Ask the pilot

Around the world in 41 hours and 17,000 miles. Plus: I want to live in Emirates first-class.


Patrick Smith
September 26, 2008 2:30PM (UTC)

In a column last February, I outlined a potential three-week circumnavigation of the globe in which the participant, making stops in 15 countries on six continents, never sets foot outside. The convenience -- or is it perversity? -- of the in-terminal hotel makes such bizarre itineraries possible. In the piece I quote Robert Louis Stevenson: "I travel for travel's sake," he once wrote. "The great affair is to move." Sure, but what would he make of such a twisted, ecologically reckless and, when it comes right down to it, pointless journey?

One has to admit, however, all these years after Magellan, that there still exists an undeniable attraction to the idea of circling the globe. I, for one, had always wanted to do it if for no greater reason than, well, to have done it. This is the only planet we know, and would it not be a kick to start off in one direction and keep going, all the way around to the point where you started? Wanderlust in its purest form.

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But at least I didn't opt for the all-indoors option. Somehow that's too extreme, even for me. My route was a bit more conventional, with plenty of time for sightseeing -- a visit to the Korean DMZ, and an 18-inning baseball game in Seoul, South Korea -- if not without its moments of why-am-I-doing-this tedium.

Leg 1: ATL-ICN 14.5 hours, 6,200 nautical miles

Atlanta to Seoul is a longer flight than you might expect. Fourteen hours plus, on this particular day. And I do mean day. The Monday morning departure lands you in Korea at around 2 p.m. local time -- the entire flight in sunshine. Except suddenly it is Tuesday now, courtesy of the international date line, which you crossed while watching "Flight of the Conchords" and enjoying a midflight snack of Napa cabbage salad and beef loin with shrimp and Muenster cheese. By the time you fall asleep in your Seoul hotel room, you've been in broad daylight for 25 consecutive hours. Depending on the latitude and time of year, it's possible to keep going and going, ever westward, and never see the sun set. There's some travel therapy for anyone with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Note: The sculpted overhead bins of the Boeing 777 are the most attractive in the sky. They are huge but unimposing, with a stylish design that makes the plane feel even roomier than it already is. Also note: The curtains between economy and business class are useful for keeping the lavatories from overcrowding, but they do not block out the noise of crying babies. Neither do the noise reduction headphones provided by Delta. Somewhere out there is a plane with no babies on board. I would like to be on that plane.

Incheon International Airport, serving Seoul, is maybe the most efficient, functional and overall flier-friendly airport I have ever been to. It's cavernous and immaculately clean; security and immigration are a breeze; the staff at the multilingual information desks are disarmingly helpful; and the terminal is crammed with amenities: a free Internet cafe, luggage storage, cellphone rental desks, a post office, a massage room, even a small museum. There's a business center, a transit hotel and a tour desk that arranges quickie excursions for connecting passengers (enjoy an hourlong tour of nearby temples or a brief sightseeing swing through downtown Seoul).

The pleasantness is enhanced by a cathedral-like quietness throughout. If American airports need to borrow one idea from their counterparts abroad, it's that passengers need not be bombarded by a continuous loop of public address announcements, most of them useless and redundant. In many U.S. terminals, it's not uncommon to hear two or three announcements blaring simultaneously. Together with those damn, unsilenceable CNN monitors, the result is a hurricane of noise. I don't know if anyone has ever studied the effects of airport noise on passengers, but certainly it ratchets up stress levels.

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One gripe: The rail link from Incheon into Seoul is not yet operational.

Leg 2: ICN-BKK 5.5 hours, 1,980 nautical miles

Somebody once told me that Korean Air flights carry a flight attendant whose sole job it is to clean and straighten the lavatories (a junior position, I take it). To find out, I went into the bathroom and threw garbage all over the floor, then came back in 10 minutes.

Just kidding, but I did go have a look. Indeed the lavs were ultra-clean, and each contained two bottles of facial lotion and a bouquet of complimentary toothbrushes.

The 777-300 was in Korean's intra-Asian configuration. No swanky sleeper seats upfront and no seat-back entertainment. The upholstery in my section of economy might have been the ugliest I have ever seen. The seats were a two-tone brown. The plane was practically brand new and immaculately clean, but the cabin design made it look old.

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Still, the small touches compensated for any lack of attractiveness. Those toothbrushes in the lavs were a good idea, and there was a multilanguage newspaper selection at each economy-class bulkhead. Wine and beer were complimentary in all classes, and the crew was happy to offer refills. After the meal service, attendants came around with trays of water and juice every half-hour.

Korean Air's slogan, "Excellence in Flight," is one of my favorites. It's so pleasantly succinct, with a clever double meaning and without the pandering, we-do-it-all-for-you sentiments chosen by too many airlines. Unfortunately, the company has had a hard time shaking its reputation for being unsafe.

The troubles began in 1978, when a Korean Air Lines (or KAL, as it was then known) Boeing 707 heading from Paris to Seoul strayed over Soviet territory and was fired upon. Two passengers were killed and the airplane crash-landed on a frozen lake. This was but a precursor to one of the most infamous aviation crashes of all time -- that of KAL 007 in 1983. The Boeing 747, carrying 269 people from New York to Seoul, was shot from the sky by a Soviet fighter plane after drifting off course -- and into Soviet airspace -- over the North Pacific. There were no survivors. Investigators blamed the deviation to "a considerable lack of alertness and attentiveness on the part of the flight crew." Then, in the 1990s, a series of mishaps resulted in FAA sanctions and the suspension of Korean's code-share arrangement with Delta.

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That arrangement was later reinstated after Korean agreed to a comprehensive safety audit. The entire country's air system was overhauled, completing a remarkable turnaround in only a few years. In fact, a 2008 assessment by ICAO ranked Korea's aviation safety standards as the highest in the world, beating out 108 other nations. The evaluation covered nearly 10,000 items, from pilot training to maintenance.

Leg 3: BKK-DXB 6 hours, 2,650 nautical miles

Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok. Say it again: Suvarnabhumi. Don't worry if you can't pronounce it, because your first sight of the place will leave you speechless. Opened in September 2007, Suvarnabhumi is possibly the most visually spectacular airport in the world. In a region full of sparkling new aerodromes -- Seoul, Singapore, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong -- that's saying something. In the evening, approaching by highway from downtown Bangkok, the main terminal looms like some goliath space station, a vision of glass and light and steel, its huge transoms bathed in cool blue spotlight. Nobody misses greasy old Don Muang International; anything would have been an improvement. But this ... this!

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Served by 80 commercial airlines, the passenger complex covers over half a million square meters and will process 45 million passengers annually. Hong Kong is marginally bigger, but it lacks Suvarnabhumi's flair: the futuristic superstructure, the soaring concourse archways, the atriums greened with tropical trees.

Dramatics aside, one finds all the amenities expected of an ultramodern aerodrome, including a 1-4 Starbucks-to-passengers ratio, state-of-the-art automatic toilets and, airports being airports, 900 miles of duty-free shopping.

One gripe: At security, despite my best efforts of persuasion, guards made off with my extremely dangerous, 2-inch, rounded-tip scissors

And if flying out of Suvarnabhumi isn't cool enough, it's that much cooler in a first-class seat aboard Emirates.

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I suppose the most flattering thing you can say about an airline is that you didn't want to get off one of its planes. I was heartbroken the moment we pushed from the gate in Bangkok, because it meant I was that much closer to having to leave. There is not enough space on this page to detail each and every luxury and amenity, but suffice it to say I want to live in Emirates first-class.

Each passenger is ensconced in a private pod with an electrically operated privacy barrier, minibar, and 23-inch video monitor. The seats have several adjustment points, all controlled electrically, and slide forward into fully flat beds over 6 feet long. The entertainment guide, listing more than 900 choices of movies, TV, music and games, is so thick that it comes with its own ribbon page-holder sewn to the binding. There are two remote-control units, including a hand-held, touch-screen device that is larger than the video screens found on many carriers. The leather-bound menu is restaurant-size. During dinner, the flight attendant came to my seat offering a basket of rolls and breads. I went to choose one, only to learn that the entire basket was mine. When it's time for bed, the cabin lighting system projects constellations on the ceiling, then slowly brightens with the sunrise. And I shouldn't neglect to mention the amenities kit the size of a lunch box; the oversize pillows and blankets; the slippers. Oh, and the windows -- the windows! -- have polished wood-toned frames.

I couldn't help snapping a few photos. For more, try the archives at Airliners.net. And believe it or not, this isn't even Emirates' top-of-the-line product. Some of its 777s and A340 are even more ridiculous, with fully enclosed suites. First-class digs on an Emirates A380 include showers.

As I reported on firsthand a few years ago, Emirates' economy class is by no means shabby. But believe me, one ride up front and you won't ever want to go back.

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People wonder why and how Emirates has become such a huge and prestigious player, generally chalking it up to some unfair advantage. But in truth, it isn't government subsidies or the proverbial "oil money" that make the airline go. Neither is it so simple as selling a quality product at a competitive price. Geography, frankly, has a lot to do with it. Emirates is the flagship carrier of the emerging world order, exploiting the position of its hub, Dubai International, as an ideal transfer point between East and West, North and South. If you live in Pakistan or China or India or Southeast Asia or the Middle East, and you are traveling to Africa or Europe or North or South America (or vice versa ), Emirates will take you there.

Airports. In a lot of ways, airports are what make airlines successful, and they are, as national symbols, often symptomatic of civic and economic priorities. Judging from what I have seen around Asia -- not to mention what I see all the time in Europe's finer terminals -- I hate to say it, but the United States and its carriers are at a stark disadvantage. Our airports are crippled by preposterous security measures, crumbling infrastructure and old-fashioned terminals. We will have a tough time competing in the years ahead.

Dubai itself is a surreal place, a mirage of sand, sun and sci-fi office towers. It seems as if there are twice as many skyscrapers as there were on my first visit in 2003. They've sprouted like heat-seeking mushrooms, rising ever upward into the unbearable Persian Gulf heat. The new Burj Dubai tower remains unfinished, but it already is the world's tallest building. It is a truly unbelievable sight -- an elegant stalagmite of a thing, 2,000 feet tall.

The population of Dubai is an East-meets-West polyglot in which the expats, and immigrant laborers -- Filipinos and Indians and Bangladeshis, Brits and and Australians and Americans -- appear to outnumber local Arabs.

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Leg 4: DXB-ATL 14.5 hours, 6,600 nautical miles

Dubai to Atlanta. An interesting routing, up over Iran, past Shiraz and the holy city of Qom, passing just west of Tehran. (One wonders if Iranian airspace will, in the months ahead, be closed to aircraft wearing American registrations.) Then toward Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine before tracing a huge northwesterly arc across northwestern Europe, eventually passing to the north side of Iceland.

Oh, and that same trick where you can fly in perpetual daylight? Well, that works in reverse as well. Night fell over Dubai -- a blanket of superheated darkness -- at around 7 p.m. local time. Twenty hours later, on approach into Atlanta, the stars were still out.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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