Changing Planes

My wife & I are boarding more flights than usual as we anticipate our upcoming relocation to South Carolina. “More than usual” deserves context I suppose, since so many of us skipped airports altogether the last couple of years. Flying is different now – some ways better, others not so much (and unquestionably more expensive). Regardless, I was happy to learn our favorite choice of airline before AND after the emergence of COVID just earned the label “world’s best” for 2021. Care to guess which one?

I already gave you the subtlest of hints in my blog title.  With mathematics at least, the world’s best airline is also known as “an incremental change in a variable”, which makes its logo – the triangle – a fitting symbol.  Its slogan is the uber-confident “world’s most trusted airline” but I prefer one of its older ones:

Maybe Delta Air Lines is your airline of choice too.  If not, you’re wondering where your favorite ranks among the world’s best.  I’ve never heard of Cirium (have you?) but the data-mining company spends its days converting 300 terabytes of aviation performance metrics into annual best-in-class rankings. (300 TB meant nothing to me until I crunched a few numbers.  A ten-page Word doc is about 2 MB  By my calcs Cirium is sorting through five million pages of data.  I’d say their rankings are legit, wouldn’t you?)

Let’s end the suspense.  Here are the top ten airlines measured by “operational performance”, for 2021:

  1. Delta (“Platinum Award” winner)
  2. Alaska
  3. American
  4. United
  5. Spirit
  6. Frontier
  7. Southwest
  8. JetBlue
  9. Air Canada
  10. Allegiant

Delta should put a lot of stock in this win, and not just because 9 of its 10 aircraft arrived on time in 2021 (10% better than second-place Alaska).  It’s more about the impact of the passenger experience to the result.  Is the boarding process efficient?  Is the flight crew rested and available?  Is the aircraft properly maintained? How is baggage handled? How are unruly passengers dealt with (a more recent trend)?  Every one of these details number-crunches to a measure of on-time arrivals.  And no one does it better than Delta.

I may be biased but my own experiences seem to back up the numbers.  My wife & I have flown Delta several times since 2019 (including a trip to Europe) and every one of those journeys met or surpassed our expectations.  I’m not saying Delta goes over the top to gain customer loyalty (though a warm chocolate-chip cookie would help).  They simply do what I expect.  Arrive on time and make the journey as pleasant and efficient as possible.  Is that too much to ask?

Sadly, my affection for Delta is bolstered by my dissatisfaction with its competitors. I’m surprised to see American and United make the top five.  My family and I have had several lousy experiences with American, including delayed or canceled flights and could-care-less customer service agents.  Meanwhile, United may know how to arrive on time, but their coach seats should be labeled “cattle class” (not unlike Spirit and Frontier).  Drop down the tray table and open your laptop.  I challenge you to type comfortably.

Southwest could’ve been higher in Cirium’s rankings but I’m sure their logistical issues last year contributed to the number.  Scores of their canceled flights were attributed to “weather challenges” during an unprecedented upheaval in the workforce.  I’ll forgive the bald-faced excuse.  When Southwest is running on “all engines” their brand of customer service is second to none – which keeps me coming back for more.

From my days in corporate America, I remember an equilateral triangle as the symbol of a successful company, giving balance to customers, employees, and shareholders.  Looks a lot like the Delta logo, doesn’t it?  More than just a nod to the Greek letter (Delta) or a throwback to its origins in the Mississippi (“Delta”, that is).  Even the dictionary definition of delta belongs in the conversation. Positive change befits operational excellence.

If my wife & I were relocating to Salt Lake City or Atlanta (or one of Delta’s other hubs), we’d be changing planes and flying more often with the “triangle”. Just this week my wife enjoyed another Delta flight she described as “perfect except for a few inconsiderate passengers” (which seems to be the norm these days). Delta celebrates one hundred years of passenger flights in 2029 so it’s safe to say they’re guided by experience.  The Cirium ranking is just a numbers-crunching confirmation of what I already know.  Delta is ready when I am.  Or, to put it mathematically, Δ = (S)atisfaction + (L)oyalty.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “The world’s best-performing airline has been revealed”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

——————–

Lego Grand Piano – Update #18

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Today’s section of the symphony could’ve, maybe should’ve used a stand-in pianist.  Bag #18 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled a little more than half of the piano’s top lid.  I show the structure on its side in the first photo because that’s how I built it, from the ground, er… desk up.  I imagined myself as a tiny mason, building a wall brick-by-little-brick, working right-to-left, then over to the right again.  You – my faithful reader – could’ve handled this part of the construction easily.  In Lego terms, it’s a wall made with various lengths of rectangle pieces.  That’s it.

Not a wall, but part of the hinging piano lid.

Know what I love about this adventure? (which is rapidly coming to a close!) You don’t always see what’s coming.  I knew I was building the top lid, but it was hard to see how it fit the piano until I set it on its side when I was done (second photo).  More to my point, I have three bags of pieces remaining.  One is the remainder of the piano lid.  One is the free-standing bench for the pianist.  Which leaves… you see? I still have no idea what’s coming.

Running Build Time: 13.0 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Leftover pieces: None!

The top lid rests in its future location.

Conductor’s Note: The story behind Louis-Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is more interesting than the piece itself (seriously).  At the somewhat tender age of 24, Berlioz fell in love with an Irish Shakespearean actress, who kept him at bay until she finally agreed to be his –  seven years later. Maybe the length of Berlioz’s pursuit extinguished the flame because the romance didn’t last.  But Berlioz wasn’t left empty-handed.  He composed the Symphonie fantastique to depict the idealized version of his Irish lover. I just didn’t find his music fantastique.

Wait For It

Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone.  It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.

Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative.  While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer.  Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.

Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– voting
– public restrooms

If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line.  We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise.  Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line).  Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR.  Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”).  Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee.  Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you).  And public restrooms?  Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty.  Maybe reconsider that second beer.

The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue.  I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”).  Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable.  At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”.  But the old-fashioned distractions still work.  It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport.  Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.

Julio C. Negron

You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system.  Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines).  My response to him was not one of my finer moments.  Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle.  If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.

In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales

Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have.  Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise).  It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again.  The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.

I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater.  Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die.  If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.

Bad Check

Last week I flew to Indiana for a conference, connecting briefly through Chicago O’Hare.  After finally touching down and exiting the tiny plane, I noticed a cluster of passengers right there in the jet bridge, waiting for luggage to be brought up the stairs.  I headed to the baggage claim area instead, where the rest of us watched the carousel lumber round and round.  The minutes passed interminably as the belt continued its relentless rotation; passengers leaving one-by-one with their bags.  Suddenly everything came to a grinding halt, and the carousel let out its big, mechanical sigh.  I found myself in the quiet and solitary confinement of an empty claim area.  My luggage?  Nowhere to be found.

The airlines advertise a ton of performance statistics, but here’s a new one on me: rate of mishandled bags.  For every passenger who files a lost-luggage report, the carrier gets a ding.  That ding is well-deserved, representing the stress of lost luggage, the hassle of filing a report in one of those stuffy little offices, and the inevitable delay reuniting with your bag.  Not that it happens very often.  According to the following chart – part of a Wall Street Journal article – American Airlines reports a mere 2.8 incidents of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers.  But hold the phone, folks – there’s more to the losing than meets the eye.  Turns out American (and most other airlines) avoid a lost-luggage ding if they alert you to the “mishandled” bag.  Today’s smart tags make it easy to track the bag (even if it’s heading in a different direction than you are).  So that bit of information – proactively communicated in a text or email – avoids a bad stat.  And that’s why the chart below shows a dramatic improvement in August.  American Airlines started its proactive notification process the month prior.

I don’t choose my airline according to “rate of mishandled bags” (or any other statistic for that matter – it’s all about the ticket price), but I have observed the adjusted behavior of others.  Carry-on baggage is all the rage now, in brand-new shapes and sizes.  Look around next time you board a plane and count how many passengers violate the airline’s carry-on policy.  The person with the roll-y suitcase and oversized backpack is probably one bag over the limit.  The person with the valise slightly larger than the space “under the seat in front of you” probably should’ve checked it.  But chances are the flight attendant won’t make a fuss, at the risk of negative publicity.

Speaking of backpacks, the oversized versions seem to be all the rage these days; far surpassing the number of “wheelies” and “over-the-shoulder’s” so common with past generations.  It’s like everyone’s back in high school again.

Here’s another trend.  Passengers carry-on instead of checking, knowing there isn’t enough room in the overhead bins.  Once the bins are full, they surrender their bags at the end of the jet bridge instead, for attendants to tromp down the stairs and into the belly of the plane.  After landing, the process works in reverse (thus the cluster of passengers on my recent flight).  But credit to these travel warriors; they avoid $50 of baggage fees, as well as smashing bags into overhead bins (which always brings to mind square pegs and round holes).

One more trend.  Airlines are shifting the baggage-check process into the hands of travelers.  At self-check-in, the kiosk now dispenses a bag tag along with the boarding pass.  You attach the tag to the bag.  You haul the bag to the belt, where – in some cases – you place the bag on the belt.  Congratulations – you’re an airline employee working free of charge.  You might even be helping the airline avoid a mishandled bag stat.

My own lost-luggage story had a happier-than-expected ending.  At the baggage service office, the attendant took my tag into the back, reappearing moments later with my bag.  Turns out my suitcase flew on another plane, arriving at my same destination before I did (explain that bit of magic, please).  Crisis averted, but instead I lost my excuse to go purchase a suitcase of new clothes.