The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Just gotta get right out of here

For the first time I can recall—going back more than two years, at least, and probably longer—I don't have a flight booked to anywhere. I started realizing this as I got closer to flying to Boston last weekend. Combine that with the brand-spanking-new passport I just got, and I feel oddly confined.

So, possessed of a ton of frequent-flyer miles but with no possibility of making the next level of elite status this year, and also facing a dramatic shift in my work-life balance in just over 110 days, I have started plotting my escape.

Where to go, though?

First criterion: Get out of the U.S. A passport without stamps (or creases, scuff marks, bent edges, etc.) just looks sad. Unused. Unloved. Wherever I go in December, then, must get me a passport stamp.

Second: Use frequent-flyer miles. Even though it's August, the number of available seats for miles in mid-December looks pretty grim to a lot of places. Forget most warm spots; forget popular Christmas destinations. At least, not for less than 100,000 miles, and a four-day trip just isn't worth that amount.

Third: Eight hours or less from O'Hare. I'm not relishing the thought of a longer flight for a four-day trip. That rules out Asia, most of South America, and parts of Europe. I can live with that.

So: Candidates. Initially I thought of going someplace warm and sitting on a beach. There are non-stops on American from Chicago to Cancún, Cabo San Lucas, México, and Acapulco. But I'm not really a resort kind of person, and getting anywhere more interesting in Mexico carries risks right now I'm not completely comfortable taking. A connection in Miami opens up the Carribean and Central America; but the number of available seats makes that expensive.

Of course, I'd go to London for almost any reason anyway. It's my second-favorite city in the world, it's only 7 hours away, and in December business-class miles tickets are only 35,000 miles in some cases. But think: London in December? I don't expect to sit along the Thames and sip beer in the six hours of daylight I get before the sun sets just before 4pm.

I think I've settled on Quito, Ecuador. With a connection in Miami it's 7 hours from Chicago (and no overnight flights!). It's reasonably warm. It has living history, being a UNESCO World Heritage site. And very few people speak English, which will force me to practice my Spanish.

More information as events warrant.

Dehli Terminal 3 completed

Back in February, some of us got the opportunity to tour Indira Gandhi Airport Terminal 3, then under construction. It opened this week:

The new terminal—Terminal 3—was "inaugurated" on July 3rd (Saturday) with India's great and good in attendance, and flights will start from July 14th. Mumbai’s airport is also getting a new terminal, but I don’t think it’s nearly as far along as Delhi’s, which needed completing before the Commonwealth Games this October. There is much excitement in the Indian media about the scale of the thing. Nobody seems able to decide whether it will be the world’s third-, fifth-, or eighth-biggest airport terminal. But it seems pretty certain that it will be a vast improvement over what came before (that’s a low bar, I suppose). Perhaps readers can help resolve this issue: in terms of floor area, which are the world's biggest airport terminals, and how big are they? (The most reliable stuff I've seen puts Delhi T3 in roughly the same ballpark as Madrid's T4, the Mexico City airport, Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, and a couple of others—around 500,000 square meters—and about half the size of Beijing's new terminal, and a third that of Dubai's).

Of course, however spiffy the building, there is always scope for Heathrow T5-style shenanigans with baggage and so on to mess things up. I’m curious, therefore, to hear from any readers travelling through Delhi after July 15th. Do let us know how you found the new terminal. I myself won’t be passing through until mid-October. I am timing my annual visit home until after the Commonwealth-Games madness, such as it is, is over. By then, teething troubles will hopefully have been sorted out.

Finlandia

I just got in to Helsinki. I wrote the following on the flight:

29 June 2010, 18:33 EDT, 10,500 m over the Maine-New Hampshire border

Finnair’s A330 business class is the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had on an airplane[1]. First off, the plane is brand-new. It’s quiet, clean, and (not surprisingly) very European-looking. But this isn’t your grandfather’s Airbus. Dig it:

  • Finnair has introduced new seats in business class. The left side alternate 2-1-2, the middle are all paired, and the right side—where I sat—is a staggered single column. The staggering allows them to put more seats in the cabin while also allowing the seats to fold completely flat, which is the whole point of upgrading on an overnight flight. But the arrangement also means every seat but four are aisle seats. (Seats 1A, 3A, 5A, and 7A are trapped window seats.)
  • The business class seats also have universal power outlets (fits North American, British, European, and I think Russian plugs), a 5v USB connector for recharging electronics, and an RJ-45 network connection. I didn’t have an RJ-45 cable with me so I have no idea what network it connects to.
  • The airplane has a freaking nose camera that the pilots turned on for the takeoff and landing rolls. It also has a belly camera that allows you to look straight down. Both are accessible in flight through the entertainment center. When the nose camera came on as we taxied into position on the departure runway, I just boggled. This was the coolest thing I had ever seen on a commercial airplane. The belly camera, while also a seriously cool feature, has less practical benefit because the field of view almost exactly the wrong scale. At 10.5 km up it shows an area probably no larger than 1km across—too big to see anything in detail but too small to see a more complete picture.
  • Finnair’s in-flight navigation software is the best I’ve seen, except for one of the screens where the animators got clever. Oddly, at one of the scales it shows, it depicts shipwrecks. As we passed over New England it highlighted the wrecks of the Andrea Doria and the Thresher, which I suppose is an advertisement for the safety of air travel over sea travel, but still.
  • Outboard washrooms have windows. It seems silly when you read it, but it’s actually kind of cool.
  • What a yummy wine list—in 9 languages[2]. Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut 2003 to start, a white Burgundy from Rully, a lovely Douro, and a 1995 Niepoort Colheita for dessert. And, of course, Finlandia.

I’m almost disappointed I’ll be asleep for a several hours.

There is no reason I can see that American Airlines can’t do this as well. Or British Airways for that matter. Maybe the two largest carriers in the oneworld alliance are just too big. Maybe Finland just has higher standards of comfort than the U.S. and U.K. Or maybe my experience flying back to the U.S.—in coach—will change my mind.

I will ponder these things over dinner...

[2] Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, and (I think) Urdu. (I’ll confirm the last one with a classmate when I get to St. Petersburg.)

Update, 00:46 UTC, about 1,700 km southwest of Iceland:

The dinner service done, the cabin crew dimmed the lights, but so gently one might worry he was going blind. Also, because we’re so far north, the left side of the plane looks to be in a permanent sunset. The flight map shows us skimming the dark side of the terminator without ever quite diving in all the way. Plus, the local time in Helsinki is 3:50: just 30 minutes or so before sunrise. I might not get much sleep after all.

Later update, 00:51 UTC

I wrote too soon. They just killed the lights with a switch. It’s suddenly dark in the cabin. I shall therefore dim my laptop, which, because it has an ambient light sensor, is fighting me on this...

Still later update, 00:57 UTC

The almost-full moon just popped above the horizon. It’s still not completely dark out there though.

Morning round-up

After a Strategy exam, Finance exam, Strategy team paper, project estimate for work, and...well, that's really all I did the last four days, come to think of it...I'm more or less back.

Herewith a quorum of things I noticed but didn't have time to note:

  • The Washington Post reported yesterday that MC 900 Ft. Jesus—sorry, I meant an actual 30 m statue of Jesus—got struck by lightning Monday night and burned to the ground. Signpost to Armageddon? Probably not, but it has an element of Apocalyptic whimsy to it, don't you think?.
  • Via Sullivan, the Vision of Humanity project's Global Peace Index puts New Zealand at the top and Iraq at the bottom. We're 85th (of 149); Britain is 31st; and Finalnd and Russia, countries I'm visiting in two weeks, are 9th and 146th, respectively. Check out the interactive map.
  • The Economist's Gulliver blog linked to a Sunday Times (reg.req.) article about the beauty of window seats. I always get the window, if possible; so does Gulliver, apparently, and the Times author who wrote: "My favourite window-seat ride is crossing America — with the asphalt labyrinth of the crammed east coast giving way first to ceaseless Appalachian forest, then to the eerie geometric perfection of the farm-belt fields, then to the intimidating, jaw-dropping emptiness of the west, before the smog starts lapping at your window as California sprawls into view." Yep.
  • Today has tremendous significance to my small and fuzzy family which I will relate later.

Back to the mines.

Four examples of mathematics in our lives

Exhibit the First: This morning on NPR, a "retired banker from Eagle River, Wis.," when interviewed about the retirement of Rep. David Obey (D-WI) claimed, "I think the majority of people up here are independent thinkers."

Exhibit the Second: via Gulliver, a study of airfare fluctuations in the U.S. market found airfares fluctuate millions of times per year for some city pairs in the U.S. For example, airfares between Atlanta and Las Vegas changed almost 2.5m times last year. Gulliver pointed out that this reflects intense price competition and really good pricing strategies. As for the number of changes? Multiply out the number of seats available times a modest frequency of changes (hundreds of seconds between changes for each seat) and you get into the millions. I'm interested what my marketing professor would say.

Exhibit the Third: via Sullivan, a Spanish mathemetician has examined marital breakups, complete with colorful charts.

Exhibit the Last: Glenview, Ill., police arrested four kids over the weekend for trying to tip cows at a local museum farm. The mathematical tie-in comes from the mass differential between a 500 kg cow and a 80 kg human. Said Wagner Farm director Todd Price, "cow tipping has never been a major concern, mostly because it's harder than people think."

Nobody puts USAirways in a corner

Apparently United danced with USAirways just to make Continental jealous. It worked:

"What happened here is very simple," Continental President and Chief Executive Jeff Smisek told analysts and reporters on a Monday conference call. "I found out through the news media that Glenn [Tilton, CEO of United] was looking at a potential other combination. I recognized that United is the best possible partner for Continental...I didn't want him to marry the ugly girl. I wanted him to marry the pretty one, and I'm much prettier."

... Executives added on Monday that they expect US Airways to continue being a "valued partner" in the Star Alliance.

Of course, major business combinations like this one happen because of cold, hard finacial logic, not because of petty gossip. But does anyone really think American hasn't started passing USAirways notes in study hall?

Unidental? Continited? Either way, have fun at O'Hare

United and Continental have officially voted to merge, which won't suck for Chicago:

The new United's operations headquarters will be located in Chicago's Willis Tower, which was formerly known as the Sears Tower. United will move forward with plans to place its crucial nerve center and 2,800 staffers in the skyscraper starting in October.

The combined airline would have revenues of $29 billion, based on 2009 results, and hold an unrestricted cash balance of about $7.4 billion. The carriers said in a press release Monday that they expect to complete the transaction in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Unlike the earlier merger that United had contemplated with US Airways, this deal isn't expected to involve large-scale cuts since United's and Continental's networks have little overlap. The carriers expect to continue serving the 370 cities where United or Continental currently fly, and will operate 10 hubs, including bases in the four largest cities in the U.S.

(The photo above shows the new color scheme on a Boeing 787, of which Continental has ordered 25 and United has ordered none, as of November.)

American and USAirways will have to merge, really. Or USAirways will have to join oneworld. That will leave three major international airlines in the U.S., which won't do a lot to help prices.

EU phasing out liquid restrictions

By 2013, the EU will stop confiscating your lunch:

Liquids, gels and aerosols will instead be run through a new generation of explosives scanners able to screen them for harmful materials. Getting these machines up and running will be very expensive, and the technology is not yet foolproof. But nothing in aviation security is foolproof, and anything is better than the chaotic confiscation policies now in place.

Why are the Europeans always one step ahead of us?

... The 3-ounce container rule is silly enough -- after all, what's to stop somebody from carrying several small bottles, each full of the same substance -- but consider for a moment the hypocrisy of TSA's confiscation policy. At every concourse checkpoint you'll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? So why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless. But it's going to take them anyway, and either you accept it or you don't fly.

Smith also, bless him, acknowledges another problem with the US enforcement regime: "The maximum allowable container size is actually 3.4 ounces, by the way, or a hundred milliliters."

In other aviation news, United is eating Continental. That will cause American to eat USAirways, leaving only three major airlines in the US, and a Herfindahl-Hirschman Index climbing to heaven. Lovely.

Why you shouldn't check email at midnight

You might see a news story like this:

Chicago would be headquarters to the largest airline in the world if United Airlines successfully consummates a deal with Continental Airlines.

Where to base the world headquarters of the merged entity is one of many potentially thorny "social" issues that have been resolved as the two airlines move rapidly toward a deal that could be completed as soon as next week, said people close to the situation.

The implications make my brain hurt. This would be tremendous for Chicago, at the expense of making O'Hare a fresh kind of hell for Conited (Uninental?) travelers. But United would gain a major hub in Houston to compete with American's in Dallas, and would solidify its Asia-Pacific lead even while essentially conceding the North Atlantic to oneworld. (For the record, I will continue to fly American regardless. The article mentions that US Airways, twice to the altar but never wed with United, may jump into American's arms instead.)

Then there was this, via Sullivan, which has to be a first in American history, in Philadelphia yet:

Veteran Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) last Thursday accused her primary opponent, Gregg Kravitz, of pretending to be bisexual in order to pander to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender voters, a powerful bloc in the district.

"I outed him as a straight person," Josephs said during a fund-raiser at the Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant, as some in the audience gasped or laughed, "and now he goes around telling people, quote, 'I swing both ways.' That's quite a respectful way to talk about sexuality. This guy's a gem."

Kravitz, 29, said that he is sexually attracted to both men and women and called Josephs' comments offensive.

"That kind of taunting is going to make it more difficult for closeted members of the LGBT community to be comfortable with themselves," Kravitz said. "It's damaging."

Add to all this the increasing likelihood (though still well below 50%) that Nick Clegg could become Britain's prime minister in two weeks, and I think it will be a fretfully long night. (In a good way. If I were a UK citizen, I'd vote Lib-Dem this time. Seriously.)