Alaska’s new flagship lounge is huge, comfortable, and offers great views of the runways at SEA
Alaska Airlines has upped their game by opening a huge new flagship lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on July 12. We got to tour the new lounge during a media preview the day before it officially opened.
Plenty of room to sip that coffee
The new lounge is part of a $658.3 million update that the airport is currently building at the North Satellite facility; with the completion of this phase, the work is approximately 1/3 complete, according to Sea-Tac Airport Managing Director Lance Lyttle. Construction got underway back in February, 2017.
The project adds eight gates, 255,000 square feet of space, and several new restaurants and shops to the airport.
The lounge is huge – 15,800 square feet. Window walls provide views to the west and north, encompassing the runways, the Olympic Mountains beyond, and the tops of the downtown Seattle skyscrapers, all weather permitting, of course – Seattle is famous for its persistent cloud cover.
The new Alaska lounge is on the upper floor of the atrium-style entry to the new gate area
So, what’s it like? It’s shiny new, and, while not in the same league as, say, Singapore’s epic Changi airport, it’s perfectly Pacific Northwest in scale and vibe.
Even stuffed full of dignitaries and media folks, there’s still plenty of room
Once Alaska opens its newest lounge at San Francisco International Airport, it will have a total of eight lounges systemwide, and will have invested $50 million on a combination of new construction and renovations in Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, and New York JFK.
This has got to be the best latte art ever
There’s a large fireplace-centric seating area for relaxing, and plenty of smaller spaces for work or for trying to get a bit of quiet time between flights. The bar offers something close to a dozen microbrews, the coffee bar slings lattes all day long, along with scones and tea for those with a more British bent.
A pancake machine? You betcha
There are plenty of power outlets, WiFi, and flat areas for working or just for setting down your snacks and drinks.
The aforementioned bar area
Even on a typically grey Seattle morning, there was plenty of natural light in the space.
Several years ago, Delta raised the bar at Sea-Tac with a large, two-story glass-fronted lounge; this totally evens the score, offering far better views.
Best part, IMHO, are the airfield views
With the huge increases in passengers volumes at Sea-Tac Airport — it’s grown from handling 30 million passengers in 2010 to 50 million in 2018 — the additional, comfortable space has arrived none too soon.
A JetSuiteX ERJ135 getting a water cannon salute at Boeing Field – Mount Rainier provided a dramatic backdrop
Simple, fast, efficient, comfortable, and reasonably-priced air travel. What’s not to like?
JetSuiteX kicked off scheduled service between Seattle and Oakland, Calif., on July 1, with three flights per day between the two cities.
This means that the metro Seattle area now has three airports offering scheduled passenger service: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA); Paine Field (PAE) in Everett; and Boeing Field (officially King County International Airport, BFI).
The airline euphemistically referred to the route as the “nerd bird” in a press release, no doubt calling out their hoped-for clientele: business travelers between the two tech hubs.
No fuss here – you just walk out of the terminal building and onto your plane (for the curious, that’s a GOL B-737 MAX 8 on a test flight in the background)
We’ll soon have a separate story offering background on the airline and more on their plans for routes, so I’m going to focus primarily on the flying experience here. And what an experience it was.
Arguably, one of the best parts of flying with JetSuiteX isn’t the flight itself so much as the removal of pre- and post-flight hassles. Lines? Not really. There are only a maximum of 30 people on your flight, and you’re either flying out of a relatively quiet secondary airport or an executive-style FBO (fixed base operator) at a major airport.
Boarding is a simple and quick process
TSA? Nope. They’re below required passenger minimums for that, operating under Part 135 charter operator certificate, on aircraft with 30 or fewer seats, exempts them from many TSA requirements. I asked the airline about their safety protocols; below is their reply, verbatim:
At JetSuiteX, the safety and security of our customers and crewmembers is always our number one concern. Any customer over the age of 18 will be required to show valid government issued photo ID or two alternate forms of identification with at least one issued by government authority. JetSuiteX has also implemented several additional controls that far exceed the TSA requirements and norms of the industry, to include ETD screening and the same TSA background check system used by the major airlines. JetSuiteX is proud to be the leader within semi-private travel in using these measures. Regulators at the TSA, FAA, and DOT have approved all JetSuiteX security measures, and we have deep cooperative relationships with local law enforcement. We also have various other, unseen mitigations constantly at-work behind the scenes.
So, simply because passengers don’t have to deal with the formal TSA processes does not mean there isn’t any security; it’s just that the security is done in a different way because of the small number of passengers on a given flight.
In that vein, the airline suggests checking in a mere 20 minutes before your scheduled departure time, which harkens back to the glory days of air travel. I was even able to park all day for free right in front of the terminal (word is that Boeing Field will start charging for parking at some point, so that perk likely won’t last long).
In Seattle, Boeing Field is just five miles south of downtown, adding to the convenience factor for business travelers working in the city.
Alex Wilcox, JetSuiteX co-founder and CEO (he was also one of the founders of JetBlue), said that these things alone can shave three or four hours from a standard round trip flight.
“As an industry, we’ve managed to screw up short haul travel,” Wilcox said, explaining that people don’t mind getting to the airport a two or three hours early for a 10+ hour flight, but not for a 90-minute flight. So, he said, those travelers either look for other options, such as driving, or just skip the trip altogether.
JetSuiteX uses a fleet of Embraer ERJ135s. Candidly, the only time I’d flown on one before was on a feeder airline in the upper Midwest. It had about 37 seats and felt like being in a sardine can, so I was curious as to how comfortable the trip would actually be.
Turns out, my concerns were unfounded. Business-class seats, and only 30 of them, made for plenty of personal space in the relatively small cabin. I could even stand up straight in the lavatory (the planes have one lavatory, all the way aft), something that’s not even possible on some larger jetliners.
2-1 seating – everyone gets a window or an aisle
For the flight from BFI-OAK, we left within 10 minutes of scheduled departure, with the tardiness mostly due to the inaugural celebration.
That delay was inconsequential, and was only worth mentioning because everything else went off like a Swiss watch.
At the BFI terminal, a newly-redecorated lounge welcomed us with big windows overlooking the ramp, and free coffee and snacks were available. I didn’t spend any time in there, though, because what AvGeek would pass up an opportunity for some ramp time to sit in a lounge, even a comfy one?
The flight took about 90 minutes to cover the 675 miles between Seattle and Oakland. Did I mention that the fare was only $99 each way? Sure, you can find cheaper sale fares with the major carriers, but then we’re back to the original conundrum of having to get to the airport at least 90 minutes early for your flight, etc., which effectively doubles the transit time for a round-trip flight.
And those cheap mainline fares get you the cheap mainline seats; JetSuiteX’s service is comparable to any domestic premium-economy product I’ve experienced, and is every bit as good as some domestic first class offerings, especially when comparing apples-to-apples on short-haul routes. BFI-OAK is currently JetSuiteX’s longest route. You can even earn JetBlue air miles on these flights.
There are no overhead bins in the small cabin, but the business-class sized seats have tons of room underneath for computer bags and the like. Everything else gets checked – you get a baggage allowance of two bags with a combined total of up to 50 lb. For this quick out-and-back trip I brought only the camera backpack I normally use for international travel, and had no problems fitting it under the seat – there’s more room than most domestic economy seats.
Is there onboard WiFi? Sort of, and it’s scheduled to improve. The onboard network is currently named something along the lines of GoGoTextOnly, and that network name pretty much explains the deal.
The WiFi is fast enough for texting, mostly. Even texting was slow, and forget about texting anyone a photo while in flight — the in-flight photo I texted to a friend as a test didn’t get sent until after we landed and my phone connected to a cellular network.
That said, things are slated to improve later this year. According to a JetSuiteX spokesperson, the company is working with SmartSky Networks to implement next-gen, ground-speed onboard WiFi. Originally planned to be launched in late summer, it’s been delayed until Q4 2019.
There was plenty of space onboard
Once in California at Signature’s Oakland terminal, the vibe was more upscale bus station than airport; it was loud, there weren’t enough seats, and lots of people seemed determined to make messes faster than the very busy staff could get things cleaned up.
Free coffee, soft drinks, and light snacks were available, but, unlike BFI’s surprisingly good cafeteria in the main building, there are no easily-accessible food options at either the FBO or on that side of the Oakland airport. Granted, this isn’t meant to be a hang-out place, it’s meant for quick transfers, but soda and pretzels only go so far.
Uber Eats solved nicely solved the problem — I had Indian food delivered within 30 minutes during my two-hour layover.
On the outbound leg I was in the middle of the plane in seat 5C, a window. For the return, I was in 10B, an aisle seat in the very last row. The aft-mounted engines made for an unsurprisingly louder ride in the back, but despite that I was still able to carry on a pleasant conversation with the person seated next to me for much of the trip.
Talk about curbside service – this is where we parked in OAK – right in front of the Signature FBO terminal
There is one flight attendant on the plane and an appropriately small galley, so the in-flight service consisted of beverages and packaged snacks, perfectly appropriate for such a short flight.
A peek at the ERJ135 flight deck
I’m definitely a fan of this type of flying. There’s lots to like: prices that are competitive with the major airlines, no long TSA lines, quick and easy check in, comfortable lounges, and solid in-flight service.
The only drag is they only currently have one route out of Seattle.
Disclosure: JetSuiteX invited AirlineReporter on board at its expense for the round-trip flight; our opinions remain our own.
Long Exposure of STL Airport from across the highway the evening before STLavDay
Airports across the U.S. are recognizing the value in opening up and partnering with local aviation enthusiasts (AvGeeks.) We have been delighted to recognize, encourage, and report on this trend. To that end, AirlineReporter recently featured two airports looking to forge relationships in their own unique ways. How can we tell that this is indeed a trend rather than a few random events? Now, even airports known for being aggressive are looking to thaw relations. While this should not come as a surprise to locals or anyone who has recently tried PlaneSpotting in the area, it’s worth stating: The St. Louis airport has a well deserved, longstanding spot in the “AvGeek unfriendly” category.
But the airport’s recent #STLavDay event suggests that may very well be changing.
The throne of St. Lav, patron saint of blue juice – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter
STLavDay- Ahem, that’s the abbreviation for STL aviation day, thank you very much.
The airport clearly put a lot of effort into planning what turned out to be an impressive inaugural event… Tongue-in-cheek questionable hashtag/abbreviation aside. In chatting with STLavDay organizers, interest in the invite-only event was strong. Just twenty-one attendees were selected from a much larger pool. To be considered, folks would participate in a sort of contest sharing photos and/or answering a few questions relating to their aviation interest. To their credit, the airport advertised the event on their various social media channels and the contest ran for at least a week. AirlineReporter attended without participating in the contest. However, we received equal treatment as those who went through the formal process. Additionally, we cared for our own travel and lodging.
Smiles upon arrival to a vacant terminal area
Meet and greet
We arrived to the airport just before 10 AM and followed signage to what we discovered was an unused bit of former airport terminal.
After passing various checkpoints we arrived at two smiling faces welcoming us to the inaugural event. Upon signing in, we received wristbands and lanyard credentials featuring our social media handles. (Nice touch, by the way.) The next thirty minutes consisted of boilerplate safety briefings and getting to know our fellow AvGeeks.
I expected that my wife and I would be those who had traveled farthest (from the other side of the state) but it turned out the airport had attracted attention from a wide geographic area. One participant was from Kansas, another from San Antonio, and a few other non-locals thrown in for good measure. The fact that attendees were willing to travel from multiple states should be a clear sign to STL and others within their peer group having a less-than-friendly disposition towards PlaneSpotters and AvGeeks: AvGeeks travel for access. Embrace their added PFC dollars and padding of enplanement numbers while adding crucial eyes on the airfield.
A remnant from TWA’s heyday
Behind-the-scenes at baggage handling
Our first tour stop was in a baggage handling room. I have been exceedingly fortunate to have the opportunity to visit a number of baggage systems over the years. If you have seen one, you have seen them all: A labyrinth of conveyor belts transporting bags here and there. We noted on Twitter that photos weren’t allowed which resulted in an aggressive response from one fellow enthusiast. I wouldn’t otherwise mention it, but there is an important lesson here. Yes, the “no photos” rule seems silly (no other airport we’ve visited had such a rule) however, house rules matter. STL is dipping their toes in opening up here. We need to be accepting of airports where they are, and slowly nudge them along.
A bright spot of the baggage room was a TWA sticker we spotted still in place from the late 1990s. The revision date was February 1997. Cool! (We received special clearance for this one photo.)
While STL is not alone in having a mobile command bus, this was the first I have seen with my own eyes. Once onboard STL’s totally repurposed passenger bus we met with STL’s resident emergency management expert. Upon boarding, we were walked through what made this command center extra special. STL’s is a unique supplement to the airport’s emergency management plan. All of the walls are comprised of a magnetic whiteboard material for ease of jotting notes. There are multiple stations onboard for liaisons from various supporting departments. Hanging from the ceiling or on walls were screens showing real-time data as well as video pumped in from cameras mounted atop a telescoping antenna.
The airport was pleased to note that while the bus has proven handy during training missions, there has yet to be a real-life incident requiring its use.
A handy identification guide, albeit a bit dated
Our next stop was atop a spiral staircase to a large windowed room; Airport Operations – consider it the “nerve center” of the airport. “Ops” agents as they tend to be called are tasked with monitoring various data feeds, coordinating with numerous departments, and having an on-the-ground presence for a litany of manual tasks around the airport. During our visit the ops team was discussing bird strikes, a serious problem that plagues airports. Remember the Miracle on the Hudson? This is why wildlife management in areas where aircraft operate is important. While with ops we learned about catch-and-release programs, and the complex process around reporting and cataloging birdstrikes. Did you know if the species of bird cannot be identified, a sample is sent to the Smithsonian?
The third stop on our STLavDay tour was one of STL’s two firehouses. Given the “long” layout of STL’s airfield, just one firehouse would not allow for appropriate response times to all areas. Solution? Build another firehouse! Two (or more) firehouses isn’t uncommon at larger airports, but this setup is unique enough to note for a midwest operation.
A hand-full of AvGeeks were happy to climb aboard and learn all about the unique equipment and approach required for airport and aircraft-related fires.
A heavy Southwest 737-700 jets down 30L
PlaneSpotting from the field
For all of the planning and effort that the airport crew invested in other aspects of STLavDay, the most well-received stop along the tour was the opportunity to catch some traffic from the middle of the airfield. Jeff Lea, STL’s public relations manager, asked if we wanted to get some spotting in from a unique vantage point. Every face lit up as a result. While there was no traffic of particular interest, the opportunity to snap photos with the terminals and tower in the background was certainly a special treat. We spent what must have been at least thirty minutes spotting, although it only felt like a few before we loaded up the tour bus and were taken back to the terminal for one last treat.
Meet and greet with STL’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge
Upon arriving back to the terminal we were greeted by STL’s number one in command, Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. While we enjoyed a catered lunch, Hamm-Niebruegge discussed her incredible tenure in aviation prior to becoming the airport’s leader. Past roles of AvGeek interest include time with Ozark and later TWA.
Hamm-Niebruegge discussed in detail how STL airport is governed and financed. While I found it to be interesting, I got the impression fellow enthusiasts had lost interest. Part of the presentation detailed the incredible transformation and cost-cutting efforts the airport was forced to undertake when TWA left and traffic plummeted.
Other topics of note included the loss of trans-Atlantic service when Wow pulled out, and active interest to find a new partner to fill that vacancy. Hamm-Niebruegge also shared that the now long-term grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft has directly impacted her airport’s operations and growth aspirations. A few days prior to STLavDay, the airport was informed that a planned new Southwest route had been indefinitely tabled given fleet constraints resulting from the 737 MAX grounding.
Landing on STL’s Runway 12R in 2010 aboard a Cape Air Cessna 402
All good things start with a first step. STLavDay was the first step in thawing relations with the aviation enthusiast community. The event was well executed. And judging by the reception of others, it was well received. These events take a lot of planning and effort. It is my sincere hope that the organizers saw a clear return on investment in their first major foray into airport community engagement. For all of my travels, this is the first in which an airport director set aside time for a large group of enthusiasts on a Saturday afternoon. Well done to all and best wishes on future success.
I passed the FAA written exam two weeks ago. I’ve never been so excited about what amounts to a B+ on a test. But it was a solid pass, as a 70 (or the equivalent of either a C or C-, depending on where you’re from) is the minimum required.
Those free online practice tests are really helpful for exam prep, but I credit the combination of dedicating tons of spare time to studying, along with all of the knowledge and tips shared by Robin, our most excellent ground instructor.
You can’t just toss the books after the exam, though – keeping on top of this stuff seems to be a never-ending task, as several more exams of differing complexity await, as well as a series of so-called stage checks. These are flight-skill milestones, the first of which is probably the most daunting — stage 1, which, if successful, sets you up to do your first solo flight, and the checkride done with a different CFI for both safety and evaluative reasons.
This is a view I’m getting very familiar with – the approach to 14L at BFI (the smaller runway on the left). We’re not yet lined up because we were dealing with a crosswind. I was a passenger in a friend’s plane for this photo, BTW
For the longest time, I’ve been struggling with overcontrolling the plane at the last few seconds of the landing process. The idea is to do the approach lined up on centerline and staying on the glideslope, which I at least feel like I’ve got a decent handle on.
As the plane gets to the last few feet above the runway, you’re supposed to catch the descent and settle into ground effect, which is, basically, a situation in which the plane is sort of floating on a cushion of air something less than one wingspan above the ground. From there, you set the plane down smoothly on the main wheels, and fly the plane down the runway to a point where the wings are no longer generating enough lift to fly and the plane settles to the runway.
We overflew Sea-Tac Airport (SEA) on a recent flight back from the Olympic Peninsula. The route is called the Mariner Transition, and it requires both advance permission and active coordination from air-traffic controllers at SEA.
Practice makes perfect, though, and over the past few flights it finally feels like I’m starting to get the hang of things, at least now recognizing the point at which the plane enters ground effect and understanding a bit better about how gently (or, frustratingly, how not gently) to handle the controls.
That, and steering the plane to centerline with the rudder and not the control yoke. The instinct to steer the plane with the yoke is hard to overcome for someone used to driving a car – “steering” with the yoke activates the ailerons, dipping one wing and causing the plane to actually veer farther off course. Frustrating, and a bit confusing when all sorts of stuff is going on during the last bit of the approach.
Speaking of frustrating, then there’s the radio. Talking with ATC while still getting the hang of the whole flying thing, and having to both accurately understand and read back their instructions, still causes a bit of fluster for me. Apparently it’s also not an uncommon issue – Carl often just smiles and shrugs after he has to jump in and correct my botched radio calls.
We’ve also visited a few new airports – Tacoma Narrows (TIW), Bremerton (PWT), and Paine Field (PAE). I’m also in possession of the initial paperwork (read: more written tests) to begin the solo process, something that I’m oddly simultaneously excited and terrified about.
I am now emotionally ready to try this again — we are going to be moving AirlineReporter to new servers. Last time, things didn’t go so well (I think I used “dumpster fire” to describe it), and hoping that things go better this time.
This means the site might be down here and there and I am not going to be posting any new content until we are all good to go!
The ORY airport fire department during a training exercise
Behind-the-scenes airport operations tours are almost always amazing experiences, but Paris Orly Airport (ORY) seems to have set the bar for me with this one. Orly is the second-busiest airport in Paris (after Charles de Gaulle Airport), the 11th-busiest in Europe, and is located about eight miles south of Paris.
An Air France Hop commuter flight departing ORY
It’s a proper international airport and the busiest domestic airport in France. It serves 143 cities, saw a total of 33,120,685 passengers in 2018, and its three runways had 229,654 aircraft movements in 2013, which is the most recent year for which records are available.
A French Bee A350 at the gate
Orly serves as a hub for Aigle Azur, Air France, French Bee, HOP!, Transavia France, and Corsair International. It’s also a focus airport for Air Caraibes, Chalair Aviation, easyJet, Royal Air Maroc, and Vueling.
La Compagnie also runs its all-business-class 757 service out of ORY
The airport’s terminals are undergoing major renovations, and Orly South and Orly West have already been renamed to Orly 1, 2, 3, and 4. The planned result through the renovations is a much-improved passenger experience.
A Rossiya B737 taxiing for departure as seen from ORY’s excellent observation deck
As mentioned in my recent French Bee flight review, ORY has a great glassed-in observation deck that’s open to the public and accessible before security. But, I came to see what’s airside, and, with the help of both French Bee’s marketing team and the operations and fire department staff at ORY, I got the royal treatment. I had hoped to see some cargo operations, but that didn’t pan out this trip. What did happen, though, was something beyond what I’d expected – a full-on fire drill.
Orly’s airport fire department has an old Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle for training – it’s secured to big concrete posts behind the fire station. It once held registration number F-BVPZ with Corse Air International, which is now known as Corsair International.
Cooling down the Caravelle
We spent more than an hour with them, watching the drill, touring the aircraft, and the station. The trucks roared out of the station, sped to the plane, and doused it with water. Then firefighters dragged out hoses to spray down the engines, cool the wings, and soak the wheels.
We even got a ride in one of the airport fire trucks after the drill. My inner 10-year-old was delighted.
Communicating with ground control before driving on a taxiway
Heck, my current 53-year-old self was delighted, too.
The Orly Airport Fire Department has its own tower
The fire department is very well integrated into the airport’s operation system – the fire station even has its own ground tower to better keep an eye on things.
Fun little things of note: at ORY, each vehicle that accesses the taxiways and ramp areas only needs clearance from ground control once each shift; this is different from what I’ve experienced at Stateside airports, where tower clearance is required to transit outside of marked airside vehicle lanes.
Corsair International, the same airline that once owned the fire department’s Caravelle Corsair
The airport fire trucks have ADS-B transceivers with moving maps on large display screens, allowing them to monitor both aircraft and other similarly-equipped vehicles.
French Bee really does have a fantastic livery
Seeing the highly-trained fire department in action was an amazing experience. I’m definitely hoping for a return visit once the airport’s renovations are complete to see all the improvements.
Alitalia is one of those airlines that I have always watched closely but have never had the chance to fly. While its business matters are complicated and ever evolving, Alitalia continues to run a solid operation with a highly regarded business class product and service standard. I was happy to join the airline for a flight in Magnifica Class on its newly added Dulles to Rome route, one of a small handful of new routes Alitalia has added to its map this year.
Alitalia does not have its own lounge at Dulles and instead leans on Skyteam partner Air France, but that lounge is currently under renovation so Magnifica passengers have access to the nearby Turkish Airlines lounge in the meantime. After a few lounge drinks it was time to board EI-EJL, an Airbus A330-200. Alitalia’s longhaul fleet is made up of 14 Airbus A330-200s, 11 Boeing 777-200s, and one single Boeing 777-300ER. Why does its fleet contain a single 777-300ER? Well, nobody really knows, actually.
Magnifica Class is configured in a staggered 1-2-1 layout, so all passengers have access to the aisle no matter which of the 20 seats they are assigned. While all seats have aisle access, not all seats in the cabin are created equally. Due to the staggered nature of the layout, four of the window seats are substantially more private than the rest, which are quite exposed to the aisle and afford little privacy. The same goes for the center section seats, where some offer much more privacy than others. Because this was a rather close-in booking for me, I ended up in the center section but with a more private seat.
After settling into my seat, I was offered a pre-departure beverage and we pushed back exactly on time, despite the nasty weather that had been occurring all morning. This flight is rather poorly timed for an optimal amount of sleep, departing Dulles in the afternoon at 4:15pm and arriving in Rome at 7:00am the next day. I don’t typically get much sleep on redeye flights anyway, so I took this as a chance to dive into the movie selection and enjoy a full meal. For whatever reason, the cabin manager didn’t make the entertainment system available until we were already at cruising altitude somewhere over New York, so passengers had to stare at a welcome screen for an extended period of time. Odd and annoying, but hardly the end of the world.
Once the entertainment system booted, I browsed the content selection and found roughly 80 movies, but not a ton that I actually wanted to watch and few recent titles. I also noticed that the TV selection suffers from the usual airline issue where there are three episodes of a random season for shows, which is just frustrating. Alitalia also offers limited live TV, offering CNN International and BBC, but not the popular Sport24 channel that is present on the TV icon. All of Alitalia’s A330s and some of the 777s feature Wi-Fi from Panasonic and Magnifica passengers are entitled to 50 MB free access. While the Wi-Fi did not work at all on the flight to Rome, it worked well enough for the return flight to Dulles. That 50 MB goes quickly, though, so usage has to be rather reserved.
The real star of the Magnifica show is the catering, something I have always heard positive feedback on. Meals are served to passengers on individual plates, not on a tray served in one shot. Although Alitalia has recently shifted to a dine-on-demand style of service, the meal service isn’t really executed as such. On both flights I was asked what I wanted to order immediately after takeoff, which isn’t really how a dine-on-demand concept works. Nevertheless, I went along with it and ordered as I would had this been a standard meal service. On the flight back to Dulles I deferred to order until several hours into the flight as it departs between standard meal times and I wasn’t hungry just yet.
While pasta is often a disappointing dish on board aircraft, with the sauce burnt onto the plate and noodles nuked to oblivion, Alitalia has somehow managed to perfect the art. Both flights had delicious pasta starter dishes with excellent presentation. The addition of fresh Parmesan cheese added as if I was in a restaurant really completed the dish.
Taking off from Italy on an Alitalia Airbus A330-200! Zoom zoom.
What the future holds for Alitalia as a business is a bit of a mystery. While all of that is sorted out, however, Alitalia continues to provide a surprisingly good business class experience.
After six weeks, which went past in a seeming eyeblink, I’ve completed ground school. Drinking from a fire hose is an appropriate analogy. Still, I passed all three written stage tests, and just passed the written comprehensive finals, which consisted of two separate tests over two class sessions. Next up will be scheduling and taking the proper FAA written exam before all this hard-earned info leaks out of my brain.
I’ve also been flying quite a lot with my CFI (aka my instructor) – two or three hours a week on average. I’m learning new skills like crazy, but am also burning through money like a Silicon Valley startup. In contrast with most of my stories, I don’t have very many photos to share for this series, not at least so far. Learning how to fly is hard, and if I’m on the controls the whole flight, there’s no time for taking photos. I’m considering finding a way to mount a GoPro either inside or outside the plane so there’s at least some video to share.
Anyway, we started doing pattern work a week or so ago; that means pretty much flying in the airport’s prescribed traffic pattern, doing a touch-and-go, then re-entering the pattern. Lather, rinse, repeat. At Boeing Field (BFI), you can get about six laps around the pattern into a one-hour lesson.
The first time we did this, it was utterly demoralizing. I’m flying a plane, which is amazing and fun, but landing is *hard*. Especially when dealing with BFI’s notoriously squirrelly crosswinds.
Preflight briefings include departure and approach procedures. This one is for the Lincoln departure from BFI.
Well, that, and being totally new to this thing, having to learn to think and control a vehicle that moves in multiple attitudes at once, all the while developing the correspondingly new muscle-memory skills. Then combine all of that with flying in a conga line of aircraft piloted by fellow students, who are all doing similar maneuvers. Oh – and there are business jets, 737s, and a sprinkling of UPS heavy freighters tossed in for good measure. I guess I did say I wanted to learn at a busy airport; I’m definitely getting what I asked for.
I was ridiculously bad at landing the first few times (OK, all of the times). Fortunately, my attempts weren’t legendarily bad, but they were apparently bad enough to at least slightly stress out my CFI, who has to be one of the most unflappable people I’ve ever met. His normally calm, encouraging, and measured voice actually went up a couple octaves on at least one occasion when I goofed up very close to the ground, but I guess I’m holding up my end of the training bargain by providing Carl with a few challenges to repay all of that patience.
There are plenty of things to occupy your attention in the cockpit; every one of those instruments is important, some are just more important than others.
We’ve also done more ground-reference maneuvers, which consist of turns around a point (in this case, a tall water tower) and S-turns along a road, all designed to sharpen control skills. The first time we did this, the air was quite turbulent, at least by my newbie standards. The turbulence made it tricky for me to keep the nose level while in the turns, etc., but it was still fun.
The second time we did these maneuvers, there were gusty 20-knot winds to contend with, making it that much trickier to fly in a circle around the point – I kept flying ovals instead of circles, and kept gaining altitude in the turns instead of maintaining level flight. The S-turns were every bit as tricky. It was so gusty that, once back at BFI, Carl wouldn’t let me do the landing, and even he wound up doing a go-around on our first landing attempt.
This is a process best practiced by those with a lot of patience, persistence, and no small amount of humility; overconfidence and machismo are rewarded with prompt smackdowns from some combination of the four forces of flight.
4,000 feet above the Olympic Peninsula is apparently a good spot to practice stalls
Did I mention stall training? We did that on a calm day (well, the first time, anyway), flying the plane in slow flight then pitching up until we lost lift. It was actually quite difficult to do that – the Cessna wants to fly straight and level; guess that’s why it’s such a successful training aircraft.
We also did power-on stalls; those are to simulate a stall during takeoff, which is something to be avoided (all stalls are to be avoided; practicing them in safe conditions is essential for knowing how to handle one if things go a bit wrong). Knowing how stalls feel, and the resulting knowledge of how to avoid and recover from them are great for confidence.
Illustration of a power-on stall, from the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook
We’ve also gone through simulated engine failures, beginning in the simulator, then practicing them in the aircraft. In the sim, Carl said he’d discovered a new failure mode in the software and was eager to try it on me. He actually giggled while I was doing the takeoff and climbing to the assigned altitude.
Once I was established in level flight, he asked if I was ready. A couple seconds later, the sim went silent and the nose pitched up, quite dramatically. He asked how the plane felt; I was guessing, but asked if he’d programmed parachuters who’d just jumped out. He laughed. “Your engine just fell out of the bottom of the plane.”
That explained the nose-up pitching moment I was dealing with. I did manage to run through the memory items and set the plane down on a runway at an adjacent airport, albeit very hard, but I was generally pleased with how it went, at least this time.
Flight training, Boeing Field, Seattle (BFI) - Vimeo
In the midst of a major expansion, WestJet looks to grow its partnership with Delta Air Lines – Photo: John Jamieson
On December 6th, 2017, WestJet and Delta announced they would be expanding their partnership into a cross-border joint venture. The agreement, which should be finalized later this year, signifies WestJet’s arrival on the global stage. Once a Southwest lookalike, WestJet has become a hybrid carrier capable of challenging Air Canada.
Their success may have come at a price. Over the past few years, WestJet increased their operational costs and complexity in pursuing Air Canada. On the heels of their first quarterly loss in 13 years, WestJet is hoping 2019 brings clearer skies. However, with complicated labor contracts to sort out, the airline seems to be heading for more turbulence. Their joint venture with Delta could be the key to regaining some lost momentum.
Before I delve into the complexities of the airlines’ joint venture, it’s worth understanding how far WestJet has come in its 22 years.
In 1996, WestJet operated three 737-200s between Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Kelowna, and Winnipeg.
Back in 1996, WestJet’s business model was simple: Low-Cost Flights with Friendly Service. Just like Southwest, WestJet initially focused its efforts on establishing a small network (five cities) with frequent connections. The airline chose to operate second-hand Boeing 737-200s. While this was largely due to their low operating costs, the aircraft was also easy to source. With their headquarters based in Calgary, WestJet’s primary competition came from another local carrier, Canadian Airlines International.
Buoyed by a strong corporate culture and passenger experience, WestJet quickly began tapping into their competitors’ market share. After withstanding predatory pricing tactics from Air Canada and Canadian Airlines, WestJet established a cult following in Western Canada. Following Canadian’s demise, WestJet took advantage of the chaos and established itself as the de-facto #2 in Canada.
When Air Canada entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the early 2000s, WestJet began expanding rapidly. In 2002 they added Toronto and London (the city in Eastern Canada). Two years later, they began seasonal flights to the United States. And finally, following the retirement of their original 737-200s, they expanded further internationally and launched WestJet Vacations. Things were moving into place.
When the carrier celebrated its 14th anniversary in 2010, WestJet had taken over Canadian’s spot in Canada’s aviation duopoly. From a domestic standpoint, the airline was present in all of the important markets. However, WestJet’s executive team had set their eyes on more distant outposts. As they prepared to announce a new CEO, it was clear the airline showed no signs of slowing down.
The 737-700 soon became the new workhorse in WestJet’s fleet offering versatility and range – Photo: John Jamieson
The Man with the Plan:
Rapid growth was nothing new for Gregg Saretsky. In his time at Canadian Airlines, Saretsky had overseen subsidiary consolidation and fleet diversification, as the airline aggressively expanded its international network. In all the confusion, Canadian struggled to manage its expanding route network and their multiple domestic subsidiaries. Canadian quickly began losing money, eventually folding and merging with Air Canada.
At WestJet, there were no subsidiaries to manage and only one type of aircraft to maintain: Boeing’s 737 NextGen (-600/-700/-800).
Saretsky also knew that domestically, WestJet had a competitive edge over Air Canada. When Air Canada tried launching their own low-cost carriers in 2002 (Zip and Tango), WestJet stood firm. As the brands battled each other, AC’s low-cost subsidiaries only served to damage the flag carrier’s own image.
WestJet was in a fairly stable position in the North American market; however, a problem was starting to emerge.
Incredible as it may seem given Canada’s size, WestJet was starting to run out of places to send their 737s. Despite having some fleet flexibility, WestJet was unable to compete with Air Canada Express and its regional network. Not even the smallest member of their fleet, the 737-600, could do the trick. The problem was simple, the solution seemed obvious, but the execution would be challenging.
Outside of the provincial capitals and large urban areas (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) most cities in Canada serve low-density markets and have short runways. This represented a hard combination for WestJet to satisfy. They realized if they were to continue growing in Canada they’d need their own regional subsidiary, one capable of serving the smaller markets.
After finalizing an order with Bombardier for 20 Q400s (with additional options), WestJet was ready to launch Encore in the summer of 2013. With major hubs spaced across Canada, WestJet could finally develop a hub and spoke network to rival Air Canada.
Having taken on Air Canada domestically, it was time to bring it internationally!
Only a year after launching Encore, WestJet announced that they would be expanding into Europe. When the airline launched seasonal service between St. Johns, Newfoundland and Dublin, Ireland (operated by their Boeing 737-700 fleet), the airline was testing the limit of its narrow-body fleet. If the airline was going to expand further internationally, they would need to add a widebody aircraft.
After exploring many different options, WestJet chose to purchase four second-hand 767-300s from Qantas. After adding a “WestJet-themed” maple leaf to the traditional WestJet livery, the 767s were ready to connect Western Canada with the European market.
WestJet’s new 787-9s, which debuted in 2019, are far more fuel efficient than their aging 767s (pictured) – Photo: John Jamieson
In 2017, when WestJet announced their intention to order ten 787-9 Dreamliners, the world took notice. The order, which includes options for an additional 10 aircraft, brought the airline out of the low-cost realm into the land of the legacy carriers. The Dreamliner has revolutionized long-haul travel, in particular, the viability of long-thin routes. For WestJet, the aircraft offers the right mix of premium seating with cost-saving efficiencies.
With a snazzy international business class and a new livery, the Dreamliners instantly raised WestJet’s profile. When the airline took delivery of Fin 901 on January 17th, CEO Ed Sims and other WestJet employees were on hand to celebrate their new flagship.
As we move into the summer season, WestJet has begun putting pen to paper on the newest chapter in their history. Their European expansion looks set to continue, and there are suggestions the airline will explore Latin America and Asia. Looking further down the road, WestJet’s relationship with Delta gives them a seat at one of the more profitable global “tables”, but it also leaves them with a question. What does their joint venture mean in the context of their existing partnerships?
As one of the founding members, Delta has considerable leverage within the SkyTeam Alliance – Photo: John Jamieson
Note: before delving too deep into this topic, it’s worth having a basic understanding of Interlining and Codesharing. As I’ll be using these terms while discussing the WestJet/Delta partnership, I’ve provided some examples to help explain the concepts better.
Airline Partnerships 101:
This occurs when two or more airlines agree to place their “code” on the same flight. Codesharing effectively allows airlines to advertise the full reach of their network.
Example: American Airlines 6218 (Vancouver to London-Heathrow) operated by British Airways.
Customers who have frequent flyer memberships generally prefer booking through an airline they have status with.
Back when WestJet was a low-cost carrier, the airline was reluctant to commit to premium partnerships. While the airline eventually realized the revenue that could be gained via interlining and codesharing, WestJet never joined one of the major alliances. Now that WestJet has its own metal for international flights, it’s possible that the airline will look to condense its partnerships down to a particular group.
With Air Canada tied to the Star Alliance group, WestJet was largely locked out of any partnerships or connections; apart from the odd interline agreement, WestJet largely partnered with airlines in the Oneworld or SkyTeam alliance. When I glanced at WestJet’s Airline Partners page on their website, it was easy to get a sense of the direction they were heading with their partnerships. It seemed only a matter of time until the airline explored the possibility of securing a long-term partner in Europe or Asia.
By strengthening ties with Delta, WestJet has the opportunity to build other connections in SkyTeam. While commenting on the carriers’ relationship Ed Sims, WestJet’s CEO, hinted at future agreements with Delta’s SkyTeam partners Air France-KLM and Korean Air. Considering Delta’s global influence and position in SkyTeam, it makes sense for WestJet to join the carrier’s other JVs.
Korean Air and WestJet could be close to “tying the knot” across the Pacific – Photo: John Jamieson
Transitioning towards a Joint Venture
So, now that we know the airlines are forming a “JV”, what can we expect the agreement to look like?
A joint venture effectively allows WestJet and Delta to operate as a single carrier between the U.S. and Canada. If the agreement is approved by the United States Department of Justice, the airlines will be able to expand their interline partnership (network size) and share their collective profits and costs on all transborder flights.
According to FlightGlobal, the airlines are planning on adding new markets and increasing frequency on their popular routes. In October, the airlines announced plans to launch, or add frequency on, 20 routes between Canada and the United States. At the time of writing, the only route in line with the carrier’s joint expansion is WestJet’s daily connection to Atlanta from its hub in Calgary.
With more routes on the horizon, it’s been suggested that some of Delta’s smaller hubs – Seattle, Salt Lake City, etc. – may benefit from new trans-border routes. That being said, it’s likely that the bulk of the new routes will serve the carrier’s main hubs.
The only other additional detail worth noting from the JV is Swoop’s involvement in the agreement. As a low-cost subsidiary of WestJet, it makes sense that the carrier was included, however, the very nature of the airline left me with some questions. When I interviewed Swoop President Steven Greenway in January, he explained that while Swoop would avoid interlining, the airline would still benefit from the partnership.
Note: look for my full interview with Steven in a later article.
Swoop President Steven Greenway was able to confirm, during our interview, that the airline will be included in the JV – Photo: John Jamieson
ONEX Purchase and Final Remarks
I was going to leave the story there, however, it would be wrong to leave out my take on WestJet’s recent purchase by Canadian private equity firm ONEX. The $5 billion dollar purchase sent shockwaves through the Canadian aviation industry, or rather it did, right up until Air Canada announced that it was considering purchasing Air Transat.
The ONEX purchase provides WestJet with a large amount of cash and wiped a significant amount of debt off the airline’s books. With everything set to remain in place, as far as their corporate identity and headquarters, WestJet has been given a huge opportunity to flourish in Canada’s turbulent skies. As a Canadian AvGeek, I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on WestJet as they continue their upward progress.
Alaska Air captain raises the lucky (or unlucky) Copper River Salmon
“This story again? It feels like Groundhog Day,” Blaine Nickeson, AirlineReporter’s Associate Editor (and my good friend) said to me via email when I forwarded the fact that I was going to cover the arrival of the first Copper River Salmon for the eighth year in a row. He just doesn’t get it. Maybe you don’t either, but I am going to try to explain why I look forward to getting up at 3:30am to welcome some fish to Seattle.
Sure, sure, over the eight years the event has been pretty much the same (although this year was the most different). Historically, a bunch of folks show up at Alaska Cargo at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, wait for the first Copper River salmon catch of the year to arrive from Alaska, and then have a cook off in the parking lot between three legit Seattle chefs. This year was different because there was no cook off. I will say that I did miss being able to try the salmon, but really the cook off part of the event was just filler and the real excitement was waiting for the plane to arrive.
Beacon on! The Salmon-30-Salmon.
No question the best year was when I was able to fly up to Cordova, Alaska (on a milk run, in a 737 Combi), watch the fishing boats go out, see the “winning” fish be chosen, fly to Seattle with the said fish to the welcome crowd, and then eat the fish after it was cooked up by three fancy chefs. I think that experience really helps me better appreciate what it takes to get from ocean to tummy (like farm to table, but better).
Even with this year having no flight north and no fancy chefs, it was still awesome and I love going. When I reached out to Francis (who writes for us and is an amazing photographer) to see if he wanted to go with me, he was more than excited to come. Upon seeing Blaine’s anti-fish comments, Francis replied “for some reason I can’t stay away, either.” Blaine was hoping for a different angle for this year’s story… I think I found one my friend, but not sure how you are going to feel about it!
The tower and media waiting for the plane… in the rain
First off, this is not really just about the fish. Don’t get me wrong, Copper River salmon is delicious. I know some of you will comment each year that it is just marketing hype and nothing special, but I am not so sure about that.
For me, it is almost magical to think that family fishermen went out just hours before to the sea to catch fish, they are processed, put into the belly of an airplane, and then in your belly. I think the fact that the delicious cargo comes from a small town in Alaska (Cordova), which relies on air cargo for its economy, makes it all that much more special. If the plane was just flying in widgets from Omaha, that for sure wouldn’t be worth getting up at 3:30am.
Another reason why I love this event are the people. Each year I see some of the same folks from Alaska and other media outlets. Heck, it was even a nice excuse to hang out with Francis. I email and edit the stories of our writers, but I don’t get to see them too often in person.
Of course I also look for any excuse to put on one of those orange vests. Not just because I look so darn good in neon orange (doesn’t everyone?), but also it means we get to go somewhere cool!
The best part of the yearly event is being escorted out to the Alaska Air Cargo ramp and wait for the plane to arrive. Some years it has been a combi, others a cargo plane, but this year, it was something very special — the Salmon-30-Salmon. How meta to be delivering a salmon in a salmon.
It doesn’t matter how many times you see a person roll out a red carpet for a fish, it never gets old. Then the pilot raises the first fish of the season over their head. It is just the first of many. Heck, that day alone, 18,000 lbs of Copper River salmon was flown to Seattle (some staying, many continuing on to other destinations) and last year, Alaska flew a whopping 14million lbs of seafood altogether. To be honest, I am not even that much of a seafood fan, but I just love being a part of something so huge.
And if all of that is not good enough for you, Blaine, how about the fact that this gave me the PERFECT opportunity to wear my fish socks. My mom got them for me for Christmas (don’t judge me or my mom please and thanks) and I really haven’t had the right occasion to wear them. I think they might be trout and not salmon, but who really cares?
In the end Blaine, I think you are right to compare this event to Groundhog Day. Maybe you didn’t notice, but that movie has an 8.0 rating on IMDB, it is ranked #34 by the American Film Institute of the top 100 funniest American comedies, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts gave it the award in 1994 for Best Original Screenplay. They just don’t give those awards out to anyone! Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Phil the groundhog stole our hearts, just like this event seems to steal mine every year (okay, I might be going a bit too far here).
To tell you the truth, I think Blaine is just jealous. That is okay, who doesn’t get a little fish envy every once in a while? Do not worry, my friend, maybe we can try to work it for you to attend next year and you can see first-hand why this event means to much! Then afterwards, we can go out to a nice restaurant and have some Copper River salmon. My treat. Wait, how much does it cost per pound? Hmm, maybe we can split a plate. But it is totally worth it!
I found this photo of Blaine enjoying a Copper River Salmon a few years back. Just proves my jealousy theory.
Editor’s Note (a.k.a. Blaine): I’ve edited the same fishy story for years and years. Maybe it is because of jealousy from the delicious pink fish, or maybe resent of yet another of David’s hard-to-edit stories, but I wasn’t up for it this year. Honestly, I’ve liked each of the prior years’ stories because of the chef cook-offs. Without that this year, I sort of snapped. Either Alaska flies a beautiful salmon here to me in Denver, or I’m going to pass on this legacy series! Also, I don’t have to tell you, but that last picture is fake, despite the excellent sweater.