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badice.com ~ travel musings for the masses

Posts tagged flying

The New York Times posted an article titled, “Avoiding the Dreaded Middle Seat May Now Cost You” and it is a pretty accurate depiction of the landscape of commercial air travel. Most major U.S. airlines will soon have a “basic” economy fare that is essentially only the price for a seat on a plane between origin and destination. No other benefits. Want to check a bag? That’s $50. Want to select a seat? That’s $15-30 depending on the route. Want that seat to be an aisle? That’s another $10.

Recaro Slimline Seat 1
Some would argue that the unbundling of airfare into different components is good for the consumer because they can purchase just the items they want for the trip and save money. But that would imply that the different services airlines provide, seat selection, baggage handling, etc. are things that are completely unrelated, which is far from the truth. When you travel you need a seat and you might need to check a bag. Neither of these is a cost that is unaccounted for by the airlines. They are going to have to handle cargo/bags/mail whether you fly or not. A seat selection, in simple terms, does not cost the airline money. This is the illusion of unbundling. Yeah, if you and your family do not mind sitting in random middle seats around the plane, you will probably save a few dollars. But, if you don’t want your mother seated at the rear of the plane while you’re ten rows up, that’s going to cost you. This is the illusion of cost savings. Sure you might save $100 in airfare but as soon as you check a bag or select seats that cost savings dwindles and it is hard to tell where the equilibrium is between that “basic” economy fare and the regular fare that would have included the items you paid for. If you do not check bags, travel with family, or care where you sit, then unbundled fares are probably for you.

There is also the illusion that unbundling items from airfare will keep the airfare low. Well, that would go against the basic argument of unbundling, which is that the airfare and the ancillary items can act independently of each other. So, if the airlines decide that $60B in ancillary fees is not enough, they can adjust those prices, leaving airfare untouched. Or, they can manipulate airfare to fit a market and leave the ancillary fees alone. I am not against the airlines making money but it is disingenuous to paint the unbundled fares as “saving customers money” when the basic facts point to the scheme as being solely about revenue generation. And that’s fine, airlines are businesses, they are supposed to make money. Just don’t promote a revenue generation tool as mystical cost savings awesomeness, because for a lot of people, it means they will be sitting in a middle seat, delayed at LaGuardia.

Why isn’t it much, much faster to fly west in an airplane, given that the Earth is spinning at 700-1000 miles per hour relative to its center? This video answers that question and even describes how some routes are faster going west due to upper level winds caused by the Coriolis effect.

This, along with great circle paths are some of the fascinating things about air travel .

On Sunday I had the privilege of being a part of United’s first revenue service of their newly delivered Boeing 787. The flight was scheduled between the Houston and Chicago hubs. Work conflicts prevented me from buying a ticket in advance for the flight but I was granted access to the plane before the first flight and to the tarmac for the plane’s first revenue taxi and take-off.

The time that the media had on the plane was fairly short. We were granted 10-15 minutes to walk the aircraft, get pictures, and talk to the crew. With people with video cameras, still cameras, etc. walking around aircraft becomes a challenge, but everyone tried to make it work as best as they could.

United 787 Forward BusinessFirst Cabin

United has opted to go with a galley at the main entrance to the aircraft. Some flyers have complained that the airline did not choose something like a bar or open space in this area but I do not see the point of that when the added benefit of a mid-cabin galley is faster service for passengers while in-flight. After making a right turn when boarding you enter the 2nd of the two BusinessFirst cabins. The aisles feel a bit taller due to the way the overhead bins are laid out and it creates the illusion that the cabin is bigger than it is. The BusinessFirst seats are the same ones that Continental installed on the Boeing 757-200s and the Boeing 777-200s before the merger and in the 787 they are laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration.

Walking into the Economy Plus and Economy cabin the seating configuration changes to 3-3-3 with Economy Plus having extra seat pitch (legroom). The bulkhead seats (row 16) seem to be the best if you’re wanting a little extra legroom with the added benefit of no one reclining into you. One thing I noticed is that all seats in coach have a power port, which matches United’s description of the cabin, but not its seat map.

The in-flight entertainment is of the new Panasonic variety and features a slightly updated interface and a new in-flight map. There is also a USB port available for you to use to charge your USB devices.

United 787 Economy Seat

You will also notice something missing in the above photo… A window shade. The 787 is outfitted with electrochromic windows or “smart glass”. As you use the button below the window, an electric charge is applied to the glass, changing its opacity, eventually becoming a still see-through, but darkened window shade. Since the flight I have read a few posts that say the windows do not get dark enough and sun still significantly comes through the shading. You can see what the smart glass looks like on Dan Frommer’s report from the JAL 787.

United 787 Economy Cabin

Some people are probably interested in the exit row on the 787 and whether or not it is worth sitting in. I took a photo of the exit row and as expected, it has a ton of legroom. The window seat does have the emergency slide slightly in front of it but it does not protrude too far into the space of that passenger. The one downside is the proximity to the lavatory. I assume this area will be used as a congregation space for people waiting to use the restroom. Not great when wanting to get some sleep.

United 787 Emergency Exit

Before leaving the aircraft I paid a visit to the rear galley, the cockpit, and the pilot rest area (I hope to post all of these images soon). The cockpit is impressive, especially when you notice that it lacks a lot of the analog displays (altimeter, attitude, airspeed, etc.) that we have grown accustomed to seeing. The heads-up displays were not pulled down but the idea of a commercial pilot being able to keep his focus forward while monitoring instruments, much like a fighter pilot, is comforting. With the 787 the pilot environment has become more about situation awareness and less about removing focus to check instruments.

United 787 Cockpit

After touring the aircraft, Jeff Smisek gave a brief speech about not only being the world’s largest airline but striving to be the world’s best and how he sees the 787 helping to bring that to fruition. He and the flight crew that would be operating the first revenue flight then cut a ceremonial ribbon and the flight began boarding.

United's Jeff Smisek Talking about the 787

At this point, a few of us were given tarmac access to photograph the 787 as it pushed back from the gate, taxied, and took-off. My heart always beats a little faster when I am on the tarmac. There is a lot going on around you and a whole lot of big jets being prepared for their journey. All of that plus the smell of aviation fuel equals an excited me.

The 787 was loaded up, the doors were closed, and the plane was pushed back from the gate right on schedule. I noticed something intriguing and delightful as the engines were started; The sound. Instead of the slightly higher pitch whine that is common with jet engines, the 787 had more of a low pitched hum, making it much quieter than I expected. I knew that Boeing had made strides in making the engine exhaust quieter, but I didn’t expect it to be that significant. I am guessing this is noticeable inside the aircraft as well. The 787 then performed a short taxi to runway 9 at IAH, took off, and made a graceful left turn to head to north to Chicago. Again, the sound during the engine run-up and take-off was much quieter than what I was expecting.

The United 787 Ready to Taxi

All in all it was a very fun experience and I look forward to having my first ride aboard the 787 sometime in the near future. United is currently running the aircraft between Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. As the other 787s are delivered, I would expect to see service to Newark as well. If you have flown the 787 I would love to hear what you thought of the flight, if you noticed any impact from the humidified and 6k foot pressurized cabin, or any other thoughts about your trip.

The plan for my Monday is usually pretty simple, get to the airport, get on the plane, fly somewhere, and get to work. Today was not much different, right up until the point where we passed up our destination, New York’s LaGuardia airport, did a 180 degree turn over Connecticut, then started our approach to the airport. That’s when things got really interesting.

As we approached LaGuardia, I looked out the window and saw what looked like a wall of water in front of us. The captain had informed us that there was weather in the area but that they were still taking arrivals so I thought the rain may have been isolated off our left side. On final approach, right around 200 feet, all hell broke loose. Day turned to night and our plane dropped suddenly. I heard the engines spool up and felt the plane’s nose go up. We made a sharp left turn over the main terminal building and continued climbing.

Ten minutes later and the pilot announced that due to our long approach, the plane’s fuel was low and we would not be able make another attempt at landing at LaGuardia. Instead, we would be diverting to Newburgh’s Stewart International Airport. That landing was normal and we taxied to the FBO (fixed-base operator) that United contracts with at Stewart Airport where we sat and sat and sat. Eventually the weather at LaGuardia cleared and our plane was refueled and we were on our way back to New York City.

Newburgh - Stewart International Airport

The view of Newburgh - Stewart International Airport from my window

Almost three hours later and we landed at LaGuardia. In the United States I have never experienced people clapping after a landing, but they did after this touch down. Can’t say I blame them; That missed approach was one of the more hair raising flying experiences I have ever had, but it did my make Monday interesting.

I should add that the United crew did a great job keeping everyone informed of what was going on and at Stewart Airport they walked around handing out drinks and giving free access to DirecTV. They were even letting people who wanted to deplane and drive to NYC from Newburgh do that. So, my hat is off to the crew of United 1280. You handled a less than ideal situation professionally and with a lot of courtesy and I appreciate that.

In a couple of weeks I will be flying Houston to Singapore via Washington-Dulles and Tokyo-Narita. The one-way journey takes 27 hours and puts me into Singapore a full day and a half after I leave. The departure time from Dulles is 1:15pm and arrival into Singapore is 11:55pm (Day+1). My strategy for fighting jet lag on this journey is to take a 5-6 hour nap on the Dulles-Tokyo segment, arriving into Tokyo around 3:35pm. Then, from Tokyo to Singapore, I will try to stay awake the entire time so that I am sleepy on arrival into Singapore. The return flights via Hong Kong and Chicago don’t have me nearly as worried as I’m sure I’ll be worn out when I return to Houston no matter when I choose to sleep.

Houston-Singapore - Great Circle Mapper

My time in Singapore is limited and I am torn as to shift my body clock on to Singaporean time or just sleep when tired and explore the city when wide-awake. What would you do?

In February the City of Houston and a group of Turkish representatives announced new service between Houston and Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.

If you follow airline announcements you know how quickly such rumors turn into pipe dreams or disappear completely. In the cast of the Istanbul-Houston route, I have been very skeptical, especially with fuel prices being what they are, but, this investor announcement from Turkish makes me a little more confident the service will actually launch. The page is in Turkish but here’s a poorly translated version:

Incorporation; aircraft availability and depending on the permissions in 2012, Istanbul-Houston-Istanbul and the Istanbul-Constanta-Istanbul route open, Mogadishu-Istanbul-Khartoum-Khartoum-Istanbul flights and Istanbul in Istanbul, Turkey-Djibouti-Djibouti-Mogadishu; Istanbul-Nakhchivan-Istanbul flights to Istanbul, the Istanbul-Ganja, Nakhchivan, it was decided to perform.

So, based on aircraft availability and the ability to obtain government permission, the Istanbul-Houston flights will start this year, possibly as early as this summer. I am really looking forward to this service starting! Turkish Airlines offers a great connection point to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia from their Istanbul hub and as a plus, Istanbul looks like a city I would have no problem having a stopover in. This announcement does not mean that flights are guaranteed to start between the two cities, but it adds a little credibility to the rumors and speculation.

To Tweet From 30,000 Feet: Picking Planes Wired for Wi-Fi

Scott McCartney on some interesting trends:

Airlines say Wi-Fi usage-the percentage of passengers paying for Internet access—is picking up, driven partly by the popularity of tablet computers and partly because more planes have the service. Currently about 8% of passengers use the service, up from 4% at the end of 2010, according to In-Stat, a research and consulting firm. That likely will reach 10% of passengers by the end of this year, In-Stat says.

In-Flight Wi-Fi usage growth is no surprise. We are addicted to being connected just about everywhere we are. Why should an airplane limit that addiction? My opinion on this is two-fold. Sure, it is great to get your e-mail, work on your website, post photographs, etc. while you’re in the air but as someone who travels for work, I relish being cut off from the outside world for a while.

Since United announced a push to install Wi-Fi on a number of their aircraft, I will see if my perception and opinion changes over the next year. I tried to use in-flight Wi-Fi on a trip from Seattle to Frankfurt on Lufthansa in December but it was inoperative the entire time. On a flight of that length, it would have been quite nice.

I love airline/airplane videos so when I came across these HD videos on NYC Aviation I couldn’t help but re-post them here. Both videos are great because they give a glimpse into an area that passengers rarely see. We take for granted that there is a workload being handled by the pilots behind that cockpit door.

In the videos you see how turbulence effects landings, other traffic in the area while cruising (notice the A380 in the one video?), and how the autopilot is adjusted during flight.

The first video is of an Airbus aircraft operated by Avianca, the flag carrier of Colombia.

The second video is a Boeing 737 operated by what appears to be Ryanair, the low-cost airline based in Dublin, Ireland.

If you the videos do not appear for you, you can watch the Ryanair video here and the Avianca one here. Both links lead directly to YouTube.

My flights on United yesterday had the new meal options on them and I took a couple of photos of them.

The first, the lunch, was served on a 9:30am flight out of IAH. It is a bit odd to eat lunch that early, but the reasoning behind serving lunch then is that the passengers coming off of east coast connections would receive breakfast twice on westbound flights. The meal consisted of a beef burrito, fruit, and asparagus soup. The burrito was just ok, but the soup was actually quite good.

New United First Class Lunch Service

Beef burrito, asparagus soup, and fruit

On the return flight a snack was served. The snack served before the merger was a literal “cold plate” of meats and cheeses. It was not very filling and was full of sodium. The new cold plate is a piece of grilled chicken, a cold pasta salad, and fruit. The pasta salad was extremely tasty for airplane food and the entire snack was very filling. Surprisingly, the chicken was moist and juicy and if the United caterers keep up such quality in the future I’ll be very impressed.

New United First Class "Cold" Plate

Grilled chicken, cold pasta salad, and fruit

While lunch was a little disappointing with the beef burrito, I think the new United is trying to improve the food options. My one suggestion to them would be to bring back the side salad on the lunch flights. If the options are a burrito and side salad or a large salad with shrimp and a side of fruit, I think flyers will be much more satisfied.

Rather than break down my year in cities I thought I would post my 2011 travel statistics. Right now I use FlightMemory to track my flights and it gives a decent breakdown of all of my travel.

In 2011 I flew 96,429 miles, spending 242 hours in the air. That required 70 domestic flights, 6 intercontinental flights, and 9 intra-European flights.

Those numbers mean I circled the Earth 3.87 times and made it about halfway to the moon.

My most frequented route was Houston to Atlanta, which I did 14 times.

My domestic flights:

My intercontinental flights:

My intra-European Flights:

It was a lot of flying in 2011. I am hoping some new and fun destinations are in store for me in 2012.

Happy New Year!