Friday, 1 November 2019

British Airways World Traveller: London to Hong Kong via Airbus A380

Off to Hong Kong, a city of such importance it merits bold formatting. Back in 1989 Michael Palin visited Hong Kong for Around the World in Eighty Days. He took the Orient Express from London to Austria, then a mixture of boats and planes through Egypt, then dhow to Bombay, train to Madras, freighter to Singapore, and then cargo ship to Hong Kong, which was at the time part of the British Empire. It took him forty-two days to get there.

Thirty years later I also visited Hong Kong, but it only took me twelve hours, because I flew. In theory Michael Palin might have done the same, but for Around the World in Eighty Etc he wasn't supposed to use twentieth century transport, so no airliners or roller skates or space hoppers or hovercraft.

I learn from the internet that both British Airways and Cathay Pacific flew direct from Heathrow and Gatwick to Hong Kong in the late 1980s, but they had to avoid the Soviet Union, so flight times were slightly longer than today, 13-14 hours instead of 12. How much did it cost to fly direct from London to Hong Kong in 1989? I'd love to know as well. Lots, I imagine.

I've never flown long-haul before so I thought I'd write about the trip. I took the cheapest option I could find, British Airways' World Traveller, which is a fancy way of saying basic economy without using the words "basic" or "economy". £450, and I booked months in advance. My attitude is that unless the plane is special or there's something unique about the flight, airline travel is a means to an end, and every penny spent on it is a penny I can't spend on Pocky sticks and elephant rides when I get to my destination. I can put up with twelve hours of unpleasantness if Hong Kong is at the end of it. Hong Kong, you're worth it.

NB This post isn't sponsored by British Airways or anybody and I got given nuffin' by no-one.

The flight departed at 18:40 and arrived exactly twelve hours later, at 13:40 local time.

British Airways currently flies three types of ultra-long-haul aircraft, with a fourth just starting to enter service. The 747-400 has the range for Hong Kong, but BA doesn't fly it on that route any more. The airline does however use the Boeing 777 twinjet and the four-engined double-decker Airbus A380. I have no idea how they choose which aircraft ends up on which route; there was no opportunity to pick a plane during booking.

I would have preferred a 747, just so that I could fly on a 747, but British Airways is winding down the 747 fleet. They'll all be gone by 2024, so I ended up with an A380. The new, twin-engined Airbus A350 is gradually being introduced, but so far BA only flies it on Middle Eastern or transatlantic routes. That's a long way, but it's not Hong Kong.

My chariot awaits. HSBC's Hong Kong HQ is one of the most distinctive buildings in downtown Hong Kong, they even print some of Hong Kong's banknotes.

The Airbus A380 is a familiar sight in the skies above London. Emirates of Dubai has a big fleet, seemingly dedicated to flying footballers and the cast of Geordie Shore from Heathrow to Dubai and back again. If you stand anywhere in London and look up you'll see an A380 eventually.

The A380 has been dogged with controversy since development began in the superbad "end of history" peace dividend technologically utopian 1990s. The general trend in aviation has been away from four-engined aircraft to twinjets, because the extra range and power of four engines doesn't compensate for the added weight and complexity, and furthermore modern engines are more powerful and reliable, so aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 can travel almost as far with only two.

On the other hand the A380's huge capacity has allowed airliners to replace two Boeing 747s with one A380, which is the main reason British Airways doesn't use the 747 on the London-to-Hong-Kong route; the A380 allowed BA to cut the number of flights on that route without cutting the number of passengers it flew.

Back in the early 2000s the A380 was widely expected to revolutionise air travel. The BBC in particular had a massive hard-on for it, because it was a huge European mega-project with billions of Euros of government subsidies. That kind of thing makes the BBC's heart flutter. The A380 could move anything from 500 to 800 people half-way across the globe at a lower seat-per-mile cost than the 747. The theory was that airlines could make money either by filling the A380 with cut-price economy passengers, or by expanding the business class section while still carrying a useful economy load. In the mid-2000s Heathrow spent a fortune upgrading Terminals 3 and 5 to cope with the A380, and the aircraft's great size was one of the many reasons for the delays to Berlin Brandenberg Airport.

Unfortunately for Airbus the timing was all wrong. The A380 entered service a few years late, in 2007, shortly before a major global recession that saw fuel prices skyrocket. It was more efficient than the 747 but less efficient than smaller twinjets, so takeup was modest and the project has apparently lost Airbus a fortune. The Boeing 747 and 777 have second lives as short-haul people-carriers, but the A380 is too big for smaller airports, so that option isn't open to it. The 747 and 777 are also popular cargo aircraft, but the A380 is passenger-only, and converting it to carry freight would be more trouble that it is worth. Production has slowed to a trickle and will apparently cease in 2021.

In theory the A380's big rival was the Boeing 747, but in practice the Boeing 777 (foreground) has been the A380's real arch-nemesis. Despite being a twinjet it can carry almost as many passengers just as far as a four-engined jumbo jet. It also hurt the market for Boeing's own 747, but in the words of Steve Jobs, "if you don't cannibalise yourself, someone else will".

The irony is that the A380 is by all accounts a great aircraft, with an excellent accident record - no crashes, no deaths - but it will forevermore be remembered as a flop. It's a bit like the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar or Vickers VC-10 in that respect. A technical marvel that came too late and was too awkward for the world in which it found itself.

As far as I can tell BA's classes for long-haul are world traveller, which gets you a seat and two meals, then world traveller plus, which gets you a larger seat, then business class, also called club world, which gets you a lie-flat seat arranged in a yin-yang shape with your neighbour, and finally first, which has nicer lie-flat seats and thicker dividers. The latter two classes do not, apparently, have dress codes, so you don't have to wear a tie. I didn't wear a tie. Prices from London to Hong Kong return are roughly £450 - £700 - £1300 - £10,000+ in that order. How badly do you want to go to Hong Kong? How quickly? How comfortably?

Budget long-haul is a lot like life itself; it is an endurance test, but unlike life there is a reward at the end of it, whereas with life you struggle until you drop. There is no reward. I have to say that any pain I felt was not the fault of British Airways, and the suffering came more from the person in front of me abruptly reclining their seat, which again was not the fault of British Airways.

Also, the armrests didn't go all the way up into the seatback. That is the fault of British Airways. And there was limited space for my feet, but read on dear reader, read on. I didn't have a window seat, so there was no view. The A380 has a gullwing-style design whereby the wings tilt upwards - it's a little bit like the WW2 F4 Corsair - so if you have a window seat in economy class your view will be of the wing.

A F4 Corsair, with its distinctive inverted gull wing. The F4's wing was designed to extend the reach of the landing gear, so that the huge propellor wouldn't hit the deck. The A380's wing is also designed to keep the landing gear short, as well as reducing the aircraft's width while still having a large wing.

Those two things in green are my legs. There are many like them, but these are mine. The one on the left is for fighting; the one on the right is for fun. Neither of them have a major malfunction. God loves my legs because they provide him with fresh souls.

They're so horny! They love you long time, and I mean everybody says that R Lee Ermey improvised his dialogue but the fact is that most of it is taken directly from the source novel, The Short-Timers. If you're used to typical Easyjet / Ryanair low-cost short-haul flights, BA's A380 World Traveller seats are about an inch bigger in all directions, technically 17.5in / 31in width/pitch vs 17 / 30 (Ryanair) or 18 / 28 (Easyjet). I could just about stretch out without jamming my knees into the seat in front of me.

There was a decent up-and-down adjustable headrest albeit that I brought along an inflatable pillow. Everybody else in the cabin brought along a pillow as well, in fact lots of my fellow passengers donned the pillow in the departure lounge and kept it on for the whole flight, perhaps because it's comforting. When you put on the pillow you disconnect yourself from the other people in the airport. You are no longer aimlessly walking around, you are going on a plane. You are an astronaut carrying your portable air supply to the launch gantry. BA provided me with a second pillow and a blanket, which I stuffed into the locker because they were unnecessary.

BA arranges the World Traveller class in a three-four-three configuration. As far as I could tell every other row - e.g. the second, four, sixth, eighth, and tenth rows - had a computer box on the floor that took up some legroom. Did I mention that the armrests didn't go up? The aisle armrests were fixed, the internal armrests went up to about 45 degrees. On the return flight some of the internal seats in the four-seat section were empty - Hong Kong is seductive - so in theory passengers in the middle could stretch onto two seats, but the armrests would make it difficult. Perhaps it's supposed to stop homeless people from wandering into the aircraft and sitting there. I don't know.

Online airline reviews tend to concentrate on business-class travel because advertisers want to target business-class passengers. There aren't many reviews of long-haul economy because economy passengers don't have any money. Hence all the reviews that have shots of empty seats, because the reviewer was allowed to get on the plane first, with an SLR, and tour around the cabin taking photos. I was in no mood to fish out my camera so I used my mobile phone.

The A380 has two decks; I flew on the lower deck; the top deck was blocked off with what looked like a baby stair gate, so I couldn't tour the aircraft. Curtains divided the classes, but I can confirm that the business class toilets were exactly the same as the economy toilets.

There was ample room in the overhead bins. Thankfully the flight had none of the low-cost malarkey where people spend ages moving their bags back and forth so that they fit. BA's World Traveller lets you take a backpack or wheely suitcase plus a smaller bag. I put my backpack in the bin and my small bag into the footrest in front of me.

Let's have a look at the in-flight entertainment unit:

The touchscreen was laggy but functional. The remote popped out on a vacuum-cleaner-style retractable cable. The buttons made an irritating click-click-clicky noise. The overhead light button is on the IFU remote, I assume because the light itself is too high to reach from a sitting position. Of note the A380 doesn't have individual air vents. The best thing about the IFU was the moving map:

That's the Lufthansa logo, isn't it? Earlier in the year I saw the IMAX version of Apollo 11. It was cut down from the ordinary cinema release, so I was curious to see what had changed. Next to the screen was a combined USB port plus what appeared to be a headphone jack. The USB port charged my phone and iPad, with a bit of wiggling, but the headphone jack was too small for a standard 3.5mm plug.

A bit of Googling suggests that I was completely off-base, and that the headphone jack was actually in the armrest, which makes sense (there was something there) but it's a shame the seat didn't make this more obvious. Glancing around the cabin, everybody else seemed to be using their own mobile phones and tablets instead of the IFU. Was there a way to cast the screen of your device to the IFU, so you could relax in your seat and watch a film? Not that I could see, and the IFU felt a bit too slow and old-fashioned for that kind of thing.

British Airways has come in for some stick for cutting meals from short-haul flights, but they still serve meals in long haul. I had two meals each way, a main meal and then a breakfast. After boarding and settling down there were drinks:

I asked for a gin and tonic but there were juices and water etc as well. I have no idea why. The steward asked me if I wanted wine in addition to the gin and tonic, which puzzled me. Why would I say no? I have never said no to wine. Has anyone? Even if you don't drink it, you can put it in your bag and barter it for ammunition or food later on. Wine isn't just a drink, it's an investment.

On the way back I was asked if I wanted two bottles of wine, which again puzzled me. Why would I say no? I have never said no to a second bottle of wine. Why would I? What would I gain? I don't understand why they didn't just give me all the wine. I don't understand.

There were two choices of main meal. Chicken pasta or something else. Lasagne, I think. Was it beef? That's it, "chicken or beef". I chose chicken.

There was a little pot of salad, a couple of crackers, a tiny bread roll, some cheese, and a pot of mousse. It wasn't bad. The main meal looked pretty nasty but after stirring it up it was presentable; typical microwave food. I didn't have a problem with it. The rest of the meal was essentially "food mass" designed to fill me up.

Neither meal felt particularly substantial, but that was fine by me. Whenever I spend time on a plane I think about the toilet arrangements of the Apollo astronauts. They had to hold a plastic bag against their bottoms and poo into it. I have never pooed on a plane before and I don't plan to, ever, so light meals are fine by me. I just wanted to share that with you.

There is another world that I can never possess, without transforming myself so completely that I am no longer me. BA's website gives passengers the option to upgrade the meal for £16 or so. Some of my fellow passengers ordered a special vegetarian meal, which was served just before the other meals, perhaps to warn the rest of us that there were vegetarians in our midst. If we crashed in the Andes and food ran out the vegetarians would do well to flee from the plane, as far away as possible, because in a world of hungry meat-eaters the vegetarians would be hunted for their flesh, their tender flesh. Those thoughts and many more ran through my mind as I flew to Hong Kong.

After the meal I watched Deadpool on my iPad. It's okay. The film is carried by Ryan Reynolds' charisma. He's so dreamy. I've only ever seen him in Blade Runner 2049, where he was wooden and looked slightly different, but then again he was playing a robot so perhaps the woodenness was intentional. It's odd how Reynolds appeared in so many bad films during the pre-Deadpool part of his career, and yet he continued to find work, as if fate was keeping his career afloat until it was time for Deadpool to happen. Deadpool has, like, only three scenes! There's a fight on a motorway, then a long flashback to Deadpool's origin, then a final battle. It's a surprisingly slight film. It was made on a low budget, and instead of skimping on the effects they just made the movie shorter.

As a passenger experience the A380 is essentially transparent. I can remember a tiny bit of turbulence, and then only because it was so rare. Takeoff from Hong Kong sounded rattly and mechanical; the gear was noisy; landing at Heathrow was a firm smack; beyond that the only indication I was on an aeroplane at thirty thousand feet was the noise of the engines whirring away in the background. The cruising altitude on the moving map seemed unusually low, but apparently the A380 climbs gradually as the fuel burns off, so the aircraft must have reached its apogee when I was asleep.

After watching Deadpool I still had nine more hours to go. I tried to get some sleep and to my credit actually managed a bit. Good job, me.

One thing. After settling down to sleep I started to feel strange. Cold sweat, panic attack, heavy breathing. I took off my hat and did some deep breaths and things settled down, but whenever I tried to nod off it felt as if I had to breathe harder than normal. My hunch is that it was an altitude thing.

Airliners in flight are pressurised to different altitudes, the lower the better; the ultimate goal would be a sea-level atmosphere, but that would require an incredibly tough skin, so airline manufacturers have to compromise. Low-cost short-haul airliners are pressurised to the equivalent of 8,000 feet, about the same as Machu Picchu in the Andes, but it's generally unnoticeable because the flights are very short. The A380 is pressurised to around 7,000 feet or so - figures vary - which isn't especially high, but my guess is that after four hours my body started to notice. It passed after an hour and wasn't an issue on the way back, so perhaps it was a one-off thing.

In the event I returned to full consciousness at about 11:00 Hong Kong time, and shortly afterwards the crew began serving breakfast. This wasn't as good as the main meal.

Again there were two options, an "English breakfast" and another one, an omelette I think. At that point in the flight I would have eaten anything. The main meal had a sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon, a tomato, mushrooms, all of which were tasteless and watery. The accessory packet had orange juice, a pot of fruit, and a muffin, which were okay.

I have to say that I don't eat English breakfasts at home in England. They're an affectation. A long time ago the working man ate greasy crap for breakfast because he needed tonnes of calories, but in the twenty-first century actual working men don't have time for a sit-down breakfast, they have a microwave burger or a sausage roll or something. The only people who eat English breakfasts are middle-class media types, who have a crushing sense of physical and moral inferiority and like to affect an air of working-class toughness. Fake Cockney accents, close-cropped hair, you know the type.

It's rubbish. English breakfasts are horrible. If I was designing BA's meals I would give up on the idea - it's futile, you can't microwave an English breakfast - and serve a sausage, a hash brown, some beans, a hard-boiled egg, or a Cornish pastie, or an approximation of a McMuffin, the list is endless. Porridge with masses of jam and a pot of Nutella. Anything.

After a few more hours the aeroplane landed and then I went to Hong Kong.

Boarding and deboarding, deplaning, getting on and off a large long-haul airliner is a lot easier than the same process with an A320 or 737. There's more space in the aisle, less fussing around with the overhead bins, it's generally slicker.

Tips for Hong Kong? When I was there the exchange rate was almost exactly $100HKD to £10. I suggest you get $400HKD from an ATM in the airport - not $500, more on this later - then head over to the MTR desk and buy an Octopus card, and ask them to put all of the money onto the card. You will use the card for almost everything. As a tourist you can't use your credit card to add money to the Octopus. Instead you have to withdraw cash from an ATM, then shove the cash into an Octopus machine, which seems like a waste of time, but that's how things are.

Here's what my Octopus looks like:

It's like the MAM cards from Halo Jones. Little shops use it. Big shops use it. The buses and trams use it. The MTR uses it. Ferries use it. Etc.

There are apparently two different types - an "on loan Octopus" that you're supposed to hand back at the end of your trip, and a "sold Octopus" that you keep - but the price difference is negligible and functionally they're the same. My second tip is that when you withdraw money from a cashpoint for general use, withdraw $400 at a time, not $500. That way you don't get a single $500 note. The MTR add-value machines don't accept $500 notes and no-one likes them because they're too big.

Once you have an Octopus card pop onto the Airport Express MTR into Hong Kong. To save money you could instead take the S1 bus to Tung Chung, then the MTR to Hong Kong, but you might want to wait until you're familiarised with Hong Kong before you try out this elite travel hack.

One advantage of the MTR + bus option is that it's more flexible - on account of the recent protests the Airport Express is sometimes restricted to a one-stop service between the airport and Hong Kong MTR*, missing out the intermediate stops.

* Confusingly there is an MTR station called Hong Kong.

Mong Kok station was inaccessible for the first couple of days.

There will come a time when China will decide to eliminate, or massively play down, the English signage. Austin Road and the King George V Memorial Park will be given Chinese names and Hong Kong will gradually be absorbed into Shenzhen, and the world will be slightly more the same.

The Way Back
After going to Hong Kong I came back. I felt a bit stupid having a meal before going to the airport, because Hong Kong airport has a bunch of really good restaurants that are much the same price as the mainland. I tried out some soup from the Moon Thai Express. It had Thai green curry for something like $80HKD, but I had the soup because I had just eaten:

Hong Kong Airport is very large. This is the departure gate area, which really does stretch off to the vanishing point, and behind me there's a mass of restaurants, and behind that is the landside hall, which is split into an entrance area and a large foyer in front of the security system:

The front half of the landside hall.

This time my flight left at 23:10, arriving at 04:50 UK time, which wasn't too bad because it connected up with the earliest National Express coach from Heathrow to Woking, which left at 06:00. I can now say that I have seen Woking train station at 06:30 in the morning. Woking is a commuter town that exists because there are lots of trains into London very early in the morning. There is no other reason for Woking.

The return flight was the same deal. Get on the plane, take off, drink, then meal. I chose beef this time. It wasn't as good as the chicken.

The beef was globby and chewy and the vegetables were a waste of time. Apparently the conditions on board an aeroplane are inconducive to fried foods and anything crispy or oily, but I would have given anything for a Rustler's burger or something. Anything would have been better than an imitation of a bad Sunday meal.

At this point I settled down and watched Deadpool 2 on my iPad, thus bringing myself up to speed with the Deadpool franchise. It's a better film than the first, obviously more expensive, with the kind of swagger that comes from being the second part of a surprisingly successful franchise. It has a theme tune sung by Celine Dion that could easily have been a parody, but works perfectly well as a legitimate epic movie theme. It's the second film I have seen in a few days with Zazie Beetz - she was Arthur Fleck's neighbour in Joker - and she's one of the best things in it. She plays Domino, whose superpower is that she's lucky. Things explode around her but she emerges unscathed. She is the opposite of the soldiers in XCOM. She is even more competent than Deadpool himself and nonchalant with it. Is there enough of the character for a spin-off film?

Sleeping was harder on the way back because my feet hurt, because I had spend a week and two days walking around Hong Kong in hiking boots. It seemed a good idea at the time - I planned to do a lot of hiking - but Hong Kong's terrain isn't difficult enough to justify big boots and the humidity is such that my feet got sweaty, at which point they started to rub against the boots.

Also, the cabin felt cold, because I was used to a temperature of 30c. I did eventually manage to get to sleep, helped by the fact I had an aisle seat, which meant that I didn't have to interact with anybody before going to the toilet. I hate having to interact with people before going to the toilet. I'm a grown man, not a child.

The second breakfast was no better than the first:

No sausage this time. Instead, potato things, plus a strip of bacon. And more fruit and a muffin. The stewards were more liberal with the drink this time. I liked that. I took one of the bottles of wine home as a souvenir:

Despite being a year past its best before date of 2018 the wine tasted fine. I'm not a wine snob. On the left is the first volume of Old Hong Kong Photos and the Tales They Tell, which I picked up in Bleak House Books while visiting the site of what used to be Kowloon's walled city. It's published by the chap who runs, which has masses of photos of old Hong Kong.

After debarking, leaving, deboarding, deplaning, getting off the plane I blithely walked through the Nothing to Declare aisle and slipped into the darkness of pre-dawn Heathrow. A long time ago Hong Kong was a top destination for British people who wanted cheap video recorders, cameras, watches etc, but the internet is a great leveller, and when I want cheap rubbish I buy it from eBay. The only gadget that piqued my interest was a tiny little mini PC laptop. GDP Pocket? Topjoy Falcon? I didn't catch the name so I couldn't research it.

Still, that was how I got to Hong Kong and back. My mission was fulfilled at 04:50, local time, October 17th, 2019.