and apparently it hates me…
For all you masochists out there seeking a really diabolical air travel experience I heartily recommend Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
To start with, the ground transport links to and from Pearson are positively medieval. There is no rail link to Pearson, so you are restricted to road transport and I have previously pontificated on how bad driving on the 401 HWY is. I suppose that if you live in Toronto it is barely acceptable – after all – most residents have learned to live with Toronto traffic, but if you are coming from Kingston Ontario, as I have to do, getting across ‘Toronto the Good’ is a nightmare. On an empty road (hah!) I can make the drive from Kingston to Pearson in under three hours, but this is not dependable, so if I am lucky enough to have a friend driving me, I usually plan to have at least an hour and a half in hand to allow for traffic and/or weather (don’t forget that curious and unpleasant Canadian wintertime phenomenon – snow).
The train from Kingston to Toronto is a non-starter. There are eleven trains on a normal weekday (none leave early enough for me to catch my flights) and although they are comfortable, there are usually no checked baggage facilities so you have to hump your luggage on board and try to find room on the inadequate racks. More importantly, the train finishes up at Union Station, in the heart of downtown TO. If you are trying to transfer to the airport you have to haul your luggage up a flight of stairs and out front for a taxi, or perhaps across the road to the Royal York Hotel for the airport bus, which runs from the hotel, not the train station. In my younger days I often stayed overnight before a flight at the Royal York, a magnificent old dowager of an hostelry which occasionally afforded the opportunity for pleasant dinners with Toronto-based old girlfriends. Sadly, those days seem to be gone as my remaining Toronto-based old girlfriends are either too busy with grandkids or can’t get a pass out of the old-folks’ home.
There is an airport bus from Kingston, which at least drops you directly at the airport and is quite cheap, but it only runs 3 times per day and it stops at every one-horse whistle-stop town along the way. Consequently the trip can take more than 5 hours. In order for me to catch my usual 1000 hr flight from Pearson, I have to be there by 0800, which means taking the 0200 bus. I’ve missed it on several occasions through dint of falling asleep about midnight and have therefore had to take a taxi – which runs about CAD$400, exactly the same as an airport limo and approximately one-third of the cost of a round trip air ticket Toronto-Hong Kong. There is a door-to-door van service which advertises a transfer for about CAD$100, but that is contingent on them having at least three other passengers and no one else from Kingston ever seems to be catching morning flights from Pearson, so I have never had any luck with that.
Lately however, I have been afforded an alternative.
This little beauty (a Beech 1900) has been serving Kingston for the last couple of years with half a dozen flights a day, some leaving at the crack of dawn, so perfect for me.
The last time I took it, the plane left Kingston airport at 0700 so I napped in the evening then finally started packing about 0300. No big deal, taxi at 0515 thence the local airport, a CAD$25 cab ride away. The flight adds a few bucks to the trip (a lot less than a taxi to TIA) but you don’t have lousy ground transport and TO traffic to deal with.
As I learned the first time I flew on one of these, you have to be careful not to take seat 1A since it seems that the seat strut is connected directly to the port side engine and when the thing is at full throttle the effect it is a lot like sitting on a really powerful whoopee cushion. The first flight I took on one of these things I spent the whole hour in the air alternatively trying to keep my butt out of the seat and stuffing magazines under it (my butt that is, not the seat). So now I make sure that I get a seat further back and enjoy watching the passenger in 1A leap when the pilot hits the gas.
When you come in to TIA on one of these things they take you to a little side gate in the D concourse of Terminal 1. In my view, TIA is one of the worst airports in the world and T1 is part of the issue despite being virtually new. For example, we deplane and I know I am looking for the F group of gates for my next flight. I take the escalator up to the concourse and look at the FID (flight information display). No mention of my flight or any F gate flights at all, only the domestic flights from the D Concourse. I find a computer information kiosk which also only displays information for the D concourse gates and doesn’t have a map of the entire Terminal. There is no map of the entire Terminal anywhere that I can find.
I have lots of time – its 0830 and my next flight is not until 1130 – so I am not fussed. Eventually I notice a sign saying ‘Connections’ so I stroll along that way. A sign appears for US Flights – F Gates – and I follow that. Through a security point with two fat (pardon me – horizontally challenged) black women checking passports and boarding passes (why are they always fat and from some third world country? answer – none of the native Canadians want the job) then up an escalator to a big modern space containing the new automated clearance system for US entry.
There are big monolithic signs towering over the place:
Step 1 – scan your boarding pass.
Step 2 – wait for your name to appear on a notice board.
Step 3 – go to the US Immigration booth.
I’ve been through here before and I scan my boarding pass at one of the machines labelled ‘Step 1’
“Nggghhh!” says the machine, with a flashing light: “See airline agent”. I walk over to the busy Air Canada desk. The Agent scans my Boarding Pass. “Sorry sir, this is for a United Flight – over there”. She points to an unmarked and empty airline desk.
“There’s no one there” I say. “Wait sir”, she says and picks up her phone and dials. No answer. She and the other agents have a spirited discussion about what the number is. She tries another number, it apparently answers and she grunts once and puts the phone down immediately. “They’ll be right there” she says and goes back to her terminal. I stroll over to the empty desk. Ten minutes pass. Still no one. I go back to the Air Canada desk.
“Can you try them on the phone again, please?” I get treated to a repeat of the phone number roulette game again. Finally, the agent (a different one this time) gets someone on the phone and has an actual conversation. “There’s a passenger here for United… uhuh… uhuh…”. She hangs up and tells me they’ll be here immediately. I go back to the United desk (although there is no sign for United). After five long minutes (I was starting to get a bit pissed off at this stage) an agent appears, saunters slowly to behind the desk and starts hitting keys. Another plus-sized black woman, with long fluorescent purple nails. I explain that the machine didn’t like my boarding pass and she scans it. We wait. We wait some more.
Eventually she says “this terminal is down” and goes to the next one. She scans my pass again and says “there’s something wrong” (‘what was your first clue’ I think) “… I’ll give you a new boarding pass”. She hits a couple of buttons and the printer spews out a dozen boarding passes. “Oops” she says “put in the wrong number”.
Eventually I get my passes back and go, as directed, directly to Step 3 – the US Immigration guy. Since I have Global Entry and Nexus on my passport he doesn’t ask me anything, just stamps my passport hands it back and says ”have a nice trip”. Too late for that.
I go through security – still nearly two hours to spare, and take the lift up to the business class lounge – Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge which is also the gold card lounge for all Star Alliance Airlines, including United. I’ve been there many times before and it never fails to disappoint. “What the hell” I think “I know the lounge is poor but at least I can get a bit of breakfast”.
Normally there are trays of cold hard boiled eggs and you can get toast and cereal and yogurt and fruit. I usually make a hard boiled egg sandwich on toast as I am not big on cereal or yogurt. Today however, there are no eggs and a pitiful display of about a dozen cups of yogurt, milk and no cereal at first (they brought some out a bit later).
“Any more eggs?” I ask a server (not fat or black but definitely third world). “No” she says. So I make do with orange juice, toast and coffee. There was a large vat of oatmeal but it looked like wet cement and there was only white sugar so I avoided it.
Despite the fact that the Lounge serves all SA airlines, the FIDs only display Air Canada flights (and United Code Shares). The Agents at the desk have no information on UA flights. I can’t get the UA flight information App to work on my phone, although it works just fine back in my little flat in HK.
It’s 1000 hours and at this stage I have been awake since 0300 and have another 22 hours of traveling ahead at best. I look longingly at the bar, which has glasses, ice, drink garnishes, mixes, an inviting array of beer taps but no wine or spirits. The beer taps have locks on them and there is a sign saying ‘beer available after 1100 hours’. I imagine how that would go over with a long haul traveler landing from another time zone and waiting for a flight on up into the interior of the great white north or into the US. Welcome to Toronto.
It’s always a relief to get out of Toronto and the rest of that particular trip was fine. Except, that is, for the obligatory 45 minute delay sitting on the tarmac in TO waiting for an air traffic backlog to clear in Newark. Lots of people were panicking about their connections but I was okay and had a pleasant visit to the Newark Lounge where they make a mean bloody Mary with a big dollop of horseradish. Lousy food though. The best you get in UA lounges in the US are little packets of cheese, crackers and carrot sticks with a pretzel, peanuts and shreddies mix that the Old Girl used to call ‘nuts and bolts’. Booze serves 24/7 in the US Lounges though, so I can live with it.
Compare with the UA lounge snacks at Hong Kong International Airport.
The HK flight was an hour late leaving but who cares when you are traveling 8000 miles? Smooth flight, pretty good food and I caught up on my movies. Watched about ¾ of Noah but had to turn it off it was getting so bad. Russell, what were you thinking?
Other than that I saw ‘3 Days to Kill’ a farfetched but fairly entertaining Kevin Costner thriller, ‘Captain America – The Winter Soldier’ which was a typical Marvel comic flick and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ which is a fantastic tween-war period costume drama/comedy/slapstick/mystery. Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Swilda Tinton, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and a cast that just goes on and on, with a hugely clever script. A fantastic flick and since they didn’t change the inflight entertainment before my return flight to Canada I got to watch it again.
I had one interesting encounter on the flight. There was a good-looking fortyish stewardess who was flirting outrageously at all of the men in business, even with me. No wedding ring. ‘I’ve seen you on this flight before’ she says to me, which I thought was strange because I thought I would have remembered her. ‘Yes’, I said ‘I do this flight a lot’ whereupon she was all over me, fluffing pillows and bringing me drinks without the usual pestering I normally have to do on UA. I was in the middle section aisle seat at the back of the first business compartment. “Do you always take this seat?” she asks. Had I been quick I should have said ‘Yes’ or ‘I like an aisle almost anywhere’, but instead I said ‘I take whatever I can get when I get my upgrade’, whereupon she lost interest in me and concentrated on other old guys without wedding rings. Clearly looking for a career upgrade from trolley dolly and hunting for someone who pays business class fares. Several of my HK mates are married to stews. Or ex-stews. Or their x’s used to be stews.
Landing in HK simply reinforces what a lousy airport Toronto is. Normally in TO, you get off the plane and drag your hand luggage forever over sticky carpets. Because of the terminal layout you have to take an escalator or lift up one level, along another long corridor (no slidewalks) then down an escalator and into immigration. There is no automated clearance system. If you are coming out in TO when you finally get through immigration you have up to an hour waiting for your bags. No smoking lounge of course. If you finish at TO you are then faced with the daunting task of ground transport to Kingston and it is just as bad in the other direction. As mentioned earlier there are a grand total of three buses per day and the last one goes from TIA at 2130 hours, arriving at Kingston 4 ½ to 5 hours later. If you land soon enough, you can take the train (the last one goes about 1800 so always too late for me) but you have to take a bus downtown to the Royal York Hotel and hump your bags across the street to Union Station (why doesn’t the bus go to the station?). A limo or a cab to Kingston from TIA are the same price one way – about CAD$400. Considering the round trip HK economy fare is about CAD $1100 on United this seems excessive to me.
Since these days I connect through to Kingston on the little puddle jumper, after I clear customs I dump my bag back into the airline system and go straight to the D Concourse lounge to wait for the Kingston flight. The D Lounge in the evening has some quite tasty snacks, soup and salads and a functioning bar so that’s not too bad. The flight when it finally goes is only an hour.
When you get to Kingston, the plane stops 100 feet from the terminal gate and you stroll across the tarmac. Since there are only twenty people on the plane even when it’s full the bags come quickly and the 20 minute taxi ride to SDM is only about CAD $30.
Landing in HK is a very different experience from TO. You exit the plane and there are slidewalks which will take you straight and level to immigration. Or, if you are at one of the outer gates, you slidewalk to the outer hub at about gate 30, take a lift or escalator down one level, jump onto a train (frequency every three minutes) which lets you out after a 2 minute ride right below immigration at the main arrivals hub. Up to the exit level, have a quick smoke in the arrivals smoking lounge (a version of Dante’s inferno), hit the duty free (Asian airports all have Duty Free on the way in although you need to buy your smokes overseas since they no longer carry tobacco at the inbound duty free in HK) and then immigration.
I use my HK ID card in the automated system and immigration takes 15 seconds. Straight into the baggage hall where my luggage is already waiting on the carousel, out into the arrivals hall (carts are free as opposed to CAD$2 in TO), past the hotel touts and ferry and taxi booths and the bus terminus and straight onto the train to Central. The train (which runs every 9 minutes) costs CAD $14, takes 24 minutes with two intermediate stops and dumps me at Central Station, 2 miles and a CAD $8 cab ride from my flat. From wheels thumping down on the runway to home, unpacked (mostly), showered and changed, feet up and sipping a tasty beverage, just under two hours.
Three weeks before I have to g0 through Toronto again. I shudder to think of it.