The 737 MAX: One Refreshed Version Too Far

Here’s the big problem with the Boeing 737 MAX: Both Boeing and the airlines are forcing a past-its-prime design to be a flying Swiss Army Knife. They want it to have unparalleled fuel efficiency on short hops from Chicago to Louisville. And they want it to fly from Phoenix to Hawaii, too.
The two fatal 737 MAX crashes seem like a solid indicator that Boeing rushed what Patrick Smith calls a Frankenplane into service. Boeing saw this as the most cost-effective way to counter the Airbus A320 NEO.

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Inside an American Airlines 737-800.

Here are a few thoughts about the pickle presented by the Boeing 737 MAX family.

Stubby Landing Gear: Huge Problem for 737 MAX

Engine fan diameters have grown over time in the quest for more fuel efficiency. The 737 is low to the ground because airports were different when it was designed in the 1960s: Passengers might have to use a stair car, built-in metal stairs or other means to board.

For the MAX, Boeing wanted a bigger, more-efficient engine. But the company didn’t want all the expense and effort of redesigning the wing to accommodate a taller landing gear (which is necessary for a bigger engine).

Boeing 737 MAX 8
I couldn’t resist an Arrested Development stair car reference.

Boeing engineers "solved" this problem by moving the engines "forward and up to accomodate[sic] the larger fan diameter. Any handling differences as a result of this have been tuned out by Boeing in the flight control system to make the types feel the same to crew. This was necessary for certification under the same type certificate." (That’s the MCAS we’re hearing so much about.)

The more modern Airbus A320 represents a different design area. It has more ground clearance for bigger-diameter high-bypass engines. It was never meant to operate with a built-in staircase. It’s a product of the jetway era.

A US Airways 757

737 MAX Can’t Replace 757

Airliners are trying hard to make the 737 and A320 fill a number of roles, including some that suit the Boeing 757. The 757 is a middle ground airliner dating to the early 80s. It’s kind of over-powered, which gives it a huge performance edge at high-altitude airports and in hot weather with a heavy load. This sorry situation that happened to me on an Airbus A320? Never gonna happen on a 757. Its power and capacity make it able to handle scenarios where the smaller twinjets fall short.

But the 757 is nearing the end of its life. Airbus says its A320 family can replace it, which pilots and many airline wonks don’t believe for a second.

Hawaiian Airlines 787
The 797 might replace the 767, too.

Boeing seems to agree: Its 797 program — which isn’t a sure thing — is a 757/767 replacement: A small, high-performance widebody. Airlines initially squawked about costs.

But what about the costs of forcing a Frankenplane into roles it shouldn’t occupy with kludged fixes? That’s a question Boeing and airlines need to consider.

Airlines Fixated on Small, Dense Planes

Over the years, small airliners like the 737 and A320 have swiped routes that widebody airliners used to serve. Southwest Airlines was flying the 737 MAX to Hawaii before the grounding.

No airline previously used anything smaller than a 757 for that route (and no thanks to flying that far on an airline with no in-flight meals — I don’t care how quirky the flight attendants are with their safety demos).

United Airlines Versus American Airlines
Heading to Newark on a United Airlines A320.

Here’s some info from one of my earlier posts about why airlines are doing this.

In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crews and use less fuel.

That’s another incentive to go small. And the cheapest way to go small, at least in the way that pleases shareholders hungry for a quarterly return, is to refresh current designs.

Paying a little more in landing fees seems like a good bet in retrospect, doesn’t it?

What’s Ahead for the Boeing, the MAX and the 797?

So that Boeing 797 I mentioned earlier. The specter of the 737 MAX looms over the Boeing decision makers. It seems like a great way to keep the company from cutting corners.

But what happens if Boeing produces a great plane? How does Airbus react? Do they cling to the idea of competing with the 797 with a kludged A320? Or do they go for a clean-sheet design?

737 MAX
The split-scimitar wing and scalloped engine nacelles of a Boeing 737 MAX.

I wonder what will happen with the 737 MAX, too. A lot fewer people are saying "If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going." It’s hard for me to trust the MAX family right now, and I wonder how Boeing will fix this damage.
At the smaller end of the scale, the Airbus A220 (formerly Bombardier C series) could fill this vacuum nicely. And the MAX situation invites a stretched A220.

As a co-worker of mine used to say, "I look forward to seeing how this plays out."


Flying to Costa Rica Kind of Stinks

I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.

Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.

Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.

Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.

So what exactly is the problem?

takeoff sky harbor
Takeoff from Sky Harbor

First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.

But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.

Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.

Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?

Second leg on American Airlines – the night flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).

What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).

It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."

It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.


How I Fly with Craft Beer Without Spilling a Drop

Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for craft beer that I can’t find at home. Often, I want to take some home with me. That was the case when I visited Curitiba, Brazil. I found a thriving, varied craft beer scene that was a welcome surprise (and seriously, Curitiba is now one of my favorite cities). The question is, how can you fly with craft beer without turning the inside of your luggage into a sticky mess? I have one tried-and-true method, a second iffier method and now a third new system that I look forward to testing.

The Sock and Shoe "Fly with Craft Beer" Method

I found some great bottles at Clube do Malte in Curitiba. My method for getting them home safely was to slip each bottle into a sock, wrap it up in a plastic bag and then stick one bottle each in a shoe. Being a fairly low-maintenance guy who doesn’t bring a lot of clothes when he travels -- well, that limited the number of bottles I could bring.

fly with craft beer
A visit to Club do Malte in Curitiba is a must.

Both those bottles in the shoes survived the flights from Curitiba to Sao Paolo to Houston to Phoenix.

The "T-Shirt and Pray" Way to Fly with Craft Beer

I had two more bottles to bring home from Curitiba. Those, I wrapped in t-shirts and plastic bags. I used rubber bands to secure all the goods and hoped for the best. I was worried the whole time about these two bottles, but they also made it.

I’ve used this scheme more than a few times, and it’s always worked. But it’s not exactly good for piece of mind. And you only need a bottle to get crushed once to make your day suck. I’m convinced that I’m running on borrowed time using the t-shirt method. My wife has a perfect record for flying with craft beer, and I suspect this – or something like it – is the way she does it. Still, it’s the dicey way to fly with craft beer.

fly with craft beer flexi-growler, beerpouch
The Craft Beer Depot in Nelson, NZ. Definitely a place that should have Flexi-Growlers!
A "Capri Sun" Pouch to Fly with Craft Beer

Some clever characters formed a company called BeerPouch, and then begat a work of art called the Flexi-Growler. And just like I said a sentence ago, it’s a Capri Sun package for beer. But stronger, thicker and bigger so that you may fly with craft beer without a second thought. This is perfect in the age of taprooms that are willing to fill growlers.

And that stack a lot flatter than glass bottles, and can’t get squashed like a can or a crowler.

I’m ordinarily not this effusive about a product I haven’t yet tried, but this just makes sense. It also appeals to my interest in sustainability – according to the BeerPouch website:

Pouches of this nature are well known to require a fraction of the carbon footprint than found in a comparable sized bottle or can. The BeerPouch uses far less energy to manufacture, fill, ship, and store beverages than virtually any comparable package.

fly with craft beer, crowler, beerpouch, flexi-growler
The Aegir brewery in Flam, Norway. If you find craft beer in a place that remote, chances are you’ll want to fill up some growlers.

Speaking of the BeerPouch website, let’s not judge the product by the website. Because that website is terrible in literally every way that’s possible for a website to be terrible. May they soon sell so many Flexi-Pouches that they can afford a web designer who knows SEO, UX, design and all that other good stuff.

The best news for me is that they’re working on smaller versions: Sixty-four ounces is a bit much for my wife and me. But taking home a few different 32-ouncers from a vacation is exactly the ticket for us.

So, what’s your solution when you have to fly with craft beer?


The Population is Growing – Why So Many Smaller Airliners?

The last time I saw both my grandparents alive and together, I was 12 years old. I took an American Airlines 767 from Phoenix to Chicago. Today, the 767 is rare at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Typically, it’s a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 that handles runs from here to Chicago.

This is weirdly counterintuitive. The Phoenix population has only grown. Airline tickets are cheap. Booking flights is ridiculously easy (sorry, travel agents, but that’s the truth). This all adds up to more people in the air.

smaller airliners
Hawaiian Airlines flies one of the few widebody aircraft serving Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Yet there’s a never-ending downsizing of aircraft. And I’m not just talking about the retirement of the 747 (most of which are 20-year-old 400 series planes) or the flameout of the even-bigger-than-jumbo Airbus A380. I mean at the workaday domestic flight role, shuttling between large domestic cities. What once was a job for an airliner that could hold close to 300 people is now the purview of smaller airliners that hold closer to 175 (this completely depends on how the airline configures its aircraft, of course). By far the latest and coolest airliner is Bombardier’s C Series, a high-tech, efficient little plane – 150 passengers or less, depending on the model – that is getting rave reviews from operators, pilots and passengers alike.

I’ve always seen the bigger airliners as a smart solution for the entire system. Passengers can get on and off of twin-aisle planes far more quickly. And fewer planes with more people means far fewer planes sitting on a taxiway waiting for their turn to take off. So what gives?

smaller airliners
Bombardier’s slick little C-Series jets are getting rave reviews from all corners – but are smaller airliners what we need as more people fly? (Wikimedia Commons)

Economics plays into it, for sure. In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crew and use less fuel. I am sure the airlines puzzled this all out and somehow found that more-but-smaller airliners are better than fewer-but-bigger planes. These guys crunch numbers like crazy to eke more profit out of their actions – like how much fuel they can save by removing a pair of olives from first-class meals.

Despite that, airlines are notorious for filing bankruptcy. Another consolidation always seems imminent. So I’m not 100-percent confident saying that airline bean counters have everything figured out – and that includes the downgauging into smaller airliners. I also admit that I’m completely atypical from most airline passengers. When I book, aircraft type is a huge factor for me. I avoid planes I don’t like and will pay extra for the ones I prefer (the 737, Airbus A330 and MD-80 rank at the bottom of my ladder).

smaller airliners
Qantas uses smaller airliners like the 717, but they’re thinking about upgauging for certain routes. (Photo by planegeezer)

And then comes this Inc. story about Qantas considering bigger planes on shorter routes. This is a solution I’d like to see US airlines ask. 

The question here doesn’t really seem to be whether airlines can sell enough seats to make this work. Nearly every flight I’ve been on in the last decade has started with the announcement "We have a completely full flight today," followed by a request to gate-check your bags.

This made me think of an excerpt from something I wrote for the now-defunct Yahoo Voices awhile back. It’s more-relevant than ever.

Affordable airfare spiked the demand. But rather than larger planes to meet it, the industry went toward a glut of smaller aircraft.

"You’re tempted to think -- Instead of flying a 200-seat 767 from New York to Los Angeles, make it a 747 instead, with 450 seats," wrote Patrick Smith, commercial pilot and author of Ask the Pilot. "But that’s not how it happened."

Southwest Airlines is one example of the "many small planes" phenomenon. It has nearly 560 aircraft, all narrow-body. It has six daily flights from Phoenix to Los Angeles – some with as little as 40 minutes between them.

smaller airliners
Every US carrier has moved on to smaller airliners by retiring their 747 fleets.

Southwest bases its business model on the 737. The airline aims for one aircraft family to standardize maintenance and training requirements – all of which saves money.

"Also, carriers have switched many flights to smaller regional jets, which don’t fly as fast as bigger planes and can also force planes behind them to slow down," Scott McCartney wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Regional jets are even smaller than Southwest’s 737s or the A320-series planes low-cost carrier Jet Blue prefers.

McCartney’s sources said planes not only spend longer in the air, but an average of 10 minutes more on the ground than they did in 1977. The conclusion? The taxiways are more crowded.

smaller airliners
Welcome to Sky Harbor – smaller airliners everywhere you look despite being a big city.

The crowded skies are also an added burden for air traffic controllers. Smith and many other writers say the nation’s air traffic-control system are already antiquated and insufficient for current needs.

Economics lecturer Lynne Kiesling points out that airlines have no incentive to choose bigger planes – airports charge for landing slots by weight. Instead, the fees should be based on time slot: higher-demand time slot, higher landing fee. That would create incentives to land as many people as possible in that slot.

Kiesling hints at but doesn’t fully explore aircraft separation. Some aircraft generate more wake turbulence, and they need to be separated from other aircraft. The Boeing 757 is notorious for its wake turbulence, despite being a medium-sized jet. Wide-body jets also generate quite a bit. That means regional jets need to be insulated from them, creating delays as they wait for the larger aircraft to move a safe distance away.

So what’s the solution?

There’s no agreement about that. Too many airlines are too entrenched in using smaller aircraft. Some, like Southwest, depend on it for short-term success. But there has to be a point at which the flying population will grow too large for the system to work. That may be a long time in the future, but it’s something airlines should be considering right now.

I have not flown a widebody aircraft in the US since the trips to Chicago I mentioned earlier. My wife flew in a 747 from Minneapolis to Phoenix, but that was a replacement aircraft for several different flights. On the flip side, I’ve flown international flights in a single-aisle 757.

My gut tells me the landing fees are the sticking point that will keep airlines from adjusting to what the population needs. Airline apologists are quick to say the bean counters have it all figured out and this really is the best way. Then why the bankruptcies, consolidations and mergers? They don’t have it figured out beyond the next few quarters. And then what happens?

Speaking of Patrick Smith, we must’ve been reading each other’s minds: He just published a similar story with more of a focus on the logistics. It’s worth reading, as are most of his posts – yes, even the ones about Husker Du. 


Could the Boeing 757 Mean Fewer Delayed Flights?

I expected to get on my American Airlines flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and land in Phoenix. That happened eventually, but nowhere near as planned. We arrived about two hours late because we had to stop for fuel in Kansas City, Mo.

Let me get something out of the way: Don’t roll your eyes and criticize American Airlines. It could’ve been any airline flying an Airbus A320-type or Boeing 737-family aircraft (we were on an A321). On top of that, the flight attendants remained very friendly and courteous through it all, despite grumpy passengers (and jerks like the guy next to me, who pushed the flight attendant call button while we were landed in Kansas City to order gin and tonic. Dude.). The pilots also did their best to keep us informed.

La Compagnie’s 757s are all business class.

Where the 737 and A320 Fall Short

Okay, back to that refueling stop — Reagan has a short runway. Our Airbus A320 was full of passengers, as was my flight from Phoenix to Reagan. Combine a heavy plane with a short runway, and your pilots wind up with some obstacles. Put enough fuel into the plane to get to Phoenix under the wrong conditions, and the plane’s too heavy to take off. I suspect some weather conditions might’ve also contributed to the situation.

Performance isn’t the priority for jets like the A320 and 737. They’re efficient flying Honda Civics. Airbus and Boeing bet heavily that airlines wanted, and the A320 and 737 do the job 95 percent of the time.

Way too many 757s have wound up like this before their time.

This was one of that 5 percent (I’m making that number up based on a few things I’ve read — but I think it’s close to accurate).

A Job for the 757

Now, there is a plane that could handle this job with aplomb: the Boeing 757, a powerhouse single-aisle aircraft that can take off heavily loaded from even high-altitude airports and get you pretty darn far. It can do so much that the newer generation of smaller twinjets can’t – and pilots love ‘em for that and more. The problem is, Boeing stopped making them. There is no replacement for the aging models still flying today. It’s so versatile that airlines can even use it for intercontinental flights, such as one I took from Stockholm-Arlanda in Sweden to Newark.

And here’s the big question – why have the airlines and aircraft manufacturers ignored such a capable plane?

A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Umm, would a visit or two from a 777 be too much to ask?
A U.S. Airways 757 lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Can the NMA/MOM/797 Solve This Problem?

Boeing is only starting, after a lot of prodding from pilots, passengers and a few airlines, starting to consider a replacement that they call the New Mid-Market Aircraft (NMA). The NMA might do more than replace the 757 – it might take the place of its even-larger sibling, the wide-body 767.

Let’s just hope Boeing keeps the performance needs in mind, because that’s what the 757 does so well. It would’ve screamed right off of Reagan’s short runway and gotten me back to Phoenix without adding hours to my already long trip with a stop in Kansas City.

A chilly morning at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland – no problem for this 757!

It seems like that should be a priority for airlines. Consider the 180-some people on my A321. How many of them missed connecting flights in Phoenix because of the delay? Quite a few, judging by the grumbling and kvetching near me. One passenger who claimed to fly the route often said the Kansas City fuel stop happens often. How much compensation did American Airlines have to shell out because of that? How does it tarnish their reputation with passengers? In short, how much do delays like this hurt their bottom line -- all because of aircraft that are ill-suited for the job?

Unfortunately, as cool as the NMA sounds and how much effective technology it might borrow from the delayed-but-successful 787 Dreamliner, it’s unlikely you’ll see it on a runway in less than 10 years.


Review: Lufthansa 747-8i

Right now, the Boeing 747-8i is one of the coolest, newest airliners flying. People who are into air travel should put this on their "must fly" list.

This October, I got to fly in a 747-8i to Frankfurt Airport from O’Hare Airport and back. Lufthansa was my airline of choice. And I know that air travel nerds like me will want to know what the 8i is like.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Our 747-8i parks next to another one.

What’s the Deal?

If you like air travel as much as I do, you probably already know what’s so cool about the 747-8i. But for the rest of you might need some background: The 8i is built on concepts learned from the 787 Dreamliner. It’s incredibly fuel efficient thanks to new engines and a wing that sweeps upward steeply, especially after takeoff. It’s also the longest passenger airplane flying.

Inside, it’s all slick modern goodness, from LED lighting to fairly spacious lavatories to huge overhead luggage bins. And on-demand entertainment at every seat, of course.

How Did I Like the 747-8i?

On both flights, I had seat 34A, right up against a bulkhead and behind the wing and engines. So this wasn’t a quiet place to be.

A look at the 747-8i cabin.

Our choice of seat was based on getting a bassinet for our 9-month-old daughter. The flight attendants attached it to the wall after takeoff, and the little person got some quality sleep.

The on-demand entertainment worked perfectly and included some cool extra programming, like short documentaries offering looks inside Lufthansa operations, in addition to movies, TV and sports. I would’ve loved some German language lessons.

This was also a very comfortable slimline seat. Usually, my buttcheeks get achy and numb  starting at about 5 hour. I had no problems at all on these 8-and-a-half hour flights.

The 747-8i has some comfortable coach seats.

Boeing wisely skipped the Dreamliner-style window dimmers and opted for traditional shades. There are also power plugs at every seat, including a USB port. The USB port did seem to have an oddly loose fit with our cables, though.

What Complaints Do I Have?

No plane is perfect, not even the 747-8i. It didn’t have air nozzles at the seats to cool you off. This could be a problem if one gets left in the sun to bake; this is a trait it shares with the Airbus A330.

There are also some problems with the bassinet and retractable video screens and tray tables. They can interfere with each other, and their appears to be some inconsistency: It wasn’t a problem on the first flight -- a minor bit of Tetris allowed me to move the tray and monitor without moving the bassinet. The second plane. though – the monitor didn’t rotate as far, so I was out of luck.

These slots on the bulkhead are where the flight attendants can mount a bassinet. I’ve probably seen these on other planes, but never thought about it before being a dad.

I also have yet to find a plane like the Asiana 777 that has self-serve water fountains. That is so much better than waiting for shot glass-sized water cups from the flight attendants. Why every airline doesn’t do that is beyond me. One thing I noticed in Europe is that people don’t drink water like we do in the U.S., especially in Arizona. So this could be partially a culture thing.

Summing Up the 747-8i

This is a graceful, elegant aircraft in spite of its size. Generally, I think all aircraft are industrial art forms. But the 747-8i is especially pleasing to my eye. It extra-awesome when you see the wings flex upward as the plane lifts off.

The small person tests the bulkhead-mounted bassinet – her review was pretty favorable.

Strictly from the passenger experience, though, the Dreamliner still has a modern, starship-like mojo that tops even the 747-8i. And there’s that aforementioned Asiana 777 that I love so much. I probably won’t make a huge effort to get aboard a 747-8i in the future since the Dreamliner and 777 (depending on the individual airline’s configuration and service, to be sure) are out there. And I have yet to fly an A-380, so my next Lufthansa booking will probably be on an A-380 of my schedule allows. And yes, I’d fly Lufthansa to Europe again in a second.

Be sure to check my other review for Lufthansa; it focuses on the airline’s kid-friendly flight attendants and amenities.


“Mad Men” Meets Airlines – Book Covers Airline Branding and Ads

airline branding
The cover of “Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975”

If you read enough about the airline industry, you can bet that someone – on any given day of the week – will harrumph about the current state of air travel.

"In my day," says the harrumpher, who probably wears a monocle, "we wore our Sunday best to board an airplane. It was an occasion."

What this person never mentions that their Sunday best reeked of smoke after a flight, and they probably could only afford to fly every once in a great while.

By now, you’re getting the idea that I don’t think much of the so-called Golden Age of air travel; I’m not even sure how to define the Golden Age. I think the general opinion is that it started with the beginning of the Jet Age, and ended immediately at deregulation.

airline branding
Korean Air – no need to change this very distinctive identity.

There is one thing that airlines did better back in the ol’ days than they could possibly do now: They crafted their identity.

The craft of these identities is the subject of Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 by M.C. Höhne. The book is a weighty tome of 430-some pages that traces the design histories of iconic airlines. It sells for about $358 US.

So who’s going to spend that much on a book about airline branding? Air travel nerds are the obvious audience. But graphic designers and anyone involved in branding, take note. This era was a never-ending stream of outstanding branding and advertising. People still realized that pilots were more than glorified bus drivers (though I imagine most still viewed flight attendants as eye candy). They appreciated the ability to fly at 38,000 feet at hundreds of miles per hour.

airlines branding
Hawaiian Airlines has preserved an identity that matches its mission.

The status symbol element of air travel was clear in airline branding, from advertising to liveries. Air travel was exciting, not tedious. The aircraft themselves were industrial art – absolutely no aircraft manufacturer of the era would’ve called their product "Airbus."

The airlines were also careful in the statements inherent in their names, their logos, their colors, their paint schemes. There is again absolutely no way an airline named Wizz Air would’ve happened back then -- not even if it was painted bright yellow. And exactly what the hell is behind a name like S7 Airlines?

airline branding
Airline branding amateur hour, from the name to the design.

You can see the power in these older brands. Eastern Airlines has been resurrected with its very cool original livery. And even PSA, America West and Piedmont Airlines live on in the form of special liveries on US Airways aircraft: If these old brands didn’t have power and panache, why in the world would US Airways keep them around? Contrast this to the newer brands, where you’re not even sure what they look like at any given time. And even timeless classics like the brushed aluminum of American Airlines are getting revamped (I’m not saying the new look is terrible, just that it’s not likely to become a classic with staying power).

So designers, creatives and branding enthusiasts, give Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 a look. You’ll get a lot to think about – and maybe a few ideas for how the pros once crafted identities that suit their industry, and how they wanted the public to perceive them. No matter what industry you work in, chances are there are some inspiring ideas here.

If you’re interested in airlines, design and/or branding, what modern airlines do you think do it well? And if you want to read more about airline branding, check out this post by Patrick Smith.


Random Cool Stuff – May Edition

English: Food dehydrator Français : Déshydrateur
Slightly nicer then mine, but the same brand. Get one ASAP! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t believe May is almost over already. But the good part of a month flying by is getting to share a some random cool stuff I gleaned this month – from the Internet, from books, wherever.

Up first, let’s talk about some interesting things I’ve started to do with stuff out of my foods dehydrator. My two favorite dehydrated foods are jerky and apples. But check this out – there are a few things you can do with jerky and apples next time you go camping -- beyond just eating them as-is.

First, the jerky. If you use those dehydrated meal packs, you’ll notice that they’re generally low on protein. Bump that protein factor up by tossing some jerky in there – but be sure to add a bit of extra hot water. If you make a nice jerky in a good marinade, this will also make your camp food far tastier. Speaking of dehydrated camp meals, I’ve heard that some people make complete dehydrated meals at home: If you have some advice, please pass it on – I’d like to take a shot at this, and I trust any advice from a reader more than a random Internet search.

The Swedish FireKnife is a cool piece of gear – it could be a game changer in “Naked and Afraid!”

The same goes for the apples. If you’re making oatmeal, toss some apples in there for extra flavor. Delicious!

Now I’m about to get personal. Ever since I went to the Aboriginal Living Skills School, people have been wanting me to try getting on the TV show Naked and Afraid (this includes many of my relatives, and I am more than slightly disturbed by how many want me to run around naked on TV).

Anyway, I ran across a reference to some of the gear choices Naked and Afraid contestants picked at the start of the show. It got me wondering what I’d pick. Only one of them picked a piece of gear that I use: the Swedish Firesteel. This is a solid piece of gear that I’ve used to start many fires – even at home for my barbecue grill: Like anything, using a flint is a skill, and it’s one you should practice even when you don’t need to. I’ve also started more hand drill fires at home than I have camping, no contest.

You're seeing this ridiculous dog in a bike basket because this is a "random stuff" post. This ludicrous dog was in Hanoi.
You’re seeing this ridiculous dog in a bike basket because this is a “random stuff” post. This ludicrous dog was in Hanoi.

Back to the Firesteel: I think a smart Naked and Afraid duo would be smart to make it one of their choices, with the other person using a small bushcraft knife. I’d suggest resisting the urge to go with a machete, big quasi-survival knife or hatchet. Not even a bottle – there are ways to make water-carrying vessel, one that can endure heat to boil water for purifying; iif you could get the Swedish Fireknife, you’d get knife and flint in one and be able to let your partner grab a water vessel. That’s a pretty kick-ass little knife with a sharp Scandinavian-ground edge. The flat spine and thin-but-strong blade make it great for batoning, which negates the need for an axe. It’s also stupid-cheap, yet very decent, un-fancy quality for frugal folks.

Get one of these. Seriously. (Photo from

Third up – I’ve absolutely fallen in love with my 32-ounce BPA-free REI bottle. It holds plenty of water, and a pair of them are with me on every hike. I had only one problem with them, and that was the wide mouth. One false move, and I’m wearing more water than I’m drinking.

I discovered the Guyot Designs Splashguard, a cool silicone insert that turns many types of wide-mouth bottles into sippy-cups for outdoorsy adults.

But there’s another really cool thing the Splashguard can do: Have you ever had a pair of bottles, one with water that’s disinfected and ready to drink, and one that you just treated with a few drops of iodine -- and you can’t remember which is which? Your Splashguard can be the key. The bottle with the Splashguard is ready to go, the other isn’t. Of course, you can also have different-colored bottles. The Splashguard is still a pretty solid way to keep from drinking untreated water.

Let’s take this back to modern times. You know how much you hate the middle seat while flying? Well, one company has a solution to that problem. How likely are you to see this on an airplane anytime soon? I vote "no chance in hell."

There are so many great ideas out there – like scramble crosswalks and movies that aren’t sequels/prequels/reboots/remakes – that never come into use. Don’t ask me why. It’s just the way of the world. And airlines, especially those based in the United States, take a special pleasure in ignoring any way to make flying better.

That’s all I have for you today. See ya next month!


Cool Airline Callsigns – And One That Just Retired.

Cactus no more: US Airways retires the callsign it inherited from America West Airlines.

One of my favorite blogs, Flying With Fish, just published a post about the final US Airways flight using the "Cactus" callsign. US Airways inherited this cool callsign when it merged with America West Airlines. Now that the merger with American Airlines is progressing, "Cactus" will make way for "American." (Just in case this isn’t something you’ve thought about before, callsigns are identifiers that go before the flight number during communications between aircraft and air traffic controllers. The media kept getting the Malaysian Airlines callsign wrong when Flight 370 went missing by calling it MH370.)

To mark the retirement of one distinct and Southwestern-flavored callsign, here is a list of some other interesting callsigns:

Blackstar – Africa World Airlines
This just sounds cool. The Black Stars is also the nickname of Ghana’s national soccer team. There’s also a brand of guitar amplifiers call Blackstar -- and yes, they sound pretty good!

Dragon – DragonAir
Well, this is just pretty hard to beat. Because – dragons!

Speedbird – British Airways
I was a little surprised by this one. It sounds a bit muscle car-like for a somewhat uptight airline like British Airways.

Here there by … Vikings! (By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)


Sasquatch – SeaPort Airlines
This small airlines picked a theme that resonates with its origins. And named their somewhat small planes after a huge, mythical beast. Perfect!

Shamrock – Aer Lingus
Few callsigns could work better for an Irish airlines. And Guinness might not’ve gone over so well with regulators and nervous passengers.

Snowflake – Air Sweden
What could make much more sense for an airline from such a cold place?

Trans-Soviet – Transaero
I’m a Cold War kid. The mere word "Soviet" was steeped in a fascinating brand of menace. And honestly, I thought their aircraft looked extremely cool. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos of Transaero Tupolevs, Yaks or Ilyushins.

Velocity – Virgin Australia
This call sign nicely sums up my perception of the various Virgin airlines. They seem more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse. It’s a smart piece of branding that other airlines might not use to their advantage.

Here’s a classic for you! A DC-8 from Air Sweden. Callsign? Snowflake. (Photo by Perry Hoppe)

Viking – Thomas Cook Scandinavia
I’m surprised the other big Scandi-Nordic airlines didn’t grab this callsign. Vikings are even cooler than dragons.

Xanadu – Air Asia
I love this one because it makes me think of the Rush song, which is best heard live on the "Exit Stage Left" album.

Yeti – Yeti Airlines
Well, it’s a perfect name for a Nepalese airline, and a perfect code for the perfect name.

Bushair – Air Queensland
This is yet another example of my good Australia friends using the word "bush" in a way that might make Americans giggle. I’m still recovering from my encounter with a distillery that used the phrase "A True Taste of the Australian Bush" on its label.

Bambi – Allied Air, Nigeria
I’m surprised the Walt Disney Corporation hasn’t gone charging after these guys with all lawyers blazing.

If you want to see a huge list of airline callsigns (including honorable mentions like Tweety, Mermaid, Musketeer, Pirate and, yes, Airgoat!), Wikipedia has a pretty solid list.


How I Make My Airline Choices

airline choices
The 787 Dreamliner makes United a serious choice for flights to Asia – now it needs to keep up to South America.

I’m not one to tell an airline "I’ll never fly you again." But I definitely have a pecking order for my airline choices. And I will absolutely pay more for an airline I prefer. I wonder how many other people are in the same – ahem – plane of existence (I thought "same boat" would be mixing my metaphors). So tell me about your airline packing order, and I’ll share mine with you -- I’m going to break my list our by domestic and international, base on those I’ve flown before. Airline alliance membership continues to be a huge factor for me, and I’m often willing to shell out more to stick with my preferred Star Alliance. And I’d also like to here what makes you make your airline choices – what’s beyond the ticket price for you?

For Those Little Domestic Trips

airline choices
Delta could become a bigger option in my future.

United Airlines
I have the overwhelming majority of my frequent flier miles through the United Airlines OnePass, so it’s one of my top airline choices. I started flying Continental about 15 years ago, and stayed on-board during the United merger. I’ve never had a bad experience -- and I’ve even had a few great flights. Booking is always easy, though I’ve sometimes had to chase down my mileage credits. Plus, United Airlines is based at my favorite terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Extra bonus!

Delta Air Lines
I don’t fly Delta very often. Sky Harbor isn’t a hub, and I haven’t collected a fistful of miles or anything. Most of them have been somewhat accidental. But I also haven’t had any truly bad experiences (I was even able to endure a poopy-diaper sort of stink on a flight to Minneapolis). Since I don’t fly Delta very often, I don’t hoard SKyMiles like Smaug guarding his gold – and it’s easy to donate SkyMiles to my preferred charity -- you won’t believe how important air miles are to nonprofit organizations.

airline choices
Southwest is a nonfactor because of its loyalty program.

American Airlines/US Air
The merger between these two airlines has really made them fall in my rankings. Over the past few months, I’ve tried a few times to merge my accounts. Every single time, I got "Our system is down" or "Your records do not match" messages. Blah.

American is also eager to talk about its fleet renewal, but I still see a lot of silver MD80s flying over Phoenix -- though I don’t mind the US Air domestic fleet. I know this is the domestic portion of this post, but I have avoided flying these airlines on international routes: American’s fleet is still pretty old, and I really dislike the US Airways choice of the Airbus A330 (my least-favorite airliner). The combined mega-airline isn’t doing itself any favors with its continuing difficulties in merging my AAdvantage and Dividend Miles accounts.

airline choices
Asiana flights are always amazing … now, if only it went to more destinations!

Southwest Airlines
Some people love Southwest Airlines. I get it. The employees are genuinely nice and the fleet is pretty modern. But when I fly, I want air miles that I can apply to my big trips -- my international, intercontinental adventures. Southwest Airlines makes itself a nonfactor as one of my airline choices with a loyalty program that does nothing to help me reach exotic destinations.

For My International Adventures Abroad
This is a tough category. My airline choices for international flights are closely linked to my destination. If I had my way, Air New Zealand and Asiana Airlines would be able to take me anywhere I want to go. But nope, that’s not the reality. So let me break it out by region.

airline choices
Norwegian Air Shuttle could also benefit from an airline alliance.

Asiana Airlines stand out among my other airline choices anywhere in Asia, even if flying through the Incheon hub costs me a bit of time. I flew All Nippon Airways on my last trip to Asia – and while its service absolutely schools US-based airlines, it still takes a backseat to Asiana.

Now, Hawaiian Airlines remains an intriguing option I haven’t yet tried. It flies directly from Phoenix to Honolulu, and then from many points to Asia and Oceania. The only not-so-great factor is the potentially awful choice of the Airbus A330; if Hawaiian Airlines was wise enough to equip them with air conditioning nozzles at every seat (which SAS and Vietnam Airlines do not do), I’d be OK with the A330.

United Airlines is a factor as one of my airline choices – the crew of its 787 flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles International Airport does credit to the airline. But it still falls short of Asiana or All Nippon Airways if all things are equal.

airline choices
I’d like to give one of the Virgin airlines a shot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a dilemma here: I want to pick Norwegian Air Shuttle – yep, a low-cost carrier. Its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet puts it above SAS and its Airbuses. And even though there’s a British Airways flight to London directly from Phoenix, I’m more likely to start my trip in Scandinavia -- and I haven’t heard many frequent travelers sing the praises of British Airways. On the other hand, I’ve experienced great service on every single Norwegian Air Shuttle flight. Granted, those were short-haul flights. But still, I think that will translate well to intercontinental flights. But a flight on Norwegian Air Shuttle would net me zero airline miles. That doesn’t sit well for one of my airline choices. If it’s part of an airline alliance, I don’t know about it. I’d be thrilled to be wrong about this.

So where does this leave me? With Air New Zealand. I can take a short flight to Los Angeles International Airport and grab an Air New Zealand flight to London. The quick stopover nets me an excellent airline, a shiny new Boeing 777 and a fistful of air miles on a Star Alliance member airline.

South America
It’s hard to get to South America from Phoenix on anything but American Airlines or United Airlines. I’ll give the nod to United Airlines – as I have twice – since it’s a Star Alliance member and is generally decent.

But I haven’t been able to try a South American carrier like TAM or LAN. That’s pretty disappointing.

One Airline I’d Love to Try

I already mentioned the Norwegian Air Shuttle intercontinental flights. But I’d also be eager to try any Virgin airline – America, Atlantic or Australia. I’m trying to parse its codeshare agreements, which seem all over the board.

There are no Virgin America flights from Sky Harbor, though. If that ever changes, I’d be up for some Virgin America flights. The praise-complaint ratio for Virgin airlines remains far into the positive, so I’d consider this great news.


Best Passenger Planes Flying Today

best passenger planes
The 747 … the Queen of the Skies. Flying everywhere you want to go for a little longer. (Taken at Seoul Gimpo Airport)

Some people will tell you that an airliner is an airliner. Don’t believe them. When I book an intercontinental flight, I base my purchase on price, schedule, airline/alliance and – you’d better believe it – aircraft type. Once you read a bit about my observations about the best passenger planes, I dare you to stick by any notions that airliners are all the same.

best passenger planes
Sky Harbor sees only one 747 a day.

The Boeing Family


Avgeeks call the 747 the Queen of the Skies. From the outside, this is one graceful, iconic machine -- especially in its -400 and new 8 incarnations. My only recent 747 flights have been on Qantas (LA to Sydney, LA to Auckland), and it’s a comfortable experience even in the cheap coach seats.

The thing is, this is a wide airplane. Three seats, an aisle, four seats, an aisle and three seats. So there’s a good chance of getting wedged in a middle seat. That kind of stinks. But you’ll be able to get up and walk around without banging your head.

Your experience will vary by airline. Not all of them will have on-demand entertainment like Qantas. That makes a difference when your flight spans continents.

By the way, the 747 is kind of headed for extinction. Fly one while you still can (my ideal would be the Lufthansa 747-8). It’s a piece of history. And damn, it’s just beautiful.

Grade – B

best passenger planes
Hawaiian Airlines has solid 767s still flying. But they’re making way for Airbus A330s.


Here’s what every avgeek loves about the 767 – only one true middle row seat because of the plane’s 2-3-2 configuration. The odds will be ever in your favor for a chance to get up and stroll around (the perfect plane for Mr. Trololo?).

The problem is, most 767s are obnoxiously old. Few will have on-demand entertainment; my Kindle saved me during a flight from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City, and I needed some good books on my Qantas flight from Sydney to Darwin. Both examples of the type were getting stained and rough around the edges. The Asiana 767 I flew from Incheon to Tokyo and back, though, was closer to showroom condition.

Beware: United Airlines and American Airlines still fly 767s on long routes, especially to South America. Do your homework before booking because this is not one of the best passenger planes.

Grade – C

best passenger planes
The Boeing 777 is one of the best passenger planes, inside and out.


This big, efficient twinjet is the reason that the 747 is on its way out. And another thing: Depending on your airline of choice, this could be the best passenger plane aloft. My LA to Seoul flight on Asiana was a thing of beauty -- a quiet airliner that barely bucked through a bunch of Pacific storm clouds. Oh, and the water fountains! Rather than relying on a flight attendant to stay hydrated, I could walk to the nearest water fountain with my Vapur bottle and fill up. Why not every widebody has this, I cannot fathom. Love!

Now, Asiana’s 777s are shiny-spotless. I can’t say the same for United Airlines (Dulles-Sao Paolo, Rio to Houston). No water fountains, a bit dingy -- but still workable on-demand entertainment. At its best, one of the best passenger planes.

Grade – B+

best passenger planes
A United Dreamliner preps for a flight from Houston to Chicago.


It was years late in taking to the skies. It’s had a few hiccups. But right now, the 787 is one of the best passenger planes. I went out of my way to take a United Airlines Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago just because I’m a ridiculous idiot. The LED-equipped cabin was nice, as was the on-demand entertainment. But it was tough to tell if it was really the "moonshot" it was supposed to be.

best passenger planes
The 787 has the sleekest, most-modern cabin of any plane I’ve flown.

Until I took one from San Jose to Tokyo on All Nippon Airlines. Holy cow. Now, my wife is no avgeek. But she asked what was up with this cool plane after a few hours aloft. Was it the higher humidity, the higher cabin pressure, the big windows or the quiet cabin that she noticed? Probably a magic combination of the above. No water fountain, though. ANA also has footrests that are pretty great for shorter passengers, but tall guys like me will probably find that they get in the way.

Do watch out for the wild toilet contraptions in the ANA 787 lavatories. Take some video – it’s worth the fun! The Dreamliner’s electronics suite supposedly helps it avoid turbulence. But the route to Tokyo was pretty bumpy. This poor 787 got absolutely rocked most of the way.

There’s one thing I don’t like very much about the 787 – the dimmable windows. They don’t completely block the light as a window shade would. So your window can get hot – not good for leaning your head against it to catch some sleep.

Also, beware the not all airlines configure their 787 the same. ANA had a 2-4-2 layout versus the United Airlines 3-3-3. So United’s seats are a little skinnier, and you have a good chance of landing a middle seat. ANA does a nice job in its four-across portion, separating the two pairs of seats with a generous armrest.

Grade – A

best passenger planes
This SAS Airbus A330 didn’t convince me that it’s one of the best passenger

The Airbus Lineup


My first A330 flight was on SAS from Chicago O’Hare to Stockholm Arlanda. The plane had been sitting in the sun for hours, and I have to guess the APU was off because the cabin was hot. Not a problem on most planes – you just aim the little air nozzle at your head and let it rip. Well, the SAS A330 doesn’t have the nozzles. Neither does the Vietnam Airlines A330 (HCMC to Hanoi). The SAS flight needed nearly two hours of flight to cool down.

best passenger planes
This Iberia A340 is headed for the scrap heap.

That’s my only quibble with the A330. The SAS flight had top-notch on-demand entertainment. The Vietnam flight didn’t, but it was configured for dense short-haul flights. So no big deal.

I have to say though, that the air nozzle situation means the Airbus is not one of the best passenger planes. Though I’ll give it points for looking like a muscle car of the skies. Beautiful plane.

Grade – D

Still Need a Ride On --


Not very different from the A330 – just a few more engines for those extra-long flights. Some people think it’s even better-looking than the A330. I wonder if it has air nozzles …

best passenger planes
The A380 – one of many widebodies nesting at any given Asian airport. Taken at Incheon.


Patrick Smith is right. This humongous aircraft is ugly as sin. Bigger than the Boeing 747, but it just looks … irradiated. Well, I hear the experience on the inside is great – smooth and quiet. I’d hate to be at the baggage carousel when one of these monsters rumbles in, though.


Hearing Impaired Fliers – How Can Airlines Help?

What would you do if you couldn’t hear all the announcements during a flight?

On a recent flight, I wound up sitting next to a passenger who was on the quiet side. It only took me a few moments to figure out she was hearing-impaired. I can’t tell to what degree. All I knew: She didn’t respond to announcements – from the “no electronics” announcement to beverage service.

I’m pretty sure the crew had to realize the passenger was hearing impaired. I can’t say they went out of their way to help her or keep her aware of what’s up; they didn’t even say anything to her about keeping her eReader on during the last bit of the descent. Of course, I chalked that up as evidence that consumer electronics have no affect on the airplane’s instrumentation (the FAA is even seeking comment on the topic of consumer electronics). The crew was very nice overall, but they seemed to overcompensate in not treating a hearing-impaired passenger different from anyone else. Her window seat probably made the situation a bit more difficult, too.

The situation made me wonder – how should airline cabin crews deal with hearing-impaired passengers? Do any of you know about their policies? If you’re hearing-impaired, how would you prefer to get information from the cabin crew? I know that I’d be willing to help out a fellow passenger in that situation.


IcelandAir – Random Travel Photo

Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

IcelandAir has a cool practice: It names its aircraft after Icelandic volcanoes. I took two flights on Hekla, to and from JFK airport in New York. While I was waiting for a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight in Bergen, Norway, guess who showed up?

Well, it was the IcelandAir 757 Grimsvötn. I always thought the 757 is a particularly good-looking airplane. Something about the IcelandAir colors – and naming them after volcanoes – makes them even more sleek and slick. So I snapped a photo … and got jealous that I wasn’t going to Reykjavik anytime soon. Still, I guess a flight to Helsinki isn’t such a bad thing.

You can check out a complete list of the names of IcelandAir planes. Just be sure to scroll down to Fleet List.


Air Miles, Student Travelers and More: Ideas for Airlines

If any airline can make flying cool again, it’s V Australia – it’s all about destinations, image and cultivating young travelers.

It’s time for a smart airline to cultivate tomorrow’s frequent fliers: teenagers and students.

My niece, Emily, recently turned 16. My wife and I want to get her a batch of frequent flier miles as soon as her parents get her an account with her preferred airline (that’s a not so subtle hint to my brother, Erich). The last time I visited Emily, she said she’d like to visit Australia. Right there, I had the idea in my head: Get her some air miles. That’s been easier to say than to do – and airlines are missing a major opportunity.

How Airlines Can Step Up

First off, offer deals for student flights. Maybe even tie it into an incentive based on grades or scholarships. Second, offer a promotion that encourages parents to open air miles accounts for their kids. Give a slight break on the cost of the miles, and throw in some sort of cool extra. Like what? Maybe a discount card good at hostels world-wide. Maybe a single-use day pass to an airline lounge. Maybe a tour of the airline’s hub operation to see what it’s like to work at an airline. Whatever it is, make it functional or creative – both, if possible. Show student travelers that they’re important – now and in the future.

Make Flying Cool Again

Airlines and their marketers forget something: that student travelers are blasé about the experience of flying. They’ve grown up in a world where people think flights are stressful, inconvenient glorified bus rides. The adults around them are indifferent to how great it is to fly across the country at 35,000 feet.

That’s not the way I grew up. Flying was cool. I looked forward to the flight just as much as the destination. Any forward-thinking airline can give this back to a new generation of fliers. They’ll need some help from an older generation of fliers, but it can work. It could build loyalty through air miles and just making young travelers feel welcome.

Give student travelers are a chance to have dinner in Chicago and then wake up to breakfast a few hours away from Sydney, and you’ll have them hooked for life.

Got Any Ideas?

Let me put the question to teens and their parents: What sort of "Welcome to Travel" frequent flier offer would get student travelers excited? What besides air miles would help?

This post is sponsored by Student Flights, providers of student travel, cheap international flights, cheap hotels, round the world flights and more.


End of the “Ask the Pilot” Bad for Travel Industry and Readers

From exotic destinations to behind-the-scenes info, Patrick Smith and "Ask the Pilot" entertain and inform.

[Editor’s Note 06/11/12: It appears that a hacker busted into Patrick Smith’s “” site. I will keep an eye on the situation. For now, it might be best to avoid it just in case any nasty malware lives in the hacked site.

UPDATE 6/12/12: It looks like Patrick has booted the hacker from his site and is working to restore normal service.

UPDATE 7/25/12 – Looks like Ask The Pilot is off the ground. Congrats, Patrick, and good luck!]

If there’s one thing the travel industry doesn’t need, it’s one less reasonable, intelligent voice.

But that’s what we’ll all have if really does kill the long-running Ask the Pilot column. Patrick Smith, a 757/767 first officer, entertains and informs like few other aviators every time he publishes a new post.

Smith debunks myths. He thinks aloud about dismal destinations. He explains what really happens behind the scenes. He proves his enthusiasm for his lift aloft. He rakes the Transportation Security Theater Administration over the coals early and often.

Not good enough for, apparently. Several readers have said that Smith has informed them of the column’s imminent demise. Since he hasn’t announced it himself, it makes me wonder if a strong enough Internet response can right the ship.

If not, maybe a better publication will lure Smith to continue. I never read before discovering Ask the Pilot. I probably won’t should he depart; I rarely see anything on Salon that I can’t get elsewhere.

Every travel agent, airline and just about anyone in the travel industry should rise in Smith’s favor. His reasonable discourses takes fear out of flying, for those that need it. It encourages curiosity and reminds us how cool it is that we can afford to fly all over the world. He’s no travel industry apologist – he takes the industry to task, when warranted.

Ask the Pilot is exactly what the travel industry needs – to inform travelers and to improve itself. If the column does come to an end, we won’t be better for it.

The semi-good news: You can still visit Patrick Smith at his Ask the Pilot website. Let’s hope his words land in a place where they’ll be well-read.

And if you’re eager for more writing from a pilot, check out Rand Peck: A Life Aloft.


Travel in Japan – Tips and Ideas

If you're traveling to Japan, think about starting in Osaka. (Photo by JKT-c)

A five-day visit to Japan just isn’t enough. While I managed to squeeze a lot into my short visit, I didn’t even scratch the surface.

I enjoyed a few days in Tokyo, plus an overnight trip out to Hakone. That leaves a lot I skipped. If you want to know a few fun things about my stay, check out my Yahoo! Voices story "Six Cool Things to Expect During a Visit to Tokyo". You’ll find out that, behind the weirdness and cleanliness, you’ll be surprised by a friendly vibe rare in such large cities.

Kansai International Airport from the Air (photo by TDK)

But for now, I’m left to ponder what I’d do during a longer visit to Japan. First up, I’d think about my starting place. It doesn’t have to be Tokyo. I’d look into Osaka flights just to start off a bit further from Tokyo. And I’ll admit it – the air travel nerd in me loves the idea checking out Kansai International Airport, which is built on an artificial island.

And it’s not like Osaka is actually some small town: It’s Japan’s second-largest metro area, with plenty to do -- temples, shrines, amusement parks, museums and a ton of sports. High on my list? Sumo! I missed all the sumo action during my last abbreviated trip – and there’s no way I’ll make the same mistake.

Awesome Japanese bullet trains. (By Rdb at de.wikipedia Later versions were uploaded by Srittau at de.wikipedia)

And allow me to unshackle my inner travel geek again: I also didn’t get to use the awesome Japanese bullet train. The Korean KTX train was a revelation, and I’d like to give it a go in Japan. I could catch a bullet train in Osaka to several other cities.

I also like the architecture in Osaka. You have the usual mix of skyscrapers, but with some wild and crazy stuff like the Umeda Sky building. And as a mountain biker, I’d want to see what sort of building Shimano – which builds the majority of the bike components I’ve used over the years – calls home.

Of course, I’d still make my way from Osaka to Tokyo, but with a detour or two along the way. I might also swing further south. With a country like Japan, I can head in nearly every direction and find something interesting.

I thought about visiting Yokohama, but I couldn’t spare the time while still seeing Hakone. Next time around, I’ll carve time out for it.

If you plan to head to travel in Japan, you’re sure to find it just as interesting. But give yourself more time than I did!

This post is sponsored by Flight Centre and its experiences, highly trained experts who are dedicated to finding the best travel deal for any destination and any budget. They are widely traveled and enthusiastic about travel.


Random Photo Fun – This is Air Travel!

This kid gets it.

Air travel sucks, and you know it. There’s the bad service. Nickle-and-diming passengers for every item of checked luggage, every in-flight beverage. The Transportation Security Administration and its fear-mongering brand of crazy. The dry cabin air. The delays. The cancelled flights. The airport traffic. The corpulent passenger whose bulk spills into your seat. It’s blaring TVs in the concourses, lost luggage, overpriced water, taking your shoes off to get through security. Laptops out of the bag, everything out of your pockets!

This is air travel.

Now, look at the photo. You can only see a nose, one eye, a bit of a mouth … and a glow, a manifestation of wonder. This kid holds no grudge about being herded like cattle or being treated like a potential terrorist. The swirl of air travel-related angst you experience? It never reaches him. It only reaches the older, “smarter” people. He looks down on the earth. The houses shrink. The cars are tiny. And look at the mountains from here! He ate breakfast in a desert, but lunch will be by the seaside. And he’ll get to do it again when he goes home, probably the only good thing about the end of a vacation.

This is air travel!


Airport Needs to Cut Specialty Lines, Improve Signs

Southwest Airlines, 737-700
All I want is a clear path through security and a seat on my flight with as little fuss as possible.

During a recent flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I had a reminder that the security screening processes are concocted by people who are disconnected from reality.

It was actually a fairly light morning at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4 as I was headed toward the checkpoint. I made sure I didn’t accidentally slip into the first class line and made my way to the agent. Her first words?

“Next time, make sure you don’t use the medical and family line.”

I told her I didn’t notice the sign.

“It’s there,” she said rather shortly.

I looked back again. All I remember is NOT seeing a sign for the first class line. But I also know that arguing with a surly TSA agent is not the way to get to a gate on time.

What I did was file the tidbit away for further reflection. And here are my conclusions:

1. There are too many specific lines that are too underused. There was not a single body in the first class line. There was not a single body in the alleged “medical and family” line. If nobody is there, why bother with them? It seems like a lot of effort for a tiny portion of the passengers. And why should TSA cater to airline customers? It’s not like you get frequent flier mileage for passing through TSA checkpoints.

2. When I’m headed toward a security checkpoint, I am driven for efficiency. That’s so I don’t hold up the line and consequently other people (who might be later getting to the airport than I usually am). I have my boarding pass and driver’s license in hand. Even though I thinks it’s a ridiculous mockery of true security, I’m unlacing my shoes to take them off already. I’m ready to clear the items in my pockets.

That’s where I focus my attention. If the airport has a bunch of lines for first class customers, medical and family, people with gluten allergies, passengers who prefer pot-bellied pigs to dogs and customers who drive hybrid cars … make clear, concise signs in large typeface. I am too busy trying to pass my way through the intestinal tract that is a TSA security line to notice tiny, poorly written signs. Make them big and make them concise, or don’t bother.

Better yet, test the signs out using real-world travelers – a nice mix of leisure and business fliers. If you have suits making these decision, they won’t be under the stress of getting to a gate on-time or the prospect of holding up a bunch of their fellow fliers.