AC981 NAS-YYZ A319 seat 27F

NAS has a seriously bizarre boarding procedure. Once the boarding call comes, your boarding pass is checked, but kept intact, and you can’t board the plane: instead, you’re just moved to sit (or stand) in a corridor near the gates. Then, once everybody has been corralled up, the door is opened and you’re allowed to trek across to the plane, where your boarding card is finally collected. Is there a point to this?

After taking off, the aircraft did a 270 degree turn and flew over central Nassau and Paradise Island, rising up in its emerald majesty from the fathomless depths. Da-yamn.

They say Canada feels American if you arrive from Europe and European if you arrive from America, and boarding Air Canada flights fits the pattern. This A319 is old and crusty, but not as bad as mainline US carriers; seat pitch is bad, but not terrible; your meal is free, but booze still costs money; and there’s some inflight entertainment, just not much of it. Kind of a halfway house, in other words.

The plane arrived at Toronto more or less on time; unfortunately, Toronto was in the process of being hammered by a thunderstorm, so the pilot flew leisurely bumpy loops around it for an hour, allowing all passengers to get a good look at the impenetrable fog. Engrossed in my laptop, it didn’t even occur to me that others might find this distressing, but there was an audible groan when the pilot announced for the third time that we’d be on the ground in “20 minutes”, and only when landing (with distraction devices packed away) did I realize that the cabin was getting kinda whiffy. After landing, we spent another good half hour sitting around on tarmac, and the increasingly puke-laden atmosphere prompted the little girl in the seat in front of me to announce that she was going to be sick, even though the plane was perfectly stationary. On the way out, slowed down by an interminable shuffle of strollers and oversized carryons, we all got a good luck at the cause of the carnage: two green-faced toddlers and a spew of projectile vomit over any nearby seats. Welcome back to reality.

The new international wing of Toronto Pearson opened in January 2007, a mere 3 months before my first visit, so it’s nice and new-looking, although I do like the way they’ve nostalgically clung onto that fixture of North American airports, the big red dot LED panel, and used “dot matrix” fonts for spelling out gate numbers, baggage carousel numbers, etc. Immigration was fairly painless, with the agent spending most of his time looking for the fullest possible page in my passport and then clobbering a Korean stamp with his maple-leaved overprint, but baggage took ages to arrive.

I then had my first suspicion that this airport wasn’t quite up to its appearance when I had some trouble locating the exit from the baggage carousels. My suspicions deepened when the ATM manifestly refused to be where the map said it should be, and none of the three I eventually found would accept Visa Plus (which is, after all, only the world’s most common system) despite wanting $2 service fees. Every American airport has a handy panel of courtesy phones from where you can call your hotel; but YYZ doesn’t. Hotel shuttle signage was absent, but I consulted the map (of missing ATM fame) and navigated my way to the basement, which had a lonely looking stand outside. A call to the hotel on my own dime then revealed that the shuttle stops at “S5”; I peered around quizzically, unsuccessfully looking for numbers or letters on the stands scattered about, until I realized that the concrete pillars holding up the building were numbered high up, and “S5” was waaaaaaaaay at the other end, near the stand labeled “Group Drop-Off Only”.

Once I eventually schlepped myself to the other end, I lucked out and caught the shuttle almost immediately, and when I whined about how difficult it was to find, the driver commiserated: “Yeah, everybody else says that too.” Sigh.

 

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US1053 CLT-NAS B737-400 seat 13A

In the gloom of rain CLT looked like any other older American airport, all scuffed linoleum, white-on-black signage and acres and acres devoted to parking, but next morning proved sunnier and the terminal looked rather more modern and welcoming. US Airways made amends by checking me in speedily (although I had to assist the check-in lady with punching in my EuroBonus card) and allowing me into the US Airways Club which, to damn it with faint praise, was the best I’ve seen in the USA to date. Clean, spacious, free ice water, a powerplug-equipped cubicle to compute in and more free T-Mobile goodness was all I needed.

Today’s airplane was a bog-standard regional B737, which didn’t even pretend to offer frills like headphones or movies for this two-hour flight. The seat pitch was as bad as previously, but my seat was a window over the wing and thus a marginal improvement on yesterday, especially as I had no seatmates in my 3-seat row and was thus able to sprawl out freely.

No matter how many times I’ve done it, I still love the first few minutes of flight. Hitting the throttle, feeling the aircraft accelerate to Ludicrous Speed(tm), the moment of takeoff — and then as the aircraft banks, twists and turns on its way to its flight path and level, the cabin moving around in three dimensions, you remember that this is not a bus and you’re flying, an idea so magical and captivating that the entire state of North Carolina still commemorates the first successful attempt on its license plates.

Signs you’re in a country where people don’t do too much international travel: the pilot spends 10 minutes announcing line by line how to fill in the Bahamas immigration form and how to fill out the US Customs form for the return leg.