The Airport – where your adventure begins.

9 07 2009


These days we tend to groan at the thought of a trip to the airport. With long and winding check-in lines, less than jovial workers, the necessary strip down for security and too-often delayed flights, we’re more than a little flustered by the time we settle into our snug seats. The airport has over time become little more than a necessary evil to get us from point A to point B. While I definitely understand why, I find it terribly unfortunate.

I remember the sense of excitement I felt every time we’d make our way to the airport. There was something exhilarating about pulling up at the airport while majestic carriers were taking off and landing overhead. Inside the terminal there was always such a buzz of energy, people from all over the world joined together for the common purpose of travel. Announcements rang in multiple languages while people scurried about to their airline’s check-in desk. It was always fun to people watch, to see the carefree looks of those on vacation or the seriousness of those on business. Check-in was where you got the first taste of the carrier you’d chosen and your boarding pass was handed over with your final destination officially in print. It was the start of your adventure.

Airports are often architectural sights to behold. From the modern grass-topped sprawl of glass at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the contemporary metallic styling of Seoul’s Incheon airport, architects are constantly pushing the boundaries. Airports often give us our first taste of a country’s culture, through art on display or the amenities offered. Voted the World’s Best Airport this year, Seoul’s Incheon airport operates a Traditional Korean Cultural Experience zone. Travellers can enjoy traditional performances including masque dances and twelve-stringed Korean harp recitals on stage. Some of the finest shopping and dining can be experienced while you wait to take off. Many airports also offer panoramic lounges that offer terrific views of planes taking off and landing. Most airports now have well designed websites that can help with your travel planning and research.

So next time you travel, hard as it may be, take some time to appreciate the airport. A lot of careful thought and planning went into its creation. You might even be surprised to find that you enjoy it!

Photo and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009

Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009




You’re not a real traveller until you can talk in airport codes. It’s all fine and well to say you’re connecting in Chicago, but until you’ve texted your friends and said you’re grabbing a hot dog in ORD, you haven’t lived.


Every airport in the world has a three letter code. The system was based on one introduced by the U.S. National Weather Service who created two-letter codes to organise the data they gathered from their weather stations around the country. Airlines copied it, but as commercial aviation expanded in the 1930s and airports began to appear in places that didn’t have weather stations, it became clear that two-letter codes were insufficient…and so they expanded to the three-letter system that is today officially known as the “International Air Transport Association Location Identifier.”


Many codes are easily identifiable with their cities, like AMS for Amsterdam, CAI for Cairo or SIN for Singapore, or with their proper airport name like CDG for Charles de Gaulle, JFK for Kennedy or LHR for London Heathrow. But some aren’t so obvious, like YYZ for Toronto or EWR for Newark.


As the U.S. created the system, they had first crack at the codes. The U.S. Navy quickly claimed all the N codes for their bases, which is why somewhere like Newark is EWR while Canada claimed the Y codes, hence YVR for Vancouver etc. Although don’t be fooled, not every Y is in Canada and not all Canadian airports begin with Y.


That would be far too simple!


Unless you work for an airline or are in the travel industry, you will likely only learn airport codes through your own travel experiences. As your airport code vocabulary expands, you can start to read people’s luggage tags as you await your bag at the carrousel. “Oh look,” you can mindlessly think to yourself as that large tartan case with the pink ribbon tied to the handle trundles past for the fourth time “they’ve come from Istanbul and are continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska.”


Well, it beats throwing paperclips at the security guards!


If you have a very small brain like me, you can even amuse yourself by giggling at humourous codes or trying to think up interesting routings just to get a combination of codes onto a plane ticket. For example, did you know that if you flew from San Vito, Costa Rica to Fresno Yosemite your itinerary would read TOO FAT? Or that if your baggage claim tag reads SAY BIE it’s probably not that you’ll never seen it again but rather because you’re flying from Siena, Italy to Beatrice, Nebraska.


Apart from the fun you can have, there is a practical reason for familiarising yourself with airport codes and that’s that you can double-check that your bag has been properly tagged by the airline representative when you check-in for your flight. If it at least has the correct destination on it, there’s already a better chance you’ll see it again.


But just remember, the next time that airline rep hands you a tag that says BIG BUM on it, don’t get angry: it could just be that you’re on a domestic U.S. flight from Intermediate Airfield, Alaska to Butler, Missouri!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Airline loses 5,017,212 people in one month!

23 06 2009


Every time you check in a bag before a flight you wonder whether you’ll see it again. Although a relatively small amount of baggage actually does get lost given the number of travellers worldwide, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to arrive at a staid conference wearing only a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, to lie on a tropical beach in a heavy wool sweater and fur-lined boots, or to attend a funeral in your finest Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” t-shirt.


The Air Transport Users Council reported that in 2007, airlines mishandled 42 million pieces of luggage and irretrievably lost 1 million.  Knock on wood, I have only had my bag lost once, and it was returned late the following day. Although I know people who haven’t been quite so fortunate, airlines are forever striving to eliminate these losses completely. But one airline recently lost more than just a few dozen suitcases.


The Italian airline Alitalia has apologised after ‘misplacing’ the island of Siciliy on the maps in their in-flight magazine. Although other islands like Sardinia were there, Sicily was missing…and presumably along with it, its population of over five million people. Alitalia assured concerned travellers – and even more concerned Sicilians – that the island was indeed still there and that it was just an oversight that would be rectified in the next edition.


Rumours that the airline diverted flights from Cairo to Rome to overfly the island and visually verify its existence have proven unfounded.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

No Spoons For You!

15 06 2009

Elephant close-up mw

“What do you mean I’m over my weight limit? I haven’t even given you my luggage yet!”

I have fortunately never had a problem with my weight, although the people on whom I have sat usually have.  Therefore, I wasn’t especially worried when told to stand on the scales at check-in with my luggage in my hand while my combined weight was recorded by a man with a clipboard…in full view of everyone in the terminal. Judging by the reaction of some of my fellow passengers in the queue, it would be safe to assume that given a choice between their aircraft plunging into the side of a mountain because of excess weight or having their personal weight revealed publicly, many would opt for the mountainside.


That flight was on a small turboprop and the total weight of the aircraft was extremely important because our destination was a rutted grass strip in the middle of the jungle. It was basically just a new twist on the old “20 kilograms of luggage” limit that we’re all accustomed to, but it is an indication of how important weight is for airlines. Apart from safety issues, every single kilo that can be shaved from a flight saves litres of fuel…and that saves a considerable sum of money.


Given the economy, airlines are striving to reduce their costs, and weight is one of the key focuses. One airline recently – and rather quietly – removed the lifejackets from their flights because they are technically only required on flights that travel over water for a certain period of time. Still, it didn’t exactly seem like a positive announcement and was therefore divulged rather silently.


Other airlines are being more creative in their reductions. Northwest Airlines has eliminated spoons from flights if the in-flight meal does not require one, while JAL shaved a fraction of a centimetre off all of its cutlery after calculating the savings from 400 people times 3 meals on each flight over the course of a year.


Some have discontinued the in-flight magazine, while others have loaded a digital version of the the duty-free catalogue into the seatback entertainment systems rather than carry a glossy magazine. The days of blankets and pillows for every passenger on every flight disappeared some years ago and little socks and travel toothbrushes are but a thing of the past unless you’re in the comfy seats or travelling on one of the few carriers which still believe in those nice little extras. Many airlines even carry less bottled and tanked water than before.


New aircraft are being designed with fuel consumption in mind far more than ever before. This is partly motivated by the cost to the airlines, and partly by concerns for the environment. The weight of everything is carefully scrutinised before new aircraft even go into production and all sorts of composite materials are used instead of  more common metals and materials.


While all of this is good news if it helps protect the environment or reduce the cost of your ticket, it’s rather inconvenient for anyone who prefers to eat their chicken wellington and garden fresh vegetables with a spoon.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009 

The View From The Cockpit

9 06 2009


“Excuse me…pilot? Can you keep your radio communications down…I’m trying to sleep.”    


In the good old days prior to 9/11, it was possible to visit the cockpit during a flight. I don’t think they admitted just anyone and probably denied access to anyone wearing a bandolier of large-calibre bullets even then, but children were regularly taken to the cockpit for a look around. Today, I’m not sure that even Britney Spears dressed as a schoolgirl would get past the 3-inch thick armour-plated door before a slot opened and she was hosed-down with high-pressure tear gas and a barrage of taser fire.


It’s a shame really, because flying is a lot more exciting than sitting in a pressurised bubble with a plastic tray of luke-warm food and the germs of 400 other people. It’s just that you rarely get a hint of flying at all…which for some people is probably a very good thing!


Very small commuter aircraft often have no division between the passengers and the pilot. I remember one such flight in northern Ontario when the pilot simply turned around in his seat and asked the dozen passengers to let him know if it was too hot or too cold. Somehow, attempting to tap the average 747 pilot on the shoulder would likely end up with you pinned to the floor by several burly plain-clothed Skymarshalls and shot out of a torpedo tube to Guantanamo…or wherever they send people now.


I love watching what the pilot does. Sometimes his or her actions can actually be a little disconcerting, like when he starts fighting with instruments or controls or leans forward and frantically scans the sky all around for something unseen that’s clearly of considerable concern.


Some airlines used to have cameras which provided passengers with live views of take-off or landing. That stopped when it was rumoured that passengers aboard a doomed DC-10 may well have watched themselves cartwheel into the runway. That was many years ago and I believe that some airlines now offer that again on one of the channels of the backseat personal entertainment system.


United Airlines have an audio channel that provides you with all the communications between your aircraft and air traffic control. I love spending the entire flight listening to my aircraft being handed off from Albuquerque control to Salt Lake centre and so on, or hearing the pilot request permission to change course to avoid some particularly rough weather. ATC re-direct us to 33,000 feet on a new heading and the next thing I know, my aircraft is banking and climbing. Such eavesdropping adds a new dimension to a flight and makes a 5-hour cross-continental haul far more interesting than watching a re-run of a 7-year old sitcom on my backseat screen.


Even if there’s no live video or audio, most airlines do at least now offer the ‘Map’: the video channel that plots your progress on a moving map and provides you with live information on your altitude, speed, outside temperature and your ever-changing time of arrival.


Of course, none of these are quite as interesting as sitting in the cockpit itself, but all of them beat being arrested by Homeland Security and banned for life for simply knocking on the pilot’s door!


Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

The View From The Top

7 04 2009


It’s a long flight to Australia and although the journey is less of an ordeal than at any time since the retirement of down-lined coracles, it can still be a test of endurance.


Airline seats are technical and ergonomic masterpieces while menus are created by master chefs designed to prevent passengers gnawing off straggling limbs. Cabin crew are attentive and merrily distribute peanut-free snacks, but it is the entertainment systems that have seen the biggest improvement.


Whereas once there was one mediocre family-oriented film shown on a small screen at the front of the cabin – with sound channelled through an uncomfortable hissing headset that left ears numb and occasionally discoloured – most airlines now offer personal entertainment systems…even when travelling with the smelly hordes down the back.


These systems not only provide uncut new releases but also TV shows, music channels and even video games…all the comforts of home if you’re accustomed to sitting in Grandpa’s recliner for 15 straight hours.


I had flown through the night, crossed the international dateline and was gazing wistfully at the sparkling sun-soaked Pacific Ocean seven miles below. I had eaten, slept, movied, dozed, gamed, slept, eaten and dozed and now my head was propped against the cold Perspex as I rotated my feet in an effort to stave off DVT – or Economy Class Syndrome: the modern travel equivalent of scurvy – when I spotted something in the water.


At first I thought nothing of it. Although it looked like a line stretched across the ocean, I guessed it was actually just something on the scratched glass. I moved my head but it remained in place. Perhaps it was the sun glinting off the wing and reflecting on my window, or something from inside the cabin bouncing off the overhead bin and across my line of vision. Curiosity piqued, I began to swivel my head like a bobblehead. But still it remained.


Satisfied that it was indeed actually on the water, I began to wonder what it was. This was a seriously long line indeed. Could it be the wake of a ship hidden beneath our wing? Perhaps a massively-long illegal fishing net scooping up half the world’s species? An oil slick? The meeting point of cold and hot waters? All were possible, but this line was arrow-straight – like the Tropic of Capricorn, only drawn on the ocean and not on a map. It was evidently unaffected by wind or tides or any change of course.


By now I was on the edge of my seat, my fingers clutching the window frame, my nose pressed flat against the glass which fogged-up with each excited breath. I strained to stare backwards and the line extended ad infinitum. Forwards it disappeared under the wing. Was I viewing some strange phenomenon? Was it the nautical manifestation of global warming? A top secret array laid by a submarine? A rift in the earth’s seam? A landing strip for UFOs equipped with seaplane floats? A line of migrating sea-lemmings? I was rapt, and it beat anything on my personal entertainment system.


My brain began to hurt with such intense concentration. My heart beat faster in the knowledge that I was viewing something extraordinary.


“Look,” I heard a child’s voice behind me exclaim. “You can see the shadow of our contrail stretching right across the sea!”



Photograph and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Creatures of the Air – No.1: The Armrest Hog

7 07 2008


“I think you dropped something” (Samburu, Kenya)


Identifiable as that most reprehensible of airborne creatures, the Armrest Hog monopolises the padded divide between two airline seats.


Etiquette dictates that the armrest is common territory to be shared equally between two travellers. This is done without spoken word or acknowledgement. The general approach is for one person to rest their elbow on the aft of the armrest whilst the other places their arm on the fore, furthest away. This enables both parties to rest their appendages without impeding the other.


If either traveller has a physical necessity to occupy more than their allotted seat, there will be an imperceptible negotiation that may result in one – or both – individuals shifting towards the armrest on the opposite side thereby relinquishing the common divide altogether. If experienced, the armrest can be shared equally down the centre – although this engenders the considerable risk of physical contact. Should this happen, it is imperative that the offending arms be promptly yet subtly slid apart – so as to avoid bringing attention to the intimacy.


If contact is made, under no circumstances should eye contact ever occur.


The Armrest Hog, however, seizes the entire armrest either from the onset, or worse yet, as soon as their neighbour’s attention is diverted elsewhere. Once dug-in, not only does their arm occupy the entire median but in many cases their elbow also abuts into their neighbour’s personal domain. These invasive beasts have been known to employ devious tactics in their conquest, such as suggesting that their neighbour has dropped something on the floor. Once relinquished, the armrest is immediately and irrevocably seized.


Historically, if encountered in their natural domain, the Armrest Hog could be repelled by subtly poking with the sharp blade of a Swiss Army knife, pinching with nail-clippers or administering an electric shock with two large batteries and a length of copper wire. However, these effective measures have recently been curtailed due to increased airport security.


Today, the removal of an Armrest Hog takes greater imagination. If distraction does not work, it is now considered de rigeur to introduce laxatives to the offender’s beverage when they are not looking. Once they have removed themselves to the facilities, the entitled portion of the armrest may once again be occupied by the co-tenant

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 96

28 05 2008

Never assume that having your name called by the gate staff just prior to boarding is a good thing.


I was in the lounge about to board a very long flight and watching with venomous hatred as fellow passengers were called forth and upgraded from economy to business…or beyond. Each turned and waved to the little people left behind, then headed down the walkway towards the aircraft with a sickening spring in their step and a jaunty smirk on their face.


Suddenly, my name was echoing through the hall as if sung by angels playing golden harps.


Hurriedly, I gathered my things and headed to the desk like an actor accepting an Oscar. As I stepped around over-sized carry-on bags and dipsy-do’ed through a minefield of teething babies, I rehearsed my acceptance speech: “I would like to thank all the people who made this possible…”


As bidden, I surrendered my boarding pass to a quizzical gate agent who fed it into the machine. I was already mentally in my newly-acquired reclining throne, glass of champagne in my hand, attendants fanning me gently while peeling grapes.


“Not quite sure why that change was made”, she said, curiously, surveying my new boarding pass.


I thanked her profusely and bounded down the gangway, assuming that my new seat – 99G – must be upstairs in the bubble and affording utter luxury in more intimate surroundings. It was only when I was directed towards the rear that my heart began to sink. After a demoralising trek past row upon row of seats that seemed to get smaller and smaller like Alice’s doors, I reached the very back where the interior narrows to a constricting stub – not to be confused with the opulent pointy end found at the front.


And my seat was by the toilet.


Fighting back the tears before I sat down, I tucked my book and water bottle into the pocket before me, and strapped myself in for the 13 hour odyssey ahead. After take-off, I plugged in the headset and settled down to watch the screen at the front of the cabin, only to realise that I was three inches too short to see it without sitting on a telephone directory. Something I had foolishly not brought along. With resignation, I took out my book and flicked on the reading light…only to find it unresponsive. I desperately beckoned a flight attendant and explained my dilemma.


“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll check the fuse” and headed for the galley.  A few moments later she returned with a perky smile on her face.


“Well, it’s not the fuse”, she bubbled, with a radiant smile. “So it must be the bulb. Unfortunately, we don’t carry extra bulbs but we’ll have it repaired at our next stop.”


Before I could point out that was 7500 miles away, she was gone. With movies and reading out of the question, I opted to recline my seat…the one inch it would move before colliding with the toilet wall. Without any empty seats available, I took two anti-nausea pills and sought the refuge of the defeated: sleep. Alas, to complete a perfect trifecta, each time I was on the brink of the velvet embrace of Hypnos, my seat was emphatically thumped by someone visiting the toilets, my brain rattled by the incessant bang of the cubicle door and my nostrils mauled by noxious scents.


Eventually, emotionally battered, spiritually spent and utterly exhausted, I drifted into a comfortless and fitful sleep, haunted by visions of the luxury of a normal economy class seat like the one I had briefly possessed but had willed away in hope of something better.


Who ever said “A bird in the hand…” had likely been sitting in the malfunctioning last-row of a trans-Pacific flight in the pitch-dark, devoid of entertainment and constantly jostled and harangued by the flatulent and be-bladdered masses.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008