parked and herded us into buses. I guess our luggage took the scenic route to the terminal though as it was a good 20 minutes more before it showed up. In the meanwhile, I had been accosted by a crazy woman off the Delhi flight who kept asking me in Hindi where Gatwick was. Nonetheless, the turkey finally emerged. I escaped through Customs and clambered aboard Heathrow Express over to the civilized part of the airport.

Ah Terminal Three, the crossroads of civilization (and lack thereof). If God had a sense of humor, he wouldn't have bothered with the Tower of Babel and instead just released those guys into the departures area on a Monday morning. Sounds of tearful farewells, joyful farewells and presumed blessings in a variety of tongues rang in my ears as I played the proverbial Moses and parted the seas en route to the Air India check in desks.

As I was nonrevving today, I dutifully reported to the duty manager and asked her my chances of getting aboard either of the flights leaving for India in the next couple hours. She told me that I could get an Economy Class seat aboard the earlier one, but if I waited a couple hours I stood a very good chance at getting Business Class. Say no more honey. I grabbed the turkey and headed to the Air Canada Arrivals Lounge (where SuperElites are always welcome) for a quick shower, shave and orange juice.

Onward to departures where the FastTrack line was anything but. After spending 10 minutes waiting for the group of sweet old pensioners ahead of me to remove their prostheses, dentures and other metal items I skipped over the barrier and mingled with the proletariat instead. Although my flight was due out from gate 5, I made a quick detour to gate 23 to visit the latest adopted Korean orphan who was en route to New York. This Boeing 747-4B5 had been named "Sanchi" and was making only her second revenue flight for Air India. I welcomed her to the family and then headed over to my own gate where her sister "Fatehpur Sikri" (also an adopted Korean orphan) awaited.

After meandering aboard the "Palace In The Sky", I headed upstairs to the sparsely populated Business Class cabin. There I was quietly approached by the Inflight Supervisor. Evidently the Assistant Purser in First Class was being trained for promotion and they wanted a guinea pig to evaluate his service upon. Would I be willing to make the sacrifice and accept a First Class seat instead? Well, the thirteenth rule of nonrev is to never refuse a reasonable request and this seemed reasonable enough to me. "Lead on MacDuff" said I, scarcely containing my glee as I followed him down the stairs.

The only catch about flying aboard this adopted plane was that the First Class seats were still the old design flat-reclining seats rather than the new ultra-spiffy flat beds with duvets et al. Still, for the price paid I could hardly complain. (Note : Even the stepchildren of the fleet now have the new seats so you can rest easy if you have Air India in your upcoming travel plans). Over the next eight hours I was fed, entertained and generally pampered in a manner befitting a Maharaja. I was even offered the option of snoozing in the REAL beds (located overhead at the base of the tail in the crew rest area) if I so desired, but I chose to pass this time around.

The hours passed quickly in this lap of luxury and we touched down on a muggy oh-dark-thirty in Mumbai seemingly all too soon. Customs was X-raying all incoming baggage, but the officer was either asleep or so numbed by the number of frozen turkeys to drift across his screen every night that he didn't bother batting an eyelid. My ride home was waiting patiently at the exit and with no traffic at this early hour, the turkey was quickly delivered safe and solid to its new home in our freezer.

Trip Two : Sun to snow
(Mumbai - Delhi - Frankfurt - Zurich - Montreal - Toronto)

And so the moment I had been dreading finally arrived. After a month basking under the warmth of an Indian sun (and basking as the prodigal Indian son) it was time for me to wing my way back to the oversized iceberg that masquerades as Canada.

I felt distinctly un-Indian as I waited to check-in at Air India's Terminal II-C accompanied only by my dad. Every other passenger seemed to have an entourage of at least three sobbing women as well as a uniformed minion to carry their horrendously ugly soft-side luggage with floral pattern. My black rollaboard, tote and laptop combo made me feel very out of place.

The flight today was a one-stopper to Frankfurt via Delhi on one of the old 747-300 Combis. Even though the load looked wide open, I got the captain to authorize my jumpseat request just in case it filled up at Delhi. After cooling my heels for 30 minutes in the immigration line, I made a quick pitstop at the Maharaja Lounge before heading down to catch the last bus to our remote parking bay just before our scheduled 830am departure time.

Our rickety old contraption negotiated its way through the jungle of Air India 747s heading out to various points and finally stopped on the maintenance ramp where today's ride,a Boeing 747-337(M) Combi named "Narasimha Varman" awaited us. Whereas the namesake Emperor of the Pallava dynasty lived and reigned in the 7th century AD, the aircraft was a mere teenager having first seen the light of day back in 1988. My first ride on the stretched upper deck of a 747 had been on this very aircraft the following year. Yeah, me and Narasimha Varman go way back...

I reported to Larry, the Inflight Supervisor, and he told me to pick any empty seat in Business Class as we had a negligible load on the first leg today. Alas, traffic destined to Delhi was a groundstop due to fog there and we held 40 minutes before being released for the hour-and-a-bit flight up. Juice and breakfast menus were distributed on the ground as we waited, but it was past 10am before we finally took flight into a typically polluted Mumbai morning sky.

Breakfast was served soon thereafter. The menus touted not one, not two, not even three but FOUR, yes FOUR options. I picked the Creole Poached Eggs with Buerre Blanc, Lamb Croquettes, Potato Roesti and Grilled Cherry Tomato. The other options were Masala Dosa (Vegetarian), Uppama with Chole Kalwa (Vegetarian) and an Asparagus and Mushroom Omelette with Chicken Pojasky. The breakfast came with a fresh fruit appetizer, a cup of yoghurt and a fresh croissant. Pretty darn good for a 90 minute domestic flight eh?

The transit stop at Delhi was conducted at breakneck speed to try and pick up some time and we had recovered almost 45 minutes by the time we pushed back from the gate there. There were two seats left open in Business Class and the new crew invited me to make myself comfortable in one of them next to a young German man heading home.

About 30 minutes after departing Delhi, we flew into history. On 13 December 2001, Pakistani terrorists had launched an attack on India's parliament in Delhi. As part of its response, India denied all Pakistani-registered aircraft access to Indian airspace - and the Pakistanis reciprocated with a similar restriction on Indian aircraft overlying Pakistan. Two years later, our flight was one of the first Indian registered planes to return to Pakistani skies. The captain did a wonderful job of priming us for the historic moment and the border fence itself was clearly visible on the ground as we passed overhead to rapturous applause from the entire cabin. The crew then celebrated our overflight of this prohibition-ridden Islamic land by breaking out the Piper Heidseck champagne.

Lunch was served as I watched "Freaky Friday" over the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. No, I didn't forget to give the finger to nasty Mr. Bin Liner down there! The crew were operating at minimum complement so they could only do one run through the cabin and served the entire meal on a single clustered tray rather than the prescribed multiple courses. I was definitely not impressed by the presentation from the Delhi-base crew (what can one expect from Northerners anyway?). Nonetheless, the food was exceptional as always.


Hors d'oeuvres
Smoked salmon, Chicken salad canape

Kesari Malai Prawn Curry, Jeera Pulao, Spiced Vegetables

Yoghurt, Papad, Butter Naan, Pickle, Bread, Cheese, Crackers

Hazelnut Mousse, Chocolate Bar

The shortcut through Pakistani airspace actually saved us almost an hour in flying time so it was only a few hours later that the crew came around with yet another meal, our third of this not-particularly-long flight. Ostensibly a snack, it featured two HUGE crispy jumbo shrimp, three chicken tikkas and two aloo tikkis, plus a papaya/pineapple salad and shrikand. I was absolutely stuffed by the end of the flight, a rare occasion that I disembark from the plane having had to loosen my belt buckle a notch.

Immigration and customs at Frankfurt's lovely Terminal 2 were typically impersonal and efficient and I emerged into the snowy German abend to be greeted by Patrick, Konstantin and Daniel. We retired to the airport bar to chat for a while over some beers before Daniel had to catch his train home. Konstantin headed off soon after while Patrick and I caught the shuttle over to the Holiday Inn where we were both booked for the evening. We resumed our airplane talk over dinner in the hotel bar and they finally had to kick us out at the 1am closing time. And people say airplane geeks don't know how to have fun!

Next day featured a hop to Zurich on Swiss. It was my first time on them since the rebranding and I was eagerly looking forward to it. Needless to say I was quickly disillusioned. Frankfurt to Zurich is a short sector, but the complete lack of any service whatsoever by the crew was shocking to say the least. There were no more than a dozen passengers on the entire Airbus 319 but the crew didn't even leave their jumpseats for the entire duration of the flight. I had better service with a so-called no frills carrier like JetsGo the previous month and the flight attendants were cuter to boot.

For a country so steeped in banking tradition, you would think that the Swiss would feature more ATMs or Bureaux de Change at their biggest airport? You would think wrong. I wandered the corridors of "Unique" (don't ask - whatever happened to the "Kloten" name anyway?) airport for almost 15 minutes seeking out a source of local moolah before I finally found a shylock willing to rip me off. Then it was onward via train to my hotel, the wonderful Sofitel downtown that was a veritable steal for only $50 on Priceline.

Back at the airport the next day, I was confronted by ridiculously long lines at the coach checkin desks, so I decided to wander over to the Elite checkin and ask if they would accept my oneworld status yet. Fortunately, they were more than willing to pander to my ego and I was swiftly processed. Alas, due to an oversale they were unable to assign me a seat yet. I went into schmooze mode. With a big grin, I told the lady that I was willing to volunteer for either the bump or the op-upgrade or even both if that was what she needed. She giggled initially, but eventually realized that I was dead serious. Accordingly my bag was marked SBY to enable it to be yanked should the bump come to fruition.

After a visit to the post-office to mail a postcard, I presented myself to the gate at the appropriate hour but was informed that regretfully they would neither be requiring my seat today, nor would they be able to upgrade me. At the very least they managed to assign me the last available aisle seat on the aircraft, a small mercy for my large frame. I trundled aboard and settled in for the 8 hour flight, praying it wouldn't be too painful.

Once airborne, the crew came around to dish out the slop. No, I'm not exaggerating. It was slop. It bore a loose resemblance to what I imagine a cow with diarrhea in the snow would produce. Even Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H would cringe if he had to eat it. I nibbled at the Camembert, bounced the roll on the floor a few times and then decided to simply nap. Which I did. For a number of hours. Then I ate Movenpick icecream that they handed out while I watched a movie whose title I can't remember. Then we landed. And just looking out of the window at the white expanse I knew it was frigging cold. Bienvenue a Canada.

We docked at an Aeroquai again, which I don't mind as much for an international arrival. It gives the coach passengers who can walk at a brisk pace (like me) a fairly good chance to position ourselves favorably at the passport control lines. Mark was waiting for me at baggage claim to say hi and we chatted for a while as I waited for my bags to spew forth from the bowels of the earth. While attempting to exit I was randomly sent to Customs secondary, but my charming smile and some superficial flirting worked on the butt-ugly female agent and she let me go without even opening a bag.

One of the biggest ironies about Canadian airports is that there is no nonstop rail rink between Toronto airport and downtown.... but there is a nonstop rail link between Montreal airport and downtown. No, not downtown Montreal (they have that too), but downtown Toronto. The VIA Rail train was half empty for the evening service in Economy class, so I managed to stretch out and relax for the 3.5 hour ride. Food was available for sale and quite honestly, the $5 Turkey sandwich with Coke combo was a darn sight more filling than the joke that Swiss served.

Trip Three : Hop, skip and a jump
(Toronto - Ottawa - Montreal - London)

Toronto Island airport is a little jewel in the middle of the city. Scant minutes from downtown, it saves a 45 minute ride north to Pearson. Better still, one can proceed from curbside to planeside in under 5 minutes, assuming the ferry is running on schedule.

After a short cab ride from Union Station, I showed up around 255pm for my 4pm flight to Ottawa. The sweet lady at the counter asked me if I'd be interested in the 3pm instead and I jumped at the chance. My boarding passes were issued all the way to Heathrow (via Ottawa and Halifax) and I breezed through security onto the plane. We were airborne immediately, a scant 7 minutes after I stepped off the ferry.

My only gripe with the new terminal at Ottawa is that the Maple Leaf Lounge is a good 15 minute walk away from the mainline gates. Thankfully I had arrived on Jazz, so I didn't have to deal with it yet. As I entered the lounge, I noticed that my flight to Halifax was delayed, which would run my onward connection very tight. The lady at the desk was very obliging and rebooked me via Montreal instead within a couple minutes. Bravo for Air Canada efficiency! This had the added benefit of giving me the fabulous Airbus 330 for the transatlantic crossing (with AVOD and laptop power in ExecutiveFirst) versus the ex-CP Boeing 767 on my original itinerary.

After a few beers and phonecalls in the lounge, I made the trek across to the new terminal where the Airbus 320 to Montreal was boarding. The Executive Class cabin was a sea of green uniforms by the time I stepped aboard - an entire Flight Attendant crew was deadheading and I was the only revenue passenger up front. To their credit though, the operating crew did both a pre-flight beverage service and an inflight beverage service on this 17 minute hop. Nothing fancy, but a big kudos to them for making the effort.

Another delay ensued in Montreal as we waited for the inbound aircraft. This was getting annoying, but I spent the time in the lounge playing with some of the cooler toys there like the telescope and the music listening system. Gotta love a playroom for oversized kids to while away the time at an airport!

Now I have nothign against older flight attendants for the most part, but when passengers have to wonder whether the biddie pushing the meal cart is actually using it as a walker I think the line must be drawn. Honestly, our Montreal based flight crew must have had an average age of at least 70. Still, Air Canada's ExecutiveFirst service delivery system is setup in a perfectly modular design so even they have a hard time screwing it up.

One of the best parts of being in a premium international cabin on Air Canada is their "Canadian Signature Cocktail" series. Unbeknownst to much of the world, Newfoundland evidently produces excellent "Iceberg Vodka" (not to be mistaken with the proverbial iceberg that the airline persists in kamikaze-ing itself against financially a la Titanic). Heck, I guess those Newfies had to be good at something. These rotate on a monthly basis and the January brew called "Northern Lights" featured Newfoundland Iceberg Vodka, Cranberry Juice and Grand Marnier. Although FLYACYYZ, the resident AC Purser on has subsequently critiqued it as "based on the colour density, there is not nearly enough Grand Marnier in there", I had absolutely no complaints.


Opening Act
Shrimp and Scallops served with Mixed Vegetables

Main Attractions
Salmon complemented by Teriyaki Sauce, offered with Jasmine Rice and Mixed Vegetables

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
Banana Crepe with Chocolate Sauce

I slept in fits and starts, punctuating my restless night with "Runaway Jury" on the AVOD system. The crew decided to serve breakfast almost 90 minutes before landing, which would up being not even 3 hours after they had finished crawling their way through the dinner service. I'm not a continental breakfast fan at the best of times, but I can't fault what they did deliver. The Banana flavored smoothie was a nice pick-up drink for the long day ahead, especially considering my lack of sleep.

We touched down on Heathrow's 27L at exactly 9am, ironically 15 minutes ahead of my originally scheduled flight from Halifax despite all the delays. Customs and immigration were a breeze and I headed straight to the Air Canada Arrivals lounge where a warm shower and not-so-warm croissant awaited me.

Trip Four : Home again for a while
(London - Frankfurt - Toronto)

Bad weather in Germany had affected all inbound Lufthansa flights today, so I was very concerned when I checked in at Terminal 2 to find a number of cancellations listed on the monitors. Thankfully, the only flight still listed as operating on time was my 1255pm departure to Frankfurt. Needless to say, the Senator Lounge was a complete zoo but I managed to find myself an empty laptop cubicle until departure time.

The lunchtime departure to Frankfurt is usually a widebody Airbus 300, but for whatever reason it was being operated by a much smaller Boeing 737-300 named "Saarbrücken" today. As a result we were shoehorned like sardines into our metal can with nary a spare inch (nor centimeter for the metric minded) of either seat space or luggage space available. Thanks to Frankfurt weather we were on a ground hold for almost an hour, which meant that the cabin was transformed into a makeshift sauna by the time we were finally airborne.

After a completely unmemorable flight of 68 minutes highlighted by a rather dry ham sandwich, we landed at Frankfurt and were deposited at a corner of concourse A. As my connecting flight to Toronto was booked on Air Canada, but as a Lufthansa codeshare, I decided to proceed through immigration and head out to the main ticket counters and see if they could process my upgrade request there.

Due to the delay at Heathrow, my connecting time was down to just about an hour and I was getting rather impatient by the time I reached the front of the line at passport control. Of course, the agent decided to take this opportunity to lazily leaf through my entire passport and run his finger over some of the more exotic stamps from places he probably will never visit in his lifetime. After a few minutes of this, he looks up at me and asks "Are you seaman?". My first thought was to respond with "What? Do I look like a white sticky liquid to you?", but discretion prevailed.

Upgrade was sorted out quickly enough and I was among the last to board the old ex-Canadian Airlines 767 to Toronto. The front cabin was empty and I settled down with an empty seat next to me and perused the menu card while sipping some champagne. Such a civilized atmosphere, especially compared to the Lufthansa sardine can I'd just stepped off.


Opening Act
Smoked Salmon fillet and Italian Ham with Saffron Mayonanaise

Main Attractions
Grilled fillet of Beef with Canadian Back Bacon, Demi-Glace and Balsamic Sauce served over Sweet Potato gratine accompanied by Sugar Snap Peas and Red Bell Peppers - A Canadian Signature Speciality

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
Walnut Cake

Dinner was quite mouth watering, as was Kiera Knightley in "Pirates of The Carribean" which I watched on the personal Sony Watchman system during the service. I then slept, far more comfortably than I did on the outbound leg I should add, awakening only for the fresh cookies and ice-cream service and then for the pre-landing snack of Chicken Brochettes and Mushroom Duxelles in Puff Pastry. After an enjoyable 8:26 flight, we touched down at Pearson and I headed back home... for now.

Trip Five : "What can go wrong, will go wrong" - Murphy
(Toronto - Frankfurt - London)

Considering that Air Canada codeshares with every Star Alliance partner that serves Toronto, you'd expect their staff to realize that Lufthansa flight 9635 is actually operated by Air Canada. Unfortunately the smug bastard guarding access tothe SuperElite checkin counters at Terminal 1 obviously missed that day at school. Despite my escalating insistence to the contrary, he continued to politely point me towards the Lufthansa counters around the corner. I attempted to contact the Concierge to sort things out, but as usual that number directed me to their voicemail system which was not particularly useful when you consider the circumstances. Eventually I gave up and made my way to the lengthy line for cattle class passengers.

After 40 minutes of grouchily cooling my heels and throwing dirty looks at everyone nearby, I had almost calmed down by the time I reached the front of the line. Unfortunately, the agent at the counter was very sweet but also very incompetent. We started off the conversation with her informing me that my multi-hundred dollar Lufthansa ticket was actually an award ticket since it was booked in "X" class and hence could not be upgraded. I patiently explained to her that Lufthansa's "X" class is equivalent to Air Canada's "L" class and was hence very much upgradeable according to the rules printed on the certificate. Her response was "Oh".

She then proceeded to explain to me that it was not permitted to upgrade an Air Canada flight booked under a Lufthansa codeshare flight number. Again, I patiently explained to her that indeed it was permitted to do so and that I had upgraded such a flight just the previous week. She tapped around on her computer for a while, looked back up at me and said "Oh".

After a few more minutes of tapping around, she summoned over a supervisor to "take a look at this" (never a good sign) and they proceeded to tap at the keyboard together. The supervisor then told me that I should have gone to the SuperElite checkin desk to begin with as they were more experienced in dealing with this kind of transaction. Needless to say, that was a bit too much for me under the circumstances. I proceeded to regale them (very politely, yet firmly) with the story of how I had spent my last hour. The supervisor apologized. The agent looked at me and yet again said "Oh".

And so I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally they figured out how to get things done, but by now it was "I'm sorry sire but somebody JUST took the last seat in Business Class. I can put you on the waitlist though". Grrrrrrrr. I was NOT a happy camper. It had taken me ONE HOUR AND FORTY MINUTES to check in for a flight as a SuperElite passenger at Air Canada's biggest hub. Absolutely unacceptable. I took my boarding pass with a warning to them that "If I miss out on the upgrade because of your incompetence, there will be consequences" and headed to the Maple Leaf Lounge to drown my sorrows in free beer.

With 45 minutes to departure, I headed out from the lounge to catch the shuttle bus to the converted warehouse euphemistically referred to as the "Infield Terminal". After a brisk ride across the tarmac and under the runways, I emerged into the departure concourse just in time to hear my name being paged. The same agent who had messed up at the counter was standing there with my upgraded boarding pass for seat 3H, somewhat redeeming herself for the earlier mess. I strolled aboard midway through the process and made myself comfortable.

Alas, a small "technical problem" resulted in a 90 minute delay on ground. By the time we finally took off into a dark Toronto evening, I would almost certainly miss my connecting flight to London. Still, this month's feature cocktail - "Iceberg Arctic Passion" featuring Newfoundland Iceberg Vodka and real lemonade provided a fine distraction as I leafed through the dinner menu and watched "Mambo Italiano" on the PTV system.


Opening Act
Smoked Duck Terrine with Cranberry Sauce accompanied by Rosti Potatoes and Parmesan Cheese

Main Attractions
Black Bean and Beef Stir-fry offered on Hokkien Noodles with Carrots and Brocolli Florets

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Sauce

Thankfully the Toronto crew waited until 60 minutes before we were due to land before they started the breakfast service, thus allowing us much more sleep relative to their Montreal counterparts the previous week. I'm a firm believer that a "meal" is not complete unless an innocent animal has shed some blood, so "Continental Breakfast" rarely figures high on my list of priorities. Still, a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee to start the day is better than nothing.

I disembarked at Frankfurt about an hour behind schedule and found an agent standing at the end of the jetway with a list of blown connections that had been rebooked. Now, you would assume that a SuperElite passenger in ExecutiveFirst would be among the passengers they had rebooked right? Well, you'd assume wrong. The agent shrugged me off dismissively and pointed to the transfer desk saying "talk to Lufthansa".

Unfortunately, the line at the transfer desk was so long that I didn't fancy my chances of making it to the front before the NEXT flight to London left, so I headed out through passport control and to the main Lufthansa counters. I approached an agent at the Star Gold checkin area, but to my total shock he took one look at my boarding pass for the long departed flight and told me that "This ticket cannot be changed if you miss the flight. You will have to pay 100 Euro change fee". WHAT THE F***? I tried to explain, but he was having none of it. I'd had it up to here with the seamless Star Alliance by now. Enough was enough.

I stormed my way to the Air Canada counters where the early Montreal flight was checking in and demanded to see the supervisor. She came over quickly when she saw my obvious agitation and I let loose on her. I threw my ticket folder with my boarding passes, ticket coupons and two paper tickets for future Air Canada flights on the counter with my SuperElite card and gave her an ultimatum. "I'm sick and tired of being jerked around. You have 10 minutes to fix this problem or I'll rip those tickets up and send your station manager the bill." I guess I was rather melodramatic in retrospect, but she got the point. She took 6 minutes.

The Lufthansa Airbus 300 to London was typical of their European service. A nasty ham sandwich was served that I gave up on after a few bites. The highlight was a panoramic view of Central London on a cloudless day as we turned onto approach for 27L at Heathrow. Terminal 2 was its usual grotty self and I quickly exited and made my way to the Air Canada Arrivals Lounge at Terminal 3 for my obligatory shower before taking on the world.

Editorial Note : I complained to Air Canada about the poor ground handling at Frankfurt when I got home and received multiple followups and apologies from the relevant managers. Two thumbs up to Air Canada for the service recovery.

Trip Six : Routine
(London - Frankfurt - Toronto)

Lah di dah. This was a highly unmemorable trip. Both flights were on time and I had an empty seat next to me to boot, so I couldn't complain too much when my upgrade didn't clear.

So what did I learn today?

* Always steal magazines from the Senator Lounge when your upgrade doesn't clear.
* Lufthansa's sandwiches ex-Heathrow are much nicer than the ones ex-Frankfurt.
* The 33-34" seat pitch in Air Canada's economy class on the 767s is worth its weight in gold.
* Air Canada's revamped transatlantic "Hospitality Class Meal Service" is actually edible.
* Don't try to import salami to Canada.

Yeah, I got busted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I had picked up a couple of German salamis at the airport supermarket during my transit stop and unfortunately did not bother to check the newly instituted beef import restrictions to Canada. So when the Customs agent asked if I had any food with me, I unknowingly confessed my crime. At least they were nice about it and gave me a handful of CFIA luggage tags in return.

Trip Seven : Bait and switch
(Toronto - Frankfurt - London)

For the last few months, Lufthansa had been advertising that their Airbus 340-600 featuring the new Business Class seats would be commencing service to Toronto on January 31st. Hence when I was booking this trip for mid-February, I decided to pick Lufthansa metal over the Air Canada codeshare. Thanks to the generosity of IndustrialPatent, I even managed to acquire an upgrade certificate that would enable me to sample the heavily hyped product.

And then tragedy struck. For reasons unknown, Lufthansa decided to postpone the introduction of the new planes on the route until mid-March. To add insult to injury, the replacement equipment was one of the unwanted stepchildren of the fleet, the ex-Sabena Airbus 340-300 which had 30 less Business Class seats to upgrade into. I was not a happy camper. Still, such is life. I asked the Lufthansa agents to put me on the upgrade standby list at checkin, but I wasn't particularly optimistic... for good reason as it turned out.

The flight itself was quite unpleasant. The aircraft was packed to the gills for starters, but the interior fittings of this hand-me-down plane were severely in need of a revamp. The plastic seat pockets were broken, the lavatory sink seals leaked and the tray table wasn't level. The meal itself was pretty tasty, but the quantity was way too small for dinner on an 8 hour flight. They get high marks for the breakfast service though since it featured a salami sandwich. Meat for breakfast = two thumbs up!

The lady across the aisle from me was an ancient old crone in a wheelchair who spent the entire flight passed out with the only signs of life being a periodic pseudo-snore that sounded a bit like the air being let out of a balloon. Like most of the passenger aboard, she was connecting onward to India but unlike most of them she didn't speak a word of English. After watching the poor Purser struggle to instruct her to stay in her seat after landing, I stepped in to play translator. Of course, I was then dragged around the aircraft to translate for two other passengers in a similar predicament, which just goes to show that I should learn to keep my mouth shut.

The connecting flight to London was interesting because I had two friends with me on board. We spent the entire hour chatting and blocking the aisle while the crew tried to do their service. Sorry Charles, but I will NOT be mentioning the Frankfurt post office incident. At Heathrow we went our seperate ways with Charles accepting my invitation to the Air Canada Arrivals Lounge and Damon heading off to make his onward connection.

Trip Eight : As Good As It Gets
(London - Frankfurt - Toronto)

There are good crews in this world and there are great ones. The good ones take pride in meeting your every need. The great ones are able to anticipate your every want. The crew on Air Canada 877 today were among the great ones.

To be honest, I can't put my finger on any single incident that would qualify them for greatness. However it was lots of little things that taken together showed them to truly be in a class above and beyond. For example, the way that Jacques made sure that the wine glass on the meal setting was rotated so that the Air Canada logo faced us, the way that Marion proactively ensured that all passengers always had a fresh bottle of drinking water available at their seat and the way that Domenic came around to individually seek feedback about the service from each passenger. It is this attention to the small and seemingly insignificant details that sets a merely pleasant flight apart from an extremely memorable one.

Strangely enough, the day started off with yet another routine hop over from Heathrow to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. With a wide open flight, I simply picked an open row near the back of the Airbus 300 and slept all the way. It was a lovely sunny day in Frankfurt and I enjoyed the bus ride back to the terminal from our remote parking stand. The weather had not been so kind in Italy and Switzerland though. A number of passengers from those countries had misconnected on the earlier Lufthansa flight and had been rebooked on Air Canada, creating quite a circus at the gate. Thankfully my upgrade had already cleared so I simply made my way to the lounge to await the boarding call.

The first litmus test of great service is a crew that not only offers you a boarding drink promptly, but ensures that your glass is kept topped up. Marion then came around and discussed the dinner menu with each of us individually, making her little suggestions here and there. I was already feeling pampered by the time we taxied out and my "Iceberg Arctic Passion" once airborne didn't do much to dispel that sentiment.


Opening Act
Marinated Prawn and Bresaola garnished with grilled Bell Peppers and Creme Fraiche

Main Attractions
Grilled fillet of Steak with Wasabi Crust and Curry Sauce offered on a bed of Basmati Rice, Carrots and Broccoli

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
German Layer Cake

The movie being screened in the main cabin today was the classic "Working Girl" with Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith. I passed up on the personal DVD players offered and instead kicked back and watched it on the main screen. Listening to Carly Simon's "Let The River Run" took me back in time and stirred a number of dormant memories. I remember watching the opening credits of the movie on a Pan Am transatlantic flight back in 1989 and being enchanted by the theme music even back then. Although the New York skyline portrayed has sadly changed in the interim, the tune retains its magic. Looking out the window at the Atlantic Ocean glistening in the twilight, I was transported back in time. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Editorial Note : I wrote an email to Air Canada to pass on my commendations for the great service provided, throwing in a cc: to CEO Robert Milton - a fellow Georgia Tech alumnus - as an afterthought. The next day, imagine my surprise when I found the following email in my Inbox.

Dear Mr. Mendis:

Thank you for copying me on your message of earlier today to Tony Collis. I am
pleased you enjoyed your experience on today's flight 877. We are pleased of the
enhancements we've made to our Executive First product in the last year, and in
particular are proud of the fine work being done by our flight attendant group.

I will be sure that Marion receives word of your praise, with my thanks.

Finally, thank you for flying Air Canada as often as you do!

Robert Milton
CEO, Air Canada

Trip Nine : Au revoir, dear friend
(Toronto - Frankfurt - London)

No airport terminal has the ability to evoke strong emotions in grown men like Toronto's old Terminal 1 does. For two entire generations of Canadian men, the observation decks (and later the rooftop carpark) served as the catalyst for their love affair with all things aviation. Often referred to as Canada's modern-day Ellis Island, hundreds of thousands of immigrants first set foot on Canadian soil within her portals. But all good things must come to an end. With the shadow of a glittering new steel-and-glass terminal hovering, the days were numbered for this little corner of history. After 40 years of reuniting friends and families, welcoming visitors to Canada and sending travelers off to exotic destinations, it was time to say goodbye and thank you to Terminal 1.

Today's flight to Frankfurt would be my last departure from the old terminal, so I vowed to make it a special one. Knowing his fondness for the place, I invited Nuno to be my guest at the Maple Leaf Lounge before the flight. The grand old building must have felt the emotion in the air as none of the glitches that plagued my previous trip surfaced this time. I spent maybe 30 seconds in line, my upgrade cleared, the beer at the lounge was cold and we spent an enjoyable afternoon overlooking the tarmac and chatting. When it was time to leave for the Infield Terminal, I sadly strode out to the waiting COBUS 3000, glad that my last exit from the building was to the airside. Driving across the tarmac, the contrast between the old and new terminals had never seemed so glaring to me and I turned away. Au revoir.

I arrived at the Infield Terminal just as boarding was being called on the Boeing 747, but I wandered around for a bit before meandering through at the end of the process. To my great delight, our crew today featured some of the same wonderful folks that had served me two weeks ago. They welcomed me warmly and thanked me for the commendation letter that had obviously trickled down the line already. I promised to come chat in the galley once the meal service was done.

This month's featured cocktail was "Iceberg Atlantic Seabreeze" - Newfoundland-made Iceberg Vodka mixed with cranberry and grapefruit juice, and it was a suitable successor to the ones I had sampled in previous months. The German businessman next to me initially declined any drink, but when he saw mine he changed his mind and ordered one too!


Opening Act
Vodka-smoked Salmon with marinated Green Asparagus and Parmesan Cheese

Main Attractions
Grilled Beef Tenderloin and Lobster Tail presented on Lemon Thyme Potatoes and a Vegetable medley with Dill Butter sauce

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
Apple blossom with Vanilla Sauce and whipped cream

Once dinner was digested, I headed upstairs to the galley to meet up with my new friends. We must have spent a good 3 hours chatting there about everything from union issues to layover hotels in Delhi, because before I knew it the Purser was coming around to tell them to start prepping for breakfast. Yikes! No sleep for me tonight I guess. I skipped breakfast and catnapped for about 45 minutes before we touched down onto a strangely snowy March morning in Frankfurt.

Maybe living in Canada has spoiled me, but I really expected that an airport like Frankfurt wouldn't go to pieces so completely in the snow. Every flight was delayed pushing back (including my connection to London) and there was a que for runway 18 that stretched halfway down the autobahn to Mainz. To make matters worse our aircraft was parked at a remote stand, which meant that we had to wade our way through the melting slush between the bus and the airstairs.

After an hour of slowly creeping down the taxiway, we were finally de-iced and launched into the sky for the quick hop over to Heathrow. Today's ham sandwich was ridiculously awful, even by Lufthansa's own mediocre standards and I cussed myself for not simply passing it up and grabbing some extra sleep. Still, we arrived at Heathrow barely 60 minutes late and I rushed to the Air Canada Arrivals lounge for a quick shower before heading out. I was on an especially short trip today, so every minute counted.

Trip Ten : Run Forrest...
(London - Ottawa - Toronto)

My aunt in Toronto was turning 50 during the week and my uncle decided to throw her a surprise party. Of course, this had to be scheduled for the one night that I was scheduled to be in London. Still, I promised to do my darndest to make it back in time. After co-ordinating with my meetings and with Air Canada I came up with a solution that would have me arriving in London at 9am, getting all my work done by 3pm and heading back to Heathrow in time to make the 445pm departure to ottawa, from where I would scramble to make a 45 minute connection onto the last flight to Toronto. Logistical nightmare, but my aunt only turns 50 once!

I got back to Heathrow around 235pm in the hope of being able to switch to the 330pm nonstop, but the lady at checkin advised me both that the flight was already closed and that it was so full that I wouldn't have made it on anyway. Ah well, I tried. Alas in my fatigue-numbed state of mind, I stupidly decided to check my rollaboard on the Ottawa flight for reasons that I still can't understand. This momentary lapse of reason would almost have tragic consequences later.

Despite Air Canada having an exceptional new lounge of their own at Terminal 3, I still prefer to use the Singapore Airlines SilverKris lounge when traveling on an eligible Star Alliance itinerary. Not only are the snacks inevitably much nicer, but they have the wonderful "quiet room" with sleepers that I took advantage of for an hour nap. Feeling quite rejuvenated, I headed out to my gate where the flight was just beginning to board.

I had been warned by a colleague that the Heathrow to Ottawa flight was a bureaucrat special, but the extent of it stunned even me. Virtually every other passenger in the cabin had some sort of Canadian Government or Crown Corporation affiliation. Still, if it makes money for Air Canada more power to them. I downed a few champagnes as the proletariat class passengers enviously made their way past us to steerage, making sure to make eye contact and smile at those who gaped the most at our relative luxury. What can I say, I'm a mean old bastard.


Opening Act
Herbed Salmon with Coriander and marinated prawns

Main Attractions
Roasted rack of Lamb with maple glaze, offered on New Potatoes with braised carrots and shallots, kumquat and cranberry relish

A selection of fine port, gourmet cheese and fruit

Simply Indulgent
Chocolate Mousse

The beauty of a westbound twilight flight like this one is that you are treated to a fantastic display of nature's glory for an extended period. Faced with the option of Steve Martin in "Cheaper By The Dozen" on the PTV system or watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, it was an easy choice to make. I was not disappointed. As the sun slowly passed the baton of daylight along, we chased the streaks of orange as their canvas slowly turned to dark blue and then finally to black, with only the twinkling of the stars reminding us of the brightness that was once there and would come again.

As Newfoundland approached, I made sure to grab my aunt a gift from the Duty Free catalog (see, I'm a good nephew I am) while tucking into the cookies and ice-cream service. If that wasn't enough to stuff us, we then had to negotiate High Tea before landing. A mere mortal cannot say no to Phyllo wrapped King Prawns, Vegetable Tikka with Mint and Yoghurt Chutney and Fresh Hot Scones with Clotted Cream and Jam.

Finally after 7 hours and 22 minutes aloft, we touched down in Ottawa and slowly taxied to the international arrivals gates. It was already 725pm and I could see my 8pm connecting flight to Toronto parked just a few gates away. To compound the issue, our gate was blocked by some ground equipment so it was past 735pm by the time the doors opened.

The sleepy agent at passport control barely glanced at my passport before waving me through and I had to specifically ask him for a stamp so that I could add "MCIA/AIMC" to my collection of Canadian ports of entry. As I stepped into the brightly lit baggage claim area at 741pm, the stupidity of my decision to check the rollaboard at Heathrow hit me with a vengeance.

With one eye on my watch and the other on the carousel, I paced nervously. An Air Canada agent with a clipboard approached me and asked if I was Mr. Mendis and I answered in the affirmative. He apologized for the fact that I was going to misconnect and told me that another agent was waiting outside with a hotel voucher for me. Hey buddy, it aint over yet. I haven't misconnected till the door on that Airbus closes with me on the wrong side.

Thankfully, the Star Alliance Priority tag worked its magic here and my bag emerged onto the carousel at 746pm. The agent took a quick look at it and told me that if I was willing to carry it on, I had an outside chance of making the connection. Say no more. As I sprinted through Customs, he radioed up to the gate that I was on the way.

OJ would be proud of the way that I negotiated the airport obstacle course on my route up to departures. For those brief minutes the Gods granted me the swiftness of Mercury and the strength of Hercules as I sprinted up escalators and hurdled little children who strayed into my path. I arrived at the CATSA checkpoint at 751pm, panting and sweating but with the ultimate prize visible just meters beyond. Time seemed to pass in slow motion as my bags went through the X-Ray and I fervently prayed that I had managed to dump every last scrap of metal into the side pouch of my bag. I could almost picture myself diving for the door yelling "noooooooo" as the agent slowly closed it in my face with an evil laugh.

Thankfully it didn't come to that. I didn't set off the magnetometer, the CATSA folks didn't select my laptop for the random explosive swab and I was back in motion within minutes. As I stumbled to the door, the agent greeted me with "You must be Mr. Mendis. We've been waiting for you." What an anticlimax.

The short hop over to Toronto was notable only for the fact that the crew actually attempted to serve a hot meal on the 45 minute sector. The chicken wrap was vile and tasted like it had been reheated about fifteen times, which it probably had when you think about it. We touched down just shy of 9pm and I made it to my aunt's party just as dinner was being served 30 minutes later. All's well that ends well.

Epilogue :

In towns from Winnipeg to Wellington and London to Lagos, there are billions of people who can only dream about a lot of what I have written. To them, the sight of an Atlantic sunset from 35000 feet will forever remain a secondhand experience. While many of us road warriors take these things for granted, sometimes it pays to sit back and think about the guy barely visible as a speck thousands of feet below. I'd love to know his story. And for his sake, this was mine. Home       Trip Reports Index       Whine And Cheez Index       Discussion Forums

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