Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When an express line is not

United has this new feature on united.com to allow international travelers to check in and print their boarding pass online. This is really common for domestic flights for years now, so I was excited to find out I could do this for my SFO-FRA flight yesterday, too. ...

Yeah, things are never that easy. I got suspicous when the printout for SFO directed me for domestic flight to the "united.com BagCheck kiosk", but for international flights "proceed to the International Terminal".

We arrived in the International Terminal to the tune of a LONG line waiting for check in to United Economy. They had a whopping TWO counters serving that line. However, there was one counter with a separate line labeled "Express line, United.com BagCheck". Only 5 people were waiting there, so I got into that line. ["Pheww, thank God I only need to print the label for my suitcase"]

After 10 minutes the woman at the counter was finally done with that one passenger there, and moved on to the next. 10 minutes later she was done with that one and moved on to the next. ["What the heck, this is supposed to be an Express Line???"]

When the couple ahead of me got to the Express counter, she briefly talked with them and then GOT UP AND LEFT. This was after I was waiting for about 30 minutes in the Express Line.

Next thing that happens is the baggage guy walking up to me and said, "I'm making a single line. Please use the other line. " - "no, I'm in the Express Line. I only need to get the baggage label printed." He shrugged and walked away. Meanwhile there were about 10 people waiting in the Express Line behind me.

Nothing happened for 5 minutes. There are still only 2 counters serving the Economy class line. Eventually, a couple passengers from the Express line get antsy. One of the agents behind the counter complains to the baggage guy, "I told you to form one line!" and to us, "you have to get into the regular line", turns off the Express Line sign at the counter, and starts to walk away. We see "Counter Closed", which is met with instant and loud protest from the folks in the Express Line.

Finally, one of the agents from the Economy Line comes over, asks how many passengers. Closes the Express line behind us (HALLELUJA), removes the extra BagCheck sign, and starts processing the line.

"You have to print your baggage tag", he tells me, points to the little kiosk in front of me, and "I'll be back". The kiosk scans the printout from the online check-in, and prints the baggage tag behind the counter. When the agent finally comes back he takes the tag, puts it on the suitcase, verifies ID, and we are done. Less than a minute of actual work. He stayed at the counter for the other passengers behind me. They got processed similarly quick and the line was gone in no time. Overall I was waiting 45 minutes in the "Express Line".

I'm still puzzled by what that first agent was doing that took her 10+ minutes per passenger.

If I had this experience with US Airways, I wouldn't have been surprised. However, United usually has their act together at SFO and I've never seen them this disorganized before. Bad day? Or a sign of the continued strain on their operations and profit margins?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Fly - for real

This was a cool team outing. Yesterday we went to ifly in Union City. Those guys operate a vertical wind tunnel. You get dressed up, and then ride on a air stream that's blowing bottom up at a speed of 65-80mph.

Click on the thumbnail image to see the video. I'm the guy in the orange suit flying about 12 minutes into the video.

It's quite an experience. It's not like being weightless, you very much feel the wind pushing you up. It's loud (they made us wear earplugs), too. You can control motion fairly well with slight adjustments of legs and arms. The flight instructor didn't have much to do while I was in the air... and it was FUN. I want to do this again, though this is a bit on the expensive side.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Today I finally cut the base beams for the layout platform from some wood left over from when we had the ceilings re-done. The rectangle is about 8ft by 9ft (~240x260cm). A nice size. Not too small, and not so big, so that I'd never finish building that thing. I will need to add a couple 2x4's down the center to hold the plywood sub floor of the platform.

I'm pondering whether I should use pieces of the old Pergo laminate I removed from the dining room, or put carpet on the platform. The carpet will be warmer and nicer, but it gets dirty easily, and the Pergo makes it easier to find small pieces that fell to the floor. I have some time to figure this out though...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Layout Room

I mentioned before in various places that I'm planning to build a room for my planned train layout.

The origial idea was to simply take a corner of the garage, install a raised floor on 2x4 wood beams with insulation, and 2 finished walls around that using regular wood frame construction. The existing walls of the garage corner would complete the room. Add a door into the garage in one of the new walls and voila there is my layout room. No windows, and at 7.5 x 8 ft in size not exactly big, but quite sufficient for a nice HO layout. I would need to extend an existing 15amp power circuit into the room, as well as run a new 20amp circuit through existing piping to make sure there is enough oompfh in the room for lighting and running trains. Although I'd probably get by just fine with the one 15amp circuit since the layout is not that big, it's easier to get the power stuff out of the way in the beginning, so I don't have to deal with it later.

I contacted the building permit department of the City of San Jose what I would need to do in order to make this a legal reality. They would classify this as an "unheated storage closet" and pointed out which kind of lighting I would need (since this is still considered garage space). However, after some more emails back and forth it turns out they won't approve such a setup at all, because each single family home in San Jose needs to have two covered parking spaces 18x9ft. The room will take over part of one of the parking spots in the garage, so the city building inspector won't even look at this for approval. Whoops. ...

Our home owners association won't allow any outbuildings in the backyard or sideyard area, nor would they allow me to build a new garage where the side yard is now (not even speaking of the cost of such an endeavour). So, a permanent solution is out of the window.

Moving on to the next idea. Start the same way, build a wood platform for the layout, but instead of building a real room, towards the front of the garage attach a stud wall to the platform. Attach about half of the length of the other open side. Those two walls will support each other and I should be able to build this in a way that I can disassemble it when and if we move. All power connections will be wired into the platform (with outlets and everything), but plugged into regular wall outlets. That way I don't need to worry about building codes as much since the whole setup would be considered temporary from an electrical perspective as well.

As a side-effect I can push out the wall facing the garage front a few more inches than if I had mounted it permanently since I no longer have to pay as much attention to existing studs in walls and ceiling to line up my new wall with. I will still install the additional electrical circuits.

Since I now can no longer rely on surrounding walls for support, I need to spend some more time on coming up with a structure to properly brace the walls attached to the platform, since I don't want them to topple over during an earthquake and crush the layout, or -- worse -- me.
On the positive side, I can use that support structure to anchor the layout to as well.