Saturday, December 26, 2009

Another holiday lesson....

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and I did head once again to the airport. It’s a beautiful morning in Seattle, and I had the treat of driving to SeaTac watching the sun rise in an unseasonably clear sky with Mt Rainier in stark relief. I’m currently in the safari themed bar in Terminal A, where the waiter carded me for a coffee (but I do love me a zebra-print chair early in the morning). Other than that, so far this airport visit has been relatively uneventful.

My visit home was nice, full of family and enjoying the peace and quiet of the island. In holding with tradition, we made the journey to the “mainland” to go to our church’s Christmas Eve service. As always, it was worth the drive as it was a fulfilling blend of seasonal joy and thoughtful insight on the meaning of thankfulness and family. Besides the grand finale of singing ‘silent night’ by candlelight, the highlight of the evening for me was the (brief) children’s reenactment of the story of the nativity. Mary and Joseph were there, and as usual were visited by the wisemen, and the stars were bright and so on. However, this year the sheppards (somewhat successfully) managed to heard their flock of diminutive sheep in cotton-ball-covered hats…. And of course… a “secret cow” and one very excited elephant.

Allow me to explain. Prior to the service, the mother in charge of making sheep costumes confessed that (as adorable as the sheep costumes were) one of her children had informed her on no uncertain terms that he was going to be an elephant, and another really wanted to be a cow. Luckily for those making the costumes, the cow was convinced that a sheep hat with black ears could easily be a cow, and so she didn’t tell anyone otherwise and for the night blended in with the flock as a “secret cow.” The elephant, however, stood out a bit. This might have been because of the exuberant twirling dance he graced the crowd with….or it might have been the trunk.

Now, rather than detracting from the peaceful message of the nativity, I rather though the diversity in species was refreshing, not to mention very cute. I could go on to point out that Bethlehem wasn’t all too far from Africa, though it’s unlikely that a stray elephant would really have made its way that far North. Though, as the ancient story tells us, miracles do happen. Rather though, I think the presence of the elephant is a lesson that sometimes its okay to decide that the outfit you’re given just doesn’t fit. The rest of the sheep were happy to share their visit to the new baby with the elephant and cow, and the audience enjoyed the antics. Whether you’re content to be a secret cow, or are moved to go all out and be a dancing elephant amongst sheep, we’re all better for it. Somehow it makes me heartened to know that out there amongst the flocks of children growing up in our sometimes overbearing society, not all are content to be sheep.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Over Albany....

As the year draws to a close, I’m once again in the air. There’s something beautiful about a window seat on an evening flight, the lights laid out beneath you like a map in gold and silver. When I travel so much its easy to forget the little things that made me drawn to flying in the first place. Day to day its all too easy to get distracted by worries over the weather, or the person in the security line in front of you who wants to place each individual item they are carrying in a separate bin to send through the x-ray. Air travel is one of those things where if you’re all about the destination you’re likely to miss out on the pleasure to be had along the way.
Right now I’m embarking on a landmark flight. Its flight 471 and I’m on my way to my childhood home north of Seattle, a relatively short flight from LAX. When this plane flies over Albany, Oregon I will have flown my 100,000th qualifying mile this year on American Airlines. After all the time on American’s silver jets this year, I find it somewhat ironic that my milestone will be reached while on an Alaska Airlines flight, but that’s life’s little sense of humor for you.
Fittingly, this month the movie “Up in the Air” debuted. In it the main character travels more than 11 months out of the year, and is eagerly reaching his 10 millionth mile on none other than American Airlines. His tipping mile, unlike mine, will be over Dubuque, Iowa. In the movie, this seeming king of frequent fliers is allegedly only the 7th person to have flown 10 million miles with the airline. However, the “American Way” in-flight magazine assures me that there are many more than this in reality. In the interest of maintaining a sense of exclusivity American’s not saying how many there are or what the benefits of achieving such a goal might be, though they make it clear that there are many.
I have no delusions of reaching such a lofty travel milestone, in fact I’m astounded that I’m reaching 100,000 this year. I’ve never done it before, and doubt if I’ll do it again. Still, I can relate to the movie. This ultimate travel maven is followed as he embarks on his nearly continual itinerary, complete with preoccupations with rental car upgrades, hotel frequent guest programs, and a variety of “single serving” friends, doing it all in the name of reaching this long awaited travel goal. (For a detailed explanation of my personal connection to the plot of this movie, please read the posts below).
Besides all the miles (and dollars) I’ve spent on planes this year, there’s something that holds intrigue for me about little worlds wherever you find them. I always love to be an interloper whether its learning about the passions of obsessive frequent fliers, dedicated sci-fi fans, or even storm chasers. For an excellent and eye opening, and well researched, look into these seemingly insular groups that compose our modern society check out Shirley Cadron’s book “Who are You People? This light read is billed as a look at “fanatical passion in America,” and is well worth the time.
Though Cadron doesn't choose to discuss frequent fliers in her book per se, the analogy is a good one. People who travel consistently for work, or just to maintain their lives, have plenty in common, both in experience and knowledge. As demonstrated by the many I've met along the way, they also have a wealth of stories and advice, and are more than happy to share both. The skies and the airports are something they have gotten to know innately, and most of them are proud of it. Like any specialty, its knowledge that’s not easily attained and they’re well aware of the fact. Tonight I feel like I’ve really joined them. As I take a moment to stare quietly out the window at the scattered points of light and dark voids underneath us I smile and hope that somewhere down there is Albany and my 100,000th mile is passing, fittingly, on my way home for the last time this decade.
Cheers, and happy holidays.

Time and again....

Well…. It’s been almost a full week since I was at LAX. It’s good to be back (sort of). This weekend I’m not traveling just for the miles at least. I’m going home, or at least, to my original home. I grew up on an island north of Seattle, the type with 5 acre zoning, big trees and very small towns. It’s one of those places that’s paradise if you’re under 12 or over 30. Since leaving such a peaceful setting I’ve been in major cities long enough to appreciate my hometown’s quiet and safely, but not long enough to feel ready to go back full time. Though still I don’t think there are many more beautiful things than a sunset reflecting on the water and mountains over Puget Sound.

In other news, today I had the good luck to plan my flight so I could arrive to LAX via helicopter (a small…or large… job perk). Further, my pilot was indulgent and took a bit of time to go the scenic route over the beach so I could take some photos of the coast, as well as over LAX. I’m always struck by how the airport looks like a child’s toy train set from 1,500ft, with all the taxiways you can’t see when you’re moving between them. Today it was pleasantly clear in the LA basin, as we had a rare windstorm this morning that cleared the usually hazy skies over the city. The mountains (yes with snow) were in view, as were the hills all the way out to Malibu.

But enough about the quite short flight to the airport. I’m currently waiting for my 6:30 flight to Seattle/Tacoma in terminal 3. I usually balk at being sent away from the American terminal where I have all the usual amenities. However, when flying to Seattle there’s no choice. American codeshares on Alaska, and there’s no two ways about it. However this didn’t stop me from putting up a valiant, and I thought perfectly logical, fight last time I was here with the check-in counter at the Alaska Air “board room.” Its Alaska’s version of the Admiral’s Club, and I thought that it seemed perfectly obvious that when I booked a ticket on American and got “stuck” over in terminal 3 they should gladly welcome me. They did not agree. The woman behind the desk smiled calmly asked if I had Delta’s “Crown Club.” I explained that I booked American and got put on Alaska, but they didn’t buy what I was selling. I ended up slinking away and eating a California Pizza Kitchen salad on the floor of the terminal. Well, not really “on the floor”….but they were short of seats.

Long story short- live and learn. Today I didn’t even try, and am happily seated at the Northwest themed seafood restaurant, where the waitress has nicely convinced me to try the Cosmo. It’s good, but a little sweeter than my usual vodka before flying. Speaking of drinking and flying, I have a little-known travel secret to share. I’d usually withhold this tidbit, but since I’m confident not too many people will read this I’ll go recklessly ahead. Here it is: Alaska has the easiest upgrade policy of any airline I know. For shorter flights, all you have to do is go to the desk upon your arrival and ask for it. Seriously. There is a small charge based on length of flight, but if there’s a seat and you want it it’s yours. This policy is quite unlike most of the major airlines who basically want your firstborn child for a seat in the front of the plane. So I’m just tossing that out there, please use the information wisely.

Well… the restaurant is filling up, and my flight’s about to start boarding so I’m off. I’ll hopefully be posting this, and pictures from my flight to LAX when I’m safely on my island enjoying the clean air, and some peace and quiet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

News from the ground...

No, I'm not in the air again just yet. However, it's been an interesting week in aviation to say the least, and I thought it was a good time for a between-travel post.

First off though, yes I did make it safely home after my last weekend of flying. This was no thanks, however, to the fine specimen of a human who saw fit to run into me on the 405 from behind... and then speed off. This was not the way I saw my weekend concluding, but it could have been much worse. Luckily, it was nearly midnight and as such when my car was shoved into the next lane there was no one else to hit, and a little paint work should take care of the damage. The most ironic part was upon leaving LAX I thought to myself, "Ok, be careful, how stupid would it be to come home safely from 10,000 miles in the air only to crash your car on the way home?"

This whole ordeal just reinforces for me the statistics about the relative safety of flying vs driving. When people tell me they're scared to fly, I always answer that they're far more likely to be in an accident driving to work than flying cross-country. So...there's the proof for you, though I could have done without actually demonstrating it so literally.

So that said...onto the exciting news-

Congratulations are in order to Boeing for their first flighttests of the 787 "Dreamliner." Yes, they are congratulations that the company was hoping to get several years ago, but better late than never. A few months ago I was in a conversation with a few people about it, and when someone asked what the "Dreamliner was," they were answered with, "Its a dream Boeing had once that they'd build a new model of jet."

Though I laughed, being from the Seattle area originally and I'm always rooting for Boeing to do well, knowing how much of an effect they still have on the economy of the area. So I'm glad to see this Dreamliner finally becoming a reality. Besides, I can't help but say it's a beautiful design, and.... it appears that the thing actually flies. I'm also glad the testing is taking place out of Paine Field. There's something fitting about seeing Boeing's latest taxiing down the runway on a typical Northwest rainy day, and taking to the sky over Puget Sound. Despite the airplane noise, and frequent worker strikes, no one really wants to see Boeing move manufacturing out of the Northwest. In fact in the 1970s the company fell on hard times, and the sentiment was best summed-up by a billboard erected that said, "Will the last person out of Seattle please turn off the lights?"

Though Boeing's corporate headquarters are now in Chicago, its production facilities in Everett still employ the majority of their workforce, and are the largest buildings in terms of volume in the world. It's really an impressive sight from the 526 freeway, and if you're driving by late at night you might get to see them sneaking a finished jet across the overpass to the airstrip. They try to do this at night because it's quite a distraction to drivers as a 747 is towed 20 ft over their heads.

While I know I won't get the chance for awhile yet to fly in the Dreamliner, it's good to see the aviation industry moving forward. The 787 is billed as being more efficient, quieter, and comfortable than it's predecessors. In short, it looks to have been worth the wait.

Monday, December 14, 2009

And in conclusion....

(Lest the timestamp on this entry mislead you, I probably won’t get this posted until tomorrow as I won’t be home tonight until too late to want to turn back on my computer.)

First off- Please forgive the personal moment but as is all too easy to do with strangers, I can’t help myself. Every time I leave Boston, I have to say goodbye to my heart for awhile. Such is the nature of long-distance relationships, but it doesn’t make it any easier to do. As I say goodbye and walk back into the terminal after what is always too short of a visit, I consistently have the urge to turn around and run back (slow motion style of course) like in a romantic comedy’s compulsory happy ending. However life is not, much to my chagrin, a movie. Inevitably I give a last glance, set my jaw, and head to the security line to go home, since in the words of Robert Frost, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

So here it is, the last airline seat of the weekend. It’s a good one at least, seat 10A, which on a Boeing 757 is both a window, and an aisle seat as it has no one in front of it. So as I stretch my legs out shamelessly, I realize that I can’t get away from writing about a crazy weekend of air travel without the compulsory discussion on “single serving” friends. As anyone who’s seen “Fight Club” knows, this is a quite adept name for pretty much anyone you’ll meet in the air or in an airport. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the movie, here’s the clip. Though his connotation on the phenomenon is more ominous than mine, I think it makes a good point, and a great term.

The term "single-serving friend" is perfect, and I have found myself many times deep in discussion about my life with someone I’ve just met minutes ago while on a flight. There’s something enthralling about talking to a total stranger who you will likely never see again, but with whom for a few hours you have a shared experience. For example, last weekend I met a woman whos husband had taken two very successful footware companies public, and as she put it, spent his life “looking at people’s feet.” Before the end of the flight, she was telling me about how she had given her first son up for adoption when she was 18, and had found him almost 20 years later, then learning that he was gay. Luckily for them both, (after a period of soul-searching) she has taken a “love him no matter who he loved” approach, and have become close, to their mutual benefit. It’s stories like those that make me try to turn to the person next to me and offer an icebreaker, usually a simple, “Going home?”

So far this weekend, due to some empty flights and taking the overnight, I hadn’t made any single-serving friends. However, life saved the best for last. I’m sitting in the same row with a true travel maven (for a definition of "mavens" see the entry below). His wealth of knowledge puts me to shame. Firstly, he is part owner of an airline. That alone should give you an idea of how in depth his knowledge of the subject is. He asks me if I’m going home or to work, and I (sheepishly) tell him that I was going home from a weekend of essentially pointless flying. He however just nods and agrees that the double miles make it completely logical. He then informs me that he each year reaches Platinum Status for American, the “1K” club for Delta, and it’s counterpart on Lufthansa (I feel now that there might be one more I’m missing, but am not about to ask him to repeat it). Mind you, none of these is the airline he has part interest in.

The plane takes off, and I watch as we climb at the rain streaking across the window as it changes to thick snow. I start to know how Rudolph might feel on a particularly stormy night. I settle in, and our conversation shifts and my neighbor asks me a “trivia” question: Which is farther, Sydney to San Francisco, or Sydney to Los Angeles? I do a quick geography sketch in my head and come out with the right answer- Los Angeles (it’s further inland and the flightplan takes you across the Pacific.)

In true single-serving friend form, I learn a few things from him I didn’t know. For starters, that the longest nonstop flight in existence is from Singapore to Canada, and that this is the only flight in the top ten list of longest flights he has yet to take. I tell him that “it’s good to have goals,” and he answers he’s not in any hurry.

His maven nature does not, however, end at airlines and routes. He’s also well-versed in the must-haves for the serious traveler. Upon unpacking his laptop he points to the bottom layer of the plastic, informing me that the entire thing is the battery which will last continuously from Los Angeles to South Africa (he, at this moment has it still turned on sitting on the seat next to him while he works on something else, just to make the point). Further, noticing my Bose headsets, he asks expertly if they are “the new 15s?” I look at them stupidly for a moment, having no idea, and in the end we both decide they aren’t.

He settles in to work on his super-maven computer, and I unpack mine (seeing it’s the same model but mine will not last on a flight across either ocean without being re-charged) and start writing about him shamelessly, using 10pt font (grey for privacy). I’ve gotten used to being the more-traveled of the people I have met lately, and I’m feeling a bit upstaged by my travel companion. To that end, however, I would like to point out two things: 1) He’s about 25 years my senior, and 2) I think he copied my choice of beverage.

Time to kick back for a few hours and decide if I’m just tired enough to watch Will Ferrel in green tights, or if I’d rather watch the first season of Better off Ted over again. This weekend has been an experience to say the least, and I’ve enjoyed writing this as it helps me feel like someone else out there might be following along. Air travel is at once a very solitary experience, and one that gives you the chance to connect with people you might never otherwise know existed, with drastically different life stories than yours. I’ve enjoyed sharing this small one of mine, and have intentions of keeping it up in the future.

Thanks again for reading, and best wishes for wherever you might be on your journey.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Here we go again...

Well, after an all too short visit to Boston I'm once again on the move. I'm waiting for flight 223 from Boston's Logan international back to LAX to start my week like normal on Monday at 5am. The Admiral's Club in Boston has been undergoing a much needed renovation, which means that it's only about half its normal size and is chronically crowded. However, I like where they're going with the new look so I'll survive.

The time in Boston was great as usual. We went to one of my favorite restaurants on Tremont Street, Aquitaine. It's a great place for brunch, and is a fantastic value for the quality and atmosphere. Also, today we had a favorite server. A few months ago, we were one of his first tables on his first day serving rather than doing the dishes. He was great, and we'd made that quite clear on our comment card that day. As well as being a good waiter, he apparently also has a fantastic memory, and remembered not only our faces, but what table we had been sitting at that day. Sometimes you never know who you'll leave a lasting impression on.

So after less than 24 hours, I'm headed home. I miss Boston already, and I have a full workweek to look forward to, and probably then some. But for now, I've got 6 more hours at 36,000 ft ahead of me.

Wish me luck....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Wishing you a wonderful stay in Boston, or wherever you final destination might be..."

Hopefully by the time I post this I’ll be happily settled for the night in Boston, enjoying my visit and looking forward to a much-needed brunch in Boston’s South End tomorrow.

I’m finally on my last flight of the “day,” going from Chicago to Boston. It’s thankfully my shortest flight so far and is only about half-full, giving me the exit row to myself. All in all, I’m pleasantly surprised at how this experience is going. I’m feeling decently rested, having slept at least a few hours of each flight to date, and the weather and planes have decided to behave enough to let me make all the connections.

There’s a strange sense of camaraderie amongst the other frequent flyers who are trying to cram in their last miles of the year this weekend. Without fail, each Admiral's Club I’ve stopped in at this trip has had at least one person at the desk saying something to the effect of, “I think I need about 3,000 more miles, how many will the round-trip to Miami get me?” The reason for this is that not only is it near the end of the qualifying year for American Airline’s Elite Status program, but until the 15th of this month, they are doubling the qualifying miles flown. To be sure, it’s a strange thing to care about, but we all have our little obsessions. Moreover, when you’re already flying more than once a month, the little things like an upgrade now and then make it much more enjoyable.

For anyone who might consider doing something similar to this in the future, here’s what I’d tell you. Watch the weather, and try to make as few connections as possible to limit the chance you’ll get delayed. However, when I do make connections, I like to have more than an hour just in case. Also, when traveling in and out of O’Hare, be prepared that: 1) Tight connections/delays are common which often leads to stress, panic, and outright theatrics amongst your fellow travelers as you sit on the runway on your already late flight for the even later flight ahead of you to clear the gate, and 2) The wind currents and turbulence generally make holding patterns and landings about as smooth as bottom-shelf whiskey. That said, the Admiral’s club by Terminal H is very comfortable, and isn’t a bad place to wait out your delay.

Before I head off into the 30 degree Boston night for a real night’s sleep, I’d like to leave you all with one friendly request. From someone who has just gotten onto and off of 9 flights in the past three weeks, and has 6 more to go in the next two, the next time you get on a plane please do your fellow passengers a favor and organize yourself. What will you want out for the flight? Do you have two carry-ons? Which is bigger? In short, one simple rule: Roller-Bin, Bag-Floor, You-Seat. This should take about 10 seconds.

Thanks for reading, and until I’m back in the air late tomorrow, good night and safe travels.


Just landed in ORD to the same exact song that was playing on the last plane's sound system when it landed in LAX....and that time I just thought it was cute b/c it was about Hollywood. It doesn't have quite the same effect here in Chicago as we taxi through the snow.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Seat 15D

On the turn-around....

I’m now nearly done with the second flight, being about to start the decent into LAX. One thing I never get tired of is seeing another plane go by while in flight. When you’re flying it’s easy to forget that you’re actually moving incredibly fast, and its only with the perspective of another plane traveling also incredibly fast the other direction that one can really appreciate it. This was brought to mind as a topic to write about because about 4 hours ago, I looked out my window and thought,

“Wow….that was a close one.”

I’d glanced just in time to see a Virgin America jet (yes close enough that I could read the icon on the empennage) headed north cross our path just ahead of us, and at roughly the same altitude. It was definitely closer than I’ve ever seen another passenger jet while flying.

For the sake of the system, I only hope that no one was really asleep down in Air Traffic Control, and that it was actually a carefully planned near encounter. For my own mental ease, I also hope the people in the cockpit weren’t also thinking what I was. I flashed to an image of an iPhone game I’ve gotten quite addicted to called “Flight Control.” It’s a simple concept, but a great time-waster. You are the air traffic controller, and have to land the red jets on the red runway, the yellow planes on the yellow runway, and the blue helicopters on the blue helipad….and the point is to avoid midair collisions. The inevitable conclusion is that at some point you will have a midair collision, ending the game. For this reason, I take secret pleasure in playing it while in-flight and hoping the person next to me is wondering what I’m doing.

I suppose I could now insert a very serious discussion of how our current system of air traffic control is outdated, and why we should be worried, and so on. However, that seems wrong to write while I’m relying on them doing the best with what they have… and I think they’re about to tell me to “turn off and stow any electronic devices for the remainder of the flight,” so the lecture will have to wait.

In other news, I walked off of my last flight directly after Brooke Shields. She’s really quite tall.