Home Again

The journey home was much less eventful than the outbound leg. I realise even more just how bad Heathrow Terminal 5 is.

At Houston, the Fast Bag Drop was actually a fast bag drop. There were about five parties in front of us, but it took us seven minutes to get served rather than ninety. The actual process at the counter was much faster and more efficient. Security was faster, even though they had a drill and shut everything down in the middle of our x-ray experience. Boarding the plane was simple and straightforward. We even left slightly ahead of schedule.

The food was marginally better this time, thanks to the lack of turkey and stuffing and mushy vegetables. I’m not saying it was great or anywhere near the standard we used to expect from British Airways, but better than the westbound flight.

The only bad thing was the woman sitting in front of The Woman. She insisted on reclining her seat back the whole time, even when she was actually sitting up, away from the back of the chair. This put her seat and The Woman’s knees in constant contact. The Woman did kick her hard enough to get her to sit up during the meal, but before the lights were off for the overnight flight,  she had fully relined again back into The Woman’s lap, and as she had a bulkhead seat, she stretched out with her feet halfway up the wall. First-class leisure at cattle class prices. She intended to stay that way for breakfast in the morning, until the flight attendant made her sit up so The Woman could eat without her tray table pressing against her spine.

Terminal 5 is much better for arrivals than departures, though not necessarily for the distance to be covered before it’s all over. After a long walk on various different levels, it is then necessary to take a train to another part of the building, then walk long distances on various levels to get to passport control. The actual immigration process was quite quick and the bags were already on the conveyer belt by the time we got there.

Now comes the jetlag recovery.

British Airways – The World’s Second-Rate Carrier

Despite the best efforts of British Airways, we made it to Texas for Christmas.

When Heathrow Terminal 5 opened in March as BA’s new home for long-haul departures and arrivals, it was a fiasco. Despite all of the hoopla about the high-tech, state-of-the-art facility, nothing worked. We gave them nine months to work out all the kinks, but when we arrived at Terminal 5 this week, it was a fiasco.

We got in the queue for the “Fast Bag Drop” behind about six other parties. That took 90 minutes. I had checked in online at home to save time. Gave all the passport details, printed off our boarding passes and everything.  The Fast Bag Drop guy still had to run the passports through the machine and who knows what else before he would tag our bags and send them on the conveyor belt into the abyss.

We then proceeded to security, as we were instructed. We were promptly turned away because our passports hadn’t been cleared by the guy at Fast Bag Drop. So we had to go to another Passport and Visa Clearance desk. The woman there did the same thing as the Fast Bag Drop guy and sent us back to security, who finally let us through to the queue for the scanners. Since we weren’t flying first class like Olympic runner Colin Jackson, we weren’t in the same queue. But really it didn’t take as long to process the cattle class as we had feared.

Since we were 2½ hours early to the airport, we told the kids they could have breakfast there before we got on the plane. We didn’t know that BA would take so unbelievably long or that the boarding time on our boarding passes was incorrect. By the time we got through security, the instruction was to go to the gate. The Woman had to quickly find some sandwiches and we had to hustle to the gate. Actually that should be “gate”, since what it was in name and what it was in reality were two different things.  It was a bus stop.

Yes, at high-tech, state-of-the-art Terminal 5, we had to board one of a series of buses and be driven nearly to Berkshire to board the plane out in the middle of the tarmac. Thenwe had to climb up the stairs into the 747. most of you have seen a 747 and realise that it is not a small plane with doors near the ground. I had to climb into a 737 in Bristol and that was no big deal. There are lots of steps for a handicapped man with carry-on luggage to climb to get into a 747. I honestly have no idea how the several wheelchair users got on that plane.

The food on the plane was the most awful I have ever had from an airline. British Airways had always done well in the past. I suppose economic cutbacks being what they are, they couldn’t help the awful turkey dinner with overcooked sprouts and carrots.

Now I can’t say it was BA’s fault that it took well over an hour to get our bags once we arrived in Houston, or that a sniffer dog found the leftover half of a Boots ham and cheese sandwich so that we had to have all our bags x-rayed by US Customs. They weren’t responsible for my unfounded fear when we walked into the Customs x-ray room and the first person we saw was pulling on a latex glove.

The rest of it, I put firmly on their shoulders. I hope the journey back is better.

How He Spent His Summer Vacation

If you are American and think of the UK as an ideal vacation location, you may wonder why all the Brits try to go somewhere else. Unfortunately, with the weakening economy and especially the weakening pound against the Euro, more Brits stayed on this side of the Channel during the second wettest British summer on record.

To share in their misery, British CNN reporter Adrian Finighan joined them in one of the usual British holiday locations, the seaside caravan park. So for the Best of British, have a quick read.

Home Again

Welcome to jet lag. It’s almost 3:00 am here in Merry Ol’ and my body thinks that it is 9:00 pm. So you are thinking, well, it’s not too long til bedtime. That would be true, except that I had two big naps since I got back, due, at least in part, to being awake almost all of 28 hours.

So now’s as good a time as any to describe the journey back.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to Treat a Lady

I don’t like to fly. So after three flights in 24 hours, I am visiting my parents. We couldn’t afford for the Unnamed family to travel as well, so I am here on my own.

On the way across the Atlantic, I sat next to a elderly British lady who had been in New Jersey on 9/11. She told me about how she had a difficult time getting back to the UK. Once she got a flight, she was sitting next to what appeared to be a Muslim man. After she described his gross-out eating habits, she described how he wanted to stretch out so he told her to go get another seat toward the back of the plane.

She told a stewardess that the man had told her to move. The stewardess told the man off, though he is not appear to be in any way ashamed of his behaviour. A few minutes later the stewardess came back and told the man she was moving the lady. The man said, “Thank you!” The stewardess replied, “I’m not moving her for your sake – I’m moving her for her sake.” She moved the lady to First Class.

The Need to Know Everything

Do we need another scary Big Brother story? Probably not, but the Government just keeps throwing them out there for us.

As reported in the Daily Telegraph, the UK Government is accessing one million travel record each month.

The data is handed over to the Home Office through the e-Borders programme.

It includes personal information like name, address, itinerary, meal preference, sex, detail of travel companions and credit card numbers.

The Home Office admitted it had collected this level of detail on 54 million people since the launch of e-Borders in January 2005.

Why do they need all this information? It is ostensibly to fight crime. But who goes through all this information? How many civil servants does it take to process this amont of data?

And who exactly then has access to all this data?  After they lost the bank details of 25 million families, what are they doing keeping the credit card details of 54 million people?

And why do they need to know the meal preferences of every traveller? Do terrorists choose certain meal options?

No, the Government is sending a message. If you have committed a crime in any way, they will catch you. They will even catch if you are someone who might act in some way like someone who might think of committing a crime. That is enough to make you an enemy of the State. Perhaps eventually all of the people who choose chicken can pass through customs and those who choose beef will be stopped and strip searched.

I know you must be thinking that we are joking when Brits tell you that this is what passes for Government in this country. Judges are ordered to not give burglars jail time so they can have a place to put all of he people they can trap through non-stop, ever more invasive surveillance.

Summer of Discontent

I suppose it is a good thing that we can’t afford for the unnamed grandchildren to visit their grandparents in America this summer. Since they are dual citizens they are required to enter the United States on their American passports, but upon returning they have to show their British passports. The older unnamed child is still waiting for the renewal of his British passport.

It’s been a long wait. The Unnamed Woman sent everything off to the passport office in plenty of time. She enclosed the required two photographs, taken in a photo booth which advertised that the photos could be used for passports. After the usual bureaucratic delay, we were informed that the photos were unacceptable, so another set would have to provided. They were “too light”, though the bureaucrats didn’t explain what they meant by this description.

The Unnamed Woman took the child to a professional photographer experienced in producing passport photos. This photographer had already produced photos to the more rigorous requirements of the US Passport Agency. Another set were dispatched. After another extended bureaucratic delay, another letter arrived, informing us that once again the photos were unacceptable.

After extended unproductive telephone conversations with the four or five different useless passport office apparatchiks, another set of photos was sent. Then nothing. Why? Because the passport workers went on strike. The result? A backlog of 150,000 applications.

The backlog will take well into August to clear, according to jubilant union officials, smugly pleased with themselves that the general public will feel the maximum impact of their industrial action and that thousands will lose out on their holidays. If they haven’t already bought their travel insurance, then potentially they will have lost all the money they have paid for that holiday, meaning there will be no way to make it up at a later date.

I can understand why passport workers are angry. None are getting better than a below-inflation pay rise – in effect a pay cut. The longest serving staff are getting no pay rise – real or imagined – for the fifth year in a row. It is interesting that the governing party is tied to the trade unions, yet has more trouble appeasing them than the Tories. Because there has been industrial action across this civil service this year, we could be headed for another Winter of Discontent.

The only question is whether Gordon Brown will be around as Prime Minister by that time. His Government is falling apart. A couple of days ago, the third safest Labour seat in Parliament was lost to the Scottish Nationalist Party in a by-election.  His own cabinet ministers are questioning his future and plotting his downfall.

For the first time in years, the Conservative Party is way ahead in the opinion polls. It appears that having finally convinced the country that they are greener and gayer than Labour, so there will be no challenge to the cherished values of the Left, the British population may very well be willing to give them another shot at governing.

Having lost most of my affinity for the Tories, I only want to see them in power to see the Red Rose lot out. I think the Government will run marginally more effectively and we may see a slow down on the road to totalitarianism, but no great change. I doubt they will even get the passport office to function more effectively.

Making Space for Religion

It’s not often that you see something positive in the interaction between religion and the state these days. I was surprised to see that Barnet Council in North London is introducing a special parking permit for religious leaders on official business. Parking in any part of London can be a nightmare and when space can be found, fees can be outrageous.

In many areas residential parking is restricted to residents. For those making house calls this can be particularly problematic. The new permit will allow priests and other Christian ministers as well as Rabbis and spiritual leaders of other religions to park in resident spaces.

As you can imagine, parking for worship services can also difficult in some areas. Barnet Council will consider applications for the special permits for these situations.

The permits will cost £40 per year, but compared to the normal parking costs combined with the increased availability of spaces, these seems like a pretty good deal.

Burning Liquid Gold

At the half-way mark, I took a break last night from report writing to have a pre-Father Day’s dinner at our favourite Chinese buffet in Gloucester. It’s a bit of a drive, but even with petrol prices what they are, we love it. It costs a bit more in the evening, but that’s when they bring out the good stuff.

And speaking of petrol prices, we needed a bit of fuel to get back home, so we pulled into a relatively reasonably priced BP garage. £20 bought 16.82 litres of petrol. To translate that for Stateside readers who are paying nearly $4.00 a gallon, we bought 4.44 gallons for a mere $42.60 (at yesterday’s tourist rate for buying sterling). Yes, your calculator is working correctly: that’s $9.59 a gallon. I’m just glad we were buying unleaded gasoline rather than diesel.  The same amount would have cost $49.04 or $11.05 a gallon.

Catching the Real Criminals

With the continuing rise in violent crime, it is comforting to know that some criminals are being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Rachel McKenzie is one such criminal. Now admittedly she didn’t kill anyone. She didn’t even beat up anyone. She didn’t rob anyone. Criminals like that can be treated with lenience.

No, Ms McKenzie, who works for the Catholic archbishop of Southwark (I sense a true scandal brewing) failed to pay 20p of a bus fare. Those who know that justice must be blind should agree that not realising she hadn’t paid the fare is no excuse. She should have heard the beep when she pressed her Oyster card on the reader. She should have checked that her card had enough credit. If we as a society start letting people pay 70p for a 90p bus journey, where will it end?

And it doesn’t matter than when the ticket nazi inspector got on the bus and read her card, she offered to pay 20p out of her purse. A crime had been committed. Now some people might think that if 20p isn’t enough, she should be allowed to pay the £20 penalty fare. After all, as a Transport for London legal department wrote to Ms McKenzie, “Consistent with all cashless services, it is your responsibility to ensure you have sufficient credit in your card to pay for your bus journey.”

But does a penalty fare of 10,000% send the right message to Ms McKenzie and criminals like her? The ticket nazi inspector and his superiors at Transport for London don’t think so. No, some criminals must face the music in court. Why shouldn’t she get a criminal record, a fine of up to £1,000 and pay the costs of prosecution? That’s what will happen if she is convicted.

If she isn’t convicted, the costs will have to borne by taxpayers. This is going to be in the range of £5,000. I don’t know about you, but as a taxpayer, I have to hope Ms McKenzie is brought to justice. Remember, it’s not like she’s the only offender. After all, Transport for London brought more than 30,000 prosections last year, in additon to the more than 47,000 who were clearly less culpable than Ms McKenzie and received the £20 penalty fare.

Now before you think I am blowing this out of proportion and that a court will never find against Ms McKenzie, bear in mind that Ashley Williams tried to get off the bus last year when her Oyster card beeped insufficient funds, but the driver closed the door and pulled away too quick. She got off as soon as the bus reached the next stop, but as the court realised, a crime had been committed and must be punished. Ms Williams has a criminal record and like Ms McKenzie she will now have trouble with things like getting a visa to visit the US.

Travel Costs

The Government are working hard to get everyone out of their cars and onto public transportation. They have raised the road tax on most family cars, based on carbon emissions. When it was announced in the Budget, it was made to sound like it was prospective – applying to cars manufactured from now on and encouraging new car buyers to choose more enviro-friendly models. Instead it has been made retrospective – it applies to all cars from 2001. That means anyone who bought the “wrong” car in the last seven years will now be penalised by about £245 ($500) a year.

But if you want to save money by getting out of your car, you will have to pay for the train. Of course unless your train starts at your station, you may very well have to stand for the entire journey. After all, a train ticket does not guarantee a seat, but only agrees to carriage – that the train will be going to the destination.

You also have to be careful where you stand on the train. Nichola Myhill found out that even if every breathable standing space is taken in the second class carriages, and next to the toilets between the carriages, do not stand in the luggage area just inside first class. There is no excuse for first class passengers to be soiled by the relative proximity of the cattle class. They shouldn’t have to bear with the commoners standing next to their first class luggage.

Nicola may pay £4,000 per year for a season ticket, but that doesn’t give her the right or priviledge of standing inside first class, next to rows of empty seats. She was duly fined £69 ($140) on the spot for such outrageous behaviour. (The fine is calculated as twice the cost of the first class ticket.) If she can’t squeeze into the toilet area, she just has to miss work.

This story was carried in several national newspapers. In the comments section to one, a reader proposed a logical solution: “Perhaps we should open up the roof like they do in other third-world countries?”

Power Crazy Parking Nazis

Just came across this on one of The Times blogs:

The Ten Craziest Parking Tickets of All Time

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Government Profiteering Through Fees

I got my new passport today. I’m good to travel for another ten years.

I wanted to move my Indefinite Leave to Remain visa from my old passport to the new one. Seems like it would be a fairly straightforward procedure. Given everything I’ve paid in fees in the past, you would think it is would be free. Okay, maybe there would be a small administrative charge for the transferring the sticker, or even pasting a new one in the new passport.

Not exactly. There is a £160 fee. It’s like a 10-year recurring tax to be a taxpayer. But that’s for having it done by post. So I’ll just take in personally and have it done. Less administrative hassle for the bureaucrats, so a much cheaper fee, right?

Not exactly. The fee goes up. Way up. So what does the Government charge me for using my own petrol and taking time off work to make things easier for them? £500. There is an advantage to me though. I don’t have to wait up to 14 weeks to get my documents returned. So I suppose I’m paying for the privilege of not being prevented from traveling for three months.

But there’s more. Just as if I was applying to enter the UK for the first time, I have to answer the usual questions:

In times of either peace or war have you or any dependants included in this application ever been involved, or suspected of involvement, in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide?

Have you or any dependants included in this application ever been involved in, supported or encouraged terrorist activities in any country?

Have you or any dependants included in this application ever been a member of, or given support to, an organisation which has been concerned in terrorism?

Why do they ask these questions? Do they honestly think that someone is going to be involved in genocide or terrorism and then admit to it on a government form? This is honestly sillier that then question at the airline check-in counter about whether you packed your own bag, as if you are suddenly going to remember that a strange Middle Eastern man showed up at your house and asked if he could pack your bag for you, just as a random act of kindness.

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer the questions (which wouldn’t be a problem) or pay the £160 (which would), as long as I keep my old passport with me. I just have to present both documents when I want to get back into the country. As I see it, why should I pay £160 when it is going to cost me £655 to apply for citizenship and it will take the same amount of time to process the application?

It is much cheaper to become an American citizen. $330 (or about £165). A replacement green card is $190 (£95). Is this just another example of Rip-off Britain?

Busking

One thing London has to offer is a variety of buskers. Just about every Tube station has one. Some have more.

The legality of it all is quite confusing.  There was a blind man playing an accordion just down from a sign saying buskers would be fined £200. Clearly he didn’t see the sign. At another station there was a painted (or carefully tiled) semi-circle area on the floor which seemed to be created for busking. I favour the latter approach, as busking really is a London institution. Do people really complain?

The quality ranges from almost professional to atonally bizarre. At one station a hip-hopper with a wireless mike started singing about the kids making up lyrics as we walked by and followed us for a short distance. Then there was the man with no legs who played one note on a pipe of some kind. He just tooted the one note at random intervals.

Disability did seem to be a recurring theme. I suppose that when opportunity or academic inclination hasn’t offset physical handicap, begging is a reasonable recourse. And buskers are actually putting some effort into their work – or in the case of the tooting double amp, at least making a noise to get noticed.

And there are those who seem to be making a lifestyle choice. Two or three times a day, you come across the really talented. These are the ones that should be playing in a band somewhere. Maybe they do in the evenings.

The most memorable busker I have ever heard – in fact, the only one I can remember from more than three days ago – was a Afro-Caribbean man playing classical music on a steel drum at the bottom of an escalator. It was in 1992. I don’t remember the Tube station.  He was playing Für Elise by Beethoven.