Thursday, August 31, 2006

This Time--A Mechanical Problem

Passengers had to evacuate a Charlotte to Miami US Airways flight using emergency slides after a fire broke out in the wheel well upon landing. No one was hurt, and there's no word yet on why the fire broke out, but this is a bit unsettling after the Kentucky crash earlier in the week.

Also...we learned today that the air control officer occupying the tower in Lexington had had less than two hours of sleep before going on duty. Which isn't to say that he was overworked. He had been given nine hours off between shifts, but apparently he couldn't sleep--not surprising, considering the off-hours occurred during the afternoon and early evening, when no doubt it was bright and blazing hot. All the reason that a second pair of eyes in the tower might have proved useful, not to mention life-saving.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cockpit Hilarity

Courtesy of CNN...a pilot for an air Canada subsidiary, Jazz, found himself locked out of the cockpit after returning from the lavatory. The second officer couldn't open it, nor could he. With less than thirty minutes to go in the flight, they had no choice but to break the door down. No one was in danger, but the passengers must have experienced a bit of a scare watching the pilot pound on the cockpit door. Perhaps this pilot should have had one less cup of coffee--or taken Detrol!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

More on Comair Crash: The Missing Controller


This story just keeps getting more bizarre, absurd even. Turns out the pilots had boarded and started up the wrong plane earlier that morning--fortunately, a member of the ground-crew pointed out their mistake. It appears operations had grown lax at the Lexington airport. Also, word comes today that a pilot turned onto the wrong runway in Lexington back in 1993--but on that occasion, an air control officer caught the mistake and disaster was averted. A lot of investigating remains to be done...

It turns out the FAA was in violation of its own rules when it allowed a single air control officer to man the tower at Lexington's airport. Guidelines state clearly that two individuals must be present--one to handle air control and another to handle radar. A second body might have prevented Sunday's fatal crash--which left all but one passenger dead--because the air traffic officer on duty, after clearing the plane for takeoff, turned his back to attend to administrative duties. Had he not done so, or had a second person been there to keep an eye on the wayward flight, someone might have noticed the plane turn on to the wrong runway. There's no guarantee of course, but this incident highlights ineptness in many places--in the cockpit, perhaps in the tower, but most definitely in the application of federal guidelines. Not surprisingly, two individuals now occupy the tower in Lexington.

A Minor Flaw in Airbus's Jumbo Plan

Airbus endured another setback for its A380 Jumbo Jet. A test flight from Paris to Tunisia had to turn around and return to Paris after a minor, but unspecified, problem. You'll recall that production was delayed for months while various problems were sorted out--a source of frustration for the many international airlines who had pre-ordered the moving monstrosities. Although test flights regularly go awry, Airbus can't afford more bad publicity. That said, their sales are high vis-a-vis Boeing's. Should the jumbo jet get airborne, the company might enjoy a recrudescence.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Crassness Crashes The Emmy's

I didn't watch the Emmy's last night, so I was shocked to read that Conan O'Brien performed an opening skit in which his private plane crashed on its journey to Los Angeles, leaving him stranded on an island comparable to the one in ABC's hit show "Lost." Granted, it didn't actually show the plane crash, nor did it indicate any kind of injury or mortality, but still, in the wake of yesterday's Comair Crash in Kentucky, which killed 47 people, NBC really should have thought twice before airing the segment. Surely they could have replaced it with something else--it sounded neither original nor particularly funny. To be clear, I detest the FCC's recent crackdown on (i.e. censorship of) slightly prurient television content--wardrobe malfunctions and such--but I would have hoped NBC could be a little more sensitive with respect to this issue. Shame on The Emmy's.

Comair Crash Update

There's not much new to report on yesterday's Comair crash, except the revelation that the lights weren't working on the runway from which the airplane attempted to take off. This new detail casts additional suspicion upon what the pilots were thinking. To begin, they took off from the wrong runway--one used for private planes and not nearly long enough for a commercial jet--and now we learn that they did so in darkness (The National Transportation Safety Board hasn't yet indicated whether it's legal or appropriate for a plane to take off without runway lights). Also suspect is the behavior of the air controllers in the tower. Was there some kind of miscommunication? If so, what and how did it happen? We may not know for quite a long time--NTSB investigations can last up to a year. In the meantime, flyers have some something new to worry about (besides mechanical problems and terrorism)--pilot error and poor judgment.

N.B. Mentioned frequently in articles on the crash is the well known but nonetheless disturbing fact that less experienced pilots operate commuter flights. Something to fret about next time I fly out of Charlottesville.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Comair (Delta Connection) Flight Crashes...

I (or Ben) will continue posting about this once more information comes in...

A Comair flight bound for Atlanta crashed shortly after takeoff at Lexington Airport this morning (6:07 AM). The Canadair CRJ-200 jet, carrying 50 people (47 passengers and 3 crew members), was largely intact at the crash site, although a fire apparently erupted on board upon hitting ground. So far, only one person was found to have survived the crash - he/she is currently in critical condition at the hospital.

This crash ends what was arguably the safest period in United States domestic aviation history. The last major crash to have occurred was in November of 2001, when an American Airlines A300 crashed into the Rockaways after taking off from JFK Airport in New York City. An Air Midwest (US Airways Express) flight crashed after taking off from Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in January 2003, killing all 21 on board.

...interesting how this happened after I booked tickets for Thanksgiving just this past week. Guess what I'm flying! A Comair CRJ-200 50-person jet. Let's hope today's crash doesn't reveal any major design flaws with the airplane, what has been known to happen in the past.

UPDATE (2:30 PM): Apparently "sources" have confirmed for NBC that the plane took off from the wrong runway, one that was too short in length for this particular plane (not to mention that it was an unlit runway). However, there has been no official statement from the NTSB or Comair confirming this finding. The plane had undergone routine/scheduled maintenance as recently as yesterday, and the runway in question, normally used for non-commercial aviation at the airport, had recently been reopened after a repavement project. One survivor has been taken to a nearby hospital and had undergone surgery earlier in the afternoon. Officials say that the survivor is the flight's first officer (captain's co-pilot) and was found soon after the crash moving in the front of the plane. It is believed that the majority of passengers died as a result of the fire that erupted after the plane hit ground.

UPDATE (10:30PM) The NTSB has confirmed that the plane attempted to take off from the wrong runway, as evidenced by ground scar patterns and radar data showing the plane on the runway shortly before the crash. I'll be interested to see what information the lone survivor, the first officer for flight 5191, can offer, provided that he survives his injuries and that he even will remember the events leading up to the accident.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Northwest Strike Update

A judge yesterday issued an injunction temporarily stopping Northwest's flight attendants from striking. As I explained in an earlier post, flight attendants had planned sporadic strikes that were supposed to begin yesterday. The judge hasn't made a final ruling, but his injunction buys Northwest some time and will hopefully bring the two sides back to the bargaining table. Although the judge recognized the legitimacy of the flight attendants' complaints (without endorsing them), he found that the damage done to the company and to the public (those who would miss their flights) outweighed and overwhelmed the flight attendants' case.

Assorted Aviation Problems

Yesterday proved quite a headache for commercial airlines. There were no fewer than seven incidents disrupting air travel and infusing more tension into an already tense aviation environment. Evan reported on the Aer Lingus incident yesterday morning, but following that story, a much scarier one emerged from Continental Airlines. Security officials found a stick of dynamite in a Pennsylvania student's luggage--he had traveled from Argentina to Houston and claimed to work in mining. He wasn't deemed a terrorist threat, but one expert pointed out that an old stick of dynamite, whatever its owner's intentions, could easily create an explosion under pressurized conditions. The incident raises more concerns about the tightness of security overseas, particularly in South America. Yesterday's other delays and diversions owed to unruly passengers--and here I thought all the crazies rode Amtrak--and to suspicious on-board modifications (including a panel missing from a lavatory). Such stories will be legion in the coming weeks, and I'll keep you posted as best I can.

More flights diverted/passengers apprehended

...from The Boston Globe...

A 21 year-old college student was arrested on Friday for carrying explosives on a Continental Airlines flight that arrived in Houston from Buenos Aires. Inside the person's luggage was found "a Coca Cola bottle with mud, and inside it was a tube with ammonium nitrate, a little bit of dynamite and a detonator." The student maintains that he bought the dynamite as a souvenir from a mine in Bolivia, and authorities have determined that he had no terrorist intentions. He may spend up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

What an idiot!

Also yesterday, the two following scares...

-American Airlines Flight 55 (Manchester, England to Chicago)...diverted to Bangor, ME due to "unspecified security concerns"

-US Airways Flight 146 (Phoenix to Charlotte)...diverted to Oklahoma City due to a passenger confrontation with a flight attendant

It's getting ridiculous...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Another flight evacuated...

...from The Boston Globe...

An Aer Lingus flight from New York/JFK to Dublin, Ireland, was evacuated at 2:50AM this morning due to a call to a Dublin police station that explosives were on board Aer Lingus Flight 112. The plane was at a scheduled stop at Shannon, Ireland, when authorities directed the plane to a remote location at the airport and ordered the plane evacuated. Luggage was rescreened, and no explosive materials were found in parcels or on the plane. The 112 passengers were being sent to their destinations on another flight.

One spokesperson notes that the evacuation was not a major event, as the plane was scheduled to stop at Shannon, anyway. Still, this is yet another reminder that travel between Europe and the United States these days may involve a little more than simply traveling from point A to point B.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Funky Fuselage...

From The Boston Globe...

A US Airways flight was diverted from its route from Manchester, NH to Charlotte, NC this afternoon due to passenger complaints that a sulfur-like odor on the plane was causing lightheadedness. The plane, carrying 116 passengers (from New Hampshire??) and five crew members, safely landed at Boston-Logan Airport, where the plane was safely evacuated. Four passengers complaining of feeling ill were evaluated by medical personnel. The cause of the stench has not yet been determined.

I am willing to bet that the smell was due to something rupturing in a passenger's luggage, and that the source of the odor was never the plane itself. Even worse, could this be yet another case of severe flatulence? This phenomenon is known to be more frequent in the air due to the air pressure changes...face it, we all have gas from time to time, and it has to go somewhere, especially when you rapidly enter an atmosphere of slightly less pressure than that on the ground. I have seen on more than one occasion (on TV, mind you) a flight attendant complain of passenger flatulence as a major drawback of their jobs. Have you ever experienced a whopping dose of hydrogen sulfide upon climbing out of the airport? 'Makes you want to think twice about downing 3 or 4 beers and a chicken basket at Popeye's before hopping on the plane for a 3-hour flight (yes, I speak from experience almost harrowing flight after a delay from Atlanta to Newport News years ago).

Do your fellow passengers a favor: stay away from the Pabst the night before you fly, and stick to light foods on the day you travel.

(Do you like my cutesy alliterative blogpost title? I worked hard on that...)

Staying (Dis)Connected at 37,000 Feet

Some very mixed news this week about the prospects of email and cellular telephone use aboard commercial airliners. Boeing will soon cease its offering of email service and few plans are in the works to begin email service aboard domestic flights. International carriers, such as Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, offer more options, but even they remain uncertain about developing plans to make airplanes into "hot spots," which would enable passengers to use email and cell phones aboard aircraft. The most likely and feasible change will be permitting passengers to send and receive text messages, a harmless enough concession to the demand for sky-high communication.

Evan has posted on this topic before, but I will reiterate that nothing good can come from allowing cell phone use aboard airplanes. In such a confined space, a space in which many people--not me--choose to catch up on sleep, even medium-decibel phone conversations would disturb passenger comfort and contribute to more incidents of air-rage. The problem, of course, is that certain airlines--Ryan Airlines in particular--spy an opportunity for competitive advantage, so chances are these airlines will permit cell phone use in the coming years. Let's just hope such a move backfires and inspires nostalgia for the good ol' days of high-altitude silence. Text-messaging seems like a great compromise; let's leave it at that.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Northwest's Air Scare

For today, at least, a looming strike isn't the biggest of Northwest Airline's problems. Its daily flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai, India returned to Amsterdam escorted by two fighter jets. Apparently some of the passengers aroused suspicion, although details have not emerged. Jitters subsequent to the terror scare of two weeks ago will no doubt cause more of these incidents, creating further disruptions for air travelers. Northwest cancelled flight 42, the one in question, for today but will resume service tomorrow. If more information surfaces about the 12 passengers who were arrested after the flight landed, I'll post it as a comment to this thread.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ben Goes Platinum

So yesterday I accepted American Express's offer to upgrade my Gold Delta credit card to Platinum. Despite the slightly higher annual fee, the benefits are quite nice. I received 5000 SkyMiles, all of which count towards my Medallion status, meaning I'll enjoy Gold, rather than Silver, Medallion status in 2007. Gold status means more upgrades and a 100% mile bonus on all flights booked through Delta and its partners, which include Northwest and Continental (so this post's title might also read, "Ben Goes Gold"). In addition, I will receive a free companion ticket on Delta for each year I own the card. There's probably a higher spending limit, as well, but that means little to me, seeing as I'm a grad student in the humanities who's more terrified of credit card debt than I am of snakes on a plane.

Net Widening

The NY Times reports today that government officials seek heightened access to personal passenger information held by airlines and the global travel reservation services that handle bookings for most major airlines. Currently they enjoy access to the info contained on your passport as well as to your itinerary, but only fettered access (they can sometimes get it--but they're very limited with what they can do with it--i.e. which law enforcement agencies they can pass it on to) to your credit card information, rental car and hotel plans--even what size bed you've requested at the hotel (I hear terrorists prefer two doubles, non-smoking and extra shampoo). Civil libertarians, of course, are crying foul, and it remains unclear whether these changes will be instituted. For now, homeland security officials want such information only for international travelers, but it's only a matter of time before the policy extends to domestic passengers. Before signing on to such changes, or dismissing them reflexively, I would want to see evidence for their efficacy. What precisely is the rationale?

Monday, August 21, 2006

How flying used to be...

This evening, I was reading through a forum on about passenger comfort on the new Airbus A380, the enormous two-decked intercontinental airliner that has presented many problems for the French aircraft maker as it tries to win more contracts with worldwide carriers. Someone in the forum posted the following American Airlines advertisement, which dates from the late 1970s (as determined based on the aircraft featured in the ad).

Airbus is currently trying to appeal to the market by offering "unprecedented passenger comfort". This person certainly has a's hard to imagine how any new airliner can match the level of comfort shown in these ads...gone are the times where flying was truly a luxury, and even a privilege.
Yes, that last picture is of a lounge in the COACH cabin of an American Airlines plane.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


...bear with me as I whine...

I knew the day was going to come eventually. It's been spreading like wildfire throughout the MBTA (Boston Subway) system since the beginning of the year. I could handle it the couple times a year I had to face it at the Airport Station. More recently, I had to contend with it more frequently, at other stations on the south and north ends of the Red Line. I never realized it would invade my own station this early on, however.

Well, it's too late. It's happened now. I stepped off the train at my destination station last Thursday night and immediately smelled plaster and paint. I climbed the steps to exit the station, dreading what I was about to see. The turnstiles have been ripped out of the station, the scars in the floor recently repaired.

The Charlie Card system has arrived at Hynes Convention Center/ICA. I'm not happy, not happy at all.

A Snake On A Plane--With Prawns!

John Karr, the suspected, confessed but yet unconvicted murderer of JonBenet Ramsey--his story isn't holding together very well and his wife insists he was in her company at the time of JonBenet's murder--enjoyed quite the royal treatment on his flight back to the US from Thailand to face murder charges. The following excerpt from a CBS News report details his luxurious journey in business class aboard Thai Airlines:

"Dinner on board, served on a starched white tablecloth with silverware, was one many passengers would envy. Karr started with a pate, then had a green salad with walnut dressing. The main course was fried king prawn with steamed rice and broccoli. Karr drank a beer, crushing the can with his hands when it was empty, then moved on to a glass of French chardonnay with his main course."

Fried king prawn sounds tasty to me. But shouldn't this creep have traveled with the cargo? Or at least suffered in a middle seat at the back of the plane?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Eons in Line, or Eos?

As security queues extend to Timbuktu at major airports, customers look for alternatives. Thus, the recent boon in business for high-end and charter airlines that operate out of smaller airports. Eos and Maxjet airlines, which fly between the U.S. and London's Stansted airport, report an upsurge in ticket sales following last week's terrorism scare. Eos is much nicer than Maxjet, but both boast business class seats only--as well as shorter lines and more personalized service. Interestingly, their prices are comparable--if not less, in the case of Maxjet--to the legacy carriers' business and first class seats. But as legacy passengers waited hours in line this week, or discovered their flights canceled, Eos and Maxjet passengers encountered little worse than 15-minute delays. If you're an east-coaster (sorry west coasters--Eos and Maxjet haven't extended their service to California, although I think Maxjet is considering it) planning a trip to London in the near future, you might want to give these carriers a try. At the very least, check out their websites and get a price quote.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Northwest to Workers: Go Dumpster Diving

Evan turned me on to this ridiculous news item. Apparently Northwest distributed a four-page booklet to its workers entitled "Preparing for a Financial Setback," which enumerated "101 ways to save money." Among the suggestions, taking one's date for a walk on the beach, shopping in thrift stores and--here's the best--not being "shy to pull something you like out of the trash." That's right, when times get rough and your boss eliminates your pension, cuts your salary and trims benefits, don't despair; simply change your perspective. What formerly looked like trash might now appear as treasure. For example, when approaching your gate you used to spy that half-eaten Nathan's hot dog in the trash and think, yuck, garbage, as the flies circled. But now you see dinner...or maybe just a light snack.

Shame on Northwest for bestializing its workers. Next thing you know they'll be telling fired employees to have a little talk with Jesus. Thanks Evan...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Northwest Strike Alert!

MSNBC reports today that a judge in New York refused to block a strike by Northwest's flight attendants. The workers promise unannounced, miniature strikes beginning August 25th, causing travel disruptions and probably scaring some passengers away. A full-scale strike is unlikely, but even small ones--for example, the flight attendants on a flight from Detroit to London deciding not to report for work that day--can damage the company's reputation. No word yet from the appeals court--or speculation as to what party it might side with--but with the 25th looming large, company execs might feel the pressure to negotiate a deal. For anyone thinking of booking a flight on Northwest in the near future--as I have, since I hold a voucher--you might want to think twice!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Air Drama

Two incidents from today show that tensions are running high after last week's terrorist scare. A United Airlines flight from London to Washington Dulles was diverted to Boston after a claustrophobic woman created a disturbance. Initial reports had her carrying notes referencing Al Qaeda as well as newly-banned lotions and liquids, but they've been dispelled in the ensuing hours. Apparently she was nothing more than anxious and antsy.

Meanwhile, a disconcerting story from London's Gatwick airport. A 6 year old boy boarded a flight to Lisbon without having passed through security and without a boarding pass. He had already been served a drink and snack before the flight attendants realized he didn't belong there. Quite independent, the child had taken the train by himself to the airport and passed through the airport unnoticed. Clearly security isn't as tight as we thought it was. Terrorists, we can be sure, are not above using children to execute their plots.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Frighteningly Beautiful...

Here are some pics of planes approaching perhaps the most beautiful airport in the world...Princess Juliana International Airport at Philipsburg on the island of St. Martin (Sint Maarten), which is part of the Netherlands Antilles. Due to the airport's short runways, arriving jetliners, many of which are large double-aisled transcontinental planes, are forced to approach the runway at an exceedingly low altitude, with as little as 60 feet of clearance over tourists relaxing on Maho Beach. This has also made the island one of the best planespotting and photography locations in the world, especially because of the striking juxtaposition of landing planes with the crystal clear, blue water of the Caribbean.

For a video of a plane landing at the airport, go to the following YouTube link...

...and to see a video of people on the beach literally being flung off the sand and into the water due to the jetblast of a 747 taking off, follow this link...

For those who would like to travel to St Martin (and who wouldn't?)...the airport, although small, serves a large number of airlines, including Air Canada, Air France, American, Corsair, Continental, KLM, United, and US Airways, among many others. A new passenger terminal is slated to open sometime this year.

No Virgins in America!

CNN reports today on the problems facing start-up discount carrier, Virgin America. An offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, the airline plans to start service soon, using Airbuses, between San Francisco and New York--with nineteen additional routes to follow in the next few years. Following Airtran and JetBlue, it plans to offer unparalleled onboard entertainment and reasonable prices.

Problem is, it must first receive government approval, and certain legacy carriers--Continental in particular--are working overtime to destroy its hopes, claiming that the airline violates federal law because more than 25 percent of it is owned by a foreign entity. Apparently domestic airlines must be domestically owned--a fact I was not aware of. The article offers only a tentative justification for the law--security concerns--not such a bad reason given the current climate.

Years ago, Continental might not have batted an eye at a fledgling competitor. But given the financial woes experienced by airlines since 911, and the crunch of rising fuel and safety/security costs, the legacies have a major incentive to lobby against the formation of more competition. After all, they've already taken a hit from Southwest, Airtan and JetBlue--which themselves have experienced fiscal setbacks of late.

The article doesn't assess the likelihood or unlikelihood of Virgin America's receiving approval, but I'll keep my eyes peeled and provide an update when it comes.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Camels in the Cabin

Just when we thought all indulgences had been banned aboard commercial flights, a German entrepreneur has started an upscale airline--sporting only first and business class seats--that caters to smokers. That's right--passengers, all 400 of them aboard the airline's 747 aircraft, can light up in flight. Of course years ago many commercial flights permitted smoking. Still, can you imagine the asphyxiating fog 400 smokers could create puffing away on one cigarette after another? For now, the fledgling company will operate only between Dusseldorf and Japan. But who knows, if the idea takes off, perhaps smokers worldwide will finally find a place--albeit 37,000 feet in the air--where they are welcome.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Good News for Amtrak? Bad News for Safety?

In the days following 911, Amtrak witnessed a surge in ridership. Even after planes returned to the skies, Amtrak's passenger loads remained high--although they eventually leveled off. One wonders if this week's news about terrorist plots to explode airplanes using liquids carried on-board might drive passengers back to Amtrak. A commenter to my previous post pointed out that people might now be more likely to drive than fly on trips of short distances--e.g. Boston to New York or perhaps even San Francisco to Los Angeles. I think she's right, but they may also decide to give the train a try. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Acela Service, which can transport a passenger from Boston to Washington DC in approximately 6.5 hours, offers a tempting alternative to long security lines.

That said, however, I wonder when antiterrorism attention will turn to the country's passenger trains (we'll leave the freight trains alone for now, though they too pose major security risks). Unless things have changed since I last rode Amtrak in May, and I don't think they have, not a single piece of carry-on luggage is inspected before it boards the train. The checked luggage probably isn't either. Nor do passengers pass through security checkpoints before reaching their terminals. It's crazy! I realize that it's probably more difficult to destroy and ensure the extirpation of all passengers aboard a train composed of a dozen, solidly built cars than it is upon a compact aircraft, but surely terrorists could find ways to maximize death and destruction. For example, they might explode a series of bombs at the very minute a train passes over a high bridge. That way, even if the explosion doesn't kill all passengers, the plummet into icy cold water will.

One finds no comfort by checking Amtrak's website. Like the airlines, the company has posted a travel security statement. Unfortunately, it qualifies as empty speech. It says the company has deployed more K-9 units (to sniff out liquids--or guns?) and will continue to require that each passenger put a name tag on his bag. A name tag? Has Amtrak heard of suicide bombers? They don't need proxies to do their dirty work. Worst of all, the announcement reassures that no specific threats have been made to trains. Well, okay, but United and American Airlines no doubt thought the same thing prior to 911.

It seems to me that the country is in denial about the vulnerability of its passengers and freight trains. I shudder to think what will have to happen to get our attention. That long drive is sounding more tempting--well, except for the gasoline bill!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Yesterday's Revelations and Regulations

Aviation experts are wondering what effect yesterday's terrorism scare and its ensuing security tightening will have upon the US's financially beleaguered, but recently recovering, airlines. The good news is that the summer season, travel's busiest time, is almost over, and the airlines have reaped surprising rewards. By cutting their capacity and raising prices, some--like United--have managed to make a profit for the first time in 10 years. As Fall travel sales begin, however (if you plan on traveling in the fall, you should really set up a Travelocity Fare Watcher, as your desired route might go on sale at any moment), one wonders if the jitters induced by yesterday's activities will exacerbate the travel fall-off and lead to empty planes in October and November. If so, we might see a repeat of bankrupty proceedings and strike threats, and no one wants that.

I doubt seriously that the new security restrictions will drive passengers away. Sure, it's inconvenient not to be able to bring beverages, gels, lotions and other liquids onto the plane, but is it inconvenient enough to prevent a passenger from traveling altogether? And although the complexity, shrewdness and advanced-stage of this most recent terror plot strikes fear in the hearts of all those who fly the now un-friendly skies, the fact that intelligence foiled the plot and that the fallout has now made flying even safer must provide some consolation. Over time, as people adjust to the new regulations and lighten their carry-on loads, the security lines will speed up and yesterday's 4 hour waits will disappear.

One interesting note from yesterday: some analysts predicted that the Dow Jones would plummet in the wake of the terror scare. And, indeed, airline stocks suffered--as well as others. But in fact the Dow ended the day up. Why?--Our economist readers should be either scratching or nodding their heads right now--Because the interpretation that the terror scare would frighten off airline passengers led to the further conclusion that the airlines would reduce their capacity, thereby cutting their fuel consumption--thereby reducing the demand for fuel. And as demand decreases, supply increases, and prices go down. So...the stock market surged on the expectation of lower fuel prices. That's your economics lesson for the day.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A commuter rail excursion...

As I promised, I thought I would offer a post about my recent experience on the MBTA Commuter Rail this past Sunday. The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad (MBCR), which manages operations for the extensive system serving the east half of the state, recently restored weekend service to Providence, RI, from Boston's South Station. Not having had many opportunities to travel the MBCR south of Boston, and also wanting to take a brief afternoon trip to Providence, I thought this renewed service presented a nice opportunity.

The Providence/Stoughton Line travels along the Northern end of the busiest railroad route in the United States, the Northeast Corridor (shown below, thanks to Wikipedia). This mainline runs north from Washington, DC Union Station, through urban centers of the Northeast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Providence, before ending at Boston's South Station. Much of the route is currently owned by Amtrak, although certain sections are owned by other agencies, such as the MBTA for the entire length north of the Massachusetts border.

The Northeast Corridor can be visually distinguished from other rail lines in the United States by its full overhead electrification throughout the entire length of the route, as well as the use of concrete rail ties (as opposed to the traditional wooden ones associated with practically all railroads) and continuous welded rail (instead of rails laid in shorter sections). These improvements, completed in the early 1990s, made possible the introduction of the nation's only true "bullet" high-speed train service, the Acela Express, which runs the entire route and provides business class service for the Northeast's white-collar elite. Other railroad companies, including the commuter rail systems (MARC in Washington/Baltimore, SEPTA in Philadelphia, New Jersey Transit, Metro North Railroad around NYC, and the MBTA - all indicated in blue highlighting in the map above) have also enjoyed these railroad improvements.

A typical view down a Northeast Corridor mainline, with overhead wires and concrete rail supports...

So, here are a few pictures from my trip...

Here, on my return train in Providence Station, is one of the MBCR's double-decked coaches used on the system. Double-deckers are only used on the MBTA Commuter Rail's lines coming out of South Station, as those routes originating at North Station and serving areas north of Boston do not provide the overpass clearances necessary to accomodate these taller cars. As one enters these coaches, he or she is given a choice to climb a few steps to sit upstairs, or to step down a few steps to the lower level (hence, the windows are at the same level as the platform). Cars seat passengers in a 2-aisle-3 format and feature overhead parcel/hatracks and plush vinyl seat cushions (not really luxurious, but better than hard plastic for a one-hour, 15 minute ride!).

...the tracks coming out of Providence Station, leading north towards Boston...

Here's the previous Union Station near Downtown Providence, Rhode Island. It now houses the Rhode Island Foundation. Given its distant orientation from the current railroad tracks, my guess is that the new station (a nondescript domed structure with a dreary interior) was built around the time with improvements were being made to the Northeast Corridor in the 1990s, which would have allowed the rerouting of the tracks through town...

Finally, here's a picture of the Acela Express train itself, parked at Boston's South Station and currently undergoing boarding for its trip down South. Although my train left the station before this one, we were about 20 minutes south of Boston, as a scheduled stop, when we heard a loud blast accompanied by a swift tipping of our train towards the side...this was due to this Acela train passing us at a high speed. I could imagine someone easily being knocked backward from the train and hitting their head on the concrete platform while trying to board one of these commuter trains while the Acela is passing. One can only hope that the conductors, who exit the train and observe boarding of passengers from the platform at each stop, are able to anticipate a passing train and warn boarding customers to mind the movement.

I have also noticed that the bulk of weekend ridership on the commuter rail consists of college aged people and 20-somethings. I can understand this for the northern routes, which cart people to many New England beaches along Massachusetts' North Shore. However, the young ridership between Providence and Boston surprised me a bit. However, I wasn't complaining, as young ridership translates to plenty of hot guys serving as eye candy for the trip...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Wishful thinking...

As I was strolling along Boston's Charles River Esplanade this past Saturday (and it so happened that I was chatting on the phone with Ben, the administrator for this blog), I happened upon a rather prominent, yet under appreciated, landmark across the Charles River. Above is pictured the BU Bridge, which crosses over a diagonally situated railroad crossing, which in turn crosses the Charles River at a point where it narrows as it travels westward towards the suburbs. I've always been intrigued by the history of these crossings, particularly the railroad one, since I have never seen a train on the trestle. It's also the only place in Boston where a plane can travel over a car over a train over a boat (I blogged about this once a long time ago).
(Below)...a view from beneath the railroad bridge, with wooden railroad ties visible to the right. While apparently built wide enough to carry two parallel rails, only one rail currently crosses the steel girder.The road bridge, which replaced an earlier wooden structure, was built in 1928 as the Cottage Farm Bridge and was renamed in the late 1940s in honor of Boston University. It carries Route 2 from Cambridge on its north bank to the Boston University area to the south. Although I haven't been able to dig into the history of the railroad bridge, I was able to find out that it carries the Grand Junction Line, a little-used railroad connector that bridges the Worcester Railroad line of the southwest to the heavily-trafficked commuter rail lines northeast of Boston. This line forms a rough border between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the rest of Cambridge city to the north.

So far, this information wasn't too interesting. However, I soon found that the railroad trestle serves as the only remaining usable link between the railroads north of Boston with the famously busy Amtrak Northeast Corridor, which carries MBTA commuter rail trains and electrified Amtrak Acela Express and Regional services from Boston to urban centers to the south. While the railroad bridge continues to decay across the Charles River, it is still used on occasion by the MBTA Commuter Rail system (MBCR) to transfer equipment between its southern and northern train yards, since there exists no other link between the Northeast Corridor's northern terminus at Boston South Station and the southern terminus of the upper New England rail lines at North Station. This has proven an inconvenience for many rail passengers needing to switch trains from the southern Regional, Acela, or Lake Shore Limited routes at South Station to the North Station's Amtrak Downeaster, serving points northward and terminating at Portland, ME. While such a connection is possible by using the downtown MBTA subway, many Amtrak employees or station agents simply suggest customers to take a cab between stations.

Thus began Boston's ambitious planning to build a North-South Rail Link, which involved building a 1-mile long rail connector through underground tunnels to connect North Station with South Station. The northern portal to the tunnel system would be constructed just north of the Charles River, and the southern end of the facility would exit the ground at two portals, one serving rail lines continuing due south through South Bay and the other portal serving rail lines to the southwest near the current Back Bay Station, which is currently the second to last stop for Amtrak and commuter rail trains before they end their journeys at South Station. A new "central" station, near the current MBTA Blue Line Aquarium station, would be built midway through the link to connect rail services with central points of the downtown subway.

While planning for the link continued to advance to the point that engineers were planning access points for stations and how to reroute existing underground traffic, made more complicated by the recent completion of the underground I-93 Central Artery tunnel system, the plan was abandoned earlier this year due to exorbitant costs necessitated by the intricate planning needed for such a system. However, when the I-93 Central Artery (AKA "Big Dig") was being constructed, one portion was built on top of underground concrete walls placed for the purpose of housing a portion of the future link, in case such plans for a North-South Rail Link would materialize.

So, for now, the lonely railroad trestle, while continuing to decay and serving as a billboard for local college graffiti artists, still serves a vital purpose for Boston's railroad system as a current north-south link. Perhaps it's for the better, as the current situation allows the MBTA to boast it's state-of-the-art and clean subway system to traveling tourists, who I'm sure are eager to get off a train after a 17-hour ride from Chicago, board a red line train at South Station (after fighting through crowds and contending with the complicated Charlie Card machines), transfer at Park Street (the MBTA's busiest and most hectic station) to a Green Line Trolley, and exit at North Station (in the process getting lost and having to cross Causeway Street 3 times before finding the entrance to North Station, which happens to be the main entrance to Boston's mammoth sports arena, TD Banknorth Garden!) to board the 2-hour train to Portland. Now those are fun times!

(Below) would have been too pretty for Boston, anyway...and since when does Boston have room underground for this?
A note about sources...while I link heavily to Wikipedia, which many may claim to contain dubious information since it's relies on contributions from the general public, I have found that, in most cases, information regarding railroad and aviation history can be confirmed by other sources. If you find any information to be incorrect on this blog, comments are certainly appreciated.

Please stay tuned for a post concerning my travel yesterday along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Providence, RI...coming shortly.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Since Ben decided to post a picture of him on a dock at Flathead Lake in Montana, I thought I'd post an equally scenic picture of myself at the MBTA station at Kenmore Square in Boston. This was taken Friday night, while I was waiting for a trolley on the famed (and dreaded) B Line. I was headed to the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, which has the best beer selection in Boston. My main objective for the night was to get trashed and forget about my problems.

Isn't it beautiful? Where are the rats, you ask? They're lurking around the corner, somewhere.

The Flying Yankee returns...

I was reading the Boston Globe this morning and came across an interesting article on the restoration project of the famed Flying Yankee train. Introduced in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, this Boston and Maine service gave New Englanders hope that times were changing. The train boasted exceptionally quiet service, due to the use of electric/diesel power and cushioned underframes, as well as recessed lighting and many other luxuries. The train operated routes between Boston and NYC and the Maine cities of Portland and Bangor through the 1950s (for daily routes reaching 750 miles!). It was then stored at a railroad museum, where the exterior was gradually dismantled by vandals and the interior rotted.

The train was purchased in 1993, and work has been underway for the past 10 years to restore the train to its former glory. The job is expected to be completed in July 2009, and plans exist to have the train operate excursion routes in New Hampshire.

The original globe article can be found here. The Flying Yankee Restoration Group has a nice website that allows visitors to view photos of the train in the past and present, as well as read up on the progress of the project.

A Price War?

Good news for those who travel regularly, or even occasionally, from New York to Boston. It appears JetBlue and USAir are engaged in a bit of a price war on the route. JetBlue recently commenced a fall fare sale, and USAir followed suit by dropping its New York-Boston price to around $100 for a round trip ticket. The deal excludes many business passengers, because it requires two-weeks advance purchase. But this is a small bit of good news for travelers battered and bruised by rising fares. A big fall fare sale across the airlines would be nice, but could their bottom lines, already pressed to the breaking point by rising fuel costs, withstand it?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

More From Montana: The Return Trip

My trip out to Montana went smoothly--connections made in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. On the return trip, though, I wasn't so lucky. We sat on the plane in Missoula for a half hour while the pilots sought clearance from Atlanta to take off without a functional de-icing system. The system wasn't necessary for the trip, but apparently the FAA requires all planes to have working systems. Once we received clearance, we enjoyed a normal flight; but upon landing in Salt Lake, there was no place to park the plane, so we sat on the runway for thirty minutes.

Needless to say, I missed my flight to Cincinnati, and with two travel companions, it wasn't going to be easy to accommodate all of us on the same flight. I picked up a Delta Direct phone and was soon connected to one of the most unhelpful agents I've encountered. Announcing that all flights to Cincinnati were full, he said the best he could do was put me on standby for the next flight. After much haggling and threatening on my part, he finally connected me through Atlanta (why he didn't offer to do this right away I'll never know) and even put me in first class. As this was transpiring, my companions spoke to an agent with an entirely different plan: she wanted to route them through Nashville, then to Cincinnati, then home to Charlottesville. She told them to rush to the Nashville gate, but when they arrived, the agent said the flight was full. Back on the phone, they were then instructed to hop a flight to Tulsa, then Atlanta, then Charlottesville. Aggravated and exhausted, one of the women got serious and finally persuaded an agent to prioritize them on the standby list on my flight to Atlanta. So, after airport acrobatics of all kinds, we made our way to Atlanta--together--only to find that the flight to Charlottesville was delayed due to storms. Having finally boarded, we found ourselves 250th in line for takeoff and arrived into Cville at 12:30 AM, 6.5 hours later than my original itinerary (the one through Cincinnati) dictated.

Furious at the apathetic agent who wanted me to fly standby, a strategy that no doubt would have left me stranded in Salt Lake (one flight to Cincinnati was overbooked by thirty passengers), I called customers service and they issued me a customary $100 voucher which, combined with the first class upgrade to Atlanta, compelled me to forgive Delta once again. The first class service was fantastic, and this particular 767 was outfitted with on-demand television, allowing me to watch dramas and sitcoms that, in my opinion, pass the time much faster than movies (especially when the movie is Cheaper By the Dozen II or, even better, Big Momma's House II). Dinner, a mushroom topped and stuffed ravioli, proved surprisingly tasty--as did the red wine and mojitos. By far the best meal I've had upon a domestic flight!

Friday, August 04, 2006

What the Bruck?

Pictured to the left is the "bruck." It was used earlier in the twentieth century to transport train passengers from Montana's Whitefish station to adjacent towns--including Kalispell. This refurbished bruck was on display at the Whitefish station, which boasts a city museum dedicated in part to the Great Northern Railroad. I highly recommend you pay it a visit if you're in the area. Whitefish, a hot destination for outdoors enthusiasts, also boasts some great food, shopping and, of course, casinos. Below are some more pics of the train station. A freight train passed through while I was there; unfortunately I was in the bathroom. My traveling companion snapped a pic, though, so hopefully I'll be able to show it to you in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It's electric...

It seems these days that transportation sytems throughout the country are making rash decisions to update their services at the expense of user-friendly service. I have ranted about this before with regard to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's recent implementation of an electronic fare collection system, termed the Charlie Card, which is slowly invading the system and infuriating customers throughout Boston. In principle, the system makes perfect sense; switching from token systems to electronic fare cards should cut down wait time in obtaining fare currency, as token vending machines are often old and therefore out of service, forcing the customer to wait in line to obtain tokens from a booth attendant.

Well, the MBTA's new system has failed, in my experience, to streamline the process of entering the station, paying fare, and boarding a train (well, that's another story, since waiting for an MBTA trolley or train inevitably involves a longer wait than advertised). The machines, which were clearly chosen by the MBTA based on the lower bidder, are faulty by design. They fail to accept slightly worn credit cards (mine has been rejected repeatedly). They present the customer with a plethora of slots for whatever form of payment - cards, tokens, change, dollar bills, wampum, tobacco leaves, gold bullion - whatever payment method the customer wishes, which translates to a visual overload that leaves one completely dumbfounded as to how to proceed. The machine spits out a ticket, more questions on the screen, prints a receipt (sometimes)...wasted paper and time.

A friend of mine visiting me from Atlanta, GA, this past weekend told me about the new fare collection system for Atlanta's rapid transit system, MARTA (it's smarta!). Unlike the T's plastic and magnetic-strip card, MARTA's Breeze card is one of those RFID systems that uses an electronic chip embedded within the card...the circuitry is visible simply by holding the card up to the light. Therefore, the card is quickly flashed in front of an electronic detector at the turnstile, rather than inserted into a slot like the Charlie Card. I can see this having the advantage of preventing system failures, as there is no risk of jamming machines with the card, but I can also see how its use would be confusing for those who are unfamiliar with how such a card would work. More problematic, however, is that the card vending machines are difficult to use, as my friend had to spend a few minutes figuring out the machine...and she's fairly technically inclined.

I'm still baffled why these systems haven't followed the tried-and-true fare collection system used by the Washington, DC Metro system. The system, as far as I know, has used an electronic card since it was built in the mid 1970s. Unlike the other newer systems, the Metro's card has the advantage of printing the balance on the actual ticket after the fare has been subtracted from the debit card. Therefore, the patron always knows the value of what is in his or her pocket. The gates are nothing fancy - just a simple heavy plastic rotating barrier that retracts to let the passenger through after he or she inserts the fare card into the gate system - no fancy and flimsy glass swinging gates - as are found on the MBTA - with inconvenient multiple-second delays after the fare card has been inserted and retrieved. The T has already experienced problems with the faulty design of these gates.

I'll be interested to see how these systems work out the kinks over the coming months. I myself can't speak for the people in Atlanta, whose system isn't as widely used as Boston's MBTA in the first place. However, the general public has been less than impressed with the MBTA's efforts to modernize its fare collection system. Perhaps the money should have been more wisely used for repairing the ailing system before squandering the money on sustandard machines. I myself had no problems handling brass tokens...they withstood the test of time over the past 110 years.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Montana Part 1

I just returned from Montana, where I visited for my brother's wedding. The wedding took place in Bigfork, but I also spent some time in Missoula, where the University of Montana is located. The picture above is of yours truly (I figured it was high time I reveal myself) on a deck overlooking Flathead Lake just outside of Bigfork. The views, as you can tell, were spectacular. Stay tuned for a series of Montana stories, including travel woes, train station visits and more majestic pictures.