Friday, May 23, 2008

Something Occurred to me

"How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?" - Robert Frost

Eliminated on domestic coach flights:
magazines and newspapers
meals, supplanted by the infamous $3.00 box lunch
pillows and blankets
pilot wings for kids

Extra charge:
aisle seats
second checked bag
Soon American Airlines plans to charge $15 for your first checked bag

Airport Security

Casting about for what extra charge might come next, I am reminded of another tight economic time when fuel costs were soaring. It was in the 1970's. It was determined that a coat of paint on an airplane fuselage set up enough drag to consume extra fuel. Overnight, airliners began sporting a shiny bare metal exterior adorned only by an occasional stripe and a logo or two to help them slip through the air more efficiently. Now with airline fuel costs doubling and tripling in the wink of an eye, I am led to ponder what economies the airlines might consider next. I'm not seeing the next obvious candidate for extra charge or elimination unless . . .

. . . we consider the passengers. Stay with me, here. They cannot completely eliminate the passengers and have empty airliners flying around using up fuel for no good purpose. But can they strip them of a coat of paint? Or charge them for more than one coat? The passengers, I mean.

Suppose, just suppose, the next time you check in at the ticket counter for your flight, you are charged for wearing more than one layer of clothing. Maybe a sweater. $10. A blazer? $20. You see where I'm going with this. If you don't want to pay, there could even be a handy Salvation Army bin to accept your donations of these items before boarding, complete with tax deduction receipts.

Its just something that occurred to me.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


If memory serves, June was usually the worst month for turbulence on the "vomit comet," an unpressurized, non-air conditioned DC-4 carefully wending its way through (not over) the mountains on its way to Seattle from MSP, testing the mettle of the 50 souls aboard.

Likewise, June 2008 is shaping up to test the mettle of airline passengers everywhere.

  • On the heels of today's record breaking crude oil price of $130/barrel, American Airlines announced it will charge $15 for its passengers FIRST checked bag beginning in mid-June. Watch for other airlines to follow suit. Most are already charging $25-$50 for bag #2.
  • On a scale of 100 points, Northwest scored a dismal customer service rating of 57 in the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index released today. Delta was a cut above with a 60 rating. US airlines collectively scored 62, their lowest rating in seven years. Southwest Airlines ranked #1 with 79.
  • Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport ranked dead last among 60 U.S. airports in customer satisfaction according to a survey released yesterday by J.D. Powers and Associates. Flight delays and long baggage waits were major factors. Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami and Philadelphia consistently scored at the top of the list.

Other than recommending you fly Southwest Airlines exclusively and limit your destinations to the four airports listed above, I don't know what else to tell you. Sadly, the days when exceptional customer service was the stated goal of every airline and airports the world over seems but a misty memory - now supplanted by their raw need for survival. This is depressing. Lady Skywriter plans to take refuge once again in recalling the golden age of commercial flight. Vomit comets and all!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Figuratively speaking . . .

With your indulgence I stray today from "all things airplane" and turn instead to travel related news by the numbers. The numbers I refer to here are numbers of dollars that blow my mind.

1. Oil this morning is at $129/barrel on its way to $130. $4.00/gallon cannot be far away. Look for airline fuel surcharges to leap again. Look for all charges to leap again. Look for your car to leap into the garage and stay there.

2. The National Petroleum Council announced a $100 million public relations campaign. No doubt Exxon and other member companies with $10 billion-plus quarterly profits need to buff their image a tad, but one can't help but wonder what better use that $100 mil could be put to.

3. It was announced yesterday that the Pennsylvania Turnpike was sold for $12.8 billion to a consortium led by Citigroup. Having beat out a rival group headed by Goldman Sachs, Citigroup et al will lead the largest ever privatization of a toll road in the U.S. Wonder what will happen to tolls now that the road is owned by a for-profit entity? Having ruined the economy with ill-fated mortgage investments, you knew wall street would find greener pa$ture$.

There are countries and companies and investors reaping vast profits from all this. One has to wonder what might happen if we lowly consumers run out of money to buy their products, run our cars and take vacations?

Go figure.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Queue Tips

There are six security checkpoints at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport. Beginning today, one of them will test a new program designed to move those lines along smartly. Passengers will be able to self select a security lane: expert travelers, casual travelers and families. Hmmm. Since they're leaving it up to us, I'm thinking I'd just pick the lane with the fewest people. But would I get kicked out of the family lane if I'm traveling solo? Is a couple a family? Just what constitutes a family? Knotty questions.

Moving along ambiguously (but still smartly) what exactly is an expert traveler? Webster defines an expert as one who is "very skillful; having much training and knowledge in some special field." A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the expert lane is for frequent fliers. At first blush that may seem to clarify the matter. But hold on. What about the retiree who builds frequent flier miles by charging everything from groceries to gasoline on their airline credit card, not by flying frequently? See? The concept is fraught with peril.

Lastly, and alas, not any easier, is defining the casual traveler. Maybe apparel is a clue. Is the young man in the flip flops, T-shirt and shorts heading off to Bimini for vacation? Or could he just as easily be a hedge fund manager on a business trip? How about demeanor? Does acting cool and unflappable fit one for the casual lane? Or does it scream EXPERT?

I applaud the TSA's stated goals of speed and efficiency, but I fear the burden of having to identify which security lane we belong in may require a degree of introspection we're not equipped to handle in a split second in a busy airport terminal. Maybe Traveler's Aid will rush to fill the void by staffing their counters with lane lexicon advisors.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold, pilots. Does this familiar old quote hold true for stewardesses as well?

I know some old and bold ones.

Back in the days of automatic termination for marriage and/or reaching the ripe old age of 32 . . . organizations were formed so that former stewardesses could escape dishes and diapers once a month and regale one another with tales of the good old days. One such organization was called N.E.S.A, Northwest Ex-Stewardess Association. N.E.S.A. enjoyed a robust membership and though getting together for the fun of it was thoroughly enjoyable, the group began casting about for something worthwhile to pour their considerable energy into. Seizing on an opportunity to lend support to the Minnesota women's detention center at Sauk Centre MN, members bussed up to Sauk Centre once a month for visits and special programs.

Their most gratifying project was a horse program. Staff felt that by grooming and feeding the animals and with the added benefit of learning to horseback ride, inmates would embrace the animal's unconditional love and respond to the discipline that caring for horses would require. Funds were raised for horses, feed and staff through donations and fundraisers including an annual "Ball," the epitome of escape from dishes and diapers, and in a long dress to boot!

Even now 50 years later, Northwest Ex-Stewardesses continue to enjoy their special bond.

l-r: Jan (Gossman) Konezny, Patty (Elliott) Olson, Anne (Billingsley) Kerr, Bev Ahmann, Jean (Carlson) Schreier, Pat (Stravens) Goodyear and Pat (Allen) Tennyson are pictured on March 12, 2008.

In an age when only a few of their old buddies are still working flights in their 60's, 70's and, wonder of wonders, the legendary Bob Reardon in his 80's*, these folks have become critical passengers instead. At their bi-monthly get-togethers they enjoy endless recounting of one another's stories from the golden age of passenger flight and swapping horror stories of their experiences as passengers today. Most had to muster out back in the day because they got married, a very big no-no for 1950's era stewardesses.

*Still working at 83, Bob Reardon is the most senior NWA flight attendant. Virtually all of the women pictured above worked with Bob on stratocruisers in the 1950's.

Are you an ex-stewardess from any era? Come join us the second Wednesday of every other month at 11:30 at the Embassy Suites in Bloomington MN (next time July 9, 2008.)

Please, share your stories . . . Click on the "cloud" on this website masthead or go to the Contact page. And while you are "clicking", see what happens when you click on the airplane!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Back to the Future

Dragging myself out of the stratocruiser (last post) and back to the future . . . where the little old airline on the prairie is morphing itself into THE BIGGEST AIRLINE IN THE WORLD. What's up with the merger, you ask? Both NWA and Delta are publicly pretty quiet right now. Are they deciding it's a bad idea and scrapping their plans like United and Continental recently did? A word of caution: this is merely the next phase of the deal. The "lull them into submission" phase.

Last week Delta president Ed Bastian assured the Minnesota legislature that MSP would remain a hub, but resisted all entreaties to keep headquarters of the newly merged airline in the Twin Cities. Current financial agreements between Northwest and Minnesota require the carrier to keep its headquarters, a hub and a certain number of employees in Minnesota or pay back over 200 million in bond debt. Mr. Bastian stated that the company is preparing to negotiate a way out of the headquarters requirement with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office. Hmmm. Will this happen before or after Pawlenty is named Senator John McCain's running mate, I wonder? Just today it was reported that the guv is Numero Uno on McCain's list. But who says politics have anything to do with this, anyway?

So in the meantime, what should we look for? How about higher fares, fuel surcharges, overbooked flights, forced groundings, extra charges for more than one suitcase, aisle seats, and (to use the term loosely) "food.". . . but hey, this is progress, right? It was recently reported that several airlines were arbitrarily reducing speed to conserve fuel, resulting in longer flights. Now congress is actually looking into regulating airlines again. Wow. That would put us back where I came in - the 1950's. Longer flights, great food and less hassle. Yes!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

One ringy dingy . . . two ringy dingy . . .

With apologies to Lilly Tomlin, Miss Billingsley, aka Lady Skywriter circa 1958, is shown receiving a call from the flight deck, most likely an inquiry as to today's menu, and/or a beverage order.
She is pictured in the lead flight attendant seat on the stratocruiser, located just forward of the galley in the tail section of the aircraft.
Notorious for complicated beverage orders, a call from the cockpit went something like this: "Aaah, please bring up some coffees; one black, one with half a cream and one sugar, and one with two sugars and no cream." (Cream and sugar were boarded in single serving packets.) Oh, there would be an occasional request for hot chocolate, tea or even milk, but the favorite beverage was coffee and lots of it.
If I had had a camcorder 50 years ago and could take you along as the coffee order was delivered to the flight deck, this is what you would experience:
Bearing the coffee tray we would easily slip past adults lounging in the wide aisle talking to one another. Just aft of the main cabin door we'd pass the circular stairway to the lower deck lounge, a full service bar dubbed the Fujiyama Room, as sounds of clinking ice cubes and laughter wafted up to the main cabin. If we were on ship 709 on our journey toward the cockpit we'd be humming to "Autumn Leaves" being played on the Lowry organ just forward of the main cabin door by a celebrity musician from the Twin Cities. (This is true, every word of it - and we're only halfway there!)
As we move forward between two-abreast, wide, deep comfortable seats which, incidentally, could be converted to sleeping berths - eight uppers and 16 lowers, we catch a glimpse of the flight deck on the other side of the club style forward cabin. Note: every time I think of that forward cabin I think of the flight when that delightful 'munchkin' Danny Kaye irrevocably blew his image by staging a full blown temper tantrum over his dinner.

Now where were we? Oh, yes. In the club cabin a card game is in full swing on the starboard side. They would be using the famous NWA "talking" playing cards which doubled as a linguistics tool for Orient bound passengers. 53 useful English phrases for travellers were printed on the cards in Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

Leaving the club cabin and moving forward between coat room and lavatory, light from the flight deck reveals a slim velvet rope slung across the open door. Routinely inviting passengers to "C'mon up and say hello," flight crews enjoyed showing off their greenhouse, so dubbed for the dozens of windows with panoramic views spreading out before them.

Now. Compare that leisurely stratocruiser stroll to the last time you battled down the aisle on one of today's flights, getting your armpit hung up on a seatback and whacking the backside of your knee with your carry-on . . . and visit the cockpit? Are you kidding?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

NWA History Centre

With the famous red tail destined to disappear over the horizon later this year many of us find ourselves awash in nostalgia. Here's a great place to get a "fix" for all things Northwest Airlines. Check out the NWA History Centre in Bloomington, MN near the airport. ( for hours and directions.)

Pictured above are volunteers Brad Emsley, Jack Ingersol, Joe McKernan and Vince Rodriguez with visitor Jean Carlson Schreier.

Jean brought her well preserved stewardess uniform to donate to the centre recently (Jean is looking very well preserved herself.) Tagging along is Lady Skywriter, fellow ex-stewardess Anne Billingsley Kerr, pictured below at a display of stewardess uniforms. In the case between them is a navy blue uniform with white piping, the style Anne wore when she graduated from "smile school" in May, 1956 (click on Preview on this web site for the graduation photo.)