Monday, June 25, 2018

My trip to London Bats**t Airport on ClusterJet

I have made it to my AirBnB near Russell Square in time to get a few hours (maybe 5?) of sleep before jumping into the London Festival of Learning conferences tomorrow.

While the ordeal of getting here has consisted entirely of first world problems, it's no less irritating for that because I had first world expectations.

This was my first experience on EasyJet, a discount airline that, to be fair, is really inexpensive. True, for the basic fare you cannot choose your own seats, check any bags, bring more than 1 piece of cabin luggage, get complimentary soft drinks, or use the airline bathroom. OK, I made up the last one, but the others are all true.

They increase their profit margins by keeping planes in the air a lot, and they attract many travelers by serving many destinations. Putting these two constraints together, you realize that a typical EasyJet plane may visit five or six different European cities in a day, and every one of those cities gives it a chance to fall farther behind schedule. My plane was delayed more than an hour coming from Cyprus and Padmos (the announcer mispronounced it "Pathos", which I thought appropriate). The terminal satellites at Geneva are tiny—you can throw a football easily across its hexagonal diameter, and with six gates, it gets really crowded when flights back up. So I did what I always do in such cases, which was to have a drink. I got 40cl of vodka for $12.00.

Boarding on EasyJet works like this. Everyone stands in line, or some approximation of a linear mob, near the boarding gate. (A Brit standing near me described the process as "fairly chaotic," leading me to christen the airline ClusterJet instead.) By the time we actually boarded, some people had been standing in it for over an hour. Your place in line determines whether you are lucky enough to get overhead bin storage. You are allowed exactly one carry-on (unless you're a Preferred Traveler or have paid extra)—not one plus a personal item, or one plus a purse, or one plus a backpack, but exactly one: if it is not attached to your body as clothing, it is an item. If it does not fit under the seat, you can try to find overhead space for it. If you fail to do so, the cost to gate-check is about US$75. I had planned for this, and even though I managed to get overhead space, I could have shoved my bag under the seat.

The airplane itself was amusing. The seats were flimsier than bus seats and do not recline (this saves weight and cuts down maintenance costs). Because of a water plumbing problem at Gatwick where the plane had originated (a malediction on that airport; more on that later), we were informed that there was no drinking water aboard, and warned not to drink from the bathroom faucets. I was going to do that right after washing my hands in the toilet bowl water, but after the warning I reconsidered. They did sell wine though, so all wasn't lost.

By the time we arrived in Gatwick—a third-world airport in a first-world country—we were more than an hour late. Gatwick has a single runway, and discount airlines don't get the perks of going to an actual gate—you get picked up by one of those silly buses that drives you nearly a mile to the actual terminal. Getting off that bus and seeing the line for passport control made it clear I wasn't going to make the last train (11:55pm) to London. (The "EU passports" line actually seemed even worse.)

Gatwick is about 25 miles from London. That doesn't seem far, and the train (when it's running) takes only 35 minutes (not particularly fast for covering that distance). But tonight the motorway (freeway) was closed for construction, so driving to London means using side roads.

Bay Area folks: imagine that you have arrived at San Jose airport for a business trip to SF. The trains have stopped running, and 101 and 280 are closed, so your only option is either a bus that will run all the way to SF along El Camino, or a cab that will do the same but for a much higher price.

I tried summoning an Uber and went to the designated pickup area (across in the short term garage and 4 floors up), but after several minutes the Uber app was still "searching for a driver" even though it had estimated only a 5 minute wait. I gave up on Uber and went to the taxi stand.

I was told a taxi might be available in as little as 20 minutes, and would cost US$ 160 to go to central London, a 90-minute ride.

A gypsy cab driver offered to take me for US $125 so I said yes, since at this point my AirBnB host was probably already in bed, though I'd been messaging her to keep her abreast of my travel misfortunes and asking if there was any way I could get in without waking her.

The cab driver had an app on his phone that would sound an alarm whenever the urban speed limit changed from, say, 40 to 30 km/h or from "slow" to "very slow": buh-bing! buh-bing! buh-bing!  And it would sound whenever we were approaching a speedtrap camera: BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! As London is one of the world's most heavily surveilled cities, one of those two conditions occurs about every 500 meters (Trump voters: "every 5 football fields"), and since he was hard of hearing so he had the app connected by Bluetooth through his car radio: BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! buh-bing! buh-bing! buh-bing!  So the ride sounded a bit like spending 90 minutes in a sad third-world casino.

After an ATM stop (since the driver only accepted cash and I had no UK pounds), during which I was accosted by a local begging for money ("How about just ten quid so I can get me home?") we eventually arrived at what Google Maps said was my destination. Unfortunately every building on the street looked about the same, especially in the dark, and I had to hail my AirBnB host who saw me from her window and directed me to the correct one.

If you wanna know, you gotta go: Gatwick combines the worst features of Dulles—the silly buses to get to the plane—with the worst features of Islip, NY, an airport served by discount carriers that carries the designation "New York area", which is like saying that SFO serves the "Sonoma area".  EasyJet wasn't actually that bad, but the 1-hour delay made Gatwick un-navigable. Like Islip and Dulles, it's an airport whose public transportation shuts down before midnight, leaving passengers with basically no option but a predatorily priced cab ride to get anywhere useful, because believe me Gatwick is in the middle of nowhere—there wasn't even an airport hotel to be found. Whatever savings I thought I was getting by flying EasyJet evaporated, and then some.

The irony is that it took me 7 hours of transit (measuring from Geneva train station) to get here. I could have taken the train and it would have literally been faster (6:51 via Paris), and I would have arrived in London about 3 blocks from where I'm staying. Lesson learned...

1 comment:

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