The largest city on earth, by thunder

19 May 1988 Trans World Airlines 744 Washington National to New York JFK
19 May 1988 Pan American 457 New York JFK to Mexico City, Business

After visiting the north-east corridor twice, our third visit looked to be unpromising. There is only so much that can be done in the same region, and we felt we had pretty well done it all. Visiting a man who doesn't like the United States, but is posted there for two years, we were reluctant to suggest going elsewhere within the country, which is how we came to suggest Mexico City. He did have a great love of Latin America, and we thought we could get away with that, as well as livening up what might be a fairly tedious holiday otherwise.

We knew that there are various problems with American carriers, and so we arrived at the Pan Am Express desk at National Airport in plenty of time. Even though we had reserved seats on the flight to New York, the flight was already overbooked. Pan Am apologises for this inconvenience, and has made reservations on the next TWA flight to Kennedy, upgraded to Business Class to compensate us. This wasn't really very comforting, because it still meant that we would have to change terminals at JFK, something we know to avoid.

It also meant changing terminals at Washington National. Pan Am has its offices at one end of the airport, TWA at the other end. This had already become apparent to us on our previous visits here. So we ran through the airport to the TWA terminal, aware that the later we were, the less chance we had of making the TWA flight, and our connecting flight to Mexico City. We only had a few days to spend there, and didn't want to waste it.

Arrival breathless at the TWA terminal revealed that we did not have Business Class reservations on the flight. In fact, we did not have any reservations at all on their flight to New York. The gate crew agreed, however, to put us on standby for the flight. What would have happened if we had not got onto that flight, I dread to think, but the three of us, along with about another six with similar problems, were put in single Coach Class seats dotted around the cabin.

Arrival at TWA's red terminal in New York posed another question: how to leave it. Signs marked "Exit" seemed absent, as did most TWA officers. When they heard that our onward flight was with somebody else, especially Pan Am, they lost interest. Eventually, we found the way out. A very small sign indicated the way to "Street". We caught the bus round to the Worldport, which is by contrast predominantly blue. Surely we would miss the onward flight. We found the gate, and checked in, and were surprised, by this stage, to discover that our preselected seats were still available.

Just behind us in the check-in queue (or line, as they say in America) were some passengers enquiring about the availability of standby on the flight. None - the flight was already full. I wondered whether it was overfull.

The time came when we should have been boarding, but there was no airliner in evidence. The prospective passengers started to become agitated, although Americans seem to take this sort of thing much more in their stride than Europeans. Probably they are more used to it.

I first realised something was wrong when I saw a check-in clerk take a boarding pass from a passenger and rip it up. This seemed most unusual behaviour. A few questions eventually elicited the information that the Airbus Industrie airliner allocated to this flight was not currently airworthy, and that another airliner was being brought to the gate.

However, the new airliner had a different configuration, with more seats in First and Clipper Classes. Clipper Class is the name Pan Am chooses to give their Business Class. A stream of passengers was called, and the ripping up of boarding passes was accompanied by the allocation of seats in a higher class. They could not have been entirely successful here, and I have two pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis.

First, two airliners of the same type naturally have the same floor area, so that if there are more seats in the premium classes, then more space will be used by them, leaving room for fewer passengers altogether. As the flight was full already, some passengers who had been issued with boarding passes already would be denied boarding.

Second, we had a view of a simple event from our Clipper Class seats, the memory of which will stay with me always. A Hispanic lady had been upgraded to Clipper Class, as had we, but when she and her baby arrived at the new seat, it was already occupied by a businessman, deep in conversation with the man, presumably a colleague, in the seat next to him. They wanted to upgrade him to First Class. He refused. Presumably he was discussing their joint strategy for the meeting in Mexico the following day, or something. The look of panic and dismay on the Pan Am staff faces was something to behold, when they realised that they had no option but to upgrade a Hispanic mother and baby with Economy Class tickets all the way to First Class.

As for us, we had an enjoyable but delayed journey to Mexico City, where we arrived just about four hours late. Despite that, it had been a surprisingly good flight. We travelled to our hotel, Galeria Plaza Hotel, found in the Zona Rosa in Mexico City, and before long we were settled in. We had a few busy days ahead of us, with sightseeing to do, particularly the Pyramids at Teoutihuacan, for which Mexico ought to be more famous. The museum of anthropology, the parks and the fountains are also under-rated. Don't breathe while in Mexico City, by the way. All you have been told about the pollution there is true.

Around Mexico City, we were delighted by the underground system. Not only was it always crowded, but to allow for problems of illiteracy, all the stations have pictograms displayed as well as their names. We searched in vain for a comprehensive map of the system as a souvenir.

As fans of Mexican food, we naturally ate out at every opportunity. Towards the end of the meal on the first evening, I was suddenly invited to join the dancers and the mariachi on stage to dance. This caused a certain amount of amusement to all present.

Mexico City is famous for street vendors. The most important phrase of Spanish is, of course, no gracias meaning "no thank you" and depending on the level of the vendor's insistence, we can move onto "I'm not interested" or the ultimate deterrent "We're not going to pay".

As well as vendors, services are also available. Most notably, shoeshines. Whether the man with the shiniest shoes in Mexico City is a shoeshine himself, or just very poor, is a matter for debate. After many refusals, I found one insisted on cleaning a very dusty pair of sandals even as I was walking along at a steady pace. When told we wouldn't pay, he stopped smartly, leaving me with a sandal with one small, shiny area and the rest still very dusty. Nobody else offered all the way back to the hotel.

Our friend described a shoeshine he had met on a previous trip to Mexico City. He had been very friendly, and given ample opportunity for him to practise his Spanish while having his shoes cleaned. The main problem was that the bill exceeded the price he had paid for the shoes in the first place.

However, one good buy in Mexico City is onyx. Muller's Onyx store sells beautiful onyx items, and there was no single item in the store we could not afford. Freight may have been a different story. Onyx tables which would be well suited to being communion tables were there, so were smaller tables, ornaments, flower pots, wishing wells and all manner of other things. We bought an onyx donkey about a foot high and a set of onyx liqueur glasses on a tray, while our friend bought a chess set and a set of glasses.

23 May 1988 Pan American 456 Mexico City to New York JFK
23 May 1988 Pan American 585 New York JFK to Washington Dulles, diverted from National

Looking around the duty-free shop at Mexico City, my friend was startled, overjoyed, beside himself to see Havana Club Rum for sale. We bought some for him. Cuba doesn't have a lot in the way of acceptable exports. Cigars I know nothing about, but Havana Club Rum is the best rum I ever tasted. Obviously we took it straight back to the UK, because it is illegal to import Cuban products into the United States of America. All the same, it did taste good, especially as mochitas, made from rum, traditional lemonade and ice.

As for the flight back to New York, there is little to remark. The flight was only a few minutes late leaving Mexico City. This time was recovered on the journey back to New York. I am sorry to say that on the return journey we were not upgraded to Business Class, but you can't have everything. The food was adequate, but not exceptional.

Immigration into the States proved amusing, though it might easily have been less so. My father-in-law collects walking sticks from around the world, so whenever we travel, we try to purchase a local one. This has caused problems in the past, but none so bad as this time in New York.

Combining the facts that I have brown eyes, a moustache and had a Mexican walking stick with the knowledge that I had just arrived on a flight from Mexico City, the immigration officer was not as courteous as is normal to a British citizen. I was addressed as Senor, which is not how I expect to be addressed on a day-to-day basis. The two passengers with me were granted the level of entry to the United States that might be expected (resident and six months), whereas I was only admitted for one month. Not really a problem, as we would only be there for less than another week, but rather a dent in my pride. My wife, who was included on the same customs declaration as me, was admitted for six months.

Anyway, we had got in, with our rum and onyx, and wandered to the cafeteria to wait until it was time for our connecting flight. As we looked out of the window, ominous clouds grew blacker and blacker, larger and larger, and over our coffees we told each other that Kennedy would be closed within five minutes. So it was, as the rain, rain, rain started.

Apart from the minor detail that no flights at all were leaving, the Worldport functioned much as usual. The departure information screens seemed completely unaware that anything at all was amiss.

Attempting to check in for our connecting flight to DC revealed the illuminating information that it had been cancelled. I was glad, as the prospect of a flight through a thunderstorm in a small turboprop was not one I relished. They directed us to another flight, a jet going to Washington National a few minutes later.

We checked in, had another drink, and waited for a little while in the departure lounge, after which we boarded the 727. It was still raining very hard, and we were about an hour later than we expected. We sat on the aeroplane, and nothing happened. After a while, the rain stopped.

One of the stewardesses explained over the loudspeakers that as a result of the storm, all the flights had been delayed. Could we see a line of aircraft to the right? We are in that line, she explained. Large and small aircraft of all liveries stretched ahead of us as far as the eye could see, and were slowly launching themselves into the grey skies. The weather was still sufficiently inclement that only one runway was in use. Hours passed, and we were fourth, then third, then second in line for take-off. It started raining again. We were actually sitting at the end of an active runway, and the rain started.

When it stopped again, the priorities had all changed. Wide-bodied intercontinental jets were now timed to leave, and these have priority over local flights. If they didn't, one congested airport could easily bring the whole civil aviation world to its knees. This didn't help us, because today we were only flying a local journey. As we approached the head of the queue again, we wondered what would happen, even if the rain did stay off.

The time was after 22:00, and those of you who were paying attention earlier will remember that there is a jet curfew at Washington National at that hour.

We were airborne just after eleven, as it turned out, and the pilot announced that although we had been cleared for take- off, he didn't know where we were going. As we knew, we couldn't go to National. His guess was that we would be diverted to Dulles, an announcement met with a cheer by some passengers, but not by us. We took a route which took us a long way inland to avoid the storm, and touched down at Dulles just before 01:00.

A stewardess said thank you for choosing Pan Am. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day.

My advice is to take the train if you were planning an East Coast trip late in the day, and I will now stand by this advice always...play it safe.

Those who wanted to take their leave at Dulles were free to do so: alternatively, buses were available to go to National. Fat lot of use that would be - we would need to wait for the buses, get on them, then get a cab back home as the metro had finished. Instead, we went outside and queued for a cab there. It cost us forty dollars. A rogue taxi offered to take us for USD 50 without queuing, but we decided it was worth a five minute wait after all that time.

At least we had been able to retrieve our baggage. Any baggage irregularity reports had to be filed at National Airport. We arrived back at the apartment at Northwest just before 02:00.

One carrier, to avoid changing terminals en route. Flights to and from National, to avoid the long taxi journey and the motorised lounges at Dulles. The best laid plans of mice and men.

Perhaps another little anecdote is in order here. It was suggested to us once that on our first arrival somewhere, the first taxi journey from the airport to the city will always be the most expensive we ever made. We must not complain, but wait until a dinner or drinks party some months later, when someone who was also ripped off will ask us how much we paid. They are asking because they paid more and want to justify it. So we must tell the truth, and then ask innocently how much they paid. It will spoil their whole evening, because they must admit that they paid more, which will spoil their evening, or lie, which will also make for a bad evening.

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