An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.

Airports I’ve used

Last Friday set an ignominious personal milestone: I broke a record for consecutive days spent away from airplanes that went back to to 2001.

Back then, the post-9/11 shutdown of commercial aviation and my own relaxed travel schedule ensured I wouldn’t board a plane between early August, when I landed at National Airport after a summer vacation in California, and early January, when I took off DCA for my first Macworld Expo. This time, the novel-coronavirus pandemic has grounded me, and it’s unclear when I’ll once again feel jet engines shove me back in my seat and watch the ground fall away from the wing.

So I might as well document the airports I used in the Before Times, having already done the research for my friend Craig Fifer’s Flight Quest project to track who among his friends had taken off from or landed at more airports. As an inveterate list-maker and avgeek, how could I not have taken part in that competition?

So here you go: the 97 airports I’ve used listed by IATA and ICAO code, plus my comments about each.

This almost certainly isn’t complete, as before 1997 I’m limited to incomplete paper records and my own memory. But I don’t think anybody can question my lifelong effort to prop up commercial aviation.

Updated 9/12/2020 to add CMH, 10/7/2020 to add DAL and HOU. 

Here’s why I have trouble buying things quickly online

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a fair amount of online shopping. But I’ve probably been much slower at it than most of you.

Not “slower” in the sense of taking forever to pick one product over another (although my indecision-making there is considerable), but in the sense of deciding how I’ll pay for it and which third-party site I should click through before making the purchase.

Picking a credit card is the easier part even if I’m not buying stuff for my job (work expenses go on a separate card to ease my accounting). Most of the time, the 2% cash-back rebate on the Citi Double Cash Mastercard makes it the obvious choice. It’s been an even easier call when Citi’s offered extra cash back in promotions with various merchants.

But other card issuers have their own extra incentives. American Express and Chase offer extra cash back and do so much more often, but you have to sign up for each such offer on their sites or in their mobile apps. So I need to consult both before any purchase–and then hope the merchant in question doesn’t drop one of these deals the week after my purchase.

(Note that Amex and Chase also have tiered cash and points rewards for categories outside of online retail; a proper discussion of them would require a separate post.)

Not too many years ago, my shopping decisions would have ended there. But then I had to start considering shopping portals, the points-for-purchases sites most frequent-travel programs provide for members. By itself, a mile or a point for a dollar spent somewhere is barely worth thinking about. But that incremental addition does deserve your time if you’re nearing an award-redemption threshold or have miles or points that will expire without new activity in your account.

These portals don’t all offer the same rate or each offer the same rate over time. To verify which one offers the most return, I use a site called Cashback Monitor that tracks these deals and lets you set up a custom page with your favorites. (For more details, see this concise how-to by One Mile At A Time’s Tiffany Funk.) JetBlue consistently offers some of the best earn rates; fortunately, TrueBlue points have not seem the same deflation as other frequent-flyer currencies in recent years.

You may find no future-travel benefit for a potential purchase. Best Buy, Target and Walmart recently seem to have dropped out, while I can’t remember seeing any travel incentives for Amazon. In those cases, I’ll go to one last site before starting a purchase: my client Wirecutter, which often tells me what to buy and makes a decent chunk of its money off affiliate payments from Amazon and other retailers. If I can’t treat myself to a little kickback on a purchase, helping one of my favorite clients seems like a decent fallback.

At least I’m getting caught up with my photography

I’m old enough to remember putting pictures into photo albums as a regular rainy-day activity, so now that we’re in an endless series of metaphorical rainy days I’m not surprised to find myself finally editing, captioning, organizing and sharing old photos.

And I’m not surprised to doing this on Flickr, because I’m old enough to have started using social media before that term meant Facebook and Twitter. I’ve tried to keep up with sharing new photos there–both as I take individual ones that interest me and in album form (photoset form, if you’re an old-timer like me) after I come back from trips and events.

But those same trips and events also often got in the way of me taking the time to edit, caption, organize and share. Because Flickr isn’t Instagram, I want to take the time to make sure I’ve decided what makes one photo better than those I took immediately before and after and therefore worth including in an album–and then crop it just so and write a correct and useful caption instead of throwing in a clever phrase and stamping the pic #travel.

So my Flickr output lagged, even though as a paying Flickr Pro user I should want to get the most out of my money.

Now, however, I have nowhere to go and a lot more free time. So my photostream may have looked more like a time machine as I’ve finally posted albums from such past happenings as the 2018 edition of the IFA tech trade show, an hour or so I spent last April flying above Sonoma County in a friend’s plane, and last year’s Web Summit.

I’ve also filled out such older albums as my set of ballpark pictures and my collection of window-seat photos from aircraft. And each time I do this, I come across more old photos that I don’t want to keep confined to my private backup.

I worried at first that seeing pictures of interesting places that I can’t visit now or anytime soon would depress me, but instead this exercise has reminded me of what I like about photography. And at least that’s one hobby I can still pursue in my backyard if I must.

 

Three more erased events: SXSW, Google I/O, Collision

Yet another set of travel plans got sucked into a coronavirus-fueled jet engine this week. On Tuesday, Google announced that it would cancel its annual I/O developer conference, Friday morning saw Web Summit pull the plug on the Collision conference in Toronto, after which Friday afternoon brought the cancellation of SXSW

And now my business-travel schedule for the first quarter of the year looks as empty as it did back in Q1 of 2007.

I expected the I/O news. As an event that draws a global audience and is hosted by a large tech company with preexisting image problems, I/O seemed doomed the second Facebook said it would scrub the F8 developer conference that was set to happen a week before I/O. (Those of you still hoping to go to Apple’s WWDC developer conference would be well advised to book fully-refundable airfare and lodging.) 

I was also prepared for the axe to fall on SXSW, just because of the overriding attention to it as one large conference this month that had yet gotten coronavirus-canceled–and all of the tech companies that had already bailed. But it still took an order from Austin’s government banned events of more than 2,500 people to kill this year’s festival and deprive me of my annual overdose of tacos and BBQ.

Collision, however, surprised me. That conference was scheduled for June 22 through 25, which in a strictly medical sense would have left plenty of time to gauge the situation. But I suspect that the organizers were already considering how many speakers had or would pull out after their employers banned employee travel, and so made the decision early to run the conference online instead.

I told them I’m willing to moderate whatever panels they need, but count me as a skeptic of this approach. A “digital conference”–more accurately read as “webinar”–is no substitute for the unexpected in-person connections you make at a good conference.

I would like to see this event-losing streak end. One of the things I treasure as a self-employed professional is the freedom to go to interesting places for work. I also count on conferences to offset all the Me Time that working from home full-time affords me.

But as the past few weeks have made clear, that’s not up to me. The only travel I have booked that isn’t subject to getting scratched by risk-averse tech corporations is a trip in early April to see my in-laws over our kid’s spring break. Taking off from Dulles that morning will feel like a victory.

Home sick instead of homesick

Me at this time last week, after realizing the extent of the gap opened in my schedule by MWC’s cancelation: Oh, great, I can finally take a day off to visit a museum or a gallery!

Life: LOL, nope.

Saturday afternoon, I felt a touch of a cold coming on. By Sunday afternoon, that had arrived in force. I then spent Monday staggering around the house and sneezing in between naps, and then my coughing woke me throughout the night. Tuesday was scarcely better, although I did manage to drag myself to a grocery store–feeling an ache around my body as I walked slower than usual.

(At least I didn’t have a fever, something I verified at least twice a day.)

After a night of generic-Nyquil-aided sleep, I decided to own my home-sick status Wednesday by not bothering to shower or shave. Can’t lie: It felt therapeutically cozy to chill in sweatpants, a t-shirt and my bathrobe.

This slacker sick-day experience reminded me of being home with colds as a kid, when I literally had nothing to do and could curl up with a series of books. But with the Internet and social media having arrived over the subsequent 40 years (and my having to work for a living), this week saw me trying too hard to stay on top of occupational things. As in, tending my e-mail to stay in touch with editors and sources and taking part in the perpetual Twitter dialogue, which in practice led to my reading waaayyy too much Coronavirus Twitter and Democratic-Primary Twitter.

I woke up this morning feeling much better, and Friday should be a fully productive and cough-drop-free day. As recent headlines have reminded me, things could have been a whole lot worse. On that note, please wash your hands.

MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

MWC 2020 brings a novel conference concern

I haven’t finished putting together my schedule for MWC Barcelona later this month, but my calendar for that trade show is already getting culled.

Three major tech firms–Ericsson, LG and Nvidia–have pulled out of the wireless industry’s global gathering, citing fears of the novel coronavirus. Nvidia is no key player in the industry, but LG remains significant to smartphones. And Ericsson not only has a major 5G-infrastructure business, its MWC exhibit has been a reliable source of a free lunch.

The rest of the show appears set to go on as usual, although with unusual precautions. ZTE announced last week that it will have senior executives attending the show quarantine themselves in Europe for two weeks beforehand and require all Barcelona-bound employees to have been symptom-free for 14 days prior. GSMA, the organization that runs MWC, said two weeks ago it will disinfect public areas frequently and advise everybody at the show to stick to a no-handshake rule and wash their hands frequently.

My calendar still has MWC on it, and that remains the case with other tech journalists I know–and whose judgment I trust. The show is still on and news and networking will still happen there, while the actual risk appears quite low in the context of MWC’s distance from China and the health screenings now imposed on the dwindling number of passengers from there.

But the risk is not zero, not with that many Chinese companies set to exhibit at MWC. I would like to think that they will all exercise the same care as ZTE. But I suppose prudence may require me to avoid an entire country’s exhibits… which, considering that China’s smartphone industry is already walled off from the West thanks to Google being a non-participant there, was already part of my MWC coverage plans.

And I will, of course, wash my hands frequently and not shake anybody else’s. I’m thinking that bowing slightly to strangers and exchanging fist-bumps with friends will be reasonable alternatives.