California, Here We Come! (2021): Days 3&4: Our Outbound Flying-Fest

London-Helsinki on Finnair

Once again, we followed the recently established pattern of no pre-departure breakfast, due to our proximity to the airport. Catching the Piccadilly Line to the airport, we had to be careful on this occasion to remember to get off at Heathrow Central. We were flying Finnair, and that meant Terminal 3 rather than T5. The BA lounge staff unexpectedly denied us entry, directing us instead to the No 1 lounge. Although reasonable on arrival, this quickly became hopelessly overcrowded, and the offering wasn’t particularly impressive.

We eventually decided to leave, due to dissatisfaction with our surroundings in a time of pandemic. We each bought a ‘Nero’, as the lounge coffee had been really poor, and consumed our superior caffeine fixes in the less than luxurious surroundings of a corridor. Happily, this turned out to be the passage leading to our first flight of the day, and we were now destined to enjoy an airborne treat, thanks to great cabin crew, a nice meal and some superb service!

FLIGHT DATA for AY15 (Booked as BA6051)
Date: 20 Nov 2021Aircraft: Airbus A350-900
From: Helsinki (HEL)To: New York (JFK)
Scheduled departure: 1700 (EET)Actual departure: 1730
Scheduled arrival: 1845 (EST)Actual arrival: 1919
Cabin: Business ClassSeat: 10L

Our Finnair long-haul experience began with a visit to the airline’s most agreeable Business Class lounge at Helsinki Airport, which featured a proper cocktail bar. Bruce sampled a Negroni, but with the drinks having flowed freely on the sector from London, I decided not to indulge on this occasion.

In due course, it was time to head for the gate. Although we had originally booked seats 1L/2L, we changed to 10L/11L (in the Business Class ‘mini-cabin’) when our aircraft was changed to a ‘premium-heavy’ version of the Airbus A350-900. Boarding through Door 2L, it was a short walk indeed to our seats. We knew this at the time of booking, but it’s perhaps worth stating for the record that the Business Class seats were laid out in the deservedly popular ‘reverse herringbone’ pattern. I noticed that a menu and drinks card were already in my seat area, together with slippers, blanket, travel kit and water. Once seated, I was quickly offered what turned out to be a very large glass of champagne … oops! The captain made an announcement giving the expected flight time as 8hrs 45mins. He added that we were expecting to be around 15mins late in leaving, due to document checking at the gate. (And personally speaking, what a heart-stopping ordeal that had been, especially after having been told in London that everything was visible online and I was good to go!)

In the event, ‘Boarding complete’ was announced and doors were closed at 1710, but we sat at the gate for a further 20mins before pushing back. Thankfully it was a short taxi once we did get moving, and we took off from runway 22R at 1740. As often happens, the start of cabin service was marked by the arrival of hot towels. Suitably equipped with a bowl of nuts, some ice water and a Finnair signature Arctic Blue G&T (featuring blueberries!), I started up my first movie of the fight, The Accountant (2016).

The main meal service followed. Despite what the menu said, the starter was prawn-based, which was fine by me. Starter and main course – I had the chicken – arrived together, along with my choice of Sauvignon Blanc. I finished off with the cheese plate, accompanied by some port. Despite being well satisfied, a snack basket was brought round towards the end of my movie, and I found myself lifting a small pack of Pringles. Even worse, I shamelessly scoffed the lot!

As soon as my film had ended, I settled down to have a nap for a couple of hours.

** ** ** ** **

Once I decided that I had dozed for long enough, I sat up again and put on Ocean’s Twelve (2004), a far more light-hearted affair. The second meal, pasta based, was served as we overflew New England. Something occurred to me as I watched and ate: I think this may have been my first ever long-haul flight to take place entirely in external darkness.

We touched down on American soil at 1902 local time, but largely because we were required to shut down our engines and be towed onto our stand, it took a further 17 minutes to get there. Despite the messing about, though, it felt great to be back!

An evening in Queens

US Immigration looked like it was going to be a nightmare, but the huge line moved well and in fact I was through in minutes, with (genuinely) the least fuss ever. Presumably the agent could see everything he needed online. The ony thing I handed over was my passport. Even Bruce, who was in a completely separate line for US passport holders, was amazed that I was through almost as quickly as he was.

With that potential difficulty effortlessly negotiated, we took the AirTrain to Federal Circle and the shuttle van to the Hilton. We settled into our overnight accommodation and made for the bar to have a welcome drink. As two huge, American-style dry martinis (made with gin, ‘up’ with olives) arrived, I thought once more how great it was to be back in the land where you can get a properly made cocktail in any decent bar! As in Amsterdam, ‘Covid Passports’ (a.k.a. vaccination certificates) were required for entry.

Onwards to San Diego

The following day, our flying-fest continued with a trans-continental New York – Charlotte – San Diego journey on American Airlines, another Oneworld Alliance partner of British Airways. The final part of our outbound journey got off to a great start with a lengthy visit to the truly excellent AA Flagship Lounge at JFK’s Terminal 8. In due course, with the main lounge becoming increasingly busy, we relocated to the Quiet Room and assembled a very nice light lunch from the impressive buffet.

Everything was going swimmingly until we received alerts about a delay to our initial JFK-CLT flight, which might result in a misconnect at CLT … aaargh! With all flights full, there was no prospect of rearranging our second leg.

In the event, everything worked out, even if we had to go straight to the next gate on disembarking at Charlotte. However both flights, in US ‘Domestic First’, were so unremarkable that neither Bruce nor I felt inspired to take any more than a couple of photos. We arrived around 9pm Pacific and took a Lyft to our next accommodation, Hotel Indigo in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

We both wondered about the branding of this new-build property. In Europe, ‘Hotel Indigo’ tends to apply to an older property that has been thoroughly refurbished to present an unconventional, colourful or even whimsical appearance. With its palette of cream, grey and brown, our room was decidedly conventional. The only vaguely whimsical feature was a cushion bearing the image of a dog with the words ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’. The beds, however, were undeniably comfortable. Perhaps it was a rare example of substance over style.