Flight report: BNE-SYD-LAX return

The paperwork, oh, the paperwork

There’s an ESTA to fill out and apply for, since my previous one ran out during the pandemic (and, in fact, I‘m travelling under my new Australian passport for this flight, also for the first time, so I didn’t have a valid ESTA anyway). That was relatively instant, so that was good news. I print it out.

I also need travel insurance. It’s gone up, unsurprisingly, but seems to include unlimited overseas medical cover in case I catch COVID when I’m out there. I print out both the certificate and the additional letter confirming the COVID cover.

Then, onto the documentation.

One of the myriad of documents I have to fill out, the “United States Passenger Attestation” document, is a form on Qantas’s website, which fails to submit properly (a 500 server error on the API call, Chrome tells me). I discover other versions of the form as a PDF, but they have different information on them. Half an hour later, Qantas’s website has stopped erroring, and I can fill it out. So I’m sure that’s worked.

There’s a “contact tracing form”, which is a tightly-printed page of information from the US, asking me the same questions as asked on the United States Passenger Attestation document. I print it out and fill it in.

I have to print a copy of the international vaccination certificate (which the Australian government also allows me to keep on my phone in Google Pay, which is rather good).

Then, to book a COVID test.

In spite of already asking me for my destination, Helius are offering me this. This is a dodgy anti-pattern page: designed to get me to pay $295, since it’s deliberately coy about how long it’ll take, and the US needs a test “within 24 hours of travel”, which I gather actually means “the calendar day before my first leg”, which is really not the same at all. My travel agent offered me a $10 discount code for them; Qantas’s website offers a $20 discount code: and that’s because Healius are devious shysters.

Instead, I go with Histopath, which is $79 and is based in the actual airport — the dark, outside bit of the airport where the airline offices are, in a concrete corridor next to the car park.

I arrive on Sunday afternoon at 12.20pm. There’s a queue, including kids who are, understandably, not that excited at standing in a draughty grey waiting area. I was tested at 12.50pm; the text and email came through exactly 90 minutes later at 2.20pm. Very quick and efficient.

The texts, oh, the texts

Seven days before the flight, a text from Qantas, linking to a web page with details on the complicated things I have to do to fly and the documentation I need.

Four days before the flight, another text from Qantas, saying that my COVID testing window opens soon. This is all quite reassuring, if rather complicated. For the US, after all, it’s “the day before you fly"; but perhaps being overly specific in this text is a problem waiting to happen, given how quickly the rules change.

Two days before the flight, a more welcome one: my Upgrade Request has been granted, moving me from economy to premium economy. I normally save any upgrade request for the journey home, but thought I’d have a slightly more pleasant time in premium economy than in the little secret Platinum flyers enclave at the top and back of the plane (it looks like the old A380 is being used for this flight).

A text 24 hours before my flight, telling me I can check in online. I try checking in online. It doesn’t let me. I am unsurprised.

A text 22 hours before my flight, telling me to get to Sydney airport a bit early because of extended security times. I mean, that bit’s up to you, Qantas, you’re taking me there.

The check-in process

And then no more texts, because it’s ready to go to the airport. I’m getting there at 12.40pm for a 3.40pm flight because who knows how this all works.

I confidently ask the Uber driver for the international airport, and only realise halfway through the journey that no, I need the domestic airport. I’m curious as to where my paperwork will be checked, but presume it’s going to be in Sydney rather than here.

…and no, my paperwork is checked in Brisbane. I confidently go to the Premium Lounge checkin, only to be waved back to the checkin desks for international. It turns out that my “United States Passenger Attestation” document, submitted on the Qantas website, is entirely invisible: so I have to do one again. Otherwise, though, everything seems in order.

I get to the lounge. Qantas texts me details about “my flight to Australia”: steady on, I haven’t even left the country!

An hour into working from the lounge, Qantas’s app is wondering why I’ve not yet checked in. That’s a bit of a worry, but I’m going to ignore that, given I have the boarding passes printed on a piece of paper in my jacket pocket. Qantas’s app seems to forget that I’m even travelling anywhere with monotonous regularity (as I type this it is just asking me to “add an upcoming trip”) so I suspect it’s got a bit confused. (The way to fix it: force-quit the app, then re-open it again.)

After a bit in the lounge, I pop out to walk around the airport a bit. Brisbane Domestic is back to its usual self — busy, almost all the stores open. I walk round the bookshop, working out what I might want to download later for reading. I clearly look at books for too long, since someone comes up to ask me if they can help me. I beat a retreat to the electronics store, where I realise that the headphone business is in fine form: lots of beguiling new shiny devices on sale to tempt me.

And then it’s to the aeroplane, accompanied by an alert from the Qantas app.

BNE-SYD QF543 (Boeing 737–800)

I’m in 6A, and there’s nobody in the middle seat. Not just me, either — it looks as if virtually none of the middle seats are occupied on this flight. I’d guess it’s around 70% full. A flight about two hours ago was cancelled, too.

We get cheese and biscuits, and a cold (soft) drink. The wifi works well, and all is good. When coming into land, I even get to try the x4 zoom from my phone’s camera on Sydney’s poor copy of the Storey Bridge.

On landing, it seems quiet in SYD domestic, but my guess is that this is a quiet time, landing at 6pm? Some of the shops are closed, but they don’t look abandoned, so perhaps they only operate when it’s a little busier. Or perhaps they’ve been left that way for the last two years.

As in Brisbane, every five minutes there is a cheery message reminding us that mask wearing is mandatory in the terminal. As in Brisbane, there’s a bloke not wearing one, who looks as if he wants to argue. The bloke in Brisbane had tattoos on both legs. The bloke in Sydney was wearing a vest.

From the domestic terminal, the international transfer bus is up and running, but not very often — running every half hour. I get there 15 minutes before the next bus. Normally there’s a US customs officer here, or someone doing a similar job, asking all the questions about where we are going and do we love the President, and what’s the fifth word of the Star Spangled Banner, in return for a fancy sticker to put in the collection in the back of our passport. None of this is here today.

The “SkyBus” comes to collect us. It’s about 70% full.

Though there’s no express line, through security very quickly — partially because I was second off the bus, but partially because there are only five flights departing Sydney International this evening — most are three and a half hours away.

Sydney International has taken this opportunity to rebuild part of the main departure lounge, and many of the escalators. Getting into the Qantas lounge involved seeing the escalators weren’t working, reading the sign telling me to use the lift, and then going to the lift to see it was also out of order. It turns out that the only way up to the lounge was to go up a random service lift being escorted by a security guard, who insisted on radioing through to “someone” that he was taking two lounge guests up. We were then met by another security guard holding a high security door open. It was all very exciting.

I had Neil Perry’s lasagne. He wouldn’t have minded, it was quite boring for a lasagne to be honest. The menu was very restricted, and laminated (presumably for hygiene reasons).

A very comprehensive sign is in the loo, with a really rather complex method of washing hands. One step is “right palm over left dorsum with interlaced fingers and vice-versa”.

Then the plane itself. Some quick security tests and I get my special sticker, then I’m onto the plane.

SYD-LAX, A380

It is the A380, but it’s one of the new ones without the little “Platinum economy” enclave at the back of the top deck, so I wouldn’t have had 33K even if I wanted to have it, and they’d have moved me to some other seat (last time, I got am op-up to PE). Instead, I’m in 31K, the bulkhead seat in the front of premium economy.

In 31A is a Middle Eastern gentleman who has taken the requirement to wear a mask as loosely as he possibly can. He’s excitedly stood up, chatting with a loud British lady behind him (who works in “the communications technology vertical” she tells him), while wearing a Qantas-issued chin hammock. It must be keeping his chin lovely and warm.

The menu comes. I don’t know what “Manna from Heaven cake” is. It sounds exciting. Since we’re still on the ground, I google it. It turns out it’s a bakery brand. The company says it’s a “handmade bakery in Sydney, supplying to foodservice clients across Australia and the rest of the world”, and as soon as you call your customers “foodservice clients”, you know you’re in for a treat.

I can also have a salad with “Neil’s vinaigrette”, which I really, really hope isn’t a euphemism.

Just before takeoff — which is twenty minutes delayed — we’re shown a short video from the New Zealand government about what we can or can’t bring into the country. This is confusing and not least a little concerning. It stops within about 40 seconds. We’re then shown the proper video, and an ominous announcement afterwards that “while some parts of our service have changed, you’ll still recognise Qantas’s service” or something similar. And a lot — a lot — of telling us to respect the crew, something that is now built into the safety video and repeated, I notice, by the inflight staff.

The food comes. I ordered the pasta, which was a mistake. Premium economy food is, I think, the same as economy food, just served on plates. The best things were the surprisingly fresh sourdough bread, and pudding. The pasta was dry, just warm enough, and relatively tasteless. It arrived with a foil hat on. The FA tells me that she would take it off, but “our new hygiene guidelines”…

Pudding was the Manna from Heaven cake. It looked like a nasty infection that needed a course of antibiotics. It tasted quite nice. Better than the pasta, certainly. Though everything tasted better than the pasta, including Neil’s vinaigrette.

Then an attempt to sleep. Premium economy seats are fine and significantly better than economy ones, but sleeping is still hard in them. However, I manage to do it, in a number of dozes, and feel relatively refreshed when the lights come on for breakfast. We took off in the dark, and when I wake up, I notice that someone has closed the blind during the night. Spooky.

I take a cursory look at the in flight entertainment, mainly to find the map so I know where I am and how long I have to wait. There is no map. No map! I can see the temperature in Los Angeles, but I can’t see a map. I hope we’re not going to New Zealand after all. Otherwise, the IFE is upgraded from the last time I flew; all fancy animated things and a posh home screen that looks like Windows ten years ago.

Breakfast comes at about 9am Sydney time, about (I assume) 11 hours into the flight. We had the type of industrial scrambled egg that you aren’t sure isn’t really cous-cous, and baked beans that seem to have been made by someone who was once told what baked beans were like without actually ever having tasted them. The food really is quite poor. I’ve flown PE before, though not often, and I don’t remember the food being as poor as this.

Breakfast comes with the foil hat being taken off by the different FA before it’s given to me. Presumably she hasn’t heard of the new hygiene guidelines; or perhaps the hygiene guidelines changed during the flight.

Fergus appears (quite late in the trip, I thought) to give us our Platinum welcome. I ask him where the map is. I can’t work out if it’s an issue with this plane or by design in the new IFE.

On landing, LAX has removed all the bright green automated machines that sped up the passport checking. Instead, they’ve replaced them with too few human beings, so it’s a return to slow shuffling through a snaky line in front of a flight that has just come in from South America. I think it took an hour or so. Most people were holding a US Customs form, which I wasn’t given on the plane, and I started being a bit panicky about not having the right paperwork; but on slowly reaching the front of the queue, it wasn’t asked for; I can only assume it was replaced by one of the online forms I’d written.

Out to grab my suitcase, and to spend 45 minutes with Optus trying to understand why they’d not turned on international roaming on my SIM card (and/or why it’s impossible to do so). Ended up spending $120 on a T-Mobile SIM. Frustrating. Then, a bus to a place where I could pick up an Uber.

To the return…

First, I had to get a COVID test. Turns out there was a facility in a tent in the car park near the hotel, so that was helpful: $75 and 90 minutes later, I had my negative result. Then to discover the complex new Australian Digital Passenger Declaration app, which is a fearsome piece of technology — scanning my passport, reading its chip, checking my picture, and scanning my vaccination certificate and my new negative test. It’s not a bad app, but goodness, it wants a lot of information, and some of it was quite difficult to do (scanning the QR code on an email I’d been sent requires you to have another computer). I can only assume this replaces the incoming passenger card, or the strange card machine thing.

I was rather hoping for an upgrade. I wait hopefully for the text. And then I remember that I’m on a US SIM, so I’ll not get the text. The app still has me in my economy seat; but with six hours before takeoff, I notice a nice green “upgrade successful” note, and I’m bumped forward to 21A. That’s PE, not the business upgrade I was hoping for, but still.

24 hours before, the app alerts me I can check in online, so I open it, to be told I can’t check in online.

I get to LAX early, like I was asked to, but check-in isn’t open yet. A man is already standing in the business line. He looks like he knows what he’s doing, so I stand behind him. 40 minutes later, check-in opens. I didn’t mind.

After security, I walk to the QF first lounge, but sadness occurs, since it’s closed.

I go into the OneWorld lounge. The person doing coffee doesn’t know what a flat white is, which if you’re in a Qantas-run terminal catering for Australians you might have thought was the bare minimum of training required.

LAX-SYD QF12 Boeing Big Plane Of Some Sort

Nice seats. Premium Economy was full, so I had someone next to me, but it wasn’t too bad space-wise. Interesting that the overnight bag is of a new design — gone is the faux-demin looking thing branded by a perfume company; this is a black thing with the word QANTAS stitched on it. Haven’t opened either to compare them.

No WP welcome at all on this flight; but the simple trick of the FA greeting me at mealtimes with “Mr Cridland” was a great and welcome thing. And the mealtimes were much, much better — US catering being better than Australian catering is unusual, but the evening meal was decent, and the breakfast scrambled eggs were a solid 6/10 — creamy and tasted of egg, rather than the previous experiment.

Service was attentive and friendly. Unusually, the FA spoke knowledgeably about the beers available on board (correctly identifying Boags as being a lager from Tasmania, and the addition of Little Creatures on this flight was good). It’s a source of disappointment to me that Qantas, which cares so much about wine, just dumps Australian beer as a line item at the bottom of their menu. We have a vibrant craft beer industry in this country, and QF should do better than not even bother to identify what they take.

Upon landing, the announcement started with an acknowledgement of country to the Gamayngal people — never heard that before. That was very welcome. Good for them.

And then, the utter cluster fuck that is Sydney Airport.

We start by being directed to the wrong baggage collection. I waited hopefully for my bag to be delivered, but it wasn’t, and just as I was walking round the belt working out where to go and report it, it turns out that I (and a few other passengers) had emerged early enough from the plane to have been displayed the wrong baggage carousel. We all dutifully troop over to the right one.

The DPD app that I’d spent a long time filling out? It doesn’t replace anything. There’s still a beige landing card to fill out (with the squares to write your answers in carefully printed to be the same colour as the aircraft lighting); and still the pointless machines that give you a card to feed into a different machine further down the row. There seems little point for either of these.

Upon doing that, and bypassing via a mobile phone store to swap my SIM back to Optus, I head to the domestic transfer. This used to be a well-oiled system: give them your bag, wait for ten minutes maximum inside, and a short airside bus ride to the domestic terminal. Now, though, you go inside for bag dropoff, then come back to wait outside in the rain for a long landside ride. The bus in front didn’t have space to take us.

The lady in the queue next to me, flustered at a short connection time, all of a sudden let out a loud sigh. Her fancy knitted jumper had fallen off somewhere between security and here, and she’d lost it. I remember that I’d walked past a fancy knitted jumper, so asked her which flight she was on (just in case I lost her), and quietly went off in search for it — finding it close to where I’d seen it. That was a good way to spend queuing time. She was very grateful when I came back, a little out of breath with glasses steamed up.

The long bus ride takes you to outside the domestic airport, and the long security queue to get you back airside. After two years of low traffic, Sydney airport have only now decided to do some work in the domestic section, and added a new poorly designed additional security line. Snappy security staff added to the general feeling of rubbishness. I will go out of my way to avoid this awful airport connection in future.

Sydney airports departure screens don’t communicate a twenty minute delay to my flight, either. In the end, we pushed back 45 minutes late.

The trip back to Brisbane was accompanied by a larger-than-strictly necessary bag of chocolate cookies (apparently lamington flavour), and a wait at the baggage carousel that was just long enough for me to go and get a coffee, and to sit and drink it, before an Uber home.

Wrapping it up

Lots, and lots, and lots of additional form-filling: many filling in the same details in different places for the same government or the same airline.

But, at last, a chance to see the world again. It’s not really a return to normality; but it’s a return to something, and whatever it is, I’m very grateful for it.