Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mile-High Walk Part 4 - Den on the Frontier

It was a hair before 7:00 AM, I’d driven 125 miles and flown a thousand more.  The heck just happened?  I was asleep in my bed eight hours ago!

Technology is pretty cool.

As was the case with both MDW and ORD in 2015, I planned for time to do a complete airport walk; this time, I planned carefully with the hope that we’d land, I’d deplane with time to spare to get to a great vantage point and catch the sun rise over the plains to the east.

Agh, short-armed it.

Well, we’ve got a schedule to keep.  Let’s get right to it.

Denver’s airport, or “DEN” in airport lingo, is comprised of three concourses and a main terminal.  Each of the three concourses and the terminal are all connected by an underground train, which is good both because DEN is big and because the train is the only way to get to the other two concourses from the first.

And that first concourse is where we find ourselves, right at one end, conveniently.  Concourse B and C have pretty much one main airline that uses them.  Concourse A, on the other hand, holds everybody else.

Each airline has its own little section in Concourse A, making connections fairly easy along the length of the concourse.  Delta, American, and all internationally based carriers call this concourse home.  The southern side of the concourse serves as Frontier’s base, making connections theoretically painless.  They serve 53 non-stop destinations from DEN over the course of a given year, if you can believe it, all from eight little gates.  Not bad for a ULCC.

Marching down the concourse, it’s easy to see where each carrier has staked out their claim, both from the gates, lounges, and the branding throughout the concourse.  The east end has five gates dedicated to American Airlines service to their major U.S. hubs, representing the smallest share of gates assigned to a mainline U.S. airline.  A staircase takes you down to a tiny addendum that services local airlines Great Lakes Airlines and PenAir, as well as ULCC Spirit Airlines. 

Frontier and other ULCCs have been the butt of airline jokes for a while, but Spirit Airlines has to have been the butt-iest.  Frontier’s my first time on a ULCC, but I’m still interested to give Spirit a try to see if it’s as awful as people say.  I doubt it is, but that’s just one perspective.  Spirit’s branding and color scheme is bright, flashy, and informal, not at all like the classic designs of legacy carriers that ferry the majority of travelers across the U.S. 

Great Lakes Airlines is the only commercial air link between Cheyenne, and several other local airports, and the outside world.  They mostly fly Beechcraft 1900 9-seaters and a handful of other, larger turboprop planes.  Having done this kind of turboprop fly-in once to get to St. Louis aboard Cape Air, it’s an experience I’d highly recommend.  There’s something neat about leaving the sticks in a little plane, entering the big city and seeing the world spread out below, and before you. 

Each concourse’s train station meets at a centralized node at the heart of the concourse.  These nodes really give the airport that open feel I always like in large hubs.  Tall ceilings, lots of windows, abstract architecture.  For now, we’ll keep moving to the other half.

In 2015, my wife and I landed here to begin our anniversary trip.  Six gates on the west side of Concourse A handle Delta, which send flights to their main hubs around the country, including a little hop to LAX, an airport with the unique distinction of being designated by all three major U.S. carriers as a hub.

Today, this flight’s going to Seattle, one of Delta’s newer hubs.  I’ve never been to Washington, but I’ve heard SEA is a nice airport.  Many aviation geeks head up to SEA both for the airport itself as well as the nearby Boeing factory and Payne Field, where brand-new, liveried jets run their test flights before delivery to their customers around the world.

Before we move on to the next concourse, I think it bears mentioning DEN’s innate optimism.

The signage in each concourse’s east wing points to X## to X99, indicating that there are 99 gates.  Well, this isn’t true for any of them, but DEN was built with expansion in mind.  DEN is, itself, an expansion.  Until the mid-90s, Denver’s air traffic was handled by Stapleton Airport.  When Denver’s needs grew too large, plans to build an airport in the suburbs of Denver emerged.  They bought a lot of land and built wide.  Stapleton was closed, it’s IATA designation of “DEN” was reassigned to the new airport, and developments sprung up on the old site of the airport.

Today, all three concourses at DEN can be spread out west and east without impacting the airfield, meaning that one day, there might actually be 99 gates.  As a forward-looking airport, they went ahead and put up the signs to indicate the future. 

Replacing the sign each time there was an extension couldn’t be terribly expensive, so I like that they advertise inevitable expansion to be plainly seen by transiting passengers.  The same is true coming the other direction, too.  There is no gate A1.  In fact, A26, across the hall from the gate in the last picture, is the westernmost gate in the concourse.  After seeing so many airports seemingly surprised by their popularity and scratching their heads figuring out how to meet it, it’s nice to know one airport is systematically prepared for growth.

Let’s zip down the line to Concourse B, Denver’s biggest and busiest.  To do that, let’s head down a pair of escalators at A’s central node, hop on one of the trains that swing by about every two minutes, and ride!

While Concourse A has a long way to go to hit 99 gates, Concourse B is pretty close.  Longer on either side than either A or C, B has about 70 gates and has been expanded twice.  Unlike Concourse A, Concourse B is all one airline: United Airlines.  The now-defunct Continental Airlines was merged with United several years ago, and since then, every other tenant of the concourse moved elsewhere, usually as part of a merger themselves.  Now, United holds all of the gates, making connections easier.

From the central node, we’ll head west to the older part of the concourse first. 

This part of the concourse hosts United’s larger flights, especially on the southern (left) side.  Long-haul flights to United’s far-flung destinations like Tokyo, Hawaii, and, occasionally, Costa Rica leave from these larger gates.  The other mainline United flights leave from here, either between other hubs or larger, regional destinations.  Many times, though, it’s fairly empty here.

This isn’t a bad thing; I love a big, empty, quiet space while I travel, too.  The western end of the concourse features a lovely view of the Rockies.  In fact, most views from DEN feature either the flat expanse of the High Plains and/or a view of the Front Range.  When you’re here, you can’t forget where you are.

I listen to lyricless music while I walk through airports, usually what would be defined as electronic, techno, or ambient music.  I carefully craft playlists to fit certain moods of travel, whether it’s high-paced, high-rhythm music while I’m charging across a terminal to make a tight connection, or slow-paced, mood music that I feel reflects the joy and excitement of travel.  When I’m in these quieter parts of the airport, I can actually hear what’s coming out of my earbuds, and it puts me at ease.  Sometimes, even with a structured schedule, I’ll sit down and take a break, listening to the smooth, ambient music I’ve selected, feeling my heartbeat, the weight of my bag on my shoulder, the dryness in my mouth from the low humidity of an airplane cabin, and imagine all the unseen places of the world that are just a flight away.

A quick glance at my phone tells me I need to keep moving.  I pull myself up from my solitary seat, reposition my camera bag, and head east.

Beth and I flew out of B46 in 2015 on our way home.  That particular flight went to Chicago, where I’d been months before on my Chicago walk.  Today, they’re off to San Francisco, a city that’s high on my list for a walk.  One day soon.

Concourse B’s easternmost sections are somewhat temporary additions to accommodate United Express, their regional affiliate, and the formidable amounts of traffic they provide to Denver. 

The first extension, which peels off the northern edge of the concourse’s eastern terminus, is a narrow corridor that, for lack of a better description, is like walking through a shipping container.  You board through the corridor, then file down to the actual gate, without a jetway, and walk planeside to board. 

Modern airline passengers in the U.S. don’t actually board planeside much anymore.  The first time I did it was back in Comair’s heyday in the 90s; our family was connecting in Cincinnati, so we flew from Louisville to Cincinnati, a two-hour drive at most, in a flight time that was filed as seventeen minutes.  By far the shortest flight I’ve ever been on, that little connector will always be memorable. 

You can’t get back there unless you’re actually flying, but even if I could, I’m not sure I’d have enough elbow room to hold up a camera.  This would be for low-volume routes like, you know, to Gillette, WY; Medford, OR; or Minot, ND.

The southern extension, on the other hand, is pretty unique.

At the end of the Concourse B, you hang a right, go down a corridor, and head down an escalator to a tarmac-level extension with small, regional jets on either side.  The jetways convey passengers at ground level, but it also provides a unique view of the airfield in general, including some neat parked jets.

This B757 heads between Denver and Reykjavik, Iceland daily, if you can believe it, departing here in the late afternoon.  Iceland has grown over the last few years as an exciting, accessible destination for young, budget-friendly travelers.  Put another way, my generation.  I’ve been hoping to get to Iceland for a while, but it’s on the back burner behind some other destinations.  Still, won’t see this livery in Louisville.

To be honest, the extension reminded me of STL’s main terminal; it was plain, utilitarian, and well-laid out, if not terribly interesting. 

I stopped for a second, charging my flashing camera battery and enjoying another energy bar.  I was a tiny bit ahead of schedule, so I could stand to pause and give myself and my camera some juice.  Concourse C wouldn’t take long.

After a few minutes, I packed up, emptied my camera bag of trash, and then made my way to the last concourse.

Concourse C is another single-tenant concourse, this time run by Southwest Airlines.  This has become more common around the country, as Southwest’s business model is different from legacy carriers, it makes sense to have a specific space to cater to their unique system.

Fittingly, this concourse has a plane suspended above it.  Unfittingly, it has bizarre architecture around its train station, one that I’ve seen several times before and still am unable to totally understand.

This concourse is open and quiet as well, but closer to the gates, things pick up.

In my opinion, Southwest-centered airports or concourses have a specific feel to them that’s distinct from normal airports.  BWI, MDW, and even SDF’s Southwest concourse have a unique aura.  They always seem to have good food options, a unique design, and little touches to distinguish them from other carriers.  I’m not sure how much say Southwest has on that, but it feels like there’s some, at least.  It could also be the clientele, who are usually families, younger travelers, and tourists that grant Southwest-oriented areas a bit of flair. 

Concourse C is abridged compared to the others, with only one section on its eastern side and two to the west.  A quick walkthrough is enough to check it off the list before boarding the people mover back to Concourse A.  While the train goes all the way back to the landside terminal and out into the world, I wanted to disembark in Concourse A for the walk across the pedestrian bridge.

After hopping off at concourse A, I went up three escalators to the upper mezzanine, following the signs to the bridge.

To the east and west, you can see Frontier’s staked claim.  Unlike seeing a row of Southwest planes, Frontier’s Airbuses each sport unique livery. 

No sign of Courtney the Cougar; N702FR must have left for greener pastures while I was walking.

This pedestrian bridge, which connects Concourse A to the main terminal, is somewhat unique, allowing planes to pass safely underneath it while onlookers watch.  It provides wonderful views of the Rockies, as most western-facing windows in the airport do. 

That about wraps it up airside.  After walking past the large “no re-entry” signs on the south side of the bridge, we get to perhaps the most visually recognizable building in all of Colorado: the Jeppesen Terminal.

The landside terminal is named for Elrey Jeppesen, famous Colorado-born aviation and navigation pioneer.  The roof’s design is designed to emulate the Rocky Mountains as well as the traditional homes of Native Americans from the High Plains: tipis.  The cavernous terminal has tons of food options and a museum to Jeppesen, among other things, but we’ve got a train to catch.  Moreover, there’s a couple more things to see outside before we head out.

Denver has recently built an all-new transportation complex outside the airport, complete with a fancy new Westin hotel.  The hotel’s modern architecture blends with the seemingly avant-garde stylings of the airport itself. 

Denver’s airport is huge, and someone’s gotta keep all those windows clean.  That guy right there.  Just that guy.  Well, no, probably not just him.

There’s an escalator that takes you down to the transit center, where the brand-new train station awaits.

When Beth and I were here in October 2015, this train station didn’t exist.  Now, less than a year later, you can take a train, without transfers, directly from the airport to downtown Denver.  Not a moment too soon!

The cost of the ticket is steep by city transit standards, $9.00, but it still beats a bus or heaven forbid a cab.  DEN is enormous, and for it to be so big, it has to be a long way from the city.  As the crow flies, I’m standing about 18 miles from Downtown, and on the flat plains of Colorado, you can really feel that distance.

I’ve got my ticket in hand, and the train that arrives here only goes one way, so it’s just a matter of waiting for the next one which, as it turns out, was pulling up now.

I took a seat on the now empty train and pulled out my journal, taking all the notes I’d need to make this post.  Forty minutes later, I’d be at historic Union Station and ready to commence my walk for real.  I love airports and all, but I travel for more than just travel’s sake.  Let’s explore Denver!

Until then, keep going!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mile-High Walk Part 3 - Sunrise in Green

[Disclaimer: Many of the photos in this post look bad not because they were taken with a potato, but because they were taken BY a potato.  And in low-light.  And most were video screen caps.]

Frontier Airlines has one gate to one destination at IND, and this morning, it was packed.

I completely forgot it was 5:30 in the morning; the lively group that surrounded me was talking excitedly, checking a few last things off on their phones, and gathering their stuff before boarding.  Slowly, the blob of passengers self-corrected into a real line, and as I found my place in it, I looked around at my fellow budget-friendly flyers.

When I booked my ticket on Frontier, I made an assumption about their target market and the travel preferences of that market.  I figured someone like me was who they were aiming for; young, budget-conscious, willing to be severely inconvenienced to save a few bucks, no-frills.  The paid services Frontier offered while I reserved my ticket would be hilariously lofty costs, just something to click “no, thank you” on while booking my thrifty ticket.

But I was in the minority. 

People of all kinds surrounded me.  Businessmen, families with lots of kids and expensive carry-ons, couples traveling together, as well as a handful of solo travelers like myself.  It’s clear, though, that for most everyone getting on that plane, Denver was not going to be their final destination.  Frontier was one part of their trip, and getting to Denver was just the first step. 

People had their $5 boarding passes printed off and clasped in one hand, and the vouchers for their paid-for carry-ons in the other.  For these people, the low-cost-carrier model was not only attractive, they made it work for them.  I was certain I’d be one of dozens of airline bums looking for a cheap leg, skimping on everything but the bare minimum, and I was flat wrong.  People really had purchased their tickets à la carte, choosing what they wanted and forgoing what they didn’t.  Many weren’t just willing to brave the airline for the low-cost, it fulfilled their specific, customized need.  Maybe Frontier and other low-cost-carriers wouldn’t be all bad.

Well, maybe we shouldn’t be so rosy.  We’re not on the plane just yet. 

The plane’s takeoff time was set at 6:05 AM.  Normally, boarding is supposed to commence 30 minutes before then, but I can’t remember the last time this actually happened.  Usually, though, if it’s fifteen minutes before pushback and we’re not boarding, I get suspicious.
Frontier decided to test my limits.  

Boarding began exactly fifteen minutes before departure, but despite the delay, it was neat and orderly.  Well, mostly; one fellow at the beginning of the line wasn’t able to bring his clearly-oversized bag onto the plane and he threw a bit of a fit, but hey, that’s what you get when you think Frontier is like everyone else.  That ticket’s cheap for a reason, hombre.

At 5:54, I walked onto the jetway, and three minutes later, I was seated in 9F, forward of the engine on the starboard side of the plane.

So one of the most quantifiable ways to determine the quality of your seat and the airline at large is the seat pitch, i.e. how much room is between the back of your seat and the same spot on the seatback in front of you. 

Mine was 32”, which these days, is on the high end of the economy size, with some airlines having as little as 28” from seat to seat.  I may have been one of the lucky ones, as 28” and 29” seats comprised most of the seats on the flight.  I’m 6’2”, so 32” actually gives me perhaps an inch of wiggle.  Not bad for 61 big ones.

Admittedly, this is probably a slightly inflated number.  The seatbacks can be (and were) skinnier, and the pockets were emptier, which help effectively improve real legroom.  They definitely leveraged the seatback pocket.  Take a look inside.

Ignoring my crunchy oat bar wrapper, the seatback had nothing in it except the government-mandated safety placard.  No magazine, no SkyMall, no chilled Evian bottle.  What a rip, right?

That’s a shrimpy tray table, too, so named because it could hold exactly one shrimp.  Which would probably cost you $14.00 plus tax on Frontier.  But really, what’s it going to hold?  No drink, no magazine.  Big enough to basically write a check, which can be used for purchases onboard for a small service charge of $47.00.  Nah, I’m just joking.  But still.  This was a short flight, mostly in the dark, so I wouldn’t need much to entertain myself.

The Frontier cabin crew was all business, getting passangers in their seats and putting away their bags.  They were pleasant, though not what I’d call “bubbly.”  While on many airlines, both full-service and budget, I’ve seen flight attendants as companions to the flying experience.  Here, the cabin crew was doing what they were hired to do: their job.  That’s okay; again, it’s just a  different experience. 

Much to my surprise, I felt the plane lurch back from the gate just three minutes behind schedule at 6:08.  The safety demonstration commenced, which was delivered by-the-book with the exception of the name they gave their aircraft: Courtney the Cougar.  Apparently, Frontier names each of their planes after a specific animal, a frontier animal, I suppose, and gives each a unique livery to represent them.  After the cabin crew concluded the safety demo, the captain came over the PA with a brief announcement, indicating that the flight time was about two hours and twenty six minutes, which would put us in around sunrise, just like I’d planned. 

Southwest took up the areas of Concourse B that extended beyond the Frontier gate, but even they hadn’t really woken up yet.  This was good, though; we taxied out to the runway all by ourselves, unencumbered by traffic or sunlight.  We taxied north, aiming for 23R for our take-off run, eight minutes after pushback.  Leaving early in the morning has its benefits.

Love that engine roar on takeoff!  The sound of the engine is considerably different depending on where you’re sitting.  In this position, though, I can hear the full power of this CFM International 56.  And look, there’s Courtney the Cougar, featured on the winglet!

Normally, my seat’s either on the wing or behind it, and most often that means I’m aft of the engine, mostly because seats this far forward on mainline airlines are economy plus, business, or first class.  On Frontier, there’s no such thing, so these normally unavailable locations are prime spots to watch the flight.

Our climb was easy and smooth, and about twenty minutes later, we’d reached our cruising altitude somewhere over central Illinois.  The sky was clear, and below us, a swath of black rolled by as we soared over the quiet, sparsely populated Midwest.

I fidgeted in my seat a bit.  My neighbors, a couple perhaps in their late 30’s, early 40’s, had drifted off to sleep against each other.  I can attest that that seemed more comfortable than propping oneself against the seat.

The seats had been the most intimate part of my Frontier experience so far.  They are rigid, thin, and notably immobile, without any recline potential at all.  They’re highly reminiscent of the free-standing seats we have on our public TARC buses in Louisville, bolted to the ground lest someone take them for their “luxurious” cushions.  Even just thirty minutes in this seat and I can feel the hard plastic beneath my Holiday-Inn-Pillow for a cushion.  To be honest, I’d taken for granted how reasonably a typical airline seat supported my tuchus, but now I was quite aware.

With the din of the airplane’s engine roaring beside me, the darkness outside, the lights low in the cabin, and without the possibility of video entertainment, a beverage service, or an airline crossword puzzle, there really wasn’t much to do.  Sleep sounded more and more appealing, and my subconscious agreed.  I clumsily supported my head on my hand, propped my elbow against the cabin wall, and closed my eyes.

I didn’t really get to sleep.  It was one of those kinds of half-naps where every few, immeasurable moments, you silently ask yourself “did I actually fall asleep for a second?”  A chime, either real or imagined, stirred me from whichever I was doing at the moment.  I felt a tiny bit more rested, so I must have gotten something.  I was also a bit hungry.  I reached into my stuffed camera bag, relieving it of another nutrition bar.  I munched in the darkness, thinking about nothing in particular.  Once I finished my bar, I looked over my right shoulder onto the wing.

That faint glow in the distance would follow us abnormally long as we soared due west across the Great Plains.  As such, it was hard to tell what time it was.  My phone, which I’d already shifted back two hours to Mountain Time, indicated it was 5:25 AM.  It must be 6:25 where we were, so the first moments of dawn made sense.  We still wouldn’t be on the ground for at least an hour, though.  After snapping some low-light photos, I decided to do the sleep/sort-of-sleep thing for a bit longer.

The sun really was coming up now, and at just before 6 AM Denver time, that’d mean we would be on the ground in about half an hour. 

I looked around the twilight of the cabin.  Most of the passengers were slouched over, trying to get a bit of sleep before what would likely be the continuation of a very long day.  Some had their headphones on, their face buried in their glowing devices.  Some were talking to each other quietly, much like you would to a neighbor on the bus.  Which is fair, because that’s basically what this was.  Not complaining, just observing.

I looked outside again, this time down at the earth below us, which was steadily and methodically approaching.  Moreover, I’m not sure we’d started our descent yet.

If I can geek out for a second, I’ve flown from my hometown to Denver several times…on my flight simulator.  I even did this exact flight I’m on from Indianapolis, in a Frontier A321 and everything, simulating the time, weather, and time of year before flying it in real life.  One thing that’s amusing, and admittedly unique, about flying from here to Denver is the subtle, yet drastic elevation change.

Denver is the Mile High City, and not just figuratively.  One place we’ll be visiting on our walk is exactly one mile above sea level.  Louisville and Indianapolis both are below a thousand feet, so when you fly to Denver, you effectively go up thirty-thousand feet and come down twenty-six thousand.  As you make your descent, the Great Plains slope up with you, and before you know it, you’re at ground level.  Unlike landing amongst mountains and huge topographical features, though, you’re landing in a “flatter” part of the world, so it can be quite disorienting as you check your altimeter and see that your current altitude of eight thousand feet doesn’t seem that high.

Denver is at the crossroads of two geographical regions: the High Plains and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.  To one side, it’s farmlands for hundreds of miles.  To the other, the broad range of the Rockies sprawls out into the distance.

Based on our location and approach, we’re coming into Denver from the north, and perhaps on the western side of the airport.  That means we won’t see the airport as we land, but it also means we could land on 16R, the longest commercial runway in North America; it’s over three miles long!  Not sure this little Airbus needs that, but it’d be a fun bit of trivia. 

A smooth landing on neighboring 16R and we were on the ground and on our way to the gate.

Denver’s airport is the largest commercial airport in the country by area, so even an on-time landing might mean several minutes in taxiing. 

As I snapped away with my DSLR in one hand and worked my GoPro with the other, my now-awake neighbors asked me about the two cameras pressed up against the plastic windows.  I told them about my walking plans, much like I had with Truck Show a year and a half earlier on my way to MDW.  Sadly, they were more interested in getting off the plane.  Home for them was in Phoenix, one more connection away, and they had to buy this ticket in a hurry, from what I gathered.  They’d had quite a poor experience with Frontier, though they didn’t expand on what exactly.  I’m not sure if it was just the experience from when they boarded to now, or if it stretched back before that to problems with their ticket, their luggage, or making the reservation.  Either way, they agreed they’d never fly Frontier again. 

I packed up my cameras as we hooked a left to get to our gate, A46.  The chime dinged, we unbuckled, and we filed onto the jetway and into the terminal in groggy silence. 

Standing here at my destination, looking around at the familiar terminal signage and architecture of DEN, it became clear to me that Frontier had done its job for me.  My experience with them so far had been brief, and I had only spoken with one of their employees to thank them for scanning my ticket, but that was all I needed.  I walked over to the window besides gate A46, looking out at the plane that got us here, its livery more apparent in the dawn.


Let’s face it; the experience of flying, even during my short life, used to be filled with luxury, vogue, character, and elegance.  But we don’t live in that world anymore.  Getting on a plane does not necessarily mean you’ll get the star treatment.  In fact, it never means that.  Frontier Airlines has made a name for itself on its current business model, and, given this single, narrow, one-time experience, it’s worked like a charm.  I acknowledge the obvious limitations of the application of my experience broadly, and eighteen hours from now, we’ll see if the return flight is quite so seamless.  But, from where I stand right now, this was a fine experience.  If you don’t think of it as an airline as much as a bus service that looks a lot like an airline, you’ll do much better.  If you’re able to change your mindset going in, you can check your expectations at the gate.

Next week, we’ll walk through each of Denver’s three concourses, its main terminal, and take the train from the airport to downtown Denver, where our main walk can truly begin!

Until then, keep going!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mile-High Walk Part 2 - One Thousand Miles in Two Hours

Part 2

Go to sleep…go to sleep…go to sleep.

It was 9:40 PM on Monday, September 26th.  I’d be driving away in four hours, and no matter how hard I urged my racing mind to rest, it refused to yield. 

Flowers…puppies…kittens…clouds…did I pack my sunscreen?  Yes, the inside mesh pocket, next to the lens cleaner. 

10:26 PM. 

I need to remember to take my meds.

Did I take them yesterday?  Shoot, I don’t think I –

Like a thunderclap, the sound of my phone’s digital alarm startled me from my torpor.  I snatched my phone from my nightstand, frantically silencing it to avoid stirring Beth.

1:25 AM.

I was up and dressed in five minutes.  I wandered through the house to collect the things I’d needed but couldn’t pack ahead of time.  Keys, contact case, a bottle of water.  The lights were still on throughout the house from my preparations the night before.  It hadn’t felt like I’d slept at all, that I’d just been suspended from the world for a couple hours, and everything was just like it was when I left it.  I stirred Beth, gave her a goodbye kiss, then made for the exit, turning off the house’s lights and closing the locked door behind me.

The world outside was quiet and dark, shut off from the din and glow of the house.  It was cool and clear out, and there wasn’t any moon to spoil the black.  Its final sliver wouldn’t rise for hours.  With my nine-months-pregnant camera bag across my shoulder, I made for the car, the first steps of many.

1:39, right on time.  I expected it to take about two hours and fifteen minutes to get from my door to the airport.  Google told me two and ten, but I knew better; with all the changes regarding the bridges, I planned a bit of extra time.  4:00 was my target time.  In the silence of the night, the engine woke from its slumber, and we were off.

Aux cable in, playlist on, trip commenced!

Onto the rarely empty Hurstbourne Road, hang a left onto I-64 West, then towards the first city of the three I’d see in eight hours.

As I came into Spaghetti Junction, the endearment Louisvillians use to refer to the massive jumble of interstate ramps east of downtown Louisville, the roads were aglow with construction lamps and flashing hazard lights.  Concrete layers and earthmovers tossed dust and grit into the still morning air, shrouding the highway beneath a misty white haze.  I slowed down, making sure I didn’t miss the navigable road I’d need to take to dodge as much of the progress as I could.

Until last year, Louisville had three main bridges that crossed the Ohio River into Indiana: the Sherman Minton Bridge carries I-64 across the river at the city’s western edge, the Clark Memorial Bridge (or “Second Street Bridge,” as most Louisvillians call it,) which goes right through the heart of downtown Louisville, and the Kennedy Bridge, completed shortly after the eponymous president’s untimely death.  The Sherman Minton Bridge was closed for five months several years ago after critical structural damage was found during a routine inspection, limiting the intensive intercity and interstate traffic to two bridges.  The Kennedy, built about the same time as the Sherman Minton, was, in my personal, editorial, and uninformed opinion, likely also found to have compromised structural elements, but the four-lane Second Street Bridge would not be nearly enough to carry the entire load of traffic from one side of the river to the other for that period of time.  Louisville would have come to a complete standstill, so I believe the city took a calculated risk.  Either way, with this regulatory impetus, Louisville, Indiana, and the federal government finally came together to push through the Ohio River Bridges Project, a long-sought proposal to add and/or rebuild bridges across the Ohio.  The new Abraham Lincoln Bridge was finished last year to take the northbound traffic from I-65 across the river, and the Kennedy is being totally rebuilt to carry only southbound traffic, effectively doubling the lanes in each direction.

All that added up to a mess at 2:00 AM when I got there.  The on-ramp to cross the river via the Abraham Lincoln bridge was closed from my vantage, forcing me to either double back through downtown to get onto the hopefully-open I-65 North, a potentially wasteful gamble, go all the way to the Sherman Minton and cut back across Indiana’s I-265 east, a costly time guzzler, or to take the smaller, likely crowded Second Street Bridge into Jeffersonville, Indiana hopping back onto I-65 when I got across.  I opted for the last option. 

I swooped through the underpass beneath the idle I-65 connector, dipping down at River Road to cross over to the 2nd Street Bridge.  The city was still, the lights changing for no car in particular as they went about their patterns.  A few turns and I was on U.S. 31, soaring across the inky waters of the river, unencumbered by traffic or construction. 

Until the derelict Big Four railroad bridge was restored and repurposed to carry pedestrians, the Second Street Bridge was the only way for nonmotorized traffic to directly cross the river in Louisville.  It’s still the westernmost bridge on the entire Ohio River with an actual sidewalk.  If you want to cross on foot downstream of here, you better look, and move, like a car.  This was the quietest I had seen this bridge, and I was grateful for an uneventful crossing.

Construction still made things difficult when I got to Indiana, as the I-65 ramp I anticipated using was blocked off.  Jeffersonville was deserted at that time of night, so I wiggled through the side streets I’d discovered on my Falls of the Ohio walk two years ago to get back on the interstate.

It was 2:10.  Now, friends, we wait.

And wait.

The drive from Louisville to Indianapolis is an unenviable one, even under perfect conditions.  Beautiful spring day when all the trees, bushes, and flowers are green and in bloom?  Still so-so.  Doing it in the middle of the night in fall?  Pass.

Indiana is, in my opinion, a rather uninteresting state as a whole, at least to traverse.  North of Indianapolis, it gets pancake-flat in the stretch between Lafayette and Chicago.  Even as you near the state’s capitol, you can feel the undulation of the hills normalize towards an undictated median. 

My playlist blares my carefully selected queue of driving music, a blend of evocative, lyricless electronic music.  Despite the lack of sleep and, oh, the meds I didn’t remember to take, I have good energy.  I pull out a peanut bar, my bottle of water, and one of my apples, aware that I’m going to need the fuel today.  I knew where I’d be getting my next hot meal, though, and I couldn’t wait.

Seymour, Indiana is a gracious halfway marker, providing a virtual middle point between the Ohio River and Indianapolis.  Once we’ve passed that point, it’s all downhill.  Well, neutral-hill.

There’s a lot of trucks out, but I figured, honestly, that this would be the quietest you could find the Interstate.  It’s a Tuesday morning, the lowest day for most every business including travel, and it’s not a busy time of year.  Still, at 3:00 AM, there’s enough cars out here to keep you awake.

Over the last few years, I’ve driven up to Indianapolis several times for one reason or another; business school, gaming tournament, concert, and, now, early morning flight.  I’d done it enough to recognize the buildings and the terrain when we’re getting close to the city, and those telltale signs arose on the landscape before I knew it.  It arose so fast, in fact, that I missed the ideal turnoff point for the airport at Exit 106 to get on I-465 West.  Admittedly, this is the faster way, but it was a way I didn’t know.  I-70 was in my head and, arguably, easier to follow at night.  My phone’s GPS chirped as it recalculated, and I pressed on to the next available turn. 

At 3:40, I saw the twin spires of the Chase Tower.  When I was younger, I loved long road trips, and my favorite part was coming upon a new city.  Seeing a new skyline was my favorite part of a trip; even if it wasn’t our destination, it was exciting to see another big spot on the map after seeing endless miles of that pesky, formless “nature.”  From a young age, urban adventure was always on my mind.  Traveling as a kid from Louisville meant that Indianapolis was both a common destination and a frequent waypoint, so the twin antennae atop the Chase Tower were always a lighthouse, a silent, visual announcement of the trip’s progress.  No building in Louisville looked quite like it, either, so it helped me feel like I was in a new, unfamiliar place, even after only a short drive.  It didn’t help that Nashville’s AT&T Building’s pinnacle has a similar, two-pronged shape, and even the Willis Tower’s twin transmitters mirror this silhouette.  Any such building made me feel that emotional surge of discovery.

When I saw the towers this time, though, they did actually herald an adventure.

The westbound ramp carried me to I-70, the final road to my destination.

I turned my phone’s GPS off; my next turn should be clearly marked.  Just fifteen more minutes, then the walk can truly begin.

I love getting near airports when that’s where you’re already heading.  Chances are, there’ll be a plane flying overhead to get you pumped up for whatever trip you’re starting.  Even at a pinch before 4:00, huge cargo freighters soared overhead, both inbound and outbound.  IND houses one of the largest cargo hubs in North America for FedEx Express, much like SDF in Louisville houses UPS’s main cargo facility.  Both airports are still crammed full in the early morning as monstrous vessels move through the airspace. 

The wide lanes, meant to accommodate heavy traffic flow, are nearly empty at this time of the morning.  Still, I can’t be the only person getting on that flight.

IND has a parking garage for the fancies, but they’ve also got economy parking for the rest of us plebs.  Ironically, because the garage is hourly with a daily maximum, it almost might have been cheaper for the roughly 24 hours I’ll be gone to park in the garage.  But, in case I did my math wrong, I’ll just stick to the vast expanse of single-story parking spaces. 

Wow, right on the nose!  I’ll tell you what, buddy; planning in extra time for the unavoidable delays and personal screw-ups possible in travel really pays off.  Locking away my house keys and keychain in the glove box, I took just my car key, stowed it in my too-small-to-fit-anything-else pocket on my camera bag, and got out of the car.

To my right, a roaring jet took off to the south.  At 4:00 AM, FedEx was still going at full strength.  I’m sure, as is the case with Louisville, that there are cargo flights throughout the day, but they really pick up at night, when passenger flights have all but ceased.  IND has two major runways that run parallel to the terminal and the parking area, plus a smaller, perpendicular one on the north side of the airfield.  The big guys use the long ones, though, so you’ll always have a good show when they take off or land.

As if Indiana knew I was talking smack about it, the temperature had grown colder since I left.  While the temperature hovered in the upper 50s while I was in Kentucky, a full ten degrees had fallen off since I crossed the river, and it never went back up.  My shorts offered little protection from even a slight breeze, and I was struggling to keep my warmth in the long walk from my parking spot to the terminal. 

The parking garage was a welcome respite from the slight, but frigid breeze.  Even at 4:00, though, the garage was rumbling with cars and abuzz with both excited families traveling somewhere fun and sober businessmen marching off to an early flight. 

On the other side of the cacophonous garage, the world was eerily still in the early morning darkness.  The wash of artificial light gave the buildings an oddly colorful glow, the green of the manicured grass clashing with the glass, plaster, and steel of the modern infrastructural installment.  Behind me, eager travelers passed behind me, but looking out over the decorative lawn, I felt quite lonely.

IND has the feel of a huge airport, much like one you’d find in LA, San Fransisco, or, honestly, Denver, but it seems too big for its britches, camped out here on the edge of the Midwest.  This modern a facility is rare in our neck of the woods, and whether that’s the reason IND is such a successful airport or its earlier success allowed the construction of the new terminal was still a mystery.

The pick-up zone felt cavernous.  Long have I sat at SDF’s waiting area as my mom flew back from some large Midwestern city after a speaking engagement.  The portico gave a constant sense of comfort, no matter the weather or time of day; soon, someone you’d love would come through those automatic sliding doors.  In the chill of the night, though, the four-lane road was empty, uncomfortably large, almost wasteful.  Soon, I’m sure, each lane would be filled with minivans, taxis, and family and friends waiting for their loved one to come back home. 

I entered at the lower level, home to the baggage claim.  The large claims were silent, and all but one had blank announcement boards.  The one that was lit up had “Frontier” on it.  The return flight from Denver that would be providing the plane we’d use for our excursion was bringing a load of people to Indy, and in about 24 hours, I’d be right back here.

A tall escalator led me up to the second floor.

Ahead was the Civic Center area, the rotunda from which you could choose your appropriate terminal for security.  Until then, though, I would check the departures area for the completionist in me. 

Again, the Indy airport feels overly large, but I’m not complaining.  I love the feeling of openness.  The taller the ceilings, the closer you feel to the sky.

Most of the usual suspects were represented: Delta, Southwest, American Airlines, and United were all here, with a slightly broader selection of destinations than Louisville.  There was also Air Canada, as Indianapolis supports a couple regional flights a day to Toronto.  Enough to validate the “International” moniker that’s become so popular among airports these days.  That being said, a couple seasonal flights fly south of the U.S., too, mostly to vacation spots in the Gulf.

No need to go to the Frontier desk.  I had that pass printed off already, and I’d use the app for the rebound flight in 22 hours. 

Off to the rotunda.

It was twenty after four.  I planned to go through security in about fifteen minutes, so I figured I’d just sit a spell and listen to the world wake up.  I took the time to more tightly repack my hastily assembled camera case, knowing full well I might have to take it apart again going through security.

I felt surprisingly awake.  I hadn’t had any caffeine, basically ninety minutes of sleep, and I’d just driven two and a half hours through some dull, dark scenery.  Still good to go.

Indianapolis’s airport is very straightforward, and its U-shaped terminal building is easy to navigate.  There are two concourses, one to the left, Concourse B, and one to the right, Concourse A.  This seems backwards to me, as I would expect a west-to-east or north-to-south naming convention, but hey, I didn’t make it.  These concourses, like those at SDF, are mirrored versions of each other, built at the same time with the same design elements.  Like at SDF as well, there is a communal transfer hall past security, allowing passengers to easily transfer between terminals without having to leave the sterile part of the airport, allowing easy cross-carrier transits.  Frontier uses Concourse B, the northern terminal, so that’s where I’d clear security.

Bag on shoulder, camera stowed, and through security I go!

Getting there at the beginning of these TSA agents’ shifts has some upside.  I’ve never had much problem with TSA in general, but these agents were particularly chipper, and it made the very short line through security even shorter.  A thorough screening, and ten minutes later, I was ready to start my walk slightly ahead of schedule.

I wanted to walk Concourse A first, then walk Concourse B to my gate, exploring as time allowed.  As I crossed through the walkway, I could see the airfield to my left and the rotunda to my right.  I’m sure it’s quite a site at sunrise or sunset, seeing the planes silhouetted against the morphing sky.  In the dark of pre-dawn, though, it was easy to pass right through to the first concourse.

Each concourse connects to the main terminal, with a small spur to one side and the length of the concourse on the other.  As I arrived at Concourse A, the spur took me to the right.

This really did look like quite the modern airport.  You could put this waiting area in the biggest airports in Europe, Asia, or South America and it wouldn’t be out of place.  At this hour, very few gates were being utilized, so the entire spur was vacant.
Back the way I came and on down the hall of Concourse A.

The concourse was spacious; the curved ceiling, sporadic moving walkways, and clean appearance reminded me a lot of Hong Kong’s airport, both modern and functional without much frill or personality.  But that’s OK.  Some of the food places were just starting to open to serve their first customers, but many of the souvenir shops and newsstands were still closed.  Admittedly, I don’t think I’d be buying a Colts hat at 4:30 in the morning.

I used the moving walkways to maximize my time.  At our own airport, local speaker and personality Jack Fox had recorded the friendly reminder that the moving walkway was ending.  Here, it sounded like a Pacer, with the deep, Midwest voice of a tall basketball player.  You know, I just now got the idea behind the Indiana Pacers’ name.  Like a pace car for the Indy 500!  Man, that’s clever for them, and embarrassing for me. 

The concourse was deceptively long; a quarter mile from end to end, and even with the walkways, it took a bit to get to traverse the whole thing. 

It’s hard to imagine with so many empty seats that they’d ever be filled, but Indianapolis handles three times as many passengers as Louisville does, so I don’t doubt that, during a heavy travelling season, there’s kids, businesspeople, tourists, and teenagers all jostling for outlets and seats.

Not now, though.  It’s strangely relaxing.

It was a hair after 5:00 AM.  Our flight leaves just after six, so I have about a half hour to get over to the gate. 

Things were starting to pick up a little.  Airports get started early; there’s a lot of people that want to get somewhere.

More planes had started heading out to their stands, so the return through the transfer hall was aglow with the blinks of landing lights and the lights from each concourse splashing out onto the tarmac.  Although the glare was too bad from the internal lights to get much of a picture or a video, it was fun to watch them silently glide.

Next stop, Concourse B!

Concourse A had been fairly quiet, with maybe one or two flights leaving that early in the morning.  Concourse A is used by Delta and United, and at least in Louisville, nothing flies out that early.  Concourse B features low-cost-carriers Allegiant Airlines and Frontier Airlines, of course, as well as American Airlines and Southwest.  These are probably the less expensive slots, so I imagine it'll be a bit busier.

Oh.  Well, maybe in a minute.

As I expected, Concourse B mirrored Concourse A.  The only companion I had in B's spur was an older man, quietly petting his service dog.  As I zipped through and took pictures, neither he nor the dog seemed to notice me at all.  I was nervous to take their picture, either directly or surreptitiously.  They didn't need that.

As I moseyed down the concourse, the sounds of life stirring echoed down the polished floors. 

Gates were piling up with groggy passengers, each clutching their family, their coffee, or both.  I liked the peace and quiet of Concourse A, but Concourse B had plenty of people-watching to offer.

My flight was leaving out of B15, near the terminal's northern cluster of gates.  The widely spaced gates made the distance considerable, but soon I arrived to find my gate the busiest of all. 

Next week, we'll take our first trip on an ultra-low-cost-carrier and share the experience.  Then, it's off to Denver's expansive airport and the city that lies beyond!  Until then, keep going!

- Matt