What is life?

“What is life?”

That’s a phrase I often use to describe situations in which I find myself unable to comprehend how lucky I am.

There is so much bad in the world — bad people, bad places, bad situations — but in my 32 years of life, I’ve somehow managed to avoid most all of it. I don’t know how or why, but I’ve experienced so much of the good… so much that it sometimes feels unfair.

And today… today was yet another really good day.

It all starts with Chicago… a blustery, midwestern city that reeled me in a couple years back and helped me to blossom into the happiest “me” I’ve ever been. It was there that I began working for The Boeing Company, and it was there that I met some truly incredible people, two of whom I had the pleasure of traveling with today.

While I was living in The Windy City, I met a fellow Chicagoan named Stathis. He’s the founder and president of branding.aero — a brand experience management agency — and a marketing professor at SUNY Oswego. He’s good people, and he’s a fellow AV geek.

Through Stathis, I was introduced to Elliot, who had interned with United Airlines and now works for the company at its Chicago headquarters. He too, is good people, and (of course) a fellow AV geek.

A few weeks back, I had posted a photo of the new United CRJ-550 on Instagram — the first regional jet with a three-class configuration. I spotted the 50-seater out at STL, an airport that doesn’t typically offer much in the way of new, exciting airplanes (at least not compared to Chicago). And in the caption, I mentioned how much I’d like to try out first class on the 550 some day…

Shortly after posting the photo, Elliot reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in coming out to Chicago to fly first class on the newly-configured airplane. My heart rate skyrocketed and I said to Scott, “Oh. My. Gosh.” I was so, so excited.

Before I knew it, Elliot and I were working out the details for what was sure to be an incredible day. Shortly thereafter, he had even more good news for me — Stathis would be joining us!

I waited and waited in anticipation. And before I knew it, the day had arrived. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. with a spring in my step, and headed to the airport for my first flight, which was to depart at 7:45. I flew from St. Louis to Chicago where the three of us met and boarded our first flight on United’s new jet. Next stop: Sioux Falls!

The three of us sat near one another in first class, and let me tell you… there was SO. MUCH. SPACE. Aside from my fluke-of-an-experience flying business class on Turkish Airlines, I’ve always flown economy, so this was quite a treat. After the initial cabin service, we were able to grab additional drinks and snacks from a self-serve bar area, which was super fun and unlike anything I had experienced before.

After landing in Sioux Falls, we had the chance to visit the flight deck, before stepping off the plane for just a few minutes, then getting right back on. Both flights were so smooth and so quiet. What made the trip so special, though, was the fact that I could enjoy it with two awesome people.

After we returned to O’Hare, we spent a bit of time in the United lounge, before Elliot and Stathis saw me off as I boarded my last flight of the day, back home to St. Louis.

Before today, I had never flown standby, and let me tell you… it’s really fun, albeit a little nerve-racking at times. Lucky for me, I live for this stuff and would have been perfectly content if I was “stranded” in Chicago. Alas, I was the very last passenger called to board the flight. I even got seat 1A — go figure!

So, there you have it… in exactly nine hours’ time I flew from St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to Sioux Falls, Sioux Falls to Chicago, and Chicago back to St. Louis. Spending all day in airports and in the sky isn’t for everyone, but it IS for some folks… like me, Elliot and Stathis. And lucky for us, every now and again the stars align and we have the chance to take to the skies together… the three amigos!

Thank you, Elliot, for making today possible. It was an incredible adventure and I am so grateful for your generosity and thankful to have you as a friend.

And thank you Stathis, for being such a kind, selfless person. It was so great to be able to share in this experience with you!

So, what is life?

Well… simply put, life is good.

Here’s to friends, blue skies and tailwinds.

Be kind, be determined, be gracious and oh, meet your hero two… too…

As far as I am concerned, life is all about the connections you make. I don’t mean “knowing someone” in an industry who will put in a good word for you or having an “in” with someone at a company who will help land you a job. I mean the deep, personal connections you make with the people who are always there to help and support you on your journey.

Earlier this year I finally met my industry mentor, Benét Wilson (Aviation Queen). I first reached out to her almost two years ago, and today I’m lucky to call her my friend. We have a solid, trusting relationship and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without her—I consider her “Hero One” in the story of my journey.

With Benét’s ongoing support and by working hard toward my goal of becoming an aviation journalist, I was brought on as contributing editor at Airways Magazine. That’s how I met “Hero Two” AKA Chris Sloan, Airways’ Managing Editor. Finally, more than a year after starting that gig, I met Chris in “real life” here in Chicago.

It’s funny, I first connected with both Benét AND Chris while living in Minneapolis… the city in which I lived for nearly all of my 31 years on this planet. However, I first met each of them in person here in Chicago as an employee of The Boeing Company—the company I’d long dreamed of working for and a place I’d never be without their help.

Yesterday, I met Chris in the lobby of Chicago’s iconic Sears—I mean WILLIS… (ugh)—Tower, where he and I toured the United Airlines National Operations Center.

It.

Was.

Awesome.

Seriously, the combination of meeting Chris AND seeing the ins and outs of how United keeps their (mostly Boeing!) fleet flying was ridiculously cool. I loved it. My favorite part? Chris and I were in the social media/de-escalation area where they had huge screens displaying real-time social data, and one of the screens had on it incoming conversations that were considered “positive” interactions on Twitter.

Chris: Hey it’s you!

Me: What?

Chris: @thegreatplanes – that’s you!

Me: Como se WHAT!? Whoa!

I looked at the screen and saw my very tweet ABOUT this tour, and the subsequent response from Ben Bearup saying I was living my “best life” (SO TRUE!). It was pretty awesome.

Aside from that, I saw firsthand the many people who are hard at work 24/7 to keep the airline up and running… air traffic controllers, meteorologists, pilots (yes, pilots!), the Airbus team and the Boeing team, among others. I also saw more pie charts, bar graphs, numbers and maps than my geeking-out brain could even handle.

All in all, my biggest take away from that tour was that even though it is extremely frustrating if your flight gets delayed or canceled, just know that whenever something isn’t 100 percent perfect in terms of an airline’s operations (so essentially… always), there are hundreds of dedicated people working to make things right.

Yesterday was a truly great day. I’m so happy to have finally met Chris, and I so much enjoyed spending my lunch hour with the kind folks over at United. The icing on the cake was doing some work from home later that evening as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds zipped past my apartment window over, and over, and over again in preparation for this weekend’s Chicago Air and Water Show.

This year’s two-day event will include parachutists, fighter jets, a C-130 and even an AMERICAN AIRLINES DREAMLINER (pinch me, please). I’ll be attending the show both days, one of them on behalf of Boeing, and as I look forward to that… I think my teammate Jane best captured my excitement in her own words:

“Annie, you’re going to lose your mind.”

Long live the Queen: VC-25A is now officially the longest serving presidential aircraft

SAM 28000, one of two current VC-25As (photo: Wikipedia)

It’s official: the Boeing VC-25A—two modified 747-200Bs with tail numbers 28000 and 29000, more commonly referred to as Air Force One—is now the longest-serving presidential aircraft. I’ve been tracking this milestone for awhile now, and to be quite honest, I actually botched it at first (don’t judge… I’m not a mathematician!).

Because I also have a strange fascination with the Kennedy family (who doesn’t?), I knew that JFK’s two modified 707s with tail numbers 26000 and 27000 (the Boeing VC-137C) were most certainly the longest serving presidential aircraft of all time… I didn’t, however, realize just how soon today’s Queens of the Skies were going to steal the crown from those two planes that first entered service when Kennedy was in office.

I originally (and mistakenly) did my calculations as follows (using the entry-into-service date for the VC-137C as opposed to the first time it actually flew as Air Force One). This had VC-25A officially becoming the longest serving presidential aircraft on Aug. 5, just a couple days ago.

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,194 days between Oct. 9, 1962 (VC-137C first entered service) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,195 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and Aug. 5, 2018

However, upon realizing my mistake and finding the actual date when VC-137C first flew with Kennedy on board (therefore using the call sign Air Force One), November 10, 1962, I realized that my timeline had moved up roughly a month and that this milestone actually happened on July 4 of this year (pretty cool date for an American milestone, eh?).

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,162 days between Nov. 10, 1962 (VC-137C first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first few as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,163 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and July 4, 2018

It is important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean the 747 (generally speaking) is the longest serving presidential aircraft… that honor still goes to the 707, at least for now. Dwight D. Eisenhower was actually the first to fly in a modified Boeing 707 using the call sign Air Force One (VC-137B) when he departed Dec. 3, 1959 on his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour to 11 Asian nations.

The 747 won’t officially take the crown from the 707 for another three years, on June 11, 2021.

Boeing 707

11,235 days between Dec. 3, 1959 (707 first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One)

Boeing 747

11,236 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One) and June 11, 2021

I want to give a special thanks to our incredibly awesome historian here at Boeing, Mike Lombardi, for reminding me that it’s important to make these distinctions. And, I’ll add… that June 2021 milestone is a surefire thing since the new Air Force One planes currently on order are two 747-8s expected to be delivered (last I heard) by 2024. So even if they were delivered tomorrow, they’re still 747s and the math still works… so there.

With that, there’s only one thing left to say: Long live the Queen.

Boeing: Air Force One (read about past, current and future presidential aircraft)

A Very Great Plane: The Douglas DC-3

I just heard one of my favorite sounds in the world – a prop plane flying nearby. That sound tends to bring my mind back to the early days of aviation, and this time was no different.

Over the last few weeks I’ve become mildly obsessed with the Douglas DC-3… would you believe that there are still thousands of those planes flying? December 17, 1935 – that was when the first one took to the skies. Sometimes I actually forget that planes were around that long ago, but they certainly were. The DC-3 was the “cream of the crop” in the aviation industry during those years and is credited today with having revolutionized air travel in a number of ways.

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A Breitling Douglas DC-3, Photo Courtesy: Breitling

Before the DC-3 came around, there were two other planes that had a strong foothold in the market: the Boeing Model 247 and the “Tin Goose” Ford Trimotor.

The Trimotor first flew in June 1926, powered by (you guessed it) three engines – Pratt and Whitney Wasps. Transcontinental Air Transport (which would later become TWA) pioneered coast-to-coast service with the Trimotor. The plane was strong and sturdy, but unfortunately didn’t have what it took to stand up to the two competitors that would enter the market several years later – the 247 and the DC-1.

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A Ford Trimotor, Photo Courtesy: Golden Wings Flying Museum

The Boeing Model 247 is considered to be the first modern airliner and had its inaugural flight in February 1933. It was the first plane that was capable of flying on only one of its two engines – also Pratt and Whitney Wasps. But just months later, the DC-1 was developed at the request of TWA. And even though the DC-1 itself wasn’t perfect, it paved the way to the eventual DC-3, which was as close to perfect as an airplane could be back then.

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A United Air Lines Boeing Model 247, Photo Courtesy: Boeing

The DC-1 evolved into the larger, faster and more luxurious DC-2 and then nixed beds for upright seats to become the DC-3. Powered by two Wright Cyclone engines, the DC-3 was strong, fast, and comfortable. It had capacity to carry two crew members and 21-32 passengers. Back then, flying really was a luxurious experience, namely because it was just that – a luxury. The DC-3 also pioneered inflight movies.

Of course some of today’s airlines still offer that touch of glamour, but with the rise in low-cost carriers and even the legacy carriers offering stripped down “basic economy” fares, it’s not as common. Flying today is, for most, a means to get from point A to point B. Why else do you see people rapt with magazines or computers, and not with the fact that they’re FLYING? I mean… HELLO – you are six miles in the sky, soaring amongst the clouds in a 100,000-pound METAL TUBE. WHY AREN’T YOU STARING OUT THE WINDOW IN SHEER AMAZEMENT?

OK – I think I’ve made my point. I love flying, and I don’t take it for granted. I need to be in a window seat so I can constantly look out at the sky we’re in and the ground below, because I am amazed that we as humans were able to pioneer this concept. We figured out how to DEFY gravity. It’s remarkable! But the message I really want to convey to all of you is that the planes we fly on today were in some way, shape or form derived from the sturdy workhorse Douglas DC-3. It’s a legend. Why else do you think some 2,000 of the planes still fly? I can only hope that someday I’ll have a chance to fly in one of those time capsules myself.

Striving to keep an open mind, a full heart and thick skin

I’ve been quite happy lately. “Why?” you ask? Because I’ve actually been chasing and fulfilling a dream, and have found along the way how good it really feels to accomplish something, especially when you’re very passionate about that something.

“The Great Planes” on Instagram has well over 600 followers – something I never thought I’d see just five months into it. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), my home away from home, has shared TWO of my photos on their Instagram account – and just yesterday, Sun Country Airlines posted one of my photos on theirs. These may seem like very minute successes, but they’re actually huge for me.

It wasn’t terribly long ago that I was relaying this dream of becoming an aviation journalist to my husband Scott… thinking nothing would ever come of it. I can even remember SO vividly a time that we were walking through Loring Park and talking about this very subject. Scott said to me, “Why don’t you just write something up and submit it to newspapers or something?” It got me sort of excited, but I didn’t really think I could do something like that. I didn’t think I had the will and the drive to TRY to do something like that.

But lo and behold, just months later, here I am with my second piece published on the Airways Magazine website, thanks once again to the immense kindness of THE Aviation Queen: Benét Wilson.

If you remember, my first piece was about how smaller manufacturers, specifically Embraer and Bombardier, are stepping up to the plate to compete with the big guys: Boeing and Airbus. It was fun to see my family and friends react to my work being published. And it was equally as fun to see the comments and likes on Facebook, and the retweets and favorites on Twitter.

My second piece, though, was a bit different. This one was more of an Op-Ed on a topic that I knew had the potential to cause a bit of controversy. Even though it happened well over a month ago, I didn’t think people had quite gotten over the “dragged doctor” incident on United Flight 3411…

I was right.

It seemed that the popular opinion following the incident was that United Airlines is truly, utterly awful. BELIEVE me, I do think United really messed up. I think what happened was awful and that the airline is ultimately at fault. I also think there are two sides to every story. I really just wanted to try to get people to look at what happened in a different light. Trust me, I HATE what happened to Dr. David Dao, as most people do. At the same time, however, I do NOT think it is fair that the lasting impression following flight 3411 has been United = Bad, Doctor = Good. Because it’s just not that cut and dry.

For my story “Is Ignorance Bliss? United Flight 3411 is Part of a Larger Story that Isn’t Being Told” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Roman, president of Roman and Associates, a risk management and investigation firm. Roman, a former commercial pilot himself, noted that even though United was ultimately the catalyst behind this unfortunate incident, Dr. Dao was still at fault to some extent, namely for not obeying the commands of law enforcement personnel. I also spoke with Jamie Horwitz of the Association Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) who provided some background information on the recent congressional hearing on flight 3411 that he attended. Jamie also directed me to the recent Op-Ed written by Bob Ross, president of the APFA, that shed light on bigger issues in the airline industry, including constant pressure from Wall Street to please investors.

I knew some angry people would voice their disagreement after reading my piece, and they didn’t disappoint. Some people respectfully disagreed (thank you), and others said things that were slightly hurtful, including:

“Airways Magazine is known for its interesting and very professional writing about aviation. But this article is totally nonsense. Please, put it offline and save at least your reputation.”

“What a load of absolute bullshit! Sometimes I simply cannot believe the crap you Americans come up with!”

“How much is the writer getting from this?”

“This definitely comes off as a shill piece.”

But, you know what, there were some people who either agreed with the article, or respected and supported the thoughts presented in it. My favorite was:

“Finally someone calls out the fact that the passenger failed to comply with law enforcement. Thank you!”

Those who know me well, know how incredibly sensitive I am. I cry fairly easily, and simply put, I hate to be hated. But… upon reading these comments, both the good and the bad, I realized how much I’ve toughened up. Not only did I not even flinch at the bad comments, I actually giggled and was weirdly thrilled by it. To think that something I wrote and ideas I shared could affect people in a way that compels them to say something, that right there is enough motivation for me to keep doing what I’m doing, and keep doing it with a smile on my face.

I’d like to think I am a good person. In the past, however, I may have been what some people would consider a “pushover” … well, not anymore. Thick-skinned Annie is here to stay. I’ll defend myself, hold true to my words and stand up for what I believe is right. And, as this post’s title alluded to, I’ll keep an open mind and a full heart while I am at it. At least I’ll try my best to. 😉

A Truly Great Plane: The Boeing 747

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Photo Courtesy of Boeing

Two hundred and sixty-four days… it sounds like a long time, but I know it will come quickly. Just about eight months from now I’ll be soaring through the clouds aboard the Queen of the Skies: a Boeing 747. While it may not sound incredibly exciting to some, it will be truly monumental for me, as it will be my first time flying on one of my favorite aircraft of all time.

Sure, I love plenty of airplanes: the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, but those aircraft, or at least the passenger versions of them, are obsolete. My only chance to fly on one of my favorite planes was to snag a ticket on a Boeing 747. And with the help of my dad, I did just that.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

I consider only one man made “thing” on this earth to be as truly remarkable and awe-inspiring as Mother Nature herself: the airplane.

And the Boeing 747 was the inspiration behind that quote by yours truly. It’s hard not to love that plane – don’t you think?

Let’s start with how this beauty came to be. Of course the roughly 50,000 people who worked on this plane in the late 1960s are called “the Incredibles” – how could they not be given such a nickname? The engineers, the mechanics, the secretaries… they all contributed to aviation history when they seemingly “whipped up” the world’s largest civilian airplane in a mere 16 months.

The final design was offered in three different models: all passenger, all cargo, and a convertible passenger/cargo model. And I’m over the moon that my dad and I are getting to fly on the convertible model, often referred to as a “combi.”

The 747 is also the reason the largest building (by volume) was even built. The Boeing Everett Factory in Everett, Washington is where the manufacturer’s largest planes are constructed. Some equate the size of the facility to that of a city; workers even use bicycles to get around.

And it’s no wonder they had to construct that beast of a building – the 747 is huge. I work on the sixth floor of an office building in downtown Minneapolis, and knowing that if a 747 was parked on the street below, its tail would be at eye level with me, is just astounding to say the least.

While the 747’s iconic “hump” makes it so easily identifiable, the plane has been modified a number of times over the last several decades. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) modified two 747s into shuttle carriers (the first in 1976 and the second in 1988), in 1990 two were modified to serve as Air Force One, and in 2007 Boeing introduced the “Dreamlifter” – a specially modified version of the 747 used to carry large composite structures, including fuselage sections of the 787 Dreamliner. Additional modifications over the years such as an extended upper deck and the addition of winglets on some models have continued to shape the look, feel, and functionality of the plane.

Nearly three years ago, the 747 became the first wide-body airplane to reach the 1,500 milestone, when number 1,500 was delivered to Germany-based Lufthansa. And while that was reason to celebrate, the truth is – these planes may not be around much longer. Both United and Delta airlines are retiring the jumbo jet this year, and that news was what fueled my desire to catch a ride on one while I still had the chance.

The plane is gorgeous. It’s iconic. It’s a symbol of a special era in flight. And I’m ecstatic that I’ll have the privilege to fly in one. A flight in a 747 is certainly a “bucket list” item for me, as I’m sure it is for countless aviation enthusiasts. And you can bet your bottom dollar that come November 6, when I set foot on that plane and we lift off the ground, I’ll be overcome with joy as I check that item off.

Where Luxury Lacks, Savings Abound with “Basic Economy” Fares; United to Test Low-Cost Option at MSP

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Photo Courtesy of United Airlines

Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I was fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

As one of three major U.S. airlines committed to offering travelers low-cost tickets with fewer amenities, United will soon test its basic economy fares in Minneapolis.

And while signs point toward these fares becoming a regular fixture in commercial aviation – mainly as a way for larger airlines to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier – flying has certainly transformed over the last several decades.

Having worked as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines in the 1970s and 1980s, when donning more fashion-forward uniforms and serving meals on china in first class were the norm, my mom says flying was more “glamorous” back then.

But now, she says, plane rides almost feel more like bus trips, which isn’t too surprising with the rise of discount airlines, and more recently with these low-cost fares. Delta is already offering the no-frills option, and recently American announced that they’ll begin offering basic economy fares in 10 select markets starting this month.

United first announced plans to offer basic economy fares last November, and in mid-January, President Scott Kirby said they would debut at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “When you think of the number of flights coming in, the number of customers choosing United, and the airports… MSP was a great market to test this in,” United Spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

United basic economy fares provide the same onboard experience as standard economy with a few exceptions, most notably: you can’t choose your seat and full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted. But you are allowed one personal item that you must store underneath the seat in front of you.

Brett Snyder, who runs the popular Cranky Flier blog, sees basic economy as a good way for legacy airlines to offer low fares while stripping out amenities for those who don’t need them. “While this might mean an increase in the lowest selling fare that allows for carry-on bags and advance seat assignments, those fares aren’t really sustainable today,” he said.

And it’s no surprise that basic economy has received some pushback. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently voiced his concerns in a press release, citing the cheap fares as just another way for very profitable airlines to nickel and dime passengers. Through an upcoming FAA bill, he’ll push for new customer protections that “undo unfair policies” such as “banning” the free use of overhead bins.

The only issue is – the major airlines aren’t banning the free bin space because they’re not making you purchase a basic economy fare… it’s simply another option. These days, customers want choice and they want control, and that’s exactly what these fares are providing.

“There will always be pushback anytime the airlines do anything, even if it’s not bad,” Snyder said. “The reality is that you really shouldn’t buy these fares if you want a carry-on or a seat assignment, and the airlines will tell you that multiple times before you buy the ticket,” he added. “But people will still make that mistake and then complain.”

Another concern has been how airlines will keep track of those flying on basic economy fares. For United, Guerin said it shouldn’t be difficult, as it will be noted on your boarding pass and you’ll be in the last boarding group. This provides several opportunities for airport employees and gate agents to see if you have a full-sized carry-on, which will need to be checked and will be subject to the standard checked-bag fee. For domestic flights, you’ll pay $25 for your first checked bag and $35 for your second. But basic economy passengers who arrive at the gate with a full-sized carry-on will also need to pay a $25 gate handling fee.

United’s basic economy fares will go on sale during the first quarter of 2017, for travel during the second quarter. They’ll be available for routes between MSP and the airline’s seven U.S. hubs, eventually rolling out into other domestic markets.

Ultimately, while flying may not be the lavish experience it once was, it’s clear that the airlines have done their research in targeting this price-sensitive niche. Many people are just looking to get from point A to point B on the cheap, and now they have options outside of simply choosing a low-cost carrier.