Sunday, 7 September 2008

The Game's Afoot!

Here we go again! It’s one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and I’m at Birmingham Airport. I haven’t flown from Birmingham since my almost-disastrous departure to the Ukraine a few years ago (I’ll tell you about it, one day). The amount of new building at the airport is amazing, but it remains a very cramped site. Sunday lunchtime seems a very popular time to travel and the Check-in Hall is seriously crowded. Fortunately, things are a little quieter in the ‘Emirates’ zone and there are a couple of desks for business passengers, so I’m checked in within a few minutes.

But next, a brief railway interlude (bet that surprises you). The ill-fated ‘Maglev’ train which formerly linked Terminal 1 with the Network Rail Station at Birmingham International has been rebuilt as a cable-hauled ‘Air-Train’. I take the opportunity to make a round trip on the driverless 2-car trains. I’m intrigued that what’s basically very old technology (similar to the San Francisco Cable Cars) can still offer a practical solution.

Back at Terminal 1, Departures Level, there is an amazing queue of passengers snaking back and forth, blocking access to the shops and generally creating the sort of mayhem that I associate with Heathrow. Fortunately, my boarding card is stamped for ‘Priority Access’ so, once I can find the entrance to the lane, things move rather faster for me and I’m soon looking for the ‘Servisair’ lounge which deals with Emirates Business Passengers. It’s a fairly small lounge and quite crowded, but it represents a relative haven of tranquility compared with the scrum outside. Modern air travel has become so stressful that one of the main advantages of a business ticket is the partial reduction in the hassle involved in passing through airports.

I’ve never flown with Emirates before, but they get some good ratings. When my agents were looking for a decent fare to the Far East for this trip, Emirates had a reasonable offer, so I agreed to try them. The first flight takes me to Dubai, then a second flight should take me on to Bangkok. If you’ve read my posts on my last major trip (‘RTW5’) you’ll know that I was very taken with Myanmar and the river cruise on the ‘Road to Mandalay’. In fact, I’d booked to take a different cruise on the same ship in September (that is, now), and the Emirates flights were intended to get me to Bangkok in connection with the cruise. But then Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, causing chaos that was only partly reported by the Western Media. The ‘Road to Mandalay’ was in dry dock at Yangon at the time and was seriously damaged, resulting in the whole of the 2008 cruise programme being cancelled. The down side of special air fares is that there may be restrictions on altering or cancelling flights. I had the choice of forfeiting the fare I’d paid or building another trip around the Emirates flights already booked.

In connection with my agents, Wexas, we designed a different trip and that’s what I’m about to start. Wexas, based in London, bill themselves as a ‘Travel Club’. They cater for ‘serious travellers’ and all their consultants are personally committed to travel. Once I come up with some idea of what I’d like to do, they will do the research to put some flesh on it and advise what’s possible. There’s then a period of refinement where they make suggestions and I make counter suggestions until we end up with a plan which is both appealing and possible. Working with the same consultants over a number of years means that I don’t have to explain my preferences and usually any suggestions they make will be attractive. It’s a relationship that’s produced some fairly amazing trips.

Greetings from Dubai, where I'm transiting on my way to Bangkok. I left Birmingham on Sunday afternoon about 3.0 p.m. (about 45 minutes late on schedule) on an Emirates 777-300-ER, and arrived Dubai about 1.0 a.m. local time. I'll add more details as possible. Dubai airport proved a mixed experience. On landing, we taxied for about ten minutes before finding our stand way out on the apron. Four modern buses were waiting to transfer passengers. Business class was offloaded first through the front stairs and we had a rather uncomfortable stop-and-start progress past the Cargo Centre, the In-flight Catering Centre, finally arriving at the terminal after a good 15 minutes in the bus. The terminal doors admit us to a noisy mass of people off various flights all trying to get through the security procedures before being let loose in the terminal. I'd been given printed transit instructions at Birmingham which proved useless because they've re-numbered all the gates. Apparently, this intelligence has not yet filtered through to Birmingham. After wandering round aimlessly for a while, I went to a KLM Lounge, where a charming girl phoned to check my gate number and then gave me directions to the Emirates Business Lounge nearest that gate. I've always had a soft spot for KLM. The Emirates lounge was busy but well-appointed. I couldn't get my computer to connect to any of the Wi-Fi but found a bank of (rather slow) internet computers which allowed me to get the first version of this post onto Blogger.

I got to the departure gate in good time but, the process of getting another bus back to the new flight meant that it was about an hour before we started to taxi to the runway. Around six hours flying would take us to Bangkok's huge relatively-new Suvarnabhumi airport. The seating layout in business is 2-3-2, which I'm not keen on. Birmingham to Dubai, I was stuck in the middle one of three but Dubai to Bangkok I had 2A window seat. Mind you, they pulled the shades for most of the flight to Bangkok and kept the cabin lighting dim to encourage people to sleep. Service and food was fairly good but the most impressive feature was probably the On-Demand entertainment system boasting over 600 channels of films, television, music and audio. On the two legs I watched three films - the latest Indiana Jones (I wasn't very impressed), 'The Bank Job' which did impress and the recent 'St. Trinians' (some OK moments but totally lacking the charm of the originals).