Friday, July 01, 2005

NDT Travelblog......Destination, Madison, WI

One of the magical (or at least annoying) things of being in NDT's line of work is that your schedule is perpetually prefaced with, "Subject to change at moment's notice". Such was what happened Sunday night, when NDT was foolish enough to answer the phone at 10 PM:

NDT: "Hello, this is NDT"

Leader: "HI NDT....look, the deal signed, and we need you at the site in Madison, Wisconsin, on Tuesday morning at 9:30."

NDT: "Well, I...."

Leader: "Great! Thanks."


At any rate, Monday found me at DFW, boarding a flight guessed it....St. Louis. Since the mantra in my group is "Fly the farthest distance on the least amount of chargeback to the account", the best option for a last-minute flight, especially given American Airlines and its absolute domination of flights in and out of Dallas, was to connect through Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

Lambert used to be one of my least-favorite airports in which to make a connection and for good reason -- it was crappy. After American's rape (and there is no better way to phrase that) of TWA in 2001, Lambert was put into direct competition with American's other hubs in Chicago and Dallas -- two airports with vastly-larger facilities, service capabilities, and room to expand, not to mention the fact that they're barely more than an hour's flight time away. The body blow of 9/11 only accelerated that competitive weakness, especially as American slashed its domestic routes and focused on stopping its hemorrhaging.

However, times change, and Lambert seems to be changing with the times. The airport, rather than being the international hub that it was under TWA, has retooled and adjusted to its new reality of being an endpoint destination for most travelers and a connection point for smaller regional flights. The terminal has undergone some cosmetic sprucing (desperately needed) and is adding logistics changes to deal with its most glaring problems. Because there aren't as many flights and they are mostly of smaller planes, the idiotic alleyway design of the C and D terminals that used to force planes to have to back almost completely out to the runway to avoid hitting a widebody (and making STL an almost-inevitable thirty-minute ground delay airport) is no longer a killer.

NDT Travel Tip: If you have a layover in STL and want to spend some quality laptop time, the passageway between the B and C concourses has T-Mobile hotspot access, an abundance of electrical outlets -- and, for those who, like NDT, are aviation junkies and find beauty in the mechanical ballet of flights going in and out, ground crews scurrying, and planes taking off, a panoramic view of the main runway and the B/C concourse gates.

Next up was the flight to MSN on American's remnant of TWA's regional airline, AmericanConnection -- and to my surprise, it was a dash of nostalgia, being on a Jetstream 41 turboprop. Most US airlines have made a concerted push to get rid of their propeller fleets and convert over to regional jets -- but in some cases, the turboprops are more efficient (and definitely cheaper). For some reason, it was comforting to clamber in, squeeze into the smaller seats, and hear the mutter of the propeller blades as they pulled you through the sky. Kind of like smelling meatloaf when you walk into a restaurant; not something you necessarily want to order, but a pleasant experience nonetheless. In addition, our flight attendant was one of the cabin comedians who can turn a safety briefing into a howling moment ("OK, I have to show you how to work a seatbelt, even though I know every single person on this plane, including that beautiful baby who is now crawling out of his safety seat, can do it already!") To cap off the flight, it was a beautiful moment when we pulled up to the gate and, at the captain's request, the entire plane broke into loud cheers and applause for the young man who had been in Iraq serving his country in the seat next to mine -- after his explaining to us the odyssey of days that it had taken him to get to this point, what he had seen and done, and how glad he was to get home to see his mom and dad.

Airports, as a whole, tend to fall into one of three categories -- functional, with the same aesthetic and lighting one finds in a domed stadium; wildly modern to the point of being ridiculous, with glass and steel everywhere to ensure that no succeeding generation will think their forbears weren't "with it"; or pathetically inadequate, with gates crammed into every corner, waiting areas the size and with the same seating amount of closets, and reeking of some industrial effluvia (or cigarette smoke) present from its original construction during the Great Depression. Thus, it was truly a jaw-dropping experience to step out into the gorgeous Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) and its beautiful architectural touches, finished in the Prairie style popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, everything from the podiums for the gate agents to the glass panels that shield the outside sidewalks and are etched to cast a shadow of a stylized head of wheat. Truly a magnificent experience and one of which the denizens of Madison should be proud.

Oh yes, Madison. As the capital of Wisconsin and the home of the central University of Wisconsin, Madison definitely has a different beat than the other cities you'll find in the Badger State. Bordered on by two large lakes, the city does indeed revolve around water, with little canals dug everywhere to make sure that no resident is too far from a boat launch. Unfortunately, while I was there, the city was going through a heat wave, with temperatures well into the nineties -- an event which my counterparts there assured me rarely if ever happens. I guess I brought some of our Texas summer with me!

While there, I hit two places of particular note at the prompting of Blog Ally Dunner of Dunner's Stunners -- the Essen Haus, a fine German restaurant famous for its glass "boots" filled with beer (and yes, I had one....well, maybe two), and the Terrace at the University of Wisconsin Union. I must say that one of the finest experiences of my life has been eating an ice cream cone made fresh by the U of W's dairy program, feeling the cool northern breeze, and swapping stories with an old friend while watching the sunset dance off the waters of Lake Mendota.

All too soon it was time to leave the land where bodies of water are not automatically considered suspicious and head back to the plains of North Texas. We won't go into details, but let us just say that the curse on NDT still is in effect for whenever he flies through Chicago O'Hare.

At any rate, to all a fun, joyous, and safe holiday weekend.

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