Every October/November my job requires that I attend a scientific conference that usually rotates between Washington DC, San Diego and New Orleans. Luck had it that every time it was held in New Orleans I could not go for one reason or another. The one and only time that I was actually able to go (back in the mid-00s) Hurricane Katrina got in the way and forced the conference to be moved to Atlanta. This year it was again New Orleans' turn to host the event and sometime in early May I found out that I was allowed to attend it. Awesome.
The obvious question was how to get down there from Chicago. I refused to consider direct flights and started thinking about airports that I haven't been to and that I would like to layover at. Unfortunately nothing exciting came up as most carriers offered layovers at airports that I've been to before. Then I thought about Southwest (IATA: WN, ICAO: LUV). No other airline could offer itineraries with layovers at airports like BHM, TPA, BWI or BNA, all bookable under a single ticket. Now that was *really* exciting. To cut a long story short, due to budgetary and time restrictions I had to choose a layover at HOU on the way south and a layover at BHM on the way back. I had previously flown in and out of HOU but it was a quick "no-aircraft-change" layover (again on WN) so I never got to see the terminal. This meant that (technically) this would count as a new airport for me. So all in all this trip would involve 3 new airports (HOU, MSY and BHD) and 2 new States for my personal collection (Louisiana and Alabama).
I do understand that the choice of carrier may not excite most readers here but I hope that the destination photos compensate for that.
Here's the map with the full itinerary courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.
Carrier: Southwest Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing 737-7H4
As you know WN does not assign seats but instead, on the basis of how early one checks in online the day before, they assign you a number which you use to find your spot in the boarding queue. For an extra $10 they can guarantee (well, almost) that you'll be in the first 25% of those boarding the aircraft (no matter how late you check in online). Wanting to make sure that I get a window seat and enough overhead space for my carry-ons I went ahead and paid the said fee, which is known as "Early-Bird". I quite like the idea. Much less stressful than the traditional way.
On the day of departure, I got up early and rode a couple of CTA trains down to MDW, which took about an hour. I printed my boarding passes at a self-check-in kiosk (the printer home had broken down a couple of days earlier) and made my way to the always crowded security checkpoint. Once done with that I headed to Pegasus for the compulsory chicken soup and spinach pie (a tradition every time I fly out of MDW).
My breakfast. Delicious as always.
No matter how many times I fly out of MDW, I have to stop by this and admire it.
There isn't much spotting to do in MDW unless you really like WN. I had a ton of time to waste so I wandered around the terminal hunting for WN aircraft with special liveries. The only ones present at the time were "Colorado One" (N230WN) and "Illinois One" (N918WN).
I sat at one of the many armchair-style seats provided by WN and read on my kindle until I saw our aircraft position itself by the gate. No special livery unfortunately. Bummer. I was assigned boarding number A22 so once I got on our 737-7H4 I made my way to the back of the aircraft where there were a ton of empty seats. I was surprised at how good the legroom was. The flight was jam-packed so eventually I got a couple of neighbors (who I soon realized were not very familiar with flying as they had a great deal of trouble figuring how to fasten their seat-belts. I felt like being nice so I helped).
Here's our bird.
The WN livery may be hideous but I do dig the winglet color scheme.
See you again in 6 days, Chicago!
I simply love the way WN does the drink service. No silly trolley blocking the isle and no on-site drink pouring. A flight attendant simply asks everyone what they want, he/she writes it down and a few moments later he/she brings back a tray with a bunch of drinks (usually 6-8 at a time). It's so much faster and efficient. We all had our drinks in no time and shortly after came the snacks: peanuts and cheese crackers. Hear that "legacy" carriers?
The crackers were not my cup of tea so they were expelled from the second photo
Nice table detail
The flight was fairly uneventful even though I couldn't help but notice that half the pax were coughing continuously. It was like we were a TB colony. Rather unnerving. After the pneumonia I got (most likely acquired during the flight) in my latest trip to Japan I didn't wanna have my conference ruined by yet another infection. Most of the flight was spent over clouds but the skies cleared somewhat once we reached eastern Texas allowing us a glimpse of the urban sprawl of Houston.
Flying over some swamps
Descending over Houston
A quick glimpse of HOU through the clouds.
Hello HOU. We meet again.
A good deal of the pax had to remain on the aircraft as they were continuing to JAN (it's very common for WN to issue tickets with "no-aircraft-change" layovers) so it got a bit chaotic with people having to make room for those leaving and trying to find their bags in the overhead compartments.
The rather lovely airside area of HOU
The Houston skyline in the distance
WN likes to put its logo everywhere. This is on the armrest of the comfy armchair (which came with power- and USB sockets) next to my gate.
I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by HOU. It was clean, bright and really nicely air-conditioned. Most gates had armchairs like the ones I show above and there was plenty of space for everyone. I even overheard people commenting at how nice the airport was. I could have happily stayed there for several hours but my layover was just 90 mins so it was soon time to line up for boarding again...
Carrier: Southwest Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing 737-3H4
Here's our girl, right on time.
Looking towards what I assume to be the main terminal area.
This time I had boarding number A32 which once again allowed me to get exactly the seat that I wanted at the back of the plane. Yet another full flight which was hardly surprising given the enormous number of conference attendees that had to get to New Orleans that day. Once on my seat I noticed the far from stellar condition of the cabin. The carpet was scattered with crackers, peanuts and random garbage, while some trash could be found even on the seats themselves. I hate it when people treat aircraft like a baseball game dugout.
That's one funky bag.
Bye bye HOU. It was a pleasure.
Lots of artificial ponds in suburban Houston.
Tankers lining up in Galveston Bay
Drink and snack service was done in a bit of a hurry as the hop between HOU and MSY is just about an hour long. I intentionally sat on the right side of the aircraft so I can look at the coastline and have a better look of the Mississippi once we started our descent. Despite the hazy skies this strategy paid off and I was treated to some nice views.
Refreshing cranapple drink
It sure looks like Louisiana
A first glimpse of the mighty Mississippi
Getting ready to land at MSY
Descending over some refineries.
An early reminder that New Orleans is built on what used to be swamps... This area is known as LaBranche Wetlands.
My first impression of MSY was not great. The place (at least Concourse B, the part where WN operates out of) was rather old, damp, not terribly clean, somewhat smelly, and several areas were under construction. I'm sure the other concourses are much better, or at least so I've heard. On the positive side, as we were exiting air-side everyone was handed Mardi Gras-style beads which I thought was a nice touch. It puts you in NOLA mood right away. I wonder whether they do this all the time or if this was some kinda special occasion... I was dreading the wait for a taxi but once I got out of the terminal there was no line so I was on my way to downtown in no time.
I had chosen to stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites - Convention Center, which was just a 2-min walk from where I had to be every morning for the next few days. The downside of staying by the convention center was that it was somewhat far away from the French Quarter but I guess this was also a good thing. I must say that this was probably the best hotel I've stayed at during a conference. The building belongs to an old warehouse and you can clearly see this in its architecture and especially the windows. The rooms were spacious and clean, the beds were incredibly comfortable, the staff was very friendly and we were offered free breakfast every morning. What's more, my room enjoyed views of the New Orleans skyline, which I greatly appreciated.
The Superdome as seen from the taxi
View from my hotel room window
Another old warehouse/factory now used as an apartment block.
Time to get some sleep after a long day...
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