Posts Tagged ‘flying’

on a return to flying

Later this week I will be flying for the first time since October 2019. I’m not counting my simulator time flying a B737-800, or, more accurately, failing to land said airliner, other than my one and only attempt at Kai Tak from a chequerboard approach (enthusiasts will understand).

Anyway, I’m off on a big silver bird again for the first time in ages and, for reasons that I do not comprehend, am more than a bit anxious. Why? I’ve flown more than 300 times, including crossing the Atlantic on almost 100 occasions and flying into places like Columbia and Libya, so a short run up the M4 to LHR, as we call it in the trade (or, correctly, EGLL) to board my ‘plane should not bother me unduly.

But, somehow, it does. I’m not afraid of flying, nor crashing actually, so to be feeling any sort of anxiety is strange. We are all set to go, apart from some form that we have to fill out on-line no earlier than 72 hours before we fly, we have tickets and seats booked and parking at the airport is sorted. All we have to do is drive up, park and walk across the road to check-in. Piece of cake.

Since the Berkshire Belle and I got together nearly thirty four years ago, whenever we have flown together, I have always had a bit of a twitch until the wheels leave the ground. Nothing much, but, for me, that is the moment that signals that I am on my way. My lady is precious cargo, and I like to take care of her, so getting her safely into the air and on our way means a lot to me.

I love flying as a passenger, and I have also flown a number of single engined aircraft. I fell in love with aircraft as a small boy and, for a time as I came up to leaving school, was hoping to train as a commercial pilot. I had a potential sponsor, but not parental approval, and so that dream died. I was in my mid-thirties before I got to fly (if you don’t count the time I got knocked off my motorbike and flew 30 feet over a hedge into a cabbage field). That first flight, on business from Heathrow to Aberdeen, was to open the floodgates, and, at one point I was flying so often to Scotland and Northern Ireland that I was on first name terms with some of the cabin crews.

Then we discovered America, and no, we weren’t the first, but we loved it from the start, switching seamlessly from Francophiles to Yankophiles. Thus began our transatlantic voyages, sometimes going three times a year, but normally at least twice a year. I was still flitting around the UK on business flights, then took up lessons flying various single engined aircraft. Later still, I began flying long haul on business after going freelance and took in Europe, the Americas, North and South, Africa and Asia.

At six foot three I have had a few bad flights sat down the back in steerage, but generally I have loved flying and airports, especially since I started to turn left on entering the aircraft. All of this makes it more baffling as to why I have the yips about this trip.

I think that the last three years have had such an impact on our lives. Something that, for me, was little more than like catching a ‘bus, is now a bit alien. Things are changing and there is some uncertainty as to what will happen when we get to the airport here, and then again over the other side. At our destination there will, apparently, be another change whilst we are there so that the protocols at the airport on the way back will be different to our arrival.

Despite the twitch I am looking forward to flying again, although it is a shame that the glamour has gone out of flying. We do our best, but, even down the front, we find ourselves amongst a bunch of scruffy oiks who we would not want to invite into our home. We do make an effort to look presentable, and I certainly feel more comfortable that way: We like a bit of style, and, perhaps, we would have been happier flying in the 50s, but then it would have taken twice as long. Anyway, you can’t go back and we will have to put up with what we get in 2023.

So, onwards and upwards. Hopefully I will relax as we start the take-off roll.


holiday humour – two more of those days

Talking about my abortive trip to Belfast last week reminded me of another couple of airport incidents, both on overseas trips, where, looking back now, I can see the funny side, even if it was a bit fraught at the time.

The first was on my first overseas assignment after I went freelance. The job was originally scheduled for Venezuela, but the general situation there led the client to change the venue to Bogota, Columbia. A team of people from their various South American locations would be flown in for me to work with, I was given a choice of two, client approved, hotels to stay in and left to make my own flight arrangements.

I confirmed with the client, an American Oil company, the hotel that I had booked into and gave them my flight details. I was coming in via Miami and would be landing about 8.30 in the evening. The client was concerned about the kidnap risk, and so I had been told that I would have an armed escort for the short trip between the hotel and office, and there would be a driver waiting for me as I came out of arrivals at Bogota.

The sun set shortly after we took off from Miami and it was very dark at Bogota. I got through the formalities with no problems, collected my case and headed out into the arrivals hall to find no sign of the client’s logo amongst the waiting drivers. I waited in the general vicinity, but everyone slowly drifted away as the last of the passengers emerged.

I found a seat and got the instructions out of my bag, found the contact number and rang it, only to be confronted with a message in Spanish, which I don’t speak, from the ‘phone service provider. There was no sign of anyone in the arrivals hall by this time and so I decided that I would look outside to see if there was a taxi rank: I could show the hotel details and ask “For favor” and felt sure that an airport taxi driver would accept US dollars for the fare.

On leaving the building I was approached by a man in a suit who asked if I was Mr Bowen. I said that I was at which point he produced from under his jacket, not a gun, but a laminated copy of the logo that I had been looking for. He was my driver. When I mentioned this to one of the US team later he explained that it probably was not safe to have displayed the logo inside the terminal…

A few months later (obviously I had got home safely), I found myself boarding another aircraft, this time for the shorter trip from Heathrow to Tripoli, another place where the security risk assessment was a crucial, pre-trip, document.

This time my arrival would be in the early afternoon, and, yes, I was a little nervous. My contract forbad me to leave my hotel, other that to go to work in the transport provided, and that I was not allowed to leave the business premises other than to be escorted back to my hotel, along with the rest of the team. For security purposes, that hotel was changed at the last moment too.

Although I was travelling alone I was part of a team, and the others were flying in one day earlier and by a different route. I had been told that there would be someone on the arrivals line who would hold up a card with my surname on, no logos or other identifiers, just Bowen. I walked out of the door and looked at each of the cards being held up, but none with my name on. Bugger, I thought.

The arrivals area was small and busy, but I found a pillar to lean against where I could wedge my case between my legs. Fighting off a stream of offers of drivers (and possibly their sisters, I’m not sure) I got out my ‘phone and the emergency contact number. Having dialled it, and just as it was being answered, a young British guy who I had seen on my flight came over and asked if I was Mr Bowen. I owned up and it turned out the he too was working for the same client, albeit on a different project. Our driver had been holding up a piece of paper with my name on, but in pencil, and I had not seen it. Safely gathered up I was taken into the city.

I got back from that one safely too, but the planned return has never come as the political situation there deteriorated. A shame, as I would have been very happy to have gone back. I’ve not been back to Columbia either, and would have snapped up a return there without hesitation. Both countries left me with a deep affection for their people and I feel privileged to have worked in both, even if I did not get to see too much of either. I have seen the Andes and the Sahara though, met some very nice people and eaten local cuisine. I’m a lucky man.

further musings on the need to change with the times

The grey mist swirled as I strode out beyond the line of buildings. No challenge rang out, and nor did any sentry’s rifle fire. I stopped and looked around, and with every right to be where I was, for it was around 20 years ago that this piece of England ceased to be off limits to the likes of civilians like me. Read more…

Work out what went wrong, not who to blame

The other week I saw a post on the web from my pal #theFMGuru Martin Pickard to say that he was writing about accident investigation in #facilitiesmanagement, and how it was not about blame, but about learning.

That is so very true and something that I’ve been passionate about myself for many years. One of my early jobs was in a major insurance business in the city and I used to have to collate papers from accident investigators into the files, and sometimes to retrieve cases from the microfiche (remember that?) archives.

Working out why something has gone wrong and trying to put it right isn’t just confined to accidents though, but the dispassionate techniques are a useful tool for working out why projects and plans haven’t worked.

As Martin puts it, this is not about blame, but people are naturally cautious above telling you what has happened because they don’t want to be seen as being at fault, so a key facet of leadership here is engendering trust so that people will be open. The more open we are the more we can learn, the more we can change the way that we work, and that in turn means that we practice, either by doing the job, or through exercising drills.

A while back I ran an estate of around 30 properties, mostly corporate HQ sites. We had a crisis management routine that we interfaced with the crisis and disaster recovery plans of our tenants. I visited the top bod of a new client one day to talk about this issue and they referred me to one of their team who handled that aspect of their business.

Our crisis management pack fitted into a personal organiser that was about A5 sized, the client’s equivalent was in a pair of 3 inch A4 binders. How on earth can you usefully use something like that? Theirs tried to cover every possible scenario and provide a way to deal with it, but there was so much of it that you couldn’t usefully use it in an emergency. Our stuff was all laminated so that you could use it outside in all weathers (if you’ve had to evacuate the building you’re going to be outside aren’t you?). And how do you practice all of those scenario’s?

In facilities management we do face life threatening situations, but rarely anything like, for example, a flight deck crew. The recent Quantas Airbus incident was yet another example of a crew who dealt professionally with an incident that they practice for on the simulator, and all credit to them for putting it into practice, but they are often in the position of having only seconds to get it right.

This shows where accident investigation can make a difference for the future. At Chicago in 1979 the pilots thought that they were dealing with an engine failure on takeoff and reacted accordingly. In fact they were dealing with a freak occurrence and, in doing things by the book, they lost control and everyone on board died.  But think about this; the flight only lasted 31 seconds, far less time than it took me to write this paragraph. In half that time they had reacted to the bells and lights and done what they were trained to do.

We all learn by getting it wrong, but most of us are lucky enough to learn in environments of fairly low risk. It shouldn’t stop us from having the drains up and trying to improve. It isn’t about blame; it’s about learning and doing it better next time it happens.

Welcome to the UK (well Heathrow T3 and Sainsbury’s)

October 18, 2010 1 comment

Over the last 24 hours I have passed through three airports, in order, Tampa International (main concourse and hub F), Miami International (concourse D) and London Heathrow (Terminal 3). The difference in attitude between the first two and the latter in terms of their people and, to a degree, the facilities is significant.

Tampa is one of my favourite airports. It wasn’t the first American airport I passed through, that was Atlanta during its rebuilding in advance of the ’96 Olympics. I saw little of it, just enough to start running through Airplane gags with my daughter as we waited for our connection to Tampa. We aquaplaned into Tampa as it was getting dark, and I decided that I was too tired to face an hour’s drive in a strange car on strange roads. Despite the late hour the information lady at the airport was very helpful in getting us a hotel for the night, and that impressed me.

Over the 18 or so years since I’ve flown in and out of Tampa a lot and have grown to love it. It isn’t too big, but it is well provided for and the people there are great. You get free Wi-Fi  and there are all sorts of little touches with the decor and services that make it a pleasure to travel through it.

Miami’s Terminal D is almost complete and is a pleasure to transit through. As an airport Miami is a very busy place and, like Heathrow, very multi cultural. It has a vibrant buzz about it but, despite some of the passengers being ignorant, the people running the place aren’t. It is a joy to have the courtesy bus driver get off and help you on and off with your bags, to have porters there to get you to the check in desk (OK, it’s a buck a bag, but so what?). Everything is geared around service, from the concession coffee bar to the executive lounge.

So, after eight and a half hours or so on a triple seven it’s welcome to Heathrow, and what a welcome. They’re remodelling, so fair enough, but the first issue comes with the exit from immigration. You now emerge into baggage re-claim by carrousel one instead of down the other end. So where are all the baggage carts? Down the other end. Enquiring of one of the group of workers earns a shrug before they resume their conversation and sterling efforts to stop the wall falling over (at least I think that must have been why they were leaning on it).

My female colleague wants to use the ladies restroom. She emerges nearly 10 minutes later looking somewhat ashen – I don’t ask. We collect our bags and emerge out into the open to catch the bus out to the long stay car park. The area is festooned with No Smoking signs, but they are hard to see through the clouds of tobacco smoke – why is this not being policed? There is a smoking area for them to use, but no, they have to share with the rest of us. Waiting for the bus is no pleasure in that environment. Fortunately the nice people at Business Parking save the day to some degree, as always cheerful and efficient.

On the way home I stop off at Sainsbury’s to pick up a rotisserie chicken. There’s no sign of an assistant so I ask the lady at the adjacent meat counter if she can help. “I don’t do that section” she says and resumes tidying her display, ignoring my needs. Oh well; welcome home John.

Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?

September 20, 2010 3 comments

In a few days time I will walk down another jetway, shuffle along the queue to face an immigration official and face that perennial question; “Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?” Now I learned years ago that you don’t get smart with immigration, but the answer for me is almost always “Both”.

I’ve been very lucky over the years in that my various jobs have taken me all over the UK, to nine other European countries and to the USA. I’ve met so many people and seen so many sights that it truly has been a privilege.

I don’t enjoy the travelling as much as I used to. Driving has lost much of its lustre with Labour’s hatred of the motorist showing through in so many ways over their umpteen years in power together with the complete lack of any driving standards. Osama bin Liner and his crew screwed up flying and airports and as for the trains; the method of privatisation ruined them. If I have a choice I’ll drive because at least I can chose my own route, but my next big trip has to be by air because of the distances involved, not to mention the impracticality of crossing the Atlantic in a car.

This time I am fortunate enough to be flying business across the pond and first on the internal flights so I will, at least, be somewhat pampered en route, but it is the destinations rather than the journey that interest me.

I like places, but it is always the people that make the places more often than not. Yes, architecture and scenery have their own power and I am comfortable enough with my own company and a view on occasions, but it is the people who inhabit the buildings and spaces that generally provide interest. How many conversations have I had with strangers over the last forty years or so? I have no idea, but, whether they were the business contacts I had travelled to meet or just someone I ran into, I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by them, their lives and the conversations we have shared.

There is so much pleasure to be had from finding out about people and the way that they live. I may not always agree with their views on life, business, politics or whatever, but so what? I’ve always been in the school of tolerance of other people’s right to express themselves (which is why I stand firm against political correctness). In any case, how can you ever hope to understand if you don’t expose yourself to alternative points of view? Of course I have had my fair share of bores and bigots, but you learn to deal with them. The joy is in sharing and coming away from each encounter richer in your knowledge of the way life is lived in those parts.

So who will I meet on this trip? I’m going to run into someone in the departure lounge, be sat next to someone on the ‘plane and then there are the various airports and hotels on the trip. American hospitality is second to none and I reckon I’ll have talked to at least 300 people that I’ve never met before by the time I get home.

Those that travel on business often complain that it isn’t the jolly that those who don’t travel on business view it as. I would argue that it is what you make it. Yes it can be a chore if you let it be, but you don’t have to. Business or pleasure? Always both.

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