Welcome to the podcast show notes and transcript for Episode 1: Confessions of An Aviation Greek.  This week Rachel Heller and I speak with Kerwin McKenzie, a self-confessed aviation geek. Kerwin is also the author of several websites, including Passrider.com, a website aimed to help airline employees maximise their travel opportunities. We talk with Kerwin about the accidental joys of travelling whether it is finding yourself at a UNESCO World Heritage Site or exploring a new and exciting airport.

Confessions of an Airline Geek

Episode 1: Confessions of an Airline Geek, a 10001 Travel Tales Podcast featuring Kerwin McKenzie

Time Stamped Show Notes

1:00 Kerwin McKenzie’s background as a former airline employee

3:08 The Traveler’s Century Club (a social organisation representing world traveler who have been to 100 or more of the world’s countries and territories)

4:28 Airports as destinations in themselves where you can meet locals and experience local culture

5:54 Flying through Johnson Island in the South Pacific, an aviation geek’s joy because it has 6 stops on one flight number and took 14 hours

8:17 The joy of flying the national carrier, no matter how vintage.

9:07 Recalling the horrors of sitting next to the smoking section in planes in the old days

11:11 The joy of flying 787’s which have mood-enhancing light controls

14:15 Stumbling onto UNESCO World Heritage Sites because you are in the area anyway

14:45 Kerwin grew up hiking the Blue Mountains of Jamaica

15:45 Kerwin loved visiting Petra in Jordan

19:17 He was also impressed with Ephesus in Turkey

19:53 Discussing Pompeii in Italy, Kerwin tells us why you should hire local guides for the best information

22:18 The awe-inspiring architecture of the Colosseum in Rome

23:08 The Giza Pyramids in Egypt are surrounded by souvenir and fast food stores.

23:30 The Taj Mahal in India is surrounded by Agra a very poor city.

26:44 After walking the Camino del Santiago, visiting Burgos Cathedral in Spain was a real highlight

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Confessions of an Airline Geek

A talk with Kerwin McKenzie, a former airline employee who works to help airline employees maximise their travel benefits.

Transcript

This is a transcript of 1001 Travel Tales Podcast: Episode 1: Confessions of An Aviation Geek (Transcript). The text has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

A conversation with Shobha George (Just Go Places Blog), Rachel Heller (Rachel’s Ruminations) and Kerwin McKenzie (Passrider)

SG: So today we’re here talking to Kerwin McKenzie who we know from Passrider.com and Kerwin is a former airline employee who now likes to encourage other airline employees to travel as much as they can. Kerwin’s been to 71 (I believe) of the UNESCO world heritage sites and we would love to speak to you about that. Hello Kerwin.

KM: Hey, how’s it going guys? Thanks for having me on today.

SG: Thanks for coming.

KM: Absolutely.

SG: You worked for an airline for umpteen years.

KM: Yeah, I’m an airline geek, an aviation geek, and I always wanted to work for an airline so I started in, let’s see, probably since 94. I did ATA and then worked for Delta first and ATA and finally Continental until about 2011.

I love airlines and I mean some people just don’t understand how airlines work but I think I have a pretty good understanding. Yeah, I know how to find a good fares, I know how to maximize points and things like that which is very useful. Absolutely very useful.

SG: So how did you get interested in UNESCO world heritage sites?

KM: I think it’s just by mistake really. Yeah, I think when you go to 114 countries you end up getting these places.

SG: 114 countries! Okay, so there aren’t that many more than that in the world. Which ones have you not visited?

KM: Yeah, right. So there’s 193 in all. Yeah, there’s that many and then in terms of territories there are like 325. Because if you count the United Kingdom as counted as one but then there’s also Scotland, Wales and all that and when you put all those together it becomes 325.

Yeah so and it’s exciting because when you do that you end up seeing a lot of these places. So simple places like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I haven’t been yet. I know and people are like, you haven’t been to Pisa, I’m like no. But I want to go.

SG: So are you actually working your way through every country, is that the plan?

The Traveler’s Century Club

KM: Yeah, the plan… Absolutely, the plan is to go through every country and its a lofty goal that myself and a bunch of other people have.  There’s like a [Traveler’s] Century Club.

SG: Yes, there is. My husband dreams of joining the Century Club which means you’ve been to a hundred countries.

RH: I’ve just a practical question for you because I’ve got one of those scratch-off maps, where you can scratch off each country you’ve been to. Okay, when do you count yourself as having been to a country? For example, I’ve been to Moscow but none of the rest of Russia. Do I get to scrape Russia on the map?

KM: Yes, this is actually a really, really big debate and people who are listening are going to like, oh my God! You haven’t gone unless you had a coffee there. The definition that I use and is a lot of what my buddies use is as long as you landed or taken off from the country on an airplane then it works. That is so.

RH: Really! So I can count Turkey even though all I’ve done is pass through the Istanbul airport.

KM: Yes, you can count it. No, some people are going to be like, no you can’t count it and there’s really, really big heated debates over this.

SG:      Yeah, I’m sorry I’m a purist. I mean unless you actually see the country and get a feel for it even if it’s only 24 hours – every airport, okay you won’t say this because you’re an aviation geek. To me, as a non-airport, airplane person I would say a lot of airports look very similar.

The Uniqueness of Airports

KM: They do but here’s the thing though every airport is very unique and if you think about it who works at the airports? It’s the locals that work at the airports, right. So whenever you go to the airport you’re interacting with the local people and you get…

You get a feel for the tradition of the country because you can get local foods at the airport, you can get a local beer and I always try to have a local beer. My first time to Moscow, I was going to Singapore and I stopped. You don’t need a visa to transit Moscow. As long as your connecting flight is in the same terminal.

You do have to stay in the terminal. But there’s a lot of stuff to do. I mean I spoke to a lot of people in the airport itself, I had a beer in the airport and I always like interact with people and ask them so what’s going on. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn just transiting an airport.

RH: I think I’m going to go home and scrape Russia off my scratch-off map because I’ve been to Moscow, I was there for 3 days but it’s this one city and this massive country so I wasn’t sure you see.

A 6-Stopper Flight with One Flight Number

KM: Yeah, no. You can’t visit every city in a particular country just to say oh, I’ve been to that country. As long as you, so for example, Johnson Island, it’s in the Pacific you cannot get off the airplane when you get there. It’s a US base. And unless you work at the military base you can’t get off. So matter of fact when you land there they ask you kindly to close the shutters.

SG: Why would you land there, I’m just curious, if it’s a military base? Is it a stopover for something?

KM: Yeah, so what happened is that in the Pacific there’s a flight that starts in Honolulu and it actually used to make 6 stops, Johnson Island was one of them. It does Honolulu, well when it did Johnson Island and then it does Majuro, Kwajelein, Pohnpei, Chuuk and I think I might have had Kosrae and then Chuuk

SG: I’ve not heard of any of these.

KM: Oh, Yeah. This is a classic flight so if you’re an aviation geek it’s like the holy grail of flights because it’s the only one that is 6 stopper, same flight number in the Pacific.

confessions of an airline geek

The many tiny islands of Micronesia.

RH: It’s a puddle jumper is what you’re talking about.

KM: Well it’s more than a puddle, it’s more like the Pacific Ocean, yeah you’re jumping over. Alaska has one that’s very similar but back to Johnson Island. Johnson Island is military so I think the military that’s the way they use to get there from Honolulu and it is still an airforce base but you can’t land there any more.

RH: So this was a long time ago that you did this.

KM:    Yeah, so if you can’t, I wouldn’t be able to count Johnson Island if we didn’t count well as long as you land you’re fine. You don’t even have to get off the plane.

SG: Okay. so there are rules and you know and general accepted practices in this Century Club.

KM: Yes there are. No here’s an interesting thing about the Century Club, I have not officially joined yet because there’s like a membership and all that and I haven’t done that but I will officially. Gary Arndt is a member.

SG: My husband is not a member but he is desperate to join at some point but he’s working on his hundred countries. But I’m holding him to higher standards unless he spends the night and we don’t count it.

KM: Oh come on, you’re tough. There’s actually in a post I have because there’s a big, big argument. Every time you talk countries where like you have to do this, you have to do that. I’m like no it’s fine as long as you land or take off there you’re good to go.

Using National Airlines

And whenever I visit a new country I try to fly the national airline for that country if I can at all possible. Because again, you get a lot of culture from the people you meet on the airplane.

SG: What if it’s like a country that uses ex-Aeroflot planes or something?

KM: That’s okay. Actually even the better as an airline geek it’s great to, the older the airplane…

SG: Vintage.

KM: Yes, exactly it’s perfect. And I have flown Aeroflot but I’m upset at myself because I didn’t fly it when they flew the Tupolev which is the really old Russian planes.

RH: Right, it was the Tupolev wasn’t it? You know no fear.

KM: You know what’s weird, I actually think I going to die in an airplane crash but that’s okay.

SG: Oh yeah, I mean we’ve been in planes where they still have the ashtray holder. Remember back, back when. And that’s old for me but I see the ashtray holder and I’m like, how old is this plane. This is stressing me out.

Smoking in Airplanes

KM: But you know it’s okay though because it just shows how things have changed. My first flight to London actually was on a Virgin Atlantic 747 and I had a chance to meet Richard Branson. So I get on the plane and I got like a seat like in row 60 or something. Oh this is great, there’s nobody back here. We take off and as soon as we take off you hear ding and all you hear was a click, click, click, click, click all the lighters going off and people started to smoke and I was like crap I’m in the smoking section.

 confessions of an aviation geek

Non-smoking planes are a real Godsend.

SG: And then smoke drifts backwards.

KM: Oh, it totally does.

SG: You’re just in a halo of smoke.

KM: Yeah, it’s hard because you take off and the people who smoke do not get a seat in the smoking section but they come back in the smoking section and smoke and then they go back to their regular seat. I’m like seriously! Yes, it was smoked in airplanes.

RH: I remember somehow always ending up in the last row, like the non-smoking row that was right next to the first smoking row.

KM: Which is really silly how that worked because in first class the last row was smoking but what about the guy who sits in the bulkhead in economy class?

SG: When they used to do that, this is before I had children. Is the bulkhead, was that used for children, for babies?

KM: Yeah, the bulkhead seat used for babies.

SG: Oh, the first person in the economy would be a baby getting secondhand smoke from the first class.

KM: Back then it was okay right.

SG: Well I am really glad that they’ve made the planes non-smoking now. It makes such a difference because I personally find airplane air difficult at the best of times because it is quite dry and it dries out your skin and leaves you a bit parched add smoke on top of that is not and it’s not pleasant.

The Joy of 787’s

KM: It is not but you got to fly a 787 though. 787s are the greatest. The 787 is the latest in the Boeing line. So you ever sit in a plane transatlantic flight usually and you hear like just this noise, well it’s…Yeah, so there is background noise but sometimes all of a sudden you’ll hear this really much louder noise, it’s actually the air filtration system. That’s going through, you’d hear it for like 2 minutes or something like that and then you don’t hear it again. Now on the 787 the system that’s on their is really, really you know high-tech for want of a better word. So for example, when you land you actually feel much, much better than normal.

confessions of an Airline Geek

A 787 dreamliner about to land.

SG: What routes do the 787s fly, I assume that they’re big planes?

KM: Yes. They’re not as big as the 777s or the A380s but they are quite big. They use them for like for example, it actually flies one of the longest routes in the world. Singapore to the US. And there’s a lot of New York, London is flown by that. Houston, London is depending on the time of the year is flown by a 787 but they go to South America. So they really fly all over.

RH: Why do you feel better, is it because, is this the one that does the thing with the lighting so that the lighting lets you adjust?

KM: Absolutely. They do the lighting and they also adjust the, what do they call it now, they adjust the atmosphere so your body isn’t that stress in essence when you land and it actually works. I though it didn’t but like for example like London whenever I fly a 787 normally at like 3, 3.30 I start getting groggy and if you’re talking to me I would literally just fall asleep on you and I would tell my friends I’m like if I fall asleep I’m so sorry it’s because I just flew across the Atlantic. But when I fly the 787 I have an extra 2 hours before that happens.

RH: They do that as well on the new Airbus.

SG: A380.

RH: It’s adjusting lights as well on those flights.

KM: Yeah, it’s because they’re adjusting lights on those and what they’re doing is they’re retro-fitting some of the airplanes like on the Boeing 737, 800. They call them the next generation.. like Blue Light something they call them but they have the lights as well and it changes colors. So like when you’re lying there it’ll get the sunrise colors and… No, it actually does, it does help your circadian rhythm.

RH: Yeah, it changes very gradually over the course of the flight so it tricks you into thinking that you’re on the time zone of the place you’re going to arrive at.

KM: Yeah, it is very cool.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

RH: But anyway. This all started with us asking you about your UNESCO heritage sites and you said you got to them by accident. So let’s back up and explain that.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica

KM: Because I never plan where I’m going which really makes people crazy because people are always like, oh where you going next and I’m like um I don’t know. Or the worse thing is whenever I’m going to visit people they’re like well how long are you staying and I’m usually like, I don’t know, you know so I never really decide and like for example when I grew up in Jamaica and I always hike the Blue Mountains. It’s like 7402ft and I’ve hiked it a few times when I was a cadet. Well, that’s a UNESCO heritage site and I didn’t even know it. I had no idea and I wasn’t really keeping a list but people were talking about it and I know it’s things that people like to do and apparently I’ve gone to 71 just by mistake.

Confessions of an Airline Geek

Kerwin grew up climbing the Blue Mountains of Jamaica which he later realised were a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

SG: You were going to visit them anyway and then it turned out they were UNESCO world heritage sights.

Petra in Jordan

KM: Well right, exactly. And I think it’s because a lot of places in the world that are pretty famous are UNESCO heritage sites and I am not the guy who goes oh, like I went to Hiroshima and I am not the kind of person who goes, oh, I’m going to Hiroshima, I have to go to this or I have to do this. I just go and I enjoy the place and eventually what ends up happening is when I start interacting with locals or friends that live there they will take me to these places or I’ll wander aimlessly and go oh wow, this place is pretty cool. And the later when I look it up I’m like oh, like Petra for example.

SG: You wandered aimlessly into Petra?

KM:     Kind of, yes. Well what happened is that one of my colleagues at work is like I have to go to Petra and when you work for an airline to minimize the cost of things you just go fly with your fellow employees. So he is like I want to see Petra and being a traveler I’m like I’ve never been to Jordan and never flown Royal Jordanian so I’m like yep, we’re going. So I arranged a trip, made sure we flew Royal Jordanian and we flew into Oman and then another friend of mine was there for a meeting and we get to Oman and my other friend who I went to was like well we have to go to Petra and I’m like okay fine. So we and other people were like yeah, Petra!. I’m like okay we’ll go to Petra. So we jump in a car and this guy takes us from Oman all the way to Petra and we kept stopping all over the place.

It was beautiful because at one point we stopped at a spot where you could see Bethlehem in the distance and I grew up as a kid in the Caribbean and my parents are very religious, my grandparents are very religious. So much so my grandmother and grand aunt sings on the choir and I actually used to sing until I turned 9 and voice sounded like this. (laughs)

So I just randomly ended up going to these places, when we stopped at Bethlehem we actually wanted to divert and go to Bethlehem and the cab driver was like you don’t have time for this and we were like why can’t we go, we just want to go to the border. He’s like no that’s going to take like 2 hours to just go and come back.

And we need to get to Petra so I have to go back and see Bethlehem now. So we journeyed all the way down, we went to Petra and like I said, people plan this thing we didn’t we just jumped out of the car and started walking. We didn’t do any of the mules or anything like that. I don’t like donkeys and stuff like that and I’m not a light animal riding person.

Yeah, it’s just not a thing for me. I did ride a camel, though. But Petra is, Petra’s probably one of the better ones that I’ve seen.

Confessions of an Airline Geek

Kerwin votes for Petra as the most incredible UNESCO world heritage site he has seen.

SG: Do you have one that you weren’t sure quite what to expect and it was different to what you would think?

KM: No, not really because I don’t really have an expectation.

RH: Well how, could you choose one that if somebody said I want to go to one what’s the one you think everybody should see?

KM: Petra.

RH: Really? Okay, yeah, I’ve been there too, it’s pretty amazing.

KM: And when you’re walking in and just before you get to the Treasury. It’s like you’re walking through this thing and you look at the walls and you’re like it’s ridiculous how smooth these walls are. And you just go through and then all of a sudden this amazing structure is there.

RH: For our listeners who don’t know Petra is in southern Jordan and it’s the scene from which one was it, Raiders of the Lost Ark? Where he comes through these sort of wind smoothed walls and then comes out on this thing that looks like a temple. It’s not actually a temple it’s a grave essentially.

KM: Yeah. And the cool thing about these places is that like Petra, for example, you think well this was you know a civilization lived here. This was active places that people used to do trades and stuff like that. The other place like that was I think Ephesus in Turkey.

One of the structures is very similar to the one in Petra it’s just this huge. That one sits at the end of a road and that road was the road where they had all the, it was like a big market that you’d go. And if you think about it, like if you think about Main street in any city like that’s what this was. So if you…

SG: Only a couple thousand years ago.

Pompeii in Italy

KM: Exactly, so you try to take yourself back to that time and you’re like, wow! This place…Pompeii is the same way. And you walk through this place and you go these people were amazing back then.

RH:     They made these beautiful houses with these murals on the walls and so on and the people are actually in a sense still there as well, it was all just frozen.

KM:     The mountain came down and just pretty much covered up everyone. One thing I always recommend with these places and I was pretty bad about this for a while is get a tour guide.

Because when you have a tour guide you look at a scene and oh great that’s a toilet over there or and the tour guide will go and tell you the whole history behind that and that makes a ton of difference. It just like opens up a whole new world to you. Because sometimes you’re just stepping over stuff and you have no idea what that is and then when they tell you. And Pompeii is one of those where you definitely need a tour guide for because on the roads they have these little, they look like little rocks that are actually in the road.

RH: I saw those, yes. And they’re spaced apart.

KM:     Well they’re spaced apart because the chariots used to come through there and they actually put them through so the chariots wouldn’t like go straight through. So they were pretty much speed bumps.

SG: They are old fashioned speed bumps.

KM: Old fashioned speed bumps in essence. And they’re spaced because that’s the width of the wheels on the chariots in essence.

RH: So it’s details like that you wouldn’t hear unless you had a good tour guide.

KM: Oh absolutely.

SG: I personally love using a tour guide for details because I love trivia, I love history and all these details that you hear from a person makes the place come alive. Because you might read about it beforehand but you may not associate it when you see it as supposed to having them right there telling you what’s happened.

KM: Exactly, so, yeah I guess if I had to say Petra would definitely be it. Oh, and one thing too where they have all these sites is we have to remember and it’s really difficult because it’s so many years so there are no colors and they all look like really drab, grey buildings and you’re like well this place is boring but back then it was not.

And marble becomes the color we see it now over time but if you think back you’re like this place was grand, I mean this was the place, right. The Colosseum was another place like that. I mean you think about what happened in the Colosseum you’re like have we really changed much? But that’s a whole other…

RH: Okay, that’s another question. But what always interests me is with a place like Pompeii or the Colosseum you’re seeing something that they built for a purpose, a city or an arena.

Petra was different. Petra, that’s essentially a really grand cemetery and that must have been an incredible thriving culture to be able to spend the amount of time and energy it must have cost to build those ornate monuments that they carved out of the rock and then decorated on the outside in all sorts of detail. Wow! I mean it’s hard to even imagine how wealth they must have been.

SG: Well sort of like the Pyramids then. Death was an important aspect of their life.

KM: It actually was. And one of the things, I visited the Pyramids and we do tend to forget that a lot of these things are cemeteries.

The Taj Mahal in Agra India

SG: Yes, or the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum.

KM: Yes, the Taj Mahal. So people will probably get mad at me but this is, I like the Taj Mahal but I think for a monument that’s so many people visit they really should take some of the money and fix the surrounding areas. What we see all the time is just the Taj Mahal. We never see behind the Taj Mahal.

Confessions of an Airline Geek

The Taj Mahal is an oasis of beauty in the otherwise desolate city of Agra in India.

SG: Yes, the city of Agra comes right up to the Taj Mahal. Literally just to its edge on the walls… and it is very poor.

KM:     It’s a very, very poor city and I’m like, maybe it’s just me but I’m like please take some of that money and just clean up the neighborhood, I mean I don’t know but that’s my thing about the Taj Mahal. It’s great to see but if you just turn the camera the other way you’re like oh my God, what’s happenings here.

The Great Pyramids of Egypt

SG: I had a similar experience with the Pyramids in Egypt. If you turned the camera slightly you will see that it is a dust strip of vendors just selling knick knacks or there’s fast food restaurants etc.

KM:     Yeah, well because right across from the Sphinx I don’t know if it’s still there but there used to be a Pizza Hut.

SG:      Yes there is. I have a picture of the Pizza Hut right behind the Sphinx.

KM:     Yes, I wish a lot of these countries would just do that you know just spend a little of the money that you’re getting from the tourists that comes in to fixup the areas that are around because like I said Agra and Agra broke my heart. It was just one of those places that and India’s such a different place when you visit. I love India, I love the food, I love the people but what I always thought was people are very poor and I’m from Jamaica where there are lots of poor people and people are, they seem content so they were okay with life being the way that it is. But I’m like if you just did a little bit for them the quality of the life would be just so much better. And it’s not just India a lot of countries are like that. It’s like just spend some money. Lots of people are coming into you, you know the money is there just allocate some to just fix the areas that are around there.

But I’m like just give me running water is like some of the stuff that you just need it’s not a big deal well it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. But anyway that’s my rant.

RH: Name one thing from your list of the UNESCO sites that was perhaps well known but really surprised you?

Burgos Cathedral in Spain

KM: I know right. I’m just trying to look through. Well see some of them might be well known but not well known to me so like when I went to Spain I went to the Burgos Cathedral. Burgos is one of the cities in Northern Spain that you pass through when you do the Camino.

RH: I think I’ve seen photos, a friend who walked through there just recently.

SG: Did you do the Camino de Santiago?

KM: Yes

KM: So Burgos is one of the cities and actually it has there’s like what do you call it, they have a hostel and you can only stay at the hostel for free if you’ve walked the Camino. And this was one of the places that apparently has a big piazza in front of it and people used to come and that’s one of the big resting places that they have and the Burgos Cathedral is right there. And it’s huge, I actually have a picture of it when I went on a trip with a whole bunch of us with that in the back ground. And that one again we had a tour guide and the tour guide was just amazing. And you walk through this place and you can walk through different parts, I think that’s one where you can actually if I’m not mistaken you can go up into some of the rails and the stuff that goes across. Oh, that might be the one in Salamanca but the one in Salamanca is also a world heritage site. But that one is just it’s amazingly built, it’s beautiful, it has such a history and I know it was one of them but the Caminos is quite big and it’s one of the places where lots of people just like they still hang out and wait and I assume do some worshipping once they get to that location. So that’s probably the one that I go wow!. This is one of them

SG: Kerwin this is fascinating talking to you. I didn’t realize that you had traveled to so many of these different places or the 7 stopper airline stuff.

KM: But if you get a chance this is one of those trips that you need to take. It takes 14 hours and 5 mins of your day.

SG: 14 hours for one flight because you stop 7 times?

KM: Yeah because it makes all those stops. But it’s worth it.

RH: Well, thank you, Kerwin for talking to us today we really appreciate it. Kerwin is the writer of Passrider.com among other websites and you should check it out. Thank you Kerwin.

KM: Thank you very much ladies, I really appreciate it.

SG: Thanks very much.