Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Joys (and Sorrows) of High Flying

Genre: Travel

First a confession. Reading about this envy-worthy achievement of one of my best friends was the inspiration for this piece of long pointless writing that follows.

It is a common complaint among normal people that air travel is a long boring annoying task with nothing interesting to look frward to, but I am among those abnormal people who beg to differ- yes, the class of geeks called aviation enthusiasts. Although a recent obsession, my interest in metal birds and the stuff that controls them, in the air and on the ground, has taken off quite steeply. For 21 years of my life, I had never been on an airplane, not even inside an airport, partially due to my deep love for trains and partially due to economic considerations, and now in the last 18 months, I have been on 20 flights, including 10 in the last two months taking me through some of the world's biggest and busiest airports- Heathrow (London), Brussels, JFK, Newark Liberty, La Guardia (New York), Hartsfield Jackson (Atlanta), Logan (Boston) to medium sized ones like Charlotte, Mumbai, Kuwait to the tiny ones like Roanoke in Virginia, USA. 

So, what is it about planes and flying that is interesting? Everything, well, almost. The fun starts before the actual flight. I love airports, the big ones with multiple terminals and hundreds of check-in counters. Although functionally similar, all of them have a unique flavour and character to them, if you observe carefully. While Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International with its swanky renovated concourses but staff with outdated equipments truly reflects 21st century India- developing but not fully developed yet, London Heathrow is typical British- stylish but toned down while JFK International is completely what New York City is- huge, glamorous, shiny, confusing, crowded, chaotic and full of life. What is boring is that whatever be the character of the airport, you have to do the same boring ritual everywhere- stand in long queues for check-in, hand over your bags into the mouths of conveyer belts running into unknown worlds, take off your shoes, coat, laptop, cell phone, camera, wallet, coins and everything else that a terrorist would NOT use to blow off a plane and walk through a metal detector, and head to the gate area.  

The wait at the gate area is one of my favorite parts of air travel, but only if there is a clear view of the apron, taxiways and runways, which is almost always the case, except at some brilliantly designed terminals like Mumbai's International T2 where you have to sit staring at empty walls and LCD TVs playing Rakhi ka Insaaf. For the curious souls like me, the view from the gate area has always had something interesting to offer- like my first sight of the Airbus A380 Superjumbo at JFK or a glimpse of a plane from rare airline like Royal Brunei at London. Once the flight is announced for boarding, it is a sight worth seeing. If you are at any Indian airport (or New Jersey for that matter), the scene resembles a fish market. Even before the staff fnishes announcing "Flight XXX is ready for boarding", over hundred passengers, sitting scattered across the hall will arrive in lightning speed to form a huge queue, knowing fully well that all airlines board their passengers by row numbers and no plane ever departs without taking the last passenger aboard. My most memorable experience here has been at JFK where a queue of almost 150 people (yes, no kidding!) had formed at the gate and the lady asked passengers in Rows 31 to 37 ONLY to start boarding. I got up from my seat, calmly looked at the queue, and entered the aerobridge first while all the impatient junta, none of whom had seats in Rows 31 to 37 kept waiting!

On all my 20 flights, I have had window seats in the rear half of the plane, which means boarding first and waiting till all the impatient passengers eventually board at the slow rate a single aerobridge allows. Once that is done and the customary safety instructions announced, starts my most interesting part of air travel- the stage from pushback from the gate to takeoff. If you have a little knowledge of runway numbering, air traffic control and a keen observation, the sight from the window is fun to watch, especially at big airports with multiple runways. If you observe carefully, the manner in which ATC manages takeoffs and landings is simply amazing at super-busy hubs, something I have loved admiring. At London Heathrow, it was best use of two parallel runways on display- on Runway 09R, landings were scheduled so optimally that the moment one plane lands and slows down out from the runway onto the taxiway, another one touches down at other end of runway, and this goes on and on. At the same time on Runway 09L, its rapid takeoffs. The moment one plane lifts off the ground, another one is asked to line up on the runway and the line continues. At Boston, it was best use of crossing runways on display- all landings lined up towards Runway 33 while all takeoffs schedule from Runway 27, with both runways intersecting midway. The moment one plane lands on Runway 33, one plane is lined up at end of Runway 27, immediately as the landing plane crosses the intersection point, the plane ready to takeoff is given clearance, and this sequence went on continously. And how can I forget the joy of seeing parallel landings and parallel takeoffs at Atlanta- stuff you can do when you have five parellel runways! Needless to say, after seeing this, I am totally addicted to trying it out myself on Airport Madness. And how do I know all these layouts and runway number etc? Well, the curious cat that I am, I check out the Google Maps image of the airports I am flying out of! (By the way, check out the current Google Maps image of Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport- there are 144 planes lined up at the gates at the same time, incredible by any means!) 

The first few minutes after takeoff and the last few minutes before landing are my favorite times for photography. Whether day or night, there are always spectacular views to cherish. Be it spotting the Verrazano Narrows Bridge before landing in to LaGuardia New York or the flypast over illuminated Manhattan or stunning views of desert at Kuwait or the priceless glimpse of my own Mumbai from the air, I have enjoyed all of it and more. The landing, they say, is a real test of the pilot's skills, and in spite of knowing it is safer than driving, it still gives me goosebumps. The only saving grace is when there are friendly pilots who talk to the passengers before landing, like on my recent trip to Boston, the captain gave all details that normal passengers would not want- "In thirteen minutes we will be landing at Boston Logan International Airport. Currently we are heading west, soon we will take a full U-turn and land from the east on Runway 27. Wind gusts near the ground measure 24 knots, so we will have a bumpy landing. Be prepared." 

Once airborne, the only thing to look forward to, or maybe not, is the food. Although I have got everything from Pav Bhaji to Kanda Pohe on international flights, I will not go into the details and rather point out that the "poore-India-mein-world-famous" blogger Krishashok has summed up the plane food experience perfectly. And, what about the period when you are actually in air, cruising between takeoff and landing? How is it? Extremely boring and annoying. Period.


  1. Well summarised. Though it surprisingly doesn't contain rants about different operators (and corresponding crowds).
    Finally checked out O'Hare. 122 birds all over it! (and counting was challenging as it's not as organised as H-J)
    PS: Google Earth shows dates on its maps. ATL map is Apr 10 and O Hare is July 10.

    Use of copyrighted phrase "curious cat" has been noted. With feline distaste.

  2. Oh yeah, How I love the whole drill of checkin' in and waiting in swanky waiting-rooms,strolling in the posh bookshop,pushing my luggage trolley daintily and how after my first 10 mins into the flight, all I wanna do is get out! :| Meh.

    Lol.Nice one! :)

    Btw, Kick-ass blog! :D

  3. All the best to your friend. And well you know what my comments would be about a post like this due to reasons consisting partiality, haha. I love every second of air travel, right from arriving at the airport to leaving the arrival with baggage and running to get an auto/taxi. Love. Every. Moment. :)

  4. @Spacegirl
    Rants about different operators, their flight attendants, food, in-flight entertainment, quality of aircraft etc would require a whole book! Objection to use of phrase "curious cat" overruled.

    @Akanksha Pandey
    Glad to know I am not alone who likes everything about flying apart from the actual flying part!
    Thanks for the compliments and welcome to my humble little blog. Do drop in often :)

    @Satans Darling
    You really love "every second" of air travel? Would your answer be the same if you were just a passenger in Economy class of a 7 hour intercontinental flight with no in-flight entertainment? :P

  5. I probably would.. considering that most of my writing has been done in between long hauled flights! Also, I hardly resort to inflight entertainment believe it or not! I like to be alone listening to the beeps of the seat belt sign on and off signals :)


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