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badice.com ~ musings for the masses

I am a sucker for this kind of, in Jeopardy terms, potpourri. Priceonomics has a short piece on why UPS trucks do not make left turns. The most telling part:

UPS engineers found that left-hand turns were a major drag on efficiency. Turning against traffic resulted in long waits in left-hand turn lanes that wasted time and fuel, and it also led to a disproportionate number of accidents.

UPS even has a page describing the practice of no left turns and they expand on the above idea.

What we found: A significant cause of idling time resulted from drivers making left turns, essentially going against the flow of traffic. From there we explored routes where these turns were cut out entirely, and then compared data.

The use of data to make a decision that goes against logic is what I love. UPS leadership was experimental enough to say “we are going to implement this and see if it works” and then study the results from that test. There are a number of very large companies that I have worked with that would immediately balk at this idea. They almost go through stages of grief (sans depression) with ideas like this.

  1. Denial – the companies claim the data is wrong or that it is flawed
  2. Anger – the workers who are responsible for causing the data become upset that someone found out about their poor work habits
  3. Bargaining – to get out of making a change, people start tossing out different ideas, none of them good
  4. Acceptance – “I guess we’ll just have to do it”

Then there are the companies who do the complete opposite. They implement a terrible idea based on bad data, or their understanding and interpretation of good data, and it blows up in their face. Once that happens, they become very adverse to ever trying a new idea again. We need new ideas backed by data and I think it’s awesome that UPS took their data and made some interesting choices that have paid off.

Seth has details of the changes. The big changes are in the AAnytime Awards, or awards that have more availability across dates. There are now three tiers of AAnytime Awards with the highest tier being exponentially more expensive than the lower tier. US Airways also upped the price of the sweet spot on their reward chart, US-North Asia rewards go from 90,000 miles to 110,000 miles.

The biggest news out of this seems to be American releasing the chart with no announcement and making the changes effective immediately. That is definitely not the most customer friendly way to do business and is different than the announcement from other airlines regarding similar types of changes.

I think this is the beginning of the end of the American Airlines love affair that a lot of travel/airline bloggers seem to have. American is going to start to fall in line with what the other carriers have in place for elite programs and reward bookings and people need to prepare themselves for that.

SAS has announced they will start a new flight from Stavanger, Norway to Houston on August 20, 2014. This flight has been rumored for a while (no it’s not an April Fool’s joke) and it looks like it is coming to fruition. With ExxonMobil and Shell both having large facilities in Houston and Stavanger and Exxon’s Dallas campus, the flight is a great way for these companies to move their people between offices and offshore operations centers.

The flight will be operated by a PrivatAir 737-700 in an all business class configuration with 44 seats. The service will operate every day of the week except Saturday.

I will definitely be trying to move one of my reward tickets to Europe to this flight as soon as it becomes bookable later this month.

Swiftwater Seafood Cafe - Whittier, Alaska + high-res version

After queuing for a while, we drove through the single highway lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and emerged in Whittier, Alaska. It was lunch time and hunger was starting to overtake us so made a pit stop at Swiftwater Seafood Cafe. It is a tiny place but the fish and chips was delicious and they had cold Alaskan Brewing Company beers ready and waiting. It was a gorgeous day and we enjoyed our lunch on the patio, watching a couple of cruise ships leave the small port before petting a reindeer and waiting in the queue for the next crossing through the tunnel.

A very well thought out post on speculation and Malaysian Airlines flight 370

I have thrown out a few small speculations of my own about the flight but the reality is, we won’t know what happened to the plane and the passengers until we find it. Add on top of that the poor leadership by the Malaysian government and other governments in the region to coordinate information and search efforts and we have powder keg of emotions ready to go off. The passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight 370 deserve better.

“Kwaj”

In World War II, a short, brutal battle was fought between Japanese and American forces for this coral atoll. Before that, the Japanese used the island as an outpost, forcing Korean prisoners and Marshallese natives to do manual labor building up the island’s fortifications. Today the islands exist as a listening station, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, and home to a large number of native Marshallese. The story of how me, a group of my friends, and 100 other passengers on United 154 ended up on the atoll is nowhere as historically significant or important as the stories of those who fought and died here, but it is a brief look into a part of the world that very few people ever get the chance to see.

3.7.2014

The purpose of the trip was to fly the United “Island Hopper”. The route takes passengers from Honolulu to Guam via stops on the islands of Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk and takes approximately 14 hours to complete. Keep that duration handy, we’ll be referencing it later. The actual final destination for the trip was Hong Kong and we had a dinner with an old friend planned as well as a plan for some sightseeing on Sunday. The red lines on the map below are what we were supposed to fly. The green lines are where the trip diverged and what I actually ended up flying.

Great Circle Map to Hong Kong

Island Hopper at Honolulu
Leaving Honolulu was uneventful. After the excitement of having nine boarding passes printed I grabbed some snacks, knowing that there was only a breakfast served on the way to Majuro. Our flight departed for the 4.5 hour journey to our first stop a little late due to problems with baggage equipment at the Honolulu Airport. Finally underway, passengers started getting comfortable, or trying to do so. A light breakfast of french toast or eggs was served and before we knew it, we were on the ground at Majuro.

meandmajuro.jpg

Walking off the plane the humidity hit me like a wet mop. The temperature difference immediately caused my camera lens to fog up. I really wanted some pictures from each island so I took a few photos with my phone and made my way into the small terminal. It was a tight fit in the terminal and the humidity made it even less comfortable. We recorded a quick update for the Dots, Lines, and Destinations podcast and convinced Seth to take off the Burger King crown he had put on in Honolulu. A short time later the gate agent was calling for boarding and before I knew it, we were taxiing to the end of the runway. The pilot announced that he would be making a low pass over the atoll for those of us on the left side of the plane. As we departed Majuro faces were pinned to the windows; it was not a typical departure pattern. We flew low and slow. The pilots recognized that this trip is a special one and wanted to give passengers the opportunity to see the atolls closer than normal. I was in an aisle seat but craned my neck to get a gorgeous view of Majuro and the surrounding atoll.

Majuro Airport Terminal

It was scheduled to be a quick trip from Majuro to Kwajalein, right around 45 minutes. I had been chatting with the gentleman in the middle seat since we left Honolulu and learned that he worked on Kwajalein. Our discussion continued on this segment and he revealed that he worked on an island separate from the main one and it required another flight once we arrived at our next stop. He also told me that on arrival all bags are collected, opened, and screened by the security team for the island. His tone was that it was a bit of a hassle but one that everyone knew was necessary.

The Event

As we started our descent into Kwajalein the captain came over the PA and announced that due to a problem with “the flaps” we would need to make a faster than normal approach into the island and that it would be treated as an emergency situation. The crew reviewed the emergency evacuation procedures and the bracing position with the entire aircraft and then made sure everyone in the exit rows were comfortable with opening the emergency doors and guiding people out of the plane. While the briefing was calm, you could sense the urgency in the crew’s instructions. My role was to block the aisle so that the person opening the exit were not rushed by people trying to exit the plane. After the exit was opened, I was to leave the airplane and help other passengers escape.

The aircraft approached Kwajalein and I felt the landing gear lower. We were definitely coming in much faster than normal and as soon as the wheels touched the ground, the brakes were heavily applied. The airplane stopped short of the end of the runway and a sigh of relief filled the cabin. We quickly taxied to the tarmac and announcements were made about the procedures at Kwajalein. No pictures. No leaving the aircraft. We will take a look at the problem and be back with you soon.

As you know, I’m a regular flyer and I am comfortable with turbulence and pilots announcing that they are dealing with issues but this problem and the landing made me tense. Maybe it was because I knew what the problem meant or maybe because I knew how long the runway is at Kwajalein, but I had a slight tinge of nervousness from the time the captain made the announcement until we had come to a full stop.

Sequestered

After a number of attempts by the on-board mechanic (did I mention the Island Hopper carries a mechanic?) to fix the problem, it was found that a new part would need to be flown in. The actual issue was a proximity sensor on the leading edge slats that gives information on how far the slats are extended. Without that information only a visual confirmation of the slat position was possible and that is not adequate as far as the FAA is concerned.

Since it was evident our time on Kwajalein would be longer than originally expected, the crew arranged for us to be moved inside the terminal building. We were asked to take everything off of the plane and to go straight to the terminal. A few of us wandered off the path from the plane to the terminal and were quickly told to get back on it.

The inside of the terminal was crowded and not really setup for a plane load of people. But, there was wifi. Not the fastest and certainly not the most stable, but it was there. I sent off a quick number of e-mails and iMessages letting people know where I was and then did the obligatory Foursquare check-in. I mean, how many times does one get to check-in to a U.S. missile base? Every now and then a pilot would give us an update on the progress in fixing the plane. With every visit my belief that we would be stuck in Kwajalein for the night grew stronger. Around 3pm local time the announcement was made that there was no way to fix the airplane and that a rescue flight was being organized in Guam. There was no exact timeline for when this flight would reach us or if the United corporate office would opt to put us up on the island for the night rather than send the plane in the dark. All of this was met with blank stares. I said a little prayer that the rescue flight would be the option they went with and I am pretty sure there were others saying the exact same prayer.

Using the WiFi in the Kwajalein airport terminal

Using the WiFi in the Kwajalein airport terminal

Then the decision was made to move us to the ferry building because it was more secure. Some passengers inquired as to whether this new location had internet access and were quickly told “no”. This caused a small uproar because people were using the wifi to try and figure out flights and make contact with family members. But the pleas to stay in the terminal were met with “please board the bus”. We packed into the bus (which only held 32 people) over four trips and realized exactly where we were on the short drive to the ferry building. The island was beautiful. We passed a number of beaches and different living facilities. We passed a pool where kids were being given swimming lessons and saw a number of bicycles on the roads. Come to find out, bikes are the primary form of transportation on the main island.

The ferry terminal was a little more open than the airport’s building but had a lot less seating. In addition to the indoor area we were allowed to go back and forth to what I call “the yard”; A fenced in area, much like its namesake at prisons. Between talking with friends and other passengers, walking around outside, and eating, there was not much else to do but wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually a large number of pizzas and water were delivered and we all had the opportunity for multiples of each.

Kwajalein Ferry Terminal

Kwajalein ferry terminal conditions.

I had noticed that the crew from our flight had not come along with us but a pilot (Ryan) and two of the flight attendants did show up when the pizzas arrived and told us that they were getting their rest at the Kwajalein hotel, a facility that is off limits to those who do not have business on the island, aka, those of us on the flight. I had actually asked the lady sitting in the window seat on my row about what she thought would happen if we had to spend the night on Kwajalein. Her response was that they would probably ferry us over to another island called Ebeye where there is a small hotel. She then went into detail about Ebeye and gave me a piece of advice if we were sent there to spend the night, “pick up some small stones and carry them in your pockets, it will help to distract the stray dogs”. My mind filled with images of what this other island looked like. And a little bit of research shows that Ebeye is an example of what happens when money and power mix in way too strong of proportions. During the handing out of pizza and water an announcement was made that United had decided to send the rescue flight and that it was expected to land sometime near 1 or 2am.

Rescued

Around midnight local Kwajalein time we were told that we would be bused back to the airport. It is amazing how quickly people jumped up to try and get back on the bus first, even though we knew we would have to wait for multiple trips before we were boarded on the rescue plane. A short bus ride back in the dark and we were standing in a “check-in” line where we gave our names and boarding passes and checked off a list. We then went through a security screening. No PreCheck here. In fact, I had to surrender the water that had actually been handed out to us by the same people conducting the security check. As I threw my bottle in the trash one of the security officers looked at me and just shook his head, “I know, I know”. The best part was, after taking a seat and using the wifi to send out another quick update to loved ones, the same security officers brought a new case of the exact same water. The water did taste a little funny and the more I think about it, the more I think they were just getting rid of expiring rations.

Another hour in the terminal and a quick check of FlightAware showed that our chariot off this island was close. I strolled outside to watch the rescue flight land. There was a light, intermittent rain but in the distance I saw the landing lights of the 737-800 and shortly thereafter I watched it make a perfect landing. A quick refuel and boarding announcements were made, yep, they even boarded by group numbers. We were finally on our way to Kosrae.

Sort Of…

By this point in the trip I was teetering on delirium. I had not slept much since we started the Island Hopper flights and had only slept a few hours the night before in Honolulu. You can hear this listening to the episode we recorded while at different stops along the way. Near the end I am close to slurring my speech and not making a lot of sense. I even sent text messages to my wife that were incomprehensible, to the point that she asked me about them later.

On the flight to Kosrae I started to doze off in little cat naps since I could not get comfortable. During one of those cat naps I was startled awake when the pilot came on with an announcement. “Not to alarm anyone but we are beginning our descent into Kosrae. The runway here is shorter than most so the landing will be much more rough than you’re used to, just wanted you all to know.”

I am actually glad he gave the warning, it gave me time to watch the approach. We made a sweeping left turn and out of the window I saw runway lights. It was strange because the horizon sank into the ocean, there was no reference point for what was up or down. Seeing those runway lights made what I was (or wasn’t) seeing outside make a bit more sense. As we lined up for the final approach it felt as though we were landing into the abyss. The lack of light made it hard to distinguish the water from the sky and it wasn’t until we were just above the runway that I could tell how high we were.

The pilot was right, it was a hard landing with a lot of braking. We turned around at the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal. Passengers were who’s destination was Kosrae seemed relieved to have finally arrived as they left the airplane. We sat. And sat. And did some more sitting before they announced that they would be doing the security search of the ABC (port) side of the airplane. Those of us seated on that side of the airplane were asked to collect our bags and move to the DEF (starboard) side of the plane as security personnel searched the seats and looked for unclaimed luggage. After they were done we put our luggage back up and sat back down. It felt like a really long time but really it was only an hour and 20 minutes or so. Eventually the pilot made an announcement. The flight would be skipping Pohnpei and Chuuk. Due to the FAA having a waiver in place for the Island Hopper and our particular flight not being covered by that waiver since it was a rescue flight, our next stop would be Guam. The pilot was rather blunt, everyone was welcome to continue on to Guam but they would be stuck in Guam for a full day until the evening Island Hopper left. Then the security team at Kosrae announced that because we were going to Guam a full security check of the plane would need to be performed. They repeated what they did earlier, everyone from the ABC seats grabbed their luggage and moved to the DEF seats. Then, they repeated the steps on the DEF side. For a bunch of people who were really sleep deprived, it was really confusing.

To top it all off, the pilot made one last announcement, if the passengers that were on their way to Pohnpei or Chuuk got off on Kosrae, the plane that broke in Kwajalein would be stopping to pick them up and finish the Island Hopper since it had the original clearance. It would arrive in Kosrae around 4am and everyone who wanted to go to the last two islands before Guam would probably want to disembark here.

There was a bit of a ruckus as passengers tried to decide what to do. People started grabbing their luggage and making a b-line for the door. Some passengers felt very uneasy about getting off the plane and possibly being stuck on Kosrae should something occur (again) to the original plane we were on. After about twenty minutes it seemed that everyone who wanted to travel to the last two islands before Guam had left the airplane. Before Kosrae I actually had a small bit of hope that we would make it to Guam in time for me to catch the flight to Honolulu and then onward to Houston. I had given up on Hong Kong, I would have to wait an extra day to get there now and by that point it would be time to fly home. But now my possible connection to Honolulu was quickly becoming impossible. After two hours on Kosrae we were finally in the air again and headed for Guam.

I fell asleep almost immediately after takeoff. My body had finally had enough and just wanted to shut down for a little while. Next thing I knew the flight attendants were prepping the cabin for arrival and I was lucky to get a nice view of the sunrise over the island of Guam. A smooth landing and quick taxi to the gate and we were finally in Guam, 27 hours after leaving Honolulu.

Sunrise Approaching Guam

Sunrise Approaching Guam

Guam

I walked very quickly to customs where the agent asked where I came from. Honolulu? Well, kind of. I got off in Majuro and Kwajalein and we landed in Kosrae. Blank stare. “Ok, have a good stay.” Looking at my watch I knew I was going to miss the flight back to Honolulu.

Welcome to Guam

Welcome to Guam

I ran upstairs to the check-in area and gave a quick explanation to the agent of what had happened. At first she seemed to understand what I and my three friends wanted. A flight back home and to declare the trip a “trip-in-vain” since we never made it to Hong Kong. After having our passports and boarding passes for close to two hours and flights being removed from our itineraries, we got on the phone and were successful in getting an agent to get us rebooked. Kind of. She was able to rebook me but dropped flights for two of my friends. We were all getting frustrated but after four hours at that ticket counter we had a mostly usable rebooking. One of our friends was on standby to get to Tokyo, yet he had a confirmed seat from Tokyo back to the United States.

Seth calling the United 1K desk

Seth calling the mainland to get rebooked. We also know how much he weighs now.

We used the Priority Pass lounge at Guam for a quick shower and by then it was almost time to board the flight to Tokyo. We had a good crew on the flight north and it was actually one of the better meals I have had on United in a long time. There were artichoke hearts and hearts of palm in the salad. On such flights in the U.S. I am lucky to get a tomato in the salad. We were on time into Tokyo and made our way through the transit security checkpoint.

Meal on Guam to Tokyo

That meal I was raving about on the Guam to Tokyo flight

My flight to Houston was leaving shortly after our arrival into Tokyo so I gave my meal vouchers to my friends and I hear they enjoyed a nice meal of sushi.

The flight from Tokyo to Houston was uneventful. I was able to get a solid 9-10 hours of sleep and my body and mind were thankful. On arrival into Houston the Global Entry line was empty and I was home 30 minutes after landing and more than 72 hours after this whole thing started.

Thoughts

The crew on the original Island Hopper was fantastic and they did everything they could to try and make the situation as bearable as possible. The contract staff on Kwajalein did an excellent job as well, making sure that we were well fed and hydrated. They did the best they could with the conditions they were presented.

United on a whole did a rather poor job of handling all of the missed connections. In fact, the ground staff at Guam were unaware that our flight was so delayed. The agents at Guam were a mix of really helpful and trying and completely useless. It shouldn’t take four hours to rebook four people, ever. There was a flight to Tokyo that had cancelled and the agents were able to help every single one of those passengers in the time it took to process the four of us. That is ridiculous.

The agent issues aside, the trip was an experience. Sure it was a really tedious and grueling delay on Kwajalein but I am glad that my friends were there to experience it together. I can’t imagine going through the same delays and uncertainty without friends there to make the time pass. We even recorded a podcast during the Island Hopper, and there is a bit of a premonition about the possibility of a mechanical problem. The audio quality suffers a little as we were recording in a number of different locations, but it is fun to listen to the progression and hear just how delirious we are by the end of it.

If you are wanting to read about a successful Island Hopper journey, this trip report is a great place to start.

I am a few weeks behind but the USA Today had a story recently about frequent fliers (flyers?) and how pleased they are with the airline mileage programs. Three of the key points in the study that the article referenced:

  • Overall, a slight majority of frequent-flier program users — 53% — said they were generally satisfied with their primary carrier’s loyalty program and that they’d recommend it to a friend.
  • Nearly half (45%) of those surveyed say they earn more points from credits cards and other ground-based promotions than they do from actually flying.
  • Awards that cost more miles or points than expected was by far the biggest frustration among the survey’s respondents. That was cited by half the respondents — far more than the No. 2 complaint: suddenly changing rules.

So a slight majority of those polled are “generally satisfied”, meaning 47% are less than satisfied or didn’t respond. A good chunk of those same people earn most of their miles via credit cards and other promotion tools and yet they are upset with rewards that cost more. It seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, more miles in wild, the cost of the good being provided (a reward) goes up. To give you an idea of how the manufactured spend game works, take a peak at this article on Vice that focuses on Vanilla Reloads.

After United’s recent devaluation I am less inclined to amass large amounts of miles for “aspirational” awards on partner carriers, it just isn’t worth it. Sure, I’ll keep earning and probably burning for United business class tickets where I can find them but I am going to limit my aspirational type rewards to Starwood’s Starpoints. There is also a number of frequent fliers, in hopes of greener grass, jumping ship to American Airlines. After the merger with US Airways is complete I am sure that the American Airlines program will be degraded to some extent.

As Seth said, the frequent flier game has become a lot less fun. As a result, my attention is turning more to cheap fares and less to miles.