Sunday, December 28, 2014

The North American Airport and Airline Listing Association

In 37 years I've flown Continental Airlines more than any other airline; more actual flight miles on Continental than any other airline and more segments in 737 aircraft than any other aircraft type

Some people collect stamps and others collect coins while others (although less frequently now) collect Barbie dolls. I on the other hand collect airports and the airlines I flew on to get them. And I have John Sidle to blame for this silliness.

John was the Assistant Manager of the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Arrowwood was located near the tiny town of Pingree which consists of about 8 people, a bar, and a church – a typical North Dakota town if ever there was one.  Living in relative isolation among the endless wheat fields of the Drift Plain, John occasionally drove to Jamestown, forty miles away, for some social interactions.

One of those social interaction trips occurred in mid-January 1983 during what seemed that winter like an endless string of blizzards and snowstorms that clogged roads and made life generally unpleasant on the prairie.  During a Sunday afternoon visit while the snow blew sideways outside, John and I sat in the living room of my house watching my two daughters be active little munchkins as their mom put in time at her clothing store where she worked.

As the snow continued to fall and the conversation began to slow, out of the blue John made the bold statement that “I bet I’ve been in more airports than you have!”

Reacting as any 5th grader would to such a claim, and with no information to back me up, I said “Bet you haven’t!”

John said, “Bet I have…” It went downhill from there.

After several minutes of debating who had been in more airports, John and I took out pieces of paper and two pens and wrote down the names of every airport we could remember we had landed at or taken off from.  At the time John had many more airports because of his possession of a pilot’s license and his service in the Peace Corps in Africa that took him to many parts of the continent.

With the issue of which of us had been in more airports at the time the 5th grade level discussion turned to airlines.  John began with “Bet I’ve flown on more airlines than you have!”

“Bet you haven’t.”

“Bet I have!”

Out came the pens and paper again and after a hurried few minutes of memory jogging it was determined that once again John had creamed me with the number of airlines he’d flown.

Owning an excessive-compulsive personality I could not let this issue die easily so over the next few months I devised a scheme for not only recording the number of airports I’d landed at or taken off from, and the number of airlines I’d flown on, but also came up with a way to make it competitive.

Despite the Jane Hathaway vision that most people possess of birdwatchers, the sport of birding is a highly competitive venture.  It starts off slowly for most people as they become familiar with the birds in their backyards and then in their neighborhoods and eventually maybe the county they live in.  Eventually, however, for many people simply seeing a bird is not enough.  We begin to keep lists of them.  The most important list is the life list – the list of bird species you have seen everywhere on earth in your life time.  We break down our lists into state lists, or county lists, or regional lists, or year lists (number of species seen in a calendar year) or the number of species seen while sitting in baseball stadiums watching baseball games. 

I’m a severe victim of that listing mania and as of today I maintain 527 separate lists of birds observed ranging from the world (6,087 species observed) to 827 species observed in the United States, to 123 species observed in Baker County, Florida, to 6 species observed on Johnston Atoll a tiny island in the South Pacific.  Were it not for the superb software produced by AVISYS none of this listing would be possible and were it not for the American Birding Association encouraging the listing of birds and the development of rules for which species to count, there would be little organization to the sport of birding.

Because of the organization and rules for birding, John and I decided that an organization similar to the American Birding Association complete with rules and oversight committees (akin to the state “rare bird records committees” in birding) was needed to give legitimacy to airport and airline listing.  Thus, during a February 1983 snowstorm (or was it still the same one from January?) we concocted the North American Airport and Airline Listing Association.  Over time and with the dogged persistence and downright annoying insistence of Dwight Lee (now unfortunately deceased) the rules for the North American Airport and Airline Listing Association were born:

                                                       LISTING ASSOCIATION

The North American Airport and Airline Listing Association (NAAALA) was founded in 1983 to provide information and competition in the avocation of airline and airport listing.  The growing nationwide interest in keeping track of the airlines one has traveled on, and the airports one has landed at or taken off from gave birth to the NAAALA.  The NAAALA is the only organization that can certify a U.S. or foreign national as a national or international traveler and the level of his or her travel experience.  For further information, contact the NAAALA.

To qualify for the official airport list, the airport, seaplane base, or heliport must now have, or have had in the past, scheduled passenger service amd it must have an official three-letter designator code as outlined in the Official Airline Guide (OAG). The purpose of this rule is to delete from the competition any military airports, or any obscure landing strips out in the middle of nowhere.  This eliminates the ability of those with access to military bases to gain an unfair advantage over non-military people in their pursuit of countable airports.  NAAALA encourages airport enthusiasts interested in military bases to count those airports on their own.  However they are excluded from the official tallies based on fairness.  You can land or take off from the airport, seaplane base, or heliport in a private, charter, or scheduled aircraft.  For example, you can count the Jamestown, North Dakota airport (formerly served by Northwest Airlines) if you land or take off there in a private aircraft.  You cannot, however, count the landing strip at Central City, Nebraska, if you land or take off there because the landing strip does not have scheduled passenger service, now or in the past. 

Seaplane bases and heliports that meet the above requirement can be counted separate from a nearby major airport if the seaplane or heliport base is currently listed, or has been listed in the past, in the Official Airline Guide (OAG) and has a three-letter designator code.  For instance, the downtown seaplane base in Miami, Florida (formerly served by Chalk's International Airlines) is countable, but the seaplane base at Lake Hood, Alaska, adjacent to the Anchorage International Airport, is not countable because it is not listed in the OAG, now or in the past.  If in the future  an airline begins service to an airport that does not meet the current criteria that airport can be counted when the criteria are met even if you landed at or took off from the airport before it was officially countable.  Any challenge to these rules will be reviewed by the NAAALA list verification committee.

Listing an airline simply involves counting any commercially flown airline including charter airlines and charter helicopter companies.  If you are new to airline listing, you will be happy to know that the NAAALA does not lump merged airlines.  If you have flown the airline before the merger date, the airline is countable (this is a significant departure from bird listing where participants worry continuously about the next round of lumps and splits).  For example, Delta Airlines is a conglomeration of Northwest Airlines, Northwest Orient, Republic Airlines, Hughes Airwest, Western Airlines,  National Airlines, Pan Am, Southern Airlines, and North Central Airlines.  If, prior to the merger, you flew Hughes Airwest, you can count it as well as Delta Airlines if the latter has been flown since the merger date.  A verification committee exists to resolve conflicts with countable airports and airlines.

Good listing.

The rules of the North American Airport and Airline Listing Association were developed over several years though consultation with other crazed individuals who enjoy counting the airlines they have flown and the airports at which they have landed or taken off. 

The issue of lumping airlines is not the same for the NAAALA as it is in birding where people fret over the next set of genetic analyses that show species A and species B are the same species and they are lumped into species C (blue goose and snow goose becoming just snow goose is a good example).  When a lump occurs you lose a species from your bird list.  Not so with airport and airline listing.  Under NAAALA rules if you flew Hughes Airwest back in the 1970s when it was still Hughes Airwest you can still count it despite its eventual acquisition by Republic Airlines which was purchased by Northwest Airlines which was purchased by Delta Airlines.

In airline listing we don't fret about losing airlines if they are purchased by another airline like birders worry about bird species being lumped by new genetic evidence.  If you flew on Hughes Airwest, or North Central Airlines, or Republic Airlines or Northwest Airlines before they were all eventually purchased and consumed by Delta Airlines you can still count them on your airline list.  You can't however get retroactive credit for them if you have only flown on Delta since the mergers

The other major rule in NAAALA listing is that any airport is countable IF 1)it has a 3-letter designator code available from the Official Airline Guide (such as ORD for Chicago O’Hare or DCA for Washington National) and 2) it is now or has been served at any time in the past by a commercial airline.  The purpose of this rule is to remove obscure landing strips out in the middle of nowhere (the grass landing strip at Ord Nebraska is one example) from listing. It also eliminates from the list military bases that are available only to military personnel.  It’s all about keeping the listing playing field even and fair.

Flying from a new airport to a new airport on a new airline is one of the most exciting aspects of airport and airline listing. I accomplished this most recently in October 2014 when I flew LOT Polish Airlines from Copenhagen Denmark to Warsaw Poland.  Not nearly as satisfying was returning to Copenhagen later that day on SAS Scandinavian Airlines.  It was also a new airline but the initial excitement of the morning had diminished 

Although I have been listing airports and airlines for more than 30 years I still pursue finding new ones with the same child-like glee that I pursue new birds for my various bird lists. Just last summer I purposefully flew to Youngstown Ohio’s airport to add it rather than nearby and much closer Pittsburgh International when traveling to Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates play baseball. In October I experienced one of the biggest thrills of NAAALA listing when I flew from a new airport (Copenhagen, Denmark) to a new airport (Warsaw, Poland) on a new airline (LOT Polish Airlines).  And for icing on that cake Poland was a new country for my country list (now 113 countries visited).  In February 2015 we are taking a cruise to Central America that has a one-day stop in Belize and another on Roatan Island in Honduras.  Currently I’m wringing my hands trying to squeeze as many new airports (and 2 new airlines) as possible out of the day in Belize and also trying to figure out how I can fly out of Roatan and back in time to catch my outbound ship!

As of today I have flown on 206 different countable airlines.  They have taken me to 334 domestic airports in the 50 United States and 211 International airports scattered from Stavanger Norway to Hobart, Tasmania to Ushuaia, Argentina (the southernmost airport in the world) or 545 airports world wide.   All of that travel has caused me to also form opinions about airports and airlines. 

There are airlines and then there are airlines and then there is Singapore Airlines.  I flew Business Class in this Boeing 777 between Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei and Singapore for the greatest 3 1/2 hours of my flying career.  Try them.  You will never want to fly another airline

Without doubt the finest airline in the world is Singapore Airlines.  I flew them once, in Business Class, for 3 ½ glorious hours from Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei to Singapore.  Singapore annually wins awards for being the best airline in the world and despite having only 210 minutes of flying time on them I whole heartedly agree.   

Its really difficult to say which airline is the worst in the world. In my estimatation its a virtual tie between Bahamasair and LIAT.  Both are so bad they each earned a separate chapter about them in my book Somewhere South of Miami.

There is a virtual tie for worst airline in the world. Although the experts always say that Aeroflot Russian Airline is worst they obviously have never flown on Bahamasair (the worlds largest unscheduled airline) or LIAT from the Lesser Antilles. Although LIAT's actual name is Leeward Island Air Transport in the islands they say it means "Leave Island Any Time."  I have to completely agree.
Royal Brunei Airlines gets my vote for the strangest airline in the world.  Don't ask the flight attendants for anything alcoholic - unless you want to cause them to have a stroke.

The award for the strangest airline has to go to Royal Brunei Airlines whom I flew from Kota Kinabalu, Borneo to Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei.  The female flight attendants were required to wear burqas, a prayer to Allah asking for a safe journey was given before we pushed back from the gate, and being a devoutly Muslim airline from a devoutly Muslim nation, no alcoholic drinks were offered even in First Class and when I asked for a glass of wine just to see the reaction I thought the flight attendant’s burqa was going to self-destruct.

Cape Town (South Africa) airport is one of the most efficient and cleanest airports anywhere in the world

Internationally Singapore’s airport has to rank as the finest and most efficient international airport in the world with Cape Town, South Africa a close second.  Hands down John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City is the ugliest international airport in the world and Merida, Venezuela, the old Kai-Tac airport in Hong Kong, and Tegucigalpa Honduras are tied for having the scariest, most dangerous final approach in the world.

There is a very good reason I  think the approach to Tegucigalpa Airport in Honduras is one of the scariest in the world.  Passengers on this TACA airlines jet found out the hard way. I've flown in and out of there 3 times and have zero desire to ever do it again!

Seeking new airports and airlines has also provided me with some scary moments as well as some joyous ones.  Bahamasair, the national carrier of the Bahamas Islands, flew from Nassau to Mayaguana one day and 1 hour 15 minutes into the flight the propeller on the right engine quit going around.  The pilot came on the intercom and told us in his Bahamian accent “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a slight problem but there’s nothing to worry about.”   A few weeks later when lifting off from Salt Cay bound for Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands the Britten-Norman Islander aircraft shuttered as a loud “thud” could be heard just as we left the ground.  A few minutes later the pilot announced that as we lifted off we hit a burro that had ambled out onto the runway and the force of the impact tore the left landing gear off the plane.  We would now have to burn off fuel and make an emergency landing on two tires at Grand Turk.

Then there was the night in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when I exchanged my Eastern Airlines ticket for a flight on Haiti Air (this was back in the days when you could do these things without being called out as a terrorist) solely so I could add Haiti Air to my list.  Just after our midnight departure as we cleared Haitian airspace a loud cheer rose from the Haitians onboard.  I didn’t understand why until the next morning when I read the Miami Herald and learned that this flight, the last ever on Haiti Air, was removing more than 100 Haitians from the deadly grip of their crazy Dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier who himself, just two hours after our flight left, escaped Haiti with his life as thousands poured into the streets at the start of a Civil War that led to his ouster from office and removal from the country.

Ever since my first flight on a commercial airline (Ozark Airlines from Minneapolis to St. Louis on October 31, 1977) I have kept track of each flight segment I have flown, which airline I was on, the routing for each segment, the aircraft flown and the number of statute miles flown on each segment.  I soon found my green notebook to be indispensable for keeping track of my flights.  Later when frequent flier programs became even more popular those same records were essential for making sure that the airline didn’t forget to credit me for a segment (or segments) that I flew.

Beginning with that first flight on October 31, 1977, I have completed 3,014 individual flight segments (a segment is, for example, Sarasota to Atlanta) and I have kept records of every one of those segments.  For each I have recorded the date, the itinerary flown, the airline flown the type of aircraft flown and the distance (in statute miles) flown.  Importing all those data into an Excel Spreadsheet has resulted in some interesting if not totally anal results.  

Aircraft Name     # of Times Flown     Miles Flown
Boeing 737 630 368946
Boeing 727 356 203151
Airbus A320 319 202471
McDonald Douglas DC-9 289 130332
McDonnell Douglas MD80 218 157834
Beechcraft 1900 147 18973
Boeing 757 143 153185
Shorts SD.330 95 17541
Canadian Regional Jet 89 31928
Embraer RJ135 79 25278
Ranking of the top 10 aircraft types I've flown the most times. 

Things like – I’ve flown on 630 segments in 737 aircraft – the most of any aircraft type.  I’ve also flown 368,946 miles in 737 aircraft – the most of any aircraft type. The longest average distance flown is 5,718 in 747-200 series aircraft and my longest flight in both time and actual miles was 8,421 miles in a Boeing 777 aircraft flown by Delta Airlines from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Airline Name # of Times Flown    Miles Flown
Continental Airlines 640 428796
Northwest Airlines 497 336222
United Airlines 373 235710
US Airways 318 117698
American Airlines 196 175632
Delta Airlines 142 91517
Republic Airlines 136 65122
Eastern Airlines 80 44945
Alaska Airlines 43 24353
BahamasAir 33 3945
I've flown more individual segments on Continental Airlines than any other airline

The most segments flown on any airline was 640 on Continental and the most miles flown on any airline was 482,796 miles also on Continental.  The greatest mean distance flown on an airline was 4,347 miles on Virgin Atlantic Airlines. 

Airport Name

Total # of Times in Airport
Washington - National

Minneapolis - St. Paul

Detroit - International



Houston - Intercontinental

Miami - International


Chicago - O'Hare

Los Angeles


I've landed at or taken off from Washington National airport more times than any other airport in the world.  Living 14 years in the DC suburbs certainly helped 

Among airports I’ve flown into and out of Washington National Airport (never EVER call it Reagan Airport) the most times – 351 departures from DCA and 356 arrivals.  Second in that list is Minneapolis – St. Paul with 141 departures and 142 arrivals.  Nassau, Bahamas with 46 arrivals ranks first among International airports and San Juan, Puerto Rico is second with 26 arrivals.

Many people have laughed at me over time as I have told them about my passion for airport and airline listing and that’s ok with me.  It was all made worth it a year ago when I stood on the deck of a cruise ship sailing into Montego Bay, Jamaica, harbour talking with a Boeing 777 captain for Delta Airlines.  I told him about my listing fever and he asked me how many airports I had on my list.  At the time it was 542 airports worldwide. When I told him the pilot stopped and thought for a minute and then said “You’ve been in more airports than I have and I fly for a living!”

Well, Captain, that’s the point.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The End of a Travel Tradition?

These green covered 5 x 8 inch notebooks, issued by the US Government, have been the backbone of my travel plans for 30 years.  The era of green notebooks might now be coming to an end.

When I began my odyssey of travel in June 1984 I was overwhelmed with all the information involved with travel and especially to a foreign location.  There were flight numbers and reservation confirmation numbers to remember.  

I have flown on 2,909 flight segments since 1984 and the information about each one of those flights has been recorded in a green notebook. Like this information for two flight segments between Orlando - Sanford airport and Little Rock, Arkansas between April 10 and 13, 2014

Then there were hotel reservations (or in the case of every time I’ve traveled to Mexico – there were hotel reservations that I had but for which the hotel never once has had a record! Once!) and there were rental car reservations.  This was all before computers and palm pilots and other data storage machines were available to fit on your lap or in your palm.  To keep it all straight I just wrote everything on pieces of paper and then hoped that I would not lose any of those pieces of paper.  Invariably I lost the pieces of paper and had to begin all over again.

Every year I keep a record of the state and provincial license plates I see, the first time I see them in a year and where they were seen and I keep all that information in a green notebook

There was also a need to keep notes on things that I saw, people I met, appointments that were made and birds that I saw.  This was on top of my obsessive-compulsive passion since high school of trying to see the license plate of each of the 50 states and the various Canadian provinces in a calendar year.  All of these important parts of travel could have been managed on individual pieces of paper.  However the ability to lock them all up in one convenient place was going to make life for a fanatic lister so much easier.

Exploring my new office on the University of Georgia campus just after my move from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota in April 1984, I found a stash of green-covered notebooks that the US government had issued.  Each notebook had about 100 sheets of two-sided paper, each page was lined with wide lines making information entry easy and reading the information later even easier, and there was ample room on the front and back covers to record phone numbers for rental car companies, hotel chains and other vital parts of travelling extensively.  I grabbed a handful of those green notebooks in 1984 and used one on my first trip to the Bahamas a month later.  I have not stopped using them since. 

Ever since my first flight on a commercial airline (Ozark Airlines from Minneapolis to St. Louis on October 31, 1977) I have kept track of each flight segment I have flown, which airline I was on, the routing for each segment, the aircraft flown and the number of statute miles flown on each segment.  I soon found my green notebook to be indispensable for keeping track of my flights.  Later when frequent flier programs became even more popular those same records were essential for making sure that the airline didn’t forget to credit me for a segment (or segments) that I flew.

Still later I discovered that the green notebooks were perfect for recording which country I had visited (one year I was in 32 different countries in a calendar year) and which states I had visited and the dates they were visited.  As I became more serious about visiting each of the 3,076 counties or parishes in the United States it became imperative to have a place to store that information and the green notebooks rose to the occasion.

With the exception of the 1985 booklet I have kept every one of them I have used for the last 30 years.  The 1985 booklet found a resting place in the Gulf Stream off of Marathon Florida after a Coast Guardsman on the Coast Guard cutter I was hitching a ride on became extremely sea sick and barfed all over my green notebook. That seemed appropriate because the face of the Coastie and the cover of the notebook were about same color when he lost that morning’s breakfast all over my hands and my book.  I simply tossed the book overboard and resigned myself to trying again next year.

My first travel book, Somewhere South of Miami, is 70 percent factual and 30 percent fictional. Much of the information for the factual part of the book was obtained from notes kept in a green notebook.  The fictional stuff I just made up as I went along

As time has passed I’ve found the notebooks to be an invaluable resource.  Many of the cryptic notes I wrote from my early travels were used in writing my first travel book Somewhere South of Miami.  Other times I’ve been asked where I was on a certain day or in a certain period (and not by the police!) and would simply refer to my green notebooks for the answer.  Still other times in periods of melancholy I’d pick up a notebook, strum through it looking at all the flights I took, and relive part of some of those journeys as a way to rid myself of the melancholy. 

As time and technology have moved forward I continued to use the green notebooks but recently I’ve discovered fewer and fewer reasons to rely on it.  That began 10 years ago when my sister purchased a Palm Pilot for me as a Christmas present.  I had every intention of using it for my travel information until one night someone (turned out to be a temporary employee) in our office in Washington DC stole the Palm Pilot and pawned it before I could get it back.  Luckily I had my green notebook as a backup so all of that important information was not lost.

Alaska Itinerary
July 18 – August 4 2015

July 18 – Saturday
Leave   Tampa              6:30 pm            Alaska Airlines 775
Arrive   Seattle              9:25 pm                                                
Leave   Seattle              10:15 pm          Alaska Airlines 89

July 19 - Sunday
Arrive  Anchorage        12:42 am                                                                                            

August 4 – Tuesday
Leave   Vancouver        8:15 a.m.          US Airways                  685
Arrive   Phoenix            11:17 p.m                                         
Leave   Phoenix            12:15 p.m         US Airways                  1851
Arrive   Charlotte          7:05 p.m.                                          
Leave   Charlotte           8:30 p.m.          US Airways                  5597
Arrive   Sarasota           10:15 p.m.                                            

I used to rely on my green notebooks for all of my travel information but now I simply type out the itineraries, dates, flights and seat numbers and print out the file to carry with me on a trip

In the last several years, as my volume of travel has decreased (in 1997 I was on 197 commercial airline flights; in 2014 only 15) I have begun to rely more and more on my computer and my phone for recording important travel information. Now for instance, when I make a plane reservation or rental car reservation I simply store the email confirmation on my cell phone and have it for back up if there is ever a question.  Now I type out the itineraries for trips as a Word Document and after printing out the itinerary stick it on my clipboard and carry it with me on the trip.  After finally discovering how to use Excel Spreadsheets, I now maintain my yearly license plate lists and flight lists and every other conceivable list, on spreadsheets.  Still I maintain the trusty old green notebook just to be safe.

1  RSW-FNT RSW FNT WN 737 1140 2014
2  FNT-LAS FNT LAS WN 737 1730 2014
3  LAS-MDW LAS MDW WN 737 1520 2014
MDW-RSW MDW RSW WN 737 1110 2014
5  SFB-LIT SFB LIT G4 M80 764 2014
6  LIT-SFB LIT SFB G4 M80 764 2014
7  PIE-YNG PIE YNG G4 M80 929 2014
8  YNG-PIE YNG PIE G4 M80 929 2014
9  TPA-MSY TPA MSY WN 737 487 2014
10  MSY-TPA MSY TPA WN 737 487 2014
11  SRQ-JFK SRQ JFK B6 175 1040 2014
12  JFK-KEF JFK KEF IcelandAir 757 2590 2014
13  KEF-CPH KEF CPH IcelandAir 757 1330 2014
14  CPH-WAW CPH WAW Lot Polish 175 414 2014
15  WAW-CPH WAW CPH SAS 175 414 2014

I used to summarize my yearly travel by adding up each segment, the miles flown, the number of flights on various aricraft and the routes flown and the process was laborious. Now I simply put each flight in an Excel Spreadsheet and let the computer do the compliations for me at the end of the year.

Aircraft Aircraft Name         #  Times Flown      Miles Flown        Mean
146 BAC 146 2 577 288.5
330 Airbus A330 8 29238 3654.75
707 Boeing 707 1 295 295
717 Boeing 717 11 4067 369.7272727
727 Boeing 727 356 203151 570.6488764
737 Boeing 737 630 368946 585.6285714
744 Boeing 747-200 12 68626 5718.833333
747 Boeing 747-400 9 26177 2908.555556
757 Boeing 757 143 153185 1071.223776
767 Boeing 767 33 103780 3144.848485
777 Boeing 777 11 48670 4424.545455
A32 Airbus A320 320 203511 635.971875
If I am ever curious (and I regularly am) about how many times I've flown on a 747-400 series jet, or how many miles I've flown in a 737 or the average distance flown every time I've been in an Airbus A320, the Excel Spreadsheet automatically updates the information for me. In the past this was all done by hand calculation and it took forever and a day.

I just now put away my 2014 green travel notebook and when I did I looked at my bookshelf and saw that I have two green notebooks remaining. Usually in years past I have prepared the next year’s green notebook during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  That always proved essential because I would be out searching for license plates at 1 minute after midnight on New Year’s Day and in the days when I was obsessed about maintaining Platinum Elite flier status on Continental and Northwest Airlines I was on a flight somewhere on January 1 to start chalking up miles.  However this year I haven’t prepared my notebook.  Instead I’ll simply print out the blank forms from my spread sheets and attach them to a clipboard each time I want to record something.

Still, old traditions die hard and maybe just to be safe I will prepare another green notebook before New Year’s Eve.  I’ll use the same excuse I’ve used for the last few years and keep the green notebook with me just in case. 

If I do that I’ll be down to only one green notebook remaining in my bookcase.  Mother Nature might have other plans but my personal plan is to keep living a few more years after 2015 so I’ll have to replenish my stash of green notebooks.  Maybe I’ll make a trip up to Washington DC this summer and stop by the Department of the Interior building and tell the rent-a-cops at the front door that I want to visit my old agency’s suite of offices on the third floor.  And then when nobody is looking I’ll sneak into the storage room by one of the Assistant Director’s offices and borrow another handful of green notebooks.  Yes.  I like the sound of that plan.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mrs O'Brien Would Be Spinning in Her Grave

Delores O'Brien was a stickler for the proper use of English and I thank her today for giving me that gift.  This image is photographed from the 1969 volume of "Aurora" the Rice Lake (Wisconsin) Senior High School's annual. That is Wilbur "Fig" Newton's left cheek overlooking Delores' right shoulder.

As the winds of time blow over our heads at the warp speed of the Starship Enterprise, it remains difficult to fathom that the world-wide Class of 1969 entered high school fifty years ago this coming August or September.  Fifty years ago in most cases we shyly and cautiously entered that next big stage of our lives.  We may have been real hot shots in the 8th grade, but now we were bottom feeders in an aquarium filled with sharks swimming much higher up in the water column.    

Looking back at my background, I can think of so many things that happened in those four years that shaped and continue to shape my life.  Many of us lost our virginity in high school (and those of us who didn’t certainly wished we had).  Many of us smoked our first cigarette in high school and some of us while sitting in his black 1965 Ford Mustang in the parking lot of the Catholic school smoked our first joint in high school.  We earned letters in various sports in high school, and excelled at debate or theater in high school, and most of us also learned how to better socialize in high school, while some of us may have accidently dunked David Hennekens' head in the toilet and kept flushing it over and over one day in high school.  Three of us even learned how to break into the Omaha Bar in the early hours of an April morning and steal a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon while we were in high school. Most importantly, however, we learned much about how to survive in high school. 

Despite our best efforts to the contrary, we all left high school with more knowledge than we ever thought possible to absorb. For the Valedictorians and the Salutatorians absorbing knowledge came easily.  However for others that absorption rate was akin to watching molasses flow in a January blizzard.  Much of our collective success in knowledge absorption can be traced back to a teacher or to teachers who remain memorable for many reasons and some of them still loom large in our thinking even today.

William Transburg was my 9th grade Biology teacher.  He and his wife (whose name I forget now) used to take me with them on winter and early spring weekend days and we would go seining for fish and other aquatic life in streams, and looking for birds in the forests of Barron County, Wisconsin.  Those experiences cemented my passion for being a biologist and because Transburg went to the University of Wisconsin – River Falls for his biology degree, I decided I would do the same.  And I did.

Arlen Mortensen was my 10th grade World History teacher.  Although it was difficult for anyone to admit they liked history, Arlen was so good at teaching it that a deep-seated interest in history was spawned that remains with me today.  I busted my ass in his class and thought I had earned an A each quarter.  Arlen’s grade book however showed instead that I earned four B+’s.  I often wonder if I could talk to him today and convince him to change those grades almost 50 years after the fact.

Orv Olson was my 11th grade Geometry teacher.  Try as he might Orv could not get the Pythagorean theorem or any other concept of math to sink into my thick skull.  I once took a 200 point tests of his and scored 4 points on it. I could not even guess the true-false questions correctly.  After that he warned me if I did not improve I would fail the semester.  I failed the semester.  Several years later after earning my Bachelor’s Degree I returned home to show my diploma to Orv.  When he asked what I majored in I told him Geology and Biology and added “with minors in physics and in math.”  It was true, I had a double minor in physics and in math and when Orv heard that I thought his head was going to spin around like the little girl’s did in the movie “The Exorcist.”

Orvin "Spot" Olson was my geometry teacher in high school.  Try as he might he could not get me to understand basic principles and theorums of mathematics.  Scoring 4 points on a 200 point test was one example of how hopeless it was to try teaching me geometry.  This image is photographed from the 1969 edition of "Aurora" the Rice Lake Senior High School annual.

Delores O’Brien was my 12th grade College Preparatory English teacher.  On the first day of her class Mrs. O’Brien said to me very snidely “What are you doing in a college prep class?” (She put special emphasis on the word “you”).  When I told her I was going to River Falls to be a biologist she said “Only if you pass my class.”  It was a veiled threat and warning all wrapped in one.  Once I picked up The Catcher in the Rye from the back of her room and told her I wanted to read it because “this must be a baseball book.”  She shook her head and said, “You big dummy. That book has NOTHING to do with baseball.”  The only thing I liked about Mrs. O’Brien was her daughter Maureen after whom I lusted many many times while walking behind her down a school hallway between classes.

With considerable resignation in her voice, Mrs. O'Brien was the one who informed me that The Catcher in the Rye was not, in fact, a book about baseball

Despite the hate-hate relationship that Mrs. O’Brien and I developed and nurtured from the first day of class until the end of the school year, she taught me to have a deep and abiding respect for the English language, and the proper use of its many words and phrases.  And that brings us to the point of this article.

It was because of Mrs. O’Brien and her dogged pursuit of perfection in English that when it came time seven years later to write the thesis for my Master’s degree, it went through only one re-write before my graduate committee approved my work.  My major professor was so impressed that he asked me where I learned how to use English so well.  I told him about a crabby English teacher in high school whose daughter I still enjoyed occasional fantasies. When I started writing papers for publication in scientific journals I used the techniques of proper word usage and conjugation taught to me by Mrs. O’Brien and rarely if ever did a journal editor return a manuscript with anything other than superficial changes to meet his or her writing style.

In 1969 the preposition “like” was not used as filler nearly as often as it is today.  Now, however, it is used so often that it has become nearly an everyday form of speaking. An online dictionary defines “like” as a preposition having the same characteristics or qualities as "there were other suits like mine in the shop.

Like can also be used as an informal conjunction in the same way as. “people change countries like they change clothes"

The dictionary also recognizes that “like” can be used as an informal adverb used in speech as a meaningless filler or used to convey a person's reported attitude or feelings "so she comes into the room and she's like “Where is everybody?”

It was the use of “like” as meaningless filler that drove Mrs. O’Brien crazy even before its overuse in contemporary speech.  More than once Mrs. O’Brien would call me out in front of the class and even occasionally slap my fingers with the narrow edge of a ruler when I made the mistake of improperly using “like.”  Of course today she and the school district would be sued for uncountable sums of money if she smacked my hand for any reason.  However it was a lesson well learned and an excellent technique.  Today when I’m surrounded by people saying “like” as meaningless filler I begin mocking them repeating “like” each time they say it incorrectly.  As I do I try to imagine Mrs. O’Brien standing over them smacking their fingers with that same god damned ruler with which she would regularly whack my fingers.

If you were an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls in the late 1960s and early 1970s and you wanted to eventually graduate and receive a diploma, one of the courses you were required to take was Fundamentals of Speech 130.  At the time it was viewed with scorn but as life has taught me, Speech 130 was one of the most often used classes throughout my career.  My class was taught on the second floor of rickety old South Hall and my professor (whose name I have forgotten) was a stickler for the proper use of English in our speeches.  She had us present speeches extemporaneously from subjects she gave us at random while we stood behind her lectern.  We gave persuasive speeches and debate speeches and argumentative speeches (I always received an A on those three) and informative speeches.  Before each speech we were warned that if we used the word “like” as a filler 1 point would be deducted from our total grade for each misuse.  Thus it was theoretically possible to receive a negative number for a grade on a speech if you went wild with the word “like” and filled your speech with it.

The other misused word that drove Mrs. O’Brien bonkers in high school was “got” and especially when it was used with the contraction I’ve as in “I’ve got milk.”  “I’ve” is a contraction of the words “I have” so to say “I’ve got…..” is actually saying “I have got…”  Cows produce milk and when holding a glass of it you ‘have” milk so get over this “got milk” nonsense!

No I do not!  Female bovines produce milk and I may occasionally "have" a glass of it in my hand.   

Got is the past tense of the word “get” which means obtaining or possessing something.  “Have” is a verb that means to possess something.  Thus “I have got” is the same thing as saying “I have”….so why add the second sense of possession?  Just say “I have” and be over with it.

Long ago in high school Mrs. O’Brien used to hound me when I improperly used “got” in a sentence and I still am aware of it and frustrated by its improper use today.  Much of the angst being directed at immigrants to the United States by a certain largely uneducated group of tea drinkers is that immigrants allegedly are unable to correctly speak and use English in conversations.  I often wonder how many of those tea drinkers frequently and incorrectly use words such as “like” and “got” in sentences and especially when they are discussing immigrants whom they claim don’t know English!

Comedian George Carlin was relentless in pointing out how people misue words in every day speech. His last book "Final Words" was published shortly after his unfortunate and untimely death

Comedian and language satirist George Carlin made millions of dollars from skits and routines about the use (proper or otherwise) of words in every day conversation.  Who among us of my age group will ever forget Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” routine that ultimately was the subject of a court case heard before the United States Supreme Court.  These were seven words that the Supremes deemed to be indecent and could not be used on public airwaves although today two of them (piss, tits) are used regularly on television and radio.  Carlin went to great lengths to lampoon people who improperly and incorrectly used words in every day speech. 

George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" remains a classic

The only person I have ever known who was even more dogged in their lampooning, at least when it came to me, was Delores O’Brien.  If only she could be aware how frequently “like” and “got” are misused in every day speech, I have a hunch Mrs. O’Brien would be spinning in her grave at the speed of a Cuisinart.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

While Circumnavigating Cuba

The world held its collective breath in October 1962 when the United States and the Soviet Union came within a heartbeat or two of launching nuclear weapons at each other.  The Cuban Missile Crisis as it was known came to a head because the Soviet Union put nuclear warheads in missile silos in Cuba just a stone’s throw away from the United States.  Havana, Cuba is only 90 miles south of Key West Florida.  A missile could streak between the two places in slightly more than a nanosecond.  President Kennedy and his Administration did the proper amount of bluffing and cajoling and luckily (and thankfully) the Soviet Union blinked first and removed their nuclear weapons.

Almost exactly two years earlier, in October 1960, the United States imposed a commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution.  It was enacted after Cuba nationalized he properties of United States citizens and corporations and it was strengthened to a near-total embargo on February 7, 1962.

Titled the Cuban Democracy Act, the embargo was codified into law in 1993 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government continues to refuse to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights." In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act that further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, President Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of certain "humanitarian" US products to Cuba.

More than 50 years after end of the Cuban missile crisis and after imposition of the embargo it remains in place.  Ironically and hysterically Cuba survived it and today sits with its middle finger pointed at the United States because of it.  In fact if you walk along the malecon in downtown Havana as I did in 1990, you’ll see a large sign in front of the US Interests Section office (where the CIA maintains its listening posts) that carries a caricature of someone who looks almost exactly like Fidel Castro.  The caricature is pointing his index finger north at the United States and is saying in Spanish “Mr. Imperialist we will not be afraid.”  Other signs around the country send a similar message.

Granted things in Cuba aren’t like they are even in Little Havana in Miami but the country has not buckled.  Cuba has universal health care for all of its citizens.  Cuba has a widespread and effective collection of national parks and marine sanctuaries protecting some of its most vulnerable natural resources and Cuba also has an extensive and lucrative tourist industry.  Flights from all over Europe and Canada bring visitors to the sunny beaches of Varadero and Cayo Coco and they flock there in huge numbers.

Meanwhile the United States continued to pout and stomp its feet and some still dream of driving Cuba into submission.  I was able to travel legally to Cuba in 1990 and again in 2007 because I possess a US Treasury Department license that allows me to expend American funds on travel to and in Cuba.  Absent the Treasury Department license I would be in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 that forbids those expenditures.  Ironically the United States is the only “free” country in the world that restricts where its residents can travel – North Korea and Cuba are off limits under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917.

One of the many frustrating aspects of the embargo is the almost total lack of air transportation between the two countries.  In recent years that has become less of an obstacle as restrictions have been lifted but still it’s a pain in the ass if you want to travel there.  When I traveled to Cuba in 1990 I had to do so by flying from Canada.  Because I was on Cubana de Aviacion, the national flag carrier of Cuba and because of the embargo, we left Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and flew for the shortest distance possible over American airspace.  Once over New York City we were directed to a point 200 miles offshore in the Atlantic outside the American exclusive economic zone and clearly in international waters.  There we were allowed to follow a course south to a point over the Bahamian island of Andros where we turned west and flew directly to Varadero.  At no point other than when we flew across New York State to the ocean were we over American airspace.

Two ironies are at work here.  First of all, when I traveled to Cuba in 1990 our flight had to follow that circuitous routing because we were in a Cuban aircraft.  Had we flown to Varadero from Toronto on Air Canada we would have been allowed to fly over American airspace but because of the embargo and because we were in a Cuban plane we had to take the long way around.  It didn’t matter to the United States that the Canadian aircraft is flying to Cuba.  What matters is that a Cuban aircraft was and the embargo denies them the ability to fly in American airspace.

The second irony in play is that Cuba doesn’t reciprocate with this childishness and allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace. Take a flight to Jamaica or Grand Cayman or to Bogota Colombia on an American flag carrier from an airport in the eastern United States and the route of flight will take you on a course just east of Santa Clara, Cuba.  You will be over the island for nine minutes and then you are out over international airspace.  The only exception to this rule is flying to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station as I did in 2007.  There we were required to fly around the east tip of Cuba and approach Gitmo from the south.  For final approach the American flag ship was not allowed to cross over Cuban airspace at any point which resulted in a sharply banked right hand turn near the end of the Gitmo runway. No doubt this exception is in place because the Cuban government is still upset that the Americans refuse to leave Guantanamo Bay.

Recently I flew from Orlando to Montego Bay, Jamaica and I did so aboard Jet Blue Airlines, an American flag carrier.  We left Orlando, traveled to a point over Miami then south over Cuba for 9 minutes and then into Montego Bay. The next day when I returned to Orlando, we followed the same route in reverse including nine minutes over Cuban airspace.

The Cuban government, in spite of the ridiculously ineffective American embargo, allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace saving those American air carriers millions of dollars in fuel costs annually on top of saving travelers thousands of hours of air travel time.  The Cubans do so because it’s the right thing to do despite the two nations still at each other’s throats.  At the same time, however, Cuban aircraft (of which there are about 10!) are strictly forbidden from crossing American airspace except for the shortest distance possible to get to international waters.  We could care less about the cost of fuel for the Cuban aircraft and we could care less about the extra time it takes for people to get to Cuba from a place like Canada.  What matters apparently is this in-grained notion that we have to somehow continue to punish Cuba for an incident that happened when the Beatles were still largely unknown outside of Liverpool, and the Dow Jones Industrial average was about 500!

I guess we are showing them aren’t we.

Dawn of our first full day at sea found us about 20 miles off the coast of Cayo Coco, part of the region of Cuba known locally as the “Cuban Keys.”  Well into international waters the ship chugged along on a southeasterly course with the forbidden island almost a stone’s throw away.  From the ship we could see cities on the horizon and roads and power plants.  Cuban fishermen sailed out in rickety boats plying their trade and waving at the ship as we steamed past them.  Cruisers on the ship responded with a perfunctory “Oh, that’s interesting” when I’d answer their finger-pointed question, “What island is that over there” by telling them it was Cuba.  Cuba remained on the horizon until we reached the Windward Passage between it and Haiti.

The day after our time in Grand Cayman we awoke at sunrise with the westernmost tip of Cuba to starboard as we passed through the Yucatan Channel.  A slight adjustment in our course soon put us parallel to the north coast of Pinar del Rio Province.  Its irregular skyline filled the horizon as we steamed northwest toward Miami.  All the while nobody on board seemed even marginally interested that we were so close to the fascinating culture and landscapes that make up Cuba.  To many it was just another island that they had not “done” yet on a cruise and to others it was a place they may have heard about but right now the antics of the Kardashians were of greater interest than the geopolitical role Cuba plays in the Western Hemisphere.

Sunrise over Cuba from the deck of a ship

Watching the mountains of Pinar del Rio brought back memories of my first trip to Cuba in 1990 when we traveled west from Havana and spent two days in this beautiful landscape finding and studying the birds of western Cuba.  One of the species we found was the Cuban Solitaire, a kind of thrush related closely to the American Robin that everyone knows from their backyard.  Cuban Solitaire is one of the 21 species of birds that occurs nowhere else on earth but this island.  Returning from that first trip I prepared a report on my observations across the entire island and because of his intense interest in Cuba, I mailed a copy to Jimmy Buffett solely for his edification if he chose to read it. 

Imagine my surprise a couple weeks later when a letter appeared in my mailbox that had been postmarked “Key West, Florida.”  It was from Jimmy and he was interested in the Cuban Solitaire.  He said that he was writing a book and the name “Solitaire” caught his fanciful attention.  He wondered if the Cuban Solitaire was a species of bird that a sailor would find if he sailed into Havana harbour.  Unfortunately the Solitaire is a mountain bird that was highly unlikely to ever be found at a low elevation like Havana.  Although my answer was not what Jimmy wanted to hear a month or so later I received another letter from him.  He wanted to know about what a pilot would see if he was flying over the Platte River in spring time when all of the Sandhill Cranes were there.   This request was easy to fill and several weeks later a copy of a chapter in his book “Where is Joe Merchant” arrived in my office mailbox. Jimmy asked me to read the chapter for biological accuracy and return it to him when my editing was completed.  A year or so later, because of our correspondence, before a concert in Fort Lauderdale I sat back stage with Buffett drinking a beer (he opened it for me) discussing politics, the environment, and bone fishing.  It was among the greatest 30 minutes of my life and it all started because of a non-descript bird that lives in the mountains of Pinar del Rio.

The Carnival Victory maintained its course northeastward toward Miami during the remainder of the daylight hours and we passed just north of Havana near sunset.  I looked out across the Cuba Straits toward Key West just 90 miles north and longed for an end to the ridiculous embargo that forbids Americans from traveling to a neighboring country.  As I contemplated the nonsense of all this we turned on CNN International on the television in our stateroom and were overwhelmed by the news.  Just that morning the United States and Cuba reached an agreement on the release of two American’s from Cuban prisons in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies from American prisons.  Along with the humanitarian exchange the United States was going to substantially ease and reduce (but not totally eliminate) most of the restrictions on travel between the two countries. 

Important among the changes was that the Secretary of State had been instructed to normalize relations with Cuba and to establish an American Embassy there.  As President Obama made this historic announcement he recognized that the embargo has failed, that it hasn’t impacted the government of Cuba but only its people, and that more than half of the people living in the United States now were not even born when the embargo was put in place.  Fully 88 percent of American’s of Cuban descent living in South Florida fully supported easing or eliminating the embargo.  The President ended his historic announcement saying in Spanish “Todos somos Americanos,” or “We are all Americans.”  It was refreshing to hear him say that.

During the President’s address a news roll scrolled across the bottom of the screen announcing new and important changes that were on the horizon because of the easing of restrictions.  Despite the news being only a few hours old, already Carnival Cruise Line announced that it was investigating the possibility of beginning cruises to Cuba.  At the same time Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced it was investigating how to begin and how to expand air service from it to Cuba.  Carnival can rest assured that I will be on one or more of its cruises bound for Cuba when that magnificent day arrives and airlines flying from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba can count on me being one of the frequent fliers aboard their craft. 

I’m not sure if it was serendipity or happenstance or some other noun that was involved in today’s announcement.  However I found it almost karmic after so many years of hoping and wishing for a change in policy toward a neighbor who could use neighbors, the President changed the policies that had hurt nobody but Americans and he did so while we were circumnavigating Cuba.  

It was a tad more than ironic that the historic sunset of America's bullying embargo of Cuba was announced by Barack as we watched the sun set over Cuba that very same day