Museum Mayhem (Part 1): Air Mobility Command Museum

9C8601B3-1F51-4CAF-9434-9C5D9F140320In my part of the world, winter means lousy weather, cold temps and very little plane spotting. It also means I go through serious aviation withdrawals. Ugh! So how do I combat the winter doldrums? Aviation museums! They allow me to get my aviation fix and keep my camera from getting too dusty. Recently I got the opportunity to visit a museum I hadn’t been to before: the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.

0A24DAAA-7EFD-4D75-879E-3DF1A13F577EI’ve been wanting to check it out for quite some time. As the name suggests, the museum focuses on military transport and aerial refueling airplanes. In other words, the big planes. And you know how much I love the big planes! As if that weren’t cool enough, the museum is located right next to Dover AFB, home to the 436th Airlift Wing which flies both the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster. From the moment I saw those tails in the distance I was already completely in love with the place… and I hadn’t even parked yet!

First thing to know if you plan to visit is that most of the airplanes are outside. It rained the morning that I went, but fortunately it had stopped before I got there. The gloomy weather meant that there weren’t many people around so I practically had the museum to myself! I started by exploring the indoor exhibits. Even though the space is somewhat small, there was still plenty to see, including an exhibit on the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), a mock-up of a C-5 flight deck and a refueling boom from a KC-135. There are also several airplanes including a C-47A Skytrain and a B-17G “Sleepy Time Gal.”

Then I zipped up my jacket and headed outside. Oh my goodness they have some amazing airplanes! I was thrilled to see a few of my favorite heavy haulers including a C-5, a C-130, a KC-135 and TWO C-141 Starlifters – an A model and a B model. They also had several planes that I am less familiar with, including the C-119G Flying Boxcar and the C-124A Globemaster II. And there were a few planes I didn’t expect at all, like the F-101B Voodoo and the F-106A Delta Dart.

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A Pakistan Air Force Ilyushin Il-78 parked at Dover AFB

The entire time I was outside enjoying the exhibits, I was also keeping an eye on the AFB on the other side of the fence. I have never seen so many C-5s and C-17s all in one place! I just couldn’t stop staring at them!  Then much to my surprise another one of my favorite airplanes appeared – an Atlas 747! It taxied onto the apron, parked and began unloading cargo.  Want to make a 747 look small?  Park it next to a bunch of C-5s!

Next stop was a visit to the ATC tower. It used to be the active tower at Dover AFB. When a new tower was built they brought the old tower over to the museum. They lowered the height a bit to make it easier to climb up, but the view is still spectacular. Some of the old ATC equipment was left in place so you can get a feel for what it looked like when it was operational.  The tower is definitely one of the best parts of the museum.

The only person in the tower while I was there was one of the museum volunteers. We chatted for at least half an hour about the various planes in the museum’s collection. I learned that the C-141B was originally destined to be scrapped. However, a hard landing at Dover AFB damaged the landing gear so rather than risk flying on to the boneyard, it was moved over to the museum instead. (Now that’s what I call a good bad landing!)

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Saved from the boneyard! This is one lucky “Lizard.”

My time at the museum flew by and all too soon it was time to head home. I plan to return on one of the open cockpit days which are held the third Saturday of the month between April and October. Did I mention there is no charge for admission or parking? I put some money in the donation box, though, because the Air Mobility Command museum is definitely worth supporting. I hope you’ll go and see for yourself!

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The Magic Avgeek Detector

 

AA92CBF6-7CB4-42C1-89C5-74C715FF0A71One thing I learned early on at my job is that you don’t have to be an aviation enthusiast to work at an airport. In fact, most of the people I work with, while very talented and quite passionate about what they do, aren’t at all interested in airplanes. And that’s OK. But I know there have to be avgeeks hiding out somewhere – the challenge has been finding them.

Even people who on the surface might seem to be interested in aviation, actually aren’t. The first time I saw a P-51 while at work I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I was practically jumping up and down as I watched it taxi out. In fact, I was so excited that I couln’t help exclaiming to a woman who was standing nearby, “ Look! It’s a Mustang!”  As she backed away from me with a confused expression I realized she wasn’t there for the airplanes. She clearly thought I was nuts.

3257F394-B710-4B15-B95C-2C62F9AD184EOver time I pretty much gave up on the idea of tracking down other airport avgeeks. But all that changed last summer in an unexpected way. Did I stumble across a magic device for detecting aviation lovers? Well… kind-of. And what, you ask, is the secret to unveiling hidden avgeeks? An A220 lanyard! Who’d have guessed!

You may recall that last summer at Oshkosh Airventure I got the opportunity to tour the A220, formerly known as the C-Series. The plane is the latest from Bombardier and was caught up in a bit of drama involving a legal challenge from Boeing and a partnership with Airbus (hence the name change). This, in turn, focused quite a bit of extra attention on the plane. As part of the tour I was given a lanyard, which I immediately started wearing at work. Soon thereafter the conversations started:

CEAAAEA9-52A5-4384-A257-3D01562B5E5CHave you seen the A220?

Why yes, I have. Up close and personal. And it is quite lovely. The cockpit is gorgeous – modern and clean. I could have spent hours asking, “Ooooh! What does THIS button do?” I think EAA may have warned Airbus about me because they quickly moved me along into the cabin, where I proceeded to sit in as many seats as possible.

Is the A220 going to be flying to this airport?

Sadly, no. At least not right now. This is not from lack of trying on my part. I wish airlines would start consulting me about these things!

32AB20D5-E4DD-4271-8952-20B4FD56CCF1Do You Work For Delta?

This question took me by surprise until I remembered that Delta ordered several of them and, in fact, is the first US carrier to put them into service. Of course I had to explain that I do not work for Delta, but I’ve been pestering as many of my friends at Delta as possible about sending the plane our way.

Cool lanyard! Where did you get it?

This question came from a Delta gate agent. I told him I got it at Oshkosh and unfortunately I didn’t get any extras. But I’d be happy to give him mine if he can convince his employer to start flying them to our little corner of the midwest!

8B53649A-3769-4521-A3D7-FC673C567528A220, eh? My airline ordered a bunch of them but won’t be flying them.

This statement came from a pilot at Republic Airlines, which puzzled me a bit. After some digging I discovered that Republic did, in fact, place an order with Bombardier. However the order was later removed.

Through the lanyard I’ve not only uncovered some avgeeks hidden amongst my coworkers, but I’ve gotten to chat with pilots, ground crew, gate agents and others who I might not have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I love it! Sadly, now that the A220 has entered service it will not remain a conversation piece much longer. The hunt will be on for a new lanyard to wear. B797 anyone?

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2019 Airport Challenge

camera-april-2018-1054.jpgI’ve been thinking a lot about airports lately. I guess that’s no surprise. I work at an airport. I vacation at airports. Airports are a big part of my life and I love them. So I find it very distressing every time I hear about another GA airport closing.

According to Statista.com, in 1990 there were 5,589 public use airports in the US. In 2016 there were 5,136. That’s over 450 airports gone in 26 years. And once gone they don’t come back. In the rare case where a new airport is built, it is often at the expense of an older airport which is closed (see Denver, for example).

img_8272Why do smaller airports matter? Well for one thing, that’s where most of the flight schools are and where the pilots of tomorrow begin their flight training. GA airports relieve congestion at major airports by providing alternate destinations for business jets and they are often much more convenient for business travelers. Perhaps most importantly, small, local airports enable emergency support to quickly reach communities in times of need.

img_e2204Given all the important services that GA airports provide, why on earth are they disappearing? Often these airports are surrounded by homes and businesses which can lead to noise complaints and safety concerns. Developers desire the airport property to build additional homes or retail centers. Local governments want the increased tax dollars that commercial development would bring. Small airports often don’t have the means to fend off such attacks. Once an airport loses community support and is targeted for closure, it can be too hard for it to fight back effectively. (Santa Monica, anyone?)

img_9547So, what can we do to help?  It’s simple, really – visit GA airports! If you are a GA pilot you are already helping by using these airports on a regular basis. Not a pilot? The good news is, you don’t need to have a pilot’s license to visit an airport. GA airports are often more accessible and people-friendly then their large commercial counterparts. When I thought about it, I realized I only visited 4 GA airports last year, and of those there was only one I hadn’t been to before. What?!?!? I can do better than that! And so the 2019 airport challenge was born!

The challenge is simple: in the next 12 months check out (at least) five GA airports not previously visited. 

Two of the airports on my list are Chester County Airport (MQS) in Pennsylvania and Grimes Field (I74) in Ohio. I haven’t decided on the other three yet, but I’m looking for other locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. (If you’ve got a suggestion please comment on this post and let me know!)

IMG_7705As luck would have it, my friend Max Flight from the Airplane Geeks Podcast recently started his own quest to visit GA airports. Since he eats out fairly regularly, he decided to visit airports with restaurants. Brilliant! Nothing goes better with a meal than a heaping portion of airplanes and avgas! Max created eatattheairport.com which includes a google map that displays airports with eating establishments on the premises (or nearby). Check it out – it’s seriously cool! Have a favorite airport/restaurant that isn’t listed? There’s a form you can fill out to have it added to the map.

So, how much do you love aviation? What are you doing to support it? Consider this your invitation to join me! If you value GA airports and all that they provide to the community, then GO VISIT THEM! Head to eatattheairport.com to plan your trips and submit information to help other avgeeks plan theirs.

The 2019 Airport Challenge is on! Are you in? Great! I’ll see you at the airport!

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Working AT the Airport vs Working FOR the Airport

E7831688-6818-4CEE-A322-9DFBAE7A72CCI saw a video on twitter recently of a baggage handler behaving badly. The person who tweeted the video tagged the airport to complain. Other people chimed in as well, demanding that the airport take action. The problem is, baggage handlers are not actually airport employees. They work AT the airport but they don’t work FOR the airport. The media often makes the same mistake. More than once I’ve come across a headline proclaiming “Airport Employees Accused of…” only to learn that the people in question are employed by some other company that just happens to do business out of the airport.

Unfortunately, if you don’t work in aviation it can be difficult to tell who works for whom. And even if you do work in aviation, the differences aren’t always clear. Further complicating matters is the fact that every airport is different. However, I think my airport is a fairly good example of how things are run at most airports in the US, so here’s how it is for us.

c2fbef0b-de48-4cf3-9b97-baa34ac049c0.jpegTicket Counter and Gate Agents

The ticket counter and gate agents at my airport are either airline employees, or they work for a company that has been subcontracted by the airline. These folks are almost never airport employees. I say “almost” because there are a few exceptions.  For example, some low cost and charter carriers that operate out of secondary airports will contract with the airport to use airport employees to handle ticketing. However, the vast majority of the time these employees are the responsibility of the airline.

Ground Agents/Baggage Handlers

Once again, these are airline employees, or they work for a subcontractor hired by the airline (with the same exceptions outline above). 

TSA/Security Personnel 

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

TSA agents are part of the Department of Homeland Security. They work at airports, but they are hired, trained and supervised independently by the US government. That said, some airports do have their own security teams and/or subcontract with another provider. At my airport we have both TSA agents who handle passenger screening and a private company which manages traffic flow and provides additional security support. 

Restaurant and Store Associates:

All the restaurants and stores at the airport are run by independent companies. These companies hire, train and supervise their own employees. 

36439472_UnknownCustodians and Building Maintenance:

Custodians and building maintenance personnel are airport employees. However, certain system specialists are independent contractors. For example, we bring in employees from outside companies to manage things like the baggage systems and the escalators and elevators.

Airport Police:

In airports that are run by cities, the airport police are usually city police. At my airport, however, the police are airport employees. So are the K9s. 

36438784_UnknownYou may be wondering: don’t airports have ANY authority over the people who work there, even if they work for another company? Well… yes. Sort-of. The airport is responsible for issuing SIDA (Secure Identification Area) badges to anyone who works in secure areas, regardless of who their employer is. If someone violates SIDA rules then the airport can revoke their clearance, effectively preventing them from being able to work. And, of course, anyone breaking the law can expect to spend some quality time with the airport police.

So, who do you contact if you have a complaint or concern while traveling through an airport? Well, if it relates directly to your flight (ticketing, baggage, delays, cancellations, etc.) your best bet is to contact the airline. If it relates to the building (leaks, trash, etc) then contact the airport. However, any time you are in doubt, go ahead and contact the airport. If they cannot help you directly, they can connect you to appropriate party to resolve the issue and get you on your way.  Happy travels!

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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!

construction_of_salt_lake_city_international_airport_expansion2c_nov_2017

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.

Jetsons Airport

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

11114433-E059-45DA-B2E7-CA0539E98464If 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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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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Going Where?

July to Oct 2015 iphone pics 2703It may come as a surprise to learn that I haven’t flown commercially in nearly a decade. However, many years ago I worked for a company that required me to travel several times each year. During that time I had a couple of wacky adventures that I look back on with amusement.

Brown Paper Package

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Photo by Marcella, Creative Commons License

One trip involved a flight with a coworker I’ll call Jay. We weren’t scheduled to depart until later in the day, so we worked in the office that morning and planned to head to the airport in the afternoon. As we were preparing to walk out the door another coworker, Mary, appeared and handed us each a package. “Here! I made you guys care packages for the flight!”

I found myself holding a package that had been crudely wrapped in plain brown paper with the words: “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL PLANE IS IN THE AIR!” written on the top in bold, black marker. Um… What the hell? Mary was standing there, smiling from ear to ear. Not sure what else to do, Jay and I thanked her and hurried to catch our ride.

suspicious_mail_or_packages_posterOnce in the car I looked at Jay.

Me: Well, either she’s very sweet or she’s trying to get us arrested.

Jay: Did she just give us bombs?

Me: I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell not taking this to the airport, let alone onto the plane!

Jay: Me either!

Me: I suppose we should open them…

Jay: You first!

I cautiously opened my package to discover snacks, playing cards and other small trinkets. Apparently Mary had good intentions. Then again, maybe she figured the fastest way to a promotion was to get her coworkers indefinitely detained!

The Unknown Destination

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Photo by Adrian Arpingstone, Creative Commons License

In the days before 9/11 when air travel was a wee bit more relaxed, I flew to Jamaica to attend the annual company conference. In those days you could fly to most Caribbean destinations using a driver’s license for ID. However, HR insisted every attendee have a passport, which was collected from us immediately upon arrival at the conference. I figured they were using them to cross-check attendance or something.

Normally at these events we attended meetings during the day, and social events in the evening. However, as I reviewed the schedule I noticed that we had meetings Friday morning and then nothing until Saturday afternoon. This was definitely unusual.

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Photo by RickPilot, Creative Commons License

At the conclusion of the Friday morning meetings we were gathered together, handed plane tickets and placed onto buses. An examination of the ticket revealed something strange – there was no destination! When we arrived at the airport we ran to the monitors to check our flight information. The destination for our flight listed as Dominica. But a second later the destination changed to the Turks and Caicos. Then it changed again to Cuba. It continued to display various destinations while we waited.

Finally we were called to board. The gate agents smiled knowingly and played along saying, “Have fun in Havana!” “Enjoy St. Lucia!” We walked out onto the ramp to find two Boeing 737s waiting for us. After we were seated and the cabin crew had completed the safety briefing, the Captain got on the PA. I thought we would FINALLY learn our destination. Wrong! The Captain welcomed us aboard and noted that we had great weather for our flight. He went on to say that he had no clue where we were going so he figured we’d just cruise around at 34,000 feet for a while. Doh!

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Photo by Torsten Maiwald, Creative Commons License

I have to imagine this situation must have been pretty amusing for the crew. I mean how often do commercial pilots get to pretend like they have no idea where they are going? (Actually, don’t answer that!) The flight attendants certainly thought the whole situation was funny! Soon after the Captain’s announcement we took off and a few minutes later found ourselves cruising above the Caribbean with NO IDEA where we were going. So, where do you think we ended up? Go ahead, take a guess!

 

 


 

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Photo by BeanZull, Creative Commons License

If you guessed Panama then congratulations – you’re a winner! As we taxied to the gate it dawned on me that I didn’t have my passport. In fact, none of us had our passports. Uh-oh! Fortunately somebody  must have done some creative “negotiating” because we exited the airplanes and marched right through the terminal – no customs, no immigration, nothing.

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Photo by Stan Shebs, Creative Commons License

We made our way out front where we got into open-air buses, each with a mariachi band in the back. They took us down to the canal where we boarded a party boat. We were wined and dined for several hours as we cruised up and down the canal. We returned to Jamaica in the wee hours of the morning with serious hangovers and one heck of a story to tell.

So, when will I fly commercially again? I don’t know, although I have a couple potential trips in mind. However, I’m pretty sure I will never get to jet off into the unknown again, which is why I cherish the Panama stamp in my passport. (Nope – I have no clue how it got there!)

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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!