Airline Hopes To Avoid Volcanic Ash Clouds With New Technology

volcanic ashVolcanic ash is something commercial airliners want nothing to do with. When Alaska’s Cleveland volcano erupted not long ago, shooting low levels of ash into the atmosphere, many airlines were concerned. Another blast could send ash higher, directly into their flight path between Asia and North America, causing major flight schedule disruptions. But while most airlines watch and wait, one is taking some proactive steps to deal with volcanic activity.

Ash clouds are a major problem for commercial airliners, which can literally fall out of the sky if they attempt to fly through one. The problem is the tiny volcanic ash particles. If they get into a jet engine, ash particles can block the ventilation holes that let in air to cool the engine. Accumulate enough of them and engine heat can transform the particles back into molten lava, something you don’t want in your jet engine. In 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano ejected an ash plume 30,000 feet into the sky, crippling airlines in northwest Europe for days as nearly 20 airports closed their airspace.Looking for ways to minimize the effect of volcanic eruptions, EasyJet has partnered with aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation, a company that specializes in remote sensing technology to detect ash at the speed and altitude of commercial aircraft. To do that, EasyJet will fly a ton of volcanic ash from Iceland to an Airbus base in France where it will test the new uses for infrared technology-based Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (AVOID) equipment in August.

During the test, an Airbus plane will disperse the ash into the atmosphere and create an artificial ash cloud. A second Airbus test aircraft equipped with AVOID technology will (hopefully) detect and avoid the artificial ash cloud at over 30,000 feet.

Want to see an ash cloud up close, as it is being created? Check out this video:



[Image credit – Flickr user coolinsights]

Southend Airport: London’s Sixth Airport

southend airport

In April, easyJet began flying in and out of Southend Airport, located to the east of London in Essex. With the arrival of easyJet, London regained a long-dormant airport. (In the 1960s, Southend was London’s third biggest airport.) In its new incarnation, Southend becomes London’s sixth airport. The new kid on the block joins Heathrow, Gatwick, the low-cost hubs of Stansted and Luton, and London City, the most central and most user-friendly of them all.

Until easyJet introduced flights in April, Southend Airport was barely tapped. It was purchased in 2008 by Stobart Group, a logistics company, who obtained approval for lengthening the runway and then constructed a new control tower, which opened in March 2011. Shortly thereafter, Aer Arann, which has since been folded into Aer Lingus Regional, began flying a limited timetable in and out of Southend.

Another key development in the second coming of Southend Airport was the construction of a train station just outside the airport in July 2011, which made it easier for Londoners to reach the airport quickly. The icing on the cake was the inauguration of a new Southend terminal in April 2012.

The terminal is shiny and attractive – a glassy structure that still smells new. There are cafes on both sides of security machines, free Wi-Fi Internet access and a nice “business lounge” with a range of children’s interactive games on wall-mounted screens. I passed through security on Monday in two minutes. In short, flying out of Southend was a notably pleasant experience.southend airport

I have but two concerns for the future. First, Southend Airport is inadequately served by public transportation from London. The earliest weekday train from London’s Liverpool Street Station arrives at 6:32 a.m., which is too late for anyone coming from London to catch flights before 8:30 a.m., assuming that the airport’s two-hour check-in request is honored. (I can’t imagine how security would take more than a few minutes even in heavy traffic; nonetheless, the airport suggests very strongly that passengers arrive a full two hours before their flights depart.)

This needs to be sorted out. An earlier train service should be scheduled or easyJet could fill the gap with the operation of an early easyBus link from central London. (Taxis are most definitely not an affordable option. Traveller, easyJet’s inflight magazine, estimates a fare of £130 [$202] for travel by taxi between the airport and central London.)

My second and bigger concern is passenger volume. There are some airports out there that manage to do a very good job with enormous passenger volume, sure, but these airports are the exception. Most high-traffic airports are unpleasant places. Southend plans to build a terminal extension and has a stated goal of bringing in two million passengers a year.

Can this tiny, tidy, pleasant airport serve two million passengers a year, even with its planned expansion? Maybe, but it surely will run the risk of forsaking its tidy and pleasant nature in the process.

Losing My Ryanair Virginity

ryanair photoRyanair, Easy Jet, German Wings and other discount airlines have changed how Europeans travel, but until last week, I’d yet to fly on a budget European airline and had no idea what to expect. After booking a ticket from Bari, Italy, to Kos in Greece several weeks ago on Ryanair, my expectations were very modest based upon a very annoying booking process and a series of warning emails I received about baggage and boarding procedures.

But my interactions with live Ryanair staff were pleasant and the flight itself was smooth sailing. Here are some observations and tips for flying on Ryanair.

Don’t use Google Chrome. After clicking through what seemed like a thousand pages offering me everything from rental cars to luggage, I clicked “purchase” but then my browser just spun fruitlessly for hours without confirming my purchase. It was unclear to me if the purchase went through, so I had to call Ryanair, which, like everything else associate with this airline, isn’t free. I was told that their site doesn’t support Google Chrome and that I should try again with Internet Explorer. I did so and the purchase went through without a hitch.Be careful how you click. Ryanair’s booking process is a mess. You need to click or unclick a lot of different options. Do you want priority boarding? Would you like to buy some new suitcases? Do you want to get a text message with flight details? How about some travel insurance or a rental car? It goes on and on and on.

Better travel light. You’ll pay dearly for your checked baggage, and you need to estimate how much your bags will weigh. For my flight, bags up to 15 kg (33 pounds) cost €20 each, and bags up to 20 kg (44 pounds) cost €30. If your bags go over the limit you paid for, you pay €20 for each kilo over your allowance.

Think you’ll just bring a ton of stuff with you on board? Think again – you can only bring one item of cabin baggage per passenger weighing up to 10kg (22 pounds) with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. If your carry-on is too heavy, they can refuse to allow you to bring it, or they can charge you a €50 surcharge to check it. And they don’t allow you to pool baggage weight, even if you are traveling with small children who don’t have baggage.

They kill you on the exchange rate. You have to keep clicking to figure out how much you’ll actually pay. This is how our tickets broke down for a family of four:

162.96 EUR Total Fare
8.00 EUR Passenger Fee: EU 261 Levy
1.00 EUR Passenger Fee: ETS
24.00 EUR Passenger Fee: Web Check in
60.00 EUR Passenger Fee: Checked Bag(s)
24.00 EUR Passenger Fee: Administration Fee
279.96 EUR Total Paid

The worst part is the awful exchange rate they give you. At the time I booked, the Euro was about 32 percent higher than the dollar but they gave us a ridiculous 42 percent exchange rate, bringing our €279 ticket up to $397. If we’d gotten the legit exchange rate, it would have been about $368.

No assigned seats. You’re required to print your boarding pass in advance, and can check in up to 15 days prior to your flight. I wasn’t willing to pay for a reserved seat, but our flight was only about half full, so I had no issues with the open seating policy. We boarded and the flight attendants told us we could sit anywhere beyond row 8, as the front of the plane was reserved for those who paid for priority boarding. Since we were traveling with small children, we got priority boarding, which was a nice touch.

You need some smokes? How about lottery tickets or phone cards? The first thing you might notice about Ryanair planes is that there’s no pouch on the seatback. People tend to stuff garbage in them and by eliminating these pouches it helps them turn the flights around quicker. Ryanair boasts the best on-time performance of any European carrier and they need to be efficient in order for their low cost business model to work.

Shortly after our flight took off, on time, the stewardesses started trolling the aisle with things for sale. I expected food and drinks, but the first items they trotted out were packs of cigarettes, lottery tickets and phone cards. What next, I thought, condoms? Or perhaps some Viagra? I thought about getting a chicken tikka plate for €5 but thought better of it. Soon enough, the young ladies were back again, this time with a selection of perfume and cologne. I didn’t need them but considered buying a bottle for a strongly scented gentleman behind me in the boarding line.

Verdict. I’ll fly Ryanair again without hesitation. Once you know the drill and learn how to navigate the booking process, it’s fine. Even with the dodgy exchange rate, the price we got was still better than the competition, and for me, that’s pretty much the bottom line.

[Photo by Alberto P Veiga on Flickr]

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe - While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English - Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport - This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country - While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

easyJet plans routes from London Southend Airport

Southend Airport
London Southend Airport doesn’t look like much. Compared to major London airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick and Stansted, it isn’t much, yet starting next spring this little airport will be a new easyJet destination. EasyJet will be running 70 flights a week from there to Alicante, Barcelona, Ibiza, Malaga and Majorca, Belfast, Amsterdam, and Faro.

It’s a 50-minute train ride to Liverpool Street station, which makes it just as convenient as the Big Three airports and more convenient than Luton. City Airport also serves London but is mostly for business travelers rather than holidaymakers.

A new train station and control tower have recently been completed and Southend’s runway will be lengthened by 300 meters to accommodate bigger planes.

Being one of the smallest airports in the UK is an advantage, Southend’s managers say. They claim that check-in and security run much faster than the crowded major airports.

Have you used Southend airport? Tell us how it compares to London’s other airports in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Terry Joyce]