Sunday, November 26, 2017

Adventures in Canyonlands Part 2: The Dinos Don't Have a B Plan...

Life's a winding road

......But I do.

By the last evening of this fateful trip I found myself sliding into a chair at the bar of the airport hotel next to the airport hotel I was staying at 3 minutes before closing and ordering a pepperoni pizza, after a 4 hour drive over the mountains, in the dark, with two complete strangers. 

How was your day?

Maybe I should.... go back.....to 48 hours earlier when I was flying down the road at midnight looking for the Green River Holiday Inn Express.  And I do mean flying- this part of I 70 has a speed limit of 80, and by midnight even the truckers have pulled over for the night.  I did the 30 miles in no time.

The hotel itself was nothing special, but I wasn't expecting all that much, so it was fine.  I slept a few hours, and then got up in time to battle my way to a continental breakfast through what I can only imagine was no less than 3 busloads of Chinese tourists trying to figure out exactly what 'biscuits and gravy' are, and how one might go about eating them.  I got a waffle, some tang colored orange juice, and retreated to my room.

The actual reason for my being there was to take depositions of some locals, and we needed an internet connection.  As it turns out, one of the only places for rent with such services is the local "River Museum" next to the Holiday Inn Express....which is how I ended up dressed in a suit, taking a deposition, all the while being stared at by an angry looking stegosaurus skeleton in the basement of a natural history museum.  Can't make this up.



Rawr!


CANNOT make this up.
We ended up wrapping up the work in a day, but I'd booked the next night in town in case we hadn't, and so my flight was in the afternoon the next day.  This left some time to see a thing or two after hours.  Like I said, Green River doesn't have much in the way of attractions in town, but is situated in the middle of some breathtaking landscape and national parks.

I headed down I 70, thinking I'd take some pictures here and there, and maybe make my way to Goblin Valley, which Siri let me know was about 45 minutes away.  Helpful as always.  Well, I guess I distract easily, because I missed my first turn off, and wandered down the freeway too far.  When I was going to turn around and go back, I saw what looked like an alternate highway on the map which would let me avoid backtracking.  Excellent (she thought).


This is what I refer to as the 'before picture,' as in, 'this is before she ignored Siri's advice.
For some reason though, Siri was saying it would take three times as long as the other route, despite being about the same distance.  Silly Siri, she clearly doesn't know what she's talking about (she said to herself, as if she knows anything, and took the next exit onto a byway.)



Well, the byway got less and less paved, and veered more and more into open country.  Still I went bravely ahead because - adventure.  Less paved became unpaved, and then smooth dirt became rocky, and rocky started dipping in and out of dry and not so dry creek beds and the like.  Siri may have been on to something.


No Dodge Chargers were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Nevertheless, I kept going, mainly because the further I went, the more beautiful it got.  Spending 99% of my time currently in Los Angeles and in other major cities, it's very rare to get the chance to be the only one in sight.  I did occasionally see another car, which was just enough to make me feel like if I got a flat or whatnot I might not die alone out here.



Eventually I just needed to 'hear' the nothing, so I stopped the car and got out for awhile.  It was just me and a heard of cows in the distance wading through a pond, with canyons and sagebrush all around.  Definitely not something that happens on every business trip. 



Breathe.  Listen.  Repeat.


This is the 'after' picture, as in, 'this is after she realized she had taken both the wrong, and perfectly right, turn off of 70.'
I never did make it to Goblin Valley, or any other real 'landmark' that day, and it was more than fine with me.  The last thing I needed was to fight crowds to enjoy nature, when for once it was abundant everywhere else.  Plus, Siri was right, and it did take a lot longer to take the detour.  I headed back to town and checked into my second hotel of the week.

 


I stayed at the Skyfall Guestrooms, which turned out to be an unexpectedly pleasant experience.  This independent motel consists of 4 rooms under the 'Tamarisk' restaurant, which fronts on the river.  Each room has modern, unique, d├ęcor and comes with plenty of little extras.  There's a free mini bar with soda and snacks, as well as apple TV that lets you sign into your Netflix and Hulu, as well as regular channels.  The big picture windows let you relax and watch the sunset over the river.  No complaints at all.  Plus, it comes with free breakfast upstairs, which includes the full menu.  The experience here put the Holiday Inn to shame, for a lower price.  It's a good stay if you can get it.

 

The only issue with the stay was the strict check in and check out times.  I had to wait awhile to get moved in, and I had to leave promptly at noon the following day.  I stayed as late as I could working using the free wifi, and then headed out for a few hours before my Boutique Air flight back up to Salt Lake.  I wanted to go to the CNY airport a little early to try to chat with some locals anyway, so it wasn't a hardship.

 
Delicate Arch from a distance.
I had a couple hours before even that made sense, so I stopped by Arches National Park.  It did have far more people than my mistaken detour the day before, but was still beautiful and made for some great photo ops.  Between the timing and the heat, I didn't have time to do any of the serious hikes, but did the drive and hit some of the high points. 


The travel day's shirt.  Bought in Copenhagen, worn everywhere.
On my drive back, I pulled over to grab a sandwich at a place that, once again, had a decidedly dino theme and checked my flight.  Well, not exactly my flight, but where my plane was.  All morning I'd been stalking it on FlightAware and all was well and on time.  Then, over my chicken ceasar wrap, I saw the dreaded flight status change to 'delayed.'  Go figure.  I had a bit over an hour to change to my AA flight in Salt Lake, which was plenty, but I couldn't handle more than about a 30 minute delay, and FlightAware was calling it 2 hours!  Nooooooooo.......

Of course, , seeing as how I was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by plaster casted raptors and cleverly named lunch entrees, my call to Boutique Air kept dropping, so I jumped back in the car and hauled to the airport 20 minutes away.  The lone employee at the counter didn't even know about the delay when I told him.  He had to call Denver, and found out it was a minor mechanical that they were working on.  I was skeptical.


However, a few minutes later, lo and behold, the plane was on the runway with a new tail light (yes...seriously, tail light) and would be headed to Moab only a few minutes late.  Travelers, rejoice!  I settled in to do a little work, and then went out front at arrival time to watch my plane land and taxi in. 



I hung out with my fellow flyers waiting to board, and watching the ramp workers re-fuel and check the plane.  My next clue that things were going South was when the mechanic re-fueling shut off the hose, and dropped it on the tarmac.  No...don't you....come on!

The flight crew were hanging around, looking concerned, and talking to the airport staff.  Also not good.  Finally I knew it was all over when a mechanic went into the plane for a bit, talked to the pilot, and then walked away from the aircraft yelling to a friend, "That thing's broke!"

Out here in Canyonlands, they don't exactly mince words.

As finally explained by the lone Boutique Air employee, they had a failure of a critical avionics component, and the plane wouldn't be flying until a part got there from Denver.  At this point I had missed my connection, and AA moved me to the morning flight, but I still needed to get to Salt Lake.  As stated earlier, it's a 4 hour drive.  Not ideal, but doable.

Now, there's a few times in life where you just get down to basic human ingenuity and get over yourself.  This was one of those times.  I looked around at the other passengers who I knew were all out of luck and just asked who still needed to be in Salt Lake tonight.  I'd already checked with my friend at Enterprise and she could give me the car for the drive, but there was a $150 'drop fee' to return it in Salt Lake.  So this meant a $200 bill to drive. 

Of the now stranded strangers, one man who flew Boutique enough to know this happens but still needed to catch a flight the next day to Brisbane said he was in right off.  Another passenger- an older woman who didn't have a connecting flight, but tearfully said she had a doctor's appointment she couldn't miss in Salt Lake, clearly also needed a little help.  So, now that $200 wasn't looking so bad.  I went ahead and got the car back, and in the process the Enterprise staff said that 'somehow' the computer 'wouldn't let her' add the drop fee, and so therefore, we wouldn't be charged.  Awesome! 

So, my new compatriots and I piled back into the same trusty Dodge Charger with whom I'd been through so much over the prior 48 hours, and headed out of CNY and off into the sunset bound for Salt Lake the old fashioned way.  We stopped for gas before going over the mountains, each grabbed a soda and a bag of chips, and I booked the Courtyard by Marriott on the fly in all of about 40 seconds, and we were off again.

And all of this just about brings this full circle.  It was at 9:58 when I finally dragged into the restaurant of the Hilton Garden Inn at SLC, which was my only option since the Courtyard doesn't have a restaurant at all.  It took about 4 hours, including dropping off the (no longer crying) crying woman, and returning the rental car to the Airport. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

I was exhausted, but at least I had a flight home and a place to sleep.  I logged onto Expert Flyer once the dust settled on the day to check out the seat map and possible upgrade on my new flight back to LAX.  One seat left, which a few short hours of sleep later I managed to snag!  I boarded bright and early to find the same cabin crew I'd had on the way out.  The Flight Attendant remembered me from my unicorn flight, and asked me how my trip had been.  I just laughed.  She got the picture.

And the moral of the story is- all's well that starts with adventure, and ends with a seat up front.

Fly Safely,

~CruisingAltitude






 

Monday, November 20, 2017

American's New 777-200 Premuim Economy Class Review


I don't think I've ever been this okay with missing an upgrade to First before.  Given that I'd rolled out of bed at 3:30 in the morning on a Monday in Dallas to head to the airport, return our rental car to National, take the shuttle to Terminal E to use my CLEAR membership even though I was flying out of Terminal D, and make a fast stop at the Admiral's Club to shower before boarding, being 'okay' was even more impressive.

At the airport, I learned I wasn't going to clear the upgrade.  Not only that, I was #17 on the list.  This, after having been 1 or 2 all year long, and clearing around 90% of the time!  I had a chat with the AAgents at the Club, and they weren't surprised at all.  There were at least 25- yes 25 (!!) Executive Platinums on the upgrade list, which by boarding had almost 60 people total.  Well then.  Monday morning DFW-LAX lives up to its reputation once again.  On top of that, being 17th or 1st didn't even matter.  Nobody cleared.

This is all just set up to say that I was fine, especially once I gave Expert Flyer (a beyond useful tool that I'll give more info on soon) a last check before I turned in the night before and saw the seat map had changed at the last minute since AA saw fit to put a newly outfitted long haul 777-200 on the route, complete with their new Premium Economy cabin!  Since I'd been booked into one of the first rows of the old Main Cabin Extra and was an Executive Platinum, I was automatically kept in the new seats! 


Instead of just having a little more leg room, like Main Cabin Extra, Premium Economy is an entirely different class of service.  Economy on this plane is laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration, while Premium Economy is 2-4-2.  Removing those two seats means that the seat size in PE is closer to what you'd expect in domestic first class on a 737 or 321.  There's a larger arm rest/console between seats, increased leg room and recline, and foot-rests, as well as nice big screens for the IFE. 


Seat 13J, Premium Economy
I was seated in 13J, which is the aisle seat of the front row.  This makes it a bulkhead seat, so the legroom is more than you could ever need.  The footrest comes out from under the seat, and folds at the end.  I'll say it's a little short- and I'm 5'4" so when you use it your legs don't really stretch out, but it does let you put your feet up.  In this row, the IFE folds out from the center console, which makes the seats slightly narrower (though it didn't bother me), and means you can't watch the IFE during taxi/takeoff/landing.

Nice sized IFE screen
The IFE screen was great!  It has way better resolution than the screens on the 777-300, even in business class, and the touch feature was responsive and easy to use.  As a side note, you can see the attachments in the bulkhead where bassinets would go if this was an international flight.  Something to either aim for (if you have a baby with you) or avoid if you're worried about the disruption.  More on bassinets over at Baby Flyer Blog.

If this flight was international, there would be enhanced menu and drink options, as well as headsets.  However, they didn't feel the need to pull out the stops for the 3 hour hop to LAX.  Overall, it's a solid product, especially since I didn't have to pay extra for it.


AA Premium Econ Cabin example- Photo Credit Forbes.com

It will be interesting to see what AA does with this product going forward, and if it will eventually serve as a degradation of elite benefits, which would definitely be the case if AA decides to make main cabin upgrades go to PE instead of Business class.  Luckily this hasn't happened yet, but I wouldn't put it past them, especially under the current management. 

For now though, it's a nice surprise to get to use when you stumble upon the right plane at the right time.

~CruisingAltitude

Friday, November 17, 2017

Adventures in Canyonlands Part 1: Clear, Delays, and Unicorns, oh my!

 
Canyonlands Field Airport- CNY- Adorable.
Greetings friends, are you ready to take a little journey with me?  Now, I usually don't make multi-part trip reports out of domestic travel, but this one just made it necessary.  It has everything: Line jumping, delays, cancellations, upgrades, a tiny flight on a tiny plane, and even some free range rental car antics, which is that thing of when you think you're taking a short cut off the I-70, but end up sitting on the hood of your rented Dodge Charger watching cows wade through a pond.

You see why this gets more than one entry now?

So here's the set-up- I had need to be in Green River, Utah for work.  Now, Green River is about an hour north of Moab, and that puts it 25 mins or so away from the Moab (CNY) airport.  It's also about 4 hours South of Salt Lake, give or take.  So, a bit of a drive.  However, I came to learn that there's an airline that operates a couple flights a day from Salt Lake and Moab.  It's an independent airline called Boutique Air that flies 8 seat PC-12s in the 'executive' configuration.  I was intrigued.


The screengrab I kept proudly showing people about my cute little plane I had booked
However interesting, I couldn't justify it unless it actually made more sense, work-wise.  As it turned out, the ticket prices were extremely reasonable, as was the car rental at Moab.  So, the real question was just whether I wanted to spend up to 8 hours driving to and from Green River.  Spoiler alert- I didn't.

So I booked my ticket with AA to Salt Lake, and then another round trip from Salt Lake to Moab with Boutique Air.  I figured this was either the best idea I ever had, or the worst.  As we'll see, it's a little of both. 

For accommodations, I booked the first night at the Holiday Inn Express in town, and the second night I branched out and tried an indepedant place called the "Skyfall Guestrooms."  Skyfall wasn't available for the first night, but it was worth it to make the move to save a little, it was literally across the street.  As a general FYI, everything in Green River could be said to be "just across the street" as it isn't much of a town overall. 

Plans in hand, I set out for the airport bright and early on Monday.  My flight wasn't until 11am, but this is LA, and you have a choice between going painfully early, or just spending the morning on the 405. 

Since the lounge in Terminal 4 is down for updates, I checked in at Terminal 5.  Wow.  Just wow.  It was an absolute zoo.  I'm not exaggerating here- the line for security wrapped down the stairs, across to the other side of the ticketing hall, and down the wall as far as the eye could see.

This is the morning I learned the meaning of CLEARI've posted about this service before, and while it's been 'nice' to have, this was the first time it saved me some serious wait time.  Initially, I didn't know how to even find the CLEAR line, because they wouldn't let me up the stairs to where the kiosks are.  When I asked, I got told "get line and they'll find you." 

Um....

.....What, now?

At this point I was debating walking over to Terminal 4's security to try my luck there when I indeed was 'found' by a CLEAR attendant.  Well not so much found, as I saw him and started a frantic arm flailing and yelping 'clear? clear?' mantra.  In no time flat, I was rescued, and taken right to the front of the pre-check line.  I was through the chaos and into the Club and ordering my custom salmon on toast in 10 minutes or less.


Someone even left a premium drink 'chit' for me.  VERY THOUGHTFUL.

*breathe*

After that, I headed on the bus over to the Gate 52 'Eagle's Next' to catch my flight.  The wonder did not end- I boarded to find I was the only, yes only, elite on the flight.  For the next 2 hours I had 6 first class seats to myself, and when I took a walk to the back to use the restroom, found that all the exit row seats were also empty.  Unicorn.  Absolute unicorn.

This is my face when I know something's too good to be true...and then it isn't and I have 6 seats and a flight attendant to myself.

We touched down on time into Salt Lake, and since there's no lounge there (aside from the Delta SkyClub) I set up shop at a restaurant on the 2nd floor with a great view of the runways and hills behind.  I had a few hours, so I got lunch and did some work. 

Part way through the wait, as I was getting organized to call for the shuttle over to Boutique Air, which they recommend you do about an hour to 30 minutes before your flight time, I got an email from Boutique saying my flight was delayed 50 minutes.  Okay, no big deal, except that the car rental at CNY was going to close on me.  Called them, they amazingly said they'd be waiting since I wasn't the only one.  Called Boutique to check on the reason for the delay- 'rolling delay from earlier issues in Denver.'  Okay, fair enough.


I was here for a long time.  They let me run my computer cord through into the pool room to plug in after awhile.
Let me just fast forward at this point- I didn't actually board the flight until about 10pm.  It was a 6pm departure as scheduled.  More delays, more phone calls, more hours at the SLC restaurant.  This is the issue with 'flying private'- they have exactly one plane available for that flight, and if it's not there, you're not going yet.  Luckily the people were very friendly, and their lounge over at the general aviation side of the airport has very comfortable chairs.



About the flight- unfortunately I couldn't get any good pictures because it was, well, dark by this point.  Here are some things to know- They don't assign seats, so when you board you just pick one.  The 4 in the front are set up in an "executive" configuration, so row 1 faces row 2.  Rows 3 and 4 face forward behind. 


My boarding pass- note the lack of a seat assignment, but they do participate in precheck (though at SLC they're not within a TSA area.

They check your luggage for free, and there's really only room in the passenger area for one small item you're comfortable with on your lap.  They'll weigh your luggage, and ask your weight before boarding for weight and balance purposes.

This plane carries 10 people, including crew.  It is small- you have to lean over to walk to your seat, but the seats themselves are bigger than standard airline seats.

They do have a bathroom, but it was inoperable on my flight.  Go before you board.

That all said, once I actually got onboard, we had a short taxi and then a very smooth flight for a small aircraft.  It was a full moon, and so even though it was dark, it was still a beautiful flight.  These planes fly lower than you're used to flying commercial, so you can see more detail.  There's no separation between the cabin and cockpit, so you can also watch the pilots and the flight controls to see the altitude and such, which is fun if you're an avgeek.

We landed a short 45 minutes later, and waited a few minutes to have our luggage returned.  Here's the long awaited end to the car rental saga- after waiting after hours for far too long, the Enterprise staff amazingly just left everyone's keys in the unlocked rental cars in the parking lot and went home for the night.  Unorthodox, but awesome.  I signed the papers, put them in a drop box, and headed out into the-completely dark, and completely quiet- night, bound for Green River.

Adventure, thy name is Canyonlands. 

Up next- Off-roading by mistake in a Dodge Charger, more adventures with Boutique Air, road trips with perfect strangers, and dinosaurs in a deposition.  Yes, dinosaurs.

~CruisingAlitude