Delay!

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I checked the flight status for my departure tonight at about 11:00 this morning. It has already been delayed by over an hour!

There are two probable causes. The first, and less likely reason is that there are mechanical issues. Midway is one of Southwest’s largest hubs, even though Southwest claims not to have hubs. There shouldn’t be a problem swapping aircraft.

The more probable issue is the weather. Chicago and the Midwest have been having afternoon thunderstorms for the last few days. Southwest may be spreading out departures, preemptively delaying flights to ensure connections are made, and/or the FAA is instituting “flow control,” meaning it is purposely spreading out flights to ensure the safety of the skies in one of the most congested parts of the country.

My biggest fear is that we leave the gate and then sit on the ramp for hours! Or that Southwest un-delays the flights, which they tend to do. I almost missed a flight once because of that! So I have to leave for the airport as if the flight were right on time. I’m charging up all my iDevices for what could be a long journey to San Francisco.

My other fear for today is packing. Though Southwest lets bags fly free, they can’t be over fifty pounds. There is NO WAY I am taking two suitcases. Dragging one on the subway is already a pain.

Wish me luck!

I’m NOT happy!

Leaving on a jet plane!!!!

southweastI’m jetting out of here! My vacation to San Francisco starts this Friday afternoon. I’m heading down to Midway. Despite my living geographically a bit closer to O’Hare, Midway is the easier airport for public transportation purposes. I’ve flown almost exclusively out of Midway in the last year. It is a very efficient airport with good food options. However I’m getting a bit bored with it. I guess I need to get out to O’Hare again.

As you can see, I’ve checked in online with Southwest. I’ve gotten a boarding number A30!  I paid for the Early Bird option. The thing to take into account on Southwest boarding positions is that A1 to A15 are blocked for Business Select tickets, elite frequent flyers or those willing to pay $40.00 at the gate to jump to the front of the line. So that position may be better than it looks.

I’m going to soak in all that aviation goodness! Everything from the Sky Mall catalogue, safety card, condition of the cabin and many more details. My favorite seat is the second exit row window. Not only do I get to watch the scenery, I also can see how all those moving parts of a wing keep me in the air.

We’ll Always have Paris.

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Nobody needs an excuse to go to Paris. This week in particular for aviation geeks.

Paris is host to the biennial Paris Air Show. It’s happening right now! The Paris Air Show is when the manufacturers flog their latest and greatest airliners. Obviously Boeing and Airbus are there in force. The big players in the regional market such as Embraer and Bombardier are there as well. COMAC of China, Sukhoi of Russia – among others that are trying to enter the market or expand into new market segments – will be there as well. If you have anything to sell to the commercial or military aviation markets you must be there. The Paris Air Show can make or break a manufacturer. It is that important.

The airline manufacturers, particularly Airbus, often wait until Paris to make announcements of major orders. New aircraft types or updates to lines are announced as well, as the entire aviation world is watching. There’s no better place to make a big splash than at the Paris Air Show.

The first half is an industry-only trade show.  Airline CEOs and manufacturer sales teams wheel and deal orders that can run well into the billion-dollar price range.

The second half of the Paris Air Show is open to the public. You can get up close and personal with aircraft that are on display. Of course aircraft such as the A380 or 787 Dreamliner will be there. The smaller vendors that may not break into the international market in great numbers will have their products on display as well. Seeing their planes can be a once in a lifetime experience. Along with the static displays, there are also aircraft flight demonstrations. You need to make sure you have spare batteries and memory cards for this experience!

Aviation history is made in Paris. We aviation geeks get to experience it first hand.

Geeking out at the street fair!

One of the many reasons why I love living in my Sweet Home Chicago is street fair season. We have one virtually every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day. We Chicagoans need to get out and celebrate our often ridiculously hot and steamy summers because we know that our mostly ridiculously cold and freezing winters are going to arrive before we know it.

So my friend Michael and I headed to the Andersonville Midsommarfest. It takes place every year in the old Swedish neighborhood. Along with Swedes, the LGBTQ community is well represented here these days. It’s a great way to start the summer. Lots of alcohol and the eye candy isn’t bad either!

So how does it equal aviation geek? Two ways. Andersonville is known for it’s many stores that specialize in home decor. Just how many overpriced tchotchkes does one person need, you ask? Well, you never know where the next moment of geek might come from so you have to keep an open mind. We stopped in front of the Slaymaker gallery. They had the coolest art prints! I was advised by the staff that they have over 38 different pieces from airports around the world! Must. Have. One! Three little problems: They were closing for the day, I have zero space left on my walls, and I don’t have the money to spare. In other words, nothing I can’t solve. And I will.IMG_1760

The second moment of geek came at the street fair itself. I spied a gentleman with the most unlikely t-shirt. When I asked him if I could take a picture, we started chatting of course. His friends said something to the effect that I shouldn’t get him started because  he may never shut up. A fellow aviation geek!!! The t-shirt wasn’t just an urban hipster’s ironic statement as I had feared. I let him know that his shirt would end up on my blog. He was totally cool with that. Seems we’re everywhere!
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I’m not the only one!

Seems my last post was on a topic lots of people have opinions about. As luck would have it, CNN posted an article written by Katia Hetter with input by architect Paul Goldberger, who obviously has an expert view on the subject. I called airports cathedrals and the CNN article compared them to the great train stations.

(Non)disclosure: I did not see the CNN article until after I posted. All similarities are strictly coincidental. “Great minds”… you know…

 

Airports: The New Cathedral

Many people have posited that airports today are what the cathedrals were to medieval Europe. These cathedrals were so much more than places of worship. They were also a way for towns to showcase engineering and artistic skills, along with the wealth of the patrons. Each cathedral had to be the tallest, most beautiful and awe-inspiring one ever built to that day. It was a proud statement by the people that built it.

A modern international airport is often built and measured using virtually the same criteria.

One of the best examples of such an aviation cathedral is Washington Dulles. It was one of the first airports built specifically for the jet age. Importantly, the original terminal still stands as built. It has not been obscured or modified beyond recognition as often happens when airports get expanded over time. It has been expanded, however, and in the process become considerably less passenger friendly.

The sweeping roof soars as if floating above massive walls of glass. It celebrates the excitement of the new jet age. It is considered a masterpiece of the world famous architect Eero Saarinen. Dulles is so iconic that many of the design features have served as an inspiration to or have been blatantly copied by less inventive architects. A great world capital deserves a magnificent aviation cathedral and Dulles is it.

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Another great example of a newer aviation cathedral is the Seoul Incheon airport. It ranks as one of the top airports in the world. The architecture is impressive due to its huge scale and modern, airy and highly efficient layout. Incheon is a leading innovator of the concept that the airport is more than simply an efficient way to board a flight or make a connection while hitting the duty free shop. The airport, with its architecture and many unique amenities, is a destination in its own right. Incheon gives the impression of wanting to prove that South Korea has become a modern, innovative world-class country.

Medieval cathedrals often took many decades to build, and sometimes the huge stone structures would collapse mid way. Massive cutting-edge construction is challenging regardless of the era. Berlin Brandenburg airport is a modern-day example of this kind of disaster. The airport was meant to be the calling card of a dynamic, unified Germany. It was to be ultra modern and efficient for both airlines as well as passengers, and the most environmentally friendly airport ever built. In other words, very German. This is not the case. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is currently running at least three years late and billions of euros over budget, and there have been massive engineering and construction errors. This ineptitude has led to major political scandals and is a source of great embarrassment to the German government.

Airport cathedrals are getting more competitive. Emerging economies, particularly the Middle East and China, are building like crazy even if they are not yet economically viable. For better or worse, they are racing to make a statement with their aviation cathedrals: They have arrived.

Something Special to Europe

This is a brief follow-up to my last post.

In retrospect I didn’t share just how proud I was of American Airlines and my job with them. We didn’t consider United or Delta our competitors. Our competitors were the European airlines. That’s the reason my department was created at O’Hare. We were to be the best trained and elite agents at O’Hare. We had to be multilingual. We were to be the face of a truly world class airline. Most of the time we were.

American dismantled the European hub at O’Hare slowly after I left. 9/11 killed it completely. When American dropped Flight 84 to Frankfurt It was a sad day for me. I was assigned that flight almost every day.

I linked the commercials below as they are from my time with American Airlines. They capture the zeitgeist of what we were trying to create at O’Hare. These are Chicago specific and focus primarily on Europe. The first commercial describes it best.

The staff in the commercials are actual American Airlines staff.

American Airlines, I didn’t care…

Name TagIt’s obvious that my case of airline geek is to the bone. I did have the chance to actually get paid for my geekiness when I worked for American Airlines at O’Hare. I was an international customer service agent. In most ways it was the best job ever for me. Think of it as when a boy plays with toy fire trucks and studies fire fighting incessantly and then achieves his boyhood dream of being a fireman. It was the same for me except I played with planes.

Not long after I was hired I was driving through the employee parking lot one evening as the road dipped low in a curve around a hanger area. The wing of what was then the brand new state of the art MD-11 thrusted over the access road. I thought that was so cool! I had just driven around – and partially under – that shiny new American Airlines Flagship. I thought even if this job doesn’t last because of the unsettled Middle East and the crappy economy, at least I got the experience of working for and having unfettered access to the aircraft and industry that has held such a strong fascination for me my entire life. For that one split second I was truly content with my work life. That one happy moment had more insight into my tenure with American Airlines than I realized at the time. I didn’t care about anything else. I loved my job.

To put it bluntly, American Airlines between ’91 and ‘94 treated its employees like shit. Yes, the benefits were very generous but the work environment felt really toxic as most low- and mid-level staff felt the DFW senior management was arrogant and combative with us lowly, easily replaceable staff on the ground. I didn’t care. I loved my job. I went to work happy every day. Most of my coworkers felt the same way. Robert Crandall and his minions were evil. I had to argue with the company about so many things, such as my seniority upon being rehired after my first layoff and whether my uniform allowance covered the trench coat for working on the ramp. I didn’t care. I loved my job.

I got yelled at regularly often in foreign languages. Most people I was able to help. Some were simply unrepentant idiots. There is always one in every plane and just as often a celebrity or minor European royal. Speaking of foreign languages, I spoke German and French every day and often more than I spoke English. I loved it every day even when a German passenger busted me for using a very harsh dialect version of a word. Without realizing it, I was speaking like an uneducated German version of a hillbilly. “Gutten Morgen Y’all!” I didn’t care. I loved my job. My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds. I could sugar coat bad news like a politician or even sweet talk the immigrations agent out of deporting you.

I got to play with real honest to goodness aircraft! I got a strange thrill when I opened that door knowing the last person to touch it was on the other side of the planet. I liked driving the jet bridges. Geeky thrills. It made my day most every day. Airplane geek highlights were when Aeroflot or one of the other rare or exotic airlines and aircraft types were in town. I got to go on board and closely examine with my fellow airplane geek coworkers these unusual birds. Often we got glowing guided tours by the cockpit or cabin staff. Of course most of my time at the airport beyond these occasional highlights could be stressful or tedious. I didn’t care. I loved my job.

I was at first only guaranteed 20 hours a week for $7.50 an hour with up to a 50 cent per hour differential based on just how crappy the hours of your shift were. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Bad hours were better paying ones. There was almost always somebody wanting to give up or trade a shift, and when times got lean a good blizzard or July thunderstorm was just the opportunity for overtime that the bill collector demanded. Your weather-delayed or cancelled flight meant more money in my pocket.

I took it for granted that every part time worker got comprehensive insurance and retirement benefits. We were told that if the on-board flight crew are legally forbidden from flying a 40-hour week and yet they have full benefits, us poor part-time non-union  ground employees should have similar benefits as well. This was incredibly unusual even back then. American Airlines provided those benefits to my work group knowing that they were cheaper in the long term than having the only non-union work group organizing, potentiality going on strike or honoring a picket line. It was coldly calculated. It worked. Repeated attempts to unionize never took hold. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Comprehensive affordable healthcare before I even had the seniority to hold a full-time bid made my love and drive for my job all the stronger.

I had a winged limousine. Lunch in Midtown Manhattan with my sister and back home that evening? Regularly. Going with co-workers to Washington DC to see the Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was a way to spend a pleasant day off of work. Rearranging shifts with coworkers was a barter system that if worked right you could cram as many hours in before and after a stretch of days off for a weekend or a week in Europe or the Caribbean. Back then the planes had many more open seats than now. Jumping on a flight was easy. I was fully aware of how lucky I was. The running joke was that sure, we could fly there but never afford the cab into the city we were visiting. My immediate family was pretty impressed too when they flew on my passes, often in first class. This is what most non-airline employees think is the best part of working in the industry. It obviously is a huge part of the airline employee lifestyle.

Working holidays and weekends? I didn’t care. I loved my job. I was in my twenties just out of college. I hadn’t learned to be nervous about bills as they were never truly caught up to this point in my young adult life. Skating on the edge of poverty was the normal way of the world. The bills got paid somehow or pushed to the next check. That’s what you do at that age. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Even when I fell into relatively high credit card debt, the American Airlines Employee Credit Union helped and consolidated all my cards to one loan payment that was taken directly from my paycheck. They kept a chunk of change and it hurt but I didn’t care. I loved my job.

Why am I not still there? I see coworkers from my tenure with American still working the gates twenty years later. At one point I wondered if I would work front line at O’Hare my entire career.  In the airline industry you live and die by seniority. After the third layoff I felt like I had battered-spouse syndrome. American beat me but I didn’t care. I loved my job. I put on the poly-wool-blend uniform yet again and headed for gate K19 relieved I got called back. The regular January layoff was nerve wrecking. I was always certain I’d be called back and actually they always did. I still didn’t care but each layoff had its effect. Even then I loved my job. I also was completely cognizant that in the airline industry all front line employees deal with this brutal seniority system. With time to crawl slowly up the seniority list and a little luck they may be able to get the bids they desire or even transition off of the front lines. I was aware that this system was what I must deal with if I wanted to keep the job I loved.

After that third layoff something seriously changed for me. I started to care. I started to care about a stable regular paycheck and just once having Christmas Eve off again. I started to care about how my employer treated me from the corporate HQ. I started to care about constant abuse from passengers despite my really trying to sincerely help them in situations neither they nor I had any control over. The layoffs, sometimes horrific verbal abuse and being a non-union worker during a massive flight attendant strike took a huge toll on me.

I was working for a travel agency when I got the last recall from American Airlines. I asked for twenty-four hours to respond. The next day I declined the recall and essentially voluntarily gave up the job I loved. I knew I probably was never going to work in that environment again. I knew I wouldn’t submit to the low pay and zero seniority of a front line airline new hire position again. I had to care for myself and the people I was responsible for. I had to care for more important things than simply the job I loved. The decision at that time seamed logically the right decision and it probably was.

I am grateful for the insane existence that American Airlines offered me. You want to learn great emergency customer service? Tell 215 Germans the flight to Munich is going to be delayed by at least an hour. I usually tried to duck behind the counter. I learned to be nimble on my feet and adjust my customer service style based on the nationality or destination of the passenger. American Airlines taught me all those thousands of three-letter airport codes, and much more importantly, the Sabre computer system which helped me get my first travel agent gigs and into my career path.

I took so away so much that was positive from a very mixed bag of a job. The biggest problem with working for American Airlines for those three years? That’s easy. Every other job since then has felt like a bit of a letdown. I try not to care about that. I loved my job.