Author Archives: Alex
Two days after the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings, and about two months before the planned start of all-night tube services on Fridays and Saturdays (“The Night Tube”), unions are staging a 24+hour strike that started to disrupt services during the Wednesday PM rush hour and led to no tube service at all on Thursday. This is the first strike to completely close the London Underground network since 2002 (although there have been plenty of quite disruptive partial closures due to so-called “industrial action” in our years here).
All four major unions are taking part in this strike, which is why the impact is so total. And why? Disputes over pay related to the introduction of the overnight services. Before you get too sympathetic for those poor train drivers having to work overnight, let me just remind you that the average driver salary (according to a report from the union itself!) is about $77,000 per year. Where else can you make that kind of money with no need for any special education or skills, and with excellent benefits (some reports suggest that they get around 50 days off per year)? The offer on the table is for a 2% raise along with a £2500 one-time bonus for those drivers on lines that will operate overnight. Plus, they are hiring 137 additional drivers to support the extra service, which means more jobs for the unions (isn’t that what they should want?). I can’t see how the public can really be on the unions’ side, given the massive disruption and real cost to the city as well as the terms of the deal and the fact that they don’t seem to be getting much of a message out there. I really think such strikes should be illegal here like they are in New York!
Anyway, I was originally going to work from home to avoid the mess, but after some stern words from my employer insisting on relatively broadly defined “reasonable effort” to make it in, I decided to walk. I am in better shape than many others, as we live only a little more than 3 miles as the crow flies – but when walking that along streets and through the park that inflates to about 4.25 miles.
Last night the strike was supposed to start at 6 or 630 pm, so they advised everyone to complete their journeys by 6pm. I had a late meeting and was in the office until about 630pm, but decided to still give the tube a shot. It was amazing – best commute home ever! Peak service levels were still running, but there were hardly any passengers! I should have gotten some pictures of the empty trains, but didn’t. By the time I exited at home at King’s Cross around 7pm they were starting to ramp down some services – the Metropolitan Line seemed to be the first to go, not surprisingly as it has the longest reach outside of London and also tends to be the most unionist stalwart (senior drivers seem to prefer this route because it is relatively long, has fewer passengers, and mostly outdoors in the countryside!).
To try to keep the city moving, Transport for London has mobilized about 200 extra buses – not a huge number compared to the approximately 8000 buses on the street each day, but targeted can be helpful – as well as additional Thames riverboat services. The key issue is that most* of the suburban rail services are still operating, leading to large volumes of passengers needing to travel from terminals to their final destinations (*there is a separate strike on First Great Western, the operator serving Paddington, due to concerns over reduced on-board train staff on the new long-distance trains that will be introduced in the next couple of years).
After the long walk this morning I don’t think I’ll want to do that again tonight, but I have a work social event after work and I should be able to get a bus or use the operating Overground service to get home later in the evening. The real question, I suppose, is whether there will be additional strikes over this issue and how the dispute gets resolved (and whether it impacts the start of the night tube services in September or not!).
Yesterday I published a look at travel statistics for 2014 – just shy of 115,000 miles flown on 61 flights, both of which were new records. Here I am going to review the year’s travel chronologically… in pictures. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I must note that most of the time on business trips is spent in non-photogenic (i.e. ugly!) conference or hotel rooms…but I’m picking out the highlights here from special events or any extra time after the work was done!
JANUARY – AN ANNUAL PILGRIMAGE
Although we started the year in Dubrovnik, I was soon off to Washington DC for my annual trip to a massive transportation conference (in 2014 there were more than 12,000 people attending!). Unlike in past years, where I added on extra time to see family or for other work on the East Coast, 2014 was a quick turnaround.
FEBRUARY – BACK TO BYZANTIUM
In February, I spent a week in Istanbul for work, returning a little more than a year after our Christmas 2013 trip. Astrid went to Istanbul later in the year with our friend Sarah. While I spent more time riding the trains, I believe they spent more time shopping in the bazaar. There are things for both of us to like in Istanbul, that is for sure!
MARCH MEANT MEXICO
March was my first time in Mexico, with a week-long trip to Mexico City. It was interesting – amazing hospitality from our local hosts, including caring for my boss when he got sick during the week (and I had to take over everything!), great food, and interesting challenges for the metro – but also the feeling of being in an armed bubble, with a big security force surrounding us at all times (even surrounding our bus in pick-up trucks – no doubt also a type of hospitality, but not one that made me feel at ease).
APRIL – A MIDWEST TOUR
At the start of April, a colleague and I made a trip through the Midwest of the US, visiting Dayton, Cleveland, suburban Chicago and Des Moines.
Although business was in suburban Chicago, we had a weekend day to spend in Chicago.
The last stop on the Midwest Tour was Des Moines. Not much to report from “flyover country”, although to be fair it was a decent place that exceeded my expectations. I thought I had a picture of a sign that said “Des Moines – not as bad as you think” but I can’t find it!
APRIL IN LOVELY LISBOA
MAY MEGA-TRIP TO THE US AND CANADA
After the work part was done, I had essentially three days on my own before meeting Astrid in Los Angeles for the family part of this massive May trip. As you can imagine, I agonized over how to spend this precious time. Visiting friends in the US was basically ruled out due to working weekday, and from a starting point of Buffalo I had to end up on the fourth day in LA. I seriously considered a visit to the Canadian Club factory in Windsor, Ontario followed by a dark tourism stop in Detroit, but I figured that wouldn’t work so well by transit and with lots of luggage.
Instead, I chose to visit Calgary and Edmonton, two Canadian cities (and two excellent modern light rail systems) that I had always wanted to see. This required a complicated travel plan, especially since air travel to and within Canada is generally pretty expensive (with the airport in Toronto, for example, having some of the highest taxes/fees of any in the world). I devised a cunning plan, combining the purchase of cheap segments with an available first-class miles redemption from Dallas to Calgary (for the expensive cross-border part). Now, you are probably thinking that Dallas is slightly off any sensible route from Buffalo to Calgary…but such is life in “air world”.
It started brilliantly; a hard but rewarding day’s work in Buffalo, with an early arrival and easy check-in at the airport, and settling down in the US Airways Club with a nice glass of wine. 30 seconds later, the iPad revealed that my flight to Dallas that night was cancelled! Instead of a relaxing night in the Hyatt Regency DFW and an easy 10am start the next morning, I had a ‘free’ night at the crappy Days Inn Buffalo Airport and a 4:30am wake-up for a 6am flight to Chicago, to then connect to Dallas all in time for my scheduled 10:55 flight to Calgary. I was actually hoping that my extensive luggage wouldn’t make it through both tight connections (so they would have to deliver it to me in Calgary instead of me carrying it!), but it did.
Some tense moments and a little running at DFW got me to the Calgary flight just in time…and the plan was back on track. Until Canadian border officials in Calgary didn’t like my reason for being there – “just to visit the city” – and decided to give me an extra private interrogation and a VERY thorough check of all my bags. I thought Canadians were all supposed to be friendly? Again, I know that a lot of people get treated like this all the time, so I shouldn’t complain – but after a 4:30am start and the hassle of the day, I wasn’t in the mood. After that, I have to say, Calgary and Edmonton were nice cities.
I then ventured even further north to Edmonton, in the comfort of a Greyhound (Canada) Express service. Who can argue with $25?
After more than a week visiting families in Los Angeles and Baltimore (where we proudly watched my little brother graduate from High School), we made a quick stop in New Jersey to visit our storage unit, pack up a few things, and then head home.
JUNE – JUST AS BUSY
After getting back home from the mega-trip, we headed right back out for a quick weekend in Manchester. We had scheduled this long before the May madness was arranged based on a great deal – the ability to add a domestic flight within the UK onto either (or both) ends of any European award flight redemption on British Airways for free. So, despite living a 5-minute walk from Euston Station, which has express trains every 20 minutes to Manchester that take about 2 hours, we actually flew from Heathrow as an add-on to our flight back from Lisbon (there can be up to a year stop-over in between, as I understand it – it just requires you knowing what you want in advance, because changes cost about $50 each).
Later in June I was very happy to be able to return to Malaysia and Singapore. Despite the extreme heat I really liked both places on my first visit in 2013, and it was great to confirm those first impressions in 2014.
JULY – HOME JAMES
We didn’t really do much in July.
AUGUST IN CHINA
After a break, it was on the road again to China in August, with the first stop being a week in Shanghai. Although I was there in 2010 on one of my first work trips, so much has changed in Shanghai in that short time, including the continued massive growth of the metro into the world’s largest.
At the end of the week I took a train from Shanghai to Nanjing, which is a little under 200 miles. The high-speed train took only about an hour and 20 minutes (even with a couple of intermediate stops). As my train proceeded northwest, the atmosphere got more and more desolate…away from the coast and the financial center of Shanghai are the factories, which produce the famously dreadful Chinese air quality.
After three days in Nanjing I flew to Hong Kong for my final stop. This was my first flight on Dragonair, the shorter-distance subsidiary of Cathay Pacific. The flight was good, although the delay on the ground was longer than the entire 2:30 flying time! I understand that this is becoming more and more common as Chinese air space is often taken up by the military. It was very stormy in Hong Kong, but having selected a hotel adjacent to the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station, I didn’t even have to go outside!
At the end of August, after so many trips through Helsinki Airport, I finally got out and entered Finland! Astrid and I had a great long weekend there, enjoying the long hours of daylight, the relatively laid back atmosphere, and especially the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
I started September in Vienna, on a quick one-day trip to that amazing city. It definitely requires a longer return with Astrid! From there I had to be in Barcelona a day later, so I took 22 hours to cross Europe by overnight sleeper train to Zurich and then on across Switzerland to Geneva and then into France and ultimately Spain by high-speed TGV train.
After Barcelona, while Astrid went to Istanbul for a week’s vacation, I headed to Delhi in India – a new country! It was overwhelming – a week of hard work but also Delhi belly, extreme poverty, and amazing transformation as they build one of the world’s biggest modern metro systems.
OCTOBER – DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
A week after returning from Delhi – just enough time for my stomach to recover from a week straight of Indian food – it was time for Tex-Mex on another trip to Texas, this time primarily to Austin.
After Austin, we hopped on a Megabus to Houston for a quick overnight stop. Houston was the largest city in the US I’d never been to, and I have to say it was a bit more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.
By far the most important happening in October, however, was getting our permanent residency here in the UK! After a lot of paperwork and money – and a test – we made it…see our separate post about it.
NOVEMBER – A FORBIDDEN CITY AND A “PRETTY GOOD” (maybe even great) WALL
After a special birthday visit to the top of the Shard in London, I headed off on Finnair (via Helsinki once more) to the Far East, this time to Beijing.
We tried for the second year in a row (and succeeded this time!) to visit the famous German Christmas Market in Birmingham – it is said to be the largest in the world not actually in Deutschland. Astrid attempted to eat a bratwurst that was 1/2 meter long, while I chomped down on some schnitzel.
To wrap it up, our very relaxing Algarve holiday in Portugal that you’ve been reading about.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading my annual chronicle. I’m sorry that more of these didn’t come out over the course of the year.
Best wishes to all for a happy and healthy 2015!
Here I am, in the middle, bringing you my 2014 year-end review from wintry England. This is my fourth annual year-end review (previous installments were 2011, 2012, and 2013). Although it may not have always felt like it, this fifth year of life in Europe and life as a business traveler was a record-breaking one. I spent 35% of the year, or a whopping 129 nights, not at home – 10 more than 2012 and 13 more than 2013. And more of it was for business purposes (and therefore not with Astrid)…only 23% of those nights away were personal (compared to a solid 1/3 last year).
So, while Astrid and I were away together for 25 nights, that means that we were apart an average of nearly 9 nights a month. This is mostly because in 2014 Astrid and I didn’t have a long trip together like our South American odyssey in 2013 or as many weekend breaks as in prior years – something we hope to fix in 2015. But it was also because both of us were busier with work, with Astrid away on business (with me at home in London) for six nights.
Being away for 99 days for business purposes sounds like a dream, and it still is in many ways – I’ll cover some of the highlights below – but it does take a toll on an individual, no matter the degree of comfort in travel (which is admittedly thankfully quite high!). This year was also one for returning to some destinations, which I worried might be a bit of a let-down but actually found was quite nice, helping me to go slightly beyond first impressions.
I refer to east and west in the title because my time away from jolly old England was primarily in North America and Asia. I spent 15% of 2015 in North America, more than any year since living there (53 nights vs. just 42 in 2013). It was also nice to diversify in North America a bit, spending 8 nights in Mexico and 10 in Canada. The big increase in 2014 compared to prior years was Asia, where I spent more than twice as much time in 2014 as 2013 (37 vs. 15 nights). About half of this time was two trips to the China Region, but also a very welcome encore trip to Malaysia and Singapore and introductions to Delhi and Seoul.
I spent 10 nights on airplanes in 2014, very similar to previous years – and interestingly, one night on a train for the third year in a row! I wonder whether 2015 will also feature a lone overnight train?
This year’s total flying set a new personal record at just shy of 115,000 miles, just edging out 2012 by 3,000 miles. Interestingly, though, those miles were on many more flights – a total of 61 flights, or one every 6 days if evenly spaced throughout the year! FlightMemory also informs me that I just missed traveling halfway to the moon (but still only 1.2% of the way to the sun…which is hard for me to comprehend). My scheduled time on flights adds up to be exactly equal to 11 days…before considering time waiting at airports, or traveling to or from them!
Despite the small mileage difference, this year’s 61 flights were in way more segments than the 37 in 2012, when I flew to/from Australia and across the Pacific. That means more shorter flights, and in fact I had more journeys split into multiple flights than in the past…such as traveling between London and Oslo via Stavanger both ways (turning two short flights into four really-short ones!).
So what were my 2014 flying highlights? The best experience of the year had to be flying on Qatar’s new all-business class A319. I was lucky enough to fly on this only a month after it launched on the London-Doha segments of my trip to/from Kuala Lumpur. A319s are normally short-haul aircraft with 3×3 seating for 100-125 people (like a small 737), but Qatar has taken two of its planes and reconfigured them especially for the premium London-Doha market as an all business-class service with just 40 lie-flat seats. This is the first all business-class service at Heathrow, but British Airways offers something similar using even smaller A318 planes between London City Airport and New York JFK (but they have to stop at Shannon in Ireland westbound to refuel). SAS has recently started an all-business class 737 between Stavanger and Houston (for the oil industry).
The experience was really what I can only imagine a private jet is like – aided by Qatar’s excellent service and there being only 17 people on board on my way back to London. It was pretty funny boarding the plane from a huge gate area at the brand new Hamad International Airport!
There wasn’t too much else new or exciting in the year’s flying – nearly half of my flights were either British Airways (18) or American Airlines (12) – but I did travel on four new airlines in 2014. The best was Asiana, the five-star South Korean carrier, where a short hop from Beijing to Seoul on a long-haul A330 aircraft was excellent…lots of leg- and elbow-room, a full meal, and seatback TV with free entertainment in economy! I also traveled for the first time on Dragonair (great service despite a ground delay due to Chinese air traffic control longer than the scheduled flight time from Nanjing to Hong Kong), SAS (five flights to/from Norway…but they seem to be getting tired), and WestJet (Canada’s version of Southwest Airlines).
I also had some old favorites, including two more trips on the American Airlines excellent new 777-300ER and getting to try their great new A321T transcontinental service from SFO to JFK with Astrid. Finally, it was a busy year for going to and from HEL – I had two more long-haul trips on Finnair via Helsinki, plus – after 18 take-offs and landings at Helsinki where I never left the terminal, I finally entering Finland in August with Astrid!
Lastly in terms of flight highlights – or perhaps lowlights – it is worth noting that our very first flight of the year – home from celebrating New Year’s 2014 in Dubrovnik – was also the longest flight delay I think I’ve ever had. We left more than six hours late, and had to make an unscheduled stop in Venice to exchange cabin crew (otherwise the original crew wouldn’t have been able to continue all the way to London), which meant that we didn’t land at London Gatwick until well after Midnight.
I won’t tell the whole saga, but after a few months of increasingly threatening e-mails and then a formal letter from us to British Airways they finally very calmly agreed to compensate us for the delay, in accordance with well-established EU law. I had to cite a number of legal cases as precedent and use some very precise language (many thanks to some references from colleagues and the frequent flyer community on the Internet).
The sticking point was whether the delay was due to “extraordinary circumstances” or not…BA said that because they followed the manufacturer’s maintenance procedures the fact that something failed on the previous flight from London to Dubrovnik was extraordinary…which is complete crap. I can see why they try this tack, though, because it takes time and energy to keep pursuing it and they can get very cheap labor in their customer relations/call centers to send these generic responses and potentially save themselves a lot of cash! Luckily it all turned out well, as we were were refunded the cost of our travel (and a bit extra, in fact!). It’s the first holiday we’ve ever gone on where we actually made money.
Now, enough of the boring statistics – let me move on to a pictorial review of the year in travel, which will be coming your way tomorrow!