2011 in Review: The Year of Travel

As we hurtle forward into 2012, I thought I would take a moment to look back over an incredibly busy 2011.  I put together the numbers and was astonished to find that I was away from home for 94 nights, or just over ¼ of the year!  The breakdown is as follows: 38 nights in North America, 24 nights in Asia, 9 nights in both South America and Europe (non-UK), 7 nights elsewhere in the UK, and an incredible week of nights (7) onboard airplanes!

In 2010 I was initiated into the world of business travel and flew just a hair shy of 50,000 miles, which I summarized here.   This year I blew past that, however, with just over 83,000 miles (for the metric-minded, that’s almost 134,000 km)!  To do that, I was on 34 separate flights on 12 different airlines, including first-time travel on seven new airlines.    Using the Wikipedia definitions for flight length (short-haul=<3 hours, medium-haul=3-6 hours, with long-haul above that) those flights break down into 13 short-haul, 5 medium-haul, and 16 long-haul.  Those long-haul flights took me to the West Coast of North America (twice), the East Coast (three times), Asia (twice), and once to South America.  Below is a chronological account…

The year began in January with our trip to California, which very successfully combined work, vacation, and a family visit all in one 15-day extravaganza!  It also included my longest flight of the year – BA 268 from LAX to London Heathrow, coming in at 5442 miles (the flight there, to San Francisco, was second-longest at 5358 miles).  I should note that both of those flights were in World Traveller Plus, British Airways’ Premium Economy class (decidedly not business class – although Astrid made those same flights in Virgin Atlantic’s economy class, so there is no room to complain!).

The great circle path from Los Angeles to London spends a lot of time over Canada and just touches the southern edge of Greenland.

LAX by public transit isn't exactly the most friendly; from the City Bus Center you have to cross over into the airport's long-term parking lot to get a separate shuttle bus to the terminals.

February (and July) were the only months without any international travel.  In March I made a whirlwind weekend business trip to Washington DC on United in Economy Plus (which, it is worth noting, is better than nothing but NOT in any way equivalent to Premium Economy on BA or Virgin Atlantic).  It was a good (if quick) opportunity to see both friends (Sarah and Drew in DC) and family (in nearby Baltimore).

My April trip to Taipei and Hong Kong involved a complicated schedule of 7 flights, including an overnight in Finnair business class both ways.  The way there involved both Finnair via Helsinki to Hong Kong and a connecting flight on a seemingly ancient EVA Air 747 for the short-hop of 483 miles over to Taipei.

My trip on this EVA Air 747 must be one of the shortest routes in the world operated with the huge 747; here you can see Hong Kong International and the haze and hills in the background. As the plane is designed for longer trips, which means many fewer cycles (take-offs and landings), the miles per gallon on this old thing must be awful!

After a very busy work week, I flew EVA Air back to Hong Kong, and after a couple of days exploring there the way home was even more complicated; a medium-haul flight in Cathay Pacific regional business class (which was really more like Premium Economy) to Bangkok, and then a midnight layover at Suvarnabhumi Airport before heading back to Helsinki and London.

One of the many airport spaces designed for the weary traveller - this "Green Relaxing Zone" was by my gate at Taipei's Taoyuan Airport.

From central Hong Kong, the MTR Airport Express is the best airport train I've ever seen, operating every 12 minutes from the center of the city (at Central/Hong Kong station, shown here) to the airport in 24 minutes. At both Hong Kong and Kowloon stations there are in-town terminals where you can check in for any flight and check baggage (each train has one baggage car at the front).

This is the landside area at Hong Kong International Airport (aka Chek Lap Kok), an award-winning terminal designed by Sir Norman Foster. The airport was built completely new on an artificial island opened in 1998. It is currently the 11th busiest airport in the world (and about to overtake Denver to make the top 10), and apparently has now exceeded Memphis (home of FedEx) as the world's new busiest airport for cargo. The airport was voted as one of the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th century (along with being the most expensive airport ever at US$20 billion!).

On my flight back from Bangkok to Helsinki I managed to snag seat 2C, a new configuration on Finnair that is completely alone (the single seat behind the double one in the picture). The seat becomes fully flat by angling your feet up under the space under the row in front of you (hence the offset design). I think this is the best business class seat I've been in so far!

June was perhaps the busiest month of the year, starting with an US East Coast trip for the kick-off meeting of a new project that I’m in charge of.  The trip was punctuated by possibly the hardest 72 hours of work I’ve ever done so far.  We flew in to Rochester via BA to JFK and JetBlue (flying for the first time on their snazzy Embraer ERJ-190 plane), then back via US Airways to Boston and a BA daytime flight to London.  After just two weeks back at home, I headed off to Munich for a quick meeting, followed by a through trip from Munich to Vancouver via London.  It was odd to change planes at Heathrow Terminal 5 without entering or leaving!  After that crazy work week I managed to add on a couple of vacation days in Portland and Seattle, and flew back on British Airways again from Seattle, capping a two-week trip.  This was my first (and, so far, only) trip in British Airways business class (“Club World”), and I was completely won over by the upper deck of the 747.  With just 20 seats, the upper-deck cabin is like a private jet – you barely realize that you’re stuck on top of a jumbo with nearly 300 people downstairs!

Here is the amazing upper-deck cabin of a BA 747-400, with the pilots right up front.

I stayed my last night right by Sea-Tac Airport, which now has direct light rail access to Downtown Seattle via Sound Transit's Central Link (top). There is also a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line here, Rapid Ride A, which stops along the street.

After that crazy month, I had a break from business travel in July, August, and September.  We had more “local” long-weekend vacations – to Cornwall by train with Astrid’s mom, short-haul to Copenhagen and Stockholm, and to Galway and Dublin in Ireland with my friend Matt in early September.  For the Ireland trip (which, due to time constraints, I think I neglected to blog about at all), Matt and I eschewed flying to take the historic train+ferry route via Holyhead in Wales on the way there.  Coming home, however, the timing for the once-a-day ferry option just didn’t work, so I managed to get an award ticket (using miles) on BMI.  This is funny because, although I am a “member” of the BMI Diamond Club and have a not-insignificant number of air miles with them, I’d never actually flown BMI (I’d collected miles by travelling on partners like Qatar and United).  I actually got an amazing deal, with a one-way flight back from Dublin to London for just 4,500 miles and €14.70 in taxes.

At the end of September I went back to the US for my third East Coast trip, and tried Virgin Atlantic for the first time.  Since I’ve flown a lot in British Airways’ Premium Economy (World Traveller Plus), I wanted to try Virgin Atlantic’s.  Overall, I’d say it is on par with, or maybe even a bit better than, BA; the seats are a bit wider (21” vs. 18.5” on BA) with the same legroom and slightly better service.

In October I made my first voyage to South America, flying with Iberia via Madrid (Iberia is now part of the same company as British Airways).  It was a long, gruelling trip, beginning and ending with short but annoying 785-mile hops between London and Madrid, then miles to walk connecting within Madrid’s massive new Terminal 4.  The Madrid-Sao Paulo legs were my 3rd/4th longest (and only other >5000 mile flights this year), and overnight both ways.  Iberia’s “Business Plus” left me wondering what the plus part was; the entertainment system was pretty barebones, the service was just alright, and the seat was not terribly comfortable, leading to not very much sleep.

The massive Terminal 4 at Madrid's Barajas Airport was designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 2006. It is the home of Iberia (which is the flag carrier of Spain) and has over 8 million square feet of space. It's design for very high capacity means enormously long walks between gates, especially if you need to change from the main building to the satellite building like I did (which is over 1.5 miles away)!

My shortest flights of the year also occurred on this trip, as I flew for the first time on TAM Linhas Aereas, the largest airline in Brazil and all of Latin America that is based in Sao Paulo.  TAM took me the slightly more than 200 miles from Sao Paulo to Rio and back.  Any way you look at it, this is one of the busiest air routes in the world, largely because there is no rail service of any kind between these mega-cities.  Brazil will hopefully rectify this soon (with the World Cup and Olympics coming up), as the distance and populations make this route an absolute dynamite candidate for high-speed rail.  Each city has a domestic and an international airport, and there are flights between all four combinations; the busiest is between the two domestic airports (Congonhas in SP and Santos Dumont in RJ), where there are about 80 flights per day in each direction (the most aircraft movements of any individual airport-airport route in the world) flying nearly 625,000 seats per year (the 8th most, because of the larger planes used on many busy Asian/Australian routes).

The crowds at Sao Paulo's Congonhas Airport when I was trying to check in. There were no signs in English, so I had trouble figuring out which of the many snaking lines I was supposed to be in. The airport infrastructure in Brazil is old and really undersized for the demand.

This is the main landside terminal area at the Congonhas-Sao Paulo Airport, which is an art deco masterpiece! It opened in 1936 and really captures that early era of airplane travel. It actually reminded me quite a bit of LaGuardia.

After a quick three-day weekend train trip to Northeast England over my birthday, the year of travel was rounded out by the mega-trip to Japan.  I flew again on Finnair, marking my third trip to Asia via Helsinki.  They market themselves as the “shortcut” from Europe to Asia.  Indeed, as the great circle air routes practically pass over Helsinki, there is not really any added distance to stopping there – only 36 miles more in total than the direct London-Tokyo route that Astrid flew on British Airways (of 5960 miles, longer than any of my flights).  There is, however, inconvenience in the time lost (an extra takeoff and landing, the layover in HEL), and the 3-hour flight between London and Helsinki on a smaller and less comfortable plane.  I do it primarily because it is cheap – I can usually afford to fly in business class on Finnair instead of only premium economy on British Airways, which is a critical difference when travelling overnight and needing to work hard almost as soon as you arrive.  I should also make a plug for Finnair’s food; it is consistently good and sometimes excellent, and the best airplane food I’ve had so far.  On this trip I had amazing elk meatballs and a reindeer steak on the way out, and a really superb braised lamb stew on the way back.

My Finnair plane parked at Narita Airport's Terminal 2 outside Tokyo.

Phew – what a year!  With 83k miles traveled, I’ve earned quite a few miles and other perks, such as using the first class lounge at London’s Terminal 5.  So, there are some benefits of all of this, and hopefully we can take advantage of them.

One of the benefits of frequent flier status - the British Airways Arrivals Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5. I got to try it on the way back from Seattle; it is open until 2pm for arriving passengers from overnight flights (business class or gold status only, I'm afraid). This is the shower nozzle, which had a number of cool options. Each shower suite also has a two-way compartment in the door where you can leave your clothes so that they will press them and return them while you are showering.

There are challenges too, and not just the hefty dry-cleaning bill. This is the wheel of my suitcase, which I could only figure somehow got melted to its casing by British Airways. After 5 months of phone calls back and forth I finally got them to replace it. Unfortunately, the same model is no longer available, so my twin to Astrid's model that was a wedding present is no more (although her's was also damanged in transit while walking to a bus stop in Los Angeles by an errant SUV driver - who ran over it).

What will 2012 bring?  I think perhaps a little less flying and less time away from home, as some of my big meetings will be in Europe or even the UK this year, but you never know.  Happy travels to all in the New Year!


Posted on 31/12/2011, in travel, Travel to Asia, Travel to Europe, Travel to the States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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