Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beat the backpackers

If you want to be an Astronaut when you grow up, you have seven days left.

Want to travel somewhere off the beaten path? Sick of hearing your holiday hotspots declared “passé”? For once you can go somewhere without some world weary backpacker telling you they visited it five years ago, before it was spoiled by tourism.

Virgin Blue, the Australian branch of the Virgin airline group, have put together a competition that is, quite literally, out of this world. Every time you earn frequent flyers points, you enter a competition. The prize? A trip to space.

Or to be precise, enough reward points for a sub-orbital space flight with Virgin Galactic, the first airline that plans to actually send its customers into orbit.

You don’t have to pick space flight. Your reward could also be a pair of Alfa Romeo cars, a shopping spree worth $170,000, or a luxury holiday worth $150,000. Velocity Rewards, the reward program of Virgin Blue, will give you twenty five million reward points to spend. It’s probably the biggest reward any frequent flyer program has ever given out and certainly the most glamorous way to spend points.

And forget saving your miles for a year to get this prize, this is as many points as twenty five thousand return economy flights from Sydney to Brisbane or Melbourne would earn you. Five thousand if you fly business class. Twelve thousand return trips from Sydney to Perth, although it does beg the question of what the hell you are going to do in Perth that many times. Approximately fifty thousand hours flying, including at least a thousand hours of turbulence.

One hundred and fifty thousand hot Virgin Blue hosties provided for you to fantasize about later.

Virgin Blue has always had an eye for the flash, in their promotions and in their hosties too. They don’t have any ugly ones, (rumour has it they have an unofficial and illegal “we only hire hotties” policy) although a few appear to have painted themselves an alarming shade of Oompa Loompa orange. Perhaps it makes them easier to see if the plane goes down. You can only wonder how they will apply all that orange foundation in space without the aid of gravity. Among Virgin’s many other offerings, perhaps they can release Virgin Vie Zero G, the first cosmetics line the space traveller who wants to beat the backpacker blues and look as hot as a rocket burning up on re-entry.

One small step for man, one hell of a lot of time watching the in-flight safety demonstration and wondering if this will be the flight that mars Virgin’s safety record. Probably not really an option for nervous flyers.

I tried to check the odds on a web site that calculates the odds of a plane crash, based on the location and airline safety record, but the site – www.amigoingdown.com – had, appropriately enough, crashed. An ominous sign, perhaps, or were the admin just trying to get their air miles up before the cut off on June 30th?

Exact dates for the first sub-orbital space flights have not been confirmed, but passengers who will fly in Virgin Galactic's first year of operation will be expected to be amongst the first 1,000 people to go to space. It’s not for tourists either – even the most serious of intrepid backpackers would have difficulty coming up with the $200,000 US dollars you normally need to pay for it. Three days of training will be needed to prepare for the flight, which will travel to 50,000 feet at over three times the speed of sound, gravity crushing your body into your seat for a lot of the trip. Small wonder that, when you look at the poll on the Velocity website, so many people have picked a preferred option of a shopping spree to dealing with zero G.

It’s a tough choice, especially in the current economic climate. Do you take the shopping and run, or drive away in the cars? Do you take advantage of downsizing and spend a year on a luxury holiday? Or do you take the ultimate trip, a trip so exclusive and expensive that your fellow tourists so far number under 500? Just forty years after the first man walked on the moon on July 20th, 1969, you could be looking at the curvature of the earth from above. You could sail above world, silent and serene in the vastness of the sky.

Socrates said that man must rise above the Earth to fully understand the world in which he lives. Leonardo Da Vinci believed that when mankind learned to fly, we would be free. They did not have the chance to see this, but you do. All the majesty of creation spread out around you and the world glowing in the sky like a blue lantern. The earth, the heavens, the wonder of the cosmos.

And, best of all, not a single backpacker in sight.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flying High

Delta Airlines look set to start offering cheap flights with free booze from Sydney to LA, starting next month. And I, for one, won’t be booking them.

Yes, you read that right. The permanently broke Irish backpacker turned Aussie, whose travel and beer spend monthly is higher than her horribly expensive Sydney rent, won’t be booking or even looking at them.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my fondest, and fuzziest, memories involve free bars. There is a place for free alcohol in both my heart and real life. I just don’t think that place is on a metal tube packed with three hundred people and only three bathrooms, whizzing through the air at 600mph.

That’s over 900 kilometres an hour, for those of you too drunk to convert. The reason that you are so drunk is that the cabin pressure affects how your body deals with oxygen, meaning that a small beer can affect you like a very large one.

While getting extra drunk on less might seem great, you’re getting something else for free too. You can also look forward to a mother of all hangovers after the flight. Dehydration from alcohol is bad enough when you are on the ground, where a typical comfortable humidity level is over 35%. Relative humidity is 20-25% in the Sahara deserts, which seems dry until you realise long haul high-altitude flights average around 10%.

You’re probably already mildly dopey from the cabin pressure and losing water fast. There’s not a moisturiser in the world that can handle that and half a bottle of vodka to “take the edge off”.

If you need to take the edge off, you should probably look at options other than alcohol which, in addition to being a depressant, also increases anxiety and the chance of panic attacks. But there’s not much point you sticking on your headphones and trying to relax when the bloke next to you is on his fifth beer and trying to either pick a fight or pull the hostie.

There is nothing wrong with a little alcohol applied to the correct point. Friday night dancing, lunch in a sunny beer garden, relaxing in the bath after a long day – all these cry out for a glass of your favourite tipple.

But strapped into your seat in a row, surrounded by silent strangers, and with nothing to distract you but the in-flight magazine, it’s not much fun. What is normally a relaxing and social experience becomes solitary and oddly creepy. It’s like something out of 1984.

“When the flight is underway and the seatbelt light blinks off, it is Compulsory Fun Time for you, citizen. Open your drink, place in the provided glass. Drink your drink. Do not move from your seat unless you wish to use the bathroom. Do not have more than the prescribed amount of fun. When the seatbelt light goes on, return to your seat. All fun must cease as we approach landing. I repeat, all fun MUST cease.”

Not to mention the fact that if someone decides to get drunk and rowdy, you are stuck with them until the flight lands. It is apparently considered bad form to ask the bouncers to chuck them out at 40,000 feet. This is what you have to look forward too on your flight, being stuck with every idiot who equates flying to LA with a fourteen hour booze cruise.

Unlike a pub, here people can vomit into bags while remaining in the seat next to you, and that’s fine.

And unlike the pub, you can’t just leave when you want to get away. When some guy from business class starts hitting on you talking about his “extra legroom” or a smashed cougar keeps leaving the bathroom door open and winking, you’re stuck there. Passing out drunk would seem like a great option, but there’s ten people queuing for the bathroom and you think you can hear someone either having sex or vomiting in there.

Stressed staff, terrible dull decor, dehydration, people sweating booze and swearing, children kicking your seat and the chorus of wailing babies – you might as well go drinking in A&E.

I like a drink, but fourteen hours on a plane recreating a hospital ward or police waiting room at 2am on Saturday morning doesn’t sound like fun. Which is why, while I am delighted Delta are offering, I won’t be taking the cut price dipsomaniac deal to California.

I’ll be flying one of the other airlines and enjoying the savings. Competition from Delta will bring down the price of flights, and Delta’s flights will take the passengers I hate to travel with off my hands. I can get to LA, on the cheap, and arrive fresh and ready to enjoy my holiday.

I’ll drink to that. And I’ll happily pay for that drink too.

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