(Av)Geeking Out

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Summer is finally here and that means it’s time to use some of those vacation days I’ve been hoarding. Hooray! As you know, I like to spend my vacation from the airport at other airports. This year I’ve added a new airport to my list of vacation destinations!

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center//Dulles International Airport

34982400_UnknownA couple weeks ago I made my first ever trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly VA for their annual Innovations in Flight Family Day. I had the tremendous honor of tagging along with my friends the Airplane Geeks who were there to record some interviews for their podcast. One of the best things about being with the Geeks was getting early access to the center, which means my first look at some of those amazing airplanes came when there was almost no one else around.

34982288_UnknownIf aviation is a religion, then the Udvar-Hazy Center is the holy land. Spending a few quiet moments in the presence of some remarkable airplanes was pretty darn close to a religious experience. I got to see a Concorde for the first time. And a Space Shuttle. And so much more. But the one airplane I most wanted to see was an unassuming little Cessna 180. I located it hanging sedately over the much flashier Concorde. The name of the plane is The Spirit of Columbus. It was piloted by Jerrie Mock – the first woman to fly solo around the world. Such a big journey for such a small airplane!

As is so often the case, two of the most memorable moments I had at Innovations in Flight were completely unplanned. The first was getting a tour of a C-17 by a friend who is a C-17 pilot. There’s nothing like learning about an airplane from someone who flies it! I have a whole new appreciation for the plane and what it can do.

The second memorable moment was taxiing across Dulles in a Cherokee. I know some of you are thinking, “Big deal! You never left the ground!” Yes, that’s true. But hello… we taxied across DULLES!!! In a CHEROKEE!!! An Etihad Dreamliner landed right next to us. We passed a Lufthansa Boeing 747. We got a close look at the international terminal AND the cargo ramp. The airport nerd in me loved every second of the journey!

My day spent at Innovations in Flight was truly wonderful. I am making plans to go back and visit the Udvar-Hazy Center again soon. So how do you follow up such an amazing experience? With an air show, of course!

Vectren Dayton Air Show//Dayton International Airport

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Coming soon: an internet campaign to get me this sign!

I have been to the Dayton airport and air show many times before. However, this was my first visit in several years. I was greeted by my most favorite airport sign in the history of airport signs. I NEED this sign! It would be PERFECT right next to my desk. Or in my front yard. Or my living room. Dear Dayton Airport: if you ever take this sign down PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give it to me!

Once I entered the static display area I was greeted by some old friends: a C-17, a B-17 from the movie Memphis Belle, an A-10 and so much more! The air show itself was the first live-action test of my snazzy new camera. I still have some learning to do, but I think some of the pics turned out really well!

The Golden Knights were fun to watch, although I can’t imagine jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. The B-17 from the movie Memphis Belle made several passes and was lovely as always.  This was my first time seeing Redline – a two-person aerobatic team who fly RV-8s.  So cool!

 

Sean D Tucker put on a terrific performance. (Has anyone ever been able to refer to him and NOT use his middle initial?  I sure can’t!) The F-22 Raptor is one of the best military demonstrations out there.  I’ve seen it several times before and it always leaves me with my jaw hanging open.

 

Tora Tora Tora is a perennial air show favorite.  So is the Screamin’ Sasquatch jet-powered Waco.

 

And of course, the Blue Angels were amazing, as they ALWAYS are!

 

What makes aviation vacations the best, however, are the people you share them with.

If you’d like to hear more about Innovations in Flight then you MUST check out The Airplane Geeks episode featuring interviews recorded at the event.  Also check out the Flying and Life podcast episode in which Dispatcher Mike and the Airline Pilot Guy recount their adventures flying to Dulles in a 1963 Beechraft Musketeer! Special thanks to David Vanderhoof and the rest of the Geeks for allowing me to tag along with them, and to Hillel for being brave enough to allow me in his Cherokee!

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Airport Terminal of the Future

IMG_0263Think back for a moment to what aviation was like 60 years ago. The DC-3 was a common sight and the Boeing 707 was brand new. Passengers could be accompanied by their families all the way to the gates. TWA, Eastern and Piedmont offered flights at my airport. Things sure have changed a lot since then! Well, except for the terminal. It has had several additions and face-lifts over the years, but at its core it is the same building in the same location as it was in 1958.

O'Hare Airport Terminal, Chicago

O’Hare International Airport also has a big terminal construction project planned. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Now let’s imagine 60 years into the future. What will air travel look like in 2078? What kind of airplanes will we fly? What kind of cars will we drive? (Will we even still be driving cars?) What if you had to design and build an airport today that will meet the needs of the flying public (both commercial and GA) for the next 60 years and beyond? What should the terminal look like? How big should it be? Will the security needs be different? Those are just a few of the considerations that airport designers face.  I have a hard time  deciding what to have for breakfast – I couldn’t imagine being tasked with these types of decisions.  Needless to say I’m very glad that I’m not an airport planner!

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Salt Lake City International Airport is in the middle of a large expansion project.  Estimated cost: $3 Billion (Photo by GoMan195531 at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons)

After 60 years, the functional life of our terminal is starting to wind down. We went through a modernization program recently that will extend our ability to use the building another 15 years or so. However, the time is coming when a new building will be needed. But… how do we know when that time is? As it turns out, the answer is rather complicated.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, factor is the number of passengers using the terminal. We know the maximum number that the current facility can reasonably handle. When we reach a certain point in passenger growth we’ll need to start construction so that the new building is ready when we hit max capacity. Another thing to consider involves infrastructure. When key items like boilers, furnaces and AC units begin to wear out, it will probably make more sense to start construction on a new terminal than to spend millions of dollars putting new equipment into an old building. There are other factors as well, but these two are probably the biggest. If we keep going at our current pace, we expect to hit one of these thresholds in the next 8-10 years.

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Indianapolis’ new terminal opened in 2008.  I dig the trippy lighting! (photo by By utahwildflowers  via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though construction won’t start for a while that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax. Nope – there are a whole lot of things we’ve been working on in the meantime.  First off we had to figure out where the new terminal should go, as well as the parking garages, lots, rental car facilities, etc.  Then we had to work on all the studies, evaluations, surveys, environmental impact reviews, wetland assessments, etc. that are routinely required as part of any construction project. Then once all of that has been worked out, the basic infrastructure must to be put into place so that when we’re ready to start building, we have what we need. In our case that means putting in all the utility lines, as well as relocating some of the big RTR antennas.

Another thing on the to-do list is figure out how to pay for it all. The full project is slated to cost over a billion dollars. Ouch! Most airports use a combination of methods to finance this type of project including borrowing money, obtaining grants and using Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) funds.

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Concourses B and C at Philadelphia International Airport were also built in the late 50s. (Photo by David Broad via Wikimedia Commons.)

Not familiar with PFCs? Check your next airline ticket. Every time you get onto an airplane you’ll see a charge of $4.50 (capped at $18/trip). The airlines are required to charge these fees and then remit them to the airports. I love recording the PFC charges because they come from airlines all over the world. We routinely receive remittances from  Japan Airlines, Air France, Luftansa and Qantas. No, none of those airlines fly into my airport.  However, if you buy a ticket to Paris via Air France, then Air France will charge you the PFC and remit those funds to us, even though you’ll actually fly out of my airport on one of their partner airlines (or one of their partner’s regional carriers). The FAA has pretty strict rules about how PFCs can be used. Airports can only use them for very specific things like enhancing security, reducing noise or increasing capacity. FAA approval is required in advance – and the airlines are allowed to give their input as well.

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Wouldn’t be a post from me if I didn’t include a pic of the latest cool airplane to fly in!

One thing my airport won’t use to finance the new terminal is local taxes. Since we aren’t owned by the city or county but instead function as an independent agency, we don’t use county or city taxes for construction projects or for our daily operations either.

So, what DOES the airport of the future look like? Well I’ve heard we are going for a modular design that will allow us to start with what we need, and leave room for us to easily add/adapt as passenger and airline needs change. The proposed design itself is… interesting. A lot can change in 10 years, so what the terminal will actually look like remains to be seen. But based on the most recent conceptualization let’s just say that I think the Jetsons would feel right at home.

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I’m not saying Hanna Barbera designed the look for the new terminal… but they totally could have!

The Ups and Downs of Airport Life

There’s never a dull day in aviation. Well… maybe there are some days that are fairly quiet and uneventful, but no two days are ever the same. It is one of the things I really love about working at an airport. Here are a few of the little “mini-adventures” I’ve had recently.

Balloon-attack

34180832_UnknownMy office is tucked away in a secluded part of the terminal. To access it you have to walk down a long, narrow hallway that is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. After working late one evening I was attempting to go home when I entered that hallway only to find myself faced with what looked like approximately a million helium party balloons headed right for me. I quickly squeezed myself into a corner and waited for the balloons (and the people carrying them) to pass. This took some time because they were headed down one of the concourses which required them to enter a SIDA area (Secure Identification Area). This means each balloon carrier had to scan their badge, enter a code and go through the door one at a time, to be greeted by security on the other side.

 

Why all the balloons? The airport was getting ready for the launch of service by a new airline. This typically involves a lot of hoopla, although how much depends in part on the airline. For passenger airlines we typically make quite a celebration out of it – balloons, banners, catered food. On this particular occasion the airline wanted A LOT of hoopla. Not only did they celebrate at the gate, but there was a party area set up in the ticket lobby with more food and more balloons, plus live music and prizes. My favorite part of the celebration? Why the water cannon salute, of course! I’ve seen several of them at this point and they never get old.

Be Our Guest

33916048_UnknownOne of the best things about where I work is you never know what might fly in. Sure, I see lots of CRJs and ERJs, but it is the unexpected visitors that are the most exciting. A Canadian Alpha Jet certainly fits into that category. A friend found out that one was flying in and gave me a heads up. I was able to dash upstairs just in time to catch it taxiing to the FBO. I had never seen one before. Now that I have I would love the chance to see it up close!

IMG_3867Speaking of guests from another country, the same friend contacted me recently to let me know that a Delta A330 had just landed. Turns out it had come from Amsterdam and was unable to get to its intended destination because of bad weather. I suspected that it might be hiding out on the deice pad so I took a little stroll down concourse B.  Sure enough, there it was. At many airports the sight of an A330 is an ordinary occurrence, but for us this was something unusual. If you think that seeing the plane from the comfort of a warm, dry terminal was enough for me, then you must not be an avgeek! Of course I went out into the windy, snowy night to watch it take off! It was totally worth it, even though I got soaked and nearly blown off the top of the garage.

Strange Pax Moments

IMG_3980As I mentioned earlier, my department is tucked away in a part of the airport that isn’t easy to get to and is kept locked most of the time.  So you can imagine my surprise when I went to head home after working late one evening and I discovered a man with luggage stuck in a locked stairwell. It was not a SIDA area, but it is also not a place where passengers would ever go. I asked how he had gotten back there but he couldn’t tell me. He said he was trying to catch a flight but couldn’t say what airline. A coworker came along and the two of us walked the man out to the ticket lobby.

34180416_UnknownIt was apparent something was very wrong. He kept trying to wander into areas that are off-limits. He seemed disoriented and confused. He assured us he knew where he was going, but instead wandered around aimlessly. I ended up asking a security agent to follow him while I contacted the airport police. I found out later that, as I suspected, the man was very intoxicated.

Any adventure that involves calling the police is not one I’d care to repeat. However, a few weeks later I was on my way out after working late again when I stumbled across an unattended bag in the hallway near an exit. I prayed someone would come get it. I watched and waited, but after 15 minutes I realized the bag had been abandoned. So once again I ended up calling the police.  Two calls to the Public Safety department in just a few weeks? I’m going to blame it on having to work late so much recently… but I may put the police number on speed dial, just in case!

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Come back and visit us again soon, A330! Photo by Andrew Stricker

Airline Fees that THEY Have to Pay

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If you’ve flown commercially recently then you know that airlines LOVE to charge fees. It seems like there’s an extra cost for pretty much everything these days. All those fees can get pretty annoying, so I thought it might be fun to turn the tables and talk about fees that airlines have to PAY. Specifically, airport fees.

Before I jump in, however, there are a few disclaimers. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all airport fees. Additionally, every airport is different so the types of fees vary, as do the rates.

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Hahaha! Look who I finally caught! Nice to see ya, Miami Air! Your invoice is in the mail.

How does my airport decide how much to charge? The rates are set based on how much it costs to operate the airport. We track our expenses and use a formula to translate those amounts into rates. Signatory airlines (passenger airlines who have signed a lease agreement or cargo airlines who have committed to a specific number of weekly flights) get a discount on most fees. We actually sit down with representatives from our signatory airlines every fall to go over our budget and the rates for the next year.

Rent

Rent is charged per square foot for ticket counters, gate space, hold rooms, baggage areas, the apron, etc. The typical lease is for a term of three years. Rates vary depending on the area. Ticketing counter space is the most expensive at $103/sq ft. Baggage claim is less at $82/sq fr. A big airline with many gates and lots of space can expect to pay $400,000/month in rent. A small airline with a single gate could pay closer to $90,000/month.

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One signatory, one not.

Gate Use Fees

Hey wait… didn’t I just just say that airlines rent gate space? Yes, I did. However, they don’t always rent enough space. Things like additional flights, new destinations or even diversions could mean that there are times when an extra gate or two are needed. In that case airlines will use unleased gates and we will charge them for it. Of course, non-signatory airlines don’t rent space so they will always have to pay gate use fees. We charge signatory arlines around $350/turn  for an extra gate. Non signatory airlines pay closer to $600/turn.

Terminal Use Fees

The cost of maintaining the terminal is already wrapped up into the lease fees for signatory airlines. Non-signatory airlines, however, have to pay terminal use fees. These are calculated per enplaned passenger. We are currently charging just over $7 so a departing flight with 150 passengers will pay around $1050.00.

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Um… yeah, no fees for you.

Landing Fees (my favorite!)

Landing fees are charged per 1000 lbs of max gross landing weight (MGLW). We see A LOT of E175s at my airport, each of which which has an approximate MGLW of 75,000 lbs. That’s $237.75 per landing for a signatory airline and $356.25 non-signatory. It will cost you $462.82 to land your Boeing 738 ($693.50 non-sig). And a Boeing 757 costs around $627.66 ($940.50 non-sig).

CPE

Add up all the fees charged by an airport and divide that amount by the number of enplaned passengers and you get a figure called the Cost Per Enplaned Passenger, or CPE. This is essentially what it costs an airline to do business at that airport. In 2016 the CPE at JFK was $25.45. For the same year the CPE at SEA was $10.10. For my airport it was around $7.20. CPE doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story about the cost of operating at a particular airport, but it can be a useful point of comparison.

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FBO Charges

At most airports the FBOs are run separately by independant companies. However, at our cargo airport the FBO is run by the airport itself. That means I get to send out FBO invoices in addition to all those landing fees. Cargo airlines can expect to pay around $3200 for ground handling. A passenger flight would pay around $1700. Need an air start? That’ll be $150. Want to use our belt loader? That’s $70/hour. Need your lav serviced? It’s a bargain at $125/hook-up.

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Deice

Deice costs $15/gallon for type I fluid and $21/gallon for type IV fluid (which includes application). The amount of deicing fluid needed varies a lot depending on the weather conditions and the size of the airplane. Knocking light frost off a Mad Dog can take around 50 gallons and cost $750. On a snowy day deicing an Airbus A320 could require 150 gallons of type I ($2,250) and another 60 of type IV ($1,260). (Want to know more about deicing? Check out this great piece by AeroSavvy!)

Hooray for GA!

What about GA aircraft? Well there are FBO fees, of course, but the airport itself charges a grand total of… nothing! No gate fees, no terminal fees, no landing fees. But if you’d like to get an invoice from me, we’ve got some lovely hangars available for rent. Just let me know and I’ll be happy to set you up!

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Here We Snow Again!

33651840_UnknownI hate this time of year. I work long hours and it’s a struggle to get away from my desk.  When I do get a moment free it is either too wet, too cold or too dark to go outside. Just the other day an Osprey flew in and all I could do was watch sadly through the office window. This is so not OK!  Maybe the lack of airfield action is why I’m a little obsessed with winter operations.  OK, actually, I’m a lot obsessed. But let’s face it – no other season allows me to get my fix of airplanes and big, awesome ground support vehicles all at the same time!

img_6528If you have been reading this blog for awhile then you know that last year I got the opportunity to help the Ops department manage the flow of traffic into and out of the deice pad. There was a lot to learn and it was kind-of stressful, but it was also incredibly cool.  Unfortunately I’ve been unable to help out this year and I miss it SO MUCH!  Wait… did I just admit that I miss being at the airport at 5am in freezing weather? Yes, I did. I know it sounds crazy, but I really enjoyed making a hands-on contribution to keeping the airport up and running.

33651488_UnknownPreparation for the winter season actually begins in August. That’s when the airport starts stocking up on the chemicals and other supplies needed to aid in snow removal. In early fall we start hiring winter seasonal employees and the Airfield department recruits for additional snow warriors from among the other departments. I know what you’re thinking.  If they allow other airport employees to help out in the winter, why on earth have I not jumped all over this opportunity? Please refer back to paragraph number one.  Sadly, winter is the busiest time of year in accounting and it just isn’t possible to take on anything else.

IMG_2504This year we added serious muscle to our snow removal capabilities with the purchase of six multi-function machines. These ginormous vehicles have a plow on one end and a broom on the other. They are capable of moving huge amounts of snow in a fairly short amount of time. When it comes to ground support vehicles, these are the biggest and baddest of the bunch. Only the full-time airfield employees are allowed to drive them – no seasonals or helpers from other departments. Not surprising when you consider they cost three quarters of a million dollars each!

33651984_unknown.jpgOnce the snow starts falling, keeping the airport open is a collaborative effort between Operations, Airfield Maintenance and ATC. One of these days I hope to score a ride along so I can get a first-hand look at the process. But for now I do what so many other avgeeks do – I bring up Flight Radar 24 and tune in to the tower on Live ATC. Listening in on winter operations at any airport can be fascinating. However, when it’s my airport it becomes quite personal.  I know the people who are out there working, and when the weather conditions are bad I know what they are up against.

33651568_Unknown (1)Our most recent big storm was quite a challenge. It started with temps well above freezing and torrential rain. These conditions can make it hard to pre-treat the runways to get ahead of the frozen participation to come. The temps fell through-out the day hovering at the freezing mark for a few hours and coating everything in ice. As the temps continued to plummet the ice turned to snow and the winds began to pick up.

Our runways have an east-west orientation.  During this storm the wind was from the north gusting up to 32kts. Keeping the runways and taxiways plowed in these conditions is incredibly difficult to say the least. The crosswinds, in combination with snowy runways (rated at 3/3/3 on the RCAM scale), proved to be too much for most flights. For a good two hours I watched as every single plane had to divert. Ouch!  This is never what any airport or airline wants. However, sometimes there’s just no winning against Mother Nature.

IMG_3338I was surprised at first to hear the deice pad frequency up and running so late at night. Under normal winter conditions – a frosty day or light snow – Ops will run the deice pad only during busy departure times. Otherwise the ramp remains uncontrolled and pilots work directly with the ground crews to get positioned for deicing. However, I found out that any time the airport is in snow operations, the Ops Department will take charge of the deice pad. This way they can keep the parking lines clear of snow, improve traffic flow and minimize the risk of collisions. Plus it allows them to relieve some of the burden on ATC since Ops will take over issuing some of the taxi instructions.

During a storm the snow removal teams focus on the runways and the main taxiways.  It can take several days after the snow stops falling to clear the rest of the paved surfaces. (Airports have A LOT of paved surfaces!) Fortunately we’re in the midst of a mid-January thaw so the temps have warmed up, the snow has melted and the snow warriors are getting a much-needed rest.  However, I have a feeling winter isn’t done with us yet.  The snow will return, and when it does you know I’ll be watching!

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Three Times the Love

IMG_2908Can you believe I’ve been working at the airport three years now? Three years! Three years of stalking airplanes. Three years of fighting the urge to ride around on the baggage carousel. And three years of being taunted by several sets of mobile stairs which have been parked outside the department window the ENTIRE time!

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In looking back on this past year there have been some pretty darn awesome moments. I got to see A-10s fly into my airport. Never in a million years did I ever think I’d see that! And a few weeks later I got to see Osprey fly in. Crazy, right? I went to Wings Over Pittsburgh and had an amazing time with some amazing friends. I got to hang out with more amazing friends at Oshkosh and I interviewed the Blue Angels. That’s right – someone was crazy enough to let me near the Blue Angels! I had a fantastic visit behind the scenes with American Airlines at CLT on Aviation Day. I helped out with a couple of podcasts. And I introduced a group of girls to the joys of flying. Yep, it has been quite a year!

IMG_2936But work has become a bit challenging in recent months. There have been some changes which have resulted in an increased workload, just as we head into the busiest time of year. Change isn’t a bad thing, but it can be stressful.  And as the amount of work increases, the stress does too.

The first casualty of all this was deice. I had been so excited to help out on the deice pad again this year. I really love being out there with the airplanes and seeing those amazing sunrises on the ramp! But the more stressed I became trying to do my regular job, the more I realized I couldn’t take on anything else, especially not something that can mean 12 hour days and additional stress. (Let’s face it – directing traffic on a busy morning on the deice pad is not always easy.) Having to say no to deice absolutely broke my heart.

IMG_2842Then my plane spotting began to suffer. I found myself unable to get away from my desk, even skipping lunch sometimes. After work I was tired and just wanted to get home. It came to a head one day when a plane spotter friend texted me that there were two C-130s on the airfield. Two C-130s! Sweet! I really wanted to go see them, but my task list was a mile long and felt like I just didn’t have the time.

FullSizeRender (85)At that moment it hit me. The whole reason I work for an airport is because there are airplanes outside the window. Am I really going to turn down the chance to go see a couple of C-130? Oh. Hell. NO! So I threw on a jacket and up top I went. I saw the Hercs and they were every bit as fantastic as I knew they would be. I thought about all the other amazing planes I have seen this year and I vowed right then and there not to let the work ruin the love. No matter how stressed or busy I am, I will ALWAYS make time for the airplanes. And you know what?  Spending my 30 minute lunch break away from my desk doing something I enjoy makes me so much happier and more productive when I get back. The truth is, being stressed at work at an airport is a THOUSAND times better than being stressed at any other job.

IMG_2781So what’s ahead for the next year? Well, I have an FBO visit coming up. And I’m hearing rumors that we might be visiting the ATC tower in the spring. Plus I’m already dreaming about a return trip to Oshkosh. Who knows what other adventures will come my way. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last three years, it’s that sometimes the best moments happen totally unexpectedly, and sometimes the ordinary things are the most special.

Author’s Note: Guess what else is celebrating its three year anniversary?  This blog!  THANK YOU SO MUCH to all my readers.  You guys are the best!

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The Teams Behind the Scenes

IMG_2671For people living in the United States, late November kicks off one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. Over 28 million people are expected to take to the skies over the Thanksgiving holiday alone.  Travelers are counting on the airlines to get them safely to their destinations. What they may not know, however, is that there are a whole host of airport personnel working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.

Custodians

Yes, the custodial teams are responsible for keeping the airport clean, but they actually do so much more. Custodians spend a lot of time out and about in the terminal and often find themselves on the front lines of customer care. We’ve had custodians buy food for stranded passengers, search for (and find) lost jewelry, and one quick-thinking custodian even provided a pair of uniform pants to an unfortunate traveler who spilled a drink all over himself.  Our custodians have also been trained to watch for suspected victims of human trafficking and to report suspicious activity to the airport police.  Never underestimate the impact that a solid, compassionate custodial team can make.

IMG_2709Building Maintenance

Like any other building, airport terminals require plenty of upkeep. When a pipe bursts in the bathroom, or when there’s a power outage, or when the baggage system stops working, who are you going to call? Yep – building maintenance. If they can’t fix it, they’ll bring in someone who can. Next time you find yourself walking through an airport terminal in the middle of the night, remember that folks from the Building Maintenace department are there too, keeping an eye on things.

Operations

The Operations Department is charged with making sure airport operations go smoothly at all hours. This includes things like issuing NOTAMs, chasing off flocks of birds and coordinating snow operations. A few years ago an airline that is not based at my airport had to divert in the middle of the night due to mechanical issues. Since the airline had no staff on site it was the Ops team that arranged a gate, greeted passengers and ordered pizza for them while a maintenance crew was being summoned.

IMG_2504Airfield Maintenance

The airfield teams are charged with making sure the runways and taxiways remain clean and clear. Too wet? They’ll suck up the excess water. Too snowy? They’ll get the plows going. Too much rubber build-up? Summon the brooms! If a big winter storm is forecast the teams will sometimes stay at one of the airport hotels so that they won’t get stranded at home.

Communications Center

The Communication Center personnel act as the eyes and ears of the airport. They monitor the fire and security systems, dispatch police and ARFF as needed and just generally watch over things. Ever gone out to your car in an airport parking lot only to find it won’t start? I have. Calling AAA is useless since they don’t have access to gated parking areas, so guess who I called for help? Yep – the Communications Center. They dispatched a service truck to help get me on my way.

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Airlines and ATC

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout-out to the airlines and ATC as well. Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, rampers, ticket agents, station masters, mechanics, dispatchers and air traffic controllers will all be giving up time with their families to make sure passengers get home to theirs. So if you’ll be traveling by air this holiday season, give your flight crews a smile and spare a thought for all the teams working behind the scenes to get you safely on your way.

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Double Trouble

IMG_1661I realized something wasn’t right when I saw the Southwest Boeing 737 flying low and slow over my neighborhood. It was much lower than it should have been. Plus it was coming from the wrong direction, completely outside the normal approach and departure patterns.

Being the dedicated (OK, obsessed might be a better word) avgeek that I am, I quickly looked up my airport on FlightAware. I could see from the flight tracker data that the airplane in question had taken off from the south runway and immediately circled back around. It proceeded to do two low approaches, first over one runway and then the other. Then it turned sharply to the northwest, which is what had brought it over my house.

IMG_0831Hoping to pick up some information from ATC communications, I listened intently to LiveATC while my brain went over a list of potential scenarios. Bird strike? Flap issue? Gear or tire problem? Then I heard one of the Southwest pilots come on the radio and use a word that caught my immediate attention: emergency. I have listened to a lot of ATC communications over the years, but this was the first time I have ever heard that word used concerning a flight from my airport.

Over the course of the next few minutes I learned that the plane had apparently blown one of the nose gear tires on take-off. They needed to hold for awhile, so ATC directed them into a holding pattern to the east of me. A friend who is a captain on the 737 explained that the pilots needed to burn off fuel to get the plane as light as possible to lessen the load on the remaining tire for landing.

FullSizeRender (83)At this point I had a decision to make. Should I drive the 15 miles to the airport to watch the flight come back in? I was tempted.  But I was afraid that while I was driving I might miss out on important communications or other developments. I consoled myself with the fact that when the plane made the western arc of its holding pattern I could see it from my back yard. Granted, I had to stand on the patio table. On my tiptoes. Doesn’t everyone watch airplanes that way? Actually… don’t answer that.

Anyway, it’s just as well I decided to stay put because right at this time I heard the pilot of a Cirrus call up ATC. He announced that they were losing oil pressure and needed to land right away. Suddenly the controllers were handling not one, but two emergency aircraft. Emergencies happen – ATC and airports are well trained to deal with them.  But two emergencies at once?  Definitely less common, especially for an airport the size of mine.

IMG_1361During the time that the Southwest flight was holding, ATC had allowed other planes to take off and land. However, when the pilot of the Cirrus called in, the Southwest flight had just left the hold and was preparing to do a final low approach before landing. As a result, ATC had stopped departures and was clearing traffic from the area around the airport. This presented something of a problem for the emergency Cirrus, who had requested immediate clearance to land.

IMG_1360Fortunately, we have a large cargo airport located just a few miles to the south of the passenger airport.  ATC recommended landing there and the Cirrus pilot agreed. ATC then proceeded to give him vectors to the airport. The Cirrus landed without incident.  Shortly afterwards, the Southwest flight completed its final low approach and circled around to a safe landing. They were even able to taxi to the gate with no issues.

I’ll admit – following along while these two events unfolded was quite riveting, but not for the reasons you might think. You may have noticed that my account does not contain any of the following words: panic, terrified, frantic, dire. These are words often used by the media to describe emergency situations in aviation. And occasionally they might be warranted, but not in this case. In fact, not in the majority of cases. More appropriate words would be: calm, professional, efficient, collaborative. It was an excellent example of the training and hard work by pilots, ATC, ARFF and Operations that goes on every day at airports around the world.

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Note: The planes featured in the photos on this post are not the planes that were involved in the incidents described.

© http://www.talesfromtheterminal.com 2017

AAmazing AAviation Day!

IMG_1159In the United States, National Aviation Day is held on August 19.  Here’s how I’ve celebrated at work the last couple years:

  • I bring in cookies.
  • Everyone eats them.

Yeah… not very exciting or inspiring. This year, however, I lucked into a very coveted ticket to attend AAviation Day at one of my favorite places – Charlotte Douglas International Airport! No, that’s not a spelling error – the extra “A” in “AAviation” is a nod to American Airlines who, in conjunction with the Airline Geeks, put together an awesome behind-the-scenes tour at the nation’s 5th busiest airport. Can you say avgeek heaven? Oh yeah!

IMG_1013I kicked things off early by parking on the very top level of the garage. No way was I going to pass up the chance to do a little pre-event plane spotting! (And lets face it, if they handed out diplomas for plane spotting from parking garages, I’d have a PhD!) My dedication paid off – I got my very first look at Amazon’s Prime Air 767. Sweet!

From there I made my way to the terminal to meet up with the rest of the group. There were about 12 of us altogether. I expected that most attendees would be from the Charlotte area. Wrong! In fact only one of the group lives near CLT. The rest were from places like New York, Texas, Florida and even California and Washington! Some of us work in aviation and some don’t, but all of us were kids in a candy store the whole day.

IMG_1189The tour began with a visit to the Operations Tower. Wow – what a view! And what a lot of computer equipment! The Operations Tower is responsible for all aircraft movement on the ramp. I wish we had a set-up like that for deice pad control in the winter! But then again, the ramp at CLT is a MUCH busier place with 600+ flights per day. We were allowed to wander around the room, examine the different work stations and ask questions. I honestly could have stayed for hours!

Our next stop was out onto the roof where we had a fabulous view of the ramp. The entire group went camera-happy, snapping pics almost non-stop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many American airplanes all in one spot! Good thing there wasn’t deck furniture and a cabana (and drinks) up there or they might have had some trouble convincing me to leave!

From the roof we went all the way down to the ground level for a walking tour of the ramp (with ear plugs and high-viz vests, of course). Being around the airplanes and crews and ground equipment was simply spectacular. There was so much going on – it’s much busier than what I am used to! Alas, there was not a single stairs truck in sight! Fortunately there were so many airplanes and so much to see that I didn’t mind.

After the ramp tour, we visited the American Airlines offices and enjoyed lunch in a cool, comfortable conference room. (Did I mention that the temps were a toasty 90F+ outside?) Several executives from American joined us and we were able to chat with them about how the company has grown over the years, as well as some of their future challenges.

FullSizeRender (81)After lunch, the awesomeness continued with a tour of the training facility. We met in a conference room first to learn a little about the training program itself and watch a video about the history of American Airlines. Then we visited the egress training area where Flight Attendants learn how to operate various types of emergency exits. Seeing the cut-away plane interiors was actually quite fascinating. They even had an E145 fuselage (minus the nose, wings and tail).

From there we moved into one of the flight simulator rooms. There were three Airbus A320 sims in this particular room, all of which were in use.  (The facility has approximately 13 sims of various types.) It was fascinating to watch the sims move around and to speculate on the scenarios that the pilots inside might be facing.

Our last stop of the day was the American Airlines maintenance facility. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door is how big it is. Similar to the Boeing factory in Seattle, employees use bikes to get around. We walked through fabrication areas and past the parts room on our way out to the hangars where there were three planes undergoing maintenance. I can tell you this – I do NOT want to be the person assigned to work on the top of the tail! Then again, climbing up and down all those flights of stairs would definitely be good exercise!

Our last event of the day was a visit inside one of the planes in the hangar (an A320). We examined the cockpit and then lounged in first class for several minutes. I also checked out the seats in the back and found them to be roomier than expected.

All too soon, however, it was time to exit the plane, take our final group photo and catch a shuttle back to the terminal.  I couldn’t believe it was time to say goodbye already! We were so busy the day just flew by.  Fortunately we had new friendships, amazing memories and some cool swag to take away with us.

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Look!  I found the motorized stairs!!!

As a passionate aviation enthusiast who happens to work in the industry, I have had many amazing avgeek experiences. However, I can honestly say that AAviation Day ranks right up at the top. A HUGE thank you goes out to Ryan Ewing and the Airline Geeks for all they did to plan and organize the event, as well as the wonderful staff at American Airlines for making the day so special!

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So what do you think? Are you crazy jealous and wondering how you can experience AAviation Day for yourself? Check out the Airline Geeks website and follow them on twitter. Events were held at all of American’s hubs, as well as two locations overseas. And the ticket cost? Zero. Zip. Nada. Free! But you have to pay attention if you want to score one. If this year was any indication, next year will be even bigger and better. Hope to see you there!

For You, Airline Crews

PRMY7206There has been a lot of bad press for the airlines lately. It upsets me because I know that the people involved in these incidents are NOT representative of the vast majority of airline employees. I see crews and gate agents and ground handlers every day. I see them showing up to work at crazy early hours. I see them still working late at night. And even when the day has been stressful with bad weather and canceled flights, they still manage to laugh when I see them on the shuttle at the end of the day.

IMG_8025So this is for you, pilots and cabin crews. I see you in the parking lot heading to the terminal. Most of you are commuting to your bases for the start of your trips. I often wonder just how far you have to go before your working day begins. And let’s face it, in a lot of ways once the uniform is on, you ARE working. I see passengers asking you questions and looking to you for guidance, even though at this point you’re technically just a passenger too.

This is for you, being part of an industry where you aren’t allowed to have a bad day. Any mistake or misunderstanding can be videoed and sent out to the masses in 140 characters or less, which is never enough to really tell the whole story. You deal with thousands of customers every year, doing your job well day after day and almost always with a smile. Then the bad behavior of a very few puts you under suspicion, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.

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By Maarten Visser from Capelle aan den IJssel, Nederland CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is for the baggage handlers working outside in the wind and freezing rain. It’s for the gate agents explaining a flight delay to frustrated passengers. And it’s for the pilots waving at excited children who are jumping up and down and pointing at the plane through the terminal window.  This is for the Southwest pilots who saw a military casket being removed from an American plane and out of respect for the fallen soldier, stopped their taxi until after the hearse left. This is for the flight attendants on the shuttle who had me laughing so hard at their stories that I couldn’t breathe. (And if you guys are reading – I continue to support your quest for casual Fridays!) This is for every one of you who works hard every day to make the aviation industry something I’m proud to be a part of:

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And for any of my aviation friends who may be feeling down or discouraged, I strongly encourage you to watch the movie Living in the Age of Airplanes. If you’ve seen it before, then watch it again. Or just watch this trailer. It’s a good reminder of just how amazing and wonderful and special aviation is!