Reversing the routine of flying by night


My recent flight to London had a familiar 8: 30 New York departure time and landed at Heathrow Airport the usual six hours later -- fast-forwarding across five trans-Atlantic time zones that meant a local arrival time of about 7: 30. Same old, same old -- or so it would seem.

But what was different about this flight was that the departure time was 8: 30 a.m. and the arrival 7: 30 p.m. -- the reverse of the usual tourist routine. So instead of groggily crawling off the plane after an accelerated night in a coach-class seat, I knew I could catch the free shuttle to a nearby hotel, have a normal night's sleep and pick up my rental car the next morning -- refreshed and thus more confident about driving on the "wrong" side of the road.

This was my first day flight to Europe, and I'm hooked. It doesn't cost any more than flying at night and enables travelers to start their trip on a more relaxed note. Yet few airlines offer regular morning departures -- only American, United and British Airways currently have them to London. The argument? They rob die-hard travelers of a work or vacation day. It's true; if I'd left Saturday night, I could have spent Sunday in England rather than in the air. But many tourists waste their first day abroad anyway, napping either in a hotel bed or a theater seat. Some have to walk around like zombies until the late afternoon check-in time at their hotels, then crash for the night at 4 p.m.

If truth be told, I happily could have dispensed with my night at the airport hotel. But because I was headed into the countryside, I wasn't about to drive off at 8 or 9 p.m. Passengers bound for London, however, could start their stay with a leisurely dinner and even a show. The twentysomething passenger across from me, who had lucked into three seats to himself, immediately rolled himself in blankets like a mummy and stayed that way most of the flight -- possibly preparing for a night of partying in the city currently considered the coolest on the planet.

The American Airlines 767-300 -- which actually has fewer than 300 seats (the exact number varies from plane to plane) -- appeared to be about three-quarters full. My seatmate, a frequent traveler to London, was taking her first day flight because she hadn't been able to get on one that evening. She usually goes to the airport from her office, tries to catch 40 winks on the plane, then toughs it out at meetings on arrival day. She looked forward to showing up well-rested this time.

The two meals were brunch (choice of pancakes or a cheese omelet, the latter served with orange juice, bran muffin, minicroissant and an artistic fresh-fruit salad) and a generous snack (cold shrimp or turkey plate with pasta, vegetables and gelato) about three hours later.

My only complaint -- which would have been 100 times worse on a night flight -- was that I found myself in a seat that couldn't be reclined to keep it from blocking the emergency exit behind me. I probably could have found another seat, but I was too content with everything else to bother.

Pub Date: 6/08/97

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