Call yourself a commuter?
I sure thought I did
Call yourself a commuter?
by Tim Burt, Financial Times
Somewhere in Queens, Sylvester stopped the cab and turned round. “You wearing suspenders?” he asked. When roused at 5am, usually by a tearful child in London ,I rub my eyes. But this was midnight on the Van Wyck Expressway, suburban New York. I rubbed my ears. Suspenders?
Sylvester, a yellow cab veteran, sighed. “You know, suspenders, to hold up your pants.” I had to disappoint him, but he was undeterred. No suspenders (braces to Brits): then how about a belt? The problem was technical. Since leaving John F. Kennedy airport, the taxi’s trunk (boot) lid flew open every time Sylvester hit the brakes, forcing him to stop, jump out and slam it down.
A deal was agreed. Sylvester took my belt in return for a $10 discount on the flat fare to Manhattan. He tied the boot to the bumper and we proceeded. It had been a tiresome journey to work.
Ten hours earlier, another cab driver in another continent was also asking questions. On the Heathrow spur road, Touch, as he called himself, glanced at a descending jumbo jet. “I guess they invent everything what’s intended to be invented,” he said enigmatically.
Drivers from Blue Cars, a south London minicab firm, tend to be philosophical. A few years ago, their boss, Brian Perry, was shot dead in a gangland hit linked to the Â£26m Brinks-Mat bullion robbery. “No one never been fingered for it,” according to Touch.
Sylvester, Touch and their taxi brethren are familiar faces to the long-haul commuters, myself included, for whom returning to work often means a Sunday night trek to the airport.
In spite of video conferencing, e-mail and new technology, there is a sizeable community of workers with offices on one side of the ocean and families on the other. Virgin Atlantic estimates that its commuters make 30-35 flights a year. In all, airline officials and corporate travel agents suspect more than 1,000 workers are regular New York-London commuters, a figure thought to be growing every year.
Bleary-eyed, these Atlantic commuters leave home each week, returning disoriented and disheveled five days later. These days, there is little glamour to the London-New York shuttle. Instead, commuters swap anecdotes in the lounges of LHR and JFK about the latest disastrous attempt to get home on time.
The route is heavily congested. There are more daily flights from London to New York,26 in all, than there are trains from King’s Cross to Edinburgh.
Assuming, conservatively, 250 passengers per aircraft, 6,500 people will today head for the Big Apple; a similar number will lose a night’s sleep in the other direction.
Sitting aboard BA174, a few days after my encounter with Sylvester, London-bound passengers on the Friday night “red-eye” watch as de-icing machines coat a neighbouring aircraft. “Funny how they do the tail and the wings but not the windscreen,” says a woman by the window. “When I do my car, I always do the windscreen.”
t is January 2004. My job as the FT’s media editor requires another 20 crossings before the year is out. Viewed from Row 50 on a crowded jumbo, the ordeal is unappealing. It’s time to establish a routine.
Twelve months later, as I am homeward bound at JFK, the check-in attendant sniffs as she flicks through a rumpled passport. There is no ticket to hand over, no heavy luggage. “Has anyone given you anything to carry on board?” As usual, I lie with a shake of the head. On about a dozen occasions, I have acted the office mule: transporting thermometers, battery chargers, laptop computers and even bed components. Only once was an item consigned to the hold, an envelope filled with screws, an obvious security threat.
By now, the routine works. To the commuter, there are tricks that make this way of life bearable, if rarely a pleasure. No more taxis, no more frantic searches for travel documents.
Out-bound, I walk to the end of the street, climb aboard a new Mercedes bus and take a comfortable £1.20 ride to Paddington Station. The Heathrow Express speeds to the airport, where a swipe card allocates an airline seat and grants access to the executive lounge.
More than 3,000 miles later, and five hours back in time, it’s a short stroll from Terminal 7 to JFK’s AirTrain ,the driverless transit that zooms along a viaduct to Sutphin Boulevard. Only on the late Sunday flight, landing at JFK at almost 11pm, is it worth queuing for taxis and risking a meeting with Sylvester.
Take the 8.20am flight from London and you can make lunch in Times Square. From JFK, the 6.30pm or 7pm departures enable you to make breakfast in London, occasionally surprising the children before they wake.
It is a far cry from early transatlantic crossings. More than 60 years ago, my grandfather ,a war correspondent ,made his first US trip in a military plane via Prestwick, Meeks Field in Iceland and Presque Isle, off the coast of Maine. The few passengers slept on partly-inflated inner tubes from aircraft tyres.
As he recounts, during the final leg to New York’s LaGuardia, “thunderstorms ahead had caused the pilot to climb to over 12,000ft. After a while I awoke to find myself pressed gently but extremely firmly against the roof of the cabin by the expanding inner tubes. As far as I knew, the other passengers were in the same state. It was impossible to move an arm or leg, though breathing was not affected. In a way, it was not unpleasant.”
Grandpa to me, Peter Masefield to his colleagues, was a master of understatement. In July 1944, by then working for Lord Beaverbrook as a ministerial adviser on aviation, he returned to the US in a converted Liberator bomber. This time, the passengers slept in sleeping bags in the bomb bay, while “the Beaver”, as Beaverbook was known, played rummycards.
In the 21st century, one thing is certain. Unlike my grandfather, I would not get away with calling my boss “the beaver”. But on each flight, I silently thank him for making the trip easier, both as a signatory to the 1946 Bermuda Agreement that paved the way for Anglo-US air travel and later as chief executive of BEA, a forerunner of British Airways, and subsequently chairman of the British Airports Authority that runs Heathrow and other hubs.
The conferences and meetings that take me to New York are dull affairs compared with his recollection of Bermuda. As Grandpa tells it, the American delegates went to dinner in a horse-drawn carriage. “It is claimed that they returned with the mare in the carriage, being attended to by her black driver, with the six Americans between the shafts doing the pulling.”
Whether true or not, the final agreement in Bermuda set the
Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising giant WPP, says: “I like to leave on a Sunday evening. The late 8pm flight tends to be a bit grueling; 5:30pm is more sane because you get there mid-evening and can be in the hotel in time for Sunday night football.” Like other commuters, Sir Martin travels light for his 18 trips a year to New York: opting for a Tumi roll-on bag, and regards the journey to the airport as the main problem.
Lucas van Praag, a managing director of Goldman Sachs, agrees. He spent a year-and-a-half commuting not only from the US to Britain, but from London on the two-hour train journey to rural Somerset where his family remained. “I used to go back every other weekend, flying out on Thursday evening, arriving early the next day and then take the Heathrow Express to Paddington. I would cross platforms to get the 7.45am to Taunton, but usually missed it and did the reverse on a Sunday evening.”
But that schedule is nothing compared with Sir Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony Corporation of America. Sir Howard, whose family lives in rural Oxfordshire -more than an hour from Heathrow- gets home for a long weekend twice a month. This January, his schedule was: London-New York-Las Vegas-LA-Hawaii-New York-Atlanta-London-Tokyo.
“I’ve been doing it for three years at this pace,” he says. “I take Ambien, a prescription sleeping pill recommended by Jack Welch, and pass the time amusing myself discussing how bad the food is with BA’s cabin crew.”
As to his nomadic home life, Sir Howard admits: “You are a visitor, not a resident with your family. Sometimes I feel like a stranger, sometimes I fit right in. It’s a pot luck existence.”
On his travels, the Sony boss has been “bounced around” in turbulence over Alaska, struck by lightning, and delayed by a fight among passengers at JFK. Such things are easier to bear in the front row, where first class passengers are cosseted.
It is a different story at the back of the plane. The FT, in common with many other companies, takes a dim view of business class pampering.
Many executives also think the expense unjustified, among them Bob Dover. When Bob was chairman of Aston Martin, the prestige carmaker, he was famous for flying steerage. In a desperate attempt to change his ways, his colleagues booked him into the economy section of Air India’s London-New York flight. Bob emerged thanking his staff, saying it was the best curry he’d eaten in years. Even his wife remonstrated, saying she preferred to turn left on boarding ,towards the first class section. “Well darling,” said Bob. “You’d better learn to walk backwards.”
As it is, the economy sections of BA, Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines are all reasonably comfortable for the ocean hop. But even today, none of them offer laptop power to its cheapest customers, forcing an occasional retreat to the lavatories to charge-up on the razor sockets.
On one flight, I spent two hours back there, writing a feature. The crew knocked every 20 minutes, but I shouted that I was not done. Weeks later, relaying this story to one executive quoted in the article, he replied: “I’m not surprised, it read like it came from the toilet.”
After a year battling such issues, I find that different carriers score highly in different categories: Virgin for its in-flight entertainment, American for its short immigration queues. BA has the best cabin crew and plenty of engineers when things go wrong. But Britain’s flag-carrier is let down by its London base, the warehouse that is Terminal 4.
Any passenger arriving at dawn knows the tedium of waiting for a gate, or the cold snap of being unloaded into buses. On one occasion we waited for a tug that broke down. The captain was mortified. “I am sorry,” he said. “We have come 3,000 miles together in six hours, but I’m afraid the last 300 yards will take 45 minutes.”
Heathrow’s Terminal 5 will ease the burden, but its completion is long overdue.
Other problems typical of the commute include flat tyres, frozen walkways and broken entertainment systems. Every regular flier also dreads the announcement: “Will a medical doctor make themselves known to a member of the crew?” Medical emergencies can involve a boring diversion to Newfoundland. Dee Mair, human resources director of IPC Media, once ended up in Gander following a cabin fire en route to New York. She recalls: “I had to rouse my colleague, telling him: wake up, it might be for the last time.”
For me, last year’s technical hitches involved nothing worse than a two-hour delay because of a failed auxiliary power unit. The captain explained that the unit’s door would not close. But after deliberation and taking on extra fuel, he decided it was safe to fly. The prospect of an Atlantic crossing with doors ajar was alarming. But no-one else appeared perturbed.
To the usual risible music, passengers quietly filled out US customs forms ,promising, among other things, not to import insects, disease agents, snails and pasture. Those using green immigration forms calmly ticked the boxes denying a criminal past, immoral activities, Nazi affiliations, and fraud.
All this became part of a routine, punctuated by angry spousal e-mails that began “Re: Your Affair”.
Such messages remind you why commuting is not for good. Lucas van Praag, at Goldman Sachs, says: “I managed it for 18 months; almost killed me. Most people give up. We ended up moving to New York.”
For temporary commuters, e-mails allow your partner to put things in perspective. During trip six, one typical mail said: “Whoever he/she is, they’re seeing more of the world with you than I am. The car’s front tyres are flat, do you know what pressure they should be? I have to go and fix them in my lunch hour, before I go to ballet with the girls and suffer a fatal accident.”
Each message underlines the fact that whatever your career obligations, there is a higher cause. While you’re negotiating with chief executives or stalking some banker, domestic e-mails drive a neat stake through any work life-balance.
Long-distance contrition, delivered by computer screen, is little consolation. There is only the promise that 2005 will be quieter. But even the suggestion of crossing the Atlantic every other month, rather than every other week, cuts little ice in a household already used to a nomadic father.
To those at home, tales of sleepless crossings and a body clock trapped in the twilight zone seem only just. No one round the breakfast table believes it’s a real hardship. They know about upgrades, wine-tasting in the BA lounge, clean hotel beds and airlines with arrival spas.
But even here, there are dangers for the commuter. If, like me, you neglect to close the shower door in BA’s arrivals lounge, the cubicle is quickly flooded. The freshen-up becomes a mopping up, using towels to stem the tide. From the other side of the door, it sounds like bovine coitus. Emerging finally, squelching into the corridor, the airline cleaner looks aghast. Still, she manages to say: “See you next time.”
Something inside makes me think: I hope not too soon.