Saturday, July 19, 2014

JT's journey to RoboCup 2014

There was plenty to do from the time I dropped Katie off at the airport on Wednesday to my departure 48 hours later. Since I would be gone for three weeks, there was a lot to get done at work before I could go. So, I put in the hours at work Wednesday night and Thursday - until having to leave to transfer the cats. We had been petsitting for Thomas and Tricie, brother-sister cats owned by Piyush and Matt (two of Katie’s labmates). While we are down in Brazil, the two guys staying in Piyush/Matt’s condo have agreed to watch the cats.

Gifts for volunteers
On my way home, I stopped by a local Mexican bakery for pralines and Hobby Lobby for Texas-themed goodies. I ended up buying a box of fresh (and delicious) pralines - but later determined that they would not travel well at all! So, that box stayed behind. But, I have Texas-shaped and -themed keychains to give as gifts to the volunteers that will be assisting our league - or others who help us along the way. At $3.99 each, they weren’t the cheapest gifts, but I’m have been assured that the Brazilians we give them to will savor them. If we can get cheap enough ones in the future, this type of thing might be good to give out to others we meet during our travels (e.g. the Turkish man we spoke with on our Antalya-Denizli bus, who we connected with so closely that he invited us back to his house).

Trip prep
Once home, I started a last load of laundry and prepared the house for us to be gone: wash and put away the dishes, tossed expiring food in our compost bin, paid bills, write out instructions for our cat sitter (thanks Elad!), etc. I was finally done preparing the house and packing my bags at 3 am. My 8:15 am alarm Friday morning came far too quickly! I packed up the last few items, said a sad goodbye to Grace and headed to the office. Swinging by the security desk and then building management office, I found out that I could not leave my car in the garage while I was gone. “You would be taking up a space others could use” was the building management’s excuse, but that makes no sense: I have a paid parking spot in that lot every day… How is it different when I’m out of town vs. in the office? I could see them mentioning how it would be unreasonable for security to watch my car that long. But, this was a pretty dumb excuse. Oh well…

Last day in the office
This meant that I had to leave the office even sooner, to drive up to UT to park in Katie’s garage and then take the bus down to the airport (passing right by my office on the way). I did not make any progress on my large projects at work in the time there, instead just having to enter time, run reports, respond to emails, store docs, and work with our crack IT team for over 30 minutes on how to set a Out Of Office message (they couldn’t solve the error I was getting and I ended up having to resolve it myself - thanks for nothing!).

Transport to airportI left the office just after 2:15pm, drove up and parked at UT, and got to the Austin Flyer 100 bus for its 2:48 departure. While walking to the bus stop, I had the sinking realization that I only had 5 $20 bills… the bus fare is $1.50 and no change is provided. I asked probably 20 people along the way if they had change for a $20 to no avail. But, one of the last guys I had asked ran to catch up with me to ask if I needed money for a bus. I explained my situation and he gave me $1 and the girl I had just asked pulled out two quarters. Thanks/Obrigado mystery strangers for saving me $20!

I arrived at the airport just before 3:30p, checked by hiking backpack with US Air, and cleared security at 3:58p. Knowing the British Air 787 was due to arrive at 4:05p, I hurried over to see if I could watch it land… just to find out that it had landed 2 hours early! I guess winds on the London -> Austin route were especially good!

US Air 2821 (with mechanical issues, registration N929LR)
My US Air 2821 plane arrived a bit late, but the gate crew was determined to make a quick turn. They boarded the plane quickly, immediately gave a final boarding call, and starting closing the door as I ran over to stop them (it was not even 10 minutes until departure yet!). The full door-open to door-closed turn was 22 minutes!

As soon as I got to the plane, I was very happy with my decision to wait until the last minute to board. The plane was sweltering! All of the shades were closed and there was virtually no lights on. This was not a terrible thing, as the plane’s interior was not a thing of beauty! The seat pocket in front of my seat was half ripped-off and the seat covers were tearing at their seams. The captain came on shortly after to explain that the APU (auxiliary power unit - the small engine on the plane to provide power to start the engines and to provide power when the engines are off, like in this case) was broken. Being an aviation nerd and aware of the uses of the APU, I was a bit taken back that this was not being resolved.

They closed the plane door and we sat there in the 100*+ heat for at least 10 minutes without moving (or turning on the engines). Then, we found out why: the captain announced that the heater on a sensor was sending error signals. He didn't have to say it, but I knew what this was: the heater on a pitot tube was broken. Without this heater, ice could form and block the tube input. When this happens, the sensor would send incorrect speed and altitude information to the cockpit. There are redundancies built in, but it is never good to take-off with this issue (see numerous crash reports...) This exact problem of ice covering pitot tubes was what began the crisis in the eventual crash of Air France 447 (flying from Brazil to France) - although that crash was really pilot error, as the pilots did not handle the situation correctly.

Note from later: This plane ended up being flown empty from Austin to Charlotte for repairs. It was back in service the next night for a flight back to Austin!

Rebooking
Knowing the importance of the pitot tubes, I immediately started searching on my phone for alternates. I found that there was just one itinerary that would get me in to Rio in time: United flights from Austin-Houston-Rio (AUS-IAH-GIG). If I was rebooked on the fastest available US Air flights, I would get into Rio a day late and have an overnight layover in Miami. This would mean that I would miss my Brazil connection and could be in a rough situation trying to get to JPA. So, as we exited the aircraft, I lined up behind a guy asking for a rebooking. Before the agent finished with him, they radioed among the ground crew that the flight would be delayed until 7pm. Enough people heard this that there was a mad rush for the podium. People positioned themselves between me and the agent, but I called out to the agent that I had an international connection and had been waiting. She took me next. I explained the scenario and showed her the itinerary. Two minutes later (and $1,050 fare + 40.50 taxes paid from US Air to United), I was booked on the United flight.

“Layover” in Austin
I made my not-so-far transfer from gate 20 to gate 22. I checked in with the United gate agent and asked to change seats (as I couldn’t do it online). I ended up being friendly enough with her that I ended up getting an entire Economy Plus row to myself. It helped that the plane (a 737-900er) had 95 empty seats. With over an hour until the Houston flight boarded, I positioned myself in a place to see the British Air 787 take off. A pilot was the only other person in that area, so I struck up a conversation with him. Ends up, he was a first officer making his last flight with Mesa Air (US Air Express contract airline) after 7 years with the company. He had just accepted a first officer position with Frontier and would soon be off to Denver to learn to fly the Airbus A319. He was looking forward to getting more flights and hopefully making captain soon. His flight was Austin-Phoenix (AUS-PHX) and left from the gate my plane was sitting at. I explained why our plane was delayed and he didn’t seem surprised. He had just had similar issues on that same plane a few weeks back. Great… Just then, the Dreamliner drove by, I wished my new pilot friend the best of luck at Frontier and grabbed my camera.

There was a young (12-14? I’m horrible with ages) boy also watching the planes. I explained to him that this plane was flying straight to London and he was hooked. He wanted to know everything I knew, so I nerded out for a while. This boy was traveling with an interesting group: a late-20-ish woman, and 16-ish girl, a 5-ish girl and a baby. The five of them were also taking the Austin-Houston flight - but then were continuing to Miami for an overnight layover before flying down to their home in Columbia. Columbia, South Carolina seemed to be a much more likely destination for them than the country of Columbia - they were an all-American ‘family’ (the boy had even pulled out his baseball glove and numerous baseballs, which I guess are ok with the TSA?). But, no, they lived on the Caribbean coast of the country of Columbia and have for the past few years. One of the (two? three?) fathers mentioned during the conversation is working to build an oil refinery there. Time passed quickly as we shared travel stories, talked about planes, and I shared about RoboCup - which they were fascinated about. I tried stressing to the teenage girl that it was my wife doing all this work - after all, it can never hurt to spark a girl’s interest in computer science :-)

United Flight 1134 - Austin to Houston
Austin-Bergstrom (AUS): Gate 22; Runway 35R; Scheduled: 7:18p; Actual: 7:21p
Houston Bush (IAH): Gate E14; Runway 27; Scheduled: 8:20p; Actual: 8:01p
Flight Time: 0h 39m; Actual miles: 211
N38467; Boeing 737-924ER; First Flight: Jan 31, 2013; 167 seats (20 FC / 51 EP / 96 C)
Seat: 10F, Economy Plus


On my way down the skywalk, I confirmed with the baggage handler that they got my bag from US Air. Being a very distinctive bag, he knew exactly which one I was asking about and confirmed that it made the transfer. I stopped by the cabin to ask for the plane’s tail number and chatted for a bit with the pilots. They mentioned having “just picked up this brand new plane” for us - which I could not tell if they were kidding or not… It was a beautiful, brand new plane! There could not be more drastic differences between the two aircraft I had been on that day! (Ends up it is a 2013 model year, built in 2012, but was still spotless). I took my 10D-10F seat and watched as more and more pilots and cabin crews boarded. Since four were sitting nearby, I couldn't help joking with them. “I didn't know that this flight was long enough to need relief crews”. They laughed and one said, yup, we are going to switch out every 3 minutes. :-)

We took off to the north (which is abnormal for Austin) and turned east toward Houston. During cruising, it seemed that the pilots were having a bit of fun by pushing to full-throttle for a few minutes (pilots are not supposed to leave the throttle full for long). My GPS and the online wi-fi page about the flight agreed that we got well over 500 mph - making a short flight even shorter. We parked at a gate in the international terminal and I made the short walk to the end of the terminal for my Rio flight.

United Flight 129 - Houston to Rio
Houston Bush (IAH): Gate E18; Runway 15L; Scheduled: 9:20p; Actual: 10:05p
Rio de Janeiro/Galeao (GIG): Gate ??; Runway 28; Scheduled: 9:25a; Actual: 9:13a
Flight Time: 9h 7m; Actual miles: 5,177
N76010; Boeing 777-224; First Flight: May 18, 1999; 267 seats (50 FC / 72 MCE / 145 C)
Seat: 32A, Coach, Exit Row


Directly across from the Rio plane was one going to Sao Paulo. I walked up to the desk to try my luck getting one of the many available Economy Plus seats but was told I would have to pay $187 for one of them - even the completely-empty emergency exit row. Only having a small carry on backpack, I was in no hurry to board. So, I sat charging my phone and stretching while the other 200+ passengers booked one-by-one. With almost the entire plane boarded, I re-asked the gate agent to move up and got the emergency exit row (at the window, no one in the middle seat!). I joined the end of the line when only about 20 people were in it. I joined in with a conversation between two Brazilian passengers, asked how to say Joao Pessoa (which means John Person, they pointed out), and mentioned RoboCup. The other gate agents got excited about this and one called out that the Germans would probably win. Without knowing anything about RoboCup… he will probably be right. Two teen boys behind me asked in broken English if I was going to RoboCup and then explained that they were too! They are taking part in the RoboCup Junior competition.

Although I was one of the last in the terminal to board the 777, our plane sat for the next 30 minutes as others boarded (probably from late connecting flights). I chatted with the flight attendants, finding out that one had just flown in from South Africa that morning, discussed the crew rest area on this plane, and discussed how this crew was staying in Rio for 34 hours (staying at an airport hotel - not a ‘crash pad’). After all of this nerdiness, I still surprised the flight attendant doing the emergency row briefing when I asked a question about the safety card. Ends up, the safety card is “wrong” about not opening this door during a ‘water landing’. We took off uneventfully a bit after schedule.

We encountered some rough turbulence during the first hour, delaying the dinner service to after 10:30p. I chose the “beef” option, but ended up with a pasta dish, with a salad and a roll. The food was good, but the meal was a bit small for my taste. Unfortunately, United does not serve free beer/wine on this route (which Delta did to Peru, US Air did for Katie's flight to Brazil, and we have had on trans-Atlantic flights). I watched a hilarious episode of Whose Line Is It Anyways as I ate. Before sleeping, I worked on building/updating a spreadsheet to track the results for the league and easily produce the standings (even factoring in tiebreakers). This is especially helpful for us to see exactly where we stand in the playoff picture and which teams we would have to face in different scenarios.

I thought about watching a show or movie, but decided to try to sleep instead. I slept decently until we hit a really rough patch of air. You could tell in the cabin that we were losing plenty of altitude in this rough air - but it was not so drastic to throw unbelted people around. It ended in just a few minutes and after a short climb back up, we were back at cruising altitude. I slept decently until around 6:30a, watched the Wolf of Wall Street, ate breakfast (fruit tray with 4 pieces of melon and 2 grapes, with a small bread roll), drank coffee, and we started landing before I could finish the movie.

Arrival in Rio
After passing through a decently-low and thick cloud ceiling, I enjoyed watching Rio as we approached the airport. The city’s hills make it an even more fascinating place. We passed over soccer fields (full of kids playing the “beautiful game”), favelas, and cargo ships on way in. We landed around 9:10a, taxiied and parked on the tarmac for a bit - waiting for the ground crew, it seemed. While waiting at border control, I saw the US Air plane (767-200, registration N248AY) I was supposed to be on taxiing to its gate and smiled thinking about how glad I was to be here when it could have ended up badly!

Rio airport
I cleared the passport check with no issues. The agent seemed pleased with my “bom gia” and quickly cleared me through. After a long wait (30 minute) for my checked bag, I exited into the international arrival area - and us exiting passengers were bombarded by swarms of people wanting to give us a taxi ride. I passed through without too much trouble, but others seemed to be stopped by aggressive taxi drivers. They probably made the mistake of making eye contact… which I avoided doing. Straight-through the arrival area, there is the bag transfer desk. I waited in about a long ~20-minute line to check my bag through to Joao Pessoa. I searched around for a ATM in the lower level with no luck. I walked out to check out the transportation options for our next two arrivals in Rio. I found the bus company we want to use to transfer to the bus terminal and jotted down info about the local bus/tram metro to research more.

Reentering the terminal - passing the smaller, but more desperate taxi drivers - I stopped at Casa Pao de Queijo, a bakery right by the customs exit. I had the special of the day: 2 pai de queijo (basically cheese rolls) and a cafe - espresso style. And this was some real espresso, made with a non-automated espresso machine (grounds pulled by barista; the barista even had to manually turn on and off the hot water to fill the cup). The barista figured that I did not understand her when she asked if I wanted acucar (sugar), so she gave me some on the side. I still drank it ‘neat’. All of this costs just R$9.90 (or less than US$5) - which I figure is a pretty good deal for airport food.

Banking in Rio Airport
After blogging for a while, I went to check out the ATM situation. On the second floor of the airport - seemingly just over the customs area - there is a hallway with many ATMs and some bank offices/branches (all of which were closed since it is Saturday). The Lonely Planet and other guidebooks recommended: HSBC, Bradesco, Banco do Brasil, and Citibank. So, the first ATM I tried was Bradesco, but the service fee was stated as $R15 - so I tried my luck with HSBC. Bingo! No stated service fee, withdrawal of up to R$1000 per day (at least for my bank account), and you got to choose between R$50 and R$20 bills. I withdrew R$600, all in R$20 bills - which will be a lot easier to spend than the R$50 bills!

The full list of ATMs/branches on this hallway (in order from departure lounge back) are:
- Santander: 4 ATMs and an office
- Dia & Noite: 2 ATMs
- Bradesco: 3 ATMs, an investment ‘ATM’, and an office
- Santander: a lone ATM
- HSBC: 1 ATM
- Caixa: 1 ATM
- Itau: 3 ATMs and an office
- Banco do Brasil: 5 ATMs

This area is not in a secured / access-controlled area of the airport, but I did not feel unsafe using the ATM or counting out my 30 R$20 bills. There were 2 security guards down the hall outside Itau, which helped the feeling of safety.
I walked around the terminal for a bit. Just outside the security check, there was a wheeled robot that was moving around the terminal offering assistance via the touchscreen. This robot seems to not have been remote-controlled, but seemed to have sonor in the back and a Kinect on the front to navigate around the terminal. It wheeled up to this busy spot as I was walking up - and it was immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. The terminal map and flight times options were not popular, but having the robot take your photo was very popular. It printed out a little sheet of paper saying where you could retrieve this photo later online. It was especially interesting to see this robot, as University of Texas is working on a similar type project for the new Computer Science building. I made sure to take lots of photos of the robot to share with Katie and her labmates.

TAM Flight 3622 - Rio to Joao Pessoa
Rio de Janeiro/Galeao (GIG): Gate ??; Runway 33; Scheduled: 3:03p; Actual: 3:17p
Joao Pessoa Presidente Castro Pinto (JPA): Gate 2; Runway 16; Scheduled: 6:00p; Actual: 5:54p
Flight Time: 2h 37m; Direct miles: 1,216
PR-MYV; Airbus A320-214; First Flight: July 4, 2012; 174 seats (174 C)
Seat: 3F, Coach


They started the boarding process fairly early at 14:10 (before the 14:23 stated departure time). No zones or priority, no passport checks, just line up, scan your boarding card, and board. The line seemed to mostly consist of RoboCup participants, but there were others on the plane as well. I sat in my 3F window seat, next to a Brazilian college student. His English was excellent, although he downplayed it. He was traveling to Joao Pessoa to visit family during a school break. He was fascinated to hear about RoboCup and may stop by with his family sometime during the competition.

TAM served drinks (water, juice, Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, etc) and then later came by with snacks: a package containing a chocolate sponge cake, crackers and cream cheese. It was a welcome snack for JT, who boarded the plane hungry.

Arrival in Joao Pessoa
We approached the airport from the west. This was my first time arriving in an airport that had no taxiway - just a runway. Our plane stopped well short of the end of the runway and then made a 180* to go back to the terminal. We parked on the tarmac and two sets of stairs were brought out to the plane for us to deplane. Not getting the chance to be up close to a plane like this, I walked around the plane snapping photos and looking around. I walked into the terminal with the back of the passenger pack and waited for a bit while the ground crew unloaded our bags. Having already arranged a R$60 taxi ride to the convention center, I started asking around if any of the RoboCup people there wanted to share a ride to the convention center - but everyone was headed to their hotel first. I collected my checked hiking backpack once it finally came out and pulled off the laundry bag I had put it in to protect it. The laundry bag was filthy and showed obvious signs of wear - which made me glad that I had used the laundry bag as protection!

"Taxi" to convention center
I exited the baggage claim area into the arrivals lounge shortly before the arranged pick up time of 7:20p. I wondered around the surprisingly-large arrivals area for a bit before checking outside for my driver. Of course, plenty of taxi drivers were eager to become my driver, but none knew who I was. After 15 minutes of cycling in and out of the arrivals area, I finally was approached by a large lady asking for "jit". After she paid for parking, we walked out to her car. Walking out (and during the ride), she was exceptionally talkative, but knew almost no English and little Spanish. So, it was very frustrating to try to communicate. The only things I really got out of the conversation were that she wanted to drive my team to/from the convention center throughout the week. However, her car was clearly not a licensed taxi, she was late, and her car was making strange sounds - which she indicated via hand motions was due to a wreck. Yeah... we are going to pass on using her service. Along the way, she asked if I was hungry and I indicated yes, so we stopped at a local hamburger shop. It seemed to be part of a chain. The sandwich and fries were good and the price was reasonable R$12 (including canned drink). I regretted later not jotting down the name.

Arrival at the convention center
After a decently-long ride - utilizing side-streets and what seemed to be a sidewalk - we finally arrived at the convention center. I paid the driver the R$60 arranged fee and took the business card she insisted I take. Then, I wandered in the side entrance to the convention center floor and found Katie - more than three days after we last saw each other and after a very long journey for me!

Austin airport terminal

Plane scheduled for the Austin-Charlotte route, being towed to maintenance

JT's 777 from Houston to Rio

JT's breakfast spot in the international arrivals area

For reference: ATMs in the Rio airport

Assistance robot in the Rio airport

Disembarking at the Joao Pessoa Airport

ATMs in the Joao Pessoa airport

2 comments:

  1. Interesting flights - glad all went well

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  2. From your description, I can just "picture" everything you did that day. Whew. As you said, it could have gone much differently! It surely paid to do your homework, both ahead of time and as you went. Take care

    ReplyDelete