The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Two short notes on a too-long flight

Over Great Bear Lake, N.W.T., 16:20 MDT

Note the first: A westbound 13-hour flight seems a lot shorter than a 9-hour flight the other direction. We left Chicago a little more than four hours ago, which equals the flying time from Chicago to San Francisco, the farthest place you can go within the Lower 48. It doesn’t feel that far. The sun confounds perceptions of time: we took off at 1pm and we land at 3:30, chasing the sun across the Canadian permafrost most of the way. I get to Shanghai at 7pm. My clock at home will say 6am. My brain will not have a clue.

Note the second: It turns out that flight attendants covet the Chicago-Tokyo route. Our cabin crew includes a husband-and-wife team, both of whom have worked for American longer than 30 years. The husband told me that the Chicago-Beijing route starting at the end of this month has become the most-sought trip for flight attendants; he expects he’ll be able to bid for it in a couple of years. Let me repeat that: when he has 40 years with the airline he might get on the Chicago-Beijing route.

Bad food choices

First, a housekeeping note. This is the one of three entries posted after the fact. Almost always, a post time you see on The Daily Parker accurately records when I first posted the blog entry. At this writing I’m on an airplane over Canada’s Northwest Territories, so the post time shows when I took notes about the entry that follows. This all may seem, as my dearest friend might say, “a bit Asperger’s-y.” Perhaps. Another very close friend blogs retrospectively, because she wants her entries to correspond in time to when the experiences happened. I think either is fine as long as it’s consistent. Otherwise, it’s almost like lying to yourself.

(We now rejoin the blog already in progress.)

If you have to fly out of O’Hare, you really can’t beat mid-morning on Tuesday. It took me 11 minutes from the time my cousin dropped me at Terminal 3 to check two bags through to Shanghai and get through security. Eleven minutes. Yes, I have Platinum status, but there weren’t any lines I could see at anywhere else. Always do things when no one else is doing them, someone once told me. Good advice.

In a moment of stupidity I forgot they would feed me on the plane, so I got lunch. The stupidity compounded itself by suggesting that, since I was heading to China, maybe I should skip the usual Terminal 3 two-item combo from Manchu Wok and get something impossible to get in Shanghai, like, say, a Quarter Pounder. Understand, the last time I ate at McDonald’s, ridiculous comparatives hadn’t been invented yet, so all we could say was “it was a long time ago.” I think I last had a Quarter Pounder during the Daley administration. The first one.

I think they’ve changed the recipe. The Quarter Pounder and small fries I had didn’t taste anything like I remembered. What happened to the salt? Where was the grease? What kind of cardboard bun was this? (At least they still make cardboard buns.) What a disappointment. I wanted my last meal in the United States for two weeks to be something quintessentially American, and obviously fattening and hypertensive. Instead I got what tasted like...well, it didn’t taste like anything, actually. Then American Airlines added to my culinary confusion by serving me a quite tasty beef filet in garlic ginger sake sauce with wild mushrooms paired with a decent Australian cabernet.

What is America coming to, when airline food is better than McDonald’s?

Polish President and other top officials killed

Truly stunning news from Russia this morning, with devastating repercussions for Poland:

A plane carrying the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders crashed in a heavy fog in western Russia on Saturday morning, killing everyone aboard.

... Among those on board, according to the Web site of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, were [President Lech] Kaczynski; his wife, Maria; former Polish president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski; the deputy speaker of Poland’s parliament, Jerzy Szmajdzinski; the head of the president’s chancellery, Wladyslaw Stasiak; the head of the National Security Bureau, Aleksander Szczyglo; the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Andrzej Kremer; the chief of the general staff of the Polish army, Franciszek Gagor; the president of Poland’s national bank, Slawomir Skrzypek; the commissioner for civil rights protection, Janusz Kochanowski; the heads of all of Poland’s armed forces; and dozens of members of parliament.

The crash fits the strict definition of tragedy, as have so many air crashes involving VIPs:

A press secretary for ... the governor of Smolensk, said the landing took place under very bad visibility, and Russian air traffic controllers advised the crew to land in Minsk, but the crew decided to land anyway. The Polish news channel TVN24 reported that moments before the crash, air traffic controllers had refused a Russian military aircraft permission to land, but that they could not refuse permission to the Polish plane.

And unbelievable irony:

[Kaczynski] had been due in western Russia to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. The ceremonies were to be held at a site in the Katyn forest close to Smolensk, where 70 years ago members of the Soviet secret police executed more than 20,000 Polish officers captured after the Soviet Army invaded Poland in 1939.

The crash quite literally decimated the Polish government. Poland has some difficult days ahead.

Update: Author and pilot James Fallows explains why this is a tragedy in the literal, Greek-dramatic sense I meant above.

That's the spirit

The Spirit of Stupidity:

The next obsession, at least for passengers of Spirit Airlines, may be cramming items under airplane seats. The Florida discount carrier said Tuesday that it would charge customers as much as $45 each way to place bulky items in overhead bins, in an effort to get people on and off its planes faster. Other airlines will watch Spirit's experiment.

Carry-on bags didn't become the primary source of luggage for passengers until carriers introduced fees for infrequent fliers and then raised them to $25 to check a first bag and $35 for a second item. United, among the first to adopt the fees, has seen the volume of checked bags fall for 25 consecutive months, said Cindy Szadokierski, United's vice president of airport operations planning and United Express.

Every major U.S. airline except for Southwest Airlines has introduced such fees since 2008, and no wonder. The 10 largest U.S. carriers collected $739.8 million in baggage charges during the third quarter of 2009, double prior-year totals, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Being a oneworld loyalist, I doubt I'd ever fly Spirit Airlines. But if I had to fly a route they served that American didn't, I'd rather pay a competitor $50 more than pay them $25 to carry on a bag. I suspect many people will make a similar calculation.

Then there's the possible fraudulent element. If Spirit airfares show up on aggregators $10 less than competing fares, but really you have to spend $25 extra just to board the plane, doesn't that seem, well, wrong?

Best airports in the world

I didn't expect to see O'Hare on this list. (Oh, it wasn't. Don't worry.)

Gulliver has the summary:

HAVING assessed 9.8m passenger surveys for its annual awards, Skytrax, a research company, has just named Singapore’s Changi airport the best in the world.

Incheon airport, near Seoul, which was last year’s winner, came second and Hong Kong airport third. These three would appear to be well clear of the opposition, according to Skytrax’s methodology, as they have held the top three slots (in different orders) for the past three years. ...

Top ten airports 2010: 1 Singapore, 2 Seoul Incheon, 3 Hong Kong, 4 Munich, 5 Kuala Lumpur, 6 Zurich, 7 Amsterdam, 8 Beijing, 9 Auckland, 10 Bangkok

If anyone wants to donate $460 to the Daily Parker, I'll order a copy of the report and find out where O'Hare wound up. Sight unseen, I'll bet the whole amount that it did better than LaGuardia, and I'll give even odds we beat Heathrow.

Yet another rental check-out

After months of beautiful weather I finally arranged a flight check-out at a local flight school. I had to get an hour of additional training to learn how to use the Garmin G1000 flight instrument panel yesterday, but today's flight went just like any other check-out. (Google Earth track.)

My passport, unfortunately, is at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago getting a visa stuck in. So I'll have to wait until I get it back to rent planes. This is because the TSA believes, as would anyone, that only U.S. citizens (or aliens we really, really like) are to be trusted with small airplanes. This will prevent any non-citizens from doing bad things with them, of course.

World's strangest airports

These are kind of cool:

Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar's busiest road, cuts directly across the runway. Railroad-style crossing gates hold cars back every time a plane lands or departs. "There's essentially a mountain on one side of the island and a town on the other," Schreckengast says. "The runway goes from side to side on the island because it's the only flat space there, so it's the best they can do. It's a fairly safe operation as far as keeping people away," he says, "It just happens to be the best place to land, so sometimes it's a road and sometimes it's a runway."

Number 8, St. Maarten's Princess Juliana, is one of my favorites.

Quiet week?

Not so much:

The joys of air travel in winter

It's just dawn in London, about five hours before my flight takes off, and this is the headline on the WGN Weather Blog:

Entire Chicago metropolitan area upgraded to winter storm warning

The entire Chicago metropolitan area is being placed under a winter storm warning effective from this evening through noon on Wednesday. Previous the winter storm warning had been in effect only for counties close to Lake Michigan where lake-enhanced snowfall was expected to boost snowfall total and surrounding areas were under a winter weather advisory. The warning area was expanded because strong winds are expected to develop gusting to 35-40 mph. The high winds will cause much blowing and drifting of the newly fallen snow creating very hazardous conditions that could result in near blizzard conditions in open areas.

Any bookmakers out there want to give me the odds of getting to Chicago tonight? I'm guessing I'll wind up in Raleigh, actually.