Recent Happenings

We’ve been busy at the Box house. Here are some of the recent highlights.

  • I was off work all last week, and I was determined to be productive rather than good off the whole time. It worked. I polished the car, decluttered our bedroom, gathered clothes for Goodwill, mowed the yard, replaced two normal switches with fancy fan controls, dropped one of the fans and destroyed a fan blade, and completed my annual cockpit time.
  • I also de-babyfied the house, getting rid of Jonathan’s old crib and mattress, the high chair, the booster seat, several toys, and all our baby gates. The bottom floor of the house looks strangely different without all the gates, much more open. I dig it.
  • Last Saturday was Jenny’s birthday. My main present to her was watching the boys so she could go be alone and play for a while. She spent Friday shopping in Canton (I’ll take babysitting over Canton any day!), spent the night at a hotel in Farmers Branch, read a ton, got her nails done, and took a nap. The boys and I ate donuts, played, and went to the gym. Then the four of us went out to PF Chang’s for dinner Saturday night.
  • Another thing I love about my wife? She doesn’t whine on every birthday about how she’s getting older. Instead, she’s just thankful for another year.
  • We spent Easter with Jenny’s family. First, we went to their church for an egg hunt and worship. Their church is very small, which was odd for me, but has good people. The pastor is an old friend of Jenny’s, about my age, and one of the funniest pastors I’ve ever heard. After church, we enjoyed a tasty lunch at her parents’ house and celebrated Jenny’s birthday.
  • That afternoon, Jenny’s dad and I picked up a patio table and chairs from Lowe’s for our backyard. I’ll cover them in a later post with pictures after we get the patio umbrella set up.
  • I passed my annual competency check at work, so I get to keep my job. The big change this year is that designated check dispatchers are giving the checks rather than managers. My examiner started a few years after me but is really sharp and did a fine job. I didn’t apply to become a check dispatcher. It would have felt awkward to be in a position of authority over my peers. I already do that to a lesser degree when I’m training someone, and it’s something I tolerate rather than enjoy.
  • After spending over a week on normal person schedule, it was really hard to switch back to midnight schedule earlier this week when I had to return to work. My body just didn’t want to stay asleep during the day. It’s getting better now, though.
  • I’ve started lifting weights three times a week. Now that I’m getting into that habit, I’m enjoying it more and getting stronger. Our gym also has a core class that I hit once or twice a week to work my abs, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Plus I’m hitting the weight machines and even tried a barbell class. Don’t expect me to transform into Arnold, though. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.
  • Next month, we’re planning to take the boys down to South Padre to play on the beach for a couple days. Jenny will be taking a class this summer, and we wanted to go play somewhere between semesters. We might try some dolphin and/or sea turtle activities while we’re there as well. Southwest now has a nonstop from Dallas to Harlingen that looks wide open, so we’re all over it.

Highlights from This Year’s Cockpit Rides

Every year, the feds require me to spend some time in the cockpit to observe our pilots in their natural habitat. This time helps me better understand their activities, needs, and decisions at every stage of the flight from the pre-flight checklists to parking at the destination. I particularly enjoyed this year’s observation flights on Sunday. I started from Love Field and flew to Kansas City, Chicago, Branson, and then back to Love. Here are some of the best parts:

  • Landing in Snowy Kansas City (MCI) – I was originally planning to go to Alabama and Florida hoping to see some thunderstorms near the airport, but the day before I saw that a winter storm was moving into the Midwest, so I switched up my route. Kansas City had the worst weather of my airports by far: visibility 3/4 mile, low clouds, strong north winds, light snow, and slippery runways. The pilots called the braking action fair on the runway, in the middle of our braking action scale, and poor on the taxiway, meaning it was slightly better than an ice skating rink. To ensure we didn’t slide off the taxiway, the captain taxied to the gate at less than 10 mph. Taxiing two miles at that speed felt like a lifetime, but it was a good call by the captain. Caution helps keep us off the news.
  • Departing Snowy Kansas City – Before we could take off from Kansas City, I got to experience deicing from the cockpit for the first time. Even though the snow was blowing in sideways and seemed to be fairly dry, we still needed to spray a couple of different types of fluid onto the wings and tail to ensure that they didn’t have any snow adhering to them. Frozen precipitation on the wings and control surfaces reduces their effectiveness. Unfortunately, from the cockpit jumpseat (just in front of the cockpit door), I couldn’t see the actual deicing process, which would have been interesting. However, it was helpful to observe the deicing trucks moving to and from the aircraft and hear the communication between the captain and the “Iceman” who does the spraying.
  • Crew Diversity – As you’ve probably noticed, the pilot profession in America is overwhelmingly white and male. I would estimate that perhaps 90 percent or more of our pilots fit that description. I have no problem with white males, but since half our general population is female and a significant portion is nonwhite, I’d like to see a little more diversity in the pilot profession. On this trip, I found some. The captain on the first two legs to KC and Chicago was female and in her 50s or early 60s with stark white hair. She probably started flying for us when I was in elementary school or maybe early junior high. She was extremely detail-oriented, very professional, and very comfortable in her role. The first officer was Latino. He performed an outstanding landing in KC on a slippery runway with visibility right at his minimums. On the way back to Dallas via Branson, the first officer was black. A former military pilot, he successfully landed in Branson in very strong and gusty winds that behaved oddly due to the numerous hills around. The only white male pilot was the captain on the return leg, who also did a fine job. I really enjoyed seeing such a diverse group of pilots on a single trip.
  • Branson – We just started service to Branson, MO, earlier this month after converting the station from AirTran to SWA. It’s a tiny station for us with only four daily departures right now to Dallas Love, Chicago Midway, and Houston Hobby. The ground handlers seemed to be contractors rather than SWA employees since the station is so small. I was glad to have the opportunity to visit our newest station on this trip. Branson is a different animal. A tiny, privately owned airport built in 2009, it has three “gates” but no jetways. Instead, passengers board and deplane via mobile stands that have a switchback ramp to walk up and down. Normally, that would be fine, but when we arrived, the temperature was 32F with winds gusting over 30mph, so stepping off the plane was a RUDE awakening. The terminal itself is quaint, similar to a small Bass Pro Shop from the outside. They actually put a small Bass Pro inside the terminal. Apparently there’s a tasty BBQ restaurant inside, but I didn’t get more than a peek. The airport gets such little traffic that its taxiway doesn’t extend the full length of the runway, so planes actually taxi on the runway itself for much of the distance. We taxied east on the runway, pulled a 180, and departed to the west. Branson was a very interesting experience.

Here is a picture of the Branson terminal.

Since I’ll be doing international flights, I’ll need to do an international jumpseat ride every other year. So probably next March, I’ll be heading out to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mrs. Box said she wants to accompany me on that one.

Blog Soup March 10, 2013

Most of you are probably not happy about losing an hour of sleep last night, which is understandable. But it meant I spent seven hours at work and got paid for eight, so Spring Forward day is usually a good day for me. Perspective!

Here’s some soup to help you wake up:

  • Daylight Saving Time (apparently the S that we all add to saving is incorrect – who knew?) seems to be more popular than standard (winter) time. So why don’t we just stay in DST year-round? Or switch to Greenwich Mean Time (Zulu time) so the entire world can use the same clock?
  • I saw an orthopedist about my still-sore knee. The good news: he said everything looked fine structurally, so I don’t need surgery or anything dramatic. The bad news: there’s no quick fix, either. My knee is sore from overuse, and I need to continue my break from running until it quits hurting and then resume very slowly. It could take a month or two. Yep, I think my half marathon days are over. I might just wait until this fall before I start running again. In the meantime, I’m cycling and lifting weights.
  • I need to do some research on the best way to get stronger with weights, because I’m not sure whether I’m doing it right.
  • I tried a weight-loss experiment last month, initially to slim down for the half marathon. My goal was to drop five pounds – five fewer pounds to carry for 13.1 miles. I cut out most sodas, reduced my OJ intake, cut back on dessert, reduced my portion sizes a bit, and rode my bike a lot since I couldn’t run. It worked. However, the feeling of being on a “diet” sucked for a while. Once I realized I wouldn’t be running Cowtown, I relaxed a bit but not entirely, so now I’m just maintaining. That’s five fewer pounds I have to push on my bike. It’s much easier and cheaper than buying a new bike that would weigh five pounds less, which would probably run at least $3000-4000, maybe more.
  • North Texas Food Bank collects and distributes food to hungry people in North Texas via many different organizations. On their website, they say they can provide three meals for $1. If I take my family out for dinner, we usually spend at least $25. So for the cost of a single meal for my family of four, North Texas Food Bank could feed 75 people. Makes you think.
  • Starting next month, I will get to work some of our new flights to/from San Juan, Puerto Rico. These new flights will add a bit of complexity, but it’s exciting to expand my skillset and experience a bit. Sometime next year, we hope to start our own international flights once our new reservation system is in place. We’ll gradually absorb all AirTran’s international operations, which currently include Nassau, Bermuda, Montego Bay, Aruba, Punta Cana, Cancun, Mexico City, and Cabo Los Cabos. Start saving those Rapid Rewards points!
  • Mario Kart Wii is awesome. Brenden, Jenny, and I like to race each other. It’s cool to have a four-year-old racing buddy. Jonathan gets frustrated and quits after about twenty seconds, meaning the rest of us are guaranteed not to come in last.
  • My office has been in an odd predicament for years now. Hardly anyone wants to be in management, for two reasons. 1) Just working the desk is a great gig and doesn’t require the headaches of management. 2) For anyone who works much overtime (like me), management generally means taking a pay cut due to some weird compensation rules. So it’s been difficult to fill management positions. Rumor has it that the compensation problem is finally being fixed. I still don’t want the job, but I hope that this change will finally entice enough people, and the right people, to step into those roles.
  • Our shared fence on either side of the house badly needs to be replaced. One of the involved neighbors approached us a few months ago with a plan to replace it using some of his employees, but it still hasn’t happened yet. Part of me hopes one of the spring storms will finally destroy these poor fences so the project will finally regain its momentum. I suppose I could help…
  • Jenny and I have toyed with the idea of studying Spanish for work via a study-at-home course. It would help her as a nurse in Texas and me as a dispatcher working flights in the Caribbean and Latin America. The best program for our goals seems to be Fluenz, but it’s expensive, so we haven’t bought it yet. Why did I take Latin in high school again??

I’ve Seen the Effects of the Wind

It’s invisible. The only way to know it’s there is by seeing, feeling, or hearing its effects. But the wind makes a big difference in the performance of a flight, particularly a longer flight.

It’s easy to think of wind in terms of the surface winds we feel outside. A light breeze might clock 5-10 mph, a good wind for flying kites might reach 15-20 mph, and anything 30 mph or more might blow your chihuahua away. Hidden from most people’s awareness are the winds far above the surface when jets fly – 20,000 feet up to maybe 45,000 feet. The winds aloft, as we call them, are often much stronger, ranging from 40-50 mph up to 120 mph or even higher. While they don’t stop an airline from flying, they can greatly affect flight times and fuel burn.

How the Wind Affects a Passenger

When you book a flight, you see a time for departure and arrival. It’s tempting, and somewhat reasonable, to view those times as a promise. However, it’s rare for a flight to depart and arrive exactly as scheduled. Obviously, some flights depart late for any number of reasons, but even an on-time departure might arrive at its destination early, right on schedule, or late. The winds aloft, especially on a flight over two hours long, are one of the main reasons.

When an airline publishes a schedule months in advance, the planners have no idea what the weather or winds will be doing on the day your flight departs. So they make an educated guess based on the typical times for similar flights in the past and the general pattern of the winds along that route. The average winds aloft are stronger during the winter and weaker during the summer. Also, the winds in the continental U.S. generally blow from west to east. So the schedule planners might plan your Vegas to Baltimore flight to take 4 hours 25 minutes in January when the tailwind is likely to be stronger versus 4 hours 40 minutes in July when the winds are weaker.

But remember – it’s only an estimate. What actually matters are the winds aloft on the day you fly, and they can vary quite a bit even from one day to the next.

Here’s one example. This map shows yesterday’s weather and jetstream, the areas where the winds aloft are strongest. The dark blue lines with arrows indicate the jetstream. The winds are fairly consistent and strong from west to east until they reach the eastern states, when the turn southeast.

Thanks to the strong jetstream over the western and central US, one Vegas-Baltimore flight scheduled for 4h 25m only took 4h 12m, or 13 minutes less. Nice!

Here’s another map from today. Down south the winds are about the same, but the jetstream bends strangely from north to south over the Rockies.

What does this mean to our Vegas-Baltimore flight? Instead of getting a boost from a strong tailwind most of the way like yesterday, it gets a bit more of a crosswind over the middle of the country, meaning the plane can cover a bit less ground in a given amount of time with the same amount of effort. If you average out all the winds for the whole flight, today’s has about 22 mph less tailwind than yesterday’s. That makes today’s flight reach Baltimore about 8 minutes later than yesterday’s…still early by a few minutes, but not as early.

How I Can Help

When you drive somewhere, say from Dallas to Fort Worth, you have some options regarding your route. Maybe you like I-30, maybe you like I-20, or perhaps you prefer side streets. For an airline, routing works the same way to some degree, but not entirely. For most of our airports and flights, we have some flexibility regarding the path we take. However, to help air traffic controllers manage all the flights in the air, they generally prefer that we use certain routes that work well for them. We store those routes in our flight planning software and use them by default unless there’s some good reason not to.

Here’s where I come in.

On long flights such as Vegas-Baltimore or Orlando-Denver, I often run multiple versions of the flight plan. The first uses the preferred route. The second lets our flight planning software magically determine the ideal route using the current winds. Often, the preferred route is already ideal. But when the winds vary significantly in direction or speed from one part of the country to another, sometimes the ideal route (“best winds route,” in our jargon) is hundreds of miles north or south of the preferred route. If the custom route saves time and fuel over the preferred route, I can file it with air traffic control. As long as it doesn’t cause problems for their traffic flow, they usually let my flight use the route.

Here’s one example for an Atlanta-Vegas flight. The preferred route is white, the best winds route orange. Note how the best winds route stays north of the pref route to stay away from the jetstream. Sometimes the best winds route is longer than the pref route, but because its winds are better, the enroute time and fuel burn are lower.

Best winds routes take extra work and are not required. But unless I’m really busy and don’t have time, I give them a try on my long-haul desks. Why bother? They can save a lot of money.

Suppose I tweak the route on my Vegas-Baltimore flight to catch more of a tailwind. It might save 500 pounds of fuel and 6 minutes of flying time. That might not sound like much for a flight that’s burning 18,500 pounds of fuel. However, with jet fuel in Vegas costing $3.40/gallon, those 500 pounds translate into $253.73 in savings. In terms of net profit for the company, it’s like I convinced one more passenger to buy an advanced-purchase ticket. And it took maybe 3-4 minutes of extra work. No brainer, right? These make me seriously happy.

Sometimes I only save a couple hundred pounds, maybe $100 worth of fuel. In certain circumstances, I’ve saved $600-700 or more on a single flight. If I can plan several best winds routes in a shift, I can pay my salary for few days just in fuel savings. Those are some of the times I know I’m really making a difference at work.

The next time you fly somewhere, I suggest thinking about three things:

  1. Compare your actual departure and arrival times to the scheduled departure and arrival times. How much do they differ? Any ideas why?
  2. Even though it’s really hard to see their effect, look outside and think about how strong the winds are.
  3. Raise your glass to the flight dispatcher sitting in a room back at airline headquarters who planned your route and fuel load and is monitoring your flight.

Disclaimer: All thoughts expressed here are solely my own and do not necessarily represent those of Southwest Airlines, its Employees, or its Board of Directors.

Valentine’s Blog Soup 2/14/2013

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Here is today’s helping of Blog Soup (r).

  • I know some people who consider Valentine’s Day a bit of a sham holiday, manufactured by the Hallmarks and florists and jewelers of the world to guilt-trip people into buying stuff. So they don’t really celebrate it. And yes, some of them are married. I mostly agree with them. However, we celebrate it anyway. I’m certainly not the best about doing romantic things for my wife, and to me V-Day is a good reminder to cherish my wife throughout the year, not just on holidays.
  • Jenny loves flowers but isn’t too big on chocolates except for certain ones. Reese’s peanut butter cups are always a hit, but she doesn’t like the assorted chocolates that come in the heart-shaped boxes they want you to buy…too many weird and disappointing things hiding inside.
  • To celebrate, Jenny is making us a tasty dinner at home tonight, and then we’re going out Saturday to see the Les Mis movie and enjoy a nice dinner alone. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
  • Despite my high hopes for the Cowtown half, I have developed a bit of irritation in my left knee and haven’t run in about two weeks. So I most likely won’t be running Cowtown. Although I hate to admit it, and will smack you if you say “I told you so,” my body doesn’t seem to like the really long distance running. I’ve been fighting minor injury after minor injury for months now – a hip ache, patellar tendon irritation, kneecap irritation, toe joint swelling, and a sprained ankle. Each time something happens, I need to take time off from training, which hinders my progress. It might be time to retire from the half marathon distance and stick to 5Ks and 10Ks. But hey, considering 5 years ago I couldn’t run a quarter mile without terrible knee pain, running a pain-free 10K seems like good progress to me.
  • We are working on plans for this fall and next year regarding work for me and school for the other three of us. Jenny will have clinicals twice a week during all four semesters, some of which could start at 7:00 or even earlier. They could also be on the weekends. Unfortunately, she might not know her schedule until a few weeks ahead of time. This presents a childcare challenge. Both boys will be in school this fall five days a week, Brenden in kindergarten (gulp!) at Bear Creek Elementary and Jonathan still at Colleyville Christian. I’m not sure yet what we will do on her clinical days, but regular class should be covered. For next year, I will probably switch to the 9:00pm-5:00am shift to make sure I get home before she has to leave. Leaving for work at 8:25pm isn’t much fun, but it’s great to get off work at 5:00am and have the road pretty much to yourself.
  • My awesome sister Lisa and I have both learned an important lesson from social media: people want to be entertained, not challenged.
  • Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is up for several Oscars. The story of a freed slave turned bounty hunter, it’s part spaghetti western, part revenge tale, part love story, part social commentary, part history lesson, and all Tarantino. Although fascinating and brilliantly acted and filmed, it’s difficult to watch due to its in-your-face racism and brutality. At times I was utterly repulsed by the violence, but at the same time I felt guilty for wanting to shy away from it. The film makes you watch horrifying things that actually happened back in the days of slavery, things that are thankfully no longer part of our daily lives and that are much more convenient to simply forget. So it almost felt like I needed to keep watching to make it real instead of just something I heard in history class.
  • I wonder how many future bookings Carnival will lose over the ongoing Triumph fiasco. On the bright side, this might be a good year to find a deal on Carnival.

Big Changes Coming at Southwest

These are exciting days at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is slowly absorbing former AirTran airports, aircraft, and people. New construction projects are changing the look of our home airport (Dallas Love) and our headquarters. And we are preparing to begin flights outside the continental U.S. Here are a few of the highlights:

AirTran Integration

The process of combining our two airlines will last through 2015, but we’ve already made significant progress. We have taken over AirTran’s operations in Seattle, Canton/Akron, Des Moines, and Dayton, and we take over its Key West service this coming Sunday. We’ve converted at least 10 AirTran 737s into Southwest configuration and paint scheme along with crews to work them. Coming this spring, we will take over AirTran’s service to Branson, Wichita, Charlotte, Flint, Rochester, and Portland, ME. Significantly for me, the AirTran dispatch office will move from Orlando to our headquarters building in June, although technically we will remain two separate groups for 2-3 more years with the AirTran dispatchers gradually converting to Southwest as we convert more planes and flights. Three of them are already in training to “jump the fence” and join our office. Plus we will finally start code sharing with AirTran next year, meaning you can buy a ticket from a Southwest airport to an AirTran-only airport to give you more options.

Going Farther

We just received approval from the FAA to operate flights outside the continental U.S. for the first time in our history, a huge milestone that will give us numerous new SWA destinations in the coming years. Yesterday we announced our first such destination: San Juan, Puerto Rico. Service begins in April from Orlando and Tampa, with more airports to follow. We are VERY excited about these new opportunities! Puerto Rico is particularly interesting because it’s a prime starting port for amazing cruises to the Southern Caribbean. I am hopeful that we’ll add a Houston-San Juan nonstop to make it easy for us Dallasites to get there. Eventually we will take over all of AirTran’s international operations including flights to Cancun, Mexico City, Nassau, Punta Cana, Cabo San Lucas, Montego Bay, and Bermuda. Plus I’m sure that eventually we will add some new destinations of our own. (aloha, y’all!)

Changes in Dallas

First of all, as you might already know, the City of Dallas and Southwest are working together to build a beautiful new terminal at Love Field. Twelve of the gates are scheduled to open in April 2013 along with many of the new concessions. The remaining eight gates will open later. If you’re at Love anytime soon, look out the windows to see the new terminal.

Second, the main restrictions of the Wright Amendment will expire in October 2014, now less than two years away! At that time, we will be able to fly nonstop from Love to pretty much any airport we want within the continental U.S. (still no international flights), providing our Customers (and Employees!) a wealth of new flight options. I’m hoping for nonstops to Orlando, Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Atlanta…but it’s not up to me.

Finally, construction has begun on a new building at SWA headquarters that will house our 24/7 workgroups, including Dispatch. It will be a hardened facility to keep us safe during severe weather, and it will provide plenty of space and a new design to help us operate as safely and effectively as possible both now and far into the future. I can’t wait to see our new home when it opens late next year or early 2014.

I’ve worked at Southwest for over 11 years now. I still love it here, and I am grateful to be a small part of this great company.

Disclaimer: I am not an official Southwest spokesperson, and all opinions expressed on this website are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Southwest Airlines, its Board of Directors, or other Employees.