Snowbirding 2016: Home

I take a week-long break from traveling to check on things back home.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

Long before I retrieved the Mobile Mansion from the sale lot to begin my snowbirding trip, I booked flights home from Arizona and Sacramento. My house sitter had vacation plans for the end of January at a time that coincided with a meeting of the writing group I belong to, as well as my need to get my FAA flight physical done. I figured I might as well come home while she was away. A quick flight search on Alaska Air’s website, armed with the latest frequent flyer special offer, yielded a surprisingly inexpensive round trip flight from Phoenix to Wenatchee for that week so I booked it, thus locking me in to doing the trip in the first place and coming home in the middle of it. The Sacramento flight I booked was for later, in February, when I’d go home to fetch my helicopter for work in California’s Central Valley.

The Trip Home

So that’s why I found myself standing at the curb in front of my friends’ home near Phoenix at 4 AM on a Wednesday morning, waiting for an airport shuttle with Penny and two packed bags.

My friends wanted to take me to the airport, but I could not ask anyone to drive me anywhere at 4 AM. So before we could argue about it, I booked and paid for the Super Shuttle. Cheryl warned me that they wouldn’t be able to find her house because Mapquest gave bad directions — and I verified that Google did, too — but I instructed the driver to take 27th Avenue when I booked the trip. Still, at 4:05 AM, I saw the van’s headlights on the other side of a dry wash it could not cross. (Why ask for special instructions if you’re not going to use them?) A frantic phone call to the Super Shuttle people got me in touch with the dispatcher. Ten minutes later, the van sped down the road, coming to a stop where Penny and I waited.

I had a 6 AM flight and, for a while, was worried that we wouldn’t get to the airport on time to deal with checking bags and going through security. But there was no traffic at that hour and activity at the airport was predictably light. My ticket had been upgraded to First Class — probably because of the early purchase and my “MVP” status on Alaska Air — so I got better counter service and didn’t have to wait on the longer line for security. By 5:15, we were waiting at the gate.

I don’t fly First Class very often — I honestly don’t think it’s worth paying a lot more for — but I will occasionally splurge if it’s a long flight and the difference in price isn’t outrageous. It’s always nice to get a free upgrade. I sat in seat 2A, put Penny’s travel bag under the seat in front of me, and settled into the very comfortable seat. It was nice getting a hot breakfast, but I skipped the complementary alcohol. In hindsight, I think a bloody Mary would have been nice.

SeaTac
SeaTac treated us to some typically rainy weather.

We got into Seattle early and my layover was just long enough to get Penny out of her bag for the walk to the gate for our connecting flight to Wenatchee. Then Penny was back in the bag and we were on the turbo prop to Wenatchee. We’d arrive at 10:22 AM.

And yes, that’s why I took a 6:00 AM flight out of Phoenix — so I could get the first flight into Wenatchee that day and have a whole day at home instead of sitting around airports.

Return to Malaga

I’d asked my friend Alyse to pick me up at the airport. Normally, I would have taken a cab, but it had snowed on and off during the month I was gone and I knew how bad my road could get. Yes, it was passable for any vehicle with good tires and a driver who knew how to drive on snow-covered roads. But who knew what the cab company would send? Besides, I wasn’t sure what condition my driveway would be in. I knew that one of my neighbors had plowed it at least once, but when? I was hoping to get close to my front door and wasn’t convinced that a cab would pull into a snowy driveway.

Alyse and her boyfriend Joe came in her four wheel drive pickup. I threw my luggage in the back and climbed into the back seat with Penny.

We talked about the snow. When was it going to go away? It wasn’t this snowy last year. Alyse told me that in the old days, it snowed like this all the time. She wasn’t the only person to say this over the coming week.

The roads in the Wenatchee area were clear. So were the roads going into Malaga and up toward my home. But my road? Completely snow-covered. Alyse flipped it into four wheel drive and started the last two miles. It wasn’t very slippery, but it was very thick with snow in some parts. It seemed that the association had plowed it seven times (so far) that winter. Unfortunately, the guy who does the plowing is cheap and you do get what you pay for. And the farther down the road you went, the worse it was. Although there were three houses beyond mine, mine was the last one that was occupied most of the time during the winter, so the last stretch seemed barely plowed at all. In fact, my driveway was in about the same condition as the road.

I was amazed by how much snow was still on the ground. I knew the temperatures had gotten into the 40s at least a few days and had assumed that most of the now had melted. It hadn’t.

But it was beautiful.

My house in the snow
I shot this photo of my home from the road a day or two after I got home. It really is pretty with all that snow.

Alyse and Joe helped me get my bags inside. Alyse wanted to show Joe some of the finishing touches I’d put in the place, including the rustic wood trim over my stairway stub wall and the furniture my friend Don had made out of charred wood slabs. And the Pergo I’d laid. (They flip houses and are always looking for some nice architectural touches to bring up values before selling.) Then they left. I watched to make sure they got out of the driveway, then set about unpacking.

Salt Lamp
One of the things I brought home from Quartzsite is this Himalayan rock salt lamp. While I don’t believe in its purported health benefits, I do like the way it looks when illuminated. That’s one of my antique lamps behind it.

One of the two bags I’d brought home with me was the big folding rolling bag I’d bought years ago for the Australia trip I’d begun planning in 2011 and hoped to take with my wasband in 2012. (That didn’t happen, for obvious reasons.) It’s a neat piece of luggage: a very large wheeled duffle bag that folds down into a small package for storage. (I don’t think Eagle Creek makes them anymore because I can’t find it on their website.) I’d packed clothes into it when leaving on my trip in late December, unpacked in the Mobile Mansion, and stored it, folded up, in a cabinet. Then I used to to bring home a bunch of stuff I didn’t need with me, including including outdoor winter clothes and boots and a bunch of stuff I’d bought in Quartzsite for home. I didn’t have much laundry to do — I’d done most of it when I was in Wickenburg — but I had plenty of stuff to put away.

I checked on the chickens and was pleased to see I still had five hens and a rooster. No eggs. The shed still had water and cat food for my barn cat who was, as usual, absent. The housesitter had mentioned that the cat’s water froze once or twice and that surprised me because the heater I’d left in there for him was still running. It must have gotten very cold. I might insulate the shed over the summer so it stays warmer next winter.

Snow at Garage
There was no snow on my roof because it had all slipped down in front of my garage. Yes, I take credit for the poor design that causes this to happen.

Of course, the melting temperatures during the past week were just high enough to get the snow to slide off my two big roofs. On the south-facing side, that wasn’t a big deal because there was nothing there. But on the north-facing side, it slid down into a huge pile right in front of my four garage doors. That meant I had a shitload of shoveling to do if I expected to go anywhere in my Jeep. No rush to do that; I had put milk in the freezer and had plenty of food for the day — or even the week — so shopping wasn’t a big priority.

It was nice to be back in my nice, clean, warm home. It was nice to not have to worry about how much water or power I used (as I had when I’d camped off the grid in the backwaters and Quartzsite). It was nice to have fast Internet. It was nice to have a freezer full of foods I’d prepared and frozen for the days I didn’t feel like cooking and a microwave I could use to reheat them. Heck, it was even nice to have a television that I could tune into something.

I celebrated that first day home by eating a beef barley soup I’d made back in December and catching up on the Daily Show.

The Snow Bank

The next day, after doing odds and ends around the house, it was time to face the inevitable: the snow bank keeping my Jeep from exiting the garage.

My garage has five vehicle doors:

  • The big one on the front (east side), which measures 20 feet wide by 14 feet tall, is for the RV garage. Because I didn’t need to use that garage after my Santa flight back in early December, I’d stopped shoveling the 22 x 35 (or so) concrete pad in front of it. The snow had kept accumulating since then, melting and freezing and then accumulating some more. I estimated I had about 14 inches of frozen snow there and no real need to shovel it.
  • The four regular garage doors on the north side, which each measure 10 feet wide by 8 feet tall, are for my vehicles. The entrance to these garages is under my side deck, which is covered by an extension of the same roof that covers my living space. It’s a very big roof — roughly 52 x 36 feet — and built on a 3/1 slope. Because the space under it is mostly insulated, when the snow falls on it, it sticks. Until the temperatures warm up. Then the slow slides off — about six feet in front of the four garage doors below it. I was very fortunate that the snow didn’t slide off right before I left for my trip because I’d have to shovel my old truck out to make my departure. But my luck couldn’t hold out forever and the accumulated snow had dropped to a compacted “drift” 3 to 4 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and about 6 feet thick.

Fortunately, the Jeep lived in the very first garage bay. I put it there because the stairs up to my living space were in the back of that bay, making it about 5 feet shorter than the other three bays. The Honda lived beside it; that wouldn’t be back on the road until all the snow was gone in the spring. The truck lived in the third bay but it was back in Arizona. My little boat lives in the fourth bay and wouldn’t be coming out until the weather got sufficiently warm. It was a good thing these other bays didn’t have vehicles I needed to drive because the neighbor who’d plowed my driveway dumped all the snow in front of the last two bays. And that snow pile was more than 5 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and 20 feet thick. That’s a hell of a lot of snow.

Two Thirds Done Shoveling
At this point, I was about two thirds done making my way through the snow pile outside the Jeep’s garage bay.

So on Thursday morning, after a sufficient amount of procrastinating, I put on my winter boots and a sweatshirt and headed out the garage door with two shovels. I used the long-handled spade to break up the compacted snow and the snow shovel to move it in front of the Honda’s garage bay. It was slow going warm work. In an hour, I got about two thirds of the way through it. I was glad my Jeep was narrow; if I’d been digging out a space wide enough for the truck, I would have had a lot more snow to move.

I heard a vehicle on the road and ignored it, but when it got closer, I realized I had company. It was a pickup truck I’d never seen. It stopped in front of the garage bay and three people got out — my neighbors who had plowed my driveway not once but twice while I was gone.

We chatted and the husband, John, offered to come back with his plow and move all the snow away. He even offered to plow in front of the big RV garage. I said sure, fine, and was definitely willing to pay. But we got to talking more and more. The next thing I knew, he was back in the truck, using it as a battering ram to break through the snow separating my Jeep in the garage from the rest of the driveway. He sort of sideswiped it, letting the bumper break the snow and his front tire mashing it down into a shorter pile. This was not what I had in mind to clear out the garage bay, but he was having a great time doing it, laughing gleefully every time his truck hit it. When he’d finally broken through, I went at it with my shovel and he climbed out of the truck to help. He was extremely pleased that rubbing his truck against the snow had cleaned the lower side of it.

I can’t make this shit up.

It only took a few more minutes to clear the snow away so I could drive out. There was that hump to drive over and I really didn’t want it there, but it was so tightly packed that it would have taken me hours to clear it away. Besides, I knew my Jeep could run over it. I fetched some money for the other two tow jobs and his wife took it for him. He told me to call any time I wanted him to come back with the plow. He didn’t seem to understand that he could come back that day. And then I started thinking about it and realized that I didn’t exactly need the work done. And that I could save about $100 if I didn’t have it done. So I told him I’d call if I needed it done and they all drove off, happy.

I went to the store later in the day and got some groceries, including fresh milk and salad stuff. The Jeep started right up and handled the driveway and the road without any problems.

A Week at Home

I began regretting coming home about a day later. The weather turned cold again, staying pretty much right around freezing. We had some more snow and some of it melted away when the sun came out and shined on it. But there were a few days of January fog, which I find dismally depressing, and it was too cold and snow-covered to get anything done outside.

Wood Trolley
My do-it-yourself solution for mobile indoor scrap wood storage. Don’t laugh — it works and it was dirt cheap to throw together.

I did get stuff done inside, though. I did a bunch of cleanup work in my shop. I took an old wooden crate I had, put wheels on it, and set it up as a scrap wood trolley. This made it possible to store all the scrap wood I had indoors in a place where I could move it around to get it out of the way when needed. I vacuumed up all the sawdust my miter saw and table saw had left behind when I cut the wood for my loft guardrails — I’d used the table saw to cut the grooves for the wire fencing to fit into so there was a ton of sawdust on the floor from that. I worked on reorganizing my shop area and made some preliminary plans for another set of shelves in the storage end of the garage. I also planned the locations for a few more outlets I wanted to add on that side of the building. I’ll get the lumber and electrical parts I need for both jobs when I return in spring.

Loft Rail
I finally finished the rail for my loft, which was required by building code. This narrow section of loft space over my closet gives me easy access to the high bedroom window facing south, which I pretty much leave open in the spring and fall.

With all the wood already cut and finished for the loft rail in my bedroom, I had no reason not to finish it up. So I spent an afternoon doing that. It came out remarkably well.

And I had just one tiny bit — the return — to finish at the top of the rail for my stairs so I knocked that off in about an hour. I even took out my sander and finished the surface a little better for another coat of tung oil.

Penny after a Bath
Penny looked much cleaner — and smelled much better — after a bath.

I gave Penny a bath. After so much playing in the dirt along the river and in Quartzsite, she really needed one.

I joined my writer friends for our regular meeting. I’d missed the previous one and the one before that had been called off due to weather. It was good to see them all and share feedback with them on their work. And to hear feedback on mine.

I took care of chores in town one day. I got my FAA flight physical (passed) and some long overdue blood work done. I got some prescriptions refilled. I bought food for the chickens and my barn cat. I went to the airport office, paid a bill, and dropped off a survey. I arranged to park my Jeep at the airport when I went back to Arizona so I could drive myself home when I returned.

I caught up with some friends, too. I met with Megan for some wine on Monday afternoon and had dinner with Alyse on Tuesday evening. Bob was supposed to meet with us, but with the weather kind of nasty, he’d decided to go straight home from work instead. (Wimp.)

The Wild Rush at the End of My Stay

Suddenly it was Tuesday and I was getting ready to go back to Arizona the following morning. I still had a ton to do.

I’d promised the friends waiting for me in Arizona that I’d smoke up some ribs for them, so I dutifully defrosted four racks — which is the most my Traeger can hold — and prepped them for smoking. I would have put them on the grill before dinner with Alyse, but I was worried that I’d be gone too long and the hopper would run out of pellets. I figured I’d do it when I got home that evening. Unfortunately, my Traeger’s auger decided it wasn’t going to run in the 26° weather out on my deck. So I popped the ribs into the oven on a rack over a pan, set the oven to 225°, and let them slow cook there.

That was at 7:30 PM. I packed and cleaned up my home while I waited for the ribs to cook. It took 4 hours — just as it does on the Traeger. (Thank heaven I’d had baby backs in the freezer; St. Louis style take at least an hour longer.) I also made a batch of Honey Barbecue Sauce. It was midnight when I finally wrapped the ribs in aluminum foil and a big plastic bag and stuck them in the fridge.

All this time, I had my aviation radio going and didn’t hear the Horizon flight come in at 11:55 PM. That got me thinking that it hadn’t come in. My 5:40 AM flight is the same plane and when that plane doesn’t come in at night, the morning flight is cancelled. I got it in my head that the flight would be cancelled and couldn’t sleep until I’d spoken to someone at Alaska Air about it. Although she didn’t know if the plane was in Wenatchee, she didn’t see the flight being canceled.

At 12:30 AM, all packed and ready to go with my coffee maker set up to make coffee in my travel mug, I set my alarm for 3:10 AM and finally went to sleep.

Wednesday would be a big travel day.

On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

Airplane
I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.

Again.

Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.

On Spur-of-the-Moment Travel

It’s amazing where you can be in just a few hours.

I’m on my third consecutive year as a frost control pilot. I haven’t written much about this, mostly because I haven’t actually had to fly a mission. But for the third year in a row I’m being paid to have my helicopter ready, with relatively short notice, to fly slowly over almond trees on cold California mornings.

The Back Story

My first year’s contract, back in the winter/spring of 2013, had a relatively low standby pay for 60 days, along with compensation to move the helicopter from its base — in Arizona, in those days — to California’s Central Valley. Because I wasn’t sure about my living situation that winter — after all, my future ex-husband could get his head out of his ass and accept the very generous settlement offer I made and I’d have to move — I moved my truck and RV to California as well, thus guaranteeing a cheap and comfortable place to live near my work. (After all, that’s why I bought the RV; as a place to live when I was on the road with the helicopter.) I spent about two months traveling with Penny the Tiny Dog between Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, getting called out just once for two days. I happened to be in Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to change my plane ticket and spend a few days in California instead of returning to Arizona.

Last year I took a very different contract. It paid a generous standby rate for six weeks but I had to live near the fields. This turned out to be very convenient for me since I was out of my Arizona home for good and didn’t have a home in Washington yet. I brought the RV and helicopter down in mid-February and stayed until the middle of April. I really got to know the area, made new friends, went hiking and kayaking several times, got comped on a balloon ride, and even learned to fly a gyroplane. It was like being on a paid vacation in a pleasant place, with warm days and lots to do and see. If I did have to work, it would likely be between 3 AM and 7 AM, so days were free to do as I pleased.

Although the money was great, the drawback to that contract was the simple fact that I couldn’t get back to Washington until April. I wanted to be back earlier. I wanted to experience the spring: seeing orchards in bloom and leafing out, hiking along streams full of snow-melt runoff, starting a garden. So when December 2014 rolled along, I decided to try to get a frost control contract like the first year.

And I did.

I brought the helicopter down to California on February 22. The RV would stay home — with me — as I finished work on my home and enjoyed the spring.

That’s the back story.

Call Out

Frost control is not like cherry drying. In cherry drying, I’m required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I can monitor the weather closely and vary my daily routine based on the likelihood of rain. When my clients call, they expect me to be airborne in minutes.

In my frost contract, the client monitors the weather closely and, if there’s a possibility of frost, he initiates a callout. My contract requires him to do this by at least 12 hours before he expects me to fly. This gives me the time I need to get to California from Washington. I’m paid for the callout — the fee covers my transportation with a bit to spare. And then I’m paid a generous hourly pilot standby fee from the moment I get to my California base until I’m released the next morning. If I fly, I’m paid a flying rate for that. The next time I’m called out, the process starts all over again

When I brought the helicopter down to California this year, I built in a few extra days to spend some time with friends in the area. When those plans fell through, I kept myself busy by reacquainting myself with the area and visiting other friends. But I couldn’t have timed it better. I was put on standby two of the three nights I was already down here. I was able to earn the callout and standby fees without incurring the related travel expenses. Although it did require a minor flight change for my return home with a $25 fee, that’s still pretty sweet. Really made it worth the trip.

I went home last Wednesday and got back to work on my home. The cabinets were installed on Thursday and Friday and the appliances were delivered on Saturday. Timing was everything and I lucked out.

My client called on Friday to make sure he understood how much lead time I needed to get back to California. Cold temperatures were forecast for Sunday through Wednesday nights. He wasn’t calling me out — yet. But he wanted to make sure he knew how much time would be needed to get me in position. I told him that if he called me by 3 PM, I’d be able to make it to the helicopter by 10 PM and be on standby overnight.

Of course, I watched the temperatures, too. Unfortunately, the forecasts of my various weather sources aren’t nearly as accurate as those available to almond growers, by subscription, from an agricultural weather resource. I had to rely on them to call me and didn’t want to fly down unless I had to.

So each day the forecasted low was 40°F or lower, I’d be a nervous wreck, wondering whether I’d get a call. Once 4 PM rolled along, I’d relax. I did this on Sunday and Monday and got a lot of work done at my place. But I did pack an overnight bag on Monday afternoon, just in case.

On Very Short Notice…

On Tuesday, at 3:22 PM, my phone rang. It was my client. He’d been sitting on the fence about calling me down. Forecasted lows were 32° to 39° in the area. He told me that he knew from experience that if the forecast said 32°, it could go lower. Better safe than sorry. He was calling me out.

Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk answering an email message when he called. When I hung up, I got on the Alaska Air website. There was a flight out of Wenatchee at 5:20 PM — less than two hours from then — and I needed to be on it. I booked the flight from Wenatchee to Seattle to Sacramento. I’d arrive at 9:28 PM.

While I was at the computer, I searched for car rentals in Sacramento. Thrifty had one for $22/day. Rather than book online, I called directly. With my bluetooth earpiece in my ear, I made car reservations as I changed my clothes and put a few more things into that suitcase.

I decided to board Penny. She’d been with me on the last trip and I thought I’d keep things a lot simpler by leaving her behind this time. So I packed an overnight bag for her with enough food for 2 days — just in case I needed to stay over an extra night. Club Pet is on my way to the airport, so dropping her off only took 5 minutes, especially since the paperwork was already waiting for me. As I type this, she’s likely playing out in the yard with the other dogs.

I checked into my flight and chose my seats using the Alaska Air app on my phone while stopped at a traffic light. I only had one bag — a carry-on — so I didn’t need to stop at the counter.

Seattle Sunset
I got off the plane in Seattle just after sunset.

I was at the airport, through security, and sitting in the waiting area by 4:45. That’s less than 90 minutes after getting the call. At 6:07 PM, I stepped off the plane from Wenatchee onto the tarmac at SeaTac. This is one of the best things about living in a small town with airline service: it’s so damn quick and easy to catch a flight out of town when you need to.

I grabbed dinner at SeaTac’s Terminal C before catching my flight to Sacramento.

It was an amazing flight. The moon had risen and was almost full. The land beneath us was illuminated with moonlight. I sat at the window on the A side of the plane and watched as we passed Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. Our flight path took us down the Cascade range in Oregon, over the Three Sisters and other mountains there. I could clearly identify the towns I knew on Route 97 from the location of their airport beacons in relation to the town’s lights. The moon’s bright orb reflected back up at me from streams, marshes, and lakes. The flight couldn’t have been any smoother, either.

We touched down in Sacramento fifteen minutes early. I was out of the terminal waiting for the rental car shuttle bus by 9:30 PM. Later, I’d settle down in a Best Western for the night. I slept like a log until 5 AM.

Although a call to fly never came, I don’t mind making the trip. I will be well compensated for my time and the inconvenience of dropping everything to spend a few days in California. My client is satisfied, glad he can count on me to come when called. It’s all good.

I’ll kill some time here today and catch a flight home either tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m flexible and it’s a beautiful day.

Dear TSA

I’m really tired of the TSA going through my luggage — and repacking it.

TSA Inspection NoteTo say I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this past year would be to make a huge understatement. I’ve been on more than 20 airline legs since September and expect to be on at least a few more before I finally settle down in my new Washington home.

Because I travel with Penny the Tiny Dog and she counts as one of my carryon pieces of luggage, I usually have to check a bag. And what I’ve discovered is that the TSA doesn’t just look in random pieces of checked luggage. It looks in all checked luggage.

How do I know this? Well, the inspectors put a note like the one you see here in each piece of luggage they open. I have found one of these in every single bag I’ve checked.

And yes, I do sometimes lock my bag. Fortunately, my lock is TSA-friendly, so it isn’t broken and can be used again and again.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind the TSA going through my luggage if they’d just leave it packed the way I packed it. In many instances, my luggage includes breakable items, such as a laptop, portable hard disk, and/or bottles of wine. I pack very carefully to ensure that breakables are surrounded by soft items like clothing. This protects it from shocks and hard surfaces the bag might encounter during handling by the airlines — and the TSA.

Unfortunately, the TSA doesn’t seem to care how carefully I packed. It appears that they sometimes unpack my bag and then repack it. I haven’t noticed anything missing, but I have noticed shock-sensitive items packed right up against the edge of my soft luggage, where it could be damaged if the bag is thrown or dropped.

And I don’t like that.

What can I do? Nothing — except to not put breakables in my luggage. Or not check luggage. Or not travel by air.

I can’t help thinking that the TSA’s baggage inspections are just another dog and pony show — as intrusive and ineffective as its backscatter scanners. The Notice of Baggage Inspection cards I find after every flight are just a reminder that big brother is watching. Whether their inspections are actually necessary or effective remains to be seen.

Penny, the Frequent Flyer Dog

A look at how Penny the Tiny Dog has accrued airline miles since September 2012.

Frequent Flyer Dog
Penny waits near the gate for a recent flight, chewing a bone in her travel bag.

One of the best things about having a tiny dog is just how easy she is to travel with. Indeed, Penny has been with me on almost every single trip I’ve taken since I brought her into my life on June 27, 2012.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s a quick look at the trips Penny and I have taken together since September 2012. This is just airliner flights and doesn’t include the helicopter and small plane flights we’ve done together, like the trips to Winslow, Williams, Page, Phoenix, Tucson, Lake Havasu, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Georgetown (CA), Woodland (CA), Quincy (WA), Wenatchee (WA), and other places.

I’ll update this periodically so I have a permanent record of her frequent flyer status.

Date Departure Destination Miles
9/15/2012 Wenatchee Seattle 98
9/15/2012 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
11/12/2012 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
11/12/2012 Seattle Wenatchee 98
11/21/2012 Phoenix Sacramento 647
11/28/2012 Sacramento Phoenix 647
12/16/2013 Phoenix Dallas Ft. Worth 752
12/16/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Jacksonville 796
12/30/2012 Jacksonville Dallas Ft. Worth 796
12/30/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Phoenix 752
1/30/2013 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
1/30/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
2/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/21/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
3/5/2013 Sacramento Las Vegas 345
3/7/2013 Las Vegas Sacramento 345
3/10/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 1,106
3/18/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 1,106
3/27/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
4/10/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
4/23/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/23/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
4/26/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
5/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
5/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
10/22/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
10/22/2013 Seattle Newark 2,394
10/29/2013 Newark Seattle 2,394
10/29/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/16/2014 Sacramento San Francisco 86
2/16/2014 San Francisco Santa Barbara 262
2/19/2014 Santa Barbara Seattle 907
2/19/2014 Seattle Wenatchee 98
4/21/2014 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/21/2014 Seattle Sacramento 605
1/26/2015 Wenatchee Seattle 98
1/26/2015 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/11/2015 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
2/11/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/25/2015 Sacramento Seattle 605
2/25/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
Total Airline Miles   27,256

Too bad I can’t get her on a frequent flyer plan.

Airport Tower Closures: Reality Check

March 24, 2013, 11:30 AM Edit: Got the airplane terminology wrong. Thanks to two airplane pilots for correcting me. I’ve edited the text to show the change. Sorry about the confusion. – ML
March 25, 2013, 2:15 AM Edit: Left out the word towers in a sentence.

Come on folks — it’s not as bad as you think.

Falcon Tower
The control tower at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ is a typical Class Delta airport tower. (This is not one of the towers scheduled for closure.)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the FAA’s upcoming airport tower closures. A list is out and there are 149 airports on it. The reduction of funding due to the sequester is making it necessary to close these contracted airport towers all over the country.

Most news articles, tweets, and Facebook updates that I’ve read about the closures are full of doom and gloom. Apparently, a lot of people believe that airport towers are required for safety. But as most general aviation pilots can attest, low traffic airports do not need towers.

What an ATC Tower Does

Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers are responsible for ensuring safe and orderly arrivals and departures of aircraft at an airport. Here’s how it works at a typical Class Delta airport — the kind of airports affected by the tower closures.

Most towered airports have a recording called an Automated Terminal Information System (ATIS) that broadcasts airport information such as weather conditions, runway in use, and any special notices (referred to as Notices to Airmen or NOTAMs). Pilots listen to this recording on a special airport frequency as they approach the airport so they’re already briefed on the most important information they’ll need for landing. The ATIS recording is usually updated hourly, about 5 to 10 minutes before the hour. Each new recording is identified with a letter from the ICAO Spelling Alphabet, or the Pilot’s Alphabet, as I refer to it in this blog post.

Before a pilot reaches the airport’s controlled airspace — usually within 4 to 6 miles of the airport — she calls the tower on the tower frequency. She provides the airport controller with several pieces of information: Aircraft identifier, aircraft location, aircraft intentions, acknowledgement that pilot has heard ATIS recording. A typical radio call from me to the tower at Falcon Field, where I flew just the other day, might sound something like this:

Falcon Tower, Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is eight miles north, request landing helipads with Kilo.

An airplane calling in might say something like:

Falcon Tower, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is ten miles east, request touch-and-go with Kilo.

Kilo, in both cases, is the identifier of the current ATIS recording.

The tower controller would respond to my call with something like:

Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Falcon Tower, proceed inbound. Report 1 mile north for midfield crossing at nineteen hundred feet.

To the airplane, he might say something like:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo, Falcon Tower, enter right downwind for runway four right.

(If you want to see what these instructions mean by looking at a detailed airport diagram, here’s one for you.)

Of course, if the tower controllers were really busy or there was some sort of problem at the airport, the controller could say something like:

Aircraft calling Falcon Tower, remain clear of the class delta airspace.

That means the pilot can’t come into the airspace — which is marked on charts and many GPS models — until the tower clears her in. That happens very seldom.

This is the beginning of the conversation between the air traffic controller in the airport’s tower and the pilot. What follows is a dialog with the tower providing instructions and the pilot acknowledging those instructions and then following them. The controller’s job is to sequence airplane traffic on the airport’s runway(s), making sure there’s enough spacing between them for the various types of landings: touch-and-go, full stop, low approach, etc. In the case of helicopters — which is admittedly what I know best — the tower can either put us into the traffic pattern with the airplanes (which really isn’t a good idea) or keep us out of the airplane flow. The tower clears airplanes to land on the runway and gives permission to helicopters to land in “non-movement” areas.

At the same time all this is going on, the tower’s ground controller is providing instructions to airplanes that are taxiing around the airport, either to or from the runways. Aircraft are given taxi instructions that are sort of like driving directions. Because helicopters seldom talk to towers, I can’t give a perfect example, but instructions from the transient parking area to runway 4R might sound something like this:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Romeo, Falcon Ground, taxi to runway four right via Delta. Position and hold Line up and wait at Delta One.

These instructions can get quite complex at some large airports with multiple runways and taxiways.

Position and hold Line up and wait — formerly hold short position and hold — means to move to the indicated position and do not cross the hold line painted on the tarmac. This keeps the airplane off the runway until cleared to take off.

A pilot who is holding short waiting switches to the tower frequency and, when he’s the first plane at the hold line, calls the tower to identify himself. The tower then clears him to get on the runway and depart in the direction he’s already told the ground controller that he wants to go.

Air traffic control for an airport also clears pilots that simply want to fly through the airspace. For example, if I want to fly from Wickenburg to Scottsdale, the most direct route takes me through Deer Valley’s airspace. I’d have to get clearance from the Deer Valley Tower to do so; I’d then be required to follow the tower’s instructions until the controller cut me loose, usually with the phrase “Frequency change approved.” I could then contact Scottsdale’s tower so I could enter that airspace and get permission to land.

A few things to note here:

  • Not all towers have access to radar services. That means they must make visual contact with all aircraft under their control. Even when radar is available, tower controllers make visual contact when aircraft are within their airspace.
  • If radar services are available, tower controllers can ask pilots to Ident. This means pushing a button on the aircraft’s transponder that makes the aircraft’s signal brighter on the radar screen, thus making it easier for the controller to distinguish from other aircraft in crowded airspace. The tower can also ask the pilot to squawk a certain number — this is a 4-digit code temporarily assigned to that aircraft on the radar screen.
  • Some towers have two tower controller frequencies, thus separating the airspace into two separately controlled areas. For example, Deer Valley Airport (DVT) has a north and south tower controller, each contacted on a different frequency. When I fly from the north over the top of the runways to land at the helipads on the south side, I’m told to change frequency from the north controller to the south controller.
  • The tower and ground controllers coordinate with each other, handing off aircraft as necessary.
  • The tower controllers also coordinate with controllers at other nearby airports and with “center” airports. For example, when I fly from Phoenix Gateway (IWA) to Chandler (CHD), the Chandler controller knows I’m coming because the Gateway controller has told him. Similarly, if a corporate jet departs Scottsdale (SDL) on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan, the Scottsdale controller obtains a clearance for that jet from Phoenix Departure or Albuquerque Center.

I should also point out two things from the point of view of a pilot:

  • Dealing with air traffic control does add a tiny bit to the pilot’s workload. The pilot must communicate with the tower before entering the airspace, the pilot must follow the tower’s instructions (unless following those instructions is not safe, of course). I know plenty of pilots who would rather fly around a towered airport’s airspace than fly through it — just because they don’t want to talk to a controller. I’ll admit that I’ve done this quite a few times — I even have a winding route through the Phoenix area between Wickenburg and Chandler that avoids all towered airspace along the way.
  • Air traffic control gives many pilots the impression that they are no longer responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. After all, the tower sees all and guides aircraft to avoid each other. But there have been instances where air traffic control has dropped the ball — I experienced one myself years ago — and sometimes this can have tragic consequences.

Low Traffic Airports Don’t Need Towers

As you can probably imagine, the more air traffic coming and going in an airport’s airspace, the busier air traffic controllers are.

A very busy airport like Deer Valley, which has at least two flight schools, several helicopter bases (police and medevac), at least one charter operator, and a bit of traffic from corporate jets, can keep controllers pretty busy. In fact, one of the challenges of flying in and out of Deer Valley is being able to get a call in on the radio — it’s often a steady stream of pilot/controller communication. Indeed, Deer Valley airport was the 25th busiest airport in the country based on aircraft movements in 2010.

Likewise, at an airport that gets very little traffic, the tower staff doesn’t have much to do. And when you consider that there has to be at least two controllers on duty at all times — so one can relieve the other — that’s at least two people getting paid without a lot of work to do.

Although I don’t know every towered airport on the list, the ones I do know don’t get very much traffic at all.

For example, they’re closing four in Arizona:

  • Laughlin/Bullhead City International (IFP) gets very little traffic. It sits across the river from Laughlin, NV in one of the windiest locations I’ve ever flown into. Every time I fly into Laughlin, there’s only one or two pilots in the area — including me.
  • Glendale Municipal (GEU) should get a lot of traffic, but it doesn’t.
  • Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) is home of the Lufthansa training organization and a bunch of mothballed airliners, but it doesn’t get much traffic. Lufthansa pilots in training use other area airports, including Wickenburg, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Lake Havasu City, and Needles — ironically, none of those have a tower.
  • Ryan Field (in Tucson; RYN) is the only one of the three I haven’t flown into, so I can’t comment its traffic. But given the other airports on this list, I have to assume the traffic volume is low.

They’re also closing Southern California Logistics (VCV) in Victorville, CA. I’ve flown over that airport many times and have landed there once. Not much going on. It’s a last stop for many decommissioned airliners; there’s a 747 “chop shop” on the field.

They’re closing Northeast Florida Regional (SGJ) in St. Augustine, FL. That’s the little airport closest to where my mom lives. When she first moved there about 15 years ago, it didn’t even have a tower.

These are just the airports I know. Not very busy. I know plenty of non-towered airports that get more traffic than these.

How Airports without Towers Work

If an airport doesn’t have a tower — and at least 80% of the public airports in the United States don’t have towers — things work a little differently. Without a controller to direct them, pilots are responsible for using the airport in accordance with standard traffic patterns and right-of-way rules they are taught in training.

Some airports have Automated Weather Observation Systems (AWOS) or Automated Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) that broadcast current weather information on a certain frequency. Pilots can tune in to see what the wind, altimeter setting, and NOTAMs are for the airport.

When a pilot gets close to a non-towered airport, she should (but is not required to) make a position report that includes her location and intentions. For example, I might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is ten miles north, landing Wickenburg.

An airplane pilot might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is eight miles southeast. We’ll be crossing midfield at five thousand to enter right traffic for Runway Two-Three.

Other pilots in the area would hear that call and respond by making a similar position call. The calls continue as needed at the pilot’s discretion — the more aircraft in the area, the more calls I make just to make sure everyone else knows I’m out there and where I am. Pilots then see and avoid other traffic to land or depart the airport.

It sounds crazy, but it works — remarkably well. In Wickenburg, for example — an airport that gets a lot of pilots in training practicing takeoffs and landings — there might be two or three or even more airplanes in the traffic pattern around the airport, safely landing and departing in an organized manner. No controller.

And this is going on at small general aviation airports all over the country every single day.

What’s even more surprising to many people is that some regional airlines also land at non-towered airports. For example, Horizon operates flights between Seattle and Wenatchee, WA; Wenatchee is non-towered. Great Lakes operates between Phoenix or Denver and Page, AZ; Page is non-towered.

The Reality

My point is this: people unfamiliar with aviation think that a control tower is vital to safe airport operations. In reality, it’s not. Many, many aircraft operate safely at non-towered airports every day.

While the guidance of a tower controller can increase safety by providing instructions that manage air traffic flow, that guidance isn’t needed at all airports. It’s the busy airports — the ones with hundreds of operations every single day — that can truly benefit from air traffic control.

The 149 airport towers on the chopping block this year were apparently judged to be not busy enough.

I guess time will tell. And I’m certain of one thing: if there is any accident at one of these 149 airports after the tower is shut down, we’ll hear about it all over the news.

In the meantime, I’d love to get some feedback from pilots about this. Share your thoughts in the comments from this post.

Flying Southwest

Pleasantly pleased by the quality of service on this original-thinking airline.

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. A lot. And most of that travel has been on four airlines: US Air (formerly America West, hub in Phoenix), Alaska Air (hub in Seattle), American Airlines, and Southwest Air. Since September 2012 — that’s less than six months — I’ve flown to Phoenix, Seattle, Wenatchee, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Dallas, and Jacksonville — in many cases, multiple times to each destination. (And I want to say here how great it is to finally be able to travel without guilt or the restrictions imposed on me by my soon-to-be ex-husband.)

I always favored US Air for my trips between Phoenix and some other city served by US Air. That changed when I began making more trips to Wenatchee, which requires a stop in Seattle along the way; on those flights I use Alaska Air/Horizon. And although I used to use Continental (now part of United) for my trips to Florida through their Houston hub, I switched to American through Charlottesville, NC in 2011.

SouthwestI’d flown Southwest Air back in its infancy, when people would queue up two hours before flight time to ensure a seat. I don’t like to wait in line for anything, so I always wound up with a crappy middle seat in the back of the plane. To me, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks when I couldn’t get a seat assignment. So I avoided Southwest in favor of other alternatives.

Recently, though, I’ve rediscovered Southwest — and I like what I’m seeing. Here are some of my observations.

The End of the Line

Southwest has finally come up with a reasonable way to handle seating that doesn’t require seat assignments (saving them money and effort) and doesn’t require waiting on long lines (saving passengers frustration).

Now, when you check in — preferably online — you get a boarding pass with a letter/number combination that indicates your boarding number. So, for example, someone quick to check in might be assigned B3 (as I was the other day). That means you’ll be the third person to board in the B group. Each group can have up to 60 (I think) people in it. The A group is special: its for people who bought more expensive tickets or paid for earlier boarding. It’s seldom full, so the beginning of the B group isn’t a bad place to be at all. In fact, on my most recent Southwest flight, with a B3 boarding pass, I nabbed a window seat in Row 4. Not too shabby.

Best of all, I didn’t have to pay extra for that seat. Most other airlines, these days, consider front-of-wing seats “premium” seats and can charge $25 or more extra for assignments there.

Line Up HereMy friend Jim didn’t understand how this numbering system could possibly work. I explained how Southwest uses queue-up areas with numbered posts or signs. When the A group is called, people sort themselves in order along these signs, using their boarding passes for reference. It’s all very orderly and civilized — no jostling for position because it’s pretty clear where each person should be in line. Then, after the first half of the group goes through the gate, the first half of the next group lines up. It’s amazingly efficient and I truly believe the plane loads faster.

Two Bags Fly Free

Free baggage check is another way Southwest saves me money.

Unfortunately, because Penny the Tiny Dog usually accompanies me on my trips, her travel bag counts as one of my carry-on items. My large travel purse counts as another. That’s two and that’s the limit on any airline. That means that unless I don’t have any luggage — which is rare — I always have to check at least one bag.

Most airlines usually charge $20 or $25 for the first bag and often up that amount to $40 or $50 for the second bag. (I usually just have one to check.) But Southwest allows you to check two bags for free. As you might imagine, there are reasonable limitations on size and weight — just like there are on other airlines. And if you happen to have a third bag to check, you’ll pay a hefty $75 to check it. But the two bag allowance saves me money.

Baggage Claim No Longer a Big Deal

I used to hate checking luggage, mostly because of the baggage claim ordeal. Simply said, I — and the person I was often with — didn’t like waiting for luggage.

But now that I fly with Penny, things are different. My first priority, on leaving the plane, is finding a place for Penny to do her business. That means exiting the terminal as quickly as possible, usually in search of a patch of grass. (Phoenix is a really dog-friendly airport; it has a fenced-in dog walk area at each of its three terminals.)

Once Penny has relieved herself, I’m free to go back into the terminal and retrieve my luggage. By that time, my bag is usually already on the carousel and the crowd is gone.

So thanks to Penny, baggage claim is no longer an ordeal at all.

Baggage Claim with Penny

It also saves room in the airplane cabin and speeds boarding. Why? Well, when an airlines charges for checked baggage, people try to save money by carrying on all their luggage. In fact, a passenger is more likely to carry on luggage than check it, so almost everyone on board has the maximum amount of luggage they can slip past a gate agent at boarding time. Big wheelie bags and other large items can be squeezed into the overhead compartments — so they are. Tons of them. This fills the available space quickly and, because they have to be stowed before a passenger can sit down, it requires boarding passengers to wait until each piece is stowed and the passenger gets into his seat.

Last-Minute Flights? Itinerary Changes? No Problem!

I think one of the best things about flying with Southwest is the ability to make changes to your itinerary without paying a penalty. This is extremely important for me these days, as I often need to make changes to existing flights or book last-minute travel.

Here’s an example. I recently booked a flight to Las Vegas about three days before my travel date. I got the same low fare I would have gotten if I’d booked it weeks in advance. Then, while in Vegas, I decided to travel to Sacramento instead of Phoenix. I got online and, with a few clicks, I was able to replace the Vegas to Phoenix flight with a Vegas to Sacramento flight. I was charged for the difference in cost between those two flights: $52.

Like most other airlines these days, Southwest makes it easy to book one-way travel. And because I don’t pay a extra for last-minute bookings, I can leave my travel plans wide open and decide where I want to go when I want to go. This freedom has made a huge difference in the way I travel, giving me opportunities to make spontaneous trips to visit friends and relatives whenever I like.

Don’t get me wrong — the fare category I book is still considered “non-refundable.” That means I can’t get my money back. But it doesn’t mean I can’t use that money to book other travel — without a fee. And with the craziness of my life these days, that’s a huge plus.

There’s an App for That

Airline Apps Ranked

Here’s a list of the airline-specific apps I’ve tried so far, ranked from best to worst.

  1. American Airlines – You can book travel, check flight status, check in, display a digital boarding pass at security and the gate, and see maps of many airport terminals.
  2. Alaska Air – You can check flight status, check in, and display a digital boarding pass at security and the gate.
  3. Southwest Air – You can book travel, change flights, check in, and check flight status.
  4. US Air – I found this app nearly useless and actually removed it from my iPhone and iPad. I can’t remember what it did.

Again, this is just an overview based on my limited experience. I think I should do a more detailed review and update this, possibly for a blog post in my upcoming travel blog.

Southwest, like some other airlines, has an iOS app (and likely an Android app, although I really don’t know for sure) for managing travel. In my experience with other airline apps, it’s neither the best nor the worst of the bunch. But it does allow me to do three important things:

  • Check in timely. As mentioned earlier, your seat on a Southwest Air plane is determined, in part, by the group and number assigned when you check in. The quicker you check in the better the group and number. Check in opens exactly 24 hours before a flight. I can use a reminder on my Calendar app to warn me when check in time is approaching. I can then use the Southwest app to check in exactly at that time. Sweet.
  • Book Travel. I can check fares and book flights from anywhere, right from my phone. This is extremely useful with my travel schedule; a computer isn’t always handy.
  • Change Flights. I can look for new flights and swap them into my itinerary, right from my phone. Again, this is extremely useful, given that I often make travel plan changes.

What the app doesn’t do, however, is create a scannable boarding pass that I can use at security or the gate. It seems that Southwest prefers to collect paper boarding passes at the gate. This isn’t a huge deal for me, since I normally have to check a bag anyway and a visit to the check-in counter (or curbside check in) is still required. I usually wind up getting a printed boarding pass there anyway.

Limited Food/Beverage Service

Admittedly, the longest Southwest flight I’ve ever been on was under 2 hours. And during those flights I never once saw a rolling service cart in the aisle.

Why? Because Southwest doesn’t offer a wide variety of food on its short flights. In fact, other than peanuts or pretzels — which are free with beverage service — it doesn’t offer any food. (Again, this might not be true of longer flights, which I haven’t experienced yet.)

Instead, once we complete the climb out on departure, a flight attendant walks down the aisle and takes drink orders. If you’re buying alcohol, she takes payment. Then, a while later, she comes back down the aisle with a tray and distributes the beverages she has orders for, along with a bag of peanuts or pretzels. Simple.

Why do I like this? Well, mostly because it keeps things simple. I seldom get out of my seat during a flight, so the presence (or absence) of a rolling cart doesn’t really affect me. But I like the quick and efficient way the flight attendants can get the job done.

If I want to snack on a plane, I always buy something to eat in the terminal before boarding anyway.

I’m Sold!

All together, these benefits really make it worth flying Southwest as often as possible. It’s now my first choice for airline travel — I just hope it flies to many of the destinations I need to visit.