Sunday, July 30, 2006

While You Were Out

While Dawn and I were in Europe, there was some rather interesting news on the company front regarding our MiniWhacker fleet.

Since the FAA raised the average passenger weights last year, the MiniWhacker has become an often weight restricted airplane on many of the routes we fly. The MegaWhacker was much less impacted thanks to its impressive payload capability. This drove the company's revamping of the fleet plan, which included ordering 12 new MegaWhackers with options for 20 more and also purchasing two used MegaWhackers. At the same time, they said they would be looking to "remarket" up to 9 of the MiniWhackers.

Well, a few weeks ago the company announced that CommutAir has signed a deal to purchase 16 of our MiniWhackers. I'm not sure that the number is concrete, because CommutAir told their pilots the deal is for 16 aircraft plus options for several more. Around the same time, my company also announced that it would exercise at least one of the 20 options on MegaWhackers.

Prior to these developments, it looked like we would be growing by at least 5 airframes (14 Megawhackers minus 9 MiniWhackers). That's admittedly miniscule when some regionals are getting several airplanes per month, but it's bigger growth than this company has had in a while. The question on everybody's mind now is how this CommutAir deal will impact the fleet plan. If no more options are exercised, we will actually shrink by one airframe. If the company still has plans for expanded flying (out of LAX, for example), they will need to exercise additional MegaWhacker options. That's what everyone is hoping for.

As I understand it, the additional MegaWhacker options become available over the next year and a half or so. I wouldn't be surprised to see the company try to use them as a carrot for the ongoing negotiations.

The other piece of news from while we were gone is that our parent company posed a recordbreaking 2nd quarter profit of $60 million. Of that, my own airline contributed $10.2 million. Makes it a little hard to argue for paycuts, eh?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Another Approach...

Earlier this year I wrote about some of the issues surrounding the use of the seat belt sign in a post called "The Turbulence Switch." I remarked that potential liability has caused some pilots to leave it on at all times, possibly decreasing safety by encouraging people to disregard the sign altogether. This is becoming increasingly common in the States, I think. However, a flight in Europe last week gave me the chance to see an entirely different philosophy at work.

Dawn and I were flying from Munich to Amsterdam on a KLM CityHopper Fokker 70. Very shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant announced that the flight crew would be soon turning off the seat belt sign, but KLM encourages passengers to use caution in deciding when to unbuckle their seat belts. Sure enough, the seat belt sign came off around 10,000 feet, and stayed off until the descent through around 10,000 feet. In cruise we encountered pretty decent chop several times, prompting the crew to change altitude - but the seat belt sign remained off. It was truely left up to the passengers.

This is quite different from anything I've seen in the states. There are several pros and cons to this different philosophy, but I'm not sure that safety is any different than what we have now.

The biggest pro from a flight crew standpoint is that under the KLM policy, you would not be held responsible for any passenger injuries. Here, if a passenger is injured while the seat belt sign is off, your actions are going to be quite scrutinized to see if there was any reason you should've suspected turbulence: Did you look at the Airmets? PIREPs? Did ATC pass along any ride reports? Didn't you know about that bend in the jetstream? Etc. Under the KLM policy, the decision is out of the flight crews' hands and into the passengers'.

But isn't the flight crew better qualified to judge if it's safe? you ask. Well, yeah. The passenger surely isn't reading Airmets or PIREPs, and they don't even have a view out of the front window. That said, the truely dangerous turbulence falls into two categories: big lumpy stormy clouds, and severe clear air turbulence. In the former case, it'd be pretty obvious to passengers to stay seated; in the latter case, even flight crew won't know about the existence of severe CAT, so even in the US many CAT incidents occur with the seatbelt sign off. In cases where CAT was predicted or reported, I think even KLM crews would turn the seatbelt sign on.

To my thinking, the safest option is a flight crew that continuously monitors the turbulence situation and leaves the seat belt sign off whenever it is less than moderate, coupled with flight attendants that enforce compliance with the seat belt sign. Like I previously wrote, most flight crews are considerably more conservative than that. That's great for protecting your licenses and job, but I don't think it increases safety. When the seat belt sign is unnecessarily on, it might as well be off for good, because you end up with similar numbers of passengers out of their seats. In this case, better to go the KLM route and remove liability from the flight crew altogether and allow people to use the lav without breaking the rules. Of course, in the United States' litigational environment, I'm not sure that this policy would survive the first lawsuit. "Whatayamean, personal responsibility!?"

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Back in the USA

After an overnight stop in Amsterdam, Dawn and I flew back to the States on Monday. The flights out of Amsterdam were looking pretty nasty for this week - apparently many people returning from Lebanon and Isreal are buying up remaining seats - but we got two of the last few seats on Monday's AMS-SEA flight.

OK, want a laugh? Dawn and I nonrevved to Europe at the height of the tourist season fully expecting to get stuck at some point, and allowing time for that. But all our European flights worked out just fine - Portland-Atlanta-Zürich, Munich-Amsterdam, and Amsterdam-Seattle. So where do we finally get stuck? In Seattle, trying to get to Portland on my own airline! We got bumped off 5 flights, which is admittedly only 2.5 hours' worth.

Prior to coming back, the heat was starting to get to us and we were kinda looking forward to having an air conditioned house to come back to. Now that we're back, of course, the rose-coloured glasses have come on and we're wishing we were still traveling. Despite the heat and other minor inconveniences, we really did enjoy the trip, we packed a lot of great experiences & unforgetable sights into 2.5 weeks. In no particular order, some of my favorite memories were:

- Eating in Switzerland. We ate like kings on very little money in a country where dining out is famously expensive. We did quite a bit of our own cooking in hostel kitchens, shopping at local Migros and Coop grocery stores, which was a fun slice of local life. Another way of eating good on the cheap was by frequenting Manora Restaurants in the Manor Department stores. It's a self-service restaurant, but you can get a generous serving of delicious hot food for like 10 CHF ($8). It's where the locals go on lunch break. Oh, and the Manora in Luzern has a great rooftop terrace:



- Sitting on the sundeck at Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, talking politics and culture with our new friends over drinks as we watched the mountains across the valley turn crimson and then velvet in the fading light.




- Schönbielhütte was, I think, the single coolest place we visited this trip. The Alps aren't like the Cascades or Rockies in the US where you have sizable wilderness areas; the Alps have been thoroughly blasted, graded, tunneled through, overtrod, overgrazed, festooned with cable cars and ski lifts - they even have a train station that's inside a glacier (Jungfraujoch). There are relatively few hikable places in the Alps where you get a sense of the wildness that struck fear into early inhabitants of the area. At Schönbielhütte you get a glimpse into the untamed high country as it existed hundreds of years ago. From a sturdy stone lodge with electricity, heat, and running water that serves hot food and cold brews, that is.


- Floating the Eisbach in München with the locals. It was hot as blazes, so everyone flocked to Englischer Garten to cool off. I'd walk about 1km upstream from "our" spot, jump in the rapidly moving stream, float down to Dawn, then get out and walk upstream again. I'd be just about dry and getting hot by the time I got to the jumping in point again. Good refreshing fun! It was made more interesting by the Munich tradition of nude sunbathing in Englischer Garten. I saw more naked fat pasty German dudes than I really needed to. At one point like six old guys jumped in the river ahead of me, creating a seemingly unpenetrable wall of saggy clammy flesh. I swam for my life and somehow came through unscathed, at least physically. Good times, man. Good times.


- Bräustubls and Beer Gardens in Salzburg and Munich. Good food, awesome brew, reasonable prices. Particular rave reviews for Andechs Monastary south of Munich. Best. Beer. Ever. Beer like that could make the whole celibacy thing tolerable.

- Meeting an old Belgian couple on our hike from Männlichen to Wengen. He fought in WWII (I didn't ask for whom) and they'd been married for 60 years. She asked us where we were from, & when we said Portland Oregon, her eyes lit up and she grabbed Dawn and gave her a hug. Turns out their son married an American-Swiss girl and now lives in Portland. Of course we didn't know him, but she clearly missed her son and was delighted for any link to him. It was fairly amusing when she asked whether people from Portland were "more peaceful than most Americans" as "we don't like the war or Bush at all, we think he's a very bad man." I was groping for an answer when her husband broke in with a grin: "We don't talk about that with friends, it's a dangerous subject here!"

- Climbing Schilthorn. It's not a technical climb, just a long hard hike (with vertical that approximates climbing Oregon's Mt Hood from Timberline). I'd be hoping to do it this trip but was hesitant because my knee was giving me grief. I finally decided to compromise by climbing it and then taking a cable car back down, since that's where my knee had been having problems. Yes, there's a cable car to the top, which I guess makes climbing it somewhat pointless. I prefer to think that gaining the meters the hard way made the views more sublime. Plus I enjoyed some lovely pastoral scenery on the way up, and got to sample some alpine milk fresh from the cow.



- Showing Dawn Amsterdam. We didn't really do anything in our short time there, just enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere. We sat along one of the canals and watched all the canal boats out on their Sunday cruises.



Ok, enough Euro travel craziness, back to your regularly scheduled aviation blogging!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Overdue Update

Wow, been a while since I've let ya'll know where we are & what we've been up to. We've been quite busy....

Last time I updated, we were in the village of Gimmalwald, high in the Swiss Alps. We were there for five nights and had a great time, it was one of the highlights of the trip. We did some gorgeous hikes and spent some time just hanging out enjoying the beautiful surroundings with some cool people we met. On the last day, I climbed the 3000m Schilthorn, one of the goals I had for the trip. It was a 5300' climb but well worth it for the scenery.

After Gimmelwald we were "scheduled" to drive to Reutte Austria, but on the advice of several other travelers we opted for Salzburg. We got a pleasant surprise from the rental agency: although we paid for an economy car, they gave us a much sportier Alfa Romeo 1.9 turbo diesel with 6 speed, leather interior, & GPS navigation system - very cool car, I want one so I can be the first guy on my block to drive an Alfa Romeo! ;).

The autobahn was a joy to drive on. Not so much because of the speed - construction zones and traffic often slow you down - but because the drivers were such professionals, very proficient & courteous in mixing very different traffic at wildly disparate speeds. The fast know how to work around the slow, and the slow know how to keep out of the way. FWIW, the fastest I went was 200 km/hr (120 mph)...but average in unlimited speed areas was about 150 km/hr.

Salzburg was pretty interesting, we didn't explore as much as we might've due to oppresive heat. It's been setting records over here & leaves you pretty drained in half a day. Yesterday we drove from Salzburg AT to Füssen DE, where we toured Neuschwanstein Castle, and from there we went to Dachau and visited the infamous concentration camp. We spent the night in Munich.

Today we got smart and got our touring out of the way early, so by 2pm when the weather heated up, we could make like the locals and head to the Englischer Garden. There are a number of fast flowing streams in the park which are good fun to float down - a great way to beat the heat!

Tomorrow we'll probably be flying to Amsterdam, where we'll spend a day or so and then play nonrev roulette once more in trying to get home. I don't have a trip until the 28th, so there's some wiggle room.


Eiger and Mönch from the 2200 m plateau at Männlichen.


I loved viewing alpine scenery to the soundtrack of cowbells...


The view from near the top of the Schilthorn, 3000 m (9800') tall. That makes it a baby among surrounding peaks.


Made it up the Schilthorn! 5300' vertical climb, took 4 hours.


The Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald...awesome place to spend some time if you're ever in that corner of the world, very cool laid-back hiker crowd.


Salzburg, Austria - film location of "The Sound of Music," as obnoxious American teenagers singing "Do Re Mi" in Mirabella Gardens won't let you forget (true story).


Surfer on the standing wave in the Eisbach, southern tip of Englischer Garten in München. The sport was introduced here by an American GI during the post-WWII occupation, and now Munich has its own little surf scene hundreds of miles from the nearest saltwater.


Fun car to drive both on the Autobahn and Bavaria's winding country roads!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Few More Photos...


The Schönbielhütte, an alpine hut at 2700m (8800') just across the Zmuttgletscher from the Matterhorn. Operated by the Swiss Alpine Club, the hut serves as base camp for climbs up Dent d'Herens or Dent Blanche, as well as a good day or overnight hike from Zermatt. We stayed the night and fell asleep to the glaciers' pops.


View back towards Zermatt from Schönbielhütte at dawn. I awoke with a start at 6am, panicked that I was missing the sunrise. I'm not much of one to sleep in on vacation, to my wife's dismay.


The Dent d'Herens in the early morning alpenglow. Below it is the Tiefmattengletscher, which feeds into the Zmuttgletscher at the base of the Matterhorn.


Helicopter from Air Zermatt landing at Schönbielhutte. The Air Zermatt guys fly really balls-out, it was a pretty amazing performance: in sight to landing to out of sight again in maybe two minutes.


On the other side of Zermatt now, looking at Matterhorn's better known east face from Fluhalp Restaurant & Berggästhaus.


Scenery on train ride from Montreux to Zeissimmen. Almost every train ride we took featured spectacular scenery.


The Chilchbalm, a natural amplitheatre in the Sefinental valley near Gimmelwald.


View of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau from across the Lauterbrunnen Valley near Mürren.


Sunset alpenglow on the mountains directly across from Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Pictures!


Large crowd watches the World Cup Final match at the KKL in Luzern.


Fans react to the winning penalty kick.


The upper Rhone valley, on the train ride to Zermatt.


There it is! The Matterhorn, seen from Zermatt.


Schönbielhütte, seen from the trail below.


The Matterhorn from the Schönbielhütte's sundeck. It looks quite different from this angle, but just as impressive.

I've gotta go, more pics later. We're in Gimmelwald...it's gorgeous here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Update Nummer Drei

Hello all from Zermatt, Switzerland! I haven't been able to find an internet cafè with USB upload capability here, so I'm not able to post any new pictures. When I can, I will - we have some great ones from the last few days. Just keep checking back.

I made the mother of all boneheaded moves in Luzern. I left our Swiss Railpass in my pants when we brought them to the laundry. A few hours later, it was a soggy mess. I thought we were royally screwed. I spent some time with a tweezers and scotch tape, and managed to resurrect it to somewhat legible form. So far, no grief from rail conducters, at least.

The train ride from Luzern to Zermatt was breathtaking. I stood at our window with my head out gaping at the scenery most of the time. When we finally caught a glimpse of the Matterhorn as we pulled into Zermatt at the end, I went into full-blown tourist mode: "Oooh, ahhh!"

Yesterday we made a 12 km / 1100m vertical hike to Schönbielhütte, a mountain hut northwest of the Matterhorn operated by the Swiss Alpine Club. It was really an incedible experience: close up against the Matterhorn, surrounded by glaciers, hearing marmots whistle and glaciers groan and pop, and in the company of numerous German & French speaking mountaineers. It was well worth the somewhat strenuous hike there and back.

We're spending tonight at another mountain hut, Fluhalp. A funicular and cable car takes care of most of the elevation, so the hike there should be pretty easy...thankfully given my knee and Dawn's hip after the last hike. I've been taking Glucosemine-Chrondritin since I hurt my knee last but it's not 100% yet. I'm not sure how much more serious hiking I'll be able to do this trip.

Tomorrow we make the length journey to Gimmelwald, a small village high in the mountains near the Jungfrau. I understand that the hostel there has computers with internet access, hopefully I can upload some more pictures from the last few days.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Update Nummer Zwei

I found an internet cafè that lets you use the USB port! So here's some pictures from the trip so far.


Zurich's Old Town.


Bird's eye view of the capitol city of Bern.

Stained glass windows in Bern's Münster. More interesting from a historical perspective are the older frescos - all the heads of saints and the virgin Mary were painted over by iconoclasts during the Reformation.

Nice view of Bern's Altstadt from across the river. The tallest spire is the Münster.

Interlaken at dawn.

Lake Brienz. The aquamarine color comes from glacial silt, as most of the streams in the area are glacier fed.

The town of Brienz.

Swan near the Kappelbrücke in Luzern.


Vierwaldstättersee, otherwise known as Lake Lucerne.

My time is almost up but next time I'll post some pics from the World Cup match last night.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Update Nummer Eins

I'm currently in Luzern, Switzerland; Dawn and I have been in the country since Friday morning, when our Delta flight from Atlanta landed in Zürich. We didn't have any problems getting on our flights, it went really smoothly.

We spent Friday exploring Zürich, and stayed in a hostel in the old town. Yesterday morning we took an early train to the capitol city of Bern, which we spent the day touring. The original plan was to sleep in Luzern, but the hostels here were full up so we went to Interlaken instead & stayed at Balmer's Herberge. Well, not exactly - we stayed in Balmer's Tent Village, basically overflow sleeping in canvas tents. Not quite the lap of luxury, but it was at least a bed and the price is right. We're now staying in Luzern two nights, and will skip our night in Interlaken later in the trip - mixing up the itenerary a bit.

I haven't found an internet cafe with a usable USB port yet; if I do, I have some great pictures to post. Otherwise they'll have to wait until we get back.

Tonight I watched the World Cup down on the Vierwaldstättersee waterfront, where they had a big screen set up. Luzern has a large italian population, so the crowd was big and decidedly pro-italian. When Italy won, the place went nuts. It was a whole lot of fun.

Okay, 2 CHF doesn't get you a whole lot of internet time so I'll sign off on this update. Hopefully I can update again in a few days, maybe with pictures.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pre-Trip Trip: San Francisco

Dawn and I spent last night partying at Ruby Skye in San Francisco, where Armin van Buuren was playing - that's the same guy I saw in the Netherlands in May. It was quite a last minute trip for Dawn. She was coming home from Minnesota, and wasn't planning on going to the show, but the flights to Portland were oversold so she hopped on a flight direct to SFO instead. We had enough time to take the BART train to the Embarcadero, where we had some clam chowder before walking to the nightclub.

The show was great...it's a nice club & Armin played a pretty sick set. By the time he came on at midnight, the club was packed. We had to leave at 4am to catch a bus to the airport, and Armin was still playing at that time for a still very large and enthusiastic crowd.

Okay, the fun's over - back to the serious task of packing for Europe!











Sunday, July 02, 2006

To the Continent!

Well, readers, the aviation blogging with probably slow or stop for the next few weeks, as Dawn and I are heading to Europe on Thursday. Whenever I can get online I'll post updates to our travels, with pictures if possible, but there probably won't be much aviation content.

One last thought: Yesterday I was flying from Spokane to Boise, and we had quite a few thunderstorms to go around. Even the benign stuff had decent vertical development, presenting an obstacle course of towering cumulus clouds to weave our way through. I hand flew much of the way, gracefully slinking around one column after another, picking my way through clear air. Sometimes I would find a dead end, and a solid wall would loom up before devouring us with a shudder. The airplane would howl the whole way through the cloud, a peculiar Megawhacker characteristic. Then we'd pop out the side into brilliant sunlight, and I'd jink the airplane over and weave down a cloud canyon, occasionally dipping one wing into the side.

I couldn't stop grinning the whole time. There are many aspects of flying that I enjoy very much, but I think that more than any other exercise, playing in great cloud temples distills flying into its purest, most joyful form. There are no distractions, no earthly references, no connections to the ground - only the machine and I slipping through this fanciful sky world of billowing cottony clouds from childhood dreams.