Monday, April 19, 2010

Ashes to Ashes 3/19/2010

My brother and his girlfriend, both teachers, are stranded in Beverly Hills.

Originally due to fly back to the UK last Thursday, they now find themselves, along with thousands of others, unable to take to the ash-laden skies because of the volcano in Iceland.

They are booked to fly again this Thursday, but with another ash cloud apparently heading towards southern Britain, even that journey is under threat.

They acknowledge that there are worse places to be stuck, and Air New Zealand, together with the exceptionally kind and efficient people who operate the concierge service that goes with my Centurion Black Amex (oh, how I am glad I decided to go for it), have kept their stress levels to a minimum.

I have friends currently in transit with BA in similar positions, but they have not been so lucky. Their travel insurance does not cover them for an “act of God”, and they have basically been shown a hotel room, which they have to pay for, and left to fend for themselves (BA – Bugger All, in other words).

I can’t see the airline ever recovering the kudos it once had; in response to the horror stories I have catalogued in this blog and in newspapers, so far only one person has contacted me with something positive to say about them.

I have also suggested that trapped passengers vent their annoyance by doing what Billy Connolly’s advocate character Steve Myers did in the 2001 Australian movie, The Man Who Sued God.

When his insurance firm won’t pay up after his fishing boat is destroyed by a so-called “act of God”, Myers files a claim against God, naming church officials as representatives of God, and thereby the respondents.

If they admit the destruction of the boat was an Act of God, they have to compensate Myers; if they deny it, they will be denying God’s existence. It’s a story that would run and run in the courts.

There have been more positive stories from people dealing with Air New Zealand and Virgin, my two favourite carriers. Thierry, who manages the Air New Zealand executive lounge at Los Angeles airport, could not have been more helpful, keeping us up to date with daily reports. Air New Zealand’s cabin crew are just as impressive onboard, as are Virgin’s: cheerful, always helpful staff, who get paid a fraction of BA employees’ wages and receive none of the perks.

I know that the issues between management and staff at BA are more complex than most passengers really know, but who, in their right mind, would risk flying anywhere with them now. A pair of home-made wings would be more reliable.

But back to my brother and his girlfriend. They have enjoyed doing all the touristy things that LA has to offer.

They went to San Diego to watch Shamu, the whale from Free Willy, leap about in the water (it’s something of an irony that the film about freeing the poor devil now sees him incarcerated in Seaworld, splashing kids – still, at least he’s nowhere near a volcano).

They’ve been to Hollywood and Universal Studios, three of the surrounding beaches, and numerous bars and restaurants.

They’ve met friends and lunatics, experienced the faultless Beverly Hills service, and barbecued on the roof terrace of my apartment block.

They’ve mingled with celebrities, sat in the audience at American Idol, visited Simon Cowell in his trailer, and have learned a great deal about Ukrainian history in conversation with taxi drivers.

They also heard, by means of an introduction at a private party, four words that I never expected to hear in the same sentence: “Jaci Stephen, Gore Vidal.”

By now, they would have been back in Clacton where they live and work. They are both concerned about missing the start of term and their pupils’ forthcoming exams, but still, there really are worse places to be trapped than Beverly Hills (even if my brother is pining for a pint of real ale in his local).

It’s the launch of Brit Week tomorrow night, which is rather apt, given how many Brits are trapped here. The annual festival celebrates British contributions to LA, and it goes on for about three weeks (a very loose interpretation of “week”, therefore). The number of Brits establishing themselves here also seems to be growing – actors, presenters, agents – and despite everyone telling me that the allure of La La Land would quickly wear off, it hasn’t yet.

True, it doesn’t have the cultural range of London or New York, but there is an incredible, positive energy that is generated by its being an industry-focused place, in which everyone feels that anything is possible.

Who cares if some of that self-belief is delusional; people are willing to get up, get out, and have a go.

And if that ash cloud moves any further south, expect to see my brother and his girlfriend marking registers in Beverly Hills High in the autumn term.