Heathrow works, Chicago sucks, Edam isn't

I’ve just arrived back in Seattle after my circumnavigation. The day started out uneventfully: I drove from Oxford to Heathrow, dropped off the car, took the shuttle to Terminal 3, checked in, and flew through security. What’s wrong with this picture? I thought Heathrow was the airport we all hated…
The flight to Chicago aboard an aging United 767 was long, a bit tedious, but mostly harmless. I could tell that I was back in the mediocre arms of the US airline industry, because the food was crap and you had to pay $5 or 3 Euros for a miniature alcoholic beverage. This particular 767 configuration did have seat-back video screens in coach, but (a) the screens were incredibly small, (b) the screen was fixed in place, and thus unviewable if the person in front reclined their seat, and (c) the IFE wasn’t working properly in my seat row anyway.
After watching postage-stamp sized snippets of various movies over the shoulders of those in front of me, I sat back and read “Into The Darkness”, Peter Zimonjic’s graphic but confused assemblage of survivors’ stories from the 7/7 bombings in London. (It would be greatly improved by the addition of three diagrams showing the positions of the trains and where each of the characters was.) My other book was Stephen Fry’s elegant tutorial on versification, “The Ode Less Travelled”. Unfortunately I had not brought along a notebook and pencils, and so I was unable to carry out the exercises that he directed his readers to perform before reading any further. Furthermore he also encouraged us to read the examples out loud, repeatedly, in order to appreciate the “stress-timed” nature of spoken English. Richard Feyman may have lived by the precept “What do you care what other people think?”, but I am rather more inhibited.
So I slept. This was a good preparation for the chaos that was Chicago O’Hare. It started well, with a landing in strong, gusty cross-winds that had many passengers squeaking in fear and prompted me to have a delightful chat with the captain about how nicely he’d handled things, which led on to discussions about trends in oceanic flow management (there’s been a widespread slowdown of Mach 0.02-0.03 to save fuel; we were cruising at M0.77 rather than the earlier standard of M0.8). Then immigration, and getting our bags, and clearing customs: all fairly mundane.
And then things started to go downhill. The baggage handling system for rechecking luggage through to domestic connections was broken, so everybody was forced to lug their bags to their domestic departure terminals. International travellers tend to have more baggage than most, and this completely swamped the inter-terminal rail service. I had to wait for three trains before I was able to board one. When we got to United’s Terminal One, none of the staff there were ready for the influx of bags, even though the system had been down for hours.
Next, security… We’re all used to the arrangement where a serpentine queue feeds into separate queues for each x-ray/metal detector. Only in Chicago would they think of having several TSA staff “tapping into” the serpentine queue at different points, so that nobody knew whether to wait for particular official or go further down the queue. The mood of the mob was not improved by the fact that only half of the x-ray units were open, despite the fact that the lines were all overflowing. Most of the TSA staff were as confused as we were, and kept asking each other who was in charge.
During my trip I visited ten airports: Seattle, San Francisco, Beijing, Singapore, Hyderabad, Bangalore (two different ones!), Frankfurt, London, and Chicago. Obviously the worst was the old Bangalore airport, which none of us will miss. That aside, Chicago clearly gets the wooden spoon. And it wasn’t just a problem of volume: Beijing, Singapore, Frankfurt and London all handle plenty of traffic. The sad truth is that US commercial aviation – the airports, the airlines, the planes they fly, the ATC that guides them – is in a pretty shabby state: a suicidal business model leading to underinvestment and decrepitude.
Here’s an interesting nugget. In India, I flew from Hyderabad to Bangalore on Kingfisher, one of the recent arrivals on the Indian scene. Even though the flight was only 90 minutes, on an ATR turboprop, the staff served everyone a three-course meal. How come? (Particularly when United cabin staff can barely manage a beverage service in that length of time.) I think what’s happening is that the Indian airlines haven’t got any elaborate fuel price hedging plans, and so in this era of volatile oil prices, fares are pretty much determined by a “fuel cost plus” calculation. But there are several carriers competing on every route, and since price competition is impractical, they have to compete on service. What a concept!
Anyway, I eventually boarded the 757 to take me from Chicago to Seattle. It was late, it was oversold, the in-flight entertainment system was broken, and one of the toilets needed last-minute repairs. There was no Indian-style three-course meal ((With vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.)) for us; we were given the opportunity to buy $5 boxes containing various ill-assorted snack products. Mine contained, inter alia, a can of tuna, a jar of hummus, various kinds of crackers, a bar of chocolate, some raisins, and a yellowish slab in a plastic wrapper, labelled “Edam style cheese food product“. The ingredients were listed as “Cheddar cheese”, followed by various chemicals intended to create the illusion of Edam. The attempt was a failure. If I were a resident of Edam or Cheddar, I would consider a lawsuit.
Never mind. I’m home.