Archive for February, 2011
Airplanes are like cars. You can buy a basic vehicle that will work just fine, or you can buy one loaded down with options like satellite radio, heated seats, built-in GPS etc. Airplanes are the same, each airline can choose the configuration they want. In the last month I have had six flights on the Boeing 737-800; four on American Airlines and two on Alaska Airlines. The planes are similar but not the same. Here are some of the differences I noticed.
Cabin: Each airline offers three-across seating. American Airlines offers cloth seats with leather headrests. Alaska offers leather seats that seem more upscale. American’s seat is slightly wider (17.2 inches vs 17 inches) while Alaska offers slightly more room between rows (32 inches vs 31 inches.) I found the Alaska Airlines seat to be more comfortable than American’s, and while there was only one additional inch between rows, it seemed like more than that. Given the choice, I prefer Alaska’s seat to American’s.
Power Ports: American not only offers power outlets at all of its seats, it’s 110 volts as opposed to the 12 volts on other aircraft. Alaska offers no power ports. Clear advantage to American.
Lavatories: American has two lavatories in the rear of the plane while Alaska has three. Advantage Alaska.
In-Flight Entertainment: American offers more than a dozen channels of music and a drop-down video screen that will play shows from NBC, or, on longer flights, a movie. Alaska offers people a digEplayer: imagine an iPad on steroids and you’ll have a good idea what this is. It’s a portable device featuring music and a choice of movies. The cost to rent the digEplayeris $6. Award this category to American.
Beverage Service: Neither airline serves meals in coach, they both have food available for purchase. American offers snack packages; and meals from Boston Market. Alaska offers both snack packages and meals for purchase on the flight. Both airlines offer complimentary soda, juice, and coffee. Alaska gives a complimentary snack (bag of nuts, cookies, etc.) with the beverage, American does not. Advantage Alaska.
WiFi: They both offer GoGo Inflight WiFi for the same price.
So, which aircraft is better? Neither, they both go from here to there. Which do I prefer? That’s hard to say.
I like the in-flight entertainment on American and really appreciate the powerport at my seat. I can’t tell you how many times I have taken advantage of that to charge my phone or keep my laptop running while I watch a movie or work on a project. So that is a clear advantage to American.
Alaska offers a snack while American does not; not a significant point, I can bring a snack on the flight with me. But Alaska does offer one major advantage — the third lavatory in the rear of the plane. There are almost 150 coach passengers on a full flight. Are two lavatories enough for that long a flight? On my last flight, as I was one of 5 people standing in the aisle waiting to get to the lavatory, my answer was a resounding no! That extra lavatory makes a big difference.
So which plane would I take? I’ll give a slight advantage (or maybe I should say AAdvantage) to American. I really find the powerport to be a huge advantage. I know my phone will be fully charged when I land after flying on American; I can’t make that claim on Alaska, and a fully charged phone is a big deal to me.
You may find the more comfortable seats and the extra lavatory to be reason enough to fly Alaska. It is, after all, a very subjective decision. As American Airlines phases out its fleet of MD-80s, replacing them with the 737-800, I know I have more and more opportunity to fly on this aircraft.
Another Saturday morning, time for my third mileage run of the year.
This would one be different from my previous trips in two ways. First, I’d be flying on Alaska Airlines rather than American, and second, I’d have time to go into town. I’d flown Alaska before, but those flights had all been red-eyes out of Seattle to Los Angeles and I slept the whole way. This would be a daytime trip and I looked forward to seeing what the service would be like.
I got to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in plenty of time for my flight, or so I thought. I had checked in online the night before so I went straight to the security check-in line — that’s when I found I had made a mistake. When I fly on American Airlines I have elite status and my boarding pass is labeled “Priority AAcess.” This allows me to go to the front of the security line. I have no such status on Alaska, that meant I would have to wait on the line and it was a very long line this morning. Oh well, lesson learned.
Thankfully the line was moving quickly; three x-ray machines were open so we moved through fairly rapidly. Even so, it took long enough that I did not have enough time to go to the Admirals Club before boarding my flight. I went directly to the gate, had enough time to buy a bottle of water, and then board the flight.
The flight was aboard a 737-800, and would go non-stop to San Jose. The weather was on my side: Austin was hit by a major ice-storm a day earlier, the San Jose flight was six hours late. Today the only delay was for the ground crew to de-ice the wings, and then we took off.
American Airlines used to offer non-stop service between Austin and San Jose. Given all the technology companies located in both cities that flight soon earned the nickname “Nerd Bird.” However, American dropped the service in 2009, saying it could not make a profit on it. Less than two weeks later Alaska Airlines, which did not even offer service from Austin, announced that it would offer daily non-stops between the two cities. They also offered a non-stop to Seattle, service that American had also dropped. It’s interesting that one airline cannot make a profit on a route while another can. This shows the challenge facing American Airlines; as the largest legacy carrier to not file for bankruptcy protection, it has the highest labor costs in the industry, costs that make it difficult to make a profit. In this case American’s loss was Alaska’s gain. UPDATE: Alaska Airlines has announced that they will discontinue non-stop service between Austin and San Jose. Apparently the competition from Southwest Airlines was too much. Southwest will be the only airline offering nonstop service between these two cities.
We had a smooth flight to San Jose. I appreciated Alaska’s beverage service: they actually served cookies in coach. I can’t remember the last time American offered a free snack on a domestic coach flight.
We arrived on time at San Jose and I went to get my rental car. I had posted a message on FlyerTalk asking for suggestions about things for me to do and said I would be using public transit. Every reply I got said that was a mistake on a Saturday, that the public transit schedules were so reduced that I would have a hard time getting around; they all suggested I get a rental car. So I checked prices, saw I could get a car for the day from Enterprise for $23 and made the reservation.
Getting a rental car at the San Jose airport is a very easy thing to do. I left the terminal and walked across the street to the newly-built parking garage. At the far end was a sign for the Rental Car Center. I went in and saw the rental counters for all the companies at the airport. I took care of the paperwork at the Enterprise counter, then took the elevator to the sixth floor. When the door opened an Enterprise representative dressed in a jacket and tie greeted me by name and took me to the cars. I actually had a choice of several vehicles, I chose a brand new Ford Focus. After signing the paperwork I was on my way. I brought my GPS unit from home and turned it on. It could not recieve the satellites’ signal in the garage so I planned to pull over once I left the terminal to key in my destination. That seemed like a good idea at the time.
I left the building and found myself on the exit road from the airport: no place to pull over and set the GPS. I came to an intersection and had no idea which way to go. But I saw an office building with a parking lot. Perfect! I could pull in there and take a few moments to get the GPS up and running. So, I pulled into the lot, entered my destination, the Tech Museum, and then looked up at the sign on the front of the building. I had stopped in the eBay parking lot — I decided not to place a bid for it!
It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the drive downtown. I found a parking garage and then walked a few blocks to the museum.
I entered the lobby and bought a ticket: it cost $10 but included an IMAX movie. There were several IMAX movies to choose from; I wanted to see the Hubble Space Telescope movie but my schedule would not allow that. So I told the clerk that I’d see Under the Sea.
I walked around the Museum and enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I had hoped. It has a lot of interactive displays, but it seemed that many of them were designed to excite the imagination of a child, rather than someone my age.
I spent an hour wandering through the exhibits, then went to the to the Hackworth IMAX Dome Theater located in the museum. Tha Hackworth is the largest dome theater west of the Mississippi. The museum has put together a nice video about the theater that gives a great tour of the IMAX projection booth and an explanation of how this incredible cinematic experience works.
After the movie ended I left the museum and looked for a place to eat. I heard drums banging and saw a crowd in front of the Museum of Art a few blocks away, and walked over to see what was going on.
What I saw was a New Year’s celebration; specifically Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
I enjoyed the celebration. When it was over I looked for a place to eat. While there were several restaurants near the Tech Museum, I wanted something fast so that I would have enough time to go to my next destination, the Computer History Museum. I found a fast food Oriental restaurant, ordered soup and a noodle dish, and, after eating it quickly was on my way.
I walked back to the parking garage and entered my parking ticket in the machine to pay my bill; I was glad to find out that although I had been parked for a few hours, there was no charge.
I entered my new destination in the GPS, left the garage and got on the 101 Freeway heading west. I drove past Moffett Field, This airbase was home to the USS Macon, a 785-foot long dirigible during the 1930s. As I drove by I saw a massive hangar that looked large enough to hold a blimp; Hangar one was built in the 1930s and is now used by NASA’s Ames Research Center and is designated a Naval Historical Monument. I wish I had had the chance to take a few photos of this magnificent structure, but there was no place for me to pull over on the side of the road to do that.
I drove on and soon arrived at the Computer History Museum. I paid the admission fee ($15) and began my tour of the Museum. This museum was the exact opposite of the Tech Museum; Tech Museum had a lot of hands-on displays and was suited for children. The Computer History Museum had almost no hands-on displays and was aimed more at adults than kids. It tells the story of computers, starting thousands of years ago with the Abacus, going forward through the Babbage Engine, Eniac, microprocessors, to today’s machines. They even had my first home computer, the Commodore-64! It’s a fascinating story, with examples of each device on display. There is a lot to see, and a lot to read at each stop along the way. Frankly, I did not have enough time to see it all so I only did the highlights. I wish I had had more time to spend at this museum.
I left the Museum and drove back to the airport, stopping along the way to fill the car with gas. I was impressed by the Focus’ mileage; I had driven a little bit less than 30 miles, and put in less than one gallon to fill it! I got to the airport, returned the car, then walked back across the street to the terminal and went to the security check-in line. I was pleased to see that I was the only person so there was no long wait.
I took off my shoes and jacket, putting them in the plastic tub and was ready to go through the metal detector when the TSA agent told me that I would have to go through the full body scan e-ray machine instead.
These machines caused a great deal of controversy last year with the infamous “Don’t touch my junk” video. Some people have no problem with them, others find the machines to be intrusive, others find the enhanced pat-down procedure to be both intrusive and embarrassing.
One of my concerns with these new machines that used back-scatter technology is that no one knows the long term effects of these machines on someone who has had a large number of medical x-rays taken of them. TSA can say that they are safe, but the machines have not been around long enough for anyone to know for certain what the long term effect is. I had a lot of x-rays done last year when I had some major surgery and I don’t want to use what I consider to be unproven technology.
So, I told the agent that I would be happy to go through the metal detector or have the enhanced pat-down, but I would not go through the full body scan machine. He immediately announced very loudly “I have an opt out.”
I stood there as two agents collected all of my belongings that I had put on the conveyor belt, then I was instructed to walk through the metal detector, which did not go off.
Along with my belongings I was taken to the side where an agent met me and asked if I was familiar with the program. I explained that I was, told him of my concerns based on my medical x-rays, and said I would follow his instructions. He asked if I wanted to leave the area and go into a privacy room, I said no. At that point the pat-down began. The agent was both professional and polite, explaining everything he would do. He emphasized that he would only touch me with the back of his hand. The pat-down did not take long, and he never did “touch my junk.” When he was done he shook my hand, wished me well, and cleared me to enter the terminal. It was not a very big deal.
I had a short wait until my plane left. We boarded on time and the plane actually pushed away from the gate a few moments early. It was not at all crowded, I had a row all to myself. It was a smooth flight back to Austin, landing at 11:28 p.m. I got home shortly after midnight.
It had been a good day; I had the chance to leave the airport and see a little bit of San Jose, I got home safely on time, and I earned almost 5,900 miles. Mission accomplished!
Saturday morning, time for my second mileage run in 8 days. Last week I went to the Northeast, this time I’ll go to the Northwest.
My itinerary: Austin to DFW to Portland, then Horizon Air to Seattle, then back to DFW and then Austin. I’d depart Austin at 7 a.m., return at 11:25 p.m. and spend the whole day in the air or at airports. This was a three-day weekend (MLK Day on Monday) and I did not know if the holiday would increase the number of people flying or not.
It was 30 degrees when I left the house before sunrise; we had been below freezing all night and I had to scrape a small amount of frost off my car’s windshield. I did that but did not think much of it at the time. I got to the airport, checked in and was glad to see there were no crowds, no lines.
We boarded the plane on time, the flight was far from full, not even close to 50% capacity. I had the exit row to myself and as I looked out the window I could see a thin layer of frost on the wings, but did not think much of it. Everyone was on board early and we were able to push back from the gate 5 minutes ahead of schedule, but we weren’t ready to leave; the pilot announced that the ground crew would need to de-ice the plane before we took off. I’ve flown in and out of Austin for more than 30 years, this was the first time I had seen them de-ice a plane. Two members of the ground-crew drove up to the plane in a white pick-up truck; one of the men was in a was in a cab atop a hydraulic lift in the bed of the truck. He raised the cab up in the air and sprayed the plane with a liquid mixture that melted the frost. In the meantime the driver maneuvered the truck around around the plane so that the man in the cab could spray every section.
We had a smooth flight to DFW, arriving shortly after sunrise. I saw one or two planes being de-iced; once the sun came up the frost melted off the aircraft and de-icing operations came to an end.
I changed terminals and boarded my flight to Portland. We were on an MD-80, and again, the plane was less than half full. Good for me, I once again had the exit row to myself.
This plane offered inflight internet access, and I decided to take advantage of that. The cost was $9.95 and would only provide service for this DFW-PDX flight. I had some writing to do and thought it was worth the price. Well, actually the writing could wait until the next day, I just wanted to see how it worked. Overall, it was a good experience; I’ll talk about it more in another post.
I have to admit I spent a lot of time looking out the window. The beauty of the American west stuns me every time I fly over it.
We made a smooth approach to Portland and landed on time. I then had a long walk to the other end of the terminal to take my Horizon Air flight to Seattle. Horizon is owned by Alaska Airlines’ parent company and serves as its short-haul service, just as American Eagle does for American Airlines. Our plane was a Bombardier Q400 (DH4).
I finally reached the far end of the terminal where Horizon has its gates.
Shortly after I got there the gate attendant was nice enough to make one of the most important announcements of the day, “The restroom on this aircraft is not working, so if you need to use the restroom please do it prior to boarding.” Immediately ten of us got up and went to the men’s room.
We boarded shortly thereafter and I compared this aircraft to the Aerospatiale/Alenia 72 (AT7) that we had flown on American Eagle between Miami and Nassau. The two aircraft appear to be approximately the same size but there was one major difference: I was able to get my roller-board under the seat in front of me. On American Eagle I had to give it to the ground crew to place in the cargo compartment, it would not fit in the overhead bin or under the seats. This plane also seemed newer than the Eagle planes we had taken.
We departed Portland on time and I sat back to enjoy the one-hour flight to Seattle. Shortly after we leveled out the flight attendant came through with the beverage cart, and I was quite surprised at what she offered. We could get complimentary juice or soda, which I expected. However, she also offered complimentary beer and wine! I had never seen complimentary alcohol on a domestic flight. And with the beverage we also got a small complimentary bag of pretzels; you know the bag, the kind that the major airlines used to give out. Or maybe it’s hard to remember back that far! I was astonished by this. On this commuter flight that would be in the air no more than 40 minutes I had just gotten a wider choice of complimentary refreshments and snacks than I can get on American Airlines flying cross country! Amazing!
I was glad to have the chance to fly on Horizon; a few days after the trip Alaska Airlines announced that it would end the Horizon brand and all of its aircraft would be rebranded as part of Alaska Airlines.
We landed in Seattle on time and had a short walk from the plane to the terminal; it was a beautiful day, so warm that I took my jacket off.
Once I got into the terminal I immediately went to the food court. I’ve written before about how much I enjoy the food court at Seattle-Tacoma International airport (see this article) with its wide selection of food and great views of the runways. I had more than enough time to decide where I would eat dinner. I ignored the fast-food establishments; I saw an oriental restaurant that had a nice selection but decided against it, I can get oriental food here at home. I decided on seafood and went to Anthony’s Fish Bar. I ordered their special: clam chowder, baked salmon taco with chips and salsa.
The clam chowder was thick, warm, and delicious. I took my time with it, then tried the taco. Living in Texas I am normally old-school and want authentic tacos – a salmon taco does not fit that category, but no matter, it was delicious. The salmon tasted very fresh, not frozen and flown across the country, and blended quite well with the chopped tomatoes and shredded cabbage wrapped in the large tortilla. I took my time eating it; it was truly a pleasant experience.
Once I was done I walked to the gate for my flight to DFW. We boarded the 737 early and actually departed a few minutes ahead of schedule. This flight, like my earlier ones, was less than half full. I was sitting in an full row, once we pushed back I moved up one row and had it to myself.
It was an uneventful flight to DFW; I spent most of the time reading from my Kindle. A few hours later we prepared for landing and the flight attendant announced the departure gates for connecting flights. I was glad to hear “If you are going to Austin, this is the plane for that flight so we’ll depart from the same gate.”
It’s funny how things happen. A week earlier I had to change planes at DFW, but since they both had the same flight number I lost my bonus miles for the AUS-DFW segment. This week I’d have the same plane into and out of DFW, but would get the bonus miles because the plane flew in with one flight number, but would depart with another. It all worked out.
Since we landed early I had almost 90 minutes until the AUS flight would board. We were at Terminal D, my favorite terminal at DFW. It is the newest, most spacious, and has a wonderful open design that feels more like a new shopping mall than an airline terminal.
One thing that struck me about the terminal was how empty it was. Most of the international flights had already departed. At 9 p.m. on this Saturday night the terminal had so few people in it that I didn’t even bother to go the Admirals Club, it was quiet enough in the terminal.
We boarded shortly after 10 p.m. for our very quick flight back to Austin. We landed early, I was home shortly after midnight. It had been a long day, but not quite as tiring as my trip the previous week. I earned 9,550 AAdvantage miles, so it was a good day. I did two trips in January and earned a total of 8,633 Elite Qualifying Miles, and 17,498 AAdvantage miles. For me, that is a good month! Now on to February and my next two mileage runs!