When hell froze over

They call it IRROPS — irregular operations. For the flying public, it’s an inconvenience: you’re stuck somewhere you don’t want to be, trapped in a terminal with thousands of strangers, frustrated and irritated by the lack of reliable information (unless you have Internet access, and even then maybe not), arguing with unhelpful customer representatives over accommodation and meal vouchers… oh, it’s a grand old time. For the flight operations folks, it’s much worse. (No, seriously: you just have to sit there; they have to actually fix the goddamn problems. What would you rather be doing — complaining about the airline, or trying to run the thing? OK then.) We don’t often see the other side of IRROPS — during the Late Aviation Crisis, there was very little public discussion of what the airlines were doing behind the scenes — but Sean Mendis, who helped start and run the now-defunct Ghana International Airlines, has seen it all, and lived to tell about it.

If you read the URL for that link, you’ll no doubt notice it looks an awful lot like a TAF. This will probably tell you something about the story you’re about to read. Budget at least an hour — the only way I can describe it is to say: EPIC.

The phone rings from “PRIVATE NUMBER”. Strange. It’s Sussex Police. Some of our disgruntled passengers have decided to take a diversion from the prescribed path to arrivals and are now holding a sit-down protest to barricade a canceled Ryanair flight from disembarking its passengers. Quite what they are protesting nobody is really sure. They need me to meet them there immediately to sort things out. Just perfect. I head there and find a veritable riot brewing. Gatwick Security have placed themselves between the two groups of passengers (ours and Ryanair) but there is a lot of shouting and abuse being hurled from each side. To my misfortune, I seem to be perceived as the common enemy and they redirect their mutual loathing of airlines at me. The Gatwick Security folks form a cordon around me but I am beginning to get a little anxious. I am very glad when Sussex Police show up a few minutes later.

If you’re so inclined, you may also enjoy “How I learned to stop worrying and love ETOPS: 3 emergency landings in 1 week.” It’s good stuff, worthy of anyone with even a passing interest in commercial aviation’s time.

Homemade pornography!

(Man, I wonder what the search engines are going to do with these airplane porn posts…)

It’s the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Navy — whatever we want to call it this year — and, to mark the occasion, Victoria was inundated with naval personnel and activities over the past week. Almost a dozen ships from a half dozen countries came to town to mark the occasion. Saturday, they moved out to anchor off Royal Roads, and the Governor General came out to inspect the assembled fleet.

Then we were treated to a bit of an airshow. Highlights below the cut, or go here for the complete gallery.

Also, I learned that — despite its relatively short lens — the G11 is actually pretty good at taking airplane pictures. Who knew?

Continue reading

Quick Hits

Item 1: We are so living in the future now, says William Gibson:

Say it’s midway through the final year of the first decade of the 21st Century. Say that, last week, two things happened: scientists in China announced successful quantum teleportation over a distance of ten miles, while other scientists, in Maryland, announced the creation of an artificial, self-replicating genome. In this particular version of the 21st Century, which happens to be the one you’re living in, neither of these stories attracted a very great deal of attention.

But don’t just rely on the excerpted graph! There’s a lot more — about the nature of science fiction (in particular, and fiction in general), about the way that Gibsons novels have evolved over time, and about the idea that the future isn’t going to be The Future!! anymore but rather just the future, with stuff followed by more stuff followed by more stuff. This is, in essence, the basis of the grim meathook future, which still contains the best description I’ve ever heard of the future: “it holds what the past holds: a great deal of extreme boredom punctuated by occasional horror and the odd moment of grace.” (via)

Item 2: I’m always amazed at the willingness of people to whine about air travel. (“A flight attendant on my last flight didn’t smile at me, am I entitled to compensation?”) So with that in mind, the good folks at the AAdvantage forum presentthe stupidest, most inconsequential thread ever. By design. It’s a thing of beauty.

Item 3: I wasn’t aware there was a point behind Van Halen’s infamous demands about brown M&Ms. It turns out there was a very good point, and who ever knew David Lee Roth was so sneaky?

Item 4: Depressed? Angry? Bored? As your attorney in this matter, I strongly advise you to ensure you get your daily dose of adorable assed animals. You will thank me later.

Encoding humor

I read this article about RCMP members flying commercially to serve as air marshals shortly after it was published last month, but somehow managed to miss what the actual URL was. And then I laughed, very hard. I think you will, too.

Go fever

We left to see The Lion King last night in a cloud of despondancy. The new ash plume was heading southeast, looking to blanket the entire United Kingdom for another five or six days. Little improvement was expected. I blamed watching BBC News through the doorway of the Civil Aviation Authority’s office on Kingsway, the first time in my life I have ever been thankful for the presence of “the crawl” on the bottom of the screen. Walking home along the Strand, I took a picture of a bar called “Stranded in London,” perfectly summing up my feelings. When I tell this story in the future, I don’t expect many to be sympathetic — “oh, how wonderful for you to be stuck in a city as lovely as London” and so forth — and I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to fully explain how awful it feels to be trapped on the other side of the planet with no way to get home. I suspect that it will be one of those things you have to experience first hand to fully understand. And do I ever understand it now.

So it was with some trepidation that we turned on Sky News in our Notting Hill apartment upon returning, expecting to hear more bad news — flights canceled, airspace restrictions continue, blah blah blah. I mentally prepared myself to start making preparations to decamp for Paris or Frankfurt or Munich or Madrid. Imagine my complete surprise at the word: flights from London airports expected to resume tonight, normal operations planned from Heathrow and Gatwick by British Airways for tomorrow, check airlines for further details. The netbook was spinning up before I finished reading the crawl on the TV. And there it was, in glorious green on aircanada.com: “AC855 LHR to YVR. Scheduled. On time.”

Fast forward nine hours. We’re here in the London Lounge, killing the two hours before the gate opens and boarding begins. ACA855 is still showing ready to operate, scheduled to depart on time at 1055L this morning. FlightAware does not have routing information right now, which is a bit strange, but hardly unusual for non-North American departures. There is a mood of giddy optimism in the lounge this morning, and Heathrow was not the chaos I expected — likely the results of careful access controls on the terminal buildings, as well as discretion on the part of travelers. The departure information boards show a lot of canceled flights, but a lot of operating ones, too; Air Canada seems intent on operating this flight today, and I dearly hope they do.

Wait, I lied: while I was typing the above paragraph, FlightAware suddenly had routing information loaded into it.

BUZAD T420 WELIN UT420 TNT UN57 POL UN601 MARGO UN590 NINEX UP59 BALIX 6400N 02000W 6700N 03000W 6900N 04000W 7000N 05000W ADSAM 6900N 08000W 6730N 09000W 6530N 10000W YSM J528 YWL T201 ELIDI WHSLR2

I don’t have mapping handy right now so I can’t tell for sure, but that looks an awfully lot further north than these flights usually go. Comparison with previous flights shows a maximum latitude of 6800N; we’re apparently going to 70N. Ok, not an awful lot further — but further north just the same. (I’ll map this out tomorrow night when I get home.)

Allah be praised: it looks like we’re really going home. I don’t expect sympathy, or even understanding — just relief. I might kiss the ground in international arrivals in Vancouver.

Day 6

Still here. Last night, we thought we had a glimmer of good news, in that a bunch of flights were supposed to operate from London airports later today. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, and Iceland continues to spew more ash in our direction. Sky News is reporting that BAW’s 18:10 arrival from Beijing left China about an hour ago (it’s currently 09:44L), so maybe they know something we don’t. Or they’re planning to divert. I dunno.

We are considering our options for re-routing. Madrid and Barcelona don’t offer good Star Alliance services (most route through Frankfurt, which doesn’t really help); I am wondering about whether Germany offers a better chance than Spain right now. It’s probably easier to get to, at any rate.

I’m likely to write a series of posts over the next few days wherein I say some relatively uncomplimentary things about the United Kingdom. Please, UK-fans — don’t take it personally. I just want to go home.

Greetings from Vilecano land!

Week 5 of my epic circle-half-the-globe-twice-in-a-month adventure started out swimmingly. We left Swansea on Wednesday night, spent the night near Heathrow, planning to wake up early and catch our flight to Amsterdam the next morning. Rode the Hotel Hoppa to T5, was suitably impressed at what you can get for a whole lot of pounds, dropped off our excess baggage at the left luggage office, went upstairs, and marveled at the fact that, hey, there weren’t many people there at 09:20! What a shock.

Guess why. Go on.

We all know what happened, of course: volcano blows top, traps hundreds of thousands of travelers in and around Europe. Fine, no problem. Lovely Wife and I started racing through the options: we found space on Eurostar to Amsterdam (via Brussels), then discovered we couldn’t book because Eurostar’s Web site kept crashing on us. (Yay for load testing! Good work, developers!) British Airways’ Web site was equally useless — their on-hold message continually advises one to try their flight cancellation facility, except that no such facility seems to exist on their Web site. Calling Expedia (with whom we had booked our Amsterdam chunks) resulted in a “sorry, we can’t route your call” message — which seems absurd and unreasonable in 2010. It was only K.’s calming presence, and the random appearance of MP5A2-armed police officers, that prevented me from having a full-on psychopathic fit in the middle of the check-in concourse. (Photos to come.)

Multiple hours on hold depleted our phone balance, but we finally got the outbound segment on BA canceled. We also finally got through to someone at Eurostar, and confirmed space, and got through 95% of the booking process — then the phone ran out of money, and I had to race downstairs to find a top-up point. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Fully flexible tickets to and from Amsterdam, leaving Friday morning. Did we really want to go now?

Answer: no. So instead we booked ourselves into the Jumeirah Lowndes, a place run by a company owned by the government of Dubai that seems to cater to the Middle Eastern traveler. (It is around the corner from the Pakistani High Commission, and down the street from the Syrian Embassy.) We got settled and decided to make the best of it — fine, we’ll have a bit of a break in London instead of Amsterdam; this won’t be so bad, will it? I tried to refund our Eurostar tickets — that didn’t work. We went to St. Pancras to do it in person — the ticket agents all went home at 16:00. I tried phoning them — no, they close at 17:00. Does nothing in this goddamn country work??

(This is also the point where I should mention that SNCF, the French rail operator, has been experiencing strikes all weekend. Yes! What a great place Europe is!)

It hasn’t been all bad. We saw the Egyptian stuff at the British Museum, got turned away from the British Library because we didn’t have visitor passes, saw Westminster Abbey (which was deeply cool), and I managed to finish up seeing the parts of the Imperial War Museum I hadn’t seen the last time I was here. We went to the theatre last night. (“Wicked,” and it’s quite good.) Mostly we’ve enjoyed the paradoxically wonderful weather — it’s been lovely the entire time we’ve been in the UK, which is exactly the opposite of what I want it to do now. We have been trying to enjoy ourselves, with the knowledge that our travel plans hadn’t really been that screwed up.

Then this morning came. Scheduled to be on ACA849, EGLL-CYYZ, connecting to ACA191, CYYZ-CYYJ this afternoon, departing 15:00. NATS closes airspace, Air Canada cancels flights. Now things have gotten out of hand: K. and I are both supposed to be working on Tuesday; the earliest we can get out of here is on Wednesday, assuming the airspace opens up again — which it doesn’t look like it will. We are leaving our lovely little (ok, it’s not so little) hideaway in Chelsea, trading it in for a “serviced apartment” in Notting Hill that is 1/3 of the price. And now we’re crossing our fingers for a change in the weather, a change in the volcano, or more holiday time than I thought I was going to get this year. I don’t know.

It’s the not knowing that’s the hard part. If someone were to say “ok, we’re going to shut down until XXX,” I think we could get on with things, potentially make other plans (driving to Turkey, perhaps), and deal with the delay. (More likely, we’d go back to Wales and stay with family.) Or book passage on the Queen Mary 2 — at this rate, we’ll get to New York faster than waiting here. But that’s not what’s happening. At the moment, I have to keep my mobile stuck to my side, waiting to hear if something changes. I don’t like this feeling at all.

I still love travel. I still love Airworld. (Though I have to say I’m really tempted just to stay on the ground for a bit after this is all over, and figure out how to mileage-run my way back to status for next year.) In the past four or five years, the world has seemed like an exceptionally small place; nothing was more than a plane ride away, and the places you could go were only as limited as your imagination, or at least the departures from your home airport and your tolerance for connections. Today, however, the world feels extremely large — the concept of being “on the other side of the planet” is no longer a rhetorical statement, because I am on the other side of the planet, a world away from being home with my cat and my dog and yes, my job. K. and I take solace in the knowledge that at least we’re here together, but I won’t pretend it’s not stressful, that this is the opposite of a holiday.

(One must, however, pause to appreciate the irony of — with the amount of time we spend in Hawaii, and living where we do within shouting distance of most of the great volcanoes of the Cascade range — traveling to Europe only to have a volcano disrupt our lives.)

If you want to send positive thoughts in our direction, that’d be appreciated. If you want to call or SMS, +44 7794 619582 is our number here. Friendly voices would help a lot.

Links for your consideration:

  • Fallows: FAQ on the volcanic ash mess. Like Fallows, I note two things: (1) this is probably going to be viewed as a huge overreaction when this is all over, and (2) I’m shocked the media is doing as good a job reporting on this story as they are. I haven’t had to cringe once yet, and that’s virtually unheard of when it comes to aviation stories.

  • Posts I intend to write when I get to a computer with a real keyboard (and have time): the utter uselessness of European IT, nanny-stateism gone mad, what I hate about Britain, a comparison of Chelsea and Notting Hill as neighborhoods (executive summary: never in my life have I stood on a street corner and seen $2,000,000 worth of car in front of me — this is what happened when a Ferrari 599, a Bentley Continental, a Rolls Royce, and an Aston Martin DBS were in view), and an elegy for the airport where nobody is traveling.

I’ll update more later when I can.

Everywhere, A Sign

I love signs, and I love signage. Lovely Wife will tell you that, if I can be said to have a photographic “theme” in my travels, it is of signs. And I particularly love wayfinding signs — I do not claim to be an expert on them, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do love me a well-designed, well-executed wayfinding system.

This is a relatively new interest for me. Predictably, it started in hospitals, where I noticed that no one could agree on best practices for indicating where people should go or how to get there. A mishmash of dots, lines, arrows, wall-mounts, hand-written, laser-printed signs (with maps added in for good use) has come to be the accepted standard in a lot of places. Most people find this frustrating, yet when faced with a proper, intelligently conceived wayfinding system, they immediately relax — even though they don’t know why.

It never occurred to me that there would be a whole field of study dedicated to the subject, but of course there is; I first encountered it in Jain Malkin’s Hospital Interior Architecture, a 4.2 pound hardcover monster of a book that can be used to fend off aggressive committee members in meetings who don’t believe in its contents. The content is — well, anyone who works in a hospital should probably at least look through a copy, if only so you can see some of the achingly beautiful designs that are out there (and gnash your teeth in misery at the world around you). Malkin has written a whole host of papers on the subject of wayfinding; I won’t link to them, but I will point you to a paper from the Center for Health Design (warning: a PDF lives at the end of that link), a couple of case studies from Corbin Design, some of which I like better than others, and the most bizarre wayfinding I’ve ever seen in a hospital. This last is the signage for the Katta Public General Hospital, the exterior design of which is really weird in and of itself. This is Japan, after all; what did you expect?

(As an aside, likely the closest example of good hospital wayfinding to local readers is probably Vancouver General Hospital, particularly the Pattison pavilion. Unless they’ve changed something dramatically in the last 3+ years since I spent any time there, I’ve never been lost in the new parts of the hospital. The old parts… well, we’ll leave that for another day. The Vancouver Island hospitals are universally awful in their wayfinding systems, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

In the Center for Health Design paper I linked above, Barbara Huelat asks why it is that hospital signage systems suck so badly, while airport ones as a general rule do not. Says Huelat,

Successful airport wayfinding relies on the process called progressive disclosure, which provides only enough information necessary to get the visitor to the next decision-making point. For example, as travelers approach the airport on the highway, airport wayfinding provides them only with information regarding the next exit. Then, once the travelers have exited, the signs provide information concerning parking locations and drop-off areas. Airports do not provide parking information on the highway signs.

Hospitals rarely employ this model, and provide too much information at inappropriate locations. Signs should direct hospital visitors with the same ease as travelers to and through airports. While signs frequently identify hospitals from highways, airport-like signs should continue to direct people after exiting the highway. The progressive disclosure method should direct people to correct buildings, hospital parking and drop-off areas. Once in the buildings, the method should direct wayfinders to the next decision-making intersection. Each sign should offer no more than three possible directional options.

You probably won’t have to spend more than about 30 seconds of brain power thinking about how many wayfinding systems you routinely run into that break most, if not all, of those simple guidelines.

What about those airport signs? Lots of people have the same affectation as I do, and, oh, there’s loads of stuff out there about the design and development of various airport wayfinding systems. This guy argues strongly in favor of following the existing conventions, which the hospital world might be wise to consider adopting. Much work went into the rebranding of Dusseldorf airport, and this is the link that I really wanted to post, a showcase of 20 or so wayfinding systems in airports around the world. Normal people would have just posted the link and left it at that, but for some reason I instead felt compelled to write an 800+ word entry on the subject. Freak!

(Also: I would be remiss if I did not mention the most alienating airport in the world.)