The Future of Airline Geekiness

Cranky is on vacation, but I’ve lined up some excellent guest bloggers for you while I’m gone. Today I have Things in the Sky author Dan Webb.

The vast majority of the airline geeks I know found their passion as children, and I’m no exception. Heck, I made a (crude-looking) airport out of Legos, and drew the “Dan Airways” route map in copies of inflight magazines my dad would bring home. I often like to think back to early aviation memories of mine. If you’ve peeked at my blog, then you know that I am a mere freshman in college, so my memories don’t go that far back. But things have changed a lot since then, and it makes me wonder about the future of airline geekiness.

In 1996, my home airport, T.F. Green (PVD) in Rhode Island, received a major makeover, and my parents decided to drive over and explore the newly-renovated terminal. On a few more occasions, my father would take me to the airport where we’d grab some food and just explore for awhile. As a look back, I now see the parenting brilliance in this move, as it provides very cheap entertainment for an aviation-obsessed child.

Another moment I vividly remember was part of a family vacation to San Francisco in 1998. The 757 was flying PVD-PHL-SFO, and my parents and I decided to stay on the plane instead of going into the terminal. We were flying on a first class award ticket, and the crew invited me up to the cockpit to take a look around. The captain was incredibly nice and spent a good amount of time showing me all the different gauges and controls.

Why do I bring up these memories? These events are what fueled my love of aviation as a child, and I wonder if I would be blogging about the airline industry today if these things never happened. Both of these events were also pre-9/11, which, as we all know, brought about a great deal of change.

If one wants to explore an airport terminal, a boarding pass is required. Even then, I’ve been told by airline employees that I can’t take pictures because it’s a “security risk.” Friends of mine have been stopped by police while they were spotting and taking pictures of the arrivals and departures. Meanwhile, crews are now secure behind reinforced cockpit doors. Yes, cockpit visits do still happen, but they seem to be rarer these days.

Now when I go through a security checkpoint and remove my shoes and make sure that my liquids are in a one-quart bag I wonder about these childhood memories. If all of these new security measures were in place during my childhood, would I have fallen in love with aviation? While I think I would have, I’m not that sure. Yes, security is (obviously) important, but what have we given up to feel a bit safer? Has the excitement that airline travel brings been lost forever? I hope not, for the sake of future airline geeks like me.


Dan Webb is a freshman business student at Bryant University, and started writing about the industry in June 2008. He pens the blog “Things in the Sky” on BoardingArea.com.

25 Responses to The Future of Airline Geekiness

  1. Eric says:

    Great post, Dan! As a fellow airline geek, I feel your pain. I remember the days of simply going through security (no boarding pass required) to check out the airplanes at my home airport in Tulsa, Okla. While travel may not be as exciting as it used to be because of all the security restrictions, I firmly believe that airline geekiness will never die for those of us who are truly passionate about this great industry. Sure, it may be harder for us to get our airline fix, but I don’t think our odd obsession will ever go away completely.

  2. The Traveling Optimist says:

    Absolutely the best guest blog I’ve seen so far on here, Dan, thank you!
    Since you’re a college freshment that puts me at more than twice your age but our histories are similar.
    I have pictures of me at Age 7 standing beside a toy airport on top of my dresser, complete with headphones listening to tower communications that came with the set. I, too, built an airport out of Legos and then went one even better and built a working MD-11 model complete with, adjustable horizontal stabilizers (the tail fins), retractable landing gear and trailing edge flaps! This at the tender age of 28.

    Growing up in Germany as an Army Brat I remember my father loaded the family in to the car for a weekend at Frankfurt airport doing nothing but watching planes come and go. All shapes, sizes and flags, all day long; talk about overload for a 10-year old! Later, living in Atlanta I truly knew what I wanted to do with my life after seeing so many planes belonging to just one airline coming and going all day.

    I used to take timetables to bed and, again in Atlanta, even figured out how many L-1011s Delta had in it’s fleet at the time just from the routings at the back of the book (42). I never fulfilled a lifelong dream to be a Scheduler but danged if I don’t know my way around the planet and how to GET around this rock we live on!

    There’s not much fun for youngsters at the airport terminals anymore, this is both true and sad. But the magic, the joy, the optimism from which I derive my blog name, remains on board the airplane with cockpit visits, a few minutes with a positive flight attendant, even a wave thru the window from one of the guys on the ramp.

    Most airport observation areas are either closed (FRA) or restricted to the outer edges of the field (DFW). Still, people in LA definitely enjoy “Funeral Hill” on the south side of LAX and even at LHR there is one very well placed pub at the west end of the runway from which spectacular overhead fly-bys can be enjoyed.

    Thanks again, Dan! I pretty sure geekdom will disappear completely.

  3. A says:

    I’m sure someday I’ll be telling my grandchildren about those good old times in commerical avaiation history. One time when I was quite young my brother and I were flying home from visiting our grandparents. We had tickets but my younger brother was too young to fly unaccompanied. No problem, Grandpa flew down with us, no ticket needed, and the airline put him on a return flight later that night. No charge, I’m sure there were seats available. That reminds me of a time in the mid-80’s on a flight from DEN to IAH where Continetal was shuttling a near empty DC-10. Five across middle row seating makes a decent bed. And most vivid memory of all was my first cockpit visit as a kid. It was a 727 with all the old style gauges not found in modern “glass” cockpits. I remember being more interested in what you could see out the “front” windows.

    I wasn’t around for the “good” times in aviation during the 60’s or early 70’s my father talks about, but given that your geekiness memories are from the 90’s, while mine from the 80’s, just shows airline geekiness is alive and well.

  4. The Traveling Optimist says:

    Correction….I’m pretty sure airline geekdom will NOT disappear completely!

  5. james says:

    I flew with my parents to Florida at 3 or 4 years old, but after that all trips were station wagon road trips with my sister. (not complaining – those were great memories.)

    When I got a car at 16 I would drive to GRR – Grand Rapids Michigan, and wander around the terminal and even down the jetways and down the aisles of the planes – just to experience the “jet set” lifestyle among the few parked DC9s and 737s.

    After I moved to Denver (for school,) I drove out to the new airport well before it opened and explored the far reaches of the unopened immense buildings. I’ve always had a “act like you belong and walk fast” atitude so I never got questioned about it.

    While not the same feeling one can still engage via the internet. You can “tour” any terminal on earth and watch takeoffs and landings from the cockpit. Not a tradeoff but I’m thankful to have it.

  6. It’s amazing for me to read blog entries like this one, as it appears to be my own autobiography. For all of us, the airline-geek thing emerges at an early age, and my childhood airline was call “Northward Air” (a play on my name). Northward Air had route maps, fleet plans and schedules.

    Year later when I embarked on a career as an executive coach, I chose the name “Northward” for my new company. In 2001, http://northwardleadership.com was born and continues to prosper today (it’s Savvy Nav’s brother company)

  7. Randy says:

    This reminds me of the non-rev trip memories, an airline geeky entry from a different perspective. My father was a PSA pilot who ended his career flying A330’s for USAirways across the Atlantic out of Philly. I flew around the west often as a child on PSA’s 727’s and DC-9 Super 80’s, I still like the old moniker, MD-80 never took for me. After PSA’s merger with USAir, I got to explore the east coast and Caribbean. I would explore the airports in the late 1970’s. I went around to every terminal at LAX grabbing schedules from as many varied airlines as I could. I still have thousands of the schedules boxed up and have fun looking at old Piedmont, Republic, or Hughes Air West schedules, as well as smaller ones such as Empire, Ozark, Florida Express, and Pacific Express. Later working at United’s HQ in Chicago, O’Hare made for some great plane spotting. The one who could name the most airlines for distant planes got lunch on the co-workers. That didn’t last too long though as I have 20-10 vision and they caught on quick. As a kid, I also created an airline, Atlantic Northeast Airlines, ANA, the virtual opposite of Pacific Southwest Airlines. Only later did I figure out that there was an airline in Japan with the same name. At one point I taped my own paint scheme onto my dad’s PSA DC-9-80 model, but when I went to take it off, unfortunately parts of the PSA paint job came with it. My dad never fixed the model and will always remember why it happened, because of his son’s airline geekiness.

  8. Great Post!

    I always remember the fun of flying home on US Air’s DC-9s into BGM. It was always great fun, even when we got waiting for the fog to clear then diverting to ELM. (Fog was always an issue at BGM as the airport is built ontop of a hill.)

    I remember once as a teenager driving upto DAY at 1 am or so, and walking around the terminal and looking at all the RONs. Those were some perplexed security guards, wondering what we were doing there at that hour.

    I recently flew through JFK’s T5 and had a good four hour layover. I plopped myself at the end of the the terminal and watched all the big international birds taxi by.

    However, it is possible still to get behind security to go watch the birds without actually flying.. You simply buy a refundable ticket, use it to get a boarding pass, then cancel your checkin after you’re past security and get your money back. I did this back in October to get behind security to surprise a friend at the gate…

  9. Paul says:

    A few things that shaped my love of aviation:

    1. Riding in the right seat of my Dad’s Cessna 172 when I was only a toddler.

    2. My dad taking my to the Air & Space Museum when I was 6.

    3. Flying Southwest countless times as a kid non-rev. =)

    4. Seeing the sunrise from the cockpit of a B-Cal DC-10 while over the Atlantic, when I was 10.

  10. Ah one other thing I remembered… I was flying on a US Air 737 (400 I think) sometime in the late 80s. It was one of those long cross country flights pre-IFE.

    The flight attendant somehow caught on that I was really into planes and offered to let me visit the cockpit, while the plane was flying. Somehow as a 9 year old I knew this was against the rules, but the flight attendant didn’t. It went pretty quickly, we got to the cockpit, the pilot said “he can’t be in here” and that was the end of that. Still it was pretty cool.

  11. The Traveling Optimist says:

    In 1977 for my 14th birthday my parents gave me a ticket on Pan Am from Germany back to Washington DC to visit family. I gave them a hard time because it wasn’t on a 747 but I calmed down after they gave me the option of either paying for it myself or not going at all.

    The chartered 707 was nice. It stopped in Shannon for fuel (my one and only time in Ireland) and I marveled at how the male flight attendant (also a first) was able to toss peanut packs on target from behind his back just like a vendor at the ball park.

    This was in the days when two movies were showing in the cabin but you had to negotiate a seat trade with other passengers at least long enough to see the movie of your choice.

    The return to Germany from Dulles had to connect thru JFK where my 707, after a hideously long take-off roll, was able to make it back to Stuttgart nonstop (I knew little about headwinds and range at the time).

    And yes, if only for an hour, I flew a 747 for the first time between IAD and JFK. Whether my uncle arranged it secretly or it was always planned I don’t know. My nose and face stayed glued to the window from take-off almost to landing, watching the wing flex and listening to the engines roar, proudly wearing my geekdom by asking the clueless flight attendant (another male) which engine manufacturer was used and where the plane was going after JFK.

    If memory serves, I was on #66 which went on to Frankfurt. Much as I wanted to stay on board I’m sure my parents wouldn’t get the message in time. Either way I just knew I was the happiest teenager in the sky that night. And I still mash my face against the window for every take-off, as excited today as I was 30-some years ago. The only difference today is I’m thoughtful enough to wipe off the smudges.

  12. AC says:

    I was probably about 6 years old, sitting in first class (my dad worked for Delta) and I clearly remember the flight attendant coming over and asking if I would like either an omelet, cereal, or scrambled eggs with sausage for breakfast. I turned to my mom and asked “What’s an omelet?”

    I will probably be one of the last people ever to learn what an omelet is from an airplane meal.

    Great Post!

  13. ilikedng says:

    This post made me wipe a *sob* tear off my left eye.

  14. Randy says:

    Ah, what is now forbidden, the cockpit. My dad, the USAirways pilot, snuck me up front once in the jump seat on a 737-300 flight from CLT to PHL, pre 9/11, but as the FAA was getting more uptight about such things. He knew everybody on the crew for more than 15 years, so he wasn’t too worried about breaking the rules. As I sat up front, I watched in amazement as we lined up for a landing in Philly with a 25 knot crosswind. Ten miles out we lined up far to the left of the runway and my father just drifted the aircraft towards the runway with very little course correction. I will always be amazed by that landing.
    Another time when he transitioned to the A330, USAirways wanted pilots to get five landings in the actual plane before heading out with a plane load of passengers over the Atlantic. Off we went to Harrisburg to do touch and go’s as six pilots all were getting their five landings in. We were in a lightly loaded A330 that took off like a rocket. We did races down the dual aisles as we departed, (you had to hit the brakes 15 rows before the aft galley to keep from slamming into the back,) got to sit fully reclined (flat) in the front row of first class during landing and a departure, something FA’s would have a heart attack over, and figured out how to fire up the VOD system for entertainment. Only issue, six hours in a metal tube, and we only had nuts and coke onboard. The first landing by a Captain was the worst of my life. He firmly planted the plane on the runway and several coffee pots were knocked loose and went flying into the cabin. I was hoping Captain Kangaroo wouldn’t bounce the aircraft too badly on his next landing.
    I got to sit next to many celebrities while non-revving. Julia Roberts was quiet as she sat Indian style, I found out Vince Vaughn doesn’t act, he is in real life just as he is in his comedies, and James Earl Jones knocked back eight drinks on an 8AM UA 767 JFK-LAX flight, yes before P.S., before we even hit cruise. We got him to do Darth Vader lines making fun of Luke as the disappointed father, the only time I wish a tape recorder in my life.
    The only downside of being an airline geek is the attraction to such a disfunctional industry. The peaks and valleys seem to be much deeper than most other industries and I have seen many people bounce in and out of the industry, buffeted by such forces as the first Gulf War, 9/11, and $147 oil. Yet, as many issues as this relationship may have, we will forever have an affinity for the industry no matter where we work now.

  15. Alex says:

    Really enjoyed this, thanks. Best guest post so far!

  16. Bruce Drum says:

    All is not lost. While the situation is tighter there are still many places to safely photograph airliners. My Dad as a B-24 bomber pilot started taking 35mm Kodachrome slides of the aircraft of the 8th Air Force in England in 1945 during the latter stages of World War II. My Dad showed me the slides when I was around 10 when I was building models. It gave me the inspiration to start photographing airliners in 1965 and I have been attempting to record the photographic history of the industry ever since then. While in charge of airport operations at Miami (MIA) before I retired I created a dedicated area on the west side of the field that overlooks the action of three runways. We added lens holes (with the permission of the TSA) to allow for photography and placed signs. Nearby Fort Lauderdale (FLL) has a parking area that is next to a taxiway and a runway. People are watching the action at these two spots. There are many more spots around the world. While things have gotten tighter due to the unfortunate attacks of 9/11, some airports around the world see spotters and photographers as dedicated “eyes and ears” to watch out for potential bad guys. No one is more protective of airports than spotters and photographers. Toronto (YYZ) has developed a formal Airport Watch program to enlist the help of photographers. There are still many airports around the world that still have dedicated spots for viewing and photographing (too numerous to list). I applaud each and every one of them for their foresight and wisdom. Even with all of the new restrictions we still receive many great photos on a daily basis from our photographer friends around the world. You can view them on my two blogs – http://airlinersgallery.wordpress.com and http://worldairlinenews.wordpress.com and our digital photo library at http://airlinersgallery.com.

  17. Dan Webb says:

    All – I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you so much for sharing your own stories!

  18. A says:

    When did the FAA rules about visitor in the cockpit during flight go into effect? I know that my 727 cockpit visit was in the middle of a flight sometime in the early 80’s. After the flight the captain let me sit in his seat after everyone had deplaned. Damn cool being up front while 36,000 feet above the earth below.

  19. The Traveling Optimist says:

    The “sterile cockpit” rule came out for US carriers in 1981 but wasn’t seriously brought in to the public eye until the crash of Delta #1141 at DFW, a 727 heading to SLC. Allegedly a flight attendant was at the controls among other issues contributing to the incident.

    I say US carriers because, as an FAA rule, it did not apply to foreign flags operating outside of US air space. That wrinkle allowed me and countless others to have inflight visits almost up to September 11th when the cockpit door pretty much slammed shut across the planet.

    Individual pilots, of course, still probably use their own discretion overseas but over the US I’d be curious if others still experience visits up front while the flight is operating.

  20. A says:

    Wasn’t #1141 notable because the flight voice recording caught them gossiping about what was recorded on a previous Continental accident? Anyway, I know I was up front after 1981. In recent years I can’t recall ever seeing a kid getting a visit up front while in flight. Guess that’s what we have You Tube for these days.

  21. The Traveling Optimist says:

    I enjoyed take-off and landing on the A340 flown by an Asian carrier almost ten years ago. I also experienced an inflight visit on the MD-11 on a US carrier in 1992. I’ll always remember both experiences.

    The big scandal on DL-1141 as I remember it was allegedly having a flight attendant in the co-pilot’s seat during take-off, the captain claiming he’d be right there in case anything went wrong. Well, they failed to set the flaps properly for one thing.

    I don’t remember the Continental incident being discussed but I do remember the rule to never schedule more than one newly rated pilot on any flight (neither pilot had more than 100 hours, the 1st officer having less than 30).

  22. David SF east bay says:

    Gone are the days of going to an airport to look around and just sit and watch the planes. Now it’s not even fun to go into the airport anymore. At least there are spots to sit and watch planes with out being in the airport, but it’s not the same. Memories is all that left for those old enough to remember the good old days.

  23. Kathy says:

    Re DL1141, AirDisaster.com said the pilots did not set flaps and take off warning horn was inoperative. AirDisaster.com

  24. Kelly says:

    I love reading the comments from my fellow children of pilots. My dad was in the Navy, then with Eastern, (TWA I believe?), US Airways, and now Airtran, and my mom used to be a flight attendant with Eastern, then TWA. I loved their stories about 70s aviation and the days when flight attendants wore Valentino uniforms and smoking during flights was permitted.

    I even remember less than two decades ago when people still dressed appropriately for traveling and meals were more standard on medium-length flights. There was just something about the assortment of food in those meals and the way they were served that made them inordinately better than there grounded counterparts.

  25. Sean O says:

    There’s one happy playground for the next generation of airplane geeks, and it’s in Washington, D.C.
    National Airport is only a five mile bike ride from downtown. At Gravelly Point, a triangle of land north of the airport that’s part of a national park along the Potomac, you can park your car and sit on its roof and watch the planes land or take-off (with the direction depending on weather conditions). This areae still brings in up to a hundred visitors every weekend, young parents letting their kids play on the grass while the parents listen to the roar of the engines.
    There’s hope!

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