Friday, June 1, 2007

Nice is Nice... in a French sort of way

Somewhat planned in advance trip to NCE to work on a new line of business. Our corporate travel office decided that we needed to follow their travel policy a little closer than we have in the past, to the extent that I got a phone call from a manager in MIA after I'd proposed my preferred itinerary on AA and BA. It appears that the preferred carriers for international travel are IB and LH, however neither are customers for our tiny division. AA, DL, and UA are, but they're not anchor tenants of the larger Amadeus just yet, and they''re also smart enough not to have negotiated the steep discounts that IB and LH did.

Complicating things a bit: my passport expired at the beginning of May, and I hadn't sent it off for renewal yet. That turned out to be a good thing. With 16 days advance notice, I had time for an expedited mail-in, but as a backup, needed to route my ticket so that if I had to drop into an agency office prior to leaving, I could do so on the way over.

With all that in mind, I booked AA TUS-ORD, and then IB on ORD-MAD-NCE (separate tickets because of our discounts on both AA for domestic and IB for international).

Fortunately, my passport was turned around within five working days, and in my hands the Monday before leaving, so I didn't have to change my outbound. Despite all the horror stories about passport agency delays, I have to admit that they exceeded my expectations. But, had I mailed my passport into the agency for renewal without the expedite fee, I would have been screwed. Non-expedited renewals are taking 10-12 weeks to process, and in many cases, not being logged into the system for up to a month after being sent in. Until it is logged into the system, the processing priority can't be changed.

Long travel days suck, but there's no way to avoid it when you live in the desert...

TUS at 0500 is an easy place to move thru. I checked in at self-service, swiped my passport, and had boarding passes for TUS-ORD and ORD-MAD in just a few seconds. Not bad, considering I was booked directly on IB and not as an AA codeshare. Line at security was about two people deep with two machines operating, so there was no wait at all. Right after I came thru, there was a group of about 25 soldiers coming thru in fatigues, and I found it a bit ironic that they were all told to take off their combat boots for screening... It's OK for off duty cops and federal law enforcement officers to bring weapons onboard, so why are soldiers (who are obviously able to engage in hand-to-hand tactics far more effective at disabling someone than with simple weaponry) given the same degree of screening as Joe Sixpack?... Policy for the sake of policy and show is simply stupid. And somewhat demeaning to these men and women who are clearly willing to put their lives on the line for our freedom...

AA1184 TUS-ORD MD80 21A left 0607 crew legality off 0615 on 1104 in 1109 N442AA

What is there to say about a domestic flight on AA that I haven''t already seen?... We took off reasonably close to ontime, we arrived more or less ontime, and I got a Diet Dr. Pepper. Crew upgraded a soldier to F at departure time, so I'm glad I didn't request an upgrade, since that was the only seat left in F. On approach, we did a left turn over the north Loop, literally around the John Hancock tower. Some beautiful views of downtown Chicago.

Arriving at ORD, I tried to get into the Flagship Lounge, which is AA''s premium class lounge out at K20, but since I was on an IB ticket (and not an AA codeshare ticket), I was relegated to the Admirals Club. Granted, the club is a great place to wait for a flight at ORD, but there isn't exactly a lot to keep one occupied there unless you shell out the bucks for T-Mobile wifi or ORD's Boingo wifi. So, after grabbing a soft-drink (and running into our CEO and his family on their way back to TUS from ROA), I took a stroll thru T-2. While there are a lot more food options than I remember, I'm surprised to see that the DOA hasn't done anything to raise the ceilings in T-2 as they've been done in T-3.

Along the way, I stopped at Jetblue's gate and bought a set of on the ear headphones (I'd meant to buy a set when I took the tour at JFK with Ahasic a few years back...) from the honor box. The headphones are definitely worth $1, and now I can say I'm a Jetblue customer, right?... There was a JFK E190 departure in progress, and it went out completely full, stranding a commuting DL flight attendant who coincidentally was also going to NCE, except that she was supposed to work DL's JFK-NCE trip that night, and was now going to have to fly into LGA to make her sign-in. Such is the life of a commuter.

The remainder of my wait at ORD was spent watching a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica 1980. I'm a big fan of the remake on Sci Fi Channel, and have been watching reruns of the original 1978/1979 series (which I was also an avid watcher of when they were first aired, and a bit bummed when it wasn't renewed by ABC). I vaguely remember the 1980 showings, but don't recall watching it, and it doesn't appear to be in the rotation on Sci Fi, so I went off to bitTorrent and downloaded all 10 episodes.

My advise: don't waste the electricity to power your TV if this is ever re-aired again, and unless you're really into bad acting and corny plot lines, don't bother downloading it, either. Lorne Greene's cameo over-acting and some of the hokie gimmicks they employed made this a total waste of time and money. But, it killed time...

IB 6274 ORD-MAD A346 3J Left 1648 off 1659 on 0739 in 0748

Fronk already warned me that IB's boarding process was akin to the running of the bulls, and he wasn't kidding... Fortunately, there was a separate queue for J class, but but the coach "pen" was looking a little scary... I lucked out and had an empty aisle seat next to me, which was one of the few high points of this leg. I started out with a seatmate and her Schnauzer, but she was able to move into the center two seats. Schnauzii sat in a seat for a couple hours until the purser finally noticed and told her to put it back in its carrier.

I was looking forward to IB's premium product based on their website and what others had told me. If IB has new J seats, I'm not impressed... Reminded me a lot of the first generation F seats on AA's 777 fleet (pre-Signature). Seat power was inop for the first 30 minutes of the flight, and the plastic trim piece on the seatback in front of me was falling off from the time I sat down, and the little pull-down briefing card holder wouldn't retract back into its stowed position.

When I reclined the seat to its lay-flat position, my head was pressing against the back of the plastic shell and my feet wound up being pinned underneath the seat in front of me. To make matters even better, the tray table swings out of the armrest; as I sank the seat down, the table sank unevenly along with it... So the seat goes almost flat, but only if you're less than 5' tall. The other annoying part as a person of height is that the headrest had wings (similar to AA), but they were not adjustable in height, so in the lie-flat position, the joint between the seatback and the headrest got to be a little uncomfortable even with a pillow under my neck. Likewise, the fold-out footrest was for people under 5' tall, but leaving it stowed meant a piece of metal was now between my legs and the seat cushion.

Newspapers passed out on ground - assortment of Spanish papers plus the Tribune. Right after takeoff, magazines were offered, all Spanish.

Movies onboard were plentiful, but I had a second set of videos to watch -- PBS's "The Mormons" which aired on Frontline last month. Approx 20% of all boy scout and cub scout units in the United States are LDS sponsored, and in Arizona, that number is closer to 50%. Given my involvement with scouting, I thought it was time to find out a little more about the LDS movement. Interesting documentary. As an outsider, I thought it was a somewhat reasonable balance of documented history mixed in with commentary from current members, former members, critics, and theologians inside and outside the church. LDS church members might feel otherwise. (It's available to watch on PBS.Org, and if anyone is really interested, I have all four hours of Quicktime files already downloaded.)

Food was OK but nothing horribly interesting. Salad of grilled scallops, mango, and field greens served with oil & vinegar. Entrees consisted of Chilean sea bass, veal, and veggie lasagna, none of which I'd really consider either US or Spanish. Dessert options were mango & rasberry ice cream, chocolate cake, or a cheese tray. Breakfast was fruit, twelve hour old toast, and yogurt.

One thing IB does that I like is present the entree choices and desserts from a tiered card. Makes it a lot easier to choose an entree you want, as opposed to guessing from a paper menu (assuming the translations are decent). In both directions, I chose my entree based on appearance.

On arrival in MAD, we walked forever, and arrived at the same time as four other A340's, presumably from the US given the lines at immigration. As much as some people criticize the lack of moving walkways in T-5 at ORD, I found them to be a bottleneck in MAD (likewise in LHR), and chose to walk at my own pace. Doing so put me into the immigration queue a minute or two earlier than some of the other folks from the J cabin on my flight.MAD airport is interesting architecturally, but appears somewhat overbuilt. There's T4, and then there's the ginormous T4 satellite. All long-haul international arrives at the satellite, and then trains similar to ATL & DEN run you over to T4 to clear security and customs. Both terminals are long, long concourses with glass walls on all four sides, giving great views of the ramp (if it weren't for the jetway tubes). The IB Club at MAD was made to sound a lot better than it wound up being. I'd rate it a small degree above the Admirals Club in either DFW or ORD (which isn't saying much) except that they had a lot more selections for self-serve beverages (Admirals Club doesn't have self-serve in the US), and they also had small snack foods available (Admirals Club only has salty death mix and a few pieces of fruit). Fortunately, they had showers, and I was able to get out of the clothes I'd been wearing for over 20 hours.

IB8748 MAD-NCE CR2 out 0959 off 1013 on 1140 in 1145 EC-IAA (oh, the irony.....)

My connection to NCE was on Air Nostrom, and believe it or not, this was my first revenue CRJ200 flight. I'd flown the 70 a few times on Eagle, and flown on a Bombardier sponsored charter about 12 years ago, but this was the first time I can think of where I was on a paid ticket.

For a regional, it wasn't bad. Despite the number of gates, all regional boarding is done at ground level on a remote pad. Once onboard, I remembered my biggest gripe from the CRJ200 charter: the windows are too low for anyone over 5' tall. Perhaps they used the same test dummy as IB's lie-flat seat vendor... Sitting on the aisle seat, I was able to look down at the ground when we flew, but I couldn't tell you what we saw at the airport as we taxied.

Even though the flight was an hour or so long, there was a meal service, on china with stainlessware no less. Choice of crepes or plated fruit, with a second choice of chocolate rolls or Krispy Kremes. OK, they weren't Krispy's, but they looked just like them.... In 20 years of flying, that's the first time I've seen glazed donuts offered, but there were a lot of takers for some strange reason...

Arrival into NCE was uneventful, although on taxi, the crew missed our taxiway into the parking area, braked really hard, and somehow managed to do a 180 on the taxiway to get back to the opening. That's comforting... why not just continue down to the next turnout?....

Ground crew at NCE was very welcoming, in a French sort of way.... Several of us were waiting for our hand baggage which had to be placed in the hold thanks to the CRJ's spaciousness, and the CSR was literally yelling at us to get on the bus, even after we told her we were still waiting for hand bags. Rather than take that for an answer, she demanded to see our claim stubs. Having spent approx 20 hours in transit by that point, I was not exactly pleased to have to go digging thru my backpack to find the claim ticket. But, after we all produced our claim stubs, she did shut up.... Gotta love the French.

Nice is nice. In a French sort of way....
Our facility in NCE is actually stated as being in Sophia-Antipolis, which is about 20km northwest from the airport. We have somewhere around 2500 employees, mainly programmers and product development staff, located in at least 11 different buildings that I've been to, and I believe there may be an annex or two located within 1km of the main campus.

Being in a suburban office park has its advantages, but it also means that when we go over for meetings, there aren't a lot of options for hotels or for dining within a reasonable walking distance of the campus. There are two hotels that are across the street (sort of) however both were full this week, so I wound up at the Ibis. They're owned by Accor. I didn't think it was possible to view Motel 6 as an upscale chain, but after staying at the Ibis, M6 now looks good.

Because of the distance from the airport and city, cabs can run about E$40-60 to/from the airport, and very few of them accept credit cards. Plus, given the prospect of being trapped at the hotel and dependent on local employees to be shuttled around, I reserved a subcompact from Avis. It wound up being a diesel Renault Clio, which was fun to drive, and would have easily fit in the bed of my pickup...

My GPS and the European version of Microsoft MapPoint did a great job of telling me where I needed to go, albeit with a few missed turnouts in the roundabouts (Frank, you can go ahead and say "I told you so" now), but once I got the hang of actually looking at the map -before- entering the roundabouts, and turning on map rotation, all was well. All in all, driving wasn't so bad, but the motorcyclists are downright reckless...

After an accidental afternoon catnap, I drove along the Mediterranean coastline to Monaco (about 20 miles from the hotel), which is one of the more beautiful drives I''ve taken in Europe. Passed thru Monte Carlo before returning back on the low road, which was a little less dramatic than the high road, but also less traveled. Since it was getting dark, I didn't mind.

Stopped for a take-out pizza in Villefrance-sur-Mer (which translates to "small village with three pizza places on one block").

During the course of the week, I had a chance to visit the village of Valbonne (which stands for "British ex-patriot haven") twice, about ten minutes drive from the HDQ campus. It's an older village with a small town square surrounded by outdoor restaurants, plus smaller restaurants on the streets leading into the square. A few outdoor scenes from "French Kiss" with Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan were filmed there in the square. It's also a favorite with ex-pats from the UK, including one of the program managers I dined with on Wednesday night. She also recommended a hotel on the square for future visits, since I wasn't afraid to drive.

Things not to expect in France:

  1. Shopping on a Sunday. Even though there is a huge influx of Muslim immigrants, the whole country pretty much shuts down on Sundays. Sort of a bummer, since I'd hoped to hit a grocery store for some Diet Coke, baguettes and marmalade for breakfast. I wound up finding a small convenience store by accident when I stopped for pizza Sunday night.
  2. Eating dinner before 2000. Restaurants don't open until 1900, and there's no way you're going to see starters before 1930...
  3. Buying gas between 2200 and 0600. Pay at the pump hasn't made it to South France, and the few places that were actually open for business 24h only accepted oil company issued credit cards. If you need to gas up, do it during the day.
  4. Refills at McDonalds
  5. Ice at McDonalds

Les Etats-Unis est le place pour moi....
My flight home was at 0730, however as I'd changed my reservation the day before, the travel office at HDQ suggested that I get my ticket revalidated at the ticket counter, which opened at 0600. Given time to return my rental car, get gas, and be lost for a while on the way from the hotel, I wound up waking up at 0330, and leaving the hotel about 0410. No problems getting to the airport, but tried to stop for gas along the way, and none of the stations I found offered pay at the pump. The station in the airport opened at 0600, but that was cutting it a bit close, so I did something I've never done before -- returned a car without refilling the tank.

Apparently, posted opening times in France are a myth. The agents for the ground handling company at NCE strolled out of their office about 0610, and spent the next five minutes setting up the counters. Good thing I didn't wait for the gas station attendant - I'd have probably arrived in the terminal at boarding time...

Once open, it was fairly quick in/out of the queue, thru security, and into the J lounge at NCE. They've got two small lounges with free wifi, but the way it is set up, they give you a PIN which is only good for an hour. After an hour, you have to go to the reception desk and get another PIN. With a 0730 departure, I planned on leaving the lounge about 0700. At 0645, the receptionist told me my flight was boarding, and to report to the gate. So... being the obedient customer that I am, I packed up my stuff, and went to the gate. No agents, and lots of people sitting. Now I'm a little annoyed, being paged to the gate for no apparent reason, and in the time it took me to pack up and walk to the gate, my wifi PIN expired, and I couldn't finish sending email...... At 0715, the agent shows up and starts boarding.

After running my boarding pass thru the EGR, the spirit twin of Agent Naste' d'Arrivals demands to see my connecting boarding passes, takes the BP for my ORD-TUS segment, and tears it in half. Now I'm pissed. One-stop check-in is supposed to be part of oneworld, right? I had a seat assignment, so obviously Edifact thru check-in worked. My bags were thru checked OK. I ask why she did that, and she snipes back "your ticket has problems". OK, why weren't these fixed at the ticket counter? "I don't know. Get on the bus." Excuse me? Now I'm pissed. I ask for her name. "I am not required to give you my name. Get on the bus you smelly American -- I am superior and know everything so your question is simply stupid. Go away." With that, she whips her ID card and lanyard inside her orange safety vest, lest I be literate enough to read it from her AOA badge. I considered taking her picture with my camera phone, but decided it wasn't worth it, as she was the only agent I saw with Braniff orange hair. I'm sure that assuming I write a letter to Iberia, the airport supervisor will be able to figure things out from the duty roster.

IB 8753 NCE-MAD 5F out 0730 off 0742 on 0929 in 0940 EC-JCL (again, the irony... JCL is the language I have to re-learn to obtain access to some of the datasets we need from Amadeus)

Meal service was less exciting than the outbound; choice of bread, and a soda. Taxi took what seemed to be about 15 minutes. Arrived at a remote pad next to a stairway, so no need to be bussed, saving us a couple of minutes.
IB6275 MAD-ORD 3H A343 EC-GUQ out 1209 off 1220 on 1321 in 1326

Transiting MAD wasn't as bad this time because I didn't have to clear customs and security, but it was still a 25 minute walk from arrival to the J lounge. I swear, IB must have the largest fleet of A340's in operation at a single hub...

Onboard service was about the same as the outbound. Watched "The Astronaut Farmer" during dinner. Good movie, although it vaguely reminded me of a horrible 70's prime-time drama "Salvage One" starring Andy Griffith.... Also watched a few minutes of "The Good German" with Toby McGuire and George Clooney. I couldn't follow the storyline very well, but the interesting thing about this movie shot in the past year or two is that it was done in late 40's style black and white, complete with graininess and lack of music. Perhaps that's why I found it so hard to follow, or maybe I was just tired from having gotten four hours of sleep before heading to the airport....

Frank has noted before the risk of having a flatulent seat mate. Prior to leaving, I noticed that IB's website clearly advises the following:
Pressure changes. It is advisable to avoid heavy meals or flatulent food as of the day before the flight. Our onboard menus are designed to avoid using ingredients that may cause discomfort.
Well, someone around me obviously didn't read those tips, because there was a persistant cloud hanging in the air.Once you got used to it, everything was fine until someone new joined in the "chorus"... Instead of worrying about greenhouse emmission taxes, someone needs to investigate in-cabin emmission taxes...

Post arrival snack was an egg/tomato/chicken breast sandwich with the crusts cut off, plus some fruit, served about 45 minutes prior to landing, so the crew was scrambling to pick up the last of the trays when we were half-way across Lake Michigan.

Arrival in Chicago was straight down the center of Lower Michigan, with our right turn just over Jennison (GRR), which is where Vicki lived for her first year of high school. We then flew down Palatine Road past Pal-Waukee, out over Hoffman Estates, and began a lazy turn back to the east, arriving on 9R. Taxi was very short.

As soon as we exited the jetway, we were at the escalators down to Immigration. Then we discovered that we'd arrived just after the DEL flight... one of my worst nightmares on several accounts, the least of which was the queue to exit Customs.

I knew there was a flight to TUS leaving at 1415, so seeing as there was at least 30 minutes, I thought I'd give it a go. Or maybe not...
  • 1329: In line at Immigration. Despite the fact I'm in the line for US citizens, there's a guy from Italy in front of me, and needs to be finger printed and photographed... while that's going on, the officials on either side of me have processed two or three people who were all in line behind me...
  • 1334: Finally get to the agent, who says "welcome home". Score another point in the curteous vs. rude perception for immigration.
  • 1335: I'd checked my rollaboard in NCE. It was tagged for premium/priority, and expecting it to be out in one of the first containers was a bad assumption. IB obviously has the tags, but either didn't do squat as far as segregating bags, or ground handler AA screwed up and didn't deliver the priority bags to the claim belt first. Same thing happened to me on AA in DFW back in December, so I know its something AA probably doesn't do very well. Yet another strike in my mind against IB today, and oddly neither failure was IB's fault directly, but the fault of ground handlers...
  • 1346: My bag finally showed up in the fourth or fifth container. Time to get in the Customs exit line...
  • 1351: Thru Customs; fortunately, the line of trolleys from the DEL claim belt had dwindled to a dozen or so while I waiting for my bag. Customs officer also says "welcome home" as I'm handing him my declaration.
  • 1552: Impatiently standing on the escalator as people ahead of me are refusing to stand to one side with their bags... Note that I have succesfully transitioned from go-with-the-flow world traveler mode back into to pushy/impatient American business traveler mode.
  • 1355: On the train to T3. Take up strategic position at exit doorway so I don't have to be behind people with lots of time to get to the lobby...
  • 1357: Realized as I'm heading up escalator to the skybridge that NCE Agent Extraordinaire' Duex had taken my ORD-TUS BP away, so I was unable to go straight to security. Merde'. When I get into the lobby, all the top tier queues have about 10 people in them. Kiosks are my friend, and there's no line. Damn. Gave me a "see agent" slip. Frack. Fortunately, the bag-tagging agent takes pity on me and pops out the BP for my later flight in a few seconds flat.
  • 1401: In the security queue behind a group of five barefoot Tibetan Monks, which slowed things down because either the BP screener couldn't communicate very well with them or the TSA couldn't figure out where their shoes were...
  • 1409: Thru security, after Grandpa Joe Screener decides I'm his random hand search candidate for the hour. Now running to L2A with my shoes flopping at my heels because I didn't have time to lace them up at Security.
  • 1411: Finally arrive at gate, where the last six or seven people are stilled queued up at the EGR. Thank God that agent working EGR is former girlfriend of former roomate
  • 1411½: Remember that agent at EGR used to walk around our apartment butt naked 15 years ago... This could be good or bad for my chances at getting on.
  • 1412: Agent recognizes me and doesn't hold grudges for past choice of roomate, or for roomate cheating on her. Tells me to just go onboard and take 27A/B.
  • 1414: Walking down jetbridge to get on aircraft. Thank God I only lived with former roomate for 12 months...


AA1349 ORD-TUS MD80 27A Gate L2A Out 1415 off 1433 on 1533 in 1534 N408AA

Somewhat packed flight. 110 out of 125 seats in the back filled. Buy on board looked better than normal -- wrap sandwiches and cans of Stackers (Frito Lay's version of Pringles). Bought a can of Stackers since I was starving after my mad dash thru the airport. Unfortunately, no powerport in my row, and my laptop died about halfway thru the flight. So I spent the last hour watching podcasts on my iPod, since sleep is next to impossible for me on an aircraft.