Archive for the “Aviation” Category

I’m starting to pull together plans for a business trip. The idea is that I’ll go to the Boston area for a meeting, fly on a couple of days later to Bangalore, then back home to San Francisco. A typical multi-city trip, reminiscent of my days at Sun. Naturally, I begin by visiting the travel sites: Yahoo Travel (powered in part by Expedia) and Orbitz. History suggests that the best schedule will probably involve multiple carriers….

But there’s a problem: each site offers only a few choices. After a moment, I realize that I’m not seeing anything from American Airlines (and precious little from their oneWorld partners). AA has decided not to play ball with the Internet travel sites, and they’ve reciprocated.

Fine: let me try the American website. This is a disaster. (Somebody teach AA about user interface design, quick!) How about their partners in crime, British Airways? That’s even worse: do they really expect me to do SFO-BOS via LHR?!

American may think that it makes sense to try to pull travellers from the aggregator sites to their own website, but doing this means giving up on the multiple city, multiple carrier market. I always though that this was one of the most profitable segments in the airline business. Maybe there are too few of us for American to worry about, but alienating business customers seems monumentally stupid.

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My mother‘s 95th birthday is coming up in December, and I’m going to be visiting her in Oxford for a week. This morning I went ahead and booked the flights and rental car. I priced it out at several websites, and the cheapest was United Vacations. (I was committed to flying on United, because I need a couple of thousand miles to lock in MP Premier Exec status next year.) I wanted to arrive in London relatively early, and so I chose a SFO-ORD-LHR routing. Everything went through just fine, and soon afterwards I received the detailed itinerary.

Oops.

They’d booked me on UA906 connecting with UA931, which gave me just 40 minutes to make the connection in Chicago. We’re talking about Chicago in December, after departing from SFO, the airport with the worst on-time record in the US. On top of this, I was planning to check my bag through from SFO to LHR, and I was hoping that it would arrive with me.

On the other hand, the system wouldn’t have coughed up this flight pairing if it was out of policy, would it?

This evening, I decided to call United, and after wandering through a voice-recognition call tree, I got to an agent and explained my concern. “Let me look that up,” she said. “Nope, that’s wrong: you’re supposed to have an hour and 15 minutes for an international connection.” And in a few minutes she’d switched me onto an earlier flight, given me the same seat I’d had before (after confirming my preference), double-checked that the transaction wouldn’t trigger a change fee, and emailed the revised itinerary to me. I’m now on UA972-UA928 eastbound, and UA931 westbound.

Decisive, courteous, knowledgable [UPDATE: Or maybe not - see Cranky's comment below.]: everything one hopes for in a customer service representative. Thanks.

P.S. I’m a bit particular when it comes to seats. In the northern hemisphere, I always go for a port window eastbound and a starboard window when I’m flying west. I like to look out of the window without getting blinded or fried.

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What’s the best way of celebrating one’s 60th birthday? Especially if it’s on an auspicious date like 10/10/10. (Binary 42, cue HHGTTG.) OK, let me amend the question: what’s the weirdest way of celebrating? How about participating in an Airliner Pull?

I just got home from a very happy day at SFO. The occasion was the 5th Family Day at the United Airlines Maintenance Center. Subscribers to the FlyerTalk were invited to come along as Guests, and I signed up immediately. (I had actually signed up for last year’s event, but I was travelling. China probably. There was a lot of that last year.)

UA Family Day is more than just a corporate event. We’re in the middle of Fleet Week in San Francisco, and one of the highlights is the series of air shows by the Blue Angels. During this week, the Blue Angels are based at one side of the United Maintenance Facility. This meant that one of the high points of today was watching the beautifully choreographed preparation and departure of the Blue Angels, viewed from less than 100 yards away.

For employees and customers of United Airlines, pretty much everything is overshadowed the recently-consummated merger with Continental Airlines. The centerpiece of the static display was a Continental 737-900ER painted in the new livery of the combined airline. It’s very simple: they’re combined the name – “United”, in the same typeface used in the latest United livery – with the Continental colors, including the tail design. Many United employees were lining up to walk through the plane, and there was a ton of promotional material – from playing cards to backpacks, from t-shirts to luggage tags – emphasizing the “One Airline” theme.

The other highlight for me was the Airliner Pull. The organizers had parked an A320 in the middle of the ramp, and were giving various teams the challenge of pulling it over a measured distance as quickly as possible. I had signed up for the FlyerTalk team, and we got our chance at 1:45. I was actually surprised how easily the 87,000 pound (43.5 ton) airliner rolled when we all laid into the rope! I got a commemorative pin, which I added to my (paid and free) swag from the day.

After the Airliner Pull, and the departure of the Blue Angels, I went for the tour of the Engine Maintenance facility. But it was a very hot day, and I was starting to feel a bit like the little fellow in the next photo, and so I decided to skip the FlyerTalk dinner this evening and head home. Which I did.

You can find all of the photos from the day here in my MobileMe gallery. At some point I should switch over to Flickr, but not until I’ve found an efficient way to copy things.

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A lovely snippet from one of my favorite aviation bloggers, Aviatrix Canada:

A before-bed weather check reveals:

METAR CYLL 240500Z AUTO 31012G19KT 9SM -RAUP OVC007 01/00 A2967 RMK SLP071 MAX WND 31019KT AT 0454Z

The AUTO group indicates that human observers have gone home and robots are doing the reporting. The -RAUP group indicates that the robots have observed light rain and unknown precipitation. I always like to imagine for a moment that that it means a biblical plague like frogs or anvils or blood, but so far it never has been. The unknown is probably snow or related white frozen precipitation. Stupid robots. Stupid weather.

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Gizmodo has the text of the new TSA regulations. Note that the order expires on December 30, which suggests that this was simply rushed out to persuade people that Someone Is Doing Something About It, and that we can expect revised (and hopefully more sensible) regulations to follow. Don’t hold your breath, though.

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I just sent the following email to the White House via their contact page.

Last year I flew nearly 100,000 miles on business: business that generated much needed US economic activity. And I flew almost all of those miles on US airlines, which desperately need the business. Travel is stressful enough these days, without the US government indulging in “security theater” to mollify people who bleat that Something Must Be Done.

The latest TSA regulations will do nothing to make us more secure, but will be extremely burdensome to many passengers and airline staff. They will drive away passengers, especially the elderly and parents with children, at a time when airlines are struggling to avoid layoffs and bankruptcy.

The last Republican administration used fear as a way of manipulating public opinion and pandering to the neo-cons. I had thought that the Obama administration was above such cynical tricks.

Get rid of these stupid knee-jerk regulations, please. Instead of increasing security, they simply punish law-abinding travelers.

I have no idea if this will do any good, but maybe if enough people make their voices heard…..

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As part of the “work” portion of this “family+work” trip to the UK, I was scheduled to do a business trip to Munich on Thursday. We’ve been staying at the Jury’s Inn close to the end of runway 27L at Heathrow, so getting in to the airport for my 6:05am flight was simple: walk across to Hatton Cross station and take the free all-night bus. Check-in was fine, ditto boarding, but then we sat at the gate for 20 minutes before we pushed back. En route to Munich, the pilot advised us that snow in the Munich area might delay things, and our approach pattern seemed to take us all over Bavaria. We parked at a remote stand, and were bussed in to the terminal, so by the time I emerged from the terminal at 9:30am I was half an hour late. Good start.

The meeting had been scheduled for 10-12. based on Google Maps estimate of a 45 minute taxi ride, plus 15 minutes for contingencies, so I jumped into the first taxi, gave the driver the address, and settled down to SMS my colleague and host that I would be late. It was snowing, but we swung onto the autobahn and were soon zipping along at typical German speeds. And then we hit a wall of red brake lights. From the chatter on the car radio, it was clear that there were numerous snow-related accidents and traffic jams around the city. My driver muttered, and then snarled, and then cut across three lanes of traffic to take an exit onto a minor road. I got used to the muttering, but the snarling became worse as we went on. It wasn’t snowing hard, but there was considerable slush even on main roads, and progress was slow. In fact it took 75 minutes to reach the destination: it was now 10:45.

I handed the driver a credit card for the 70 Euro fare. More snarling, and rummaging, and an old paper swipe machine was produced. He positioned my card, inserted the slip, swiped the slider, and ripped the slip. More snarling. Repeat. Same result. Repeat. Intense snarling.

I didn’t have 70 Euros. In fact I hadn’t bothered to get any Euros – taxis all take credit cards, right? So using the currency converter app on my iPhone, I calculated an equivalent amount in GBP and USD, demonstrated this to the driver, gave him the money, snatched a receipt, and exited as quickly as I could.

It was now 10:50am, but the others had waited patiently. Juice and coffee was distributed, and we started the meeting. It was very productive, and although a couple of people had to leave early we kept talking until around 3:00. They called me a cab (with “takes credit cards” clearly specified), and I headed back to Munich airport.

At this point I realized that I was ravenously hungry. I’d had some breakfast at 4:30am (5:30 CET), but nothing since. So when we reached the airport, I quickly verified that I couldn’t switch to an earlier flight (no way – the change fee would have been almost the same as the full fare!), and then found a restaurant and had a good early supper. At 6:30pm I headed over to the gate, to find that boarding was delayed “due to late arrival blah blah blah”. Yeah, whatever. Eventually we were bussed out to the stand, and boarded the A320. LH had screwed up, and allocated two passengers to 14F, but the flight wasn’t very full, so neither of us minded. And then we were told that there was a minor fault with a communications system, and the mechanics were working on it… But eventually we were airborne.

When I had left Heathrow, the weather had been cold (29F) and clear, and I didn’t expect anything different. Was I in for a shock! During the day a windy snowstorm had moved in, and as we descended towards LHR the ride became very bumpy. We were landing on 09L, and coming over Windsor the Airbus was bouncing around like a bronco. It was the kind of approach where passengers glance at each other, quizzically: “Is this going to turn OK? Should I be worried?” My guess is that we had crosswinds of around 15 gusting 30 out of the north, and the landing was hard and off-balance. But we got in OK.

I got the bus back to Hatton Cross and walked the five minutes to the hotel. By the time I got there, the front of my jacket was encrusted with an inch of wet snow. Snow in the morning, snow in the evening. What a day.

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The other day, a friend was asking about our upcoming trip to the UK. She had flown BOS-LHR and SFO-BOS, and was puzzled why the flight time for SFO-LHR was so much less than the sum of those two flights. She was introduced to the concept of “great circle” routes, and the fact that the the great circle from SFO is 5,367 miles, and takes you up over northern Canada, while SFO-BOS-LHR is more than 600 miles longer, at 5,969 miles.

Imagine our chagrin last Monday, when UA 930 from SFO to LHR flew almost straight to BOS, and then took a southerly track to LHR, making landfall at the SW tip of Ireland. Total distance flown was 6,050 miles, and we were still 20 minutes early. (And would have been even earlier except for the now-routine hold at Ockham before descending to LHR.) The reason: tail winds of up to 170 MPH, giving us some of the highest ground speeds I’ve ever experienced.

But enough of the good stuff. I want to consider United. Specifically, why the hell would anyone want to fly United?

First, the good points.

  • Economy Plus. Legroom is (almost) everything.
  • Star Alliance is still the best of the alliances to accumulate frequent flier miles.
  • Channel 9. Crack cocaine for the ATC junky.

But do these plusses really make up for all of the minuses?

  • Price. Internationally, UA is rarely the cheapest option. On SFO-HKG, everyone undercuts them.
  • IFE. The 777 we flew on had tiny seat-back screens that were invisible when the seat in front was reclined, but since there were only a handle of uninteresting video channels this was no great loss. Video on demand? Hah! And some of the long-haul fleet still have 80s-vintage overhead TV monitors.
  • Food service. On our flight they advertised dinner and breakfast. With a 7pm departure, we figured (correctly) that the meal service wouldn’t begin before 8:15, so we ate before boarding and skipped dinner. “Breakfast” was a small, dried-up ham-and-cheese roll wrapped in aluminium foil and a sickly-sweet yoghurt. No tray. Juice and coffee, but no time for refills.
  • Beverages? If you want alcohol, that will be $6. Only in America…
  • Seats? Well, United hasn’t adopted the “shell seating” torture device that CX is now using, but in other respects the seats are pretty bad. They feel, well, worn out.
  • Attentive flight attendants? Not on this flight. Unprofessional, sloppy, clumsy, inattentive… and hardly any offers of drinking water, even though the humidity was set really low.
  • The Red Carpet Club? OK, the SFO International RCC isn’t bad, as RCCs go, but it still doesn’t measure up to the HKG RCC or any of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges.

It’s interesting to note that on the Transpacific routes the United service is quite a bit better. They now have hot breakfast, free booze, decent lounges, and cabin crew who actually pay attention. IFE? Well, that requires investment. But why does the Transatlantic customer get shafted? Complaints (or lack thereof) from code-share partners, perhaps? Who knows….

So why do I continue to abuse myself? Is it really all about Channel 9?

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Last Saturday I blogged about my upcoming trip home:

I’ve never flown ANA before. NH912 is on a 767, and I have a window seat; NH008 is on a 777, with no seat assigned. I hope that isn’t a bad sign. At least I can credit the miles to UA.

It turned out to be an exceptionally good sign. Here’s what happened.

I got up bright and early, checked out of the Huawei hotel, and got a taxi to Shenzen Shekou ferry terminal. It’s amazing how a complex piece of logistics can become routine after only one repetition. I boarded the ferry, got a seat as close to the exit as possible, and watched the time crawl by as we moved slowly through the morning fog. Scheduled: 30 minutes; actual: 45, Hmmm. I was the first one off the boat, and raced over to the ANA checkin area. (Most airlines allow you to check in at the “Skyport”, rather than having to do it at the main terminal.) The ANA representative was friendly and helpful, so I asked if there was any chance of getting a window, or at least an aisle, on the NRT-SFO leg. “Sorry, no, it’s very full”, she said, “but I’ll put you in the first row of Economy.” I wondered about the pros and cons of this – usually more leg room, but narrower seats because of the tray tables – but I didn’t argue; there was no time to lose. I thanked her, went through security (tediously slow), collected the refund of my departure tax, and got on the bus to the terminal. Almost immediately, the bus started off, raced up a short access road, and stopped. A security guy was blocking the road, and just to make his point clear, he proceeded to place four orange cones at the four corners of the bus.

We all waited. There was no announcement; people seemed resigned to the wait. It glanced at my watch: it was just past 9:00, and my HKG-NRT flight was due to start boarding at 9:45. I sweated a bit – not difficult, because the air conditioning wasn’t coping very well with the 98% humidity. Finally at 9:15 we were released, and by 9:25 we reached the terminal. Somehow I made it to the gate by 9:42, and boarding commenced immediately.

The HKG-NRT flight was on a 767-300 that looked as if it was due for retirement. I’m sure that ANA had hoped that it would be putting 787s into service by now. Coincidentally, the lunch service included a bottle of water wrapped in advertisements for the Japanese supplier of some of the composite materials used in the Dreamliner. At this point, ANA and most of the other customers have probably torn up their 787 launch plans until Boeing comes up with some real data. In any case, the flight was full, the service was good, the food was excellent, I managed to sleep,and so I don’t remember too much about the whole thing. “Uneventful”: the best kind of flight.

At NRT I went through the inevitable security check, and then hung out for a while at the Red Carpet Club. (I was trying to resist the siren song of the “Akihabara at Narita” store just across the corridor!) Eventually we boarded, and I received a pleasant surprise: I was in Premium Economy! Half-way down the interminable fuselage of the 777-300ER, squeezed in between Business Class and Economy, is a little three row section that ANA has designated “Premium” class. Instead of the 3-3-3 seating in regular Economy, Premium is 2-4-2. Pitch is 38 inches, the seats are a couple of inches wider than usual, and they recline a few degrees further. (Yes, they really recline – no “shell” nonsense.) And there are real leg rests. Life is good.

The result? One of the most comfortable long-haul flights in a long time. The food was good, and the flight attendants were doling out bottles of wine as though it were the eve of Prohibition. The in-flight entertainment included great video-on-demand, and the headphones supplied were battery-powered active noise canceling.

Verdict: heck yes! I’ll fly ANA Premium Economy any time.

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Yesterday’s flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong was my first ever on Cathay Pacific, and I thought that I might post a few thoughts about it. After all, “CX” (Cathay Pacific’s IATA code) just got voted airline of the year, and where they lead others are likely to follow.

I was sitting in 66A in one of CX’s RR-powered 747-400s. If you’re going to be in coach on a CX 747, row 66 is a good choice: it’s the first row where the tapering of the fuselage causes the seats to go from 3-4-3 to 2-4-2. So I had plenty of space next to my seat, where I was able to keep my carry-on. Given that I didn’t want to put anything in the seat-back pocket (of which more anon), this was very convenient. The downside, of course, is that you can’t actually lean against the cabin wall. And of course being so far back meant that disembarking was exceptionally slow, which might have cost me an hour at the other end.

So there I was, in 66A, with a large man who tended to sprawl while sleeping sitting in 66C, and I was due to be there for 13 hours. So what could CX offer to make it enjoyable?

First, the in-flight entertainment system. Nice monitor in the seat back, with multifunction remote, and tons of content. Video-on-demand, with at least 50 different current and classic movies, plus audio, videogames, and so forth. Unlike US airlines, movies are not censored for content; it’s nice to be treated like an adult.

With all this going for it, it’s a shame that things went so badly. First, you have to use CX’s own headphones, with a unique three-pin plug. The phones are crap, and don’t block the considerable airframe noise that one gets from sitting just behind the wing. Second, the “airshow” moving map wasn’t working. And finally, I managed to completely wedge the system! About 2 hours into the flight, I was distracted by the fact that they offered that most addictive game “Bejeweled 2″. I sometimes play it on my iPhone, and I was curious how the user interface would work on the IFE handset. I played a couple of levels, then chose “Main Menu” and “Exit”, and my screen froze. The flight attendant tried twice to reset my IFE system, without success. She offered to reseat me, but there were no decent seats open.

So much for IFE. How about service? We got two meals, each with multiple choices (listed on the menu – CX still has menus in Economy!). All of the dishes were western-style; there was nothing particularly for any Chinese passengers.1 As for the food itself, it was excellent: balanced, well presented, and tasty. The coffee and wines were just right, and the cheesecake was better than most US restaurants serve. In between meals, the water and juice kept coming at 50-60 minute intervals, and the flight attendants seemed happy to take special drink requests.

And that just leaves the seats. CX are introducing the so-called “shell seats” in Economy. The seat structure does not recline; instead the “recline” button causes the seat bottom to slide forward. The obvious benefit is that the guy in front of you can’t encroach on your space, but how well do they work? For someone like me, the answer is “not well”. I prepared for the experience by buying myself an inflatable lumbar pillow. (Some people use inflatable neck pillows for that purpose, but in my experience they aren’t firm enough.) This helped, but couldn’t make up for the uncomfortably firm seat bottom. I removed the magazines from the seat-back pocket to try to give my knees some extra space, which made things a little less cramped.

When large people sit in adjacent seats, the biggest area of conflict is not at the waist, but at the shoulder. (That’s why some airlines are looking at slightly staggered seat rows.) The good thing about the classic seat recline mechanism is that adjacent passengers can tilt their seats at different angles, reducing shoulder contact. With the shell seats, this possibility is eliminated.

The bottom line for me is that the seats in CX are so uncomfortable that I probably won’t fly them again. This is a shame, because in other respects it’s a great airline.

What of the trip itself? Boarding was well organized and accomplished quickly. We left late, and there were spells of severe turbulence, but we arrived on time. Disembarking took so long that I just missed the 7:30 ferry to Shenzhen Shekou, so I took the 8:30 boat. As I was about to get off the ferry, I realized that no-one had given me an arrival/departure card to fill in. (Who goofed? CX? The ferry crew?) Anyway, I noticed a box of various forms on the counter of the ferry snack bar, and found a blank arrival/departure card; I had just enough time to fill it in before I got to the front of the Immigration line. From there it was easy: I lined up for a red taxi (fending off all of the cowboy cabbies), gave the driver the cheat-sheet I’d prepared, focussed on my cellphone and ignored the crazy driving, and sat back until I saw the distinctive “KFC” a block from the hotel.

And here I am.

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  1. And speaking of passengers, I was struck by the different demographics of the CX flight compared with my UA trips last month. On UA, the mix was roughly 50-50 Western and Chinese. On CX, at least half of the passengers were Indian, presumably connecting at HKG to Indian flights on CX. The practical difference was that the CX flight was full of babies, small children and extremely elderly passengers. (One more reason why the CX headphones were inadequate.)

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