Fallows: Flying Will Never Be the Same

James Fallows, writing on what the future of air travel might look like for The Atlantic:

Check-in and security. Anyone who has traveled through China in the 15-plus years since the SARS outbreak is familiar with the large temperature-check gates that inbound and outbound passengers must walk through. Some of them look like bigger versions of the metal-detector gates that are standard-issue in many U.S. buildings. … The gates alert quarantine officers to the presence of anyone who seems to have a fever, enabling individual follow-up examination by thermometer. Virtually no U.S. airports ran passengers through such equipment a year ago, and virtually all of them are likely to do so a year from now.

Our awareness of one another and the germ dangers posed in public spaces has become more acute lately. We should expect public health safety efforts to reach beyond anti-terror measures after 9/11 as more people emerge from self-quarantine into public living.

Imagine, though, the don’t-tread-on-me crowd facing such a portal before a flight. They can’t be troubled or imposed upon to wear a mask for our common good today. Such masks are common in Asian countries where the SARS epidemic killed over 750 patients among 8,000 cases, paling in comparison to COVID-19’s numbers. A fringe of Americans have almost always put their individual liberties ahead of the greater good—contradictions such as world war and natural disaster are the exception for them, not the rule. The future will be a tough place for these folks’ sensibilities.

The Broader Perspective

Of greater concern is the long-term expansion of the underclass. While many small business owners—the largest employment segment—are clamoring to resume operations, my hunch is that we’ll see little increased demand for their products and services until there exists a vaccine. The longer we remain at home the more we learn to make-do without them. Large employers, such as the airlines, will be hard-pressed to employ anything like their current government-supported payrolls. In short, unemployment is going to be a major problem in the American economy throughout 2021 and into 2022, at least.

There will be an ugly recognition on Wall Street when institutional investors give in to this reality. A spike in COVID-19 cases in this areas “re-opening” should trigger it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given wise business executives an opportunity to clean-sheet redesign their businesses from the ground up. Everything from who and how many they employ to how they operate should be re-considered.

Think on this: What will you, as a consumer, do without down the road now that you’ve successfully suffered it the last couple of months? How does it change our economy and culture if millions share your sentiments?

#COVID19 #publicHealth #airTravel #employment

The redemption of the 757

An insightful essay about the long-running career of a mildly oddball passenger jet, by Courtney Miller for Visual Approach:

The market opportunities of new aircraft programs are often constrained by the limitations of the past. These new designs tend to be evaluated on current networks, drawn to circumvent the now outdated limitations of the older fleets. It can take years for operators to realize the full potential of an aircraft as they slowly discover how their networks can be adjusted to take advantage of new capabilities. Only then does the aircraft rise to its true potential, re-drawing route maps and creating a new market for future aircraft to emulate. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the 757.

It was a long while ago that I first saw the 757’s distinctive silhouette in the distance, flying a short final into Long Island MacArthur airport. Ungainly-looking, flying low and slow with the gear down, it still drew a double-take in my rear-view mirror. That image has stayed with me for thirty-three years.

I recall the early years of the 757’s deployment while working as an enroute air traffic controller. It stood out with a whopping 42,000-foot service ceiling in an age of passenger jets that topped out at mid-thirty-thousand-foot cruise altitudes. Airlines employing it on trans-continental routes would routinely reach that altitude eastbound where I worked traffic, after hours of fuel burn. Because of its new-design, high-lift wing we’d often get requests from pilots to begin their arrival decent further out than with older jets, as they occasionally struggled to meet crossing restrictions on their way into Boston, New York, and other congested airspaces. In the words of one pilot I flew with on a familiarization flight, “it hangs up here like a kite.”

The Earth shows a distinct curve when seen from that very tall perspective; passengers flying aboard such a flight enjoy the first glimpse of our planet as seen by astronauts and high-altitude military pilots. The sky takes on a significantly darker shade despite full sunlight.

Departing Washington–Dulles airport from its shortest runway this past year, I was reminded of the 757’s short-field capability when the flying pilot throttled up while holding us motionless on the brakes. The 757’s engines don’t just roar, they growl. Their distinctive buzz as they approached take-off thrust reminded me how much power two high-bypass engines can produce, and how unusual it is to experience that aboard a narrow-body aircraft.

The 757 is, in some interesting regards, unique.

#Boeing #757

On the fate of Malaysia 370

William Langewiesche–The Atlantic:

The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say.

A great, long-read investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 five years ago. There’s apparently more known by the local government than they’re letting on.

#malaysia #mh370

Chicago O’Hare’s long-term renovation projects

I completed a visit with family living west of Chicago today. This trip always involves air travel into and out of O’Hare airport, which is like nails on a chalkboard for some. I’ve been lucky with all of my travels through there, however.


Beginning this year, O’Hare will renovate all of its existing terminals and build more over a nine-year span. The place will be all-but-unrecognizable by 2028.


Cranky Flyer has an interesting overview including the current status of the airport’s runway relocation project. By the time that project is complete, O’Hare will sport six parallel runways, the most of any US airport.

#oHare #airline #airTravel #united #american #delta

∴ A first-class experience

I joined Kelly for a short vacation in Seattle a week ago, after she completed her annual Spring Quilt Market work. Market is a quilt shop owner’s buying opportunity where vendors show off the latest products and wholesale orders may be placed for delivery later in the year. It’s moved from city to city each year and was in Portland this year. We met up in Seattle afterward.

I flew out on a much-delayed coach-class reservation, but we flew back together seated in the first-class cabin. The differences between the two experiences were stark enough to render air travel pleasant. Those are three words that almost never go together in a sentence.

I departed Virginia on a non-stop from Dulles, our closest airport. It’s only an hour and a quarter from our home in rural Culpeper county.

(Dulles possesses a somewhat aging neo-futurist style terminal designed by Eero Saarinen, and a set of gates used by United that have survived as “temporary” for nearly thirty years despite United being the dominant carrier. Security lines are usually long, but membership in the TSA PreCheck program solves that. Transport between the land-side terminal and air-side gates is by modern automated train, a recent improvement. The terminal parking area is currently in the process of getting a Metro subway stop; eventually, this place is going to be a great airport.)

Some days flying coach is, at best, not miserable. At other times, most times, it’s awful. Complaints of narrow seats, near-nonexistent leg room, cardboard meals for purchase in a cardboard box, overworked flight attendants, and the need of booking a window seat and checking in a day before departure to get a chance at the overhead bins are de rigueur. Checked luggage fees are an insult atop already pricey coach-class fares.

My outbound flight day also brought with it a mechanical problem on the aircraft that was to fly me west. Its flight north from Tampa was canceled altogether as a result. United managed to rebook some of the passengers while leaving the rest to wait for another aircraft, which departed, oh, five-and-a-half hours later.

I managed to bump into a friend at Dulles who has status with United, so my wait on the outbound flight was more comfortably spent in the United Club. I was a late sardine upon arrival, though, walking away from my Seattle arrival gate dazed.

The return trip was like air travel in Bizarro World. It was everything that flying coach is not.

To begin with, I have a financial issue with booking air travel. I look at the first-class fares, grunt, and book coach. Before last year I’d flown in the first-class cabin exactly once, during a familiarization flight as a young air traffic controller. The pilot excused me from the cockpit to sit “in the rear.” The rear turned out to be up front, which was nice. I was relatively young at the time and hadn’t begun my years of flying coach, and so didn’t fully appreciate what I’d stumbled into.

I flew first class to visit my pal in Bozeman, Montana last year, scoring a bonus A320 ride up from Denver that’s usually operated with a regional jet. I booked the flights with frequent flyer miles, and first class was a relative bargain one-way on award points. There were no award seats in coach, so the choice was the bargain up front or pay for it in coach. I flew coach on the return trip, looking longingly forward through the curtains.

Our return from Seattle last week was as I remember last year’s flights to Bozeman. In order, the process of making air travel both pleasant and even pricier includes electronics, the TSA, and the living room I typically walk through on my way to sardine hell.

We arrived at the airport already checked-in with electronic boarding passes on our phones. Nothing new there. The TSA PreCheck line was, as usual, shorter than the regular security line. Our wait in line for a coffee was longer than it took us to get from the airport hotel, through the terminal, and past the TSA. $85 for three years of shorter to non-existent lines is well worth it.

Then began the best part of the trip. We sat across from the gate and read news headlines as we drank our coffees. As soon as the first passenger got up to stand in the group 1 boarding line, we walked across to join him. Ten minutes later we were walking down the jetway.

Boarding as a first class passenger was like walking into a restaurant. The lead flight attendant greeted and welcomed us aboard. There was no rush; plenty of time to place carry-ons in the overhead bin in which there is always room for your bag. There’s no crush squeezing into a window seat; the leg room in each row is like another aisle.

I’ve been a coach-class passenger eyeballing the first-class passengers already seated as I trudged through the first-class cabin many times. The experience sitting in first class is the exact opposite. Once seated, I spent the next twenty or so minutes getting situated and forgetting about the rest of the boarding process. The wait wasn’t unpleasant; it wasn’t all that much different from waiting in the gate area. And it’s very easy to completely forget there’s anyone sitting behind you, which amounts to the bulk of the passengers. All I saw were people comfortably lounging and a blur of bodies walking past.

That’s the first significant difference between seating classes. The boarding process for coach class is almost always a hassle. The wait to board is long, the line in the jetway is long, the trudge back to your seat is long, and there’s almost always someone who has pre-boarded (i.e., elderly or with small children) already seated in the aisle and middle seats who then has to unbuckle, stand, and move out of the way, negating the benefit of pre-boarding.

About five minutes after I sat down a smiling flight attendant (They always smile in first class. I’m not making this up; it’s all smiles. It’s like you paid for the smiling with your fare.) asked whether I’d like something to drink. It was eight am, so I opted for orange juice. It was served in a glass. Whatever they have onboard to drink, it’s yours free of surcharge. Morning Mimosa? Check. Bloody Mary? Check. Wine? Check. Bourbon? Buffalo Trace, check.

The door closed and we were off, taking a brief ground delay for Dulles by slow-taxiing to the end of the runway. So, no delay.

Breakfast service began about twenty minutes into the flight. Breakfast was the second big difference. Meals are, of course, free of extra charge. And they come on ceramic plates, with metal silverware and a linen napkin, served on a linen-lined tray. Mine was a savory egg and vegetable soufflé, a cup filled with fresh fruit, a decent sized cup of yogurt and a sweet roll, which I declined. Oh, and a glass of water to wash it down.

As I was wondering about that Buffalo Trace bourbon a couple of hours later, the flight attendant came through again smiling and asking whether we’d like something more to drink. I wasn’t in the mood for whiskey, so I opted for water. I’d taken them up on the complementary bourbon on my first-class flight last year, though, and enjoyed every drop. So much so that I went ahead and paid for it on the way back, in coach.

Arrival is the third significant difference flying first class. Best begin buttoning up any books, tablets, or earphones as soon as the aircraft rolls off the runway because getting off the jet is a speedy process for someone accustomed to the stand up-and-wait of coach class. Many first-class passengers stand-and-wait, as well, but the difference is that there isn’t a line. There’s just a group of people pulling and assembling bags from the overhead and under-seat storage and looking in the general direction of the lead flight attendant. With a wider aisle and longer leg room, it still feels more like a living room than an airplane. The door opens within about a minute, and off you go.

No more airplane. No more passengers, no line, no hassle. In an instant it’s like the whole trip didn’t happen. If you’re using carry-on luggage only, you’re probably on the conveyance to the main terminal by the time the last row of coach empties.

I remarked about all of these conveniences to Kelly during our drive home. We’d split at the end of the automated train; she headed to the baggage carousel for her luggage while I went to free our car from the garage where I’d parked. She had her bags before I reached the car; I saw later that United fastened “priority” tags on them. I guess they rode first class, too.

First class is hands-down costly compared to coach, which is merely expensive. There’s a fair argument to be made as to whether what you get in exchange for the price bump is worth the extra money. Having flown many miles in what I derisively refer to as steerage, I’d say yes, if you have the coin to spend, the first-class cabin makes air travel the exact opposite of what most of us experience every time we fly. It turns mental and physical torment into actual pleasure.

#airTravel #firstClass #coachClass #upgrade #premiumExperience

The Kill Chain: Inside the Unit That Tracks Targets for US Drone Wars

Roy Wenzl—The Guardian:

In a dimly lit room at McConnell air force base in south central Kansas, analysts from a national guard intelligence reconnaissance surveillance group watch live drone surveillance video coming from war zones in the Middle East.

During combat, the analysts become part of a “kill chain” – analyzing live drone video, then communicating what they see – in instant-message chat with jet fighter pilots, operators of armed Predator and Reaper drones, and ground troops.

Fascinating read about the link least heard-of in US drone warfare’s “kill chain:” the analyst whose work product begins a process that ends in death. As the article makes clear and news reports tell us, not all of the end results are what was intended.

#droneWarfare #KansasAirNationalGuard #intelligence #US

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser Space Plane Aces Glide Test

Kenneth Chang – The New York Times:

The compact space plane carries no crew, but will transport cargo to the International Space Station in the years ahead and conduct other missions in orbit around the Earth. On Saturday, the vehicle completed an important milestone in its development.

A helicopter lifted Dream Chaser more than 2.3 miles off the ground, then dropped it. Over the course of one minute, the craft accelerated to 330 miles per hour, made a couple of turns and glided 10 miles to a runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It touched down at a speed of 191 miles per hour, rolling 4,200 feet before coming to a stop.

#DreamChaser #SpacePlane