Cuba door cracks slightly

President Barack Obama has announced that restrictions on travel to Cuba are about to become looser. But, it’s not time for cigar smokers across the United States begin to rejoice yet. So far, the measure will only allow Cuban-Americans with family on the island to visit, and Obama has stated that he supports the embargo.

The change in travel restrictions is part of a $410 billion spending bill approved by the Senate late Tuesday. It had already passed the House of Representatives and was signed by the president yesterday. The new law permits annual travel (rather than once every three years, under the Bush Administration‘s program) and increases a visitor’s allowable daily spend from $50 a day to $179 a day.

This is a small move, but by virtue of its involving Cuba, it becomes substantial. Bringing families back together, at least once a year, is a step in some right direction, whatever it may be.

Cockpit Chronicles: Groundhog day – The St. Thomas turn (with video)

One of the benefits of working as an airline crewmember, whether it be as a pilot or flight attendant, is the chance to get to know a city in a manner that’s second only to living there. But when we’re given the option to fly a month of ‘turns’ – those one day trips with flight times occasionally exceeding eight hours, many of our Boston international pilots forgo the London or Aruba layover for a line with 9 or 10 turns in it.

It’s tough to pass up a schedule that allows you to be home every night and have a good deal of time off as well.

As a result of the popularity of these turns, they’re not always available to choose when you’re as junior on the seniority list as I am. But my seniority must have improved since the beginning of the year, since I’m able fly FO (First Officer, as opposed to FB, the relief pilot) lines to St. Thomas.

Some might consider it torturous to see a glimpse of warm weather during a walkaround inspection lasting less than ten minutes, only to come straight back to the northeast and land while it’s snowing.
But for the entire month of February, I’ve been doing just that – flying trips to and from St. Thomas, and occasionally trading for a different day or different destination, such as San Juan. I’ve kept an eye open for an opportunity to ‘chronicle’ the trip, but the flights have been rather uneventful and amazingly consistent.

So consistent in fact, that I feel like I’m experiencing a pilot’s version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

Wake up at 5, depart at 9. Answer a Plane Answers question during the 1 hour crew rest break. Fly a visual approach to runway 10 in St. Thomas, park at gate 3.

I’ll debate whether the view is interesting enough to go outside and snap a picture, and then decide I have plenty of St. Thomas ramp pictures already so I check my e-mail on the phone before doing the interior preflight. The FB comes back in from inspecting the outside, followed by the captain with the paperwork he collected from operations in the terminal and we’re again departing to Boston 5 minutes before our scheduled time.

The flight home might include sleeping on my break, and then returning to the cockpit just in time to watch the sun set before getting ready for the visual approach or ILS to runway 27 back in Boston.

Taxiing in, we maneuver around the same outbound US Airways flight, before finally parking at gate B31.

The FB races out of the cockpit like he’s late for a date, which is entirely expected of that position since there’s nothing left for him to do, except maybe to take the trash bag out of the cockpit as he leaves.

But now, after 10 of these trips in a row, I’ve learned to enjoy the repetitiveness of the flying. It’s refreshing to be familiar with each VHF frequency you’ll dial in as the airplane progresses through the various ATC boundaries. I don’t even mind the same turkey wrap or chicken caesar salad meal option we get on each leg.

And while the captain and relief pilot are occasionally different people, airlines insist on standardized callouts and actions, so even that doesn’t offer much variety.

Last night, however, we had a little experience that finally made the trip one that will stick in my memory for a long time. As we were descending to 24,000 feet (flight level 240 in pilot speak) we leveled off just above a cloud layer.

I call this cloud skimming, and anytime we’re above 10,000 feet, I like to pull out my camera to capture the sensation of speed that 300 knots provides when you’re just a few hundred feet above a layer of clouds.

But today, of all days, I chose to leave my new, amazingly wonderful, mind-blowing Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR slash HD video camera at home. I figured I knew everything that would happen today, right down to the approach and gate we’d be using, and since I had taken enough shots of anything even remotely interesting during the previous flights, today seemed like the day to shed the extra three pounds.

Never again! I was forced to pull out my $210 Flip Mino HD video camera, which I love for it’s simplicity and incredible portability, but I know the 5D’s HD mode would have been even more beautiful.

For those learning to fly, a quick note. After you get your private license, you might be thinking about adding an instrument rating to your ticket. You’re probably weighing the costs and benefits of such an investment. Let me tell you that, in addition to improving your flying skills and your options during long cross country flights, you’ll also be able to experience scenes such as the following that just might make all the studying and checkrides worth it.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers.

Lousiana Senator David Vitter throws fit at the airport

Louisiana Sen David Vitter missed his plane at Dulles Airport last Wednesday, and he was not amused.

Vitter, who recently gained infamy after being identified on the D.C. Madam’s Phone List, found his gate closed, so he went through an armed security door. Why not? He’s got that Senator’s pin, after all, right? That gives you access to all areas of the airport … right?

As you might expect, an alarm went off as he then tried to verbally rip an unsuspecting United Airlines gate attendant a new one. Apparently, he even tried to pull rank. Come on. Would that even work in his home state?

When the employee exited to find a security guard, Vitter ran away. What a maverick. According to The Raw Story, “Vitter’s spokeperson did not dispute the incident.”

Check out these other stories from the airport checkpoint!

Turn plastic bottles into a boat: One guy’s quest to sail the ocean

If a boat can be made out of Popsicle sticks to be sea-worthy, why not a boat of two-liter plastic bottles? In San Francisco, not too far from Fisherman’s Wharf, David de Rothschild, environmentalist and adventurer is doing just that. He is in the process of lashing together 12,000 to 16,000 plastic bottles filled with dry ice powder in order to create two hulls for a sail boat that can travel the 11,000 miles between California and Australia.

It’s not like the sailboat named Plastiki will look like a whole mess of soda bottles bobbing on in the ocean either. A woven plastic mesh-like material will be stretched over the hulls and heated to fuse them together making the hulls and the cabin, big enough to sleep four, water tight.

During the journey, two wind turbines and solar panels will provide the juice for the batteries needed to run the computers, a GPS system and a phone. This endeavor is de Rothchild’s way of drawing attention to the need for clean, renewable energy and not make products that go to waste.

After the journey scheduled to begin in April, the plan is to recycle the boat. If the economy doesn’t perk up, who knows, maybe there will be a bunch of people looking to make sailboats out of plastic bottles. [via]

Student sues US Airways for $1 Million – for a lost gaming console

Our gaming buddies over at are reporting on yet another incident at US Airways. This morning it involved a casket, this afternoon it involves a missing Xbox 360 gaming console.

Normally, when something goes missing in your luggage, you file a claim, and you’ll never hear anything back. But in the case of 21 year old Jesse Maiman, he’s not going to just sit back and relax – he’s suing US Airways for a cool $1 Million.

The console went missing last December on a flight from New Haven to Kentucky. When he picked up his luggage, he noticed how light it was. It was then that he realized his Xbox had been swiped.

According to Maiman, the Xbox had a specialized hard drive and components, and cost over $1000.

In his suit, he’s seeking $1,700 for the loss of his console, and “of at least $25,000, but in the maximum amount allowable by law or, in the alternative, in the sum of $1,000,000.”

That is right – one million Dollars for a lost Xbox.

US Airways was not aware of the lawsuit just yet, but was quick to point out that the law sets a limit on how much an airline will pay for lost luggage, currently that limit is just $3,300 per bag. But get this – the payouts always exclude any liability for electronics.

What I don’t understand is how someone can be stupid enough to put an Xbox console in their bag, but smart enough to get a lawsuit going. Even the most inexperienced flier knows that expensive items don’t go in your checked bag. It is hard to blame someone for the dishonesty of airport workers, but there are just too many cases of theft to expect expensive electronics to make it to your destination.

My guess is that there will be 2 possible outcomes here – US Airways will pay him a nominal fee to make the case go away, or they’ll play along and have him pay their legal fees when he loses. Either way, I don’t think he’ll be seeing his first million any time soon.