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 Airfares Can Drive You Crazy

Straight answers are pretty rare when it comes to airfares. Just look at my recent search for flights to Auckland Airport. I priced out airfares for two adults and an infant just to get the conversation of our next trip started.

As usual, I started searching for airfares with a pretty broad Google Flights search – any airline, any alliance, pretty much any anything. This gave me a pretty good idea of what was out there. Hawaiian Airlines came out on top.

airfaresNow, I’m one of those guys who likes to maximize his frequent flier mileage haul. So once I find a flight that works, I check to see if it shares an alliance with an airline where I have a good chunk of miles. In this case, Hawaiian Airlines is in a bit of a weird state – it doesn’t seem to be a member of an airline alliance; its website lists American Airlines as a partner, but that status seems iffy, as well: The website says “**Important information on our partnership with American Airlines: The last day to earn HawaiianMiles on eligible American Airlines flights was December 31, 2015. Flights with travel dates after December 31, 2015 will not be eligible to earn HawaiianMiles.**

So, flying Hawaiian won’t let me use any miles that I have, and it won’t earn me anything. That’s a bummer. If Hawaiian was still an American partner, I could’ve presumably booked through AA.com to get on a Hawaiian flight and still earn some AAdvantage miles. I did a flight search, though, and Hawaiian wasn’t an option. And the less said about American’s options, the better – it’s the only airline that isn’t set up to get me to Auckland with one stop. I’d have to fly to Australia first.

This is all a disappointment because flying Hawaiian Airlines would let me skip visiting LAX, which is yet to win me over, humongous redesign or not. Its airfares are also reasonable.

So, what about other options?

airfares

Air New Zealand is also a solid choice and offers decent pricing through its own website. About $3,500 in airfares for a family is pretty good, and Air New Zealand gets solid reviews from customers.

 

airfaresNow, if I try booking on the United Airlines (one of Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance partners) website, the airfare shoots skyward. The price for an infant is $1,819! The price through the United Airlines website is nearly $3,000 than booking through the Air New Zealand site. I just cannot fathom this.

Delta Air Lines also couldn’t get us to Auckland with one stop, so I skipped them, too. Their airfares were also a few hundred dollars per ticket off the mark.

Clearly, booking through the Air New Zealand website is by far the winner here. It makes me really question the benefits of the airline alliances if you have the huge of a price variance even among member airlines for the same flight.

 

Cool Airline Callsigns – And One That Just Retired.

callsigns
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.

callsigns
Here there by … Vikings! (By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

callsigns
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.

Chasing the Dreamliner – A Lesson in Aviation Photography

aviation photography
Nearly everyone in aviation photography is trying to get nice shots of a Dreamliner in the air.

This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.

I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.

aviation photography
Here I am trying to get artsy with a Dreamliner photo. This is the most-distant shot I got; but even from so far away, the huge upswing of the wings screams “Dreamliner.” The wings droop down considerably on the ground.

I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport -- and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.

Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.

aviation photography
The flag makes in interesting foreground object in this Dreamliner shot.

Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.

Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west -- and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.

aviation photography
The light poles, powerlines and billboards were making me crazy.

The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.

As it was, I found a decent place to park -- a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.

aviation photography
My favorite one since it was so up-close and personal.

My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.

After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed -- and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.

Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.

There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.

American Airlines Review – 4 Domestic Flights

American Airlines review
English: DFW American Airlines Departure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never done an American Airlines review – I don’t live in one of its hub cities, so I rarely fly it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I needed to grab a last-minute flight to Washington, D.C. United and American Airlines were dollars away from each other. From there, my choice came down to fleet versus flight times. And the American Airlines schedule worked in my favor, so it was my choice for these flights (PHX-DFW, DFW-BWI – BWI-ORD, ORD-PHX).

Here are a few thoughts that should give you an American Airlines review that covers more than a few bases, from social media to check in.

The American Airlines Fleet

As I mentioned earlier, fleet is often a deciding factor. And American Airlines does not have one of my favorite fleets; its MD-80 planes are long in the tooth at best – American Airlines may call it the Super 80, but there’s little super about it. I poked some fun at the Mad Dog-80 with this Twitter message.

Justin Schmid ‏@wandering_j23h

.@AmericanAir should dress its flight crews in steampunk clothes to match its raggedy MD-80s. #travel #airlines #avgeek

American Airlines responded with this tweet:

American Airlines ‏@AmericanAir23h

@wandering_j Justin, our fleet is evolving! Check here for more info: http://bit.ly/AAEvolution

American Airlines review
I still haven’t flown a shiny American Airlines 777 for an intercontinental flight. Fodder for a future review?

Fair play to American Airlines for the response, and a friendly exchange of follow-up tweets. I’d like to think that anyone involved in social media got a giggle out of the notion of steampunked flight attendants. Bottom line, though, my recent domestic flight on a United Airlines Dreamliner was a big difference from the American Airlines Mad Dog. Planes change the game for some people, and a few hours of difference in schedule could’ve made American Airlines lose this booking. On the plus side: It’s easy to avoid middle seats on an MD-80 because of its 2-3 seat configuration. It’s also a quiet ride if you’re up front, but a roaring beast in the back.

Where American Airlines Gets Technology Right

When I boarded my flight, I peered into the all-analog cockpit of the MD-80 and noticed that the first officer had an iPad docked on the instrument panel (the captain may have, too, but I didn’t have the angle). I guessed it was a supplement to paper charts. I was close: The iPad is a complete replacement for paper charts and manuals. An article in American Way, the American Airlines inflight magazine, gives some interesting stats:

  • 400,000 gallons of fuel savings from reduced weight
  • 24 million fewer pages printed
  • Electronic updates save hours versus hand-written updates of paper manuals

Before flying, I also downloaded the American Airlines Android app. I hadn’t gotten an email confirmation for my flight, and I wanted to cover all my bases. The app worked beautifully, which scores some points in my American Airlines review. It presented no problems for the TSA agents, nor for the gate agents. It reminded me of last year’s flights in Scandinavia, when upwards of 90 percent of passengers on my flights boarded with smart phones. Also, American Airlines updated the (admittedly paltry) miles in my account quite quickly.

In the Air

I didn’t interact much with the flight attendants. There was no meal service on any of my flights, and I filled my 24-ounce water bottle before boarding each leg. It was mostly just a nap-and-read affair for me. The flight attendant on the flight from BWI to O’Hare managed to get some chuckles for his wordplay during the safety speech (I’ve noticed a pattern lately – some really good FAs on regional jets).

American Airlines Review Bottom Line

The fleet renewal can’t come soon enough for me. American Airlines scores points with a website that I find easy to use, even when cashing in frequent flier miles. A few years ago, I snagged a first class upgrade for AAdvantage miles – and the transaction was smooth as a curling rock’s bottom. Better planes can give American Airlines a leg up against the shiny United Airlines fleet that I’ve enjoyed so much for domestic trips.

I have mixed feelings about the potential merger with US Airways, my current hometown airline. I like the US Airways Star Alliance airlines far better than the oneworld counterparts.

Wrapping it up, I haven’t flown a long-haul flight on American. I have a hard time handing my cash over to a US-based airline for an intercontinental flight when I have a wealth of evidence that foreign carriers trounce them in Economy-equivalent class: Qantas and Asiana Airlines brutally pasted United Airlines in my recent intercontinental flights. Even the relatively so-so SAS comprehensively outperformed United Airlines. So, I can’t say much about what American Airlines offers those riding in the back. Who knows, though? Maybe that’ll be the topic of a future American Airlines review.

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American Airlines and US Airways Merger – One Traveler’s Wish List

Coming soon to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport?

American Airlines and US Airways are destined to merge, if you believe the many airline industry talking heads. If the merger is inevitable, it opens many questions and concerns. But I don’t want to go there. Instead, I offer my wish list for an American Airline and US Airways merger. Are my suggestions practical or workable? I have no idea. But they’re food for thought. What would you add?

Follow US Airways into the Star Alliance
When I fly US Airways, I earn miles that I could use on Asiana Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand or even United Airlines. That gets me to a lot of great destinations on highly rated airlines (well, except for United). On American’s OneWorld side, Qantas and Cathay Pacific are the best offerings. Star Alliance just has a bigger, better footprint.

More intercontinental flights from Phoenix
The nation’s seventh-largest metro area has some of the most meager, provincial airline service in the country. It has just one not-even-daily intercontinental flight to London Heathrow. London is a great gateway to the rest of Europe, and there are plenty of London hotels and other attractions. But for other intercontinental hubs, I have to fly to LAX, Houston, New York or Chicago first. That’s intolerable, and the American Airlines – US Airways merger could be a game changer for a metro area of 4.2 million people. More intercontinental flights would take a bite out of a major obstacle for leisure travel: time and stops.

Turn it into a true US flag carrier
When an American flies a national carrier like Qantas, Air New Zealand or Asiana, we get our very first taste of the countries they represent. And next to U.S.-based airlines, they’re a revelation. Look at what our domestic carriers offer visitors from abroad: a bunch of airlines rated at three stars by Skytrax. A merged American Airlines and US Airways should make it their mandate to represent the U.S. around the globe – and they need to aim for airlines that people enjoy flying.

Bring back the 747
The 747 represents American innovation and longevity. Its latest iteration, the 747-8i, is a magnificent piece of technology. Is it not strange that two airlines that name-drop the country’s name don’t have the 747 in their fleets? Bring it back and, along with the 787, the merged US Airways and American Airlines will represent some of the best ideas in commercial aviation.

Re-Brand with a vengeance
Make this a new beginning. Think of this as using existing assets to create a new entity with no bad baggage. Make it destroy pre-conceived notions. New logos, new liveries, new attitudes, new destinations, new mission, new culture. Make this opportunity more than another bland merger.

This post is sponsored by expedia.co.uk, part of the world’s largest online travel company. It features millions of published and discounted fares from more than 450 airlines. You’ll also find comprehensive online destination guides, maps and more and expedia.uk.com.

Scenes from Chicago in the Summer

If you’re planning to visit Chicago, summer is the best time. Check out the photos and you’ll see a city that comes alive when the weather gets warmer. To be honest, it’s nowhere near my favorite American city. But I still had a decent time. The architecture is very cool, and you can get just about anywhere on-foot with enough time. On the downside, the food is overrated and so is Navy Pier. The public spaces, as you’ll see below, are also first-rate with parks scattered throughout the downtown area.

It's a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.
The amazing giant chrome bean of Chicago

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Flying With MREs – Banned or Not?

When it comes to flying, you can’t be too careful these days when it comes to packing. Since my upcoming trip is going to involve backpacking in Iceland, I decided to take some military Meals, Ready To Eat packages.

Then I paused. The MREs all come with this little self-heating thing. I decided to check with the authorities to check on whether flying with MREs is allowed. I wrote to Delta Airlines, which we’re flying from Phoenix to JFK, and Icelandair, which will take us the rest of the way. I explained my plan, and specific that I’d have the MREs in checked baggage. Here are their answers.

flying with MREs
MRE 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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