Saturday, April 12, 2014

Empire State of Mind (Part III)

Continued from Empire State of Mind Part II, released on 4/2/2014.

My stay in New York City was incredible, even though I did not get the chance to do some sightseeing (the 9/11 Memorial is on my bucket list).  Needless to say, it was time to go.  Check out was a snap and I schlepped my bags over to Grand Central and backtracked my way to JFK Airport on the 6 and E trains.  I did make one small detour, though.  When the E train got to the Union Turnpike Station, I hopped off and back on to check in on Foursquare.  The reason for this stop was, this was my stop when I lived in Queens, so I checked in and snapped a picture just as the Subway doors were closing.  OK, enough foolin', back on the train to JFK.

I made it to Jamaica Station, and back on the AirTrain, where i had a killer view of everything in front and below, so I got to see most of lower Queens go by underneath as we got closer to JFK.  Now, if the weather could've just cooperated a bit more, I would've like that very much!  Coming up to the Federal Circle stop, where the Car Rental Building is, you can also see the now abandoned Ramada Plaza JFK, home to so many airline disasters out of JFK (TWA 800, EgyptAir 990, Pan Am 103, Swissair 111, American 587 come to mind), and hosting the victims families.  I had stayed here on various misconnects and cancellations, as well as during my initial move to NYC.  It's kinda sad to see such a building get treated and abandoned in that manner.

Taking the curve around all of the Terminals you come up to JFK's Terminal 1 which houses big foreign airlines such as Japan Airlines, Saudia, Turkish, Air France, Aeroflot, and more.  Then you come up to Delta's ancient Terminal 2, which originally housed Eastern and Northwest, then a big gaping construction site where the former Pan Am "WorldPort" used to stand, which has now been demolished to make room for Delta's new combined terminals 2 and 4.  After Terminal 4, you come up to jetBlue's T5 (also serving Hawaiian Airlines), guarded by the thankfully protected TWA Flight Center (the original Terminal 5), one of the most beautiful airline terminal of the Jet Age, albeit inadequate and small for today's airline operating environment.  I should know, I started my career at TWA, and spent 3 weeks each Summer at JFK on the Ramp and on the Passenger Service side of it.  Do I miss it?  Of course, I wouldn't be human if I didn't.  but I love the direction life is going now as well, and my return to the airline fold is shaping up to be amazing.

After T5, the train passes the now demolished Terminal 6 (originally housing National, then TWA's domestic Terminal, and finally America West and jetBlue before the new T5 was built) and Terminal 7, home to United's fledgling JFK operation and British Airways mini-hub.  The train starts moving again and come around one bend you see various jetliners from different parts of the world at the remote stands close to Terminal 8, where they wait until their next flight back home.  The train slows down and comes to a stop right in front of the Terminal, where you exit and take the covered hallway into the baggage claim level.  Escalators appear on the left to take you up to ticketing and security.

I have to say this about the American Airlines staff I encountered in the ticketing hall.  I went down one hall that was marked for AA Economy and Main Cabin Extra passengers.  I was stopped at the entry to the ticketing queue by some older staff who have apparently been there far too long.  In harsh, gruff tones they barked at me saying I was in the wrong area and to trudge my bags to the other end of the terminal and seek assistance there.  Yikes!  Off I went to drop my bags and make my way through security.

Once past the TSA checkpoint I went upstairs to the Admiral's Club to recharge, have a drink and download a movie to my phone for the 6 hour flight to sunny Los Angeles.  What do I pick?  Why, "Airport" of course!  After about an hour of loading up on Cape Cods and chocolate chip cookies by the handful, I made my way to the gate, and onto the plane, which ironically, was the same 767 that brought me from LA the other day, N322AA. 

Takeoff was quick and we bolted out of JFK like a rocket, out on the infamous Canarsie departure point, and on a northwesterly course up over the US/Canadian border and down over Lake Michigan and the Midwest down to Los Angeles, where we landed a few minutes early.  The 6 hour trip flew by fast after my movie, I managed to zonk out and sleep the remainder of the way.  Pulling up to the gate in LAX, I saw a brand new American 777 on one side, and the 767's replacement, the A321 on the other.  A changing of the guards indeed.

I had to hustle to the remote Commuter terminal to take my flight back to Salt Lake City.  After barging my way into the tiny Regional jet, this other sizable fellow sat next to me, with crossed arms the whole way back behind the Zion curtain.  Skywest does run a  good operation for American Eagle, though, and I sincerely hope they upgrade their flights to Los Angeles in the near future with this merger with US Airways.  They are a treasure of an airline, and I can't wait to try out the A321 on the next trip to New York.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Empire State of Mind (Part II)

Continued from Empire State of Mind, Part I, from 4/1/2014

That first night back in New York City reminded me I'm not the 24 year old smartass I was when I had originally moved to the City.  I woke up in a world of hurt the next morning, with creaky bones and muscles.  I have to hand it to them though, the Yale Club has some mighty inviting rooms and comfortable surroundings!  Not just anyone can book a room here, you have to either be a) a graduate of Yale with a Bachelor's or higher, or b) a member in good standing of the Wings Club.  Me being the in the latter category made me feel a bit overwhelmed, but I got over it and sucked it up.

I had several appointments that morning, first of which was across the street at the Wings Club offices, in the historic Pan Am Building (now known as the MetLife building), to be sworn in as a full-fledged member of this amazing organization.  Time was running short by the time the Concierge had my suit ready and pressed, luckily I was only across the street!  I made it with a few minutes left to spare, and took my oath on the Bible, wishing my amazing Wife and Dad were there to see me.  OK, it sounds tacky, but I consider this my return to the Industry I love and know all about, and it would've been nice to have family there.

Once the ceremony was over, I hustled down the escalators into the Grand Central Station to catch the 6 train up to the 59th and Lexington stop and over to my former employer, Homeric Tours, and an appointment with my old boss, Nikos Tsakanikas, who every now and then is elected President of the USTOA (US Tour operators Association) and the IATAN Board of Directors.  He was one of the few that got me started on the Travel side of the Industry, as well as the airline consulting part of my former airline career.  Walking into his office I was greeted with "What happened to the A330-200 order?!"  referring to a shelved plan to turn Homeric's charter flight operation into a full fledged in-house airline, using a long dormant Air operating Certificate from the US Dept. of Transportation.

The meeting with Mr. T (as everyone calls him), was pretty low key, and then he asked for the doors to be closed and got down to brass tacks with me.  He asked me if I wanted to take an equity stake in Homeric and take over for him, since he is in his mid-80's and ready to call it quits.  We used to joke around back in 2005 about me running things when the time was right, and I was left sitting there thinking it might all just be tongue-in-cheek, but I played along and told him if I could run things from my home office in Utah, and reopen the West Coast office in Los Angeles, as well as revive the botched A330 plan, this time with either the A330's or the new A350.  This is all heady stuff for me, but I had been around the block a few times with new entrant airlines and know what is involved.  But enough about that.  The meeting lasted about an hour, and left me in wonder, sort of.

After that meeting I had the rest of the afternoon off until later that evening and the Wings Club annual meeting.  I went back to the Yale Club and hung out in the 4th Floor Library until it was time for the gathering.  Now, mind you, this is a University's remote collection of books, but it was floor to ceiling and wall to wall bookshelves filled with the most amazing literary works known to man.  I wanted to live in there!  I settled back in one of the many recliners and buried myself in the book I was in the middle of at the time, From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Thomas Friedman.

6 O'clock rolled around quickly and off I went to the Annual Meeting of the Wings Club, where the new members (me included) were welcomed and the award for Distinguished Aviator went to Race Plane Innovator Bob Hoover, considered to be the grandfather of modern aerobatic flying.  After the festivities were over I hung around and chatted with a few of the folks there, including higher ups from companies such as jetBlue Airways, Pratt & Whitney Turbine Systems, IATA, Travel Systems International, and Airbus.  By the end of the night, I found myself having made a breakfast appointment with the former head of IATA, Giovanni Bisignani, the next morning before the luncheon with Brad Tilden of Alaska Airlines.  An eventful evening to be sure!  I waddled off to my room to call my home and hit the sack.

Thursday morning rolls around and I'm up and ready to go by 7AM.  I walked across the street to Grand Central and the famous Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, where I joined the Giovanni Bisignani, Dave Barger, and Kevin McAllister of GE Aviation for breakfast.  Giovanni signed and gave us all a copy of his new book, Shaking the Skies, detailing his time at IATA and the shakeout he enacted upon the megalith after the horrendous events of 9/11/2001.  He even signed one for my wife and invited us to Switzerland!  I think we really should take him up on the offer...

After breakfast and an amazing session of talks, the four of us headed back to the Yale Club for the luncheon, where Brad Tilden was giving his speech.  He detailed why Alaska Airlines is better off as an independent carrier, but with code shares with various other airlines, instead of going the merger or Alliance routes.  He also explained Alaska's expansions in San Diego, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City, while addressing the threat from Delta's expansion head-on, by stating that there is room in Seattle for both hubs.  This had to have been one of the most insightful speeches I've heard in a long while, and I made sure to tell him so.  That, and I support Alaska's expansion (especially in SLC).

After the speech was done, there was a brief networking session, and I happened to fall into a conversation with Peter Flynn, Sales Director of Airbus Americas.  I did everything short of gushing about how amazing the A330's are.  He then gave me his card and told me to shoot him an email once i got back to Utah, to see if there might be a future for me at Airbus (schoolboy giddiness ensued, while remaining calm and collected externally).  Needless to say, this trip to New York was incredibly fruitful, and definitely mark my return back to the airline industry.

I spent the rest of the day packing and getting all my ducks in a row for tomorrow's return to Salt Lake, via Los Angeles.

Empire State of Mind continues in Part II, due on April 7, 2014.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Empire State Of Mind (Part I)

I had been looking forward to this trip to New York City for months now.  First, after 16 years of trying to gain required experience and status within the airline industry, I was finally invited to join the prestigious Wings Club, thanks to my former boss at Continental Airlines, Gordon Bethune, and former TWA Captain Gordon Beaubien.  My gratitude goes out to both of them for recommending me, and they will not be forgotten.  Second, this was my chance to take my last flights aboard American Airlines Boeing 767-200ER's.  These planes have been plying the skies between Los Angeles and New York/JFK for the last 30 years and AA felt it was time to put them out to pasture and replace them with specially outfitted Airbus A321T's.

I had flown on the 767-200 quite a bit on TWA, Delta Air Lines, United Air Lines, and during my time at Continental.  When I was part of the fleet planning team at Continental, it was my idea to start the Newark-Athens, Greece flight with the 767-200ER, to establish ourselves on the route, which was eventually upgraded to the Boeing 767-400ER, before the merger with United took place.  I  know the 767 as intimately as I know my beloved Airbus A330's.  I had to say goodbye.

Back to the trip at hand.  The day started out fabulous, and it was still dark by the time Mary dropped me off at Salt Lake City International Airport.  Check-in took a while, only because there were two agents on duty, and alas, they were the ones who had our bag tags.  they were professional and friendly about the delays, though.  Once I surrendered my bag to TSA I headed for security, where as i predicted, was pretty busy, what with multiple departures going on from not only American/US Airways, but with Frontier, Alaska, United, and Southwest as well.  The TSA treats SLC like a lab rat, with various adaptations of screening going on at various times.  This time was a good one, and one that I hope will stick. We didn't have to take our shoes or jackets off, as the full body scanners were updated with software that could detect anything from the bottom of the scanning area to the top.  I liked this, and told them so as I left the security area and made my way to the departure gate.

In Salt Lake City, American is one of the most convenient airlines to fly on, as their gates are the absolute closest to the Terminal 1 security area.  they occupy gates A3 and A5, and from time to time will use A1 when there's overflow. The CRJ-200 that would take me to Los Angeles was at A3, and by the time I got there, boarding had begun.  Luckily I paid for the Choice Plus fare (slightly higher than the basic lowest fare), and had been placed in Boarding Group 1.  Off i went to get shoehorned into the tiny Regional jet.  This service wasn't the regular American Eagle service, it was operated by SkyWest, having been contracted to fly smaller routes that American Eagle didn't want to fly.  Nonetheless, it was still a pleasant ride, with no one seated next to me for the 2 hour ride to LAX.

Arrival into LAX was great as usual, it was nice to see the various carriers from around the globe that one doesn't normally see in a place like Salt Lake City.  We parked at the remote Commuter Terminal and were bussed into American's historic Terminal 4.  I had a bit of time to kill before my departure to JFK at 9:00AM, so I beelined for the Admiral's Club to recharge my phone and grab a drink.

The Admiral's Club in LAX is accessed from the West side of the concourse, across form Gate 40.  Once you check-in, you are directed upstairs to the Club, where it occupies a large area on the North and West side, while the Flagship Lounge takes up the East and South sides of the floor (you must be booked in International Business or First Class or Transcontinental Flagship Class to access the Flagship Lounge).  Oh, by the way, departure announcements are not made in the Admiral's Club, so you have to keep an eye out on the time.

Sure enough, by the time I had a little juice on my phone and a few drinks to clear my head, it was time to head down to the gate and off on my 6 hour jaunt to New York courtesy of American flight 2 (One of the few flagship routes still in existence from the original days of flying, AA002 was the original LA originator flight at 9:00AM since 1939).  Luckily, the gate wasn't too far, and my carry-on was light (I only had a couple of books with me).  Boarding went by rather smoothly, and again, as I was in Boarding Group 1, I got on relatively early and in my seat, ready to go.

Boarding took a while, due to it being a completely full flight. But, we were right on time, and departure out of LAX was powerful and fast, hurtling us over the Pacific and then into a turn towards the East.  Looking out the window was almost pointless, due to me being over the wing, but I had a killer view out over the front of the engine.

Looking around in the plane, you could tell she'd been flying a long time, just by the very vintage vibe she oozed.  The overhead bins were of the old fashioned upward-sloping bins that don't really fit much, but somehow people can cram entire Samsonite's up there!  Speaking of the plane, she was Boeing's 168th 767-200 off the line, first flown on March 13, 1987.  I felt at home on her, as the seat was ok for Economy Class, and though some people don't enjoy it, I loved sitting by the mid-cabin galley.  It gave me a chance to talk shop with the crew stationed there for a while before being left to my own devices and started watching the 1974 classic disaster film "Airport 1975" the rest of the way to JFK.  Funny thing about those phones, the juice goes fast when you start watching a movie or listening to music, so about the time we were over Ohio, I flipped it off to conserve the battery until landing.

It finally came time to land, we had arrived in the New York area, the worlds busiest airspace.  After a few turns to get out over the New Jersey shoreline, we sailed right into JFK and landed as light as a feather. i will say this, the 767 has the absolute best designed landing gear that make landings such a smooth experience, much like its slightly younger stablemate, the 777.  It didn't take long at all to get to our gate, and we were ushered of with the typical grace of a classic airline crew with smiles and thank you's all around.

Stepping into the Jetway, i realized it was cold in New York!  So what do i do?  I made my way to the closest Admiral's Club to recharge my phone, get a little bit of liquor of hot coffee in me, and put my coat on to face the weather.  Most people don't even think of recharging themselves before heading to baggage claim, but not me, I know better.  I'd rather stop for a second to get my bearings and be better prepared for the maze of subways I'd have to navigate through to get to my ultimate destination in midtown Manhattan.  Also, why try and do that when you're bone tired and weary after a cross-country leg?  Those private clubs are a haven for road warriors such as I.

After a good half hour or so, I gathered my belongings, paid my tab, and headed down to baggage claim. American has one of the prettiest and biggest terminals at JFK, so you really have to watch the signage if it's your first time so you don't get lost in that shopping mall just before the escalators down to baggage.  I got turned around in there and almost headed back for the concourse I had just left!

When I finally got to the Baggage Claim, AA had already snatched my bag and locked it up in the office.  All i did was show them my baggage claim ticket and they fetched my bag and off I went to find the JFK AirTrain to whisk me to Jamaica Station and onwards to Manhattan.

The walk from the Baggage Claim to the AirTrain stop is completely enclosed, so no worry about getting cold or schlepping your bags in the rain.  Not the same thing at Jamaica Station, once you paid the $5.00 toll, you walked out to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tracks overpass (which is covered, but still exposed), and to the elevators down to the Subway level.

You can tell the masses of humanity use the Subways System in New york simply by taking your first lungful of air in the underground caverns.  I purchased my obligatory MetroCard, vaulted my bags over the turnstile, swiped my card and scooted through, while a huge line was forming behind me.  My apologies for bringing my baggage with me! Lurking through the tunnels I found my way to the Manhattan bound E Train, with its final stop being the World Trade Center.  The E train took me to the 55th Street and Lexington Avenue stop, where i switched to the 6 Train, and down to my final stop at the Grand Central Station, which is under the famed Pan Am Building (now known as the MetLife Building) and across the street from my lodging, the Yale Club.  I have arrived!

My sojourn continues in Part II, out on April 2!