January 25th, 2012

storyteller doll


Before I write about my weekend, I have a few celebrity deaths to note. Joe Paterno got the most publicity, which says something about how we handle sports and scandals in our culture. Etta James was a fine blues singer. And Ronald Searle was an interesting illustrator.

To explain the weekend, I have to start out by explaining Captain Denny Flanagan. He's a United pilot and known for his ideas about customer service. I first met him briefly at Star MegaDo 2. I've since spend more time with him - dinner along with a lot of local people from flyertalk.com and the Chicago Seminars back in October. He's a great guy, very personable and clearly loves what he does. But I hadn't ever actually been on any of his flights.

So when he announced that the United staff at PDX (Portland, Oregon for those who don't speak airport) wanted to do a station tour for flyertalkers and that his routing there started at DCA (Washington Reagan National), I thought it would make for a fun weekend.

The plan was to fly on all 3 of Denny's flights - DCA-DEN, DEN-PDX and PDX-ORD (plus, of course, another flight from ORD-DCA to get home). There would be some free time in Portland, a Saturday night dinner and the station tour on Sunday morning. Mother Nature was not so cooperative.

United is, shall we say, proactive about weather cancellations. The DCA-DEN flight got cancelled at the first hint of possible "wintry mix." (To be fair, the plane was supposed to come in from ORD and Chicago is a weather nightmare all winter.) I got rebooked, first to a flight from IAD-ORD-PDX and, after some reconsideration of risks and a bit of begging with a more cooperative agent than I'd started with, to a late Friday night IAD-DEN flight. Since this was happening right after work on Friday, it meant packing in about 5 minutes, quickly making a hotel reservation in Denver, and zipping out to Dulles. It worked fine, but was exhausting as it was about 1 a.m. by the time I got to the hotel.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, I checked email and flyertalk and learned that Denny had arranged a DEN station tour at 9 a.m. for those of us who had ended up there. I figured I could just make it and, indeed, I did. Denny took us through the operations area, showing us things like the Pilot's Lounge, before turning us over to Paul, the Station Control Center manager. I learned a fair amount about how a hub operates (e.g. scheduling of gates). It's a modern and impressive (and expensive!) operation. Paul gave us United caps, starting the swag collection for the trip.

Then it was time to get on the DEN-PDX flight. Denny has a shtick he is known for, coming out to the gate to introduce himself before the flight and giving out cards about the airplane as people board. (He signs a couple of them and gives bottles of wine to the people who get the signed ones. He also signs copies of his business card for passengers in first class and in middle seats in coach, as well as doing things like calling parents of unaccompanied minors to reassure them their kid is in good hands.) I'd gotten an upgrade and most of first class was the flyertalk contingent. I'm sure the other passengers were a bit puzzled by us.

The flight itself was fine. On arrival, we were met by Adrienne, the Portland station manager, and some of the people who had volunteered for our tour. There were a few speeches and the distribution of more swag - bags with United logo items. (Notably, there was a mug for the collection I claim not to have.) Then we scattered until the evening.

I took the shuttle over to the Fairfield Inn, left my bag, and used their shuttle back to the airport to catch the light rail downtown. I had two goals in mind. The first was a stop at the famous Voodoo Doughnuts. There was a long line, which made the excursion worthwhile for people watching alone. I ended up trying their voodoo doll doughnut, which is filled with raspberry jelly and topped with chocolate frosting. I thought it was cute and clever, but too sweet.

Then it was on to Powell's Books, a place I've been in love with ever since a friend abducted me and forced me there in 1987 or so. (He will claim I was willing, but how could one possibly believe such a thing?) Anyway, there is an advantage to limited luggage space and I escaped with the purchase of just four books, one of which was even something I had been looking for.

Then it was time to head over to dinner at Widmer Brothers. I got a decent IPA (very hoppy) and socialized for a while. The buffet dinner included bread, salad, salmon, pasta, steak, potatoes, vegetables and a very rich chocolate mousse. There was a door prize drawing, in which I mysteriously failed to win anything. The biggest prizes (which I am glad not to have won, given my claims to be decluttering my life) were two United red carpets. All in all, it was a lovely evening of good food and good conversation.

The morning tour started off with coffee and doughnuts (which I ignored, having had a more respectable breakfast at the hotel). There was a bus tour of the airfield, preceded by a quick look at the ramp and a chance to look inside the baggage hold of a 737. After the bus tour, we got to see more ramp equipment, including a deicer and a fire truck. Then we visited the maintenance, operations, and gate areas. The latter included us each getting a chance to drive a jet bridge! (They had stairs out there, not being dumb enough to let us get near enough to an actual plane to risk damaging it.) All in all, the PDX staff was extremely gracious and treated us amazingly well. That is, of course, the sort of thing that keeps people loyal but it was still above and beyond the call.

Then it was time for Denny to fly (a few of) us back to ORD. We were delayed a bit leaving, but still got in just a few minutes late. I had plenty of time for my connection and my only disappointment was that I was 4th on the upgrade list, with only 3 seats left in first. Getting home from DCA was a bit annoying as single tracking on the Blue Line meant a long (20+ minute) wait for a train, but the Orange Line connection worked fine and it was still just about an hour getting home.

It was an excellent weekend. I can't thank Denny, Adrienne, and Mike (the flyertalker who did most of the other coordination, e.g. the dinner arrangements) enough.

And, by the way, there are photos at my flickr site.