Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A hearty welcome

quawking VFR would like to take a moment and announce the arrival of his sister on the World Wide Web. Rachel VFR has started a blog devoted to recounting her favorite comfort food experiences.

While she may not be much for seafood and spice, Rachel is a Garden State native, and I'm willing to bet her space will fawn over Jersey diners, raise pizza-by-the-slice to mythic proportions and revel in Taylor-ham-on-a-hard-roll excellence.

Welcome, Rachel.

For those of you who have never left Jersey on a permanent basis, you may not grasp that the aforementioned foods are not readily available on every street corner elsewhere in the country. A shock, I know. I ran into that problem in the Rockies, and my frustrations boiled over in a letter to Denver Post food critic Greg Henry.

To welcome a blog that I believe will honor the sanctity of diners everywhere, let's take a walk down memory lane and review that letter now:

July 29, 2004


I'm writing to convey my disappointment with your recent review of the Cheesy Jane's restaurant in Centennial.

Aside from my bewilderment as to how you could endlessly gush over such an ordinary fry-pit -- let them pay for an ad if they want undeserved, unvarnished praise! -- there was one particular sentence that caught in my throat, as it were.

"Like any diner, Jane's serves scrumptious shakes and malts."

My problem is with the use of the word 'diner' to describe Cheesy Jane's. Burger joint? Sure. Luncheonette? That would work.

But diner is wholly incorrect. I have eaten there. I know.

By the strictest definition, a diner is a restaurant shaped to look like a railroad car. Cheesy Jane's, situated in the middle of an urban-sprawl strip mall, certainly is not that.

I'm willing to cut you some latitude there. But even a looser definition of what constitutes a diner would certainly include the following stipulations:

1. It is open 24 hours a day (Cheesy Jane's is not).

2. It serves breakfast all day long (Cheesy Jane's does not).

3. It has pies prominently displayed in a case near the cash register -- prefereably spinning. (Cheesy Jane's does not).

Not even the vile Gunther Toody's diner chain would qualify under those basic standards. That place is a sorry excuse of a restaurant chain, and its owners should be prosecuted for mutating the proud history of authentic diners, but I digress.

In conclusion, I find it utterly unpalatable that a restaurant reviewer at a newspaper with the stature of The Denver Post could make such a fundamental error. Please be more thoughtful with your future choices in wording.


Squawking VFR

Mr. Henry responded with a one-word answer: "Whatever."

That necessitated a response of: "It's reassuring to know you put an iota of thought into your job, you sorry excuse for a hack."

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Honeymoon

(Photos from top: View from the lodge during a rainstorm; Guatemalan fast food; a plant outside our hut; Toucan Sam; a Guatemalan lake we saw passing by from the road; Mayan ruins at Tikal; a view spelunking that reminded me of something out of Goonies.)

Chickens and pigs played in the dirt road. A woman stood at the edge of a nearby river, doing the family laundry. Soldiers stood at the border with machine guns, but seemed more interested in playing dominoes than rooting out crime.

We waited on line behind an Amish couple that was entering Guatemala carrying baskets for produce. When they were done, we paid our $21 U.S. dollars per person to leave Belize, a tourist racket if there was ever one. Belizians didn't have to pay to depart. Only foreigners.

A sign warned us of consequences for bringing books, literature or other propoganda into the country. I wondered if the Time I had brought along for reading material on the trip qualified, but I kept that thought to myself and the magazine in my backpack.

The border building was open air, kind of like an airplane hangar. We walked in one side, and out the other. Large ceiling fans spun above us. It looked like it had been built in the 1950s. It was the most modern structure we would see for some time.

No, nothing to declare. After leaving the line to depart Belize, we moved to the line to enter Guatemala. We were called to the desk, and a processor started stamping our papers.

And that is when it happened.

He started examining Mrs. VFR's passport with a high level of interest. He paused. Something was amiss. I got worried. With a crooked smile on his face and in a thick Spanish accent, he looked at her and said, "So ... is your brother ... Deuce?"

Even in one of the most remote spots on this planet, we cannot escape that horrible fucking movie.

That was one of the many highlights from our honeymoon, belatedly completed at the beginning of this month. We spent a week in Belize, one day of which was spent on a jaunt to Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

We did not spend the other six days lounging on a beach. No, we stayed at an incredible adventure lodge in the middle of the Central American jungle. No electricity. We used oil lamps for light. Screens on our hut protected us from the monkeys at night. They didn't prevent the occasional frog or big, hairy, brown spider from visiting, though.

It was amazing how quickly that we didn't care that we had no TV, no lights or any of our other stuff from home.

During the days, we did expeditions. We hiked through the rainforest and rappeled off a 300-foot cliff. We spelunked in a cave. When we were about a mile in, we started swimming from room to room with our headlamps, helmets, boots and pants on. Then we jumped off waterfalls into deep pools inside the cave.

(OK, and there was one day when we went to a beach resort and lounged, but that was only because the Carribean was too rough for snorkeling). We also visited the tremendous Belize Zoo and Blue Hole National Park.

Oh, and we ate live termites one day in the jungle. They taste like minty carrots.

At night, they served huge buffets at the lodge, and we'd sit around with our fellow travelers, recount our expeditions and plot more for the next day while drinking Belikin Beer. Great times, and good people.

Belize is a wonderful country. It has a bizarre mix of native Belizians, Guatemalans, Amish, Mennonites, Chinese and Taiwanese among its population of about 275,000 residents.

It was humbling to see the poverty people live with. We thought Belize looked poor with its three main paved roads and tiny dilapidated bungaloes dotting the side of the road. Then we went to Guatemala.

It makes Belize look like Dubai.

All in all, it was all a fantastic experience. There's nowhere else on Earth like this place. We cannot wait to return.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

stupid parent tricks

I know we're in the middle of my two-part series on airports, but we're interrupting that to discuss an outrageous case of parental neglect and irresponsibility. It also has a link to aviation, so I am kind of staying on topic.

Perhaps you have already heard about siblings Blake and Briana Sims. The 15-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister were flying unaccompanied from one parent's home in Dothan, Ala. to the other parent's home in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Along the way, they missed their connecting flight in Salt Lake City, where they were marooned for nearly 24 hours with no supervision. Cue the hysterical mother, Adriana Ables. Read the complete story in today's Salt Lake Tribune for full background.

As a preface, I'd like to think there aren't many people who are more critical of the airline industry than myself. I've made all the requisite jokes about flying U.S. Scare and how Delta stands for Doesn't Ever Leave The Airport. I penned this furious missive to United Airlines. (Scroll down to June 17, 2002). I've written numerous other angry letters to Continental, Frontier, and still more to United.

Mrs. Ables described an experience that was "beyond incompetence," words that I probably have used myself to articulate airline travel. Except in this case, this person should have been describing her parenting skills, not the airlines.

She clearly has no concept of accountability.

From the very beginning of her children's ordeal, she showed extraordinary lapses in judgment and indifference toward the transport of young Blake and Briana. She deserves the blame she is so vocally directing at the airlines.

Let's look through the facts here. According to the Trib:
Ables' ex-husband, who purchased the tickets for almost $2,000, said his Alabama travel agent explained he didn't need to pay an extra $75 fee for unaccompanied-minor service for Briana because Blake was older than 12.
Except they did need to pay for the service. Delta policy clearly states any unaccompanied child under 15 must have purchased the service. It is the airline's safeguard to prevent just the sort of calamity that followed when the Ables/Sims family skirted the policy.

This willful disregard started the chain of errors that led to Blake and Briana checking into a SLC hotel by themselves.

I don't know if the family ignored the policy to save the $75 fee -- essentially trading their children's security for spare cash -- or if their claims their travel agent misinformed them are true. Either way, this is not Delta's fault.

Errors: Family 1, Delta 0.

The next moronic mistake came when the children were booked on flights that gave them only a 28-minute window to connect in Salt Lake City. That's a Mission Impossible squeeze for most adults. Chances are there's going to be a delay. If the travel agent chose those flights, the parents should have immediately objected. Do these parents have their head in the tarmac?

Errors: Family 2, Delta 0.

The flight from Salt Lake City to Fairbanks that was to take the Sims children home was the last flight of the day. Luckily, Delta has guidelines in place to prevent unaccompanied minors from being booked on the last flight of the day, thus preventing them from being stranded in a connecting city. A pragmatic fail-safe. But wait, the parents flouted that rule. How was Delta supposed to know?

Errors: Family 3, Delta 0.

Sure enough, the plane is leaving Atlanta more than two hours late due to high winds. Here is the part of parental stupidity that really gets me. Blake dutifully calls home from the plane on the ATL tarmac to report they are ready to depart after the two-hour delay.

Does Mom put two and two together and say to herself, 'Hey, if they are delayed two hours in Atlanta, I guess that 28-minute window in Salt Lake City is going to be a wee bit of a problem?' Of course she doesn't. She's a moron. An absolute imbecile. Her quote on that phone call: "He said, 'We are OK, but we'll be late.' It didn't occur to me that they were going to be stuck in Salt Lake."

Well, lady, it should have occurred to you. Too bad Delta doesn't have a policy against stupidity.

Errors: Family 4, Delta 0.

When the flight arrived in SLC, 30-something passengers were re-booked on flights after missing their connections, including Blake and Briana, who stood in line with the rest of the crowd and received their hotel and food vouchers.

They took the shuttle bus to the hotel, checked into their room with a credit card, and ordered food. Let's look at that another way: The airline provided them with transportation, food and lodging, the kids never telling the agent or hotel they were in over their heads -- and only calling home to mom when they were waiting in line for the shuttle bus.

No errors here. The airline provided its passengers with exactly what it should have.

I might remind you the older brother is 15. As one reader pointed out in the comments of the story, this kid is going to be driving a car next year. The circumstances are unusual and admittedly not ideal, but I think he's old enough to handle them. Hell, at 15, I was booking my own trips to Cleveland so me and my dad could fly out for Browns games. Pops VFR went on the trip, but left all the reservations and planning to me.

Which brings me to another point. Pops? Mom? You were sending your kids on a three-legged journey -- Dothan to Atlanta, Atlanta to Salt Lake, Salt Lake to Fairbanks -- that spans the continent. I'm sorry you felt the urge to divorce and move halfway around the world from each other, but for an undertaking of this size, one of you should have made the trip with the kids, especially if you were already worried about them fending for themselves, although obviously not to a point where you would chalk up the extra $75 for that protection.

Errors: Family 5, Delta 0.

The kids handled the day just fine, watching TV and eating pizza in their room. Mom, on the other hand, was busy flying off the handle, blaming the airline for her own poor parenting skills and summoning a lawyer.

Short of outright physical abuse, I cannot imagine a worse parent. She took no interest in the kids' travel plans until something went wrong, after deliberately ignoring all the safeguards designed to stop just such a goof.

She sounds like the type of mom who blames the teachers when her kids get bad grades at school, the type who blames everyone but herself for the circumstances that she is 100 percent accountable for.

Mrs. Ables, an airline is not a babysitter, nor a parent. Those roles falls squarely on your shoulders. If you are unable to properly care for your children, I suggest you contact your local Division of Youth and Family Services, if a Delta representative has not already deservedly done so.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Landing strips

fter some extensive recent travels, I've come to appreciate good airports. They can make the difference between a reasonably comfortable travel experience and an absolutely wretched one. In an attempt to draw up a list of the best five U.S. airports, I've come to the conclusion they are few and far between.

I had a hard time finding five.

Picking the worst, though, was easy. There are many worthy candidates.

Below you will find my top five. All conjecture is based on experiences as a passenger, pilot and aviation enthusiast. A list of the worst will appear in a few days.


1. Denver International Airport. (KDEN).

As the beat writer covering the Donkeys, I was blessed to routinely use the best airport in the land. It exceeds expectations on all levels.

From, the outside, it is asthetically pleasing, doing its best to blend in with the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. On the inside, it has wide concourses and a good restaurant selection. The train transportation never keeps you waiting very long.

Once derided because of its ability to chew luggage, the baggage system now has to be the most efficient I've encountered. Most of the time, my bags were coming off the conveyor belt before I reached the claim area. Bonus points for the conveyor created specificially for skis.

Denver has five runways that are more than or just less than 10,000 feet, a barometer of sorts for a landing strip's ability to handle large aircraft -- the kind that fly overseas. It says a lot about a city's status to support that kind of traffic, both customer-wise and with the physical asphalt.

The long runways also make Denver an option for space shuttle landings, although to my knowledge, that's never happened.

Denver also holds a special place in aviation lore, because it is the lone Class B airport -- B's are typically the nation's biggest -- where I have landed as a pilot. Late one night, I landed a Cessna 172 on runway 17L while a United 757 touched down on 17R.

Good times.

2. San Francisco International. (KSFO).

To an extent, SFO mirrors Newark and Boston. All three were built in the same era and share many interior resemblences. But it stands above those two for many reasons.

For one, the concourses are cleaner. The food area is much cleaner, and more high-quality choices are available. For example, sandwiches on sourdough bread are pretty good.

SFO also gets bonus points for being the scene of many Dirty Harry takedowns. Callahan can stop a hijacking at SFO before the opening credits are finished rolling. (See Force, Magnum).

Its mass transit system to downtown is also probably the easiest to use among all major airports, surpassing even Chicago O'Hare.

Where it really stands out, though, is from the perspective of someone who is merely a fan of airports. The runways extend into San Francisco Bay, making final approach there something of a thrilling experience.

United and plenty of other international airlines use SFO as a gateway to all of Asia. It seems like every 15 seconds or so, there is a 747 thundering down a runway and lifting off toward points in the Orient.

Near the gates, there are usually six or seven lined up in a row, a sight I've never seen at any other airport. It is an impressive display of equipment. (See picture above). It also brings back memories of a time when such trips were exciting instead of a hassle.

I think Denver and San Francisco are the head-and-shoulder favorites. After them, the drop off -- and real debate -- begins.

3. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International. (KCVG).

Maybe it's because it is dominated by one carrier, but I've always found connecting through The Nati an efficient and easy process. Delta uses it as its primary northern hub, and I've connected through on several trips.

It's a newer airfield, and all the terminals have wide concourses and are clean. I suppose those aren't exactly high standards, but you'd be surprised at how few places can meet them. I cannot speak to the food in the terminals.

4. Chicago O'Hare. (KORD).

A lot of people would probably place O'Hare on their worst list. It has a confusing layout, which can make sprints for flights intolerably long. It has its share of rickety buildings, especially on the E concourse, out of which it runs its United Express puddle-jumpers. It inevitably has more than its share of delays.

But O'Hare gets a nod a sentimental favorite. It is the heart and soul of America's aviation puzzle.

It is usually No. 1 or No. 2 on the list of the world's busiest airports, according to number of passengers served. It is also always No. 1 or No. 2 on the list of most arrivals and departures, not surpringly.

The sheer scope of what O'Hare handles is impressive. And to do it when the field faces routine disruptions -- thunderstorms in the summer and snow squalls in the winter -- is quite a feat.

I also like O'Hare because of the fact you get such a variety of airlines landing there. Probably as many as LAX or JFK. I once got to see Air Force One parked on the ramp as I taxiied by in a crappy little RJ.

Here's a little bit of O'Hare trivia: It's identifier is ORD because the field was built on the site of an apple orchard in the 1930s.

5. Portland International. (KPDX).

You've got to love an airport so beloved by its city, that a lot of the city's residents have adopted its identifier, PDX, as a nickname for the whole town.

I've only flown in and out of PDX once, but had an overall good visit. There aren't many thrills to speak of, but it is clean and simple. There were the least amount of lines I've faces anywhere as a traveler and the airline service reps were shockingly helpful.

I'm not the only one who is fond of PDX, which offers free WiFi access in its wide concourses. Readers of Conde Nast voted it their favorite American airport.

On a clear day, you can often get a great view of Mount Hood on the long approach from 30 miles to the west.

Honorable mentions: I have never been to Washington-National, now known as Reagan. But I have heard good things. I've heard there are good eats in Atlanta, but have only connected there once in a hurry.

Boston gets a thumbs-up for construction of a new control tower. Milwaukee is surprisingly nice, although if you are flying on Midwest Express into its hub, its easy to see why you're already in a great mood.

San Diego has a good layout, but has lost my luggage too many times to merit consideration. LAX has the might of a San Francisco or Chicago, but has too many near-accidents on its runways.

I'll return in a few days with my list of the worst.