Cool Airline Callsigns – And One That Just Retired.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

A Quick Guide to Sky Harbor International Airport

This post is sponsored by airportparkingreservations.com, which has helped more than 2.4 million people save time and money on parking at more than 85 major airports in North America. Check out the airportparkingreservations.com blog to read information about the latest airport news and issues. You can also follow its Twitter account.

Sky Harbor about to fall under the veil of a monsoon-season haboob. (Wikimedia Commons)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is in a constant state of change. Perpetual construction, evolving security protocols and the addition of a "people mover" to connect to the Metro Light Rail shake things up with every visit. Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time here to understand Sky Harbor’s flow. This is my insider guide to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

 

It’s a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.

The Layout
Sky Harbor has three terminals numbered two through four. T4 is the biggest, the most modern and also the most generic. The visitor experience varies greatly, with the nicest portions serving Southwest Airlines. T3 is smaller, older -- but possessing a certain kitschy 1980s Arizona charm. Then there’s T2 – which was once super-cool but completely ruined by the TSA’s security effort. It once had an eye-catching, airy entryway. Everything has shrunk to accommodate the security lines. But there’s something very cool about T2 -- more on that soon.

The Players
Despite its name, Sky Harbor is really an overgrown domestic airport. It’s a major hub for Southwest Airlines and US Airways, both of which hog T4. And while US Airways flies to places like Tel Aviv and even Helsinki, it sure doesn’t do it from Phoenix. A daily British Airways flight connects Sky Harbor to London. American Airlines (T3) isn’t a major player here, nor is United (T2). [UPDATE April 2014: The US Airways/American Airlines merger changes this. American Airlines is now at Terminal 4 and becoming more important. The future is still in flux for what the merger means for Sky Harbor’s hub status.]

The Big Secrets
These are my two biggest insider secrets about Phoenix Sky Harbor, and I’ve never seen any other blog mention them.

Boeing 767 Hawaiian Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines – a way to fly international from Phoenix without a stop at LAX. (Photo by Dylan Ashe)

First, try to book flights on airlines serving Terminal 2. What? The oldest terminal? Yes. Because it’s small, the odds of getting lost or missing a flight due to a gate change or long TSA line plummet. You can also walk from the West Economy lot directly to the terminal in moments – the only place st Sky Harbor where that’s possible. Airlines serving T2 include United, Alaska Airlines and Great Lakes Airlines.

My second tip is for international/intercontinental travelers. Phoenicians are generally forced to San Francisco or Los Angeles for intercontinental flights. Both are pretty harried airports, but LAX is definitely worse. If you’re headed west to the International Date Line, you have another option: skipping West Coast connections with Hawaiian Airlines (at T3). It has daily flights to Honolulu, which can then connect you to Japan, Tahiti, the Philippines, Korea and (drum roll, please) Australia. I haven’t flown Hawaiian Airlines – but considering their interactions with followers on Twitter, it seems this is an airline that gets it -- that wants to make air travel fun.

Plethora of Parking
There’s really no shortage of cheap parking at Phoenix Sky Harbor – you have choices between the Economy lots on-site, plus private off-site parking. If you’re into planning ahead and you leave yourself enough time, off-site parking is a solid option. You’ll find it a bit more secure and generally less-crowded. Another bonus: They’re easier to get to. Recent construction has completely changed most of the roads leading into Sky Harbor. I can no longer drive in relying on memory. It’s a roadscape in flux, and you can just leave it to the shuttle driver if you park off the grounds.

US Airways – a big dog at Sky Harbor.

If you want on-site covered parking, you can find it right at the terminals. But be prepared to pay through the nose. The covered parking at the East Economy lot is far more affordable, but you’ll have to catch the shuttle to the terminals. This can be a factor if you’re running late or facing summer heat (the bus stops in the Economy Lot reflect a lot of heat).

Grabbing a Bite
I rarely eat at Sky Harbor. There’s usually time for me to grab a snack at home before showing up for my flight. If I run low on time, though, there are some options beyond the usual fast-food, bland, greasy megacorporation options: Several local restaurants will open at Sky Harbor. The standouts: Cartel Coffee Lab, Press Coffee, Le Grande Orange and Barrio Cafe. I’d like to see Pita Jungle set up shop, too – and not like its mall locations, but with its actual sit-down menu.

Keep this info in mind whenever your flights take you to Sky Harbor. You’ll be in, out, well-fed and less frustrated. You might even have a little fun.

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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Around the World in 48 Hours – Flying Standby

The World Race starts and ends right here in Phoenix.

Marc Jorgensen and a group of four friends from the Phoenix area will soon fly around the world in 48 hours, all on standby.

Yes, some people might call this hell. But Marc and his crew are calling it the 2011 World Race. And to any airplane geek, it’s a plan sure to provoke some envy. Marc and his buddies (all self-described "airline analyst nerds") will fly different directions, departing on Feb. 25. They’re also adding scavenger hunt elements such as snapping a photo of the cutest flight attendant and the greatest, biggest, bushiest beard – which may or may not be on a flight attendant.

Marc, who works for US Airways, gave me the scoop on his grand plans below. If you are intrigued as I am, the group has a 2011 World Race Facebook page and a Twitter account. Like, ‘em, follow ‘em, cheer ‘em on! In the meantime, enjoy Marc’s answers!

1. What do you do for US Airways?

I am an analyst in Revenue Management. I work with yield management which is primarily adjusting the fare levels to maximize revenue on each flight.

2. There are lots of people who don’t like air travel. How do you explain this trip to people who just don’t understand the appeal?

We will be using some airlines with fantastic inflight entertainment. Flying is a luxury for many people in the world (especially the past couple of years) and getting to circle the globe in just 48 hours is something very few people have ever done. It’s a unique opportunity and meeting new people on a plane and seeing new places can be so fascinating.

If you look like a member of ZZ Top, Marc and his friends might be snapping a photo of you. (Photo by Alberto Cabello)

3. What’s the longest flight you’ve done to date?

The longest flight is LAX to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (which has the best inflight TV and movie options for coach of any airline, in my opinion). It was about 15 hours, the staff were so nice and the movie selection so large it didn’t feel half that long …

4. What are the logistics? Are you flying standby? How planned is each stage?

All flights must be flown as standby. Each team will research out the possible routes, looking at connection times and backups (fly into ORD instead of JFK from FRA etc.)
Also, rock-paper-scissor will determine which direction each team has to go, day of departure … which should add an element of chance and excitement.

5. What are your top methods of staying sane on this misadventure?

The scavenger hunt ideas like finding the person with biggest beard should make it fun along the way. Also having good entertainment and food options on the flight (Korean airlines, Lufthansa) along with adrenaline should carry us through 48 hours.

6. Are you flying any unfamiliar airlines? (I know I’d love to fly Aeroflot!)

It’s a possibility. However the fastest way to circle the globe in this manner involves hitting the key hubs where the big carriers fly (British Airways, Lufthansa, Korean Airlines, All Nippon Airlines) since it fastest to stay far in the northern hemisphere.  However, it is possible we could use El Etihad or Qatar Airlines if circumstances make it the better option.

Aeroloft does have a Moscow to JFK flight that could work …

7. What’s your biggest challenge or fear about being able to pull this off?

Getting stranded in an airport for several days due to weather lockdown.

8. I understand you’re doing this with/against some other people, each flying different directions. What’s the prize for being the first one back?

Initially, we were going to have the losing team pickup the tab for the standby passes (about $300). However, we feel it’s better to have the losing team pick up the tab for dinner for the winning team, and focus more on small prizes for each scavenging hunt item found (ie, picture with the cutest flight attendant).

9. What’s your route/plan look like so far?

Right now. it looks like PHX-LAX, LAX-ICN, ICN-FRA, FRA-JFK, JFK-PHX. (Wandering Justin’s note – for those not so versed in airport codes, that’s Phoenix, Los Angeles, Incheon, Frankfurt, John F. Kennedy).

The reverse route is PHX-LHR, LHR-ICN, ICN-LAX, LAX-PHX. (WJ here again – that would by Phoenix, London Heathrow, Inche – aw, heck, you know the others by now).

10. Are you a bit of an airplane geek? What’s your favorite plane to fly in?

I am a bit one, and the other flyers are as well. I like the Airbus A321 and the A330.  Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to fly the 800-passengers jumbos yet, but I hear they are fantastic to fly in.

11. What else are you doing to prepare?

Exercising, looking at schedules. Make sure I have a currency exchange and language apps on my iPhone.

12. What surprises have you found so far in your planning? Anything about visas, vaccinations or unstable governments?!

That is another issue, because some places require visas. And to maximize time, we need to get through each airport fast, which means getting through each security checkpoint quickly. As you can imagine, if they start asking questions about where we came from and how long we will be there … things could get a bit delayed.

13. What’s your favorite destination? (not related so much to the upcoming mayhem … just a way to gauge what sort of travel character you are).

I really like Asia. As an American, Korea or China are very interesting experiences because the language and culture is so different, and the food is so good! I really like Seoul and Nanjing. I also really enjoy Brazil to relax. To have fun, I wish I was able to spend more time in Berlin and Copenhagen.

5 Places to See the Northern Lights

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The Northern Lights. Photo courtesy of the US DoD.

I’ve just made a decision: I need to see the Northern Lights. You know … the aurora borealis. Can you imagine how cool it must be to see that dark sky above you light up with multicolored swirls of electrons? The jury is still out and whether you can actually hear the aurora; it occurs about 60 miles into the sky, where the air is very thin for the passage of sound waves. But scientists still don’t discount the possibility that there might be some aural aspect to the aurora.

So here’s the downside: It’s best to see them in winter at high altitudes. And it’s gotta be dark out. That means that, if I want to see it, I’ll have to be fully prepared to freeze my goolies off. So, then, where I should I go to get a glimpse of the lights?

Here are some good candidates:

Jukkasjarvi, Sweden – It’s far north. It’s so secluded that you have to take a dogsled to reach it from Kiruna, the nearest city. It’s also home to the ICEHOTEL. That adds up to a safe bet to check out some serious aurora viewing. And maybe I could schedule a visit when Hammerfall is in action.

Oulu, Finland – The Northern Lights are such an attraction in Oulu that many hotels offer wake-up calls when they’re active. It’s not quite as secluded as some places, offering a lively night scene and lots of museums. Apparently, the light pollution isn’t enough to put a damper on the displays. And there are lots of Finns online boasting about how much Oulu rocks.

Iceland – This island nation is right in the circular path that defines the aurora’s favorite stomping grounds. Combine that with a sparse population, and you have good odds of seeing an unforgettable light show. When you’re not tripping out to the lights, the daytime offers geysers and volcanoes. It’s also easy to get to from the west, with Icelandair offering flights from Seattle.

Tromso, NorwayUS Airways is running some really good specials for flights to Norway. From Phoenix, the base price is something like $760. That’s a good incentive. Tromso also has a good reputation as a place with clear skies and minimal light pollution (only 50,000 people live there). Apparently, there are mountaintop viewing areas near the city, too. Oh, and there’s cross-country and alpine skiing!

Fairbanks, Alaska – Sure, you can see ’em in Juneau or Anchorage. But why not go a little further for what’s considered among the state’s better displays? The local hotels also offer packages for travelers who want to boost the odds of getting an awesome lightshow.