Friday, January 21, 2022

Frontier resumes services from Hobby Airport

Frontier Airlines just can't seem to make up its mind when it comes to serving Houston. They began operations to Bush Intercontinental sometime in the aughts, but in 2010 shifted operations to Hobby. Then, less than two years later, they moved their operations back to IAH. Fast forward a decade, and now the Denver-based "ultra low cost carrier" has apparently decided that two airports are better than one:

Houstonians in search of a low-cost option to jet away for vacation or a long weekend now have a new option. Low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines has just announced three nonstop routes from William P. Hobby Airport to Cancun, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Florida with fares starting at $39.

This is new service from Hobby — Frontier currently offers flights from George Bush Intercontinental Airport — and thus gives Houstonians more warm-weather destination choices.

Dubbed “Low Fares Done Right,” the promotion offers:

  • Cancun (CUN); three times weekly; service starts May 26: fares start at $79
  • Las Vegas (LAS); four times weekly; service starts May 27: fares start at $59
  • Orlando (MCO); four times weekly; service starts at May 27; fares start at $39 

This particular fare promotion ends January 24th, but given that they are directly competing with Southwest on all three of these leisure destination routes, one can probably expect Frontier's standard fares to be competitive as well. It's interesting to note that, as of right now, Frontier is not going head-to-head with Southwest on the Hobby-Denver route, as they did between 2010 and 2012. They will continue their service to Denver and a handful of other airports out of IAH:

Currently, Frontier offers regular flights to Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Philadelphia from Bush.

“We’re excited to expand in Houston and add William P. Hobby Airport to our route map with three nonstop routes beginning this May,” said Josh Flyr, vice president of network and operational design, in a statement. “We look forward to launching service at HOU and bringing increased air service competition to the market.”

Game on. The Points Guy and Simple Flying have more.

UH wins and attendance, 2021

Time to update the graph:

The Cougars averaged 25,073 fans per game over their five home games during the 2021 season, which is just under 500 fans/game fewer than their 2019 average.* 

While this is still an attendance decline, it is not nearly as precipitous as the declines in attendance that the program experienced from the 2016 season through 2019 season. Furthermore, coming off a ranked, bowl-winning season, I would expect attendance to increase in 2022.

(Had the Texas Tech game at NRG Stadium counted as a home game, the Coogs' average attendance would have been 28, 141. This is why I am not a huge fan of UH Athletics agreeing to move their marquee home games to NRG Stadium, even though I'm sure it comes with a nice check.)

* Right now, I'm showing attendance for the COVID-affected 2020 season, along with the attendant decrease in stadium capacity that was in effect that season. I may revisit how to show the 2020 season - or even omit it entirely - in future graphs.

RIP Ron Franklin

Another local broadcasting legend has passed away:

Ron Franklin, who spent nearly 20 years as a prominent voice on the Houston sports scene before rising to national prominence with ESPN, died Tuesday at the age of 79.

Franklin worked 24 years at ESPN, primarily as a play-by-play announcer for college football and college basketball. He was the voice of ESPN’s prime-time college football game from 1987 to 2005 before moving over to ESPN on ABC to call primarily Big 12 games.

Before ESPN, Franklin was the sports director at KHOU Channel 11 from 1971 to 1980 before moving over to KPRC Channel 2 where he stayed until joining ESPN in 1987.

Franklin was, along with anchor Ron Stone and meteorologist Doug Johnson, part of the KPRC news team I grew up watching on a nightly basis in the 1980s. His decision to join ESPN in 1987 may have come as a surprise, as that network was still relatively young and did not dominate the sports landscape the way it does today, but it clearly worked out well for him. That is, until his career at ESPN ended in controversy:
Franklin's run at ESPN came to an end during the 2010 college football bowl season when Franklin allegedly called sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards “sweet baby” during a production meeting, then called her an expletive after she objected. Franklin was fired by ESPN after the incident.
In addition to his local news duties, Franklin also spent much time as the play-by-play commentator for the Houston Oilers and for University of Texas athletics. Tributes from his former KPRC co-workers can be read here

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Cougars defeat Auburn in TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, end season ranked #17

The Houston Cougars ended the 2021 football season on a high note two weeks ago by defeating the Auburn Tigers in Birmingham, 17-13. The bowl victory results in a 12-2 season for the Coogs, as well as a #17 ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls. 

The Good: QB Clayton Tune passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns: one to Alton McCaskill on the first series of the game, and another to Jake Herslow in the fourth quarter to take the lead for good. Although he didn't score any touchdowns, Nathaniel Dell was clutch his 150-yard receiving performance that included four third down conversions and one fourth down conversion. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon contributed by nailing a 52-yard field goal. 

But this game was a defensive struggle, so praise must be given to a Cougar defense that flustered Auburn's offense all afternoon. They allowed only one touchdown, recorded seven tackles for loss, and limited the Tigers to 4 of 15 third-down conversion attempts and only one of three fourth down conversion attempts. 

The Bad: The Cougars threw two interceptions and otherwise sputtered at times, scoring only three points in the second and third quarters and converting only 6 of 14 third-down conversion attempts. The UH defense forced no turnovers of their own and had trouble containing Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who amassed a combined 164 rushing and receiving yards. In fact, Auburn might actually had won the game if they had kept giving the ball to Bigsby instead of trying to pass the ball on short-yardage situations.

The Stupid: One of Houston's two interceptions was the result of a gimmick play whereby Tune lateraled to TE Seth Green, who then attempted to throw back to Tune in double coverage. That kind of trickery was completely unnecessary in a grind-it-out game such as this. Fortunately, Auburn could not convert either of its interceptions into points.

The Pleasantly Surprising: Auburn fans. Given that we were in "enemy territory" - the crowd was easily 90% Auburn - we were ready to receive some heckling, if not outright hostility, from the opposing fans. However,  every Auburn fan we encountered was very nice. They asked us sincere questions about our quarterback and our schedule, and they all congratulated us afterwards. Very classy!

What it means: Yes, Auburn had a bunch of players missing due to injury, opt-out, or (in two cases during the game) ejections for targeting. Yes, the Coogs may have gotten a little bit of help from the refs (an obvious intentional grounding call on Tune was ignored). Yes, Auburn might have made things easier on Houston by insisting on passing the ball when it would have made more sense to give it to Bigsby. But none of that should detract from the fact that the Cougars defeated an SEC blueblood, despite giving up two turnovers, in front of what was basically a home Auburn crowd. This win was a huge accomplishment for the program and an excellent end to a surprisingly good season.

With the win, the Cougars snap a four-game bowl losing streak; they are now 12-16-1 all-time in bowl games. They end the season ranked for only the 15th time in program history and as one of only two Texas teams to be ranked. And they rather convincingly blew my preseason prediction of a 7-5 season out of the water.

Underdog Dynasty's Steve Helwick recaps the bowl game and assigns end-of-season grades to the Cougars.  Dave Campbell's Texas Football provides its own review of the Coogs' 2021 season and suggests that "Houston should be considered the favorite to win the AAC in 2022." ESPN's Mark Schlabach ranks UH #13 on his "way too early" top 25 for 2022, and Paper City's Chris Baldwin sums things up thus

For now, UH beating an SEC team in its own homeland is another important step forward. Soon, it just might be expected.

Houston will begin the 2022 season in San Antonio, when they face the UTSA Roadrunners in the Alamodome on Labor Day weekend. The full 2022 schedule should be out within the next couple of months. 

Finally, congratulations to Georgia for winning their first national championship since 1980.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Sint Maarten / Saint Martin

Of course it would take me until the end of the year to finish writing a post about a trip I took back in July...

Anyway, last summer's visit to Sint Maarten / Saint Martin - the island is divided between The Netherlands and France, hence the two names - was a "family" affair in that myself, Corinne, Kirby, my mom, my brother and his wife all made the trip. Dad was originally supposed to go, too, but it was only after mom had made the reservation at the timeshare that he realized his passport had expired, and due to significant backlogs in passport processing he was unable to get a new one before the trip. (It was probably for the best, given his mobility issues; he would have had trouble with a lot of the excursions we ended up making.)

This was technically not my first trip to Sint Maarten; it was a port of call on our 2015 Eastern Caribbean cruise and we took a shore excursion to Maho Beach, which is arguably Sint Maarten's most famous tourist attraction, to watch planes land. However, I really didn't spend any time on the island itself, meeting its people or eating its food, until this trip.

While Sint Maarten is technically a semi-autonomous "constituent country" of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it is culturally Anglo-Caribbean. Saint Martin, on the other hand, is an integral part of France (although English is spoken as much as French and dollars are accepted as readily as Euros). The cars (including my rental) even have standard French plates! This meant that this vacation technically represented my first trip to France, as well.

Neither side if the island is doing particularly well right now; on top of the effect that the pandemic is having on this island's tourist-dependent economy, there are still the lingering effects from Hurricane Irma, which devastated the island in 2017.

Here are some photos of the trip:

The pool area of our timeshare, with Dawn Beach in the distance. Although everything appears fine, if you take a close look at the building to the right you'll see some patches in the walls. It was damaged by Hurricane Irma and is still being repaired. As we traveled around the island we came across innumerable buildings that are still in disrepair, four years after Irma made landfall.  

The courthouse in Philipsburg, which is the capital of (Dutch) Sint Maarten.

Kirby pretends to ignite a (replica) cannon of the Dutch West Indies Company in Philipsburg. The company held the island's trade monopoly during the Dutch colonial era.

An (almost) empty beach in Philipsburg.

Pandemic and Irma in a nutshell: repairs are being made to the jetty in the foreground, while several cruise ships idled by COVID-19's shutdown of the cruise industry, including the Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas that we sailed on during our trip to Greece a few years ago, are docked at the cruise terminal in the background.

Fort St. Louis overlooks Marigot, the capital of the French side of the island. The fort was originally built in 1789.

A typical Street scene in Marigot, with stores and boutiques and cars with French plates. Driving on this island was an adventure. The roads were narrow and winding, with no left turn bays (which meant a lot of time stopped in traffic while somebody in front of you waited to turn) in . Most major intersections were roundabouts (which I personally don't mind); I only came across one traffic signal on the entire island. Finding parking could also be difficult at times.

Looking down at Marigot from Fort Saint Louis. Before the pandemic, a ferry ran between Marigot and the British island of Anguilla, which would have made for a fun day excursion. Alas...

Kirby poses with the Tricolore atop Fort Saint Louis.

Another (mostly) empty beach. This is Kim Sha beach in Simpson Bay, west of Philipsburg.

The sun sets over Simpson Bay.

Long Beach in Baie Longue. We stopped here on a catamaran excursion, which visited several beaches and snorkeling spots along the southern end of the island.

A view from the catamaran of some of the homes and resorts on Pelican Key, on the Dutch side of the island. 

A cluster of restaurants on Orient Bay, on the French side of the island. We did most of our dining on the French side of the island. The food was excellent! 

Princess Juliana Airport was heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma, and several years later only makeshift repairs have been completed. It was also extremely crowded. 

While we enjoyed the trip, this is the last time I am going to travel internationally until the Coronavirus pandemic is over.* It was a real hassle, and knowing what I know now (articles like this one would have helped me, had I found them ahead of time) I probably wouldn't have done it. The hoops we had to jump through - getting a COVID test within 72 hours of travel, filling out a form on Sint Maarten's website and waiting to receive authorization to travel, purchasing mandatory "COVID insurance” on that same website, printing everything out so that test results and travel authorizations could be verified both in Miami (where we flew out from) and at Princess Juliana, checking our temperature every morning and reporting it to Sint Maarten health authorities via a special website for tourists - were considerable, and a failure at any point would have doomed the trip. 

We also had to get tested in order to return to the United States, which our timeshare did, for $100 per person, utilizing a "doctor" using an in-home rapid test that miraculously showed everybody as being COVID-negative in a matter of minutes. American Airlines accepted the negative test document he gave all of us when we checked in to fly back home, but the process was shady as hell.

Finally, two personal notes about future travel plans:

  • First, I am not going to take my son on any more trips unless he has his own room with his own bed. His (oftentimes tiresome) teenage surliness aside, it really wasn't fair for him to have to sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living room, next to the kitchen where people woke up early to eat breakfast and talk. It interrupted his sleep and made him grouchy.
  • Second, I am going to try to stick to a minimum of two weeks for vacation. This isn't always easy and calls for me to plan and reserve my vacation time carefully, but one-week vacations are simply too short. You don't feel like you've had any "time off." (To be sure, we did spend a couple of days visiting some of Corinne's friends in Florida before we flew on to Sint Maarten, so this vacation ended up being about a week and a half long. It still felt too short.)

Here's to hoping that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is the current pandemic, and that everybody can have wonderful vacations in 2022. 

Happy New Year!

*Exclusively domestic travel for family vacations also makes sense, given my father's aforementioned mobility issues. When you travel domestically, you can expect most facilities - airports, hotels, museums, etc. - to abide by ADA regulations. Traveling internationally, you can't always expect such accommodations.

After-hours metered parking coming to Midtown

Given Midtown's bustling nightlife scene, this should have been done a long time ago:

A series of proposals from ParkHouston could lead to more metered parking throughout Midtown, extended meter hours and a requirement for some residents to purchase permits to park in front of their homes. Midtown would have what's called a Parking Benefit District that would eventually take portions of the revenue generated and use it on public projects of all kinds.

The city is taking public comment on the proposals, which ends Jan. 15. Anyone wishing to submit a comment can visit the ParkHouston website

On most city streets with meters, paid parking ends at 6 p.m., meaning drivers are able to park for free just about anywhere in the evening hours. Meters in and along Washington Avenue, the River Oaks shopping center on West Gray, Memorial Park and Rice Village operate past 6 p.m. Parking lots underneath downtown's elevated freeways are also metered until 11 p.m.

In September, the city quietly extended metered parking hours to midnight on a block of streets in Midtown bordered by Fannin, Pierce, Bagby and Tuam streets. The recent change came after a city study conducted in February found that street parking was booming well into the night, according to Maria Irshad, assistant director of ParkHouston. 

The area within these streets constitutes the epicenter of Midtown's bar and club scene, and traffic within this area can actually become very congested on Friday and Saturday nights as people search for places to park (although, in my experience, Uber and Lyft drivers stopping in the middle of the street to pick up and drop off passengers probably contributes to congestion as well.) The aim of this change is to increase parking space turnover as well as generate some revenue:

ParkHouston theorizes that by metering parking to midnight on Midtown's most popular streets, it will reduce the number of cars circling for free parking, encourage people to take other modes of transportation and also increase the number of carpools. 

If created, the Midtown Parking Benefit District will take 60 percent of the meters' net revenue after 6 p.m. A board of residents and business owners will decide how to allocate the funds, which can be used for a variety of purposes from increasing pedestrian safety with crosswalks or commissioning public art. A parking benefit district along Washington Avenue created in 2013 used funds to create custom bike racks and pays for off-duty Houston police officers to patrol the roadway, Irshad said. Projects must be made on public property, but the scope is otherwise limited to the imagination of the board. 

Extending metered parking hours into the evenings in busy nightlife districts and directing those parking revenues into parking benefit districts (as opposed to just dumping all parking revenues into the city's general fund) are two recommendations that UCLA professor and The High Cost of Free Parking author Donald Shoup put forth when he spoke at a Kinder Institute webinar at the beginning of the month.

Once this is implemented, I'm sure there will be some whining from Midtown clubgoers who now have to pay for on-street parking that was formerly free. I feel no sympathy for them. Nobody is entitled to a free parking space, especially in places such as Midtown where it is in high demand. Furthermore, it's never been easier to pay for parking: the electronic meters accept credit cards so you don't have to mess with change anymore, and there's also a parking app that works not just in Houston but in hundreds of other cities and towns in the United States. 

I'm a bit more sympathetic to Midtown residents who might be required to purchase annual permits to park along streets affected by the new rules: unlike visitors, they're not parking on Midtown streets by choice. If I'm reading the article correctly, however, annual permits for residents are not going to be part of the initial roll-out. 

On-street parking is a valuable asset, day or night. These new market-based parking rules for Midtown are a no-brainer.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

RIP Richard Rogers

Another one of my favorite architects has shuffled off this mortal coil:
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers, whose landmark buildings include the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the 3 World Trade Center tower in New York and London's Millennium Dome, has died aged 88. Rogers "passed away quietly" on Saturday evening, his representative Matthew Freud of Freud Communications confirmed to CNN on Sunday.

He was one of the most distinctive architects of his generation, with an architectural style that was both instantly recognizable and highly adaptable.
My favorite Rogers building - in fact, one of my favorite buildings overall - is the Lloyd's of London headquarters, which he designed back in the '80s.
In 1986, Rogers, then working as the Richard Rogers Partnership, would complete another famous building in the same style: the Lloyd's of London headquarters. It, too, was heavily criticized at first, but it is now one of the city's most iconic buildings. In 2011, the Lloyd's building received Grade I listed status, making it one of the few modern buildings to receive Britain's most prestigious designation.
Like the Pompidiou Center, the Lloyd's building is an example of "Bowellism" or "inside-out" architecture closely associated with Rogers, wherein normally "internal" facilities such as elevators, stairwells and HVAC ducts are moved to the exterior of the building, in order to a) maximize internal open space and b) make the building more interesting to look at.
The architect also received the Pritzker Prize -- popularly known as the Nobel Prize of architecture -- in 2007. 
Rogers was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. In 1996, he was made a life peer for the Labour Party and created Baron Rogers of Riverside.
Not a bad life. Thank you, Sir Rogers, and rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

American Athletic Conference Championship: #16 Houston 20, #3 Cincinnati 35

The Cougars hang tough with the Bearcats for a half, but a (ticky-tack) pass interference call and a Clayton Tune interception in the third quarter both led to easy Cincinnati touchdowns that swung momentum in the Bearcats' favor. Cincinnati becomes the first "Group of Five" team to reach the College Football Playoff.

The Good: Houston QB Clayton Tune threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Nathaniel Dell was his biggest target, with nine receptions for 152 yards and a score. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon, who had struggled through the season, made both of his field goal attempts. The UH defense shut out the Bearcats on third and fourth down conversion attempts: they were 0-9. The Coogs dominated time of possession, 40 minutes to 20 minutes, proving that...

The Bad: ...time of possession is the most meaningless statistic in football, because Cincinnati's average scoring drive was just a minute and a half long. Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder passed for 190 yards and three touchdowns, while Cincinnati RB Jerome Ford embarrassed the UH defense by rushing for 187 yards (including touchdown runs of 72 and 49 yards). Clayton Tune was intercepted early in the third quarter - the game's only turnover - and was sacked a whopping eight times.The Cinci defense also held the Cougars' running game to under 100 yards and no touchdowns.

What It Means: In order to have won this game, the Cougars would have had to have played flawless football, avoiding any turnovers and limiting big plays by the Bearcats. They were able to do neither against one of the best teams in the nation. That being said, eleven wins and a conference championship game appearance isn't a shabby outcome for the Cougars, and certainly exceeded my expectations for them this season.

(For the record, I also thought that the CFP committee was going to screw Cincinnati out of a playoff berth, and am pleasantly surprised at being proven wrong, although I can't help but wonder what the rankings would have looked like had Oklahoma State gotten that last yard against Baylor on Saturday.)

Cincinnati will play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, with the winner moving on to the national championship game. Houston will face Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl on December 28th. 

The bus driver shortage crisis

Given my profession, I have been well aware of the operator labor problems public transportation agencies are currently facing. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker believes it's a genuine emergency:

I know we’re having a lot of emergencies and it’s hard to keep track, but many US transit agencies are looking at devastating service cuts due to a shortage of bus drivers.  Drivers are quitting or retiring early much faster than agencies can replace them.  One friend told me their agency is losing 10 drivers for every one they hire.

Here in Portland, TriMet is cutting 9% of its service, bigger even than the cuts in the Great Recession.  I’m seeing similar cuts all over the US.

Can you blame the bus drivers?  The job was always hard, and now it’s more dangerous in two ways: People breathe on drivers a lot, not always masked, and the mental health epidemic is showing up in more rudeness and bad behavior.  Worst of all, some US cities are seeing a rise in assaults on drivers.

Meanwhile, there’s been huge growth in delivery jobs, some of which pay decently and don’t involve dealing with people.

I'm seeing this problem locally as well. Local agencies like METRO are struggling to keep their heads above water because they're having trouble finding drivers; as a public agency, it's simply hard for them to compete against the wages and benefits that private delivery companies like Amazon and UPS are currently offering. This means that METRO is unable to add back the service that they had to cut at the beginning of the pandemic as much as they would like. This in turn effects everyone who uses transit - whether it be suburban workers who are beginning to return to the office or "essential" workers who, even during the height of the pandemic, relied on public transportation to get around - because buses come less frequently, are overcrowded, or don't operate at times of day (i.e. late evenings) when people need them. 

Transit faces an uncertain future as it is, with people still wary of being in close quarters on buses and trains and more people working from home. But it's still a critical part of our urban infrastructure that needs to be adequately staffed in order to be effective (and no, driverless buses are not "coming to the rescue" anytime soon). 

Walker has a couple of suggestions for transit riders and concerned citizens alike:

What can you do?  Advocate for funding, but also:

  • Be kind to your bus driver. If you have a moment, watch them in action.  Notice how hard their job is, and how much they have to deal with.  Thank them.
  • Be kind to your transit agency management.  It’s a terrible moment for them.  They’re as horrified as you are by having to cut service.  (You can be kind to them and still be mad at them for some things. But be sure that what you’re mad about is really their fault.  The driver shortage isn’t.)

This advice may sound simplistic, but it’s actually practical.  Kindness is a powerful form of activism.  A lot of it can add up to big change.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

#19 Houston 45, Connecticut 17

The Cougars concluded the 2020 regular season with a trip to Connecticut and had little trouble defeating one of the worst teams in FBS for their eleventh win of the season.

The Good: Clayton Tune threw for 301 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, nor was he sacked. Jake Herslow and Jeremy Singleton both had 100 or more receiving yards, while the UH ground game combined for 160 rushing yards and two scores. The Cougar defense tallied seven sacks and recovered a fumble, while special teams blocked a field goal. 

The Bad: The Cougar offense sputtered early in the game, as they turned the ball over on downs twice. A bad Laine Wilkins punt (four yards!) in the second quarter set up the Huskies' first touchdown. Ike Ogbogu came in for Tune in the fourth quarter and was immediately intercepted for another UConn touchdown. 

Given how bad UConn is, of course, none of these miscues made much of a difference in the outcome of the game.

The Could-Have-Been-Really-Bad: Running back Alton McCaskill was hurt and had to exit the game for the second game in a row. Receiver Nathaniel Dell also took a nasty hit and got knocked out of the game as well. Both are reported to be okay and should play this weekend; however, it goes to show the risks associated with playing what is essentially a meaningless game late in the season.

What It Means: The Cougars have notched at least eleven wins for only the 5th time in program history and currently have the nation's third longest winning streak (behind Georgia and Cincinnati and tied with Louisiana-Lafayette). 

Speaking of Cincinnati, the Coogs now travel to face them for the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday. At stake for Houston is an opportunity to spoil the Bearcats' aspirations for a CFP berth and secure themselves a trip to a New Year's Six bowl.