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.

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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.

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.

School’s Out For Summer

Well, as far as the pupils are concerned.

I have to go back tomorrow for a few hours. I need to make an appearance at least. I can’t actually do anything in my room, because it is being used for a first aid course all day.

Because the Unnamed Woman had to go out of town today, I had to get a ride to school today with a colleague who also lives in Hooterville. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take me all the way home – something I didn’t know until she was about to drop me off on the opposite side of the city. All of a sudden I was stranded some miles from home. It is a good thing I didn’t bring my usual bags with me today and only had my lunch box.

I had to walk for a mile to get to a cashpoint so I could get money for a taxi. I’ve checked the route on Google maps to confirm this. Not bad for a disabled person with significant mobility limitations. It was another 1.7 miles to my house. The taxi cost me £7, about as much as it costs me to commute all the way to work and back each day. It took me nearly an hour from the time I was dropped off until I got home.

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.