1987

Computers, cabs and curfews

20 June 1987 Brymon Airways 202 Birmingham to London Gatwick
20 June 1987 British Caledonian 267 London Gatwick to New York JFK
20 June 1987 Eastern Air Lines 1541 New York LGA to Washington National

This looked like being a smooth journey, with minimum inconvenience. Rather than the trouble of getting to London and then out to one of the inconveniently located airports in the suburbs, we decided to start from Birmingham, where the airport is only a few minutes from home, and catch a connecting flight. We also decided that rather than suffer the motorised lounges at Dulles again, and the long, expensive taxi ride, we would take a connecting flight to Washington National, which we knew to be convenient for the metro, cheaper, and altogether more acceptable. It would also save time, for we would have cleared customs and immigration while waiting for the connecting flight at Kennedy. So much for the theory.

Saturday morning saw us make an early start for Birmingham airport, where we checked our luggage through to New York, saving the problem of carrying it round Gatwick. After that, a short walk to the lounge and a quiet wait there before boarding the Twin Otter, the smallest scheduled flight aeroplane on which I had yet travelled. The flight, at just 7000 feet, gave us the opportunity to look out at the fields and buildings below, for the weather on that morning was very pleasant indeed.

An unusual feature of the flight was the fact that the windows remained open throughout, an option not possible on high-altitude jet flights. The door to the cockpit also remained open, giving an enlightening view of the pilot eating his sandwiches and drinking his tea, which was exactly the same meal that we had received. The value of a drink and a boiled sweet on a very short flight is unquestionable; whether there is any real justification for serving a full meal on such a flight is an open question.

Either way, refreshed and fed, we arrived on time at Gatwick, and after legally leaving the United Kingdom, we found ourselves in the large international lounge area at Gatwick, a place awash with duty-free shops, telephones, people and chaos.

The air traffic control system dealing with oceanic clearance had broken down. We were later to discover that this is not a rare occurrence by any means. Even so, it still meant that we would be delayed by several hours. Passengers with onward connections, such as us, were invited to call at the British Caledonian desk and make alternative reservations. So it was that our original reservation on a TWA flight to Washington National was superseded by a reservation on a Pan Am flight. The heading to this section may have given you a clue that problems were ahead, however.

We telephoned our host, apologising for getting him up at such an early hour, but thought that he might like to know that instead of the TWA flight, we would now be arriving on a Pan Am flight about three hours later.

As things turned out, we arrived later still, as the air traffic control system wasn't fixed. Rather than using the British and Irish airspace, we took a routing instead using the Icelandic oceanic clearance area and a routing which took us far north over Greenland. The pilot told us that if we looked down we could see the Arctic wastes. I did so, and had barely started to take in the view when an American lady on the flight complained about the glare, and insisted that I put the shutter down again. Some have no soul for beauty.

This journey did not give us the best possible introduction to the world of the Boeing 747, the largest airliner in the world, and one of its most popular. Still, it was to be the first of many such journeys for me. I could not recommend British Caledonian, but this will now be a matter of great indifference to them. We were to have been offered complimentary newspapers, but by the time the steward reached my row he had run out. Service was not wonderful, drinks were chargeable, and the only recompense for the delay had been a voucher for GBP 2.50 each.

We arrived at JFK eventually, noticing that there was no way we would catch the flight to Washington National. Customs clearance was much smoother than it had been at Dulles the previous December. After that, it was time to go to the Pan Am desk, for it was they who were currently responsible for getting us to Washington. No doubt they would rather have left it in the hands of TWA who had the reservation in the first place.

Pan Am, it seemed, had no further flights today from Kennedy to National, but they did have the Shuttle from La Guardia. So we were given USD 20, our baggage, and a cab to La Guardia. The cab driver obviously knew a way from Kennedy to Manhattan. He also had a good idea of how to get from Manhattan to La Guardia. However, these two together do not make either a cheap or a quick route between the two airports, which are both to be found to the east of New York in the borough of Queen's. Nevertheless, that was the route he took. We were a long time getting between the two.

On arrival at the Marine Terminal at La Guardia, from which the Pan Am Shuttle flies, every hour on the half-hour. We expected to be able to catch the 20:30 flight, but were greeted with the news that the incoming flight from Washington was delayed: it had not even left Washington yet, because there was a thunderstorm there. We now know that these are a common occurrence, and advice on avoiding them is to be found later.

The ground staff were not sure if there would be another flight to Washington at all tonight. Did we know that there was a curfew at Washington National? As the airport is so close to town, jets are prohibited from landing there after 22:00. You might, they said doubtfully, ask at the Eastern desk in the other terminal, because there may be a Shuttle leaving at 21:00. It was now 20:50.

The dozen or so passengers waiting for the non-existent flight went outside the terminal, where a Pan Am minibus was waiting. We explained that we wanted to go to the Eastern Terminal. As a good Pan Am man, he refused to take us there. He was prepared to go to the approach road, but would not go to the terminal. Yes, he would, we all insisted. Pressure of numbers inspired him to change his mind, and so we all got on board and he dropped us at the door of the Eastern Terminal just as the flight was closing.

They were surprised to see us all, but presumably quite happy about it, as it would all mean extra revenue for Eastern. In their haste, we were all handed blank boarding passes, something which has never happened to me before or since. As I loaded our suitcases on the conveyor belt, I was told that there was not time: the cargo hold was already closed, and we would have to take it all inside the aeroplane. As the fourth person piled suitcases on the rollers for the X-ray machine, they changed their minds and reopened the cargo bay.

We were airborne at 21:08 and touched down at Washington National, after a drink and a snack on board, at 21:54, just six minutes before the curfew.

That might have been the end of the story of this journey, but it is not. Our host is still looking for us at National Airport. He thinks we are arriving on a Pan Am flight from Kennedy. We look for him at that terminal, but without success. We wonder where he might be, but really have little idea. So after looking around, and noticing that the airport is largely closing down for the night, we decide to take the metro to his apartment, and await further events.

This we do, and are settled in reception at his apartment block, when a telephone call arrives for us. He is still at the airport, and takes a cab back. Cabs from National cost about USD 5 for the trip downtown, as distinct as cabs from Dulles which are nearer USD 40.

A few minutes pass, and he arrives back. He has been walking up and down Washington National, between the two terminals at either end of the airport, meeting all TWA (original carrier) and Pan Am (new carrier) flights from Kennedy for the past three hours. It never occurred to him that we might arrive on an Eastern flight from La Guardia. I'm not surprised - it came as something of a shock to us too.


25 June 1987 Pan American 248 Washington National to New York LGA
25 June 1987 Pan American 263 New York LGA to Washington National

By buying OPEN tickets in the UK before departure, we had saved the tax on this route, at the cost of obliging ourselves to make the journey sometime during our stay. This was not a problem at all, for we liked New York as a place to visit. Check-in ran smoothly, for it was by machine. Since our visit in January, the Shuttle fare had fallen from USD 69 to USD 49. It looked as if soon it would be possible to fly from Washington to New York, and continue to Boston, the other Shuttle destination, for nothing.

Again we were fascinated by the ability to walk into an airport, check in and be airborne in less than ten minutes. This time, we were more cautious about how we left La Guardia airport, not wanting to be forced to share a cab. Instead, we took a cab by ourselves, and by chance the driver seemed to have the unusual qualities that he knew English and had some idea of his way around New York.

Once more, we spent a good day sightseeing in New York, but decided that it would be a more interesting experience to get the subway back to the airport at the end of the day. We were amazed by the queues, which seemed to take quite some time to clear, whereas in London you will at least feel disappointed if you don't get on the first train. For those of you who remember the end of the film Crocodile Dundee and consider the subway to have been absurdly crowded in the scene, I must state that the stations we encountered during the rush hour were much like that.

After reaching the correct station for the airport, we changed onto the airport bus, and were soon at the terminal, a much quieter place than the subway, even though there were jets all around.

On arrival, there was again just a short wait before we climbed on board, and a short flight of 36 minutes carried us between two of the most important cities on the East Coast. A short metro ride carried us back to Dupont Circle, an area which I understand has a curious reputation.


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