Lufthansa A380 at MIA. Photo courtesy of Aero Icarus via Flickr.
Lufthansa A380 from Frankfurt landing at MIA

Despite its setting amid a flat, wildly sprawling car-topia, Miami International Airport is an aviation geek’s dream. Airliners from places as far away as Moscow and Buenos Aires or as close as Key West and Nassau, cargo planes all the way from China, the Airbus A380 – the world’s largest passenger aircraft – riding heavy over Biscayne Bay on its way across the Atlantic; if you look in the sky long enough, you’ll see it all. And unlike most big-city airports relegated to the boondocks, MIA is right in the heart of town.

TAM departing for Brazil
TAM departing for Brazil

Vantage points are everywhere: you can catch the afternoon arrivals from Europe at the LA Fitness on Northwest 12th Street, the planes so low you can almost touch them – Iberia, Alitalia, Virgin, Swiss, and British all in a row. Commuters on the Dolphin Expressway course alongside the south runway, sometimes racing TAM to Brazil, LAN to Chile, or Copa to Panama. Delta and United and Avianca and TACA and FedEx and UPS skirt the towers of downtown Miami throughout the day. But all-day, everyday, it’s American – old American, new American, big American, small American – it could be to Tallahassee or Tegucigalpa, somebody’s going somewhere on American.

AA dominates MIA
AA dominates MIA. They’ve been slow at repainting with the new logo.

Nearby Fort Lauderdale might have the most dramatic landings in the region, jets just barely missing the tops of the semis speeding up and down I-95. But Miami’s got the most diverse range of aircraft, airlines, landing patterns, and striking silhouettes of any city I’ve ever lived in.

Swiss airliner at MIA
Swiss prepping for the return to Zurich

So if you’re driving past the airport and see someone creeping along on the expressway at 5 miles an hour trying to snap a shot of a departing AirBerlin jet on their phone, it’s probably me. I really have to stop that; it’s just not safe.

Terminal J at MIA from Dolphin Expressway
Terminal J at MIA from Dolphin Expressway

Oh…and is anybody else but me excited that Qatar Airways will be flying here come next June?! Nobody? Bueller?

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Varig Airlines Travel Poster Bahia

Once a standard-bearer of glamour and adventure during the Golden Age of jet travel, Brazil’s Varig brand will cease to exist by next April. That’s when Brazilian low-cost airline Gol, owner of the brand, will officially dispense with the iconic logo and name that it acquired when the original Varig stopped flying in 2006, repainting the remaining Varig-branded planes in Gol’s fluorescent orange livery.


Founded in Porto Alegre in 1927 as Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense, the airline known as Varig once connected Brazil with destinations as far-flung as Copenhagen, Tokyo, Maputo, and Toronto, carrying with it idealized exoticism, the promise of sun and sex south of the equator. Jet-setters, when not flying Pan Am, flew Varig down to Rio. Even the plucky Holly Golightly adorned the walls of her Manhattan apartment with Varig’s eye-catching posters as she dreamt of a new life in Brazil in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Sadly, as air travel became more accessible to the masses, Varig’s stellar service waned, as did its profits, and by the 2000s, the airline found it hard to compete against nimble competition in a stormy economic environment. After an embarrassing bankruptcy in 2006, with planes repossessed at JFK and soccer fans stranded in Germany during the World Cup, competitor Gol snapped up a few bits and pieces of the legacy carrier, hoping to bank on Varig’s international brand recognition and global image. Subsequently, as archrival TAM has taken up the mantle as Brazil’s de facto flag carrier and Gol has steadily built its own brand awareness through aggressive advertizing and solid service, Varig’s name proved irrelevant and, come next April, will be consigned to history, alongside Pan Am, TWA, Swissair, and a few other paragons of 20th century air travel.

I only flew Varig once, round-trip from Miami to Salvador da Bahia via São Paulo. It was my first trip to Brazil. The seats on the Boeing 777 were cramped, the flight attendants on the international legs mostly surly, middle-aged men. Our return domestic flight was late and an agent had to rush us through the concrete maze that is São Paulo’s airport to make our connection to Miami and as I approached the door, one flight attendant smiled at me and asked, “Baiano?” “Não,” I responded, flattered to have been mistaken for Brazilian, “americano.”

Varig, you will be missed.

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Rio2

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Sao Paulo

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Brazil

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Rio1

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As fall turns to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, travelers have always looked to the Caribbean for a little warmth. But it wasn’t just exotic beaches that were advertised; the region’s exoticized black bodies have always been a part of its allure. I’ve got mixed feelings about some of these. What do you think?










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Just over a year ago, Boeing debuted its newest jet airplane, the 787. Designed to take fewer passengers a much farther distance than other long-range jets, the 787—nicknamed the Dreamliner—will allow airlines to make money by serving farther-flung destinations that people want to get to, but that the current crop of planes that can fly the distance are just too big for. For example, there may be 200 people wanting a daily nonstop Miami-to-Tokyo flight, but until the 787 came around, the only planes that could fly the route all seated at least 300 passengers. No airline could financially justify such a route with that many empty seats, no matter how much they charged for first class. Well, times have changed.

Right now, eight of the nearly fifty airlines that have ordered 787s are operating the type and new nonstop, such as Japan Air Lines’ Boston-Tokyo, ANA’s San Jose-Tokyo, and United Airlines’ Denver-Tokyo, have already begun or are slated to begin soon (Tokyo’s seeing a lot of 787 action!). Other carriers, like United, Ethiopian Airlines, and LAN, are using the plane for “rightsizing” existing routes, with United flying the new-new between hubs in the US.

The airlines aren’t the only beneficiaries, though. Besides getting access to additional nonstop markets, passengers will experience larger windows, more room throughout the cabin, and better pressurization, and lightweight composite materials create for a less-gas-guzzling airplane that, in theory, should result in lower fares but don’t hold your breaths on that one.

Anybody else as excited about the new 7-8 as I am? Prolly not. :-/

Check out this video of ANA’s 787 interior. It’s pretty fly.

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As a kid―and a nascent nerd―in the late-80s/early-90s, I used to collect airline timetables, that magical tome of times and places that would transport you from Caracas to New York to Frankfurt to Rangoon and back with the flip of a few pages.

My first timetables were from domestic carriers that flew to my hometown of Jacksonville: Piedmont, Delta, Eastern, USAir. I especially loved the American Airlines timetables because they were thick with flight schedules and included shaded airport maps and detailed seat diagrams of planes like the Airbus 300 and MD-11.

Soon, I hit the phone book and dialed the 800-numbers of every airline listed: British Airways, Canadian International Airlines, Air Afrique, Varig, Thai Airways International. By the time I hit age 10, I pressed my parents incessantly to take me to the airport whenever we went to Orlando so I could bum timetables from strange-sounding foreign airlines like Alitalia, LACSA, and Lufthansa. I even had timetables from tiny operations like Air Nauru, Air Malta, and Aero California.

By my teenage years, my collection of timetables (and travel guides and AAA city maps) began to overflow the raggedy file cabinet my mom had brought home from school, and their pressure for me to just throw all that crap out became more and more intense. Eventually it all went into the trash, just as the internet took off and all but a scant few airlines stopped printing their flight schedules in book format. In the end, my parents forced me to destroy a collection of items―obtained for free―that now would be worth hundreds of dollars each. I remind them of this each time I hit them up for money.

Now I’m relegated to much bulkier in-flight magazines. They just aren’t the same.

What did you geek out about as a kid?

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Fly Favorites: February 2012

  • Don + Whitney =

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

All around the world, same song...

It’s time for a bit of airline geekery! I keep track of all my flights via the Flight Memory database system. I enter the details of my trip, including times, aircraft type, and seat number, then watch as the system tallies up trivia like my top ten air routes (Bogotá-Barranquilla is still #1), how many times I could have circumnavigated the globe via air (13.87 times), most used airports (ATL, BOG, JAX, GRU, BAQ), etc. It also renders the fly-ass map above that shows all the non-US routes I’ve flown. With this week’s Swiss flight from São Paulo to Zurich, I finally closed the transatlantic gap between Europe and South America! Yeh, yeh…well, it’s exciting to me.

That's my plane!

Anyway, impeccable service aside, Swiss International Air Lines (the descendant of Swissair, which folded in 2002) developed a funky-fresh inflight mapping system called the Airshow, that keeps track of your plane’s progress and throws up fact boxes about key destinations en route. There’s a stat ticker at the bottom of the screen and cool swoop-around graphics of the plane and the earth. I snapped a few shots (and some video) during the flight – in the dark, so as not to look like some star-struck kid – but it’s the very idea of hurtling across the equator on a Swiss jetliner to Zurich that just says fly.

Next up: Notes on Zurich

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Last week, fellow fly brother Greg Gross of I’m Black and I Travel posted about African-Americans, Africa, and why we should be traveling more frequently to the Motherland (read his entire posts here and here). Acknowledging cost, distance, and lack of familiarity with the continent as historical barriers that can and should be overcome, the issue of time remains a persistent hindrance to American travelers of all races, simply because our workaholic culture allows for a mere two weeks of vacation each year (and how many people even actually get to spend those entire two weeks on vacation?). Brother Gross says that a minimum of ten days in Africa is required, but I’m willing to argue that there are at least two or three city breaks you can do from the East Coast of North America to the West Coast of Africa over three or four days, if you’re serious about setting foot on African soil without having to use up any sick days. The flights are shorter than nonstops to Rome, and these may not be the cheapest of weekend jaunts, but consider this: that bargain airfare you get to Europe is often off-set by lodging, food, transport, etc.; you may pay more up-front to get to Africa, but on the ground, it’s a different story. If you’re truly serious about heading “to the East,” you can make it happen.

Dakar, Senegal

Image by Catherine Hine

Cosmopolitan and exhilarating, Dakar packs an unbeatable music scene, jammin’ nightlife, busy beaches, and exuberant street-life onto a pointy peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. This geographic situation made the city an important – if nightmarish – port-of-call during the slave trade; if nearby Goree Island and its Door of No Return doesn’t leave a lump in your throat, you’re a heartless douchebag.

South African Airways links DC and Dakar daily as a stopover en route to Johannesburg, and Delta hits town thrice-weekly from New York-JFK.

Accra, Ghana
Pronounced uh-KRAH – not AK-rah – this bustling English-speaking burg serves up surf and sound, with year-round beach weather (of which Europeans have been taking advantage for a while, now), laid-back riddims, and an intense bargaining culture for those sale-hounds up for a little friendly back-and-forth over that perfect, handcrafted souvenir for Grandma-nem.

United runs five times a week from DC to Accra, while Delta does a daily NYC and thrice-weekly Atlanta nonstops.

Casablanca, Morocco

Image by Jean-Claude Morand

Yes, despite arguments to the contrary, Morocco counts as Africa. The city captured on celluloid as the Bogie-Bergman jump-off may not be sub-Saharan, but Africa – the second-largest continent on the planet – is not ethnically (or even racially) monolithic and Casablanca is a hot-and-spicy concoction of centuries-old Arab, Berber, and black African cultural interaction.

Delta codeshares with Royal Air Maroc on the 7-hour NYC-Casablanca hop.

No excuses.

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I consider myself to be an ordinarily savvy traveler, especially when it comes to airfare bargain-hunting. But I’m finding myself in a quandary involving what is probably the most expensive plane ticket I’ve purchased to date: São Paulo to Samoa.

"...come to me...come to me..."

A good friend of mine living in Australia is celebrating her birthday next April in Samoa, and she’s invited a few friends over to help with the shenanigans. Samoa hasn’t been on my radar, but like many places (Poland, most recently), all I need is a good enough reason and I’m on my way. Besides, when else would I ever have the chance to go to Samoa?

Normally, if a ticket is too expensive, I just have to let the opportunity pass. This time, though, I think I just might be able to scrape up enough change between the seat cushions to buy my way out into the middle of the South Pacific. And though April seems far enough away, it’s just barely six months from now, and with only one non-stop from the States a week to the island, fares will only be going up.

Air New Zealand runs to Apia from Los Angeles once weekly, and that round-trip is running at a little under $1000. Whatever, I’m going. The problem is in getting to LA from Brazil. Until recently, there had been two non-stop options between Sampa and LA: Delta and Korean Air. Being partners in the SkyTeam airline alliance, they both operated on alternating days, together offering daily service and frequent flier miles on each others’ programs. Last summer, Delta dropped out and Korean’s left as the only player on that route, three times a week. As such, the fare is a princely $1300 (give or take).

The cheapest alternative is AeroMexico, the sole surviving Mexican long-haul carrier, and also a member of SkyTeam. With seven-hour layovers in Mexico City—each way—this option seems roundly unappealing, until you see the sticker price: $890. That’s $400 less than with Korean Air, but nine additional hours of travel time.See the problem?

But price isn’t just the issue. Korean operates their entire 12 hour, 30 minute flight on a somewhat-spacious Boeing 777. AeroMexico runs from SP to DF on the same aircraft, but finishes the LAX leg on a cramped 737. I’m 6’1; cramped’s not cool. Secondly, I can’t speak for or against AeroMexico’s service, but Korean Air has award-winning in-flight service, as most do most of the large Asian carriers, and on a damn-near 13-hour flight, service matters. I live in and love Latin America, and while the flight crews in my neck of the woods are often pleasant enough, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly service-oriented. At least I feel like I could ask for a glass of water at my economy class seat on Korean Air without getting stank attitude (OK, now I’m projecting the North American lack of service onto AeroMexico…my bad, Mex!). In AeroMexico’s defense, Mexico City isn’t half-bad to bum around in for a few hours, but with a bag, it’s crappy. Also, the flight paths are virtually parallel, so stopping at MEX isn’t out of the way, and the flight gets me in to LA with much more time to get through customs and immigration and checked-in to my (once weekly, remember?) Air New Zealand flight than does the Korean Air arrival.So, let’s line up the pros and cons of each and try to make a decision:

Korean Air Pros

Korean Air Cons

  • Almost $1300 ticket price
  • Almost $1300 ticket price
  • Arriving exactly two hours before my Air NZ flight, with no interline agreement in case of delays or other reason for cancelling

AeroMexico Pros

  • Price
  • Price
  • Extra time for connection to Samoa flight

AeroMexico Cons

  • 22-hour travel time each way
  • 4-hours in a cramped 737 each way
  • 7-hour layovers at MEX each way

One last factor is thinking about “money saved” in broader terms. Sure, I’d save $400 on the airfare, but I’d need to spend some money during those 7-hour layovers, mostly likely on a hotel room in order to rest-up from one red-eye only to board another.

So, what would you do, readers? Spring for the speed and comfort of a Korean Air nonstop or keep some cash in-pocket and give AeroMexico a try?