The MT Diary: At least airlines are still like the bad old days

Howard Davies takes a flight back in time, travels to Nashville (also known as boomtown USA), endures tedium at the Formula One - and why the Iberian party's over.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2011

Whenever two or three frequent fliers are gathered together, the conversation turns to the relative comfort of the BA club class seat, or the proportion of macadamia nuts in the little bowls you are given after take-off. These exchanges are about as interesting as debating the relative merits of Ben Youngs or Richard Wigglesworth, neither of whom would pull on a number 9 shirt in any other rugby-playing nation. But, hey, when you have once again been held in the lounge due to 'the late arrival of the inbound aircraft' (as if that excuses anything), needs must.

While there are those who swear by Cathay, or Singapore, or even Qantas, and there are those who swear at Air France and Iberia, one observation is safe: never travel long-haul on a US airline. That usually unites the lounge.

I have followed this precept for so long that I have had no recent data to confirm or deny it - until the other day, when I was obliged to travel from Nashville to Singapore (don't ask). SIA doesn't interest itself in the country music crowd. You can pick up a direct flight from Newark, but the timings didn't work for me, so it had to be American Airlines via Chicago and then United from Tokyo.

The United service was broadly recognisable, on a par with China Eastern, say. But American was something else. If I were in its marketing department I'd pitch it as time travel, as you're taken back to a bygone age. Remember the fun you used to have guessing which film was showing as you tried to work out the instructions at the back of a dog-eared in-flight guide, advertising one film outbound and another inbound? Remember those wafer-thin plastic goblets which have rims that cut your lip. Remember when the printed wine list bore no relation to what was served? And this was right at the front of the plane.

Try it out! You can imagine your wife in 2B as she was 30 years ago. But hurry. Three days later, the parent company share price dropped 33% in a day. The mystery is what underpins the remaining 67%.

Nashville is also a time travel destination. People really do wear Stetson hats and cowboy boots, studded belts and those funny thin ties. Men are men and the songs are mainly about girls getting daddy to run unwanted suitors out of town with a shotgun.

I saw a Sheryl Crow concert and could see why she struck a chord, so to speak, with Eric Clapton.

But Nashville is also as near as it gets to Boomtown USA. Nissan has moved its HQ there from California. Financial companies are relocating too. There is sunshine and lifestyle, and workers who are keener on barbecues than on union dues. They eat more beef than the average South African forward - though judging by their performance in the World Cup, the latter may have turned to quiche. I rather took to the place and when China Eastern adds it to its route map I'll be back there like a shot.

Singapore was full of bankers, economists and ex-prime ministers, policy-wonking away at summits and round tables. Over the years I have learnt to wonk to order, if asked. We talked happily and at length about the coming meltdown. Gordon Brown was suitably lugubrious. Crises become him. It so happened there was a Grand Prix on at the same time. As it was part of the programme, I was obliged to attend. I now plan to alienate a large proportion of MT readers, so petrolheads look away now, please.

Things started acceptably. Young men in shiny jump suits covered with logos (modern-day sandwich boards), made eyes at leggy Russian women in high-heeled boots. Then there was champagne and lobster and all that. Nothing's too good for the working man, is my view. After that, things went rapidly downhill. A couple of dozen cars, all looking the same, began to make an infernal, headache-inducing noise. They went round in a circle 61 times, which seems about 59 times more than is strictly necessary, as the same German starts and ends in front, with no one getting near him. That is hindsight talking; at the time, you have no idea who is winning. So as a spectator sport, it seems to have nothing going for it and I confess I didn't once see the ball. I could see why Max Mosley chose other, livelier diversions.

For once, Europe was on the Asian agenda. Normally we are written out of the picture. But we still have the capacity to spoil the party for others, with our stuttering sovereign debt crisis and hopelessly inadequate political response. Contrasting the positions in Europe and Asia, someone, inevitably, quoted Kipling: 'East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'.

A witty South African offered a rival piece of Kipling: 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you've no bloody idea what's going on'. Which is a fair enough description of how one feels about the eurozone.

On return from the East I went to have a look at it, before it disappears. In Madrid and Lisbon the sun was shining. Prices seem high to a Brit with devalued pounds. Lunches last until 4.30 in the afternoon. You can't immediately tell the Portuguese are paying 975 basis points more than the Germans for 10-year money, or that almost 40% of young Spaniards are out of work. There is an election in prospect there and the new government will have to do some painful things, and very fast. The Iberian fiesta is over, I think. Next month, Greece.

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