The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Metra: Party like it's 1979

Metra, which runs Chicago's heavy-rail commuter lines, hasn't changed much at all since the 1970s, as today's Chicago Tribune describes in sad detail:

Metra runs on paper, as in paper tickets. Although the majority of riders use monthly passes, passengers in January still bought more than 666,000 one-way tickets or used 10-ride tickets, which conductors have to punch individually.

... Other open rail systems have done away with punching and checking individual tickets. For example, conductors on Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority check tickets with hand-held electronic devices. ... On Caltrain, a commuter rail line operating between San Francisco and San Jose, passengers buy tickets from vending machines and conductors make random checks. Anyone without a ticket faces a $250 fine.

[And] it's cash or checks only on Metra. The line doesn't take plastic because of the processing fees that credit-card companies impose, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

The article also mentions a lack of information about train whereabouts that even our CTA buses provide.

I think the article makes Metra sound better than it really is, simply by comparing it only to its American analogues. The authors ignore, presumably out of pity for Metra, the Shanghai Maglev at one extreme, or even more typical European rail systems like Berlin's S-Bahn and the UK's Oyster Card scheme as examples of how to modernize at the very least how people pay for transit.

All right, maybe Transport for London isn't the best example. Still, when Boston has free Wi-Fi and we can't even pay with credit cards, something is wrong. At least TfL has a dedicated express train running from Heathrow to central London (on which you can use your Oyster Card), and we have...the Blue Line. Sad, really.

Only a week late

I've finally gotten around to producing a .kml file from my last flight, on the 14th. I flew Chicago Executive to Waukesha, Wis., thence Milwaukee (where I made two A320s wait for me, but not on purpose), thence Waukegan, Ill., which is the #1 practice-landing destination in the North Suburbs, as far as I can tell.

Good flight, about 2.2 hours total, all logged as cross-country. I haven't seen the bill yet, but the fuel surcharge dropped from $3.20 an hour to 30c, so right there I'm saving...two cups of coffee.

Obligatory airplane-on-little-airport-tarmac photo:

I should explain that it took a week to get this photo onto this blog because I left my camera in the airplane, and only this afternoon had time to go fetch it. That means I was more concerned with safety than, you know, cameras. Right.

Abnerdism

So I'm watching the opening moments of Lost, and my immediate thought is: That little 737-400 can't fly the way from Hawaii to Guam, it's only certified for ETOPS 120! And even if it were, it's only got a range of about 3500 miles at zero weight, and Hurley's on board....

Then my small intestine reaches up to strangle me, and I come to my senses, and think: Ooh, Eve Lilly....

All this proves that once a nerd, always a nerd, in so many ways.

Alternative to renting a car at the airport

All right, this is cool. Instead of worrying about how to get home from the airport, why not just take your car with you?

The Terrafugia Transition, the "roadable aircraft" that's attracted considerable attention at aviation shows in the last year, flew for the first time on March 5, and its makers say they've changed aviation as a result. "This breakthrough changes the world of personal mobility. Travel now becomes a hassle-free integrated land-air experience. It's what aviation enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918," said Carl Dietrich, CEO of Terrafugia. While most "flying car" concepts to date have incorporated detachable or trailerable wings, the Transition has electromechanical folding wings that convert the vehicle in 30 seconds. The company says production models will meet Light Sport specifications and be street legal.

It's important to note that "Light Sport" classification. If the pilot only has a light sport certificate, he or shee will be limited to daytime, VFR flying (though private or higher certificates with IFR endorsements are possible). And light sport aircraft are limited to 120 kts, though as a Cessna 172 pilot I have to say that's not a huge limitation.

Anyway, my first reaction to seeing this was: where can I get one?

Looking for the youtube link

The FAA has pulled a San Diego commercial pilot's certificate for the third time because of what we may charitably call "willful passenger interference:"

The video shows David Keith Martz, a professional pilot with a history of FAA violations, at the controls of his chopper over San Diego while fondling a porn actress, who then performs a sex act on him while he's flying.

The video, shot in 2007, first appeared Feb. 3 on the entertainment website TMZ.com and has gone viral since.

Along with the video, TMZ reported that someone had sent the FAA an e-mail about the episode, including photos of Martz fondling the porn actress – who goes by the name Puma Swede – in flight.

Um. Well. Speaking as a private pilot, I can say that sort of thing doesn't happen in my experience. Maybe I should start flying helicopters.

As to what violation he committed—the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) don't seem to address this particular set of circumstances, after all—"the FAA claims [the video] shows the pilot was blocked from the helicopter's controls by the woman's body" which, I think we have to say, is covered by FAR 91.13, "Careless or Reckless Operation." The moral is, of course, take care not to endanger the life or property of another while operating an aircraft with Puma Swede in the cockpit.

American Airlines partner oddities

I fly frequently, more often as a "revpax" (revenue passenger) than as pilot. And I've mentioned before, given the two full-service options in Chicago (American and United), I long ago chose American as my preferred carrier. I have, in fact, been a member of their frequent-flyer program since 1988.

American is one of the two lynchpins of the oneworld alliance (typography and letter casing theirs), the other being British Airways. Only, they seem to hate each other's customers.

Exhibit: neither's customers can use or earn miles on the other's trans-Atlantic routes. Chicago to London? No choice, if you want your 3,953 elite-qualifying miles each way. Because miles are reedemable for travel and upgrades at up to 2c per (e.g., 25,000 miles for a round-trip domestic ticket that would otherwise cost $500), and elite miles are particularly valuable, BA's fare needs to be almost $100 less, all things equal, to make it worthwhile to fly the other airline.

OK, so I get that there are regulatory issues and other things they're taking into account. But I can hop a Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo and earn the same number of miles I can earn on a competing AA flight. So what gives?

It's even more peculiar when you start flying on BA flights on "domestic" European routes. Now it starts to annoy me.

Later this spring I'm flying to a European city to which the only reasonable connection is through Heathrow, and because it's a discount ticket, I'm only earning 25% of the miles flown for the trip. I could, of course, upgrade to a full-fare economy ticket for, oh, £200; but that's really not cost-effective, now, is it? I only discovered this by reading the fine print yesterday.

My conclusion will have to be, avoid BA flights when an alternative routing exists on another oneworld carrier. For example, to the place I'm going this spring, I could have flown American to another major European city and flown on Malév, Finnair, or Iberia, and gotten 100% mileage credit—and more miles to boot, because the routing is farther.

So again, why does British Airways not want American Airlines customers? Or is it American that doesn't want me flying BA?

Ryanair: The Dick's Last Resort of airlines

Economist business-travel blogger Gulliver reports on British airline Ryanair's customer-service standards:

Jason Roe is an Irish blogger who noticed what he thought was a bug on Ryanair's website. The price of the flights he was trying to book changed when he accidentally went into the voucher section. Thinking he had found a way to beat the budget airline's credit-card fee, he duly blogged about it—and in so doing unleashed hell. The tenth commenter on his blog was "Ryanair Staff #1"...

As Travolution, another blog, noted, "We have seen the IP addresses of the commenters and they all trace back to Ryanair HQ". It seems Ryanair's employees are referring to a blogger, on his blog and in their company's name, as an idiot, a liar and a man with a "pathetic life".

Travolution followed the matter up with Ryanair and got this confirmation from a spokesman:

"Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion.

"It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won't be happening again.

"Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel."

Ryanair's CEO then went on to suggest adding pay-to-go coin boxes on his airplanes' lavatory doors.

I'll just keep flying oneworld carriers, thanks.

Update: Lots more over at Travolution.

Fresh air at the Justice Department

Two (probably related) items via Talking Points Memo: a reversal in a San Francisco death-penalty case, and a release of nine Bush Administration memoranda.

In the first case, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey had overruled the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco and pressed for the death penalty in a murder case. New AG Eric Holder has reversed the DOJ's position:

The Down Below prosecution has been a searing episode for the local U.S. attorney's office. The original prosecutor on the case, Richard Cutler, opposed seeking the death penalty against [defendant Emile] Fort and co-defendant Edgar Diaz. After the Justice Department took the opposite stance, the administration sent an investigator to San Francisco to question Cutler about the case. Cutler left the office soon thereafter.

... Fort's new deal will be much the same as the one Mukasey rejected....

The DOJ's document release sheds some light on the last eight years. Not much light, but it's an improvement over total darkness. Titles include:

  • Memorandum Regarding Constitutionality of Amending Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to Change the "Purpose" Standard for Searches (09-25-2001)
  • Memorandum Regarding Determination of Enemy Belligerency and Military Detention (06-08-2002)
  • Memorandum Regarding Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities within the United States (10-23-2001)

That last one, by John Yoo, should scare anyone who's ever read Orwell or Huxley.

Who else is glad we have a new President?

Please, I beg you, not here

British airline Ryanair has a pilot program allowing cell phones in flight. One hopes, if this comes to the U.S., for special "quiet" areas:

Within six months 50 planes will be kitted out. If it proves popular, the service will be rolled out across the whole 170-strong fleet.

Passengers will be able to make and receive calls for €2-3 ($2.50-3.80) per minute, send and receive text messages (50c plus) and use e-mail (€1-2).

... To be fair to Ryanair, it does not claim to be anything other than a noisy shop in the sky. So a new noisy service that earns money is in keeping with its ethos. As Mr O'Leary said: “You don't take a flight to contemplate your life in silence. Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things."

You may not like Mr O'Leary's approach, or his plane's interiors, but it's hard not to admire his honesty.

Combine cell phones with the unexpected silence inside the new Airbus A380, and it's only a matter of time before someone gets his cell phone stuffed in an awkward place by his fellow passengers.