I began flying in the 1990s when I started work as a national newspaper reporter – and have never stopped. Back then I was covering general business stories around the world. I never intended to write about aviation but I kept spotting stories at 39,000ft.
There was no Wi-Fi in those days and few films to watch on board, so I had plenty of time to look around – and to think.
When I went freelance in the early noughties I decided to cover the sector – and share a few tips. Here are my highs, lows and lessons from a 40-year career featuring millions of miles in the sky.
Not Concorde but Qantas’s 21-hour test flight, in November 2019, non-stop from London to Sydney on a hangar-fresh Boeing 787 “Dreamliner”. I saw two sunrises - one over Amsterdam shortly after take-off and the second over Jakarta.
The chartered Embraer I was flying on from Windhoek to Johannesburg in May 2010 was struck by lightning. All the lights went out, the cockpit door burst open and the plane suddenly lurched downwards nose first. A few – long – seconds later the power came back on and we levelled off.
The Residence on Etihad’s A380 superjumbo in Abu Dhabi in June 2014. The mini apartment in the sky has a sitting room with a champagne fridge, dining table and a 32” TV, a bedroom with a 7ft by 5ft double bed, and a private bathroom.
Best experience at 39,000ft
Taking a shower on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Singapore in January 2015. Five minutes of high-pressure water with Bulgari soap and shampoos while gazing out of the window at the waters of the Bay of Bengal is heaven in the heavens.
Best meal in the air
Qantas QF1 from Sydney to London earlier this month. Aussie chef Neil Perry leads the world at 39,000 ft with short, simple Aussie dishes cooked fresh in the galley, served with local wines. (He had Airbus install a toaster in the galley of Qantas’s A380 to make hot toast and Vegemite. British Airways and Marmite take note).
Worst meal in the air
Aeroflot in February 1993 on a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, via Novosibirsk. I was upgraded to what passed for first class but there was no food (or seatbelts). I asked what was available to keep me going for the next 13 hours. “Free cigarettes,” said the steward proudly, handing me a packet of filterless Russian smokes.
Best meal on the ground
Breakfast in the Concorde Room New York in the early noughties when I flew on “the quick plane”. Back in those high-flying days staff would carry your bags into the lounge for you, leaving you free to grab a bacon sandwich with brown sauce from a waiter standing on one side of the entrance and a glass of vintage Krug from one standing opposite. (Please bring this back in your First lounges, British Airways).
Only airline to lose my bag
South African Airways to Benguerra Island, via Johannesburg and Vilanculos in November 2002. I had to borrow clothes from the locals which meant I spent most of the trip walking round in beige satin running shorts with MIGHTY ZAMBEZI emblazoned in lurid green on one leg. (Luckily, social media had not been invented).
Ethiopian Airways in July 1997 on a flight from Lalibela to Bahir Dar via Gondar. It was a small jet with no cockpit door, so a few of the passengers got chatting to the pilot once we had reached cruising altitude. It emerged that more passengers needed to go to Bahir Dar than Gondar and there were no passengers to pick up in Gondar. So the pilot rerouted the plane in mid-air, we stopped in Bahir Dar first and then he flew on to Gondar with the few remaining passengers.
Aeroflot, again. On the return trip to Moscow from Irkutsk we landed safely in a snowstorm and made it to baggage reclaim. But our bags did not appear. We waited for 30 minutes. Still nothing. Peering out of the window, one of the passengers noticed that the baggage handlers had simply dumped the bags in the snow outside the terminal and not put them on the conveyor belt. One of the passengers forced the emergency door, setting off the alarms, and the men formed a human chain to lug all the bags inside. We all nearly froze to death.
Best airport departure
Changi. The latest technology means it is the fastest to get through to departures in all classes. Also, there is a Uniqlo. Air travel regulators should make it illegal to build any large international airport without a Uniqlo – or a Paul Smith.
Best airport arrival
Fiji. Dancers welcome passengers at the top of the air bridge. Imagine Morris Dancers at Heathrow. (Then again…)
The new Istanbul hub. It’s too far out of town and twice as big as it needs to be. You leave to walk to the gate in spring and arrive in autumn.
Most scenic flight
From Glasgow to Stornoway on a clear day.
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow (but please bring back the spa).
Best and worst economy class
Virgin Atlantic – it offers extra legroom seats and staff don’t treat you like self-loading freight. Worst? Spirit – a (very) low cost US carrier.
Best and worst premium-economy class
Emirates – the seats, food, service, and bathrooms are (air) miles better than other carriers. Worst? China Southern.
Best and worst business class
Qatar Airways – its QSuite is better than first class on many carriers. Worst? Air Cubana.
Best and worst first class
Singapore Airlines on the A380 superjumbo. Each suite comes with a separate chair and bed, two televisions, a large wardrobe, plus caviar and Krug for every meal, if you like. Worst? Aeroflot – I don’t smoke.
Finnair. Great premium economy and business cabins. A sauna in the lounge at Helsinki airport. Unique airport shopping – salted licorice, reindeer sausages, Marimekko.
Best passenger loyalty scheme
Best goodie bag
Acqua di Parma toiletries in a branded leather bag on Etihad.
What they don’t tell you
Onboard Wi-Fi never works over India. The Indian government won’t allow it. Get your work done before you cross into Indian airspace.
Best way to get an upgrade is to
Buy one. The days when dressing smartly and asking nicely are long gone. Bid for an upgrade in a pre-flight auction – Virgin Atlantic does this – and hope your price is right.