Lessons from the Window

It has been almost a year since I moved to my desk by the window. As expected, it has been AMAZING. Even though I’m no stranger to the activity on the airfield, there are still some things I’ve learned from this new perspective.

Yes, I CAN Get My Work Done

Let’s get this out of the way first. It has been suggested that I might be so fascinated by the airfield activity that I won’t get anything done. Nope. I’m actually a good multitasker – I can work and keep an eye outside at the same time. Plus I’ve perfected my camera grabbing technique so I can go from tedious spreadsheet to amazing airplane pics in just a couple seconds.

Airbuses and RJs and Boeings… Oh My!

My desk is right behind gate 21 and I can also see gate 19, both of which are leased by American Airlines. They mostly park A319s and E175s out there. However every now and then a CRJ shows up. The CRJ200 is probably my favorite because compared to the others it looks like a little toy plane. To connect to the jetbridge they have to lower the steps, which makes it look even more like a toy. As passenger numbers have increased American has started to bring back the 737s. It makes for a nice mix of planes through-out the day.

I Hope It’s Worth the NOISE!

It’s no secret that the airfield is a noisy place, but I have a whole new appreciation of what that means. Let’s start with the jetbridges. Every time they move, alarms go off that sound just like old fire alarms or school bells. Then there are the APUs. Most aren’t noticeable, but every now and then a plane shows up with a loud, whiny APU. Of all the airfield noises, this one makes me the most crazy. Ground support vehicles aren’t exactly quiet either. The Air Start Cart can make quite a racket. And did you know tugs have horns? Oh yes. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeep!

Special Liveries

I see a lot of American and Southwest airplanes from my desk because both have gates on the south side of the airfield. By happy coincidence, both airlines also have a number of special liveries. Southwest has the most flights so it isn’t surprising that I see multiple special liveries a week. They have a new one called Freedom One that I’m quite fond of. My favorite thing, however, is when American’s PSA livery parks at gate 21. It’s hard not to smile back when there’s an airplane smiling in the window at you.

The South Side is the Best Side

My desk looks out at the south runway, which is the longer of the two and both FBOs are on this side of the airfield. This makes for a wide variety of airplanes for me to enjoy. Even when the south runway is closed, if 28 Right is in use then most planes will have to taxi by my desk to get to it. Win-win! This dramatically increases my ability to catch the resident P-51. Nothing makes a work day better than a warbird!

Mighty Military

When I combine a desk view with Flight Radar 24 or ADSB Exchange plus Live ATC, then not even the military can sneak by me. A few months ago I managed to catch a C-130 and a KC-135 doing practice approaches, followed by a C-17 and TWO C-5s which landed at the airport to pick up cargo. All this in ONE DAY!

Snow Cool

If you’ve looked at my older posts then you know I’m fascinated by winter operations. Now I have a front row seat to watch the snow warriors get it done. From plows on the runways to deice trucks to mini snow pushers on the ramp, I get to see all the action.

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If you ask my coworkers what they don’t like about being by the windows they’ll tell you two things – it can get very cold on cloudy winter days and every now and then it smells like jet fuel. They have a point about the cold. I keep a stack of extra sweaters, jackets and even gloves to wear at my desk. As for the jet fuel… well you know me – I love the smell of Jet A in the morning!

You Can’t Get There From Here… Yet

So you’ve been looking for a non-stop flight to your favorite vacation destination and discovered, to your dismay, that none exist. What? How can this be? Lots of people travel to this place. Surely the airport can just ask the airlines to offer non-stop service, right? Uh… well, no. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

The process of establishing new non-stop service can require quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work that can take years to complete. Although I don’t get involved until it is time to start billing, I’ve asked my friends in Business Development a million questions which they have been kind enough to patiently answer. It can be a complicated process, but here’s a look at some of the basics.

The “Easy” Way

Sometimes one of the airlines currently operating at the airport decides to add a new route based on their own research and goals. They already lease gates and counter space. They already have ground crew and ticket agents. There’s nothing that the airport needs to do so… Done! Gee, that was easy!

The “Somewhat Easy” Way

Sometimes a new (or new to us) airline will decide to include us in their route structure. These decisions are usually based on anticipated demand and their ability to operate profitably. They will request specific details about our passengers, facilities and costs which they will review to make a determination about whether to proceed or not.

Once an agreement is reached, the airport will make sure that all the necessary space, equipment and signage is in place for the airline to operate. It takes a bit of effort to coordinate, but over-all this is a pretty simple way to add a new destination to our collection.

The Harder Way

When an airline wants to add a route, it usually happens. When someone else wants an airline to add a new route… well that’s a different story. Sometimes the Airport Authority’s own research will identify an underserved destination. Sometimes the local business community or government entities will identify a need and inquire about adding service. The Business Development team scruitinizes travel data from the Department of Transportation which, among other things, includes the ultimate destinations of all our passengers who took connecting flights. They look for trends try to confirm that there are enough people traveling to specific destinations to perhaps entice an airline to start flying there.

The airport will then approach the airlines with the data they have collected to try to convince them to add a route. We already have relationships with many airlines so these conversations likely begin with some phone calls. The team will also fly to airline headquarters to make their case in person. Pre-covid there were conferences in which a number of airlines and airports would attend and then there would be a series of short, private meetings during which airports could present their cases. A coworker referred to this as “speed dating for airlines.” The airport would get to meet with several airlines at once, but there wouldn’t be a whole lot of time for discussion.

Incentives

It can be quite expensive to start a new route. It takes time for it to become established and to develop the load factors needed to be profitable. This is where incentives come in. Airports and other entities will offer discounts or waive fees to offset some of the initial costs. This can be a tricky topic since there are some pretty strict rules around what kinds of incentives airports are allowed to offer. Some states will sweeten deal by adding in financial incentives of their own. Even business organizations will sometimes come together and pool funds to be able to offer a finacial incentive to try to get a coveted business destination onto the departures board.

Strings Attached

Even if there is a strong incentive package involved, the airline still has some bills to pay. We typically require a deposit which represents a portion of the amount we expect them to pay for things like rent once the incentive period is over. And they have to offer the agreed upon routes for the agreed upon length of time. If the airline decides to terminate the route early, they could be asked to pay back some or all of the incentives they were given.

Unsurpringly, it can sometimes take years of discussions before an airport is able to land a coveted route. We spent at least five years securing a non-stop flight to Seattle. The quest for a flight to Europe has been going on for a decade or more.

So what’s a passenger to do? Well keep traveling to your favorite destination. The more people who fly there, the more attractive it becomes for an airline to start non-stop service. Be patient – these things take time. Be realistic – some routes are just never going to be non-stop. And it wouldn’t hurt to learn to love connections, at least for now.

Show before the Show – OSH19

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas. I’m talking about Airventure Oshkosh, of course! It’s my happy place. The place where everyone understands me. The place of 10,000 airplanes. It is so much better than Christmas!

I arrived early once again this year.  Unfortunately, so did the rain in the form of a series of intense thunderstorms. It halted all arrivals and turned the Airventure grounds into a marsh. Needless to say I spent quite a bit of time in my car, waiting out the deluge.

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Once the rain stopped I made the first of what are sure to be many trips deep into the heart of Camp Scholler. Why? I have friends who are staying there in a rented RV. More importantly, they have my beer  And my cookies. My observations of Camp Scholler thus far:

– It’s huge.

– The people are super-friendly and will give you rides on their golf carts.

– Like the rest of Airventure currently, a good portion of it is under water.

– Did I mention that it’s huge?

15D1999E-DED7-4757-B8CA-86BD39920EB3Sunday I started off visiting the actual airport terminal. After all, this blog is called Tales From the Terminal so it seemed like a good idea to stop by. It was quiet. And small. But there’s an airplane hanging inside which automatically makes it excellent. I ran into a group of Airventure newbies who needed some advice on how how to get their wristbands and I was happy to point them in the right direction.

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The rest of the day was spent wandering the Airventure grounds watching airplanes. The arrivals have been much quieter this year because of all the rain – the aircraft camping areas are under water so none of the GA aircraft were allowed in until very late in the day. Thankfully there were still lots of amazing airplanes to see.

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The day ended at the Redbird Preflight Reception which was held at their exhibit tent just off the main plaza.  I got a chance to take a peek inside some of sims, which are all very nice. I also got a chance to catch up with many old friends who were also at the event.

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On Monday Airventure officially begins. I am super excited to see the A-10 and F-35 demo teams. I’m also looking forward to seeing the new KC 46 Pegasus tanker which is scheduled to arrive in the evening. Of course some of the best moments at Oshkosh happen completely unexpectedly.  I don’t know what adventure will come my way, but I’m ready so bring it on!

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Airfield Envy

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Who can see a pic like this and not be envious? I know I can’t! Photo by @41satmanDan

I know it’s not good to be envious of others, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s not that I don’t love where I work and what I do – because I truly do! It’s just that there are so many other amazing airports and interesting jobs out there… I can’t help wanting to be a part of it all.

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Not an RJ.  Not landing at the passenger airport.

The passenger airport where my office is located is officially categorized as “medium sized” in terms of the amount and type of commercial traffic that we have. That translates into lots and lots of ERJs, CRJs, B737s and A319/20s, along with some Mad Dogs. Other than Air Canada, we have no regular service from international carriers. It’s a little hard to look at the variety of planes flying into places like O’Hare or Atlanta or JFK and not be a bit jealous.

And before you all point it out, yes I KNOW we actually get an interesting variety of airplanes at the cargo airport. The problem is, my office isn’t down there so I rarely get to see them. Plus they have an annoying habit of sneaking in and out in the middle of the night. Supposedly that’s just what cargo planes do, but I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose to taunt me!

kbosThen there’s the runways. At the passenger airport we have a very respectable set of parallel runways. Same at the cargo airport. They suit our needs quite adequately. But… well… they’re not very imaginative. Other airports have really upped their runway game. Take O’Hare for example.  It has a variety of runway sizes and orientations. Or what about Boston Logan whose runways all seem to intersect with each other.  I can only imagine how that went down:

Airport Management: “We need to add another runway.”

Planner: “OK. How about… here.” *draws a random line across the diagram*

Airport Management: “But… that cuts across other runways!”

Planner: “No worries – ATC will take care of it.”

Airport Management: “Oh, right!”

It’s not just the other airports I’m a bit jealous of. It’s also the people who get to be out on the airfield every day. I’m sure right now my Ops and Airfield friends are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Right. YOU come out here and work when it’s 100 degrees. Or in the pouring rain. Or during a blizzard. See how jealous you are THEN!” OK, OK – I get it. Every job has aspects that are substantially less than enjoyable. No, I don’t think it would be fun to have to scoop bird pieces off the runway or be on call or work nights. But you have to admit, the perks are pretty damn awesome!

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That whole working during a blizzard thing actually looks really cool! I am so totally jealous! Photo by Francis Colacino

The ops and airfield teams get to see sunrises and sunsets from out on the airfield, which, as everyone knows, is the best place to see them. They get to work in all kinds of really cool equipment, like plows and brooms (and maybe even stairs trucks). They get up-close and personal with all types of airplanes. They get to drive all over the airport property including up and down the runways! (Don’t underestimate how awesome that is.)

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Love this tail! Jealous on so many levels here… Photo by Tom Rainey @traineyjr

Plus they have the satisfaction of knowing that all those happy reunions taking place in the terminal are happening because of their hard work. If the ops and airfield teams stop showing up, everything would shut down pretty fast. Whereas if the finance and accounting department was to suddenly get sucked into another dimension, it would probably be a week or two before anyone noticed.

Employee One: “Hey – didn’t we used to have an accounting department?”

Employee Two: “Oh yeah! I wonder what ever happened to those guys?”

Employee One: “Dunno. Good thing the payroll department is still here.”

Lest you think I’m being a total whiner, I’m not. I may be envious, but I haven’t forgotten how lucky I am to be able to work where I do. I have had some amazing experiences that I couldn’t have had anywhere else. Besides, it doesn’t matter that I’ve seen thousands of RJ departures – every time one takes off I still stop to watch. Because flying is magic and aviation is fascinating and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

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Brooms in action with a gorgeous sky. Wow! Photo by Jeremy R (Special thanks to Jason C)

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.

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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!