Monday, November 30, 2009

A Rainy Alabama Day

Living in the Northwest, it's always interesting for us to find out firsthand how hard the rain can be in other locales. It poured here for some time this morning, but now it's more or less overcast. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, with more rain to follow Wednesday.

We're still keeping pretty close to home as we await Riley's new baby brother. Mommy and we took Riley to the park yesterday - it was shirtsleeve weather - and she went to the Birmingham Science Center with her daddy this morning, and Grandma and Grandpa will probably take her back there at some point.

Riley enjoys the zoo too so that'll be another destination whenever the weather permits.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Find! Great Independent Italian Restaurant in Birmingham - Joe's Italian

Joe's Italian is actually in Alabaster, a suburb not too far from Kim's and John's house in Helena. We'd found it through a couple of websites with enthusiastic reviews and made the 15-minute drive to it tonight.

We didn't pull into the nearly full parking lot until a little after 6:00 p.m. On a Tuesday night there was a 45-minute wait and luckily Riley used the time profitably to nap in her car seat. We were inside and seated in crowded European-style quasi-trattoria conditions in about 35 minutes, and it was a pleasure to find out it was worth the wait.

Riley enjoyed her spaghetti immensely, and the rest of us dined on a variety of dishes. Brian really enjoyed his lasagna bianca, the first lasagna he's ever tried with a white sauce. Three of us enjoyed the house tomato basil soup as a starter.

We'll see if our new grandson is in the mood for Italian, once he's arrived. Joe's would be a great place for him to start.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Back in Birmingham

A good day to fly yesterday. We obviously beat the Thanksgiving rush by flying Sunday. Our biggest delay was when a TSA screener in SEA spotted the doll in our roll-aboard. "I don't see no kids here," he muttered to a colleague while peering at the x-ray, but the present from Uncle Dave and Aunt Dana passed inspection the second time around.

SEA-ORD was in a 757-200. The 24-seat F section wasn't quite full and we dozed a bit after breakfast. There was a fair walk from our arrival to get to the E concourse for our Express flight to Birmingham, complete with the walk through the psychedelic underground passage that connects terminals but we had enough time to turn it into a fairly leisurely stroll.

The CRJ 170 flight was quite pleasant as well - it helps to be sitting in the first row of F - with hardly any bumps along the way.

Almost before we knew it we'd landed in Birmingham and picked up our rental car from Hertz. It appears they upgraded us to a Prius. A nice change from the sleazy Alamo operation on the previous trip that we described just a few weeks ago. Very pleasant and interesting on first drive, although the first impression includes the sense that there's very poor visibility in the rear-view mirror, due to the shape of the hatchback. Maybe we'll get used to it.

And here we are, being entertained by Riley as we await the birth of her new baby brother. The countdown continues...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Wall Street Journal Covers The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO

Although we weren't mentioned by name, it was Kathy who asked about the snowplows at ORD (O'Hare). Written by Scott McCartney, who was on the trip, his WSJ Middle Seat column makes for a fair and entertainingly descriptive article.

We've previously met Will Steele, the "20-year-old...who lives with his mother in Auckland, New Zealand," and he is somewhat chagrined by the description, for which he's being gently teased on the FlyerTalk forum. We won't mention it, other than to ask Will how his mother is.

You can spot Kathy swooping in with her camera for a split second in the video.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO - The Go-Around at TLS

It was too snowy to accomplish this in OSL but our Condor charter pilots managed a go-around for us at TLS. It's described as a "missed approach" but that doesn't seem quite fair since it was deliberate; therefore, we'll call it a go-around, which is what it was.

Video screens throughout the cabin allowed us even those of us sitting in the back (and Row 45 is waay in the back mini-cabin of the 757) to watch it in detail, as well as the subsequent "real" landing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

the Lufthansa Market Place and a Bus Tour of FRA

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO
Nov. 6
Frankfurt Lufthansa Marketplace - A day of tours and activites at Lufthansa's main base, with some special surprises!
•09:00 CET Pick up at the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport
Meet in the Sheraton lobby
•16:30 CET Return to Sheraton Frankfurt Airport.

Friday found us back at FRA, somewhat exhausted after the previous day's flight, but still looking forward to Lufthansa's "Market Place" and a tour of the airport.

Because there were only so many tour guides available, our group's guide was Dr. Peter Pfragner, the Fraport Marketing, Sales Support, Boards and Committees Marketing Manager, who had been one of the dignitaries welcoming the Flyer Talkers. He proved to be a charming guide. Brian told him if job became too stressful that he had a future as a fulltime guide, a joke he appreciated.

Lots of chances to take photos as we rode around the perimeter of this huge airport.

Then it was back to the Market Place in one area of the airport, where one of our speakers was the CEO of Lufthansa, Wolfgang Mayrhuber. He came across as a charming and humorous gentleman. We certainly appreciated the significant time he invested in a speaking to our group of fanatic flyers.

From there we took a bus ride out to Seeheim, experienced a lapse in typical German efficiency when it took a long time to check in at the Lufthansa Conference Center, ate dinner, went to bed, and got up early enough Saturday morning to catch the transfer bus back to FRA, from where we caught a train to the Frankfurt Hilton and the final night of our quick trip.

The Airbus Factory in Toulouse France


Another top secret tour - no pictures allowed but we'll try to find some later. Now, this is one huge facility. Our visions of some kind of assembly line proved to be inaccurate. Most of the work being done while we were there was inside the planes. We saw relatively few employees and only heard the odd sound of a hammer. The various parts of the fuselage are assembled in different countries and assembled in Toulouse. The tails of the planes are painted on the ground in advance so the planes themselves sit covered in slightly differing shades of the green protective paint that is removed prior to the final painting, but the tails are fully painted with, say, Lufthansa colors and symbols, and give an idea of what the finished plane will look like.

A Day's Quick Flight Around Europe - FRA-OSL-TLS-FRA

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...
Nov. 5
Frankfurt Charter flight across Europe - Frankfurt departure for Oslo aboard a Condor 757-300.
•05:20 CET Latest time to meet at the gate
•05:50 CET FlyerTalk charter DE9254 departs Frankfurt for Oslo
•08:30 CET Charter flight arrives Oslo.
•08:45 CET Charter flight parks at the SAS hangar. Program continues.
•11:30 CET Charter flight departs Oslo for Toulouse.
•14:40 CET Charter flight arrives Toulouse
•15:30 CET Exclusive inside tour of the Airbus factory
•19:40 CET Charter departs Toulouse for Frankfurt
•22:00 CET Evening reception / party

Yes, morning came early but we were there and so was the plane, a Condor 757. Our seats were in Row 45 in the very back cabin.

Two of the DO's three major organizers, Oliver (on the left) and Tommy were at the door to greet us.

It was snowing as we landed in OSL, but the SAS hospitality inside their giant hangar was warm.

Even an airport fire truck appeared planeside to greet us.

It was nice to enter the "cozy" hangar, especially since we'd left our jackets back in the hotel room in our rush to be ready to board by 5:00 a.m.

A flight attendant welcomed us with a professional rendition of "Fly Me To The Moon" as she descended the stairs of a 737.

A group of dancers performed enthusiastically to equally enthusiastic applause.

The Norwegian Army provided an interesting demonstration of the medical evacuation service they run in co-operation with SAS, converting a 737 passenger plane into a medivac plane within 24 hours. It surprised us to learn here and elsewhere how quickly airline seats can be installed and removed.

We enjoyed the chance to get up close to the equipment.

It was interesting to read the label showing that this Ford truck unit with its built-in stairs was manufactured in Minnesota.

We also got a good look at jet engine pulled out for maintenance, and a chat with the jet-mechanic instructor showing the fine points.

Another highlight of the program was the deployment of an evacuation slide from the back door of the 737.

Organizer Tommy777 got to slide down and you can just see his upraised arms over the crowd. Update: A video is now available here.

The rest of us who wanted to got to pose at the bottom.

The musicians serenaded us as we headed out to the buses to return us to our plane.

The folksy friendliness of everybody in Oslo made our stop there a real highlight of our tour.

Lufthansa Technik Tour

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...

Bus to JFK Transfer to JFK - Bus transportation from Newark Airport to JFK Airport.
•17:30 EST Buses depart EWR
JFK Airport Scheduled Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt - Lufthansa flight 405
•21:35 EST Flight departs for FRA

Nov. 4
Frankfurt Sheraton Frankfurt Airport - Frankfurt Lufthansa training facilities visit and dinner - A special visit through the Lufthansa training facilities in Frankfurt, including moderator flight attendant training and simulators.
•19:00 CET Star Alliance Dinner
•21:30 CET Bus transfer back from Star Alliance Dinner

After a good overnight flight (Brian managed to pick up 5-6 hours sleep), an efficient check-in at the Airport Sheraton, we started an extensive tour of Lufthansa's operations.

No photos were allowed inside, unfortunately, but we may get hold of some from the Mega DO's official photographer, who was allowed to snap them. In the meantime, here we all are at an outstanding buffet banquet that evening, hosted by Lufthansa. One of the speakers was Jaan Albrecht, CEO of the Star Alliance.

Continental Shows OFF EWR

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...
Hosted by Continental Airlines at Newark

Continental Airlines, the new member of Star Alliance, showed us great hospitality as well, including a tour of operations. EWR lands "only" 44 planes an hour, less than than half of ORD, but it's still an impressively large operation and the control tower appeared more spacious than that of ORD.

Randy Petersen, Mr. Flyer Talk, on #678 ORD-EWR

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO...
•10:52 CST United flight 678 departs for EWR

About 30-35 of us boarded UA 678 for EWR. We each got to board in small groups and sit in the cockpit.

Our upgrades didn't clear - no surprise in this crowd of frequent flyers, but we were seated in E+ right in front of Mr. Flyer Talk himself, Randy Petersen. The Wall Street Journal refers to Randy as "... the most influential frequent flyer in America," while The New York Times tagged him "the world's leading expert on airline frequent flyer programs." He also proves to be as friendly and laid back a fellow as you could find anywhere.

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO - Captain Denny Flanagan and Chicago ORD

The Flyer Talk Star Alliance Mega DO

Now back home with a chance to upload photos, we're going to begin at the beginning all over again. We were in the relatively small minority of Flyer Talkers who participated in the Star Alliance Mega Do from beginning to end.

Nov. 3
Chicago United Airlines sendoff party - United Airlines will give FlyerTalkers headed to Newark/JFK and Frankfurt a special sendoff.
•07:30 CST Sendoff party begins
Meet at the T1 C Concourse Red Carpet Club

Graham Atkinson, the UA vice-president in charge of Mileage Plus and Customer Service, spoke graciously to our group. The real star of the show, however, was the legendary Captain Denny Flanagan, United's Goodwill Ambassador par excellence.

We then had an extensive tour of the United Airlines flight operations at ORD. WE visted the UA ramp tower, the pilots area, the flight attendant area, the planning room, and the store and employee lunchroom. The Service Operations Center (S.O.C.) includes other companies, which operate the lavatory service, water supply, and catering. They also are responsible for United Express requests for wheelchair service, zone controllers and four maintenance groups. With the new runway ORD can land 112 planes an hour, 84 with a low ceiling.

Was it impressive to visit this underground and overhead beehive of activity? No kidding!

As we walked through the crew preparation areas we even had the chance to talk with a crew getting ready for an international flight.

The employees were invariably friendly and welcoming, despite our invasion of their work space.

Interesting to see the occasional old fashioned wall chart in a sea of computer terminals...

And now it's time for our ORD-EWR flight...