Around the world in 40 years. Part 9. That is the trouble with flying: we always have to return to airports . . . (Henry Minizburg)

Maybe you’re a frequent flyer. Maybe not. How many of the flights you have taken were memorable? I hardly remember one flight from another (unless they were the two occasions when I was invited on to the flight-deck, on LH and EK flights, for the landing at Manila (MNL, RPLL). On the other hand, how many airport experiences – good or bad (mostly bad) – have you experienced?

Unless a flight was really bad – lots of turbulence, poor service, etc., you’re more likely to remember your airport experience. After all, for some journeys, you can spend more time getting to and from the airport, waiting for your flight to leave, or passing through immigration and customs on arrival, than you actually spend in the air.

Ever since I flew for the first time in 1966 – a short flight from Glasgow Airport (GLA, EGPF – then called Abbotsinch) to Benbecula (BEB, EGPL) in the Outer Hebrides on a British European Airways Viscount – I’ve passed through at least 180 airports worldwide. Since then, Glasgow has become quite an important hub for the west of Scotland, with many international airlines flying there. Benbecula is probably still the same – a small hut for a terminal building.

Now of all these 180 or so airports, some were just a transit stop en route from A to B; and others just a single visit or two.

On the other hand there are airports like Birmingham (BHX, EGBB) , Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO, MROC) that I must have passed through many, many times – since they are/were my home airports for many years. And yet again others, like Hong Kong International (HKG, VHHH that replaced Kai Tak), the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St Paul International, MSP, KMSP), or Narita in Tokyo (NRT, RJAA), are important hubs that I’ve passed through frequently over the years. Furthermore, I have traveled through MSP a lot (and still do) because my elder daughter Hannah and her family live there.

So what makes a good or a bad airport experience? And I’m sure we all have different criteria and tales to relate. As I was thinking about this, these are some of the ideas that came to mind:

  • the airport itself, its facilities, and capacity to handle passengers; travel to and from the airport; does it have one large terminal (such as Amsterdam Schipol, AMS, EHAM) or several like London Heathrow (LHR, EGLL) or New York JFK (a nightmare, JFK, KJFK) with all the headaches that can bring;
  • the check-in experience (depends on the airline to a large extent);
  • the immigration and customs experience;
  • connecting time between flights and the ability of the airport to handle tight schedules;
  • and then there’s the physical location of the airport and whether that can affect the takeoff and landing experience – as I’ll illustrate later on.

Some airports are well past their sell-by dates, and should have been demolished years ago. Although a new airport terminal was built at Manila a decade ago, it didn’t open for several years (a dispute with the company that financed its construction). Terminal 1 at NAIA is certainly not one of the most comfortable to travel from. The operators are always patching up the services, and there never do seem to be enough seats for everyone who needs one. But after almost 20 years of traveling through NAIA many times a year I can state unequivocally that the airport works and, most of the time on arrival, immigration, baggage handling and customs are really rather efficient. And of course (most of the time) one is greeted by a beautiful Filipino smile. I wish airport staff around the world were half as courteous and friendly as those you meet in Manila.

I was always wary of traveling through Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos (LOS, DNMM) in Nigeria in the 90s. Immigration and customs staff could be quite menacing, and would always look for something in your bags to confiscate. The common question was’ What do you have for me?’ I’d always reply: ‘A big smile’ and then gave a big cheesy one. But they never did get anything off me. I wonder how things have changed since I was last there, more than a decade ago.

In Asia there has been an incredible airport boom – at Singapore’s Changi International (SIN, WSSS), Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (KUL, WMKK) in Malaysia, and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK, VTBS) in Thailand, and Hong Kong, of course. Another iconic airport, with a terminal building over a kilometer long, is Kansai International (KIX, RJBB) in Osaka, Japan, constructed (like Hong Kong) on an artificial island in Osaka Bay.

Some of the most difficult airports to pass through are in the USA. Many don’t have a transit area and even if you are only changing from international flight to another, you have to pass through immigration and customs. Not the easiest thing to do if you have a tight connection and there are a couple of other jumbo loads of  passengers waiting in the immigration queues ahead of you. US border staff are often not the friendliest. It must be tough sitting there facing a sea of faces every day. London Heathrow has become renowned for its difficult immigration, and that was a major concern ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

As I’ve been fortunate to travel business class on many long-haul flights, I’ve been able to take advantage of airline lounges in which to relax while waiting for a flight – a boon if there are delays. The Emirates lounges at Dubai International (DXB, OMDB) are superb.

In many airports it’s now difficult to view aircraft traffic easily from inside the terminal building. One of the best – when the airport was open – was the Cathay Pacific lounge at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, with a view looking right down the runway from one end to the other. It was fascinating watching even the biggest jets manoeuvering above the apartment buildings and making the final sharp right turn to line up on the runway. It’s also quite an experience on board!

Now Kai Tak could be challenging for many reasons, as is the ‘new airport’ because of frequent crosswinds. But the landing on the short runway after a challenging approach at Tegucigalpa’s Toncontín International Airport (TGU, MHTG) in Honduras takes the biscuit. I flew in and out of there quite a few times in the 70s – never a comfortable experience.

I never visited Bhutan, but one of my staff, Eves Loresto, traveled there several times between 1995 and 2000 in connection with our Swiss-funded rice biodiversity project. Paro Airport (PBH, VQPR) in the heart of the Himalayas is considered one of the most demanding airports in the world, as this landing video shows. Only small jets operated by Drukair land there.

As I started this post, I suggested we’d all have our own stories to relate. And certainly while I have had some excellent flights (like when I was upgraded to First Class on my first A380 flight from DXB to BKK on EK), most of what I remember about those journeys has invariably to do with my experiences of the airports. What are yours?

Study botany and the world’s your oyster . . .

You bet!

Botany or banking? Is there really a serious choice? I saw a report last year in which botany graduates received higher initial salaries after graduation than many other professions, ranking third after medicine and dentistry, in the UK. That’s hard to believe really. Bankers might certainly reach for the giddy heights in terms of salary packages (and bonuses) but I’m sure that more botanists go to bed each night with a clearer conscience than bankers. And when was the last time you heard of a botanist being reviled by society at large? Well, perhaps if you are in the GM business . . . ?

Not convinced? Well let me tell you why. There is, however, a small caveat. It might be more appropriate to talk about ‘plant sciences’ in the widest sense, because many of the people I’ve met over the decades who do scientific research on and about plants didn’t necessarily study botany per se at university. I don’t think that diminishes my point, however. In the UK, I don’t think there’s a single botany department any longer in the university sector. They all morphed into ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ (supposedly more appealing names) or became part of  biological sciences departments. If you were lucky there might be a ‘plants stream’. Botany appears to be in a healthier position in North America.

Plant scientists, it seems, are in great demand. And the traditional image of a botanist couldn’t be further from reality. Whether employed as molecular biologists, geneticists or biochemists (the distinctions are diminishing by the day), plant or crop physiologists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, ecologists, biodiversity and conservation specialists, or even taxonomists, there’s never been a greater need for people to study plants. After all, life on earth depends on plants. Where would we be if we could not successfully grow the crops needed for survival, to adapt to climate change, to keep one step ahead of evolving pathogens, or simply try and understand this wonderful world of ours and its glorious diversity?

Botany has been my ticket to a successful and fruitful career. It’s taken me to many countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania over four decades – as plant hunter, researcher, teacher, project manager, and speaker. I worked on two important plant species: potato (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa) and their wild relatives as a taxonomist, germplasm expert, seed physiologist, agronomist, plant breeder, and plant pathologist. My work has been both lab and field based. What more could I have asked for? And I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues who came to work on potatoes and rice – and other crops – through one avenue or another, not necessarily as botanists, but perhaps through an interest in and love of plants as part of agriculture.

I can’t deny that I have been fortunate – when opportunities arose I was well-placed to take advantage. I studied with some inspiring heavyweights in my chosen fields. But a love and study of plants has made me a happy person – on the whole.

I was out and about yesterday on one of my daily walks. It was a beautiful day, Spring was definitely in the air (at last), and the hedgerows were creeping back into life. In one spot, the bedstraws (Galium spp.) were in their first flush of new growth,  profusely spreading over the bank beside the road, and responding to milder days we have begun to experience recently (in any case it really has been a mild winter). And it was that sight that made me think back to my student days in the late 60s as an undergraduate at Southampton University. There were times when I did wonder if I’d ever use again some of things we were taught and how relevant they might become – like plant anatomy, for example. It’s interesting to know how important anatomy studies have become in the search for and development of a C4 rice to make its photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers at IRRI have studied the leaf anatomy of hundreds of samples of wild rice species, since C4 photosynthesis in plants is associated with the specialized Kranz anatomy.

As an undergraduate I took several plant ecology courses with Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert who had worked on and discovered the origin of the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, UK – not as natural lakes but flooded peat diggings abandoned by the 14th century. But once I’d discovered the ‘link’ between ecology and genetics, I was hooked, and that led to my focus on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The rest, as they say, is history . . .