Ask the pilot

You call this traveling? Twenty-one days, 15 countries, 45,000 miles -- without setting foot outdoors.

Published February 8, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

Last month I posed an unusual challenge. I asked readers to come up with the longest, most elaborate international itinerary possible that does not entail contact with fresh air or local soil. "The conveniences of modern travel," I had written, "specifically the invention of the enclosed jetway and the in-terminal hotel, have made it possible to construct extended international journeys, as it were, stopping in any number of countries, without ever stepping outside." Several people responded, but none of the entries were as comprehensive as I'd hoped. (Which isn't surprising, maybe, since the mere thought of such a trip is enough to induce severe jet lag, dehydration and deep-vein thrombosis.) Ideally, this perverse nonadventure would circumnavigate the globe with minimal backtracking. It should feature a full night's layover in as many countries as possible, including at least one on each continent. Each point should be connectable nonstop in accordance with published airline schedules -- that is, no zigzagging detours to intermediate hubs in order to make it work.

So I took the challenge myself, and here is what I came up with. Try to imagine you are with me.

Our odyssey begins this Sunday morning, Feb. 10, in Terminal 3 at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. There we board Delta Air Lines Flight 1271 to Miami. Upon arrival just before 2 p.m., the in-terminal Miami International Hotel awaits. The lobby and reception desk are behind Concourse E. We watch television and help ourselves to ample refreshments from the minibar until the following evening, when it's time to catch American Airlines Flight 2919, the red-eye to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

We land in Rio around 8 a.m. Accommodations are provided by the Luxor Aeroporto Hotel, found on Level 3 of the terminal complex.

Next is one of the longest legs of the trip -- across the Atlantic to Paris on Air France. Flight 443 leaves Rio just before 7 p.m. on the 12th, touching down at Charles de Gaulle airport at about 8:30 the next morning. The de Gaulle Sheraton is only a short stroll away, accessible from within Terminal 2.

After a night's stay, it's time for some hops around Europe. From Paris we travel on KLM to Amsterdam, relaxing for a day at the Schiphol airport Hilton, connected by walkway to the arrivals lounge. The morning after, it's a ride on British Airways to London-Heathrow, where another Hilton is tunneled directly into Terminal 4.

It's Feb. 16 now, a week since starting out, and time to catch South African Airways Flight 235, the 6 p.m. departure from Heathrow to Johannesburg. We land in JoBurg 11 hours later, ready for a long nap. Good thing for the Protea Transit Hotel, entered through a passageway just beyond the customs hall.

On the evening of the 18th, we're off to the Persian Gulf. Emirates Flight 762 takes us from JoBurg to Dubai in about eight hours, arriving at dawn. We head immediately to the Dubai International Hotel, located on the arrivals level of the Sheikh Rashid Terminal.

No rest for the weary: A day later we're bound for Hong Kong aboard Cathay Pacific Flight 746, scheduled to land at 7:05 on the morning of Feb. 21. The Regent Hotel will be our home for the next 24 hours, reached via an enclosed walkway from Hong Kong's mammoth central terminal.

Rise and shine on the 22nd for early check-in at the Malaysia Airlines counter. Flight MH75 will have us in Kuala Lumpur before 1 p.m. local. KUL is a very nice airport, and we'll have a day or so to savor it from the Airside Transit Hotel, conveniently located at Satellite A, adjacent to Gate C5.

Then on Feb. 23 we're catching a short Singapore Airlines hop down to Singapore, where at the fantastic Changi airport we stay at the Ambassador. Talk about a convenience -- guests can reach the Ambassador without having to clear immigration. And boredom shouldn't be an issue: Changi has a free movie theater, a swimming pool and wireless Internet for all passengers.

But don't get too comfortable. The following night we are headed down under, nonstop to Melbourne on Qantas Flight 10. Accommodations are at the Melbourne airport Hilton, connected by covered walkway to the airport.

Hang in there. It's Feb. 26 and we're almost finished. Just 10,000 more miles.

Northbound we go with Korean Air. Flight 818 leaves Melbourne in the morning and gets us to Seoul-Incheon at 6:45 that evening. Weary after the 11-hour trip, we head straight for the Incheon Transit Hotel, on the fourth floor of the terminal -- our home until 12:20 the next afternoon.

Osaka is next, less than two hours away on Japan Airlines Flight 962. It's raining heavily at Osaka's Kansai airport, so good thing for the passageway leading directly to the Hotel Nikko.

On the 28th we're at last headed back to North America, on Air Canada's Flight 36 from Osaka to Vancouver. We take off at 6:45 p.m., but the dateline crossing means we arrive before we departed, as it were, touching down at 11:10 still on the morning of the 28th. The jet lag is painful, so we quickly grab a room at the Fairmont, accessed by elevator from the departures level of the terminal.

Twenty-four hours later, taking advantage of the Fairmont's lobby kiosks, we're checked in for Mexicana Flight 981, nonstop to Mexico City's teeming Benito Juárez airport. Our final night is spent at the Marriott, reached through a glass-enclosed walkway.

And finally, on the morning of March 1, we leave Mexico bound for New York, where this hideous voyage began three weeks ago. Aeromexico's Flight 402 arrives at JFK at 3:40 in the afternoon.

There, I couldn't resist a good challenge, even if that challenge was my own. In airline-speak, the routing went like this:


The whole thing took 21 days, with 93 hours of flying. We rode 16 flights on 15 airlines, stopping in 16 cities in 15 countries. We stopped in all six continents and circled the globe, west to east. According to Karl Swartz's inimitable Great Circle Mapper, we covered 45,518 statute miles. Using available economy-class fares at the time of research, the trip cost $10,662 (or about 23 cents per mile). Add an additional $2,500 or so for hotels, including numerous late-checkout fees.

Yet in all that traveling, intense as it was, we have effectively been nowhere and seen nothing, save for the sterile interiors of airplanes, terminals and hotels. Not once in the entire journey did we set foot outside.

Stranger still, we could have thrown in some touring in either Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. At both of these airports, high-speed rail connections arrive and depart from within the central terminal. The downtown platforms are also enclosed, allowing for a round-trip sightseeing junket without breaking the rules.

What does this showcase, other than an author's willingness to spend obsessive amounts of time poring over airline Web sites? (I'd started with Travelocity, but the site is extremely limited when it comes to overseas routes.) I'm not exactly sure, but what we've taken to an extreme is something that, on a smaller level, millions of travelers endure and even enjoy on a regular basis. Every day people travel great distances, entirely within the standardized, homogeneous shelter of codependent entities -- the vast global community of airlines, airports, hotels, restaurants and shops.

Three weeks is a very long time to go without a breath of fresh air. But to spread that experience over the course of 15 countries is almost unthinkable. That it can be done is equal testament to the weirdness of modern life and the astounding capabilities of air travel -- if not to the eagerness of the human imagination to concoct schemes of unbearable tedium.

This would, I think, be a good idea for a TV documentary. I could see the Travel Channel, for example, following some hapless and very tired host around the world, highlighting the history of the various airports and airlines at each stop. Some of them -- Miami, Kennedy, Heathrow -- are remarkably colorful and historic. Others, like Hong Kong and Osaka, are marvels of engineering. The one problem might be finding a willing host.

"I travel for travel's sake," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. "The great affair is to move."

Well, yeah, but what would he think of this?

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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