Shuttling to Denver

Someone once told me I could make anything interesting, so today’s challenge is to write something halfway entertaining about this routine flight to Denver. This is going to be quite a challenge and I doubt I can do it. Here goes.

I am at thirty five thousand feet, there is little turbulence but there is this annoying TV screen in front of my seat that I cannot turn off. This at least is new, at least on the United Airlines 737 fleet. You now have the option of DirecTV on this flight, with a hundred channels to choose for the low, low price of just $7.95, but should you not be interested there is no way to turn off the screen. So if United cannot convince you to swipe your credit card for this service, they figure they might as well subject you to annoying ads instead for the full length of this three and a half hour flight. The off button has been conveniently disabled on my armrest. This is all for my pleasure, or something, but of course is really about United’s bottom line. The only way solution is to shut your eyes, which is what I have been doing until my last podcast ended.

On this flight I am trying a few new things to handle the tedium of traveling quickly two thirds of the way across the country. First, I purchased a set of noise canceling headphones. These jetliner cabins are noisy places, eighty decibels or more. You get used to it after a while, but it can’t be healthy. Noise canceling headphones do not deaden the noise of air whooshing across the airframe, but they do make it tolerable. They cancel perhaps twenty decibels of sound, which is good. I can now hear content through my headphones again, not only when it is at near piercing volumes. So both watching and actually hearing movies on my iPad in flight is now a possibility and something perhaps to try on the next trip. This noise canceling technology, while hardly perfect, is making sitting in an airline cabin for three plus hours much more bearable.

I am also trying to use my smartphone for entertainment during the flight. It is in airplane mode, of course, but it still has its uses. I can read books and articles on it easily enough and, at least for this flight, I can listen to podcasts with the nice little BeyondPod podcast app I installed. I won’t listen that much to music, but I can queue up a nice set of podcasts. My playlist is actually a mixture of political, economic and tech podcasts, and I can listen to them or not. Usually my brain is like a sponge and likes to be fed a steady stream of facts and opinions until at some point, like now, I can’t take more input and have to do some outputting, which means blogging. Being that the smartphone is much more portable than even my iPad, it will probably end up as my default electronic traveling companion.

It seems that if you have to travel by air, early December is a great time to do so. This plane is about three quarters full, which means I have the luxury of an open middle seat next to me back here in economy class. Also empty were the airline ticket counters early this afternoon at Washington Dulles International Airport. Two Ethiopian dudes speaking behind the counter seemed really animated about their topic of the day, not that I have any idea what they were saying in Ethiopian. This is another example of the weird multiculturalism around here, but has become so routine that I hardly notice it, other than the language is different. There is no line at the TSA baggage check, and only a couple of people ahead of me at the TSA credentials check. Note to self: try to travel more in the off season and schedule flights that leave in the middle of the afternoon. This no hassle way is the only way to travel by air.

You know you travel too much when you get sloppy at the airport. Today this meant I never bothered to check my concourse and gate. Concourse C, I figured, since that is where I usually catch these United flights. I stood for a few moments before the subway to Concourse C before I thought to check my boarding pass. Oops. My flight was out of Concourse D. No subway for me; instead I had to take one of the old fashioned mobile lounges to my gate. Washington Dulles seemed as close to dead today as it can get in the middle of the afternoon. No lines at the Starbucks or Subway sandwich shop in Concourse D. The stalls in the restrooms were even spotless. All of them!

We passengers on Flight 1160 are an apathetic and self-absorbed bunch. Mostly people are not bothering to look out the windows, but instead are focused on their tablet computer of choice. Tablet computers and eReaders are everywhere on this flight. Hardly anyone can be bothered to get up out of their seats and walk the aisles. With kids in school, there are no crying children to distract us or ratchet up the noise level. One lady across from me is studiously writing in longhand in a spiral bound notebook, which suggests she is at least forty something. Increasingly, cursive is not being taught in elementary schools. In fifty years will anyone remember how to read cursive? Ah, there will be a Wikipedia entry on it.

Off season also means the plane is relatively clean. This makes a nice change of pace for United, where they go through the motions of cleaning the cabin but you can usually find trash under the seats if you look or sometimes crammed between seats. I flew on two regional jets with United recently that were disgracefully unclean. Not only was it filthy, you could barely see out the windows they were so caked with grime and what looked like encrusted saltwater. Today, there is a dirty stain or two on the carpet, but at least the carpet looks vacuumed. This is high quality for United Airlines. Instead of rating the flight the usual C- perhaps I will give it a C+. The best news of all is at the rear of the plane: no lines at all at the toilets! This is very unusual and for once I can ponder the possibility: do I want the starboard or the port toilet? Decisions, decisions.

I figure that since 2004 I have made at least twenty trips to Denver, mostly on United Airlines, which means roughly forty flights between Washington Dulles and Denver International. It’s a mostly featureless flight, but usually there is a bit of excitement on approach to Denver. Denver International (DIA) consistently gets strong crosswinds coming off the Rocky Mountains, to the point where I expect them on approach and to encounter a bit of a bumpy landing. A smooth landing is the exception at DIA.

Once deplaned I know what to expect: I will be in Concourse B, probably need to use the restroom, then take a smooth subway ride to the terminal. On the ride there will be the annoying recorded announcer with a fake cowboy voice on the PA system. I will claim my bag at Carousel 12, and take a shuttle to rental car row, a few miles from the airport. Thence will commence a substantial drive from the airport in far northeast Denver to Lakewood in the rental car, where the local Towneplace Suites awaits, our hotel of choice for the last four years or so. It feels like my second home now. While I have a rental car, I will likely walk down to Jus Cookin’s for dinner instead, a one of a kind family restaurant where everything on the menu is home style, cheap and delicious. Tomorrow there will be the continental breakfast to greet my tummy, and three days in a conference room at the Denver Federal Center.

With luck on Friday I will be on an on time return flight to Dulles, arriving toward dinner hour. My spouse is likely to whine about her boss. My cat will be complaining that he is starving even though he will have been fed. In February I am likely to do this shuttle circuit again.

It’s boring business travel but at least this time of year, unless there is a premature snowstorm, it is at least predictable. For that and the empty seat next to me, I am grateful.

High, flying and bored (and a bit whiny)

Did you see the movie Up in the Air? I did. In fact, I reviewed it. It made the life of an extreme business traveler interesting, so interesting that George Clooney’s character loved life on the road and at 35,000 feet and dreaded coming home to Oklahoma and his apartment.

In truth there is nothing glamorous about business travel. I know because today I am in the thick of it: flying across the country again on business. Normally when you fly across country, you switch planes somewhere, which at least breaks up the tedium. Today I am on a nonstop flight between Washington D.C. and that other Washington. That would be Washington State, more specifically Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The good news is you get there quickly. The bad news is that for an east-to-west coast flight, this is about as miserable as they come, being something like five and a half hours long. The movie is, of course, pretty mediocre, this flight being on United Airlines. This movie, Midnight in Paris, is reputedly one of Woody Allen’s better movies, but I found it kind of annoying. Perhaps this is because I find Woody Allen kind of annoying. Owen Wilson plays the lead character, and he is little more than a young and blond version of Woody Allen. Eventually, I tired watching the movie to write this instead.

To make this long flight less painful I was willing to exchange 7500 of my frequent flier miles for a first class seat. Alas, it was not to be because I waited too long, which means I am back here in the cattle car section. I’ve learned a few rules from these bicoastal flights. One of them is that a ready exit seat is preferred over a windows seat, so I am on the aisle. It is so much easier to get to the restroom this way. Second, keep the Kindle fully charged because you are likely to be using it a lot. I am, as I plod through the first volume of Shelby Foote’s chronology of the Civil War. Third, don’t try to watch a movie on my laptop. The video will come through fine, but with the aircraft noise and the limits on volume control, I cannot hear enough of the movie. A pair of noise reduction headphones might do the trick, but so far I have not succumbed.

When on a long flight, sleeping is one way to kill time. Coach seats are not designed for sleeping, and even if you succeed it will be a restless sleep because some passenger will graze your shoulders or poke you from time to time. Sleeping in theory should help the body adjust to an abrupt three hour time change when going west. I may try for a snooze but I have yet to actually fall asleep on a plane. And while it takes a day or two for my body to adjust to west coast time, it seems like I should not bother to try, because I will be high-tailing it out of here early Friday morning. Then there are the incessant interruptions. Seat belts on. Seat belts off. It’s been like this for hours.

Tacoma is my destination this time, which I have driven around but have not seen. I am hoping for decent weather, and the forecast is hopeful: a couple of days of sunshine, maybe. When you come to the Puget Sound, you have to expect clouds and precipitation. So the most important article to pack is a sturdy umbrella. I am prepared. If you are very lucky, the clouds might break and Mount Rainier will appear in its majesty.

Somehow I imagined a trip of this length between two major airports might warrant a 747, but I don’t believe United Airlines has any 747s left in the fleet, at least not for domestic flights. This makes me a little sad because a flight on a 747 would make this otherwise unmemorable flight memorable. I’ve flown lots of flights over the decades, but only once did I have the pleasure of traveling by a 747. The 747’s cheap cousin is the DC-10. I’ve had lots of flights on DC-10s but they seem to now be largely retired. Today’s flight is on an Airbus A320, a very fuel efficient aircraft but incredibly ordinary with one row and six seats across. We know what aircraft designs work well in our atmosphere, which is why commercial aviation fuselages all largely look the same. The 747 is the exception, and is still elegant.

The only thing different about this flight is what I chose to eat on it. Since my triglycerides are high, I have been told to eat fewer carbohydrates. This meant a salad for lunch and a can of almonds for a snack. I had to pay for this airline food, but for United, the salad was surprisingly good and the almonds were quite tasty as well. I am not sure I can sustain a low carbohydrate diet, but a business trip gives me an excuse to try.

With the movie over, passengers are left with few alternatives but whatever United wants to put on the TV, which is whatever network wins the bid for captive audiences. Today it is NBC, which means a lot of 30 Rock episodes. I guess it is an acquired taste.

Movie done, lunch done, TV shows boring, no in-flight Internet and still with at least two and a half hours to go. I cannot wait for the flight to be over. I am glad my Kindle is fully charged.

jetBlue: A civilized airline

One of the downsides of traveling on your employer’s dime is you rarely get to choose a decent airline. Since most of my business travel takes me to Denver, I am usually on one of our contract flights between Denver and Washington Dulles, which means I am on United Airlines.

United is one of these airlines which, if I were to grade it, would rank somewhere between a C and a D. Sadly, most of the domestic airlines here in the United States would rank between a C and a D. The good part about flying United is you pretty much know what you are going to get. Since my employer will not pay for business class, I will be back in economy. Since I am six foot two inches, I know my knees will be rubbing up against the seat in front of me. Trying to check in, whether online or at the airport, and I will be nagged to purchase “Economy Plus” seating. Because they can, United will also charge for bags: $15 for the first bag, $25 for each additional bag. These baggage fees have become quite popular and essentially are a way to raise your ticket prices without broadcasting it.

Fly United and you expect that the airplane is likely to be dirty, except in business and first class. If you want a meal, expect to pay $9 or so, assuming they are offering one, and do not expect it to be large or particularly memorable. Otherwise, all you get is a beverage service. Movies are scattershot, and generally available only on the longer flights, but at least they are free. Their wide-body aircraft generally have personal TV screens where you can select from some canned entertainment; otherwise, you are left to your own amusement. While their skies are not exactly friendly, they are not overtly hostile either.

Which is why my short flights on jetBlue to and from Boston last week was such a noticeable change for the better. Since I could not find a contract flight, I had to book an out of network flight instead, and jetBlue had the most convenient time and the best price. Given its low-ticket price I was expecting something like United Airlines or worse.

I could not have been more surprised. jetBlue is a civilized airline. First, there is no artificial distinction between coach, business and first class. As with a few other airlines like Southwest, there is only one class available. It was weird to walk into an airplane with no artificial bulkhead between premier seats and those of us in the cattle car section. The seats were all three across, upholstered in leather and actually left a few inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. Nor was the seat artificially narrow. Not that it was wide, but it was comfortable. Some airlines (and Northwest comes to mind as a particularly egregious example) will torture you by trying to jam you into 22 or 23-inch wide seats.

At least for my flights, the cabin was absent the usual detritus of napkins on the floor and reminders of previous passengers in the seatback pocket. The welcome boarding the plane seemed at least half-heartfelt. I never felt that on United. Settling into my seat, I found that I had my own personal TV with several dozen satellite channels available. If I did not want to watch satellite TV, I had XM satellite radio to choose from instead. This suited me just fine and I settled into the XM National Public Radio channel.

On-time departures are problematical with any airline, but my flights left a minute or two ahead of schedule and arrived on time or a little early. On the brief flight, we had a choice of either chocolate chip cookies or jetBlue’s proprietary blue-tinted potato chips. The beverages are announced at the start of the flight, and are usually somewhat limited, but include bottled water.

On the longer flights, if you want to see a movie you have to pay for the privilege, although there is plenty of entertainment on the satellite channels, just rife with commercials. You also have to pay $2 for earphones if you do not own any and want to listen to the entertainment. Overall, my experience on jetBlue was what passed for a high quality airline experience these days. It was weird. It was like they actually cared a bit about my flying satisfaction.

Southwest was the only other airline where I have felt something similar. Granted this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Southwest used to be infamous as the cattle car express, and they still have a bizarre policy where there is no assigned seating, meaning that you tend to arrive extra early to have the first chance to board. Even so, Southwest is at best a B- of an airline. jetBlue ranked a solid B.

If there are A-rated airlines out there, they are likely foreign carriers. Since I do little foreign travel, I have little to compare but I was impressed with IcelandAir a few years ago. Most domestic airlines seem to be flyer-hostile, or at least exhibit a passive aggressive side through tactics like usury baggage fees and premier seating that simply means your knees have an inch or two to spare. On jetBlue, the first bag is free, providing it does not exceed fifty pounds. (The second bag is $30. The third is $75.)

The only part of the jetBlue experience I found annoying was the commercials. JetBlue will commandeer your TV at certain points during the ascent and descent and subject you to annoying ads. You cannot turn the TV off, but you can at least unplug your headset and look elsewhere for a while.

Those of us older travelers cannot help but feel wistful for a time when the standards were much higher. In the early 1980s, I would annually fly Delta Airlines to Florida. Back in coach we were served real breakfasts. The food was provided hot in ceramic containers. You got real silverware and linens too, as well as a choice of meals and condiments. Moreover, all this came with the price of a ticket. There were no baggage fees at all for the first couple of bags. (This year I flew Delta to Salt Lake City and I can assure you they are busy emulating United Airlines.)

Those days are likely gone for good. Meanwhile, if you have to travel domestically and do most of your traveling back in the coach section see if you can fly jetBlue. You may at least get a hint of what real airline service used to feel like. When I have a choice, I will be booking jetBlue in the future.