36,000 feet above the Black Sea, westbound, Sunday 26th March 2006
“The thing about travelling Economy is that you get much more personal space. In Business Class the cabin crew are constantly hassling you. I flew Business from Dubai to Singapore and it was dreadful. I was sitting there sound asleep and the stewardess woke me up to ask if I wanted breakfast!”
So said one of my colleagues over dinner last night as we discussed my imminent departure for London over antipasti of warm green asparagus with parmesan cheese. They were comforting words at the time and they sprang to mind once more as I rose at 03:00 this morning to meet my 05:20 car to the airport (and for those of you who are wondering: no, I do not spend an hour and a half in hair and make-up each morning – clocks went forward an hour at 04:00). Shower, breakfast and packing were all dispatched in the mild daze of someone who is still not an early morning person even at the best of times.
Once I’d got down to street level I discovered that Saturday evening’s icy gale was still blowing with plenty of vigour and my bones started to chill nicely as I waited in vain for the car. Fifteen minutes of refrigeration seemed about enough and I was concerned about missing the flight so I placed a quick call to the duty agent. Thirty seconds later a white, nineties model BMW 5-series miraculously appeared with its profusely apologetic driver explaining that he had been told the pick-up time was 05:00 (read between the lines what you will…).
The driver was a pleasant young man in his twenties and eager to chat. He reckons it’s getting harder and harder for people to find work in Baku these days and many people are not able to find jobs when they leave university: similar in Britain I replied. He has a strong work ethic however and believes that doing any job is better than doing nothing, hence he is driving people at night. I agreed with his principle but was not awake enough at time to ask how a young man in his allegedly lowly position managed to own and run a German luxury automobile. Most young men in Baku find the cost of running a Lada high enough: living in a rough apartment and barely buying enough food to feed the family are seen as acceptable trade-offs against being able to drive the streets.
We parted with a handshake and smiles at the airport having not exchanged names. Goodness only knows who he is or what he does when he’s not being a driver but when I wished him good luck in his future endeavours I meant it.
Heydar Aliyev International Airport (named after the much-loved previous President of Azerbaijan) moved into brand new terminal buildings a couple of years ago and they still look very bright and shiny with the name in red neon on the outside and swathes of pale marble flooring on the inside. It even has its own shiny taxis: if the usual range of Ladas and Tofas aren’t to your liking you can step off the ‘plane and into a burgundy late-model VW Passat, safe in the knowledge that you can’t get a taxi like it anywhere else in town (and similarly sure that you won’t pay such a huge fare anywhere else either from what I’m told).
Taxis are there for people to enjoy at Arrivals though. At Departures the entertainment is the intriguingly laborious security set-up which seems to be part obstacle course, part Krypton Factor. There’s a bag scan and metal-detector arch as soon as you walk in; the same again as you pass into the check-in hall; then a man at a desk to see your ticket and passport before you go to the check-in desk to show them to the airline staff. Then there is Passport Control; once you are called for your flight there is an other bag scan and an other arch as you go through to the gate area and this time you are expected to put your shoes through the scan, take your laptop out of its bag to be scanned separately and submit yourself to a pat-down regardless of whether the arch goes “beep” or not. I think it must be a combination of Soviet work hierarchy and western anti-terrorist paranoia.
By the time I’d jumped through all those hoops it was a relief to tuck myself into my window seat in the BA World Traveller section of the ‘plane and think about relaxing for a few hours. Take-off was smooth and I settled down into a nice snooze. The next thing I know: “Excuse me sir, would you like any breakfast?”