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”.

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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.

Small Fly

Whenever we travel to our favorite little town in South Carolina, we have the option of a connecting flight through Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) or Atlanta (ATL) to get there. DFW is the fourth-busiest airport in the world, with five terminals, seven runways, and 164 gates. The airport property covers twenty-seven square Texas miles, with its own zip code, police, and fire departments. Meanwhile, ATL is merely the busiest airport in the world, hosting 300,000 passengers and 60,000 workers every day. One of ATL’s runways is so long they hold an annual 5k running race on it. DFW and ATL are mega-ports and can be mega-stressful to pass through, which is why landing in little Augusta, Georgia, our final flying destination, is like a breath of small-town fresh air.

Augusta Regional Airport (“…at Bush Field”, or simply “AGS”) is the smallest airport in the world.  Okay, that’s not even close to true (especially if you consider landing strips in cornfields) but it sure feels like it.  AGS sits quietly on the banks of the Savannah River, just west of the Georgia state line.  It’s served by the smallest aircraft of Delta and American.  Its tiny terminal building is shaped like a capital “T”, with two little ticket counters at the top, followed by a quick stroll down the middle to a boarding lounge the size of an oversized living room.  If you average out the flight schedule, AGS has a single plane touching down every two hours.  They should hire the Augusta High School marching band to welcome each landing (“Go Orioles!”)

The first time I realized AGS was big-time-small was after a late landing on a weekday night.  Walking down the brief concourse the airport was noticeably dark.  The rental car counters were already shuttered for the night.  At baggage claim, the single attendant (literally, the only employee in the building) announced bags would be hand-delivered to the curb instead of circulating on the belt.  Yep, they just lined ’em all up by the waiting cars.

Watch the planes from the “front porch”

My other AGS big-time-small moment was the first time I saw the parking lot (free for 30 min, $8/day).  Half the lot was given over to rental cars.  Think about the number of rental car spaces you need for an airport where just a handful of planes land each day.  Now double the number.  That’s the size of Augusta Regional’s parking lot.

The design of AGS, boasting one-story red brick, proud white columns, and suburban landscaping, reminds me of the clubhouse of a golf course.  In fact, Augusta Regional bears the nickname “The Country Club Airport”, entirely fitting since The Masters professional golf tournament is held every April just twelve miles from its runways. 

Lounge outside (past security) before you board…

AGS reminds me of my first small airport experience back when I was a freshman in college.  Flying from Los Angeles (LAX – second-busiest in the U.S.), I deplaned in a modest midwestern town, and for the first time ever descended stairs onto the outside tarmac instead of through a jetway to the terminal.  I happened to be the first passenger off the plane, which meant leading a line of people to the glass doors of the boarding lounge.  Only I couldn’t open the glass doors.  They wouldn’t “push” despite my best efforts.  Several greeters on the other side of the glass (this was pre-9/11) gestured to “pull” instead of “push”.  Took me just a little too long to figure that out.  Believe I heard the words “city boy” as I was on my way to baggage claim.

When we landed in Augusta most recently, we were the last flight of the night.  As we sat on the park-like benches at the curb waiting for our daughter to pick us up, I watched one of the few remaining employees bring in the trash cans and turn out the lights.  She made sure we had a ride, then locked the terminal building doors.  Only one other passenger was waiting to be picked up.  It was a little strange to be among the last couple of people on the property.  I mean, most airports don’t even close.

… or play a little golf.

At Dallas/Fort Worth, you can rent private rooms at the “Minute Suites” for naps or freshening up right there in the airport terminal.  There’s even a full-service spa.  In Atlanta you’ll find a Starbucks in six of the seven airport concourses.  Augusta Regional? How about a soft pretzel at the one concession stand, or an overpriced unofficial souvenir from The Masters?  Doesn’t matter.  You can show up less than an hour before your departure, and you can take in the take-offs from a comfy rocking chair.  Yep, this little small-fly is a pretty sweet landing pad.

Some content sourced from the Augusta Regional Airport website.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #8

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

Last week

Our instrument really came together this week, as you’ll see in the second photo. Bag #8 – of 21 bags of pieces – not only connected both large pieces, but also added strings!  We now have enough of the black frame in place to where our little gem is finally starting to look like a piano.

I went with Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony” today because I completed this section in the early morning hours and needed the famous jolt the orchestra gives you at the end of an otherwise piano movement. (Yes, “piano” can be an adjective).  Haydn was famous for these little “jokes”, placed randomly the middle of his compositions.

This week

Running Build Time: 6.75 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major. Leftover pieces: 4 (including a couple of piano strings).

Conductor’s Note: We’re getting very close to boxing in the complex mechanics of the instrument… and I’m nervous.  We have a couple “loose ends” in there which must somehow attach so they’ll do something productive (like make music).  Hoping next week’s Bag #9 addresses this concern.

Flight of the Humble Bee

Travelling to faraway places – weeks at a time – sprouts a dual bloom of stress and excitement. The stress buds from the interruption of life at home; the need to keep things clicking and intact while away. The excitement buds from the unknown of what lies ahead; the anticipation of new sights and experiences. My keyboard tap-tap-tappings come from one of those faraway places today; Northern Europe, but it’s not my destination I’m keen to talk about. Instead I’m drifting a few days back to the start of the trip, to my outbound flight from Denver to New York. There, in a moment of rarefied air, I mingled for a few hours as a first-class passenger.

First Class. You know – the initial several rows on the airplane, dripping with white tablecloths, champagne flutes, and fluffy pillows. The wider, more comfortable seats. The dedicated flight attendant. Complimentary drinks, WiFi, movies, and magazines. Sounds so clean and expensive, with an almost regal attitude about it, don’t you think?

But what if I said, nein? What if I told you my first-class experience rated – yes – better than coach, but only with the slightest of differences? Wouldn’t you want to know why?

For starters, let’s deplane and go back to the terminal. A first-class ticket entitles you to a dedicated always-short line at the check-in counter. You already know that. Me, I missed that line. Whether the signage was on its morning break, or the harshly voiced commandant-of-the-queue distracted me with her “line up he-ah!”, or “print your boarding pass he-ah!”, or “do not leave your luggage he-ah!” (add German accent), I missed first-class check-in. Me and the “coachies” dawdled together in the snaky commoner line for a good forty-five minutes instead.

Fast-forward to the wait at the gate. My wife shrewdly pointed out the “Delta Club”, which I assumed was an exclusive members-only hideaway. Turns out, a business-class international ticket (i.e. the only reason I got first-class on the domestic leg) gets you and I access to the Club. Through a set of dark, imposing doors, past a couple of guards (who really do “guard”), we were treated to a light-but-no-cost breakfast buffet, comfortable chairs and tables, and blissful quiet (except for the gent next to me with the persistent cough). I hereby admit, the Delta Club was a sweet perk of first-class, if only to hang with less rats in the airport maze.

When a flight is even slightly delayed, and the passengers have nowhere to escape to outside of the boarding lounge, the ensuing chaos is a predictable study in human nature. No matter what kind of ticket you hold, “pre-boards” walk the plank first (defined as anyone needing extra time to get to their seat). After, Delta welcomes a mix of military, first-class (me!), and “Sky Priority” frequent flyers. But here’s the thing about rats. The line to board the plane is hopelessly windy and long, snaking between the walls of the concourse and the rows of boarding lounge seats. Try pushing to the front of the line – first-class ticket frantically waved above your head – when you’ve been standing in the back. Not-so-nice stares from other rats.

After taking my seat in 2a (or spoken with attitude, the second row), the complimentary glass of orange juice or champagne (or both please – mimosa!)… never materialized. Then I realized why. The logistics of serving drinks in first-class is virtually impossible when all the coachies board down the same aisle. No, this was not one of those planes where you “turn left” for first-class and “turn right” for everything else. One door. One aisle. All rats in the same maze after all.

<Cue disconsolate, sad music – solo violin or muted cello.  First-class is dying on the vine.>

How about breakfast? First-class meals are pre-ordered – on-line. That’s cool. Choose from blended steel-cut oats/quinoa with fruit, or an egg/cheese souffle with chicken sausage. My wife chose one and I chose the other – borderline-healthy airplane food requiring forks and knives! Not only that (insert smirk), turbulence prevented the flight attendants from serving anything in the main cabin, not even so much as a glass of water. Hope y’all bought some pre-packaged self-serve snacks before you boarded.  Ha!

But there it is. Attitude. Just when I think I can comfortably digest my first-class privilege; attitude rears its ugly head. Suddenly the passengers in row five and beyond are – ahem – somehow lesser. Not right. Time to pull my head out of – ahem – the clouds, and drift back down to reality. First-class may start out a little sweet, but the aftertaste can be a little bitter. Better to take my rightful place with the coachies from now on.

That’s (Not) the Spirit!

In the latest Skytrax airline review, Spirit Airlines received an overall rating of 3 (out of 10). Not so good, eh? I’d love to debate that grade with those who fly Spirit.  But what if those travelers also learned Spirit received a mere 4 for “value for money”. Value for money?  This is an airline that touts itself as “the leading ultra-low cost carrier in the United States”!  Have we been duped?

37 - duped

One of my family members flew Spirit earlier this week, and from her I learned the extent to which a business model can go “no frills”.  I thought Spirit simply attached a fee to everything outside of the ticket itself.  It’s more convoluted than that.  Best example: Spirit’s checked bag fee starts at $30 (paid at time of booking), increases to $35 (before online check-in), then to $40 (during online check-in), then to $50 (at ticket counter), and summits at $100 (at gate).  Pack carefully too, because an “overweight bag” begins at forty pounds (not fifty), and the fee-on-top-of-the-baggage-fee for overweight begins at $25.

Here are some other gotchas with Spirit; enough to consider your nearest emergency exit.  Choosing a seat yourself runs $50 and up (not so unusual with the airlines these days).  Carry-on bags that can’t be jammed under your seat cost you $55.  Boarding passes are $2 if printed at a kiosk; $10 if printed by an agent (must be premium-weight paper, huh?)  Unaccompanied minors are an extra $100 each way.  Finally, the drink you’ll need to survive this a-la-carte menu starts at $3, even if it’s plain ol’ water.  And don’t forget to press the flight attendant button or your beverage will never, ever arrive.

All of the above might read as criticism, but it’s apparent the Spirit model works for enough passengers to keep their planes in the air.  If you choose to fly Spirit you are – ideally -a person traveling alone, carrying only one bite-sized piece of luggage, and you don’t mind where or with whom you sit on the plane.  You also don’t care about comfort, because Spirit proudly reduces legroom to create “more seats for less airfare”.

I waged a little fares-war to see how Spirit’s “bare fare” stacks up to the competition.  I chose five of Spirit’s larger-city destinations and compared those fares to the next lowest carrier.  Here’s what you pay if you book a one-week round-trip flight from Denver starting April 15th:

  • Chicago – Spirit: $108, Next Lowest: $117
  • Atlanta – Lowest: $167, Spirit: $270
  • Dallas – Spirit: $78, Next Lowest: $86
  • Phoenix – Lowest: $130, Spirit: $150
  • Los Angeles – Spirit: $91, Next Lowest: $138

Percentage-wise, the best deal is to Los Angeles, where you only pay 65% to Spirit vs. the next lowest.  But are you going to fly all the way to the coast with a bag that fits under your seat?  Not likely, so add another $55.  Whoops – Spirit is no longer the lowest-cost option.

I’m not necessarily throwing Spirit under the bus here (even though a recent DOT report showed they had the highest number of complaints per-passenger among major U.S. airlines).  I’m not saying they don’t care about you the customer (even though my sister-in-law took three hours and five agents/supervisors/managers to get her storm-delayed flight re-booked).  I’m not even saying Spirit doesn’t run its business above board (even though the FAA recently slapped them with a $375,000 penalty for false advertising and refusal to reimburse customers).

What I am saying is do the math and know what you’re paying for.  Don’t be duped.

I’ll conclude with a bit of irony.  Three years ago my overnight flight to Florida was cancelled because I couldn’t connect through Houston on account of bad weather.  But I simply had to get to Florida by the next morning.  After exhausting all options the counter agent informed me my only option was out of another airport an hour’s drive to the north, and the only option out of that airport was… Spirit.  And I’ll be damned if Spirit didn’t get me to Florida the next morning – right on time.  So there you have it – I’m a fan of Spirit!  Er, that is, after exhausting all other options.