Interesting Links, March 18, 2014

Here are links I found interesting on March 18, 2014:

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
Total Airline Miles   22,089

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.