Sky Harbor, What were you thinking?

I fly to Phoenix Sky Harbor airport regularly as my employer has a large operation in the area and my mother, as well as several old friends live in Phoenix. Sky Harbor airport is not a great cathedral of aviation.

Like all airports, Sky Harbor is constantly under construction. The master plan calls for terminals two and three to be completely rebuilt, which will include the eventual closure of the original terminal two. It can’t happen soon enough. Terminals two and three are old, ugly, inefficient and have almost no food and beverage options beyond the too-small security checkpoints. The main issue is who and how it will be paid for.

Currently, Sky Harbor is in the multi-phased construction of the Sky Train system. This automated people mover will eventually connect all the terminals to the remote parking lots, the rental car center, and the Phoenix METRO light rail system.

Part of the design I can’t wait to experience is to have the Sky Train tracks travel via a bridge over an active taxiway to get to the terminals. It is an audacious piece of architecture that will provide geeky thrills if you are lucky enough to be on the bridge as an aircraft taxies underneath.

Here’s the problem. According to Wikipedia, the bridge is tall enough to let a Boeing 747 pass under the bridge but not an Airbus A380. The odds of sending an A380 or a 747 to Phoenix are slim right now. The local market can’t sustain it. The largest aircraft that currently makes sense for Phoenix is the Boeing 777-300. It has almost as much capacity as a 747 but is considerably more fuel-efficient. The new Boeing 787 and upcoming Airbus A350 are also logical choices, as they were developed with the idea of connecting smaller markets such as Phoenix to long-haul international destinations.

But who knows what the future will bring? The population of Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County is growing at a very quick pace. USAirways will soon be American Airlines. American works very closely with British Airways through the Oneworld global alliance. American Airlines will inherit a very large hub in Phoenix through the merger. Hubs are meant to create critical mass by connecting many more passengers than the local market could ever support. This is already the case in Phoenix. There is a possibility, however slight, that that BA could potentially send an A380 to Phoenix with many passengers that will connect beyond Phoenix with American Airlines. British Airways is in the process of taking delivery of a fleet of shiny new Airbus A380s.

So the question is why this situation with a brand new infrastructure? It could have been that from an engineering standpoint it was not possible to make the bridge high enough. Did the budget for the Sky Train make it impossible? Were the planners overlooking this detail or did they decide that the odds of an A380 visiting Phoenix are too small?

This does not necessarily mean the A380 can’t fly to Phoenix. It will probably have to take a longer taxi to its gate – that is, assuming the airport is willing to upgrade gates to handle the 500 plus passengers and their luggage.

Regardless of the reasons, I really think the powers that be at Phoenix blundered a bit here. Which doesn’t mean I’m not really excited about the potentiality of riding the Sky Train on my next trip to Phoenix.

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Way to go Phoenix Sky Harbor!

“It’s the same dog food in coach or first class. In first class it just looks nicer.” – An honest airline employee.

So you’re wedged into a tiny space traveling just below the speed of sound and miles above the ground in air that is too thin to breathe. The fact that anybody would expect a meal here sounds preposterous. Yet airlines started feeding passengers since the early days of air travel. We once expected to be fed on even the shortest of flights, and meals in the stratosphere can range from extravagant to inedible. Mostly, these days it’s more like…

Meals, what meals? Nobody serves them anymore or they make you pay. If you get a second bag of peanuts you’ve scored! Airline meals still exist and are usually part of the ticket on transoceanic flights. However the flights that don’t have meal service or have the buy-on-board options are getting longer and longer.

Once upon a time even domestic airlines competed on good catering, even in coach. Midwest Express and Kiwi Airlines were the most recent examples. Both are long dead. The great catering didn’t get more people on board because the only thing most short- and medium-haul passengers care about is spending as little money as possible. And to the airline, cost per passenger trumps everything. Saving a few cents multiplied by the thousands of meals a large carrier might have to provide every day can lead to huge cost savings.

Now, when you do get food, whether or not you actually want to eat what is put on the tray before you is another question altogether. Beyond the logistics issues, meals must be palatable to passengers from around the world, which explains why they are often so bland. IMG_1656

In the business- or first-class cabins you get many more options and the food starts tasting and looking like something you might want to eat. Here the airlines do compete with each other. There usually is a constant flow of liquor and snacks, but even in these cabins airlines are being forced to cut back.

Over the years I’ve had dreadful meals. Others have been comparable to fine dining. It’s pretty much a hit or miss proposition. I learned to love caviar when I worked for American. The most satisfying meals I’ve had were on long-haul flights to Europe or Asia, the best example being on Korean Airlines when I flew to Seoul. After two weeks of eating local cuisine, my German craving for protein kicked in big time so I ordered the filet. The attendant asked me how I would like my filet cooked. I requested medium-rare. To my utter shock and delight, my main course came with a perfectly cooked medium-rare filet. How they managed to do that in a warming oven I’ll never know. All these many years later, I still consider this my favorite meal. I’ve had transatlantic first-class meals that didn’t wow me as much as this business-class meal.

Unfortunately I’ve had some awful ones as well. I was flying USAirways from Frankfurt to Philadelphia in coach once. Unlike my flight on Korean, I wanted something a bit lighter after spending the previous 10 days in the land of wurst and schnitzel. I requested the vegetarian pasta course. What was the salad that came with it? A green pasta salad! Somebody at the USAirways Frankfurt catering company obviously wasn’t thinking. At that point, a bag of pretzels from Southwest would have been much, MUCH better!

So yes, it can be dog-food awful, nonexistent, or sublime. It’s all a crap shoot based on where, when, and what cabin you are in. Bon Appetite!

For examples of the best and worst food in the air, take a look at airlinemeals.net.
One of the best airline industry bloggers bar none is Brett Snyder of The Cranky Flyer. Brett has a reviews of many airline meals.

The death of the check-in counter

San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport

As a kid, and as an adult aviation geek, I loved roaming the departure areas of the airport. The check-in counters always held the promise of adventures to exotic, far-flung locations. Each logo had a story to tell. It was a symbol of a fantasy wish to escape my humdrum life.

Today that is changing in two ways. Several large international airports have moved to a shared-facility model. The monitor above the check-in desk advises what airline is checking in. Right now it could be Thai to Bangkok. An hour later it will be USAirways to Charlotte. Nothing is permanent. In many airports, the staff isn’t employed by the airline but by the airport authority or a ground handling company on a contractual basis. In some cases, the common-use check-in desks or even entire terminals are branded by airline alliances such as Star Alliance, etc.; the airline actually checking in passengers is secondary. Today most airlines market their alliance memberships almost as much as themselves.

The second change is found in almost all domestic US airports. Merger mania has left us with four major airlines – Delta, United, Southwest, and soon a newly merged USAirways and American Airlines – plus a few niche players. The ones that are left are doing more with less real estate. If the airport doesn’t have hub or focus-city status, there are probably acres of empty counter space.

Some airports still can fascinate, however. O’Hare’s international terminal five still has dedicated counter space for its tenants. Sometimes they are shared and crammed with multiple airline branding. It works if one airline has a morning rotation and the other airline is an evening visitor. Often times the airline might not even be a daily visitor. Yet regardless of who is currently using the terminal, every airline’s logo stays on display.

O’Hare really needs an expanded international terminal, but I fear the new facility, if built during my lifetime, will opt for efficiency. I doubt it will retain its old-fashioned charm.