Baku Bound

The British Midland flight to Tbilisi does something rather odd. It flies right over Tbilisi, as if the pilot has forgotten to disengage the autopilot. It carries on for another hour or so across the Caucasus before landing in Baku.

After landing in Azerbaijan, the crew twiddle their thumbs for 40 minutes whilst refuelling and offloading passengers – overfed oil executives mostly. The aircraft then trundles back to the runway and flies half empty – back the way it’s come – to Tbilisi.  On the return trip, the A321 does the same thing in reverse – first flying away from London to Baku, before doubling back on itself to London. It doesn’t seem the most sensible route planning.

But then British Midland was never the most sensible airline. It had been haemorrhaging money for years.  Even its current German owners, Lufthansa, failed to stem the slide.

For years British Midland was my airline of choice. It always seemed rather random. That was part of its charm, with its eclectic collection of destinations, aircraft and business lounges. Often I would fly on tiny but full-to-bursting Embraer aircraft. Other times I’d be virtually the only passenger on a large Airbus. Then there were the times when I’d have the whole business lounge to myself.

So I flew a lot with British Midland. Whilst not quite an airmiles millionaire, over the years I had accumulated a hefty six-figure sum from rattling around Europe and the Levant.

As it looked increasingly like British Midland might go bust, I grew alarmed that I might lose all those miles, so I set about spending them as quickly as possible. Use them or lose them, I thought.

With perfect timing, my flights to Tbilisi virtually exhausted the remaining miles – right before the airline was taken over by British Airways.  I thought it fitting that this should be my last hurrah with the airline I’d spent so much time with. A flight as random as all the others had been.

It’s sad that soon the planes will be repainted and will become just another part of British Airways. To me the British Midland crew looked like they worked harder than those over at BA and the seats were always a little bigger. British Airways always seems more corporate and more efficiently run. And yet more ordinary.

Efficiency might be good for the bottom line. But it’s not as fun as flying to Tbilisi the long way round.

P.S. I Love You

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

“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

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.

The Beirut Marathon

I’d been so busy the week before Beirut that I’d quite forgotten to book anywhere to stay.  A couple of days before I was due to leave, I fired off a quick email to the marathon organising team to see if it was still possible to get a place in the official marathon hotel.   Quick as a flash, the reply comes to say they’d be able to sort something out, and they’d send someone to meet me at the airport.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, and was pretty much expecting to have to sort somewhere out when I arrived.

Customs and immigration were a  breeze. They’re more interested in searching your passport for an Israeli stamp than anything else. I get the impression one could walk through customs with a haul of AK47s just as long as your passport is clean

To my surprise there’s a friendly guy from the Marathon Association holding a card with my name on it.

He’s also waiting for a Zimbabwean guy coming off the same London flight who’s doing the handcycle marathon.  His kit looks pretty advanced. He says his personal best is something like 1h06. I’m no expert in the handcycle race, but that seems pretty fast (only later do I see him on the podium taking second place)

The flight arrived the wrong side of midnight. Yet it was still warm, but pouring with rain. Outside, with the chaotic traffic and honking of horns, the place had an almost tropical feel. The route into town takes us over flooded dual carriageways.  And there were more hills than I was expecting.  In the dark and driving rain, it feels a little like arriving into Hong Kong late at night.

Beirut by night initially strikes me as a mix of provincial Turkish city, with a bit of Bangkok, and a little Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. Despite the late hour, the city is still buzzing.

When I check in to the hotel, the desk clerk excitedly tells me he’s running too.  He looks like he’ll be fast.

The Le Commodore hotel has a faded old world charm about it. The staff are quite incompetent but the sympathetically restored bar and dated, but solid feeling rooms make this a change from flash-in-the-pan “design” hotels that are springing up everywhere.

The Commodore was the place where Western journalists hunkered down and made their home during the civil war. Now it hosts press conferences for the Beirut Marathon Association.  That seems a fitting tribute to how far Lebanon has come since the war.

Now that the Commodore is the official marathon hotel, it’s full with an eclectic mix of international athletes, and me.   A lot of wheelchair and handcycle racers are staying at the hotel. Their kit fills the lobby and corridors.  Then there are runners from Ethiopia, Kenya and Iraq, all wearing national colours.

If the Le Commodore is one of Beirut’s iconic hotels, the other is perhaps the Holiday Inn.  Finished shortly before the war, its prominent location and elevation quickly made it a perfect hideout for snipers. Consequently the hotel building attracted huge return firepower, blasting and pot marking the concrete. It remains derelict in its bullet-ridden state.  Even so it’s still significantly nicer than some Holiday Inns I’ve stayed in before.   Maybe those snipers had nothing to do with the civil war, I thought, perhaps they were just tourists driven to take up arms by the Holiday Inn’s lurid colour scheme and poor room service.

The remains of the Holiday Inn stand right next to the recently renovated InterContinetial Phoenicia, which was itself blown to bits in 2005 by the bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Harri.  Hotels in Beirut have had a tough time.  Most of the larger properties are now surrounded some of the most pointless security I’ve ever seen  (and folks, I’ve dealt with the jobsworth security guys at Manchester Airport).  Concrete blocks keep cars at bay until they’ve been “screened” for explosives.

As best I can tell, this involves a hapless security guard walking around the car with a metal aerial attached to a bit of plastic. If you’ve paid attention during airport screening you’ll know that a mass spectrometer, or trained sniffer dogs, are the only way of detecting explosives.  Yet these guards are using the equivalent of divining sticks and homeothopathy for protection.  It’s worse than useless.  It makes me pleased I’m staying somewhere a bit lower key.

The other big hotel news in Beirut is the opening of the new Four Seasons Hotel on the Corniche – it opens in January 2010. Without the concrete blocks it looks like a particularly vulnerable target.  If the troubles break out again, it’s certainly somewhere to avoid staying.

I spend the few days before the race exploring some of the more interesting parts of the city.  The ruins of downtown have been revived in a Dubai-esque shopping mall.  Around the Place d’Etoile the gorgeous stone buildings have been tastefully restored and look resplendent in the evening sun, but the shops are all bland luxury chain stores. Wherever I go I find the prevalence of H&M and Zara deeply depressing.  I’m drawn to the backstreets of Gemmayzeh, Ashrafieh and Hamra, poking around down small alleyways and side streets.  Two full days hoofing it around town are probably not the best way to prepare for a race, but my desire to explore trumps my desire for a decent time.

On Saturday evening there’s another torrential downpour that reminds me of the best the tropics can deliver. Thunder and lightening pound the hills surrounding the city.

I wake about 4:45 on Sunday and can hear the first call to prayer echoing from a nearby mosque.   Cosy in my bed, my prayer is that it’s not raining.

Runners start gathering in the hotel lobby about 5:15. A few rickety minibuses have been rounded up to take us to the start, a little way out of town.  I end up on a bus with the some of the elite Ethiopian athletes.  There’s no better way to make yourself feel slothful and frumpy than to share a small bus with top-flight marathon runners.

It’s a relatively small field – 545 registered for the full 42km.  There are more “men with guns” than I’ve seen at any other marathon start. I later find out that a good portion of the runners are UNIFIL – United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon – troops.

The marathon starts late.  We run through a real mix of areas. The route first takes us south though the outskirts of Dahieh, one of the pro-Hezbollah shia suburbs.

This is pretty noticeable because all the lampposts have rather dodgy looking photos of “martyred” soldiers on them. Like the rest of the city, soldiers stand on each street corner, but out here they look more humourless. In fact they just look wet and cold. The housing stock is pretty grim too.  It’s a real contrast to Ashrafieh. It doesn’t look like a fun place to live.

It’s cold, wet and everything gets covered in mud from all the building work.  Maybe it looks better in the sun but it’s not an area I’d particularly like to walk through alone.  Keep running, I think to myself, keep running.

Perhaps it’s just the contrast with the runners, but the solders who stand idly around didn’t look particularly athletic, and the tanks look considerably less able than the Hummers parked around the flash hotels in downtown. I briefly wonder about mounting my own coup. I could take these soldiers, me and a few runners….

The support crowds are thin, more morose soldiers than anyone else. There are a few kids about, hanging off balconies and whooping, and they give a good response when you wave back. And rather more Red Cross personnel than would seem strictly necessary for such a small field.

In a couple of places the scouts were out in force – or maybe they were just rookie soldiers – and a noticeable number of very welcome German supporters, complete with flags and balloons.

After about 15 minutes, the heavens open and it starts to rain, and rain, and rain.   The uneven road quickly fills with muddy puddles and my shoes become waterlogged.

After leaving some of the Shia areas, the route gets less interesting, particularly from about halfway when the course heads north out of the city. The route follows along the side of a busy six-lane road, though an oil refinery and several building sites.  And still it rains.  Some of the organisers ride quad bikes and keep buzzing past the runners. The quad bikes belch out a noxious choking mix of exhaust fumes.  By this stage the runners are moderately spread out, but I find two French guys going about my pace, and manage to use them as a bit of shelter from the wind and rain.

On the return into town around 36km, we cross into the central reservation of a busy road, much to the annoyance of a long line of traffic that’s built up.  I pass a couple of wheelchair racers who seem to be having difficulty with the uneven surface.   To say it’s unpleasant running with lanes of cars on either side of you would be an understatement.  These cars are not sleek catalytic-converter-fitted machines, they’re old, smog-belching wrecks.  I could taste the smoke at the back of my throat.  This is quite different from my last race through the pure Alpine air, I remember thinking.

My ability to do any maths in my head always start fade as I get tired towards the end of a long run. At one point though I start to think I’m on for a personal best, until I realise that my watch is actually on dual time and showing the time in Brussels rather than Beirut.  It requires counting on my fingers to work out my timing. I’m not going to get personal best, or a degree in mental arithmetic.

I didn’t exactly hit the wall but did fade a bit over the last few kilometres. About 500 metres from the finish I was passed by a woman putting on a particularly strong finish, whom I later discover is the British Ambassador the Lebanon. And I though Her Majesty’s Ambassadors were all elderly, overweight men.  How the Foreign Office is changing!

I receive my medal, have my chip removed, and take shelter under one of those foil blankets.

It takes me a few minutes to realise that I’ve no idea of my finishing time.  With the help of my fingers again, I work out that it’s something like 3 hours 37 minutes – a good 11 minutes slower than my best time.

I tracked down my kit bag, which much to my surprise hadn’t gone missing, and once I’d changed into some warm clothes, I  felt much better.

I walk back slowly through town to the Commodore, watching the 10km race as I go.  The 10km is more of a carnival than a run but it does have impressive participation.  The full marathon, and the associated 10km and 5km fun runs, takeover and involve the whole town.  With somewhere over 30,000 participants for all the races, it’s an event that brings together the city.

With participants from all of Beirut’s mixed backgrounds, and runners from countries in a far worse state then Lebanon, this is one run that really unites a once divided city.