BWI to LAX on Alaska Airlines 739: Aerial Tour of the American Southwest

On October 2, my wife Rachel and I left Delaware to begin our final long-distance trip of the year (at least, unless The Flight Deal tips us off about any particularly juicy opportunities during the next few months).  This was a quick trip to visit Rachel’s family within the confines of our available time off from work.  Alaska began service between LAX and BWI on September 9, 2015.  Over the summer, we jumped on a fare of $296.20/person roundtrip which we considered pretty good for a transcontinental nonstop.  The early morning departure and red eye return would also maximize our time in California during a short visit.

We’d flown Alaska Airlines only once before, but had an excellent experience on a short flight from Portland, OR (PDX) to Kalispell, MT (FCA).  Since Alaska is an American Airlines partner, we could bank our miles to AA.  Best of all, this would get us over the hump to accumulate the 40,000 miles/person we’d need for a planned trip to Europe next spring (taking advantage of American’s off-peak awards).

One great thing about Alaska is that if you buy a ticket on their website and you notice that the price of that same itinerary goes down, you can apply for the difference as a voucher (good for one year from the initial purchase).  This is one case where if behooves you to keep checking after buying tickets to see if the fare drops (which can drive you crazy otherwise).  I was able to quickly and easily receive two $10 vouchers when the price of our tickets dropped.  It’s a smart policy, which encourages both good will and repeat business.

Update on November 29, 2015: As it turned out, taking advantage of the Price Guarantee had unexpected consequences.  It knocked our outbound flight into a fare bucket that is eligible for Alaska but not American credit, causing us quite the headache.

Alaska 739 at BWI Gate C2. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015
Alaska 739 at BWI Gate C2. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

It was a rainy morning on the East Coast on Friday.  We had to leave home at 4:15am to get to Baltimore in time for our 7:25am flight.  We arrived at the terminal in BWI just after 6am.  Security took about 20 minutes.  The obnoxious thing was that we started to go through security for our terminal, Terminal C.  Midway through, the people near the end of the line were diverted to the security line for Terminal B, which had just opened.  The resulting line was considerably longer than the one we had been in.  Guess I should have splurged for TSA Precheck….I’d always doubted it was worth the money since I’m no road warrior, but this was my seventeenth flight of the year (a personal best).

We got breakfast sandwiches at Einstein Brothers Bagels (earning an unspectacular 11 AA miles through the Thanks Again program, which has widespread participation at BWI).  Our boarding pass indicated a boarding time of 6:45am.  They began boarding a few minutes after that.  We were able to board early (after first class and high level elites) due to my Gold status on Alaska’s partner American Airlines.  (On the return flight, they didn’t call partner elites for some reason and the plane was boarded with a fairly unusual if sensible order: first class, followed by passengers who’d volunteered to gate check their bags, those traveling without anything needing to go in the overhead bins, back portion of economy, and then front rows.)

View from 23F, a gloomy morning at BWI
View from 23F, a gloomy morning at BWI

Boarding took about 40 minutes.  The 160-passenger Boeing 737-800 appeared to be completely full.  The seats were comfortable and legroom felt decent (SeatGuru gives the pitch as 32″).  There were electric outlets at every seat, something I hadn’t experienced in economy before.  Rachel said the seat was the most comfortable she’d had in coach in recent memory.  (And this is from a person who thought that the domestic first class seats on the American Airlines 737-800s were uncomfortable!)  Her only complaint was that the middle seat has a silver box that slightly reduces storage space under the seat in front.  Actually, she had one other complaint, directed at me.

Fairly comfortable for coach. I like the separate space for magazine/safety card/menu...easier to get your belongings from the other pouch
Fairly comfortable for coach. I like the separate space for magazine/safety card/menu…easier to get your belongings from the other pouch

“Why do you always get the window seat?” she grumbled.  Because looking out the window is my favorite thing to do on airplanes, whereas sleeping is her favorite thing to do on airplanes, I told her.  She didn’t look convinced.  How about thinking about it as my fee for doing the flight planning and booking?  She grumbled that someday she wanted to get the window seat.  And as it turned out, experiencing the scenery to come was completely worth gambling on ending up in the doghouse.  (Incidentally, for anyone who may be inclined to take Rachel’s side on this, I should point out that she barely looked up from a game of backgammon she was playing with the woman in the aisle seat when we flew over the Grand Canyon.  I say, window seats for people who appreciate scenery!)

The pilots warned that we could expect some turbulence during the first part of the flight, but not much materialized.  We pushed back a few minutes late, but were soon airborne.  We spent quite a while in a thick cloudbank.  I’m used to popping out into the sun quickly during flights on dreary days, but it took about 20 minutes on this particular flight.  Indeed, we didn’t clear the tops of the clouds until our altitude reached about 36,000′ (10,973m).

It's no first class meal, but the big three won't even give you peanuts flying domestically these days
It’s no first class meal, but the big three won’t even give you peanuts flying domestically these days

During the first half of the flight, the views alternated between heavy clouds and glimpses of the farmland of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois below.  I was parched and it seemed like it took quite a while for the in flight service to begin.  Flight attendants came through renting tablets for entertainment and selling food before distributing beverages.  Small pouches of tasty breakfast snack mix were also distributed.  Service was friendly and beverages were offered three times during the flight.

Mississippi River with the city of Burlington, Iowa at left
Mississippi River with the city of Burlington, Iowa at left

I caught sight of the Mississippi River at the Illinois-Iowa border before clouds obscured the landscape again.

Clouds seen while flying along the Kansas-Nebraska border
Clouds seen flying along the Kansas-Nebraska border

The landscape began to change dramatically over Colorado as the Great Plains gave way to the mountains.  I enjoyed the rugged landscape that I later identified as the San Juan Mountains, part of the Rockies.  At the time I was curious about what I perceived to be patches of orange rock amidst the relatively drab brown and gray rock that made up the rest of the mountains.

San Juan Mountains, Colorado
San Juan National Forest, Colorado

It was only after I returned home that I realized it wasn’t patches of rock but forests, the trees wearing still wearing their fall colors.

Close-up of foliage in the San Juan Mountains
Closer view of foliage in the San Juan Mountains seen in the previous picture

As the flight continued southwest, the landscape changed dramatically, growing much drier.  Clouds no longer obscured the landscape.  Utah was captivating, with rock and canyons in so many colors.  Rachel and I hope to visit the national parks in the area some day; we could easily spend two weeks visiting the nearly continuous chain of desert beauty from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon.

Chinle Creek in Utah
Chinle Creek or Wash in Utah

I spotted striking sandstone buttes that reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Monument Valley.  Unfortunately most of the photos I took were blurry, but after the trip I was able to confirm my guess by matching the features on the photo below to an aerial photo of the valley on Google Maps.  Clockwise from the top left, the features are Eagle Mesa (with attached Setting Hen in the center of the photo), Brigham’s Tomb, Stagecoach (at edge of the right hand side of the photo), Big Indian, and Sentinel Mesa at lower left.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley, Utah

I’m looking forward to visiting the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park someday in person.  The flight continued southwest over the beautiful and rugged land of the Colorado Plateau.

Arizona near Navajo National Monument

About 40 miles (65km) away to the north, I spotted Lake Powell, currently the largest reservoir in the United States in terms of water held (though not capacity).  It was created in 1963 when the Glen Canyon Dam began impounding the Colorado River.  The result, depending on your perspective, was:

  1. A triumph of engineering that controls flooding, provides a reliable supply of water for people and crops, and generates electricity without the use of fossil fuels
  2. A wonderful vacation destination, making such isolated features as Rainbow Bridge National Monument easily accessible
  3. An environmental catastrophe that destroyed the habitat for flora and fauna that once thrived in Glen Canyon while blocking sediment from traveling further down the Colorado River, thereby increasing erosion
Lake Powell and CO?
Lake Powell

The biggest visual treat was still to come.  There are many “grand canyons” in North America, like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Grand Canyon of the Fraser, and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.  One and only one grand canyon needs no “of the” appended to its name.  To the general public, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is simply the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

277 miles (446 km) in length and as deep as 6,093′ (1,857 m), the Grand Canyon’s very dimensions, not to mention colorful aesthetics, inspire awe.  For millions of years, the Colorado River has cut through the layers of rock, eventually creating a geological wonderland so immense and deep that the river itself is scarcely visible even from 38,000′ above!  I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon with my own eyes since elementary school.  Now, I’m thinking I should make going back a top priority.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

We were fortunate that the flight path, running more or less parallel to the canyon, allowed lengthy viewing, though eventually our path carried us south of the Colorado River.  In the distance, I could see Lake Mead, the other big reservoir made by damming the Colorado.  Barely visible in the haze at a distance of about 80 miles (129 km) I could see Las Vegas, Nevada and Red Rock Canyon.

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, California

The Ivanpah Electric Generating System came into view, gleaming brightly despite being dozens of miles away.  Located off I-15 near the California-Nevada line, the solar power plant is, depending on your perspective, either:

  1. An exemplar of green energy that provides both electricity and jobs to the surrounding area while reducing fossil fuel consumption
  2. A facility that damages the fragile Mojave Desert, is a deathtrap for birds, and which despite its green credentials still consumes some 525 million cubic feet of natural gas annually in order to operate

In the delicate ecology of the Southwest, it seems nothing is without its tradeoffs.

Ontario Airport
Ontario Airport

We began our descent, flying over the suburbs of Los Angeles parallel to the hills.  Below, I spotted Ontario Airport, with a purple Southwest Airlines plane visible taxiing.

On approach to LAX
On approach to LAX

I was surprised how little haze was visible, though that changed as we got closer to downtown LA.

Not even Photoshop Levels can fix that much haze
Not even Photoshop Levels can fix that much smog

For such a major city, Los Angeles really does have an unremarkable skyline compared not only to the likes of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco but even smaller cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Seattle.  While I’m at it, just because I can’t resist using the point-of-view convention a third time…

Los Angeles is, depending on your perspective, either:

  1. An economic powerhouse and world entertainment capital with a pleasant Mediterranean climate to boot
  2. A pollution-, traffic-, and earthquake-ridden hellhole with too many people and not enough water
A Korean Air plane approaching LAX to land on a parallel runway to ours
A Korean Air plane approaching LAX to land on a parallel runway to ours

I did a double take when a blue Korean Air plane banked into a parallel flight path to our aircraft.  It seemed unnervingly close.  Counting four engines, I realized that it was actually an enormous A380 that simply looked closer than it was (the double-deck wasn’t really evident at that distance).

Spoilers deployed! The Korean A380 is visible in the distance, landing on the other side of the terminal
Spoilers deployed! The Korean A380 is visible in the distance, landing on the other side of the terminal

We came in for a smooth landing well ahead of schedule.  The pilots announced that we were so early that our gate wasn’t available yet.

The Korean A380 taxiing to its gate
The Korean A380 taxiing to its gate

We had to wait about 20 minutes for our gate.  I passed the time watching the incredible multitude of aircraft from airlines all over the world taxiing and taking off.

Alaska 739 arrived at LAX Gate 66
Arrival at LAX Gate 66

We pulled into our gate, still 20 minutes early thanks to the padding that Alaska worked into the schedule.  Overall, it was a very pleasant flight and a strong contender for the best scenery I’ve ever seen on a domestic flight.

A Note on Aerial Photography and Editing

Aerial photography taken from a commercial airliner is one of the most challenging situations a photographer can tackle.  Not only is the aircraft moving quickly, but prospective photographers must shoot through multiple layers of often heavily smudged and scratched glass.  I’ve found that photos often look quite blurry in places, especially when shooting from seats behind the wing (presumably because of distortion due to exhaust from the engines).  Even when I keep the shutter speed up, the majority of my aerial shots don’t look sharp, especially when zoomed in.  In addition, at 38,000′ there is typically a great deal of haze in the air between the camera and subject.  Although sunrises and sunsets can look great straight out of the camera, typically landscapes end up looking rather muddy, with very low contrast.

Photoshop corrections
Photoshop corrections: the Grand Canyon straight from the camera, and after Levels and tone processing

I try to maximize my chances of good light.  For early or late north-south flights, I prefer a seat facing the sun since the unobstructed vantage point can make for some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  For east-west travel in the Northern Hemisphere, I try to get a seat that faces north unless a special sight is anticipated (like a mountain range or skyline), to put the sun on the other side of the aircraft.  Shooting backlit landscapes is pretty much impossible with all those layers of glass inducing flare and catching haze.  I shoot in RAW, which is helpful because aerial photos often need extensive processing.

It’s no secret that I like shooting photos more than editing them.  I try to take shortcuts with my “workflow”.  For many shots, this means processing the RAW image in Photoshop Elements and then doing a Levels adjustment layer.  I usually hit Auto Levels on the adjustment layer.  This often results in a high contrast but overbaked result, but I can reduce the opacity of the adjustment layer until I’m happy with the balance.  This method was effective for the images above from Ontario Airport through the end of the article.

Auto Levels is not as useful with particularly warm images like sunsets or reddish canyons.  It has a tendency to cool off the colors too much.  In cases like the Grand Canyon shots above, I manually adjusted the Levels with an adjustment layer.  That wasn’t quite enough for all the images.  On some, I created a duplicate of the background layer and did Auto Smart Tone on it, dragging to the lower left corner for a high contrast image.  As with Auto Levels, the effect is too strong and gave the images an overly red cast.  I adjusted the opacity of the tone layers down until the image looked right.  The process works for me but there are limits, of course.  Distant subjects can still end up very hazy, Photoshop or not, as is especially evident in the Mississippi River and Lake Powell photos above (hence why there’s no photo of Las Vegas in this article).

Identifying Geography from the Air

I use a GPS module with my Canon DSLR while traveling.  It tags the photos’ EXIF data with my location and the direction the camera is pointed, which has proven valuable countless times in figuring out later what the heck I was looking at.  It sometimes works in the metal tube of an airplane, but it isn’t particularly reliable.  Naturally, on this flight it stopped working from Colorado to California, missing most of the flight’s scenic highlights.  I was proud of myself for confirming the sandstone buttes as being in Monument Valley by scanning the valley in Google Maps until I saw features that matched the photos.  Then I remembered there was an easier way.

The exceedingly useful aviation website  FlightAware tracks commercial aircraft worldwide.  For a few weeks or months after a given flight, you can access a Flight Track Log, like this one for the Alaska flight in question.  It’s not foolproof, especially in remote areas and in some countries; the site is only as good as the available data sources.  Make sure your camera’s clock is set accurately (my GPS keeps the time updated automatically) in order to compare the photo’s timestamp with the track log, which should update about every minute.  Then simply copy the coordinates and paste into a mapping program like Google Maps and zoom out to get your bearings.  I obtained the distance estimates in this article by comparing the coordinates to the known coordinates of Lake Powell and Las Vegas.

Date: Friday, October 2, 2015

Distance: 2,326 miles (3,743 km) by great circle, actual distance flown 2,355 miles (3,790 km)

Flight: Alaska Airlines 739

Equipment: Boeing 737-800 (N548AS)

Class: Economy

Cost per mile: $0.06/mile

Performance: Pushback 7:40am EDT, takeoff from BWI 7:51am EDT (scheduled 7:25am EDT), landed at LAX  9:58am PDT, at gate 10:20am PDT (scheduled 10:40am PDT)

Duration: 5 hours, 7 minutes flight time (5 hours, 40 minutes gate-to-gate)

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