Tommy777 exits the fast way

At the end of the SAS event they had Tommy777 exit the plane that they were using for the demo.  The fast way.  They popped the back door (2R) and he came sliding down.  Very cool.

Inside the A380 final assembly building

It has been a few days since my last post about the A380 factory tour and most of faculties have finally returned.  You’ve seen many of the pictures already but I also have some video shot inside the factory with Richard Carcaillet, the Director of Product Marketing for the A380.  He talks about some of the details on the final assembly, demand for the A380 and assembly time, as well as the value proposition for the aircraft.

There are also a couple videos from inside the mock-up center.  Airbus uses the facility to show off interior design options to customers from seating arrangements to overhead bins to trim details.  I never thought I’d see eleven different cabin configurations on a single plane but there they were in the A380 mock-up.  Very cool stuff, though sadly no photos allowed inside the mock-ups.  Still pretty interesting.

A “missed approach” at Toulouse

When showing up to a party is is a good idea to make a grand first impression, right?  So what about buzzing the field at Toulouse?  I like it.

Our arrival at the Airbus facility was a spectacular event, highlighted by the expert fly-by executed by the first officer on our Condor air 757-300.  Sitting in the middle of the plane, I knew that we were low to the field and I knew pretty early on that we were long on the approach.  But just now, flying back to Los Angeles, I have had a chance to view a video taken from the cockpit and know just how close we were.

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The voice of the computer counts down the approach.  Fifty. Forty. Thirty. Twenty!

That’s right…Twenty.  Feet, I think.  That’s pretty ridiculous.  And we cruised pretty much the length of the runway at that altitude.

And then the shouts from back in the cabin – sheer excitement as we cruise on down the field so close, yet so very far away from touching down.  Finally, at the end of the runway, an ominous “six hundred remaining” is heard as the end of the runway is clearly visible and we’re very clearly still not on the ground.  And then the thrust of the engines and only clouds and sky visible through the cockpit window as we climbed out and around for our actual landing. 

Yeah, we made one hell of a first impression!

The second movie here is of the actual landing.  Mostly the same except that we actually bothered to stop that time around.  Still plenty of excitement from the cabin.

Fun ‘n’ snow in Oslo

First stop on the trip was Oslo to pick up a few more participants and to meet the folks from SAS who were kind enough to host us.  They provided all the traditional Norwegian fare for us, including snow on arrival.  Walking off the plane in a Hawaiian shirt and making a snow ball was quite enjoyable.

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There was traditional music and dance:

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And there were a bunch of displays set up around the hangar.  The Air Force had a demo of their med-evac procedures on display and we were able to walk around one of the planes, including in the engine cowls and the landing gear areas.  Very cool stuff.

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There was a presentation from the folks at SAS about their airline and the Euro Bonus program as well as two singing performances by one of the flight attendants, including one where the wing of the plane was used as the stage.  Video of that should be forthcoming shortly.

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And then there was the biggest surprise of the morning’s events.  The main organizer, Tommy, actually got to leave the plane via the evacuation slide:

Some others hopped on afterwards, but I am quite certain it wasn’t the same.

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And then our stay in Oslo was complete.  It was off to the de-icing pad and our departure for Toulouse.  Another exciting flight and an even more exciting arrival!

Getting an early start to the day

I’ve never seen so many people quite so happy to be boarding a plane at 5:15 in the morning.  And yet there we all were.  Nearly 200 mostly awake and in a remote gate area of Frankfurt International Airport, ready to climb on board the first of three flights in our chartered Condor Boeing 757-300.

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Plenty of sleepy eyes in the gate area but once boarding started most folks perked up in a hurry.

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Maybe it was that we were giving out lies in conjunction with the first flight’s theme – a Continental Airlines flight from Hawai’i to Los Angeles in the 70s.  Or maybe it was because the excitement all finally just bubbled over.  Who really cares why…folks were downright giddy and it showed in their faces and behavior.

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And the party never stopped.  It would be days before things calmed down.  But it is still before 6am on a Thursday morning in this story and we haven’t even taken off for our first stop, Oslo and a breakfast party with SAS.

What amazing generosity

3M1O0303-1There were a ton of different things going on throughout the week designed to make sure that our group had a great time.  One of the highlights, however, was the charity auction that was held during the trip.  After having each spent a whole bunch of cash on getting to Frankfurt and in booking seats on the charter flights, I don’t think that anyone really expected the level of giving that was seen.

Even before the raffle started the charity was apparent.  Members from around the globe contributed a variety of prizes, ranging from airline amenity kits and sleeper suits to Windows 7 Ultimate.  We had signed copies of the final United 737 flight manifests and a bunch of autographed hats from Captain Denny.  And some cool electronics, too.

Raffle tickets were purchased in US Dollars, Euros, British Pounds and Canadian Dollars.  And there were a LOT of tickets purchased.  Several hundred tickets were sold and we raised almost USD $5,000!  Handing out the prizes was great fun, as was announcing where the money raised is going to be distributed.

Part of the money is being contributed to FlyerTalk’s kiva.org lending team.  That group has lent out over $15,000 thus far and the donations from our trip should have that pushed up over $20,000 and beyond in a hurry.

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The other part of the money is being donated to the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund.  Captain Dahl was a pilot with United airlines and was working as the Captain of flight 93 on September 11th.  He loved to fly from a very young age and was able to make a career out of it in part due to a scholarship he received to attend flight school.  In his memory family and friends have established the fund to provide similar scholarships out to aspiring pilots.  Give our love for travel we felt that it was an appropriate way to help further our ability to have this fun.

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What a pretty plane!

Just a couple photos here of the gorgeous Condor 757-300 that we chartered for the day.  Good times!

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Double-decker excitement

The A380 is simply huge.  There is no other way to describe it.  And the reception we received from the folks at Airbus and the tour that they provided was huge as well.

I wrote the above more than 5 hours ago in an attempt to be witty, smart and informative.  In reality what I am is drunk and exhausted.  Therefore there will be no more text in this post.  Look at the pretty pictures and enjoy.  Hopefully I’ll get more than 3 hours of sleep tonight (unlike the last three) and there will be more coherence in the morning.

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Braving the snow in Oslo

Everything on the trip thus far has been incredibly well prepared theme-wise.  The visit to Oslo and SAS was absolutely consistent with this expectation – we landed in a light snow!  It was chilly outside but the hangar was plenty warm with good fun.

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The SAS crew put on a great show, including a traditional dance troupe and one of their very own flight attendants who is also a quite good singer performing a couple tunes.  She actually used the wing of the 737 as the stage for one of the performances; I’ve got video of that to post later.

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There was a quite informative demonstration by the Norwegian Air Force of the processes they go through for evacuating soldiers.  They had one of the planes configured inside with stretchers rather than regular seats and even a couple demo patients there.

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As part of the safety and patient evac demo they popped one of the emergency slides and Tommy got to ride down it from the plane.  The rest of us were only able to pretend but we still had some fun with it.

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And then our time in Oslo came to an end.  The band played on but we boarded the plane again and headed out to Toulouse.

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I just worked beverage service for a 90 minute flight

And I’m exhausted.  Seriously.

2Q2H0842Sure, I’ve never actually had to do it before so remembering things like the stirrer sticks for the coffee service or making sure I actually served everyone who asked for a drink – sorry again, guys – were things that I really think that I’d do better with a bit of practice.  Still, it was a bit of a humbling experience realizing that it was actually a bit of a challenge to sling a few drinks out to the 50 passengers I was responsible for.  And the real flight attendants were working at least 50% of the cabin, plus doing the actual meal service.

I’m sure I’ll being seeing pictures galore in the coming days and weeks of me working as a flight attendant and drinking on the job.  After all, I had well more than my fare share of Sect on the fight, and a bit of vodka, too.  So it wasn’t really a truly honest effort as to what it would take to serve the cabin.  But it was close, and it was definitely more work than I expected.

But it was also a TON of fun.  I was walking the aisle clearing glasses from the business class cabin while we were on the active taxi-way.  I was trying to figure out which pedal locked the cart and which released it.  I was walking the aisle closing the overhead bins and turning off the call button lights.  It really was a ton of fun.

Oh, we did do the safety demo work, too.  That was fun.  It was harder in that I didn’t have a demo seatbelt to use – I just took the belt off of the seat I was standing next to at the time – and the announcements were done in German, which made it even more challenging.  Still, we all managed to do the demos and arrive safely so no real harm there.

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2Q2H0854We were also fortunate to have with us some coffee brought along specially by a member of the tour.  Vince Mills runs Kena coffee in Hawaii and produced a special Star Mega Do reserve blend for our flights.  As I understand it the coffee was delicious.  So, again, sorry to the few guys who I never made it back to with the cups of coffee.  My bad.  If you’re interested, check our Kena Coffee.  I’m pretty sure he’s got plenty to share with the community.

Fine dining with Star Alliance and Lufthansa

Wrapping up the first day of the tours here in Germany, our group was treated to a meal by the folks from Lufthansa and Star Alliance.  The event was held in the main dining room of Lufthansa’s executive offices just off the airport grounds and we were very well taken care of, to say the least.

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Good booze and good food flowed, as did good friendship and camaraderie.

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Jan Albrecht was present, along with a number of other executives from airlines and the alliance.  They were happy to circulate among the crowd and get feedback from our group, with one of them noting rather humbly that they knew that the FlyerTalk community has a more in-depth understanding of their products than even they do and that they depend on us a good amount to know when things are broken.

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A few more speeches, including the very appropriate and heartfelt thanks being extended to the organizers of the event.

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Lufthansa had some flight attendants at the event as part of the photo shoot and then to be at the party to show off some of the retro uniforms that they used to use.  Quite sharp, to say the least.

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Boarding passes being distributed:

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John celebrating the fact that he managed to lose and find his passport in the 12 hours prior to the departure from the USA.  He had great reason to drink and celebrate, not that we really need good reasons.

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Getting ready to head out on the first charter flight now. 

Mr. DeVille, I’m ready for my close-up

As part of this week’s events a number of reporters have joined the events.  It turns out that I know one of them through my brother-in-law (that was a strange coincidence to discover, especially after we had talked for a couple hours) and they are all working the story on various angles.  Just who are these crazy folks that love to travel so much?  Are there really people who spend every week on the road and then go out of our way to travel more when work stops sending us on the road?

Yes, these people really exist, and they are us.

One of the crews working such a story arranged for a photographer and the associated support staff to be available to shoot a photograph related to their story.  I participated in that event and we had a blast.  I cannot share the name of the publication or the real details of the shoot as of yet, but I’ve been told to expect the article and photo to be published in the February issue of the publication and you can be sure that I’ll be sharing more of that once it is official.

In the meantime, here are a couple shots of our group relaxing before and after the shoot.

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And, just for fun, a cool shot of one of the interior lobbies in Lufthansa’s headquarters near Frankfurt airport.

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Lufthansa flight 405 to Frankfurt is now boarding

I’m pretty sure that the Lufthansa folks have never had over 100 passengers show up for the Star Gold boarding line.  Yet there we all were, a hundred of us, lined up waiting to board Lufthansa’s flight 405 from New York’s JFK airport to Frankfurt.  And we had a ridiculously good time.

We filled up the plane.  Literally.  We had almost all the seats in business class and a whole bunch in coach, too.  The plane was 100% full, plus a couple extras.  The Lufthansa employees from NYC coming over to Frankfurt for the event had to ride jump seat rather than even getting seats in coach.  There were literally no seats left on the plane.

The good news is that the seats we filled were done so with great fun and excitement.  The bad news, such as it was, is that the tailwinds on our flight meant that total flight time was just a hair over 6 hours to get to Germany.  That’s really fast.  So fast that full enjoyment of the meal service and the Business Class experience and also getting some sleep is really hard to do.  Almost impossible, really.  But that didn’t stop us from trying.

 

Here are a few photos from in flight:

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And then, before I really had time to understand just how much fun I was having, we were less than 4 hours from arrival in Frankfurt!

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Through some means that I have yet to fully understand, one of the folks in our group got access to the flight deck and rode up there for the landing in Frankfurt.  Seriously.  And he’s given me copies of the photos to prove it!

 

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Yeah, that was our plane coming in for a landing in Frankfurt.  Finally, a shot that is often repeated but always enjoyable upon arrival in Frankfurt, the reflection of the plane:

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More tours, lounges and incredible fun later in the day on arrival.  Those posts to come eventually.  Right now I’m too tired and drunk for my fingers to really work any more.

Welcome to the Welcome Lounge in Frankfurt

IMG00221-20091104-0558Our flight was early.  Almost ridiculously so.  We actually circled a bit near London and slowed down coming into Frankfurt and we were still ridiculously early.  What we lost in terms of sleep time in-flight, however, was made up for in terms of time spent in the Welcome Lounge arrivals facility in airport.

For me that meant grabbing some food – I slept through the brekkie service on the flight – as well as a bit of a pick-me-up drink.  The bar had all the makings available for Bloody Mary’s, including a nice little setup of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, black pepper and lemon.  But no Vodka.  And when asked the agent seemed dumbfounded that such a thing could even be considered.  Alas, I was relegated to a glass of beer instead.  These are the sacrifices I’ve learned to make for my devotion to the cause.

We managed to be parked at one of the most remote hard stands which meant a 15 minute long taxi and then an additional ride on buses over to the immigration facilities.  We spotted the Lufthansa retrojet along the way.  She’s a beautifully painted Airbus A321 and looks just as lovely as the Continental retrojet.

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Everyone headed off in their own direction at this point, mostly to the hotels to freshen up and prepare for tours of the Lufthansa facilities or other events on-site Wednesday evening, including a dinner hosted by Star Alliance and Lufthansa.

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Lounging at JFK

Lufthansa is quite proud of their new flagship lounge facilities at New York’s JFK airport and rightfully so.  The lounges are quite impressive.  And it really is multiple lounges.  Through just one one door there are actually three lounges in increasing levels of quality as you ascend the internal stairs.

The Business lounge at concourse level offers up a large space, phenomenal views of the apron and some pretty good food, along with beer and wine.  It is the largest of the three areas and is where our group was based for the evening.

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Next level up is the Senator lounge, reserved for Star Alliance Gold elites.  It is even nicer, with additional meal options and a full bar.  It is quite nice.  If you have the means, I highly recommend it.

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The top floor is the First Class lounge, with even more booze choices and even more exclusive access.  No photos were taken (by me) up there.

There were a few speeches made by folks from Lufthansa and our hosts and then much socializing.  With lots of champagne consumed.  It actually appeared a bit as though we overwhelmed the staff there but they took it in stride and were were cared for phenomenally well.  Did I mention the lots of champagne?

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And then our plane arrived.  She’s a beauty.  Non-stop Boeing 747-400 service from New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport to Frankfurt Main.  The flight wasn’t long enough to truly enjoy the fantastic Lufthansa service that we received, but we did our best. SBM_0854

Oh, and we we actually beat the Van Wyck Expressway.  Seriously.  We made it from Newark Airport to JFK in incredibly good time.

Welcoming Continental to Star Alliance

Continental Airlines is no stranger to providing quality tours to the FlyerTalk crowd, and the Star MegaDo was no exception.  By the time we got to Newark our crowd was about 100 strong.  There were three different tours offered, ranging from the maintenance hangar (a 757-300 was having an engine swapped out) to the Operations tower to the catering facility at Chelsea Kitchens.

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I got to go on the Chelsea Kitchens tour (a good thing, since I’ve done the other two already) and it was truly amazing.  The operations is as much large-scale manufacturing – thousands of pounds of ice every day and millions of dollars of inventory moving through monthly – as it is a kitchen, but that isn’t to say that they don’t run it as a real kitchen.  The operations run 24/7 every day, cooking, baking and packaging up meals for hundreds of flights per day.

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Leon is one of the shift managers in the kitchens and he was kind enough to walk us through the operation, showing us everything from packaging of ice cream sundaes to the baking of thousands of fresh breakfast muffins daily.  And, in case you’re curious, they do bake the rolls for the turkey puck in house every day.

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Then it was off to JFK for some partying in the lounge and the not-so-long flight over to Frankfurt.

Moving on to Newark

First flight of the Star Mega Do is now done and it was phenomenal.  United was nice enough to up-gage the scheduled CRJ-700 to an Airbus A320 so there was plenty of room for our crowd, with a lot of empty middle seats to make everyone rather comfortable.  Plus, free snack boxes for everyone on board so that we were all able to have some lunch in the middle of a ridiculously busy day.

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Captain Bob Hart, who stopped by earlier in the day to hang out at the RCC with us and chat did a great job keeping the cabin informed on the couple small delays we had and also had some fun with contests and other bits of information shared over Channel 9.  Among other things, we learned that the plane used 4900 of the planned 8300 pounds of fuel during the first half of the flight.  I was nowhere close in my guess.

And then the seatbelt sign was off and I wandered the aisle of the plane, documenting in great detail some of the many FlyerTalk folks on the flight.  Here are the pictures to prove it:

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At one point in the flight I was called upon to perform some Flight Attendant-ish duties.  Woohooo!

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Randy Petersen, enjoying a bit of reading and some quality leg room in the exit row.

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And then there was the collection of luggage and the march over to Terminal C to meet up with the Continental folks for the afternoon tours.  Randy even pitched in on the luggage schlep.  What a guy.

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We’re now boarding the 747-400 (D-ABVR, Koln) for the flight from JFK to Frankfurt.  More posts to come once we land!

Operations and dispatch from their point of view

The idea of airport and airline operations seems simple enough.  Make sure that the planes, crews, bags and passengers all know where they need to be and that they get there as close to on time as possible.  OK, maybe it doesn’t actually seem all that simple.  Still, when you learn what is actually going on behind all those “Restricted Access” doors in the airport it introduces a whole new level of respect and appreciation for just how complex it is to run a major airline’s day-to-day operations successfully.

As part of the Star Mega Do we were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to go behind those closed doors and meet with the folks that make sure everything works the way it is supposed to at United Airlines’s O’Hare facility.  And boy did we learn a lot.

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One of the elevator rides on the tour.  Yeah, the elevators are really big.

First stop for my group was up in the air.  We climbed the 59 steps up to the tower perched above the terminal to visit with the group responsible for coordinating the movement of aircraft on the ground.  These folks manage more than just the United planes and they do a top-notch job.

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Climbing up the 59 steps to the tower (l.); Freddie, Jr. in the tower, helping with dispatch

After that we headed back down into the belly of the terminal to visit the on-site operations center as well as the crew planning and rest facilities.  We got to chat with a group of 777-200 pilots who were mapping out their route to Beijing for today’s flight along with several other folks in there.

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The crew of today’s ORD-PEK flight, working on the flight plan
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Tommy takes a moment to clean up before continuing the tour

A couple of us also stopped to speak with Jerry in the operations center.  He was excited to show us how IGAPS works for assigning gates as well as how they use it to monitor flight delays and possible misconnecting passengers.  So next time they decide to not hold a connection for you, remember that it is Jerry’s fault, not that of the gate agent you’re yelling at.  It is hard to believe that he was not willing to give us his phone number, huh?

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Jerry shows us the details of our outbound flight in Ops

A warm welcome at the United Red Carpet Club

The first stop on the official Star Mega Do itinerary was a reception in the Red Carpet Club for the 40-odd folks who made the trip to Chicago.  In addition to the usual snack fare there were some additional breakfast options available.  Plus some goodies, including luggage tags and copies of the book on the history of United Airlines.  All good stuff.

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Goodies in the RCC!

We were fortunate to have a number of executives roaming the room, including the folks in charge of the Mileage Plus program and the Red Carpet Clubs.  The RCCs are expecting to see major renovations in the coming year or two, at least in the hub cities, to bring them up to the design standard of the new O’Hare B18 lounge.  That’s great news, even if it does mean that some of the lounges will be shut down at various points in time.

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Graham Atkinson addresses the group

The news from Mileage Plus is equally interesting though I suppose the actual value of the changes will depend both on what they actually are – the execs were quite tight-lipped on that aspect – but they are working diligently with the United IT group to make the necessary back-end changes happen.

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The trippy lights in the ORD B-C tunnel

We also got to meet the pilot for our trip – Bob Hart – and chat with him about the flight plan and his job in general.  Not to be outdone by one of his colleagues, Captain Denny Flanagan showed up on his day off to socialize with the FlyerTalk group, A group in which he is quite well known as an all-around great guy.

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Captain Denny Flanagan with Freddie, Jr. (l) and Captain Bob Hart signing books for the crowd (r)

SBM_0682There was much socializing, meeting of new friends and reconnecting with existing friends.  It was also the first opportunity that Randy Petersen, the founder of FlyerTalk and frequent flyer guru, had to meet with the winner of the contest he sponsored for a seat on the trip.  Mike Holovacs of New Jersey is the lucky winner and he is joining the party gratis and flying in the front of the cabin the whole way through.  Truly an amazing prize to win.

After the meet & greet we headed out into, above and beneath the terminal for tours of the operations and other behind the scenes stuff.  Look for that report coming soon!

FlyerTalk, party of 15, your table is now ready

Sure, we do a great job of calculating all the permutations of flight routings and mileage credits, but when it comes to making a reservation for dinner the math skills fall apart in a hurry.  That or the reply skills suck.  Either way we had about 20 folks show up for our dinner of 15 tonight.  Even with the oversell situation we managed to work it out pretty well.  We squeezed in extra seats and eventually overflowed into another table to accommodate that crowd.

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Delicious food, a few drinks and some great stories of travel and other fun.  Hard to go wrong with this crowd.  The real party doesn’t start until tomorrow, bright and early at 7:30am.  See y’all there!

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