The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Back at O'Hare

I had planned a quick getaway to New York this weekend, one involving a single carry-on, dropping Parker off this morning and picking him up tomorrow afternoon, and putting my new camera through a live-fire exercise in Manhattan.

Then, Thursday evening, I found out I'll spend the next two weeks in southwestern Connecticut. So now I have a checked bag and Parker has almost a week of boarding ahead of him. The client wants us onsite Monday at 8am through 2pm Friday, which few clients ever ask for. This reflects the short duration of the project and the client's level of security (they're a financial firm), the latter characteristic meaning I'll have no email, mobile phone, or (gasp!) Facebook access during the business day. The silver lining from that is we won't be allowed to work on the project after business hours.

So it looks like I'll get to spend more time in my third-favorite[1] city in the world. I'll also get to see a couple more friends, assuming I can get off the client site early enough to have dinner in the city some day this coming week.

Now if the plane taking me to New York weren't delayed for an hour getting out of New Orleans this morning, I might get there sooner...

[1] Chicago and London have the top two spots; New York and San Francisco are tied for third.

The Blizzard of 2011: Economic impacts

The storm this week forced 20,000 flight cancellations costing $120-150 million:

American Airlines, the country’s third-largest carrier, took the biggest hit after high winds and ice closed its Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport hub Tuesday.

American, along with American Eagle and its other commuter operations, racked up more than 5,300 cancellations for the week, according to FlightAware, which tracks airline performance.

Assuming that 10 percent to 30 percent of stranded customers choose to not reschedule, the cancellations likely reduced first-quarter net income of parent company AMR Corp. by $41.5 million to $51.3 million, or 12.5 cents to 15 cents a share, said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst at AirlineForecasts.

None of the airlines the article discussed commented on the figures.

Elementary travel arithmetic

Here's a brain-teaser: take one part Heathrow, one part Iberia Airlines, and a sixty-five minute connection at Madrid Barajas. I'll give you a moment to work your sums.

If you got "no, really, a 2-hour connection," you're correct!

Instead of walking at a normal pace between two gates (that, it turns out, are 600 m apart) inside one terminal to make a fairly routine domestic connection, I walked at a normal pace off my flight from Heathrow right to the nearest Iberia service desk. We all shrugged. "Es Londres, es normal" we had to agree. Up to the lounge[1] I go, to check my email and write a blog entry.

Ah, but, this is no ordinary Western European capital airport. This is Madríd. The lounge has delicious Spanish wines, fresh olives, tasty sausages and cheeses, and no freaking WiFi. The conversation at check-in went something like this:

— ¿Como se puede conectar por el WiFi?

— Ah, desculpe, no tenemos el WiFi; es de pago.

— ¿Verdad? ¿De pago? No free WiFi?

— Sí, ¿es curioso, no?

— Sí, es curioso. Gracias.

So, here I sit, snacking on olives, brie, toast, sausages, a fruity Ribera del Duero number ("Condado de Haza Crianza, 2007: La Recomendación del Sumiller"), and probably in a moment those dates I see over there, composing a blog entry in flipping Notepad.

But let me review, just to keep things in perspective. Yesterday morning I woke up to a healthy snowfall in Chicago and tonight I'm going to bed in Lisbon, having spent the better part of the day in London. The total cost of this trip will come in somewhere around one month of housing (just housing, not groceries or electricity or anything else). And unlike the situation that existed even in my lifetime, getting a visa to anywhere in Western Europe requires presenting my passport to the bored guy at the arrival gate and getting a stamp.

Late update, in Lisbon: It seems the free Internet we take for granted in the U.S. and Northern Europe does not extend to Southern Europe. My hotel has free WiFi—in the bar and lobby. In the room it costs €22 per day.

[1] As a happy consequence of (or sorry consolation prize for) flying all those miles last year, I get access to all oneworld business-class lounges worldwide. I would like to note again, just because it really annoys me at the moment, that a principal benefit of every other business-class lounge that I've ever visited is free bloody WiFi. Dear Spain: ¿WTF?

Home for a day

Parker got to come home from boarding today even though he's going right back there tonight, a canine prisoner furlough for good behavior. Immediately upon returning home he sat in the kitchen and whined as I parceled out his food for his next prison sentence. Poor dude.

The Duke Dividend, a result of not having 20 hours of schoolwork every week, has started to pay off in books. I'm halfway through Ender's Game, after blasting through The Hunger Games trilogy in three days and re-reading Howl again—a new copy I picked up Saturday at City Lights, which I thought appropriate.

One embarrassed pilot, 255 annoyed passengers

Oops:

The cause of the communications equipment problem that caused a United Airlines flight out of O'Hare International Airport to make an unscheduled stop in Toronto this week was the pilot's spilled cup of coffee, Canadian officials said.

The flight to Frankfurt, Germany was diverted after the pilot dumped a cup of coffee on the plane's communication's equipment. The unwanted liquid triggered a series of emergency codes, including one for a hijacking, according to Transport Canada, the agency that regulates transportation in Canada.

News reports today have mentioned "communications equipment," but it should be clear that they meant the airplane's transponder. Every airplane flying on an instrument flight plan (which includes every airplane flying above 5,500 m) broadcasts its altitude along with a discrete base-7 code number. The numbers from 7000 to 7777 are reserved for emergencies. So in the pilot's defense, I have to ask why the transponder started sending out 7000-series codes when it got wet. You'd think it would just shut off? And can you imagine the scene at the local TRACON when "United 940 Heavy" started rapidly changing its call sign? What would that look like on the scope?

By the way, the important 7000 codes (7500, 7600, 7700) cause TRACON scopes to go nuts. That would have been exciting to watch, I'm sure.

Always look on the bright side of airports

The Economist's Anthony Gardner didn't mind getting stranded:

Sure, there were dark moments. The first came with the news that our delayed flight from Cairo to Heathrow was being diverted to Brussels; the second, when we learnt that all the airport hotels were full. But thereafter things began to look up. Though it was after midnight by the time Egyptair despatched us to the Hotel Le Plaza in the city centre, its elegant lobby told us that we had landed firmly on our feet.

Brussels—a city I had never previously had a chance to explore—looked magical through a veil of snowflakes. The scene at the Grande Place could not have been more Christmassy: a large, brightly-lit tree; a life-size crib with real sheep; stalls selling Glühwein and waffles. As we feasted on moules et frites in a cosy restaurant with an open fire, our ordeal felt like a holiday at someone else’s expense.

In fairness, one should note that Brussels' city center and Newark's airport have different, ah, characteristics. A year ago I had a 13-hour delay at Heathrow—but I also had an Oyster Card. Never mind my winter coat was in checked baggage; I popped out of the Tube at Piccadilly, bought a warm-enough jacket for £20, and spent the day wandering London.

This demonstrates a problem with most American airports: they aren't near anything. We joke about Newark, but at least from there you can catch a commuter train straight to Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. If you're stuck at LaGuardia or Kennedy, you're really stuck, unless you're happy taking a bus for an hour or taking the A train through some "colorful" parts of New York.

Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and to some extent Philadelphia have relatively easy access from the airport to the interesting parts. Stuck at Mid-Continent International? Maybe you find yourself at Hartsfield for a few hours? Enjoy. At least you're not in Denver International, an hour away from the city by car, without any reasonable transit options.

So, sure, Mr Gardner had a delightful time stranded in Brussels. Who wouldn't, in his circumstances? I only hope that my friends who can't get home today and can't leave the airport either manage to stay sane.

I'm worried about...

Gulliver follows up on the 'sno-good situation at Heathrow:

Gatwick used to be owned by BAA, like Heathrow. But under its new owners, Global Infrastructure Partners, it has coped better than its London rival and is now fully operational. Part of the problem at Heathrow, of course, is that it operates at up to 98% capacity so small problems can have massive knock-on effects. But even so, the differences between snow-fighting provisions at Heathrow and Gatwick are notable, as the BBC has reported:

Earlier this year, BAA published an investment programme of £5.1bn for Heathrow over five years, of which £500,000 was invested in snow and ice-fighting technology this year, with another £3m planned for the next four years. By comparison, reports suggest that Gatwick Airport, which is half the size of Heathrow and was sold by BAA last year, spent £1m on snow and ice this year and plans to spend another £7m next year. Heathrow's "snow fleet" is made up of 69 vehicles; Gatwick's is a reported 150.

It reminds me of a statistic I encountered in 2003, when I worked for a time in Richmond, Va. That year, as many on the East Coast remember, the mid-Atlantic states had 12 snowstorms in three months. I got trapped in DC for two days in February returning from New York; I watched panicked Virginians buy all the bread and milk they could carry upon seeing the first snowflake.

Anyway, it turned out that the Commonwealth of Virginia (area: 110,785 km²) owned the same number of snowplows as the City of Chicago (area: 606 km²). It may be an unfair comparison—after all, municipalities also have snow-removal equipment—but I swear I didn't see Richmond start plowing until the snow had gotten at least 50 mm deep.

And if you want a laugh, the title of this post harks back to this old Monty Python ditty:

Incompetence and snow

Back in 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic lost re-election to Jane Byrne mostly for his failure to clear the streets of snow after the worst snowfall in the city's recorded history. His story didn't end too badly, as he ultimately became Chief Justice of Illinois; but it taught all the city's subsequent mayors to get the snowplows out before the first flake hits the ground.

The Spanish company Ferrovial—owner of the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow—hasn't, apparently, learned this lesson, according to Daily Beast aviation blogger Clive Irving:

[Y]ou might think that, given its importance, the ability of Heathrow not simply to wreck the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people but to undermine economies, disrupt international air cargo and, most significantly, to visit disaster on the travel industry, plans would be in place to ensure that it can function after a 13 cm snowfall. After all, terrorists would be delighted to have wrought such harm.

Here we are, though, four days after the weekend shutdown of Heathrow and even now the airport is still barely functional.

And it’s all because the people in charge of Heathrow could not muster the resources to plow two runways and clear ice and snow from terminal gates—not exactly rocket science and something hundreds of airports have to face on a regular basis in winter.

It's interesting how O'Hare manages to keep 7 runways clear (or at least the three in use at any point) during 30 cm snow events, without resorting to the army.