The Do Over

IronmanBy their nature all sports are physical. Few sports though are quite so physical as the Ironman. Sustaining the body’s power output over a 3.8km swim, 180km bike race and 42.2km marathon is nothing if not brutally physical.

But the Ironman is also a sport that, if not exactly cerebral, is at least equally mentally demanding.

The decisions you make before the race play a large part in your performance. What heart rate can you realistically maintain on the run? How many calories should you consume on the bike? And what will your rate of fluid loss be? How much do you need to drink? What gear ratio should you use on the bike? Are you a climber or better on the flat? Should you attack on the hills or conserve energy? Do you go with faster tyres or heavier more puncture resistant ones?

And then there’s the mental process of dealing with the pain. Of compartmentalising it and working through it.

These decisions and mental processes can make the difference between a personal best and that awful abbreviation – DNF. Did. Not. Finish.

***

Everyone goes into a race with their own plan – whether they plan to win or just to finish.  Failing to plan is planning to fail – so that awful cliched slogan goes.

Perhaps you plan to go out fast and hard, then try and hold on later in the race when it gets tough – or you start out gingerly to conserve energy and finish strong?

But how long will your plan survive? It’s said that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy.   And the Ironman is a battle. The history of the Ironman is littered with broken plans and discarded hopes.

Often in the heated adrenaline-fueled start, you go too fast; burn too much energy; and you pay for it later. Then somewhere after the swim and the bike, things start to go wrong.

Your pace starts to slip, or you’re gripped by nausea, or cramp, or a pain that emanates from nowhere and everywhere – and you’re forced to watch that target time slip out of reach. And your plan goes belly up.

Or you curse that you started too slow and can never make up the lost time and distance you’d planned on banking early in the race.

***

For my first Ironman my plan was simply to finish the swim. If pushed – really pushed – I might have coyly admitted to wanting to finish in under 13-hours. And perhaps pride would dictate a sub-four-hour marathon.

The joy I experienced after dragging myself out of the water during that first Ironman, relatively unscathed,  an hour and 17 minutes after starting, almost made me forget I had a cycle race and marathon to complete.

Six-and-a-half hours later, I’d finished on the bike and set out on the marathon. Starting out I held a decent pace.

But each lap of the course saw my pace gradually slip and that target time went with it.

My first Ironman time stood at 12 hours 12 minutes. As I slumped over the line I was both delighted with my performance and relieved that it was all over. But I also knew that it wasn’t all over. It was only just beginning.

***

As the aches and pains wore off in the intervening weeks, a thought began to crystalise: I could do better. 11 hours 59 minutes would be possible. I deserved an 11-hour-something Ironman. I would have to go back and do it again.

So I entered the same race again the following year. I fitted Aerobars on the bike. I did more sprint training. I trained at altitude. Improved my swim.

One year later I went back to Nice with one plan, one goal – 11 hours 59 minutes – or bust.

And then, in the race, something quite unexpected happened. The swim went well. Then I slashed 30 minutes off my previous year’s bike time.

As I set out on the run, I worried that the extra speed on the bike would take its toll on my legs. But somehow I was running comfortably. It began to dawn on me that I wouldn’t just comfortably beat my target time – I would obliterate it. My plan had gone haywire. So I had to mentally scrabble around and change my plan on the fly.

The heat in Nice that day was stifling. The nausea set in during the second half of the marathon. I was sick. Twice. But still the marathon pace kept strong. I endured – there is no other word for it – a 3 hour 54 marathon, going on to finish my second ironman in 11 hours 34 minutes.

As I finished I was genuinely shocked and surprised at my time.  I had taken over 40 minutes off my previous time. I revelled in the finish. I knew that such a stark improvement would never happen again. I had more than achieved my plan. I thought that would be my last Ironman.

***

I sat the next year out. Ironman training is, after all, quite disruptive to a normal social life.   Perhaps I thought my time was a fluke. I didn’t want to go through all that training again only to get a worse time. And I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly beat it.

But gradually I became less and less satisfied with my new time. I met more and more people with faster times. I began to want a time that was nearer 11 hours than 12. That would be more respectable..

During that year out I realised there were faster and flatter bike courses. Why was I punishing myself in the mountains above Nice?  There were also were swim courses that were in pancake-flat lakes rather than choppy-jellyfish-infested seas. If I didn’t fancy my chances at going quicker in Nice I’d have to go elsewhere.

The fastest Ironman course in Europe is reckoned to be Klagenfurt in eastern Austria. But it sells out almost immediately after entries open – a whole year in advance of the race. This would take some planning.

And so at midnight on 1st July 2013 I waited in front of my computer for online registration to open. So did some 3,000 other athletes.  Just a few hours later the race was full. And I was in.

So over the intervening year plans were made. And revised. And made again

Which brings me to now in Klagenfurt –  some four years after I first dreamed of doing my first Ironman.  I’ve got a plan finish in 11 hours 29 minutes. A plan that has been honed and refined over years. All that stands between me and it is some 140.8 miles of racing.

Once the starting gun goes off, how long with that plan survive?  That’s the real test of the Ironman – how you change your plans on the fly. For better. Or worse.

P.S. Again

PS Again 009

Palm Springs, you may have noticed, has started to make a regular appearance on these pages, with something approaching an annual visit.

Whether it’s the guaranteed winter sun in the gloomy depths of December or proper desert heat in the scorching summer months – Palm Springs always offers a welcome change of climate.

PS is known as a Mecca of mid-Century modern design, tucked away in the desert. And from the desert floor it offers awesome trail climbing up to 8,000ft-plus peaks in the San Jacinto Mountains.  For me this affords perfect mornings full of training runs and lazy afternoons by a pool.

The town itself feels effortless. Big wide roads. Easy parking. Surprisingly good food for provincial America.

A perfect candidate then, you might think for a direct flight from London.  This, I fear, would be a mistake.

Palm Springs deserves to be approached properly. That requires a flight into LAX – followed by a roof-down, wind-in-your hair dash along Interstate 10 in a Mustang Cabriolet. It’s a sure fire way to reset your jet lag.  And incidentally am I the only one who finds that despite the extra time zones,  the longer West Coast flights to and from Europe are much easier on the system than the punishingly shortly red-eyes back from New York, Boston and Philly?

Everyone has their favorite hotel in their favorite town. Perhaps it’s a quiet, undiscovered place you’d rather not tell anyone about for fear of it being discovered.

For me, dear reader, it’s the Parker in Palm Springs. Confidently and yet understatedly cool, it used to feel both undiscovered and underpriced. It’s the only hotel I know with a tongue-in-cheek manifesto.

I can tell you this now because it is alas, no longer under- anything.

When I went to book the Parker this Easter it had become both over-priced and over-discovered. It was fully booked.

So we moved down the road to the Ace Hotel.  And it was… well, you get the picture.

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Race Across the Sky

Leadville

Pacing. Muleing. Crewing.  These three simple words are the difference between European and American ultra racing.

In Europe, mountain ultra marathons are a solitary affair. You carry what you need. You run alone. You get lost. You struggle.

In America, ultra racing is akin to a team sport. Whole teams of friends and family come out to support their runner; supplying them with food and encouragement at aid stations; taking it in turns to run with, and pace them between aid stations; helping them find the route; keeping them awake; even carrying their backpacks.

They seem almost different sports. But they have one thing in common.  With all the help, or without it – you still have to run 100 miles across the mountains.  And that’s no mean feat.

***

My adventure in ultra racing began some five years ago in the little French Alpine town of Chamonix. It’s a relatively young sport in Europe and I got in at a good time, when it was still easy to get into the big races.

I’d had some five years of racing around Mt Blanc.  There weren’t that many people wanting to run 100 mile races.

So the Ultra Trail du Mt Blanc – the  brutal 100 mile race around Mt Blanc – became my race. Year in, year out I entered the race.  But each year it was never the same. I had terrible luck with the weather. Some years it snowed, others it rained relentlessly.  Over the years the races were cancelled or curtailed; rerouted or restarted.

It was with some pride that I finished every race I started, including that epic year where the race was lengthen mid-race and the runners informed by text message.

None of the races were simple. And none were the distance that was advertised.  I grew tired of all the changes. I thought it was time to spread my wings and stretch my legs.  I decided to call it a day with the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Finishing the UTMB last year, I vowed that my next 100 mile race, would be in America. But I would do it the European way – without crew or pacers.

***

I won’t pretend that Leadville was my first choice. I’d applied, unsuccessfully, for a place in both the Hardrock 100 and the Western States Endurance Run.

But Leadville doesn’t have a lottery for places. You just have to get up early to register. First come, first served.

So one quiet morning last January, in Melbourne, I sat in front of my computer waiting for registration to open. I paid my money and got my place. It was also rather simple given the lotteries, ballots and uncertainly that plague other races.

A few minutes later the confirmation email came through and my journey Colorado and the High Rockies was just beginning.

***

Leadville is famed for being the highest town in the United States. It sits a breathless 10,200 feet above sea level.  The town grew rich on the spoils from its silver mine. It was once the second biggest city in Colorado. But like so many mining towns, in the 1980s the mine closed, leaving thousands out of work and the town falling on hard times. Leadville would probably have become a ghost town were it not for the start of a bizarre race.

The Leadville Trail 100 race began because the mine closed.  An out of work miner called Ken Clouber dreamed up the race as a sort of homage to the back breaking work of the miners.

In 1983 when the race was first run, they weren’t sure anyone would be able to finish it. This was long before the huge popularity of marathons and triathlons.  Running 100 miles non-stop was a big deal then.  There were 45 brave souls who started that race, and just 10 who finished.  They couldn’t possibly have known what they had started.

Thirty one years later, the race has spawned a number of spinoff races, including a mountain bike race that has outgrown the run. But the run now attracts nearly 1000 starters and amazingly almost half go on to finish.

***

So my journey to Leadville started in Melbourne in January ended, eight months later here in Leadville.  Where a tougher journey began all over again. Here’s the video:

SPEEDBIRD ONE

Speedbird 1

What do you regret?  What did you do that you wish you hadn’t?  Or didn’t do that you wish you had? Are you a cautious person who sits things out then wishes they’d been braver? Or the gun ho type who acts rashly and regrets at leisure?

On balance I’m not one for regrets. I like to say yes and hate being timid. Better to try – then fail, than not to try at all.

But there’s one big regret I have.  For once in my life, what others would call ‘common sense’ prevailed over desire. Timidity triumphed over throwing caution to the wind.  I fear it wasn’t common sense at all but an uncharacteristic conservatism.

In 2000 an Air France Concorde crashed whilst taking off from Paris.  With that one crash, civil aviation was never quite the same again. The crash mark the turning point when civil aviation became less civil.  It was the time when those ghastly Ryanair planes were becoming ubiquitous and flying becoming less glamorous.

Those graceful Concordes were quickly fixed and deemed skyworthy again, but a series of faults and unhelpful diversions to places like Bangor and Cardiff meant that the premium service was getting difficult to maintain as the jets started to show their age.

The ‘war on metal cutlery’ that began after the 9/11 attacks the following year didn’t help maintain a premium service.  I can’t help but think Concorde was doomed after they were forced to service their meals – caviar and foie grass – with plastic cutlery.

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it wasn’t long after plastic cutlery was introduced that it was announced that the whole Concord fleet – both Air France and British Airways’ aircraft – were to be retired and would no longer be plying the supersonic route across the Atlantic.

The end of supersonic aviation was suddenly in sight. We were no longer moving forward into a bold technological future. We were rapidly moving backwards. Getting slower. Never before had technology taken a leap backwards.

***

I was but a poor university student at the time of Concorde’s demise.  My student loan cheque had just come through and I through –  ‘it’s now or never’.

I priced up the cost of supersonic ticket on flight BA001 to New York, and the cheapest economy ticket back.  I phoned my bank and asked how much I could extend my credit card limit.  I contemplated a semester or two of penury at university.

And then… and then I wimped out.  I made the mistake I would forever regret.  I decided it was too much money.

A few months later a British Airways Concorde – with the flight number BA001 and that famous callsign ‘Speedbird One’ – made the last trip to New York and back again as BA002.

The jet touched the edge of space for the last time, allowing its passengers a final glimpse of the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space before bringing a sad end to the supersonic jet age.  And I never made it.

***

For years aviation lacked the excitement that Concorde used to bring.  Even new planes didn’t help. No one gets excited at the prospect of flying on a whale-like A380 or fire-prone Boeing 787.

Of course I continued flying. But it was all rather routine.

Then, quietly, British Airways did something rather innovative.  British Airways revived that famous call sign and flight number for another rather special flight.

***

Like Concorde, the new BA001 also whisks passengers across the Atlantic to New York. While Concorde packed 100 passengers into the plane, the new BA001 feels a little more exclusive. With a maximum of just 32 people on board, the new flights makes Concorde seem positively mass transport.

Six years after the final Concorde flight, British Airways procured two stubby little airbus A318 elite jets.  Both were retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and just 32 flat bed seats.  The planes were adapted to allow them to fly into London City Airport. Thus was born the Club World London City service.

***

And so some ten years after the last Concorde touched down, I finally booked myself on flights BA001 to New York and back on BA002.  This time there was no indecision and no regrets. There are rumours the flight is not making money and might not last.

By far the best thing about flying out of City Airport, is that you can arrive just 20 minutes before the flight – 15 minutes if you’re travelling without luggage.

I’d broken my first rule of travelling – that only losers check in luggage – and arrived some 35 minutes before take off.  I breezed through the security. City airport has no proper business lounge but BA have turned the tiny area around gate 24 into a makeshift lounge with a light breakfast on offer and a coffee machine.

There you’re welcomed by a ground crew who explain the details of the flight. They too seem genuinely excited by the flight, as do my fellow passengers.  There were just 16 of us on the flight so boarding – just walking 30 or so metres across the tarmac – was rather relaxed.

Concorde used to engage the afterburners during takeoff which led to a powerful surge down the runway. The A318 does’t have the afterburners but it still leaves City like a rocket.  The plane has the range to fly non-stop to New York, but the short runway at City Airport means the plane can’t take off fully fuelled.  So when flying west-bound you make the short hop to Shannon where the plane takes on extra fuel. This means the plane is exceptionally light leaving City. You take to the sky like catapult.  (Flying back from New York is non-stop.)

Landing at Shannon an hour or so later has an upside.  As the plane refuels the passengers disembark and pass through US customs and immigration – or doing the ‘Shannon Shuffle’ as it’s affectionally called by regulars on the route. All this mean you arrive in New York as a domestic passenger and avoid all the queues.

Shannon is an altogether different experience to border control in the US mainland. You’re escorted off the plane straight to customs. With virtually no queues and border staff who actually smile, all make this a pleasant way to enter the country.

Back on the plane half an hour later we lumber back to the runway, somewhat heavier on fuel.

Inside the plane, the cabin, while technically like any short haul airbus, feels more like the upper deck of a 747 but with much more space. There are just eight rows of seats.

After takeoff the champagne begins flowing again. Ipads are handed out, stocked with movies. Lunch is served – complete with metal cutlery.  The crew – who are all based out of Gatwick – seem genuinely happy to be on this unique flight.  Most of the BA crew out of Heathrow seem jaded by an airline that’s lost it’s mojo. But on BA001 you get the impression that civil aviation can still be civil and anything but routine.

BA’s normal Club World seats apparently don’t fit easily into the A318, so they had to come up with a new design, which I actually found exceptionally comfortable.

After lunch I commandeered a few spare pillows, reclined the seat into bed mode and settled down for a nap.

Concorde may have been quick but it wasn’t half a comfy for a nap.

I didn’t get to see the curvature of the earth or the darkness of space. I didn’t get to go supersonic. But I did get to sleep very well. And to dream.

Flying may have become horribly routine and formulaic, but there are still little corners of the industry doing something a bit different.

I’m not crossing the Atlantic any other way.

Speedbird 2 Speedbird 3 Speedbird 4 Speedbird 5 Speedbird 6Speedbird 1 (1)


Speedbird 2 (1)

 

Crippled in the Caucasus

‘Oh for a Landcruiser and a pair of snow chains’ I thought as I desperately dug snow out from under the wheels of my rental car. Ironically it was only when I decided to turn back that I got stuck.

Anyone who skies will know that it’s a fairly simple proposition that mountains get covered in snow over winter. I spend a lot of time in various mountain ranges, but invariably only in the snow-free summer months.

I’d picked up the car at Tbilisi airport.  I knew the road north would be bad but it came as something of a surprise to find the High Caucasus covered in feet of snow.

I had planned to drive North from Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway to the little hamlet of Kazbegi, now known as Stepantsminda, just a stone’s throw from the Russian and Ossetian border.  I had wanted to fit in a bit of mountain running as early spring training.

Looking forward to warm spring weather, I pictured that I’d be able to dump my car in the village and disappear for a run across beautiful mountain meadows, with snow capped peaks in the distance. What presented me were virtual blizzard conditions.  Not at all the training weather I’d hoped for.

It was after the village of Gudauri – altitude 7,200 ft –  that the road really got bad. I could feel the car squirming as I moved slowly over the snow, sliding gently every now and again as I veered across the road to avoid huge potholes.  Even at my slow speed the car’s anti-lock brakes kept firing and unpleasant noises were coming from the suspension struts.  Several times I had to reverse then accelerate hard to get up particularly slippery climbs.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road.  A few tough looking military trucks emerged from the gloom every now and then, with wheels bigger than my car and snow chains to match.   I slowly began to realise that this wasn’t the place for a Toyota Yaris.  I’d have to try reaching Kazbegi another day.

I drove on a little further considering my options but quickly the wind picked up and the visibility dropped to virtually zero. I could hardly see past the bonnet.  I was getting hungry and was increasingly conscious that getting stuck in the snow would not be a particularly enjoyable situation.

So I made a snap decision to turn the car around and head back. I touched the brakes, the ABS fired and the car slid gracefully into a six-foot high wall of snow on the side of the road.

I quickly popped the automatic transmission into reverse but outside the front wheels just spun worthlessly.  I turned the steering wheel and tried again. Still nothing. I was stuck.

Through the gloom and snow I couldn’t see more than a dozen or so meters.  I looked out of the side window and along the road. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable. If another truck came along it surely wouldn’t see me until it came crashing into my side door.

I turned the steering wheel full lock and fiddled with the gearbox to engage a higher gear, but however gently I was with the accelerator, the wheels just kept spinning.

Exasperated, I climbed out of the car, listening carefully for the sound of trucks above the howl of the wind.  I started scraping snow out from under the front wheels with my bare hands.  I tried reversing again. Nothing.

I got back out of the car and rummaged around in the snow for rocks that I could move to provide extra traction.  Only then did I start to think what else I had in the car that I might be able to shove under the wheels to give more traction and how much I might risk letting the tyres down.

Back in the car I gave the accelerator the lightest of touches. The car dithered for a moment then shot back into the snow on the other side of the road.  I engaged forward gear and set off a little too fast back down the road, deliriously happy to be free.

I found a hotel in Gudauri and set about trying to find something decent to eat. Even the simplest of food tasted great after a long day in the car. I went to bed promising myself that I’d make it to Kazbegi the next day.

In the morning the weather had cleared, but the roads had frozen over, making them even more treacherous than before.  The views were stunning but so too were the drops into the valley.

Retracing the route of the previous day was even more taxing. I was driving at little more than walking pace. With just the most basic maps on my GPS, I worked out it would talk the best part of the day to make Kazbegi, if I made it at all.  I cursed myself for not splashing out on a bigger car.

But Landcruisers and big 4x4s can get you into more trouble. As you drive into a small town they draw more attention than you might wish to have.  They encourage you to take more risks. And digging a Landcruiser out of snow is a much bigger job.

And besides, it’s always good to have the car wimp out before you do.

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.