Thursday, December 24, 2015

world traveller

Unless you have the time to take the steamer across the Atlantic, going to Argentina involves a 14-hour plane ride – and unless you can afford business class, this promises to be painful.  In my first year at Dectris, I’ve done a few long flights – 12 hours to San Francisco and 12 hours to Hong Kong – to little detriment, and I felt ready for the challenge this year's Christmas vacation presented, but this story isn't about me.  I would be traveling with Flucha and our daughter, and keeping a six-month-old content over that time isn't easy even at home with room to play, a city to take a walk, and a comfy bed to sleep.  The prospect filled me with considerable trepidation.

To make this 24-hour-long story – the flight was supplemented with a trip to the airport, a hop to London, a short layover and a drive from the airport into the city – short, I needn’t have worried.  The little one turned out to be a natural traveler, not only accepting everything that was thrown at her throughout the journey, but also quite visibly enjoying it.  She slept a lot on the plane – with fewer interruptions than at home – and when she didn’t, she played, checked out fellow passengers and her surroundings, and destroyed with great pleasure every inflight magazine in reach.

We hadn’t made it easy for her.  Lufthansa serves the only direct direction connection between Frankfurt and Buenos Aires, and initially we had booked our tickets with them.  It could have been simple and comfortable, but Lufthansa is far from what it used to be.  The recurring pilot strikes and walkouts by cabin staff over the last few years are a reflection of a deeper malaise.  I'm in no position to diagnose problems, but I can see the symptoms.  Customer service and with it the customer experience has deteriorated dramatically and made the airline almost unrecognizable.

The first time I noticed this was when I left London last February.  I had organized my move in the tightest way possible, shipping a minimum of boxes, giving a way lots, and carrying the bare essentials.  These essentials were stowed in two large suitcases, and I had to pay dearly for having Lufthansa carry the second one.  Hard as it is to believe, I would have paid less, had I checked luggage with Ryanair.

Flucha and I booked our flights separately but at the same time.  Minutes later we called Lufthansa to reserve the special seats set aside for those traveling with infants.  These seats exist, the minion on the phone reassured us, but they can only be booked closer to the departure date and are only available for the person traveling with the infant.  Tapas was on Flucha's ticket.  I would have to pay to sit somewhere close, but there was no guarantee.  By the time we could book the family seat, all surrounding seats might already have been picked up by other travelers.

I was getting increasingly frustrated with the process that dragged out much longer than the previous paragraph indicates and was entirely futile.  When Flucha's booking was rejected because she didn't authorize the payment quickly enough, we took this as a sign.  We dumped Lufthansa and booked on British Airways instead.  Even with the cancelation fee added to it, the new ticket was cheaper than the original.  The drawback was the layover in London, which would increase travel time by a good four hours and complicate things quite a bit.  On the upside, Flucha was immediately assigned a seat with a baby bassinet and I was put right next to her.

Months passed and finally, this afternoon, we made our way to the airport.  We traveled with loads of luggage and retrospectively, this turned out to be the biggest problem.  But once everything was checked, our vacation started – even if it was restricted to a couple of comfortable chairs in the departure area at first.  We had got to the airport a good three hours early.

At the security circus we got treated to a Christmas special for no extra charge.  In Europe, liquids in carry-on luggage are allowed only in volumes of up to 100 ml, and you're only allowed to take up to five containers.  In Frankfurt, we got on the plane with a 1.5 liter bottle that didn't raise concerns.  "It's for the baby", we said, and all was good.

This didn't fly at Heathrow.  "Baby bottles only", the elderly lady at the security check said firmly.  We had plenty of them, but they were all empty.  "Can I just pour the water in, and we're good?" I asked.  "You didn't hear it from me", she responded, and a few minutes later we took the same amount of the same water through security and onto the plane.  It's evidently the now-empty plastic bottle that was the problem.  Thanks for making air travel safe.

The flights were uneventful.  Tapas was happy in the bassinet.  When she didn't sleep, she amused those around us with her good spirits.  At some point a flight attendant stopped by with a 'Future pilot' sticker, and I almost believed her.  Arrived in Buenos Aires, liberated from the jacket and trousers that winter cruelly forces on her, Tapas kicked her legs in the hot air in evident joy.  We knew then that she would enjoy the stay in Argentina even more than the flight there.  Merry Christmas.