Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Neros Fiddle

They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned. These days, we have got politicians, security-industry functionaries and reflexively defensive bureaucrats around the globe fiddling while globalized terrorists try to light fires on airplanes - or do anything else they can do to harm innocent people. The attempted bombing on symbolically frought Christmas Day of a Delta/Northwest jetliner near Detroit has brought these home-truths to the fore.

In the United States, the Usual Suspects went into action with the speed of a jet plane going wheels-up from a runway.

The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, embraced plausible deniablity, implausibly claaiming that "the system worked" after courageous passengers and crew stopped the accused terrorist from taking 300 lives. She had to backtrack the very next day. Now, U.S. President Obama is acknowledging that the expensive systems put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. have failed and has ordered a top-to-bottom review.

For their part, the opposition Republican Party used the thwarted attack to verbally whack Obama and his team. Even though, as numerous media reports point out, a Republican Senator, one James DeMint, has blocked a Senate vote on Obama's nominee for head of Homeland Security, Erroll Southers, on the grounds that Southers might allow airport security screeners to join unions. And even though Republican legislators voted against increasing federal funds for airport security just this year. Obama-bashers counter, correctly, that Obama waited until September to nominate his choice to fill the Homeland Security post, vacated back in January. Simultaneously, there is no permanent head of U.S. Customs, either, as the administration has let this important border-security service drift without a steady hand on the rudder.

While all these neros point fingers at each other in an endless circle of blame, Rome - that is to say, the civilized world, and the intricate, vulnerable transport system that makes it possible for that world to function - remains under threat by homicidal fanatics.

It's tempting to just throw up your hands and shrug there's nothing to be done. But we can't just do nothing. There were terrorists well before Sept. 11 and there will be terrorists long after today, but that's no reason to forget about them. They are not forgetting about us. They must be stopped. There are many ideas on how to protect travelers - and commuters, and schoolchildren, and people in markets, and innocents at religious services - from cruel attacks. Some of these ideas contradict each other. We don't yet know what response the world of travel will come up with to counter the latest threats, but we need to consider ideas from everywhere - and not just about new high-tech screening devices but ways of thinking pro-actively.

One of the most lucid voices I have heard is that of Giovanni Bisignani, the director-general and CEO of the International Air Transport Administration, the trade group of 230 airlines.

"Instead of looking for bad things - nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo - security systems need to focus on finding bad people,'' Bisignani said in a Sept. 30 statement from IATA's Geneva headquarters. "Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need. It is time for governments to invest in a process built around a checkpoint of the future that combines the best of screening technology with the best of intelligence-gathering. Such a system would give screeners access to important passenger data to make effective risk assessments. The data are being collected. The technology exists. Industry is supportive.''

This is the kind of wholistic thinking we need.

They say out of crisis comes opportunity. We need to find the opportunity in this crisis, and there is no time to lose in exploiting it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Missing in Action: Common Sense

It is becoming clear in the aftermath of the unsuccessful bombing attempt on an airliner near Detroit on Christmas day that common sense has gone missing in action.

The would-be bomber, a 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim radical, was on a watchlist after his father alerted U.S. and Nigerian authoritites about him, yet his name wasn't placed on a no-fly list.

British authorities refused to extend his student visa and barred him from entering the United Kingdom, where he studied engineering, yet there was evidently no communication about the man between U.S. and U.K. security. Another fauilure to connect the dots? Looks like.

Before boarding the threatened Delta/Northwest flight in Amsterdam, the accused bought his ticket with cash and had only a small carry-on bag. Should this not have raised a red flag, prompting additional screening? I think so. Twice, when I bought one-way tickets in the U.S., I have received additional airport screening as a matter of course.

With an explosive device concealed in his underwear, the accused managed to pass through security and board the plane. What happened to all the elaborate security checks?

Now, in the aftermath of the foiled attack, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has issued a set of regulations that include several provisions that simply boggle the mind. (, "TSA Guidelines for Passengers on Heightened Security Measures in Place Following Dec. 25 Incident.'')

Reaching the apex of reactive thinking, TSA has - in the sort-term, at least - given captains authority to ban movement around the cabin during the last hour of international U.S.-bound flights. Why? Because the apprehended terrorist made his move when his plane was being readied for landing. Could another terrorist not take action during another part of the flight?

Media reports say some airlines - apparently confused about what the TSA's new directives mean - suspended in-flight entertainment programs, including some programs on long-haul, trans-oceanic flights, when entertainment is badly needed. In-flight maps were not shown. Could a terrorist not simply look at his watch or look out the window to see where the plane is?

The last-hour stay-in-your-seat directive could be especially difficult for parents of young children to implement, could it not? Don't wee ones often have to use the bathroom?

Some U.S. airlines and non-American carriers with U.S.-bound flights have stopped passengers from using their laptop computers in-flight or made them put their laptops away during that all-important last hour. Doesn't this restrict legitimate business travelers who need to work en route? Will this hurt already ailing airlines even more by convincing bosses that staying on the ground is better than sending employees on business trips?

Word comes, too, that TSA and some airlines are limiting passengrs to just one small carry-on bag; all other bags have to be checked. Will this eliminate the threat of terrorism in cargo bins? Less critically - but still of interest - will stepped-up requirements to check bags cost travelers more money? Don't most airlines now charge extra fees for checking bags, rather than adopt the unpopular but common-sense policy of simply and cleanly raising fares?

There is evidence that TSA and individual airlines are relaxing some of the more inane aspects of the new rules after being very tight over the Christmas holiday weekend. We, as travelers, have to hope for a return to common sense when it comes to fighting the menace posed by fanatics who would bring harm to travelers and others. Safety and security in airplanes and airports is crucial; achieving it, however, won't come about by abandoning sound reasoning.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

After Detroit: The Way We Fly Now

Many details remain to be discovered about the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Delta Air Lines/Northwest flight in Detroit, but one thing is perfectly clear: Travel and tourism in general, and civil aviation in particular, remain high-priority targets for globalized terrorists.

The latest murderous Islamic militant - identified in media reports as a 23-year-old Nigerian man who boarded the threatened plane in Amsterdam - to target innocent travelers was thwarted by alert passengers when he attempted to detonate an explosive device during landing at Detroit's international airport. Good on them. And shame on airport security officials who missed a chance to nab this would-be mass murderer while still on the ground. It's back to the drawing board for them, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

I have flown out of Amsterdam Schiphol airport, which has tougher security screening than most world airports. It was here that the would-be bomber, traveling originally from Lagos, Nigeria, changed planes for the United States. Passengers are screened again at the departure gate in Schipol airport just before boarding their flights. Additionally, the airport is testing whole-body X-ray screening machines that are said to be more sensitive in detecting objects concealed on the body than are other technologies. It's not clear at this writing whether the attacker passed through the latest high-tech screener or how he evaded other security measures.

In the short-term, the take-away for travelers heading to or from the United States is this: Travel will be slower and additional layers of airport and airline security - not all of them visible - will be in place, accounting for delays and frustrations. Understand and expect this.

This heightened security means that air travelers should leave for the airport earlier, be patient and expect their luggage and their person to be searched more thoroughly than in the recent past. Several airline Web sites - notably, Air Canada's site - have said U.S.-bound passengers should take just one carry-on bag onboard their flights, put away all bags, including laptops, during the final hour of flight, and say buckled in their seats during the last hour before landing. Air Canada cites the U.S. Transportation Security Administration for the rules changes, though the TSA as of this moment has not acknowledged making these requests.

Tighter security will certainly stay in place throughout the year-end holiday season, and probably beyond. Expect security to spike again if and when - and it's probably when - another incident occurs, and again during the busy summer travel season in the New Year.

It's sad and sometimes scary, but there it is. Some politicized religious fanatics still believe that the end justifies the means, and they are still doing their utmost to distrupt travel and cause as much harm as they can in the process. Don't let this stop you from traveling, but do take common-sense security precautions. After Detroit, this is the way we fly now.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Armstrong's First Law of Luggage

The First Law of Luggage when it comes to air travel is this: Don't check any bags. Not ever. Not if you can possibly help it. Not with any airline on any flight at any airport.

Sure, you will have to wrestle your bags into the overhead compartment or squeeze them under the seat in front of you, but you won't have to pay the baggage-checking fees that U.S. and some European carriers charge, and you won't run the risk of having your luggage lost or delayed.

I was reminded of this iron law of travel today when, perusing Twitter, I saw a tweet from someone I know. Flying home to Scotland for the holidays, he discovered his checked bags have gone missing - with all the Christmas presents he was merrily taking home from the United States. "Thank you, British Airways,'' he wrote, clearly exasperated.

In his case, the errant airline was BA, but it could be pretty much anyone. As more travelers travel with more bags, some bags are bound to be misrouted or even lost for good.

Even if a bag isn't lost or delayed, paying an airline to check them can get expensive. Given passengers' reluctance to accept higher fares, airlines - especially in the United States - have decided to charge extra fees for more and more services, such as changing seats, getting more legroom and checking bags. In the third quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airline fees topped $2 billion on U.S. carriers, up 36 percent from the same period in 2008. Cash-strapped airlines defend the fees by saying they are for 'bespoke' services and are democractic: people who use designated services pay fees, others don't.

There are a few bright - or brightening - spots in this otherwise gloomy picture. The International Air Transport Association recently commended Germany's Frankfurt International Airport and Lufthansa for improving their handling of luggage, for example.

A Lufthansa press statement explained how Frankfurt - which I find generally a dim and overcrowded place, bursting at the seams - has managed to improve its baggage performance, at least with Lufthansa.

"The IATA inspectors were particularly impressed by achievements in the transfer of time-critical baggage for passengers in transit, who account for a considerable 70 percent of Lufthansa's passenger volume at Frankfurt, its largest hub. On the basis of up-to-the-minute flight data and the passenger's itinerary, Lufthansa identifies very short transfer times ... Baggage items belonging to affected passengers are then not fed into the baggage conveyor system as usual, but instead are collected directly from the incoming flight by staff, who then take them by car to the connecting flight. Up to 1,500 bags per day thus make their connection in time.''

So, things can get better when it comes to luggage, and sometimes do. In general, however, Armstrong's First Law of Luggage holds true: If you have a choice in the matter, don't check anything, anytime, anywhere.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where's (the) Justice?

Today's opinion by the U.S. Department of Justice opposing giving antitrust immunity to American Airlines, British Airways and three smaller memberts of the oneworld alliance of airlines stands on shaky ground. Similar immunity - which allows airlines to cooperate by coordinating flight schedules, fares and marketing and allowing travelers to move more smoothly from one carrier's routes to another - has already been granted to members of the two other alliances, SkyTeam and Star Alliance.

American and BA have attempted to expand their association twice before this decade, but backed off when U.S. authorities wanted them to give up coveted landing slots at London's busy Heathrow airport in exchange for antitrust immunity. Since then, the airlines argue, a U.S.-E.U. open-skies pact, which has opened up trans-Atlantic travel and Heathrow slots to previously excluded competitors, has rendered this objection moot. Still, Justice disagrees.

It's hard to see what the grounds are for this objection, in an era in which competition between the three big airline alliances is replacing competition between individual airlines. The global alliances may not themselves be permanent fixtures on the international aviation scene, but until national governments around the world lower the barriers to foreign ownership and cross-border mergers between airlines, alliances are likely to be important players.

Justice's position may not matter anyway, as the U.S. Department of Transportation has the final say on AA, BA and partner airlines Spain's Iberia, Finland's Finnair and Royal Jordanian's proposal. All are oneworld members. According to media reports, DOT has put off making its decision, originally expected in October, so it could hash things out with the Justice Department.

Given the double standard employed by U.S. regulators, it's hard to see a compelling reason why DOT shouldn't grant antitrust immunity, as requested. Anything that can promote greater ease of travel for passengers and help airlines shore up their finances in the grip of a stubborn and deep global recession sounds reasonable.

First steps Toward Dealing with Flight Delays

After a decade of warnings from Congress and unkept promises by airlines to reform, the U.S. Department of Transportation said today it will impose rules intended to ease the discomfort of air travelers in the United States whose planes are stranded on the tarmac.

Beginning in 120 days - late April 2010 - airlines operating domestic U.S. flights will have to let passengers whose planes have sat on the tarmac for at least three hours get off the planes and go back to the airport terminal if they want to, or require the pilot to take the aircraft back to the gate. On flights held on the runway or taxiway for at least two hours, airlines will be required to provide food and water, operable toilets and medical attention if necessary. Carriers in violation of the new rule, announced Dec. 21 by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

According to DOT statistics, aan average of 1,500 domestic U.S. flights per year, carrying about 114,000 passengers, have sat on the tarmac for at least three hours, awaiting take-off.

This is a big first step toward a creating a "passengers' bill of rights'' of the type that has been mooted over and over since the late 1990s. In recent years, such notions have drawn bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, most notably from Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California) and Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican-Maine).

There are exceptions written into the just-announced rules. If air-traffic controllers think that deplaning passengers or driving the plane back to the gate would interfere with with the safety and security of airport operations, they can waive the rules and keep the plane waiting.

U.S. commercial carriers have long opposed such regulation and punishment, arguing that flight delays and cancellations are caused by congested airspace, an antiquated U.S. air-traffic control system, bad weather and other things beyond their control.

In line with this, James C. May, the tough-talking head of the U.S.'s major airline trade association, the Air Transport Association, issued this terse statement:

"We will comply with the new rule, even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences - more cancelled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible. Lengthy delays benefit no one.''

The airlines are not wholly wrong. Many things contribute to flight delays and cancellations. Moreover, the new rules still leave a number of wrinkles that need to be ironed out.

Supporters of stricter rules recognize this, but they argue that years of debate and delay in rectifying delays is enough.

Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, backs the rules change while allowing it will take time to make it work: "All passengers will benefit from the requirement that airlines must provide food, water, operable lavatories and medical attention as needed.''

Even so, Mitchell notes that "it simply will not work at the three New York City area airports, and other over-scheduled major hubs, unless incumbent airlines rationalize and de-peak their schedules and operations. Each airline will have to look at their entire system and restructure or they will violate the new rule virtually every day.''

Not only the airlines, but also DOT, is getting advice from U.S. aviation-watchers, such as the Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney:

"In addition to forcing airlines to live within a three-hour cap, the DOT needs to put air-traffic controll procedures (in place) to help airlines deplane passengers without major distruption or penalty. Controllers need to be able to move planes around to get stranded planes out of a conga line of jets if necessary.'' Moreover, he wrote, "Work rules for pilots need to be clear so that a crew that returns to a gate doesn't simply time-out because it returned to a gate. And airlines need to come up with busing plans, with the help of airports and the Federal Aviation Administration, so that passengers who want off a jet can get off without further delaying the people on the plane who still want to go.''

The upshot: It's going to take a while to solve this problem, and it may get worse (shudder!) before it gets better. Still, all this attention - not to mention the threat of fines that could run into the millions - will concentrate the minds of airline and airport executives.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen, Global Warming and Travel

The Copenhagen talks on climate change ended Friday not with a bang but a whimper.

The talks resulted in a watered-down pact, no emissions targets and no serious guidance for how the travel industry should go about reducing its contribution to global warming. This is not unexpected after two weeks of posturing and bickering by the world's political leaders, but it is a pity, as it only delays the inevitable changes we need to make to reduce harm to the planet.

Heading into the long-planned talks in the Danish capital, industry figures, politicians and environmentalists speculated that an emissions tax on civil aviation and commercial shipping - which together account for 8 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions - could be part of a deal. The tax would be levied on countries that don't meet emission-reduction targets. This, in turn, was envisioned as a way of generating up to a third of the $100 million annually that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said is needed in the form of subsides from rich countries to poor countries, helping the developing world to reduce its share of emissions.

"This is a two-fer,'' said Lou Leonard, director of U.S. climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 18. "We can close a loophole in greenhouse gas controls, and we can also unlock the climate finance deadlock.''

Didn't happen.

Many travel industry leaders think it shouldn't have happened, although there is now a broad consensus that emissions need to be reduced, and a widespread belief that the travel industry needs to do its share. Aircraft, cruise ships, buses, cars and to a lesser extent trains contribute to global warming.

The travel-biz, hard-hit by the Great Recession, supports targets but not taxes. A prominent point man for this position, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group - which owns Virgin Atlantic Airways and has a 25 percent stake in the U.S. carrier Virgin America - put it this way in a Dec. 17 interview with the British Web site

"The airline industry wants to see targets set ... so that we know where we stand and we can get on with it and make sure this world is back on track again.''

"The problem with a tax is where does the money go?'' Branson said. "And if you strip money from the airlines, then they will have less to invest in new planes and new technology.''

Branson advocates the development of biofuels to replace oil-based jetfuel and supports construction of airplanes made from light composite plastic material instead of metal; such planes burn less fuel and thus generate less CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The airline industry, though often vilified for its highly visible role in emitting emissions, has reduced its pollution per plane since the 1990s. Problem is, passenger air travel is growing so fast around the world, the aviation industry's pollution total is still going up. Civil aviation produces 2 percent of today's greenhouse gases, according to the International Air Transport Association, the global airline-industry trade group. In a decade or so, that percentage will rise to 3 percent unless something is done.

Airlines and aircraft-makers are jetting out ahead of cruise-ships, tour buses and other modes of travel when it comes to reducing emissions. Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, SAS and others have carried out test flights with biofuels, though such experiments are in the early stages.

"At the moment, you only have OPEC to buy your fuel from,'' said Branson, referring to the heavyweight cartel of oil-producing nations. Such states are often led by by petro-dictators, like those in Iran, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Russia. "That's it, there's no competitor. If you develop a clean fuel made of algae or butanol, then there is a clean alternative,'' Branson told

Absent a decision in Copenhagen, emissions reduction targets - and maybe carbon taxes - could still be introduced next year. Follow-up climate talks are scheduled for 2010 in Mexico City. Targets could also be set by bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Even then, I suspect the travel biz would prefer reducing emissions to paying an extra tax that sounds good but may not be anything of the sort.

Consider another remark by the WWF's Leonard, quoted in the L.A. Times:

"Aviation is an industry that serves the upper classes. So, placing a global cap is appropriate, so long as the finds are used to help poor countries.''

Reading that, I wondered if Leonard has taken an airplane in the last few decades. Far from being the preserve of the upper classes - as it assuredly was back in the early days of commercial flight - flying is a form of mass transportation in much of the world. You are just as likely to have a schoolteacher or a postal clerk sitting next to you as a banker or socialite; many of the latter now fly in private planes, not on commercial airlines.

Lacking leadership from the world's heads of state, there are things travel biz types can do.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 17, David Cush, the president and CEO of Virgin America, addressed needed changes in U.S. aviation. Writing with think-tanker Mindy Lubber, Cush observed:

"A congressional upgrade of our aging air-traffic system with the Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen program would effectively create high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the sky. More technologically advanced airlines that can be more effiiciently operated should not have to wait behind older, less sophisticated jets on approach or takeoff. It is estimated that this move could save almost 1 billion gallons of fuel, cut massive amounts of CO2 emissions, and reduce delays by one-third at our nation's most congested airports by 2018.''

It would be a start.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How to Avoid Holiday Travel Hell

I'm not traveling this holiday season. In fact, I rarely travel during any end-of-the-year holidays in any year, as that's the time when travel snafus are apt to be the worst. It is, as we know, the time of delayed and cancelled flights, traffic jams, rotten weather, heaving, sweating crowds in airports, congested skies and jam-packed planes idling on the tarmac. So, I feel for you if you are traveling next week or the week after.

There are some things you can do to lessen the stress, particularly if, like many travelers, you will be flying to see loved ones or to take that special holiday vacation. Here are things that work for me, not just at holiday time, but anytime:

Don't check your luggage. Not any. Not if you can help it. More airlines charging more money for baggage checking fees this year - the fees are a revenue stream and the airlines are still losing money - make this an expensive proposition. Pack smart, pack light and carry it on if you can. Here's a bonus: If you haven't checked anything, you can skip out of those boring waits at the baggage carousel, leave the airport and be on your merry way.

Got presents? Consider shipping them ahead. If you do put gifts in your checked luggage or carry gifts with you for storage in the overhead bin, don't wrap them. Airport security may make you take off all those pretty ribbons and bows so they can peer inside.

Speaking of security, if you are traveling in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration - in a bid to cut down on 'false-positives' on the terrorist watch-list - is phasing in a new program called Secure Flight. The TSA now wants the name on your boarding pass to match the name on your identification - driver's license, passport, whatever - exactly, letter by letter. It's not being enforced strictly yet, but don't take any chances - check your primary ID and make sure you make your flight reservation under the exact same name. Is your frequent flier enrollment under even a slightly different name? Go back and correct it.

Check in online and print out your boarding pass. It will make you less likely to be involuntarily bumped if the flight is overbooked; latecomers who haven't checked-in get bumped first.

Sign up for flight alerts to your mobile device or computer. Most airlines will give you a heads up about changes, as will some commercial booking sites and services, like and, in the form of a text message or an e-mail.

If your flight is long-delayed or cancelled, know your rights. If it's the carrier's fault - an aircraft mechanical failure, say - the airline must issue you a cash stipend, not a travel voucher. The errant airline is also responsible for helping find you a hotel room if necessary and ponying up some meal money. If it's not the airline's fault - heavy weather, say - they owe you nothing.

If they ask for volunteers to take a later flight, make sure it's not standby. If you are confirmed on the next scheduled flight - and the next flight is soon or at least that same day - fine. Want to check flight schedules yourself, to review your options? I like, which presents airline flight schedules.

Stuck in the airport for an appallingly long time? If you don't have access to a first-or business-class lounge, buy a day pass to an airport lounge. Time passes faster and more pleasantly when you have snacks and drinks and a decent chair to sit in.

Oh, another thing: it may sound obvious, but make sure you have the phone numbers for your airline, several big hotel brands and your travel agent, if you used one. Program the contact numbers into your mobile device, or do it the time-honored way: Write them down.

Finally, if things go badly anyway, consider reporting the problem to regulatory authorities. In the U.S., consumer complaints can be sent to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up in the Air, at Last

Finally, today, more than 2 years late, Boeing Co. pilots flew the company's B787 Dreamliner on its first test flight. It lasted only three hours and the aircraft didn't travel far from Boeing airfields near Seattle, but, hey, it's a start. The composite material, lightweight, fuel-efficient jetliner, which Boeing touts as an aviation game-changer, is aloft at last.

In 2007, when Boeing unveiled the aircraft on the ground, it was metaphorically held together with string and glue, and had to be disassembled after visiting dignitaries, potential customers and others cast their eyes on the prototype and rebuilt. Boeing took orders for more than 800 of the new planes, but repeated delays in production - initial delivery, set for early 2008, has been postponed five times - caused some airlines to cancel or curtail their orders. Of course, the recession has prompted airlines to cut back broadly on aircraft orders, not just for the 787.

But the plane can fly. There was no question it would fly eventually; the only question was when. Launch customer All Nippon Airways, the Japanese carrier, ordered more than 50 B787s and planed to use its first-user advantage to fly them to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The delays cost ANA that marketing coup, but the airline has presumably saved a bundle of yen on refunds, on top of the discounts off list prices it originally negotiated as the launch customer.

ANA now expects to take the first deliveries of the 787 toward the end of 2010. In a statement Tuesday, the company gamely tried to sound encouraged, and encouraging:

"We would like to convey our sincere congratulations and are delighted to hear this awaited news of the success of the first flight. We will keep on taking all possible measures to ensure our preparation in receiving the new aircraft.''

And hope it actually gets there next year. ANA has been through the wringer waiting.

As it is, Boeing - which outsourced many parts and processes to international contractors - has taken a hit to its reputation for efficiency. But then, so has arch-rival Airbus, whose own composite, fuel-efficient plane, the A350, has also been beset with delays and is several years away from taking to the sky.

Breakthroughs - "game-changers'' is the current business buzz-word - are tricky things, and are fatal to corporate hubris.

Monday, December 14, 2009


So, Japan and the United States have finally agreed to agree on an open-skies pact after a decade of on-again, off-again negotiations. If antitrust regulators are satisfied with the deal, it will go into effect next year, opening up landing slots at major airports on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, and offer more choices for consumers.

The often-delayed agreement came about in spite of the strenuous objections of, most notably, Delta Air Lines, which inherited a number of lucrative landing slots at Tokyo's Narita International Airport when it swallowed Northwest Airlines. With United Airlines as the only other major U.S. carrier bidding for trans-Pacific trade with Delta and the big Japanese carriers Air Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, Delta wanted to keep American Airlines and other potential U.S. rivals out of the market. The open-skies pact will let them in.

As is so often the case in the corporate world, executives in the airline industry sing paeans to the joys of competition and the glory of the free market. Then, they get some actual competition, and when that happens, they change their tune. In this case, what is bad for airlines that fear open competition is good for travelers. More flights, more carriers and hopefully lower fares should come about thanks to the coming open-skies deal, with its liberalized rules

Friday, December 11, 2009

Read All About It: SAS Crew Guide 2010

I have written before about the SAS Crew Guide, an airline insiders' book of travel tips that's updated, coordinated and published every year by Scandinavian Airlines. Well, the latest, 6th edition of the guide, the 2010 version, is out. It's worth the 15 euros (about $22 U.S.) that SAS charges for a copy (

The Crew Guide is a compact paperback, small enough to fit into a pocket or a purse. It contains the personal recommendations of several hundred well-traveled crew members - chiefly, flight attendants, pilots and pursers - at SAS and seven other airlines, including Air Canada, Austrian Airlines and TAP Portugal. The new edition covers 22 international cities, in Europe, North America and Asia. Recommendations are bite-sized: a single sentence to a paragraph or two, and cover places to eat, shop and play (the latter usually clubs and discos). I have used earlier editions of the book on my travels and found them useful.

The 2010 edition has some new wrinkles. It starts off with top 5 picks in 20 categories - outdoor terrace, high-altitude city views, Vienna-style coffeeshops, and more - the "100 new tips'' touted on the cover. The destinations tend to closely track the SAS route structure; thus, great cities like Tokyo - which went missing this year - and good ones like Seattle, which SAS no longer serves, are no longer included. Pity. But many terrific cities are included, among them London, New York, Paris, Stockholm and next year's Olympic city, Vancouver.

I am a well-traveled fellow myself and I am a guidebook author, both of which mean I am opinionated, like the contributors to the Crew Guide. In my opinion, the Crew Guide gives far more attention than it should to New York City - 44 pages, nearly double runner-up Bangkok's 24 pages and absurdly more than Chicago's 10 and Berlin's inexcusably skimpy four. One featured destination, Canada's beautiful and enjoyable Vancouver Island, is not a city.

So, I have some quibbles. But then, as the author or co-author of five books, I well understand that no book can please everyone. This book reflects its contributors' tastes, and they have come up with plenty of good leads to entertain, instruct and guide. Besides, you have to savor a book that revels in the quirky particularity of both its contributors and its subjects:

"Absolutely the best cakes in Scandinavia,'' asserts Theis Fabech J, air host for SAS, in an endorsement of Copenhagen's Dessertdragens Kagevaerksted ( "Both traditional and very untraditional cakes. You can have everything from brownies to cheesecake with cucumber, depending on the day and the mood of the owner.''

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Will Registered Traveler Return?

There's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, but what about an idea whose time has come and gone?

This could well be the situation that registered-traveler programs - a way of fast-tracking frequent fliers through airport security checks in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -now face. This, despite today's announcement that the sole surviving RT provider (out of three) has agreed to partner with a corporate and government biometric ID provider that will allow consumers to enroll in an RT program at places other than airports, starting in January.

Pasadena's FLO Corp., that self-same survivor, struck a deal with Chantilly, Vir.-based Cogent Systems to use Cogent's 1,000 physical locations to enroll travelers in FLO's RT program. FLO claims in a Dec. 10 press release that 200,000 people signed up at $100 to $200 a pop, per year, "over the last several years ...'' The release doesn't say where those 1,000 new locations are, and a visit to Cogent's Web site hasn't turned up their locations, either. I haven't seen any flashing neon signs reading "RT enrollment here,'' so this is still a matter of some interest. Cogent does business with numerous U.S., state and local government agencies, and with corporations, providing palm-and-fingerprint electronic reads to establish a person's identity.

Registered traveler, which took several years to barely get off the ground after 2001, nearly vaporized in June 2009, when the largest RT vendor, Verified Identity Pass's CLEAR, ran out of money and shut down. Only a handful of U.S. airports participated in any version of RT, so in theory providing 1,000 new places to enroll - wherever they are - and accelerating FLO's efforts could speed RT's return.

But then again, maybe not. All this begs the question of whether travelers want RT, and are willing to pay for it. Originally conceived as a way of whisking trusted fliers past airport security hassles with a minimum of muss and fuss (after they passed background checks and provided their biometerics), the programs evolved - or did they devolve? - from security nets to concierge services. Commercial RT programs took paying members to the front of the security line, but did little else. Members still had to remove their belts, take out their laptops, take off their shoes and do everything other travelers have to do at stressful U.S. airports.

Moreover, much of what an RT program does is done already by many airlines for premium customers - and at no extra charge. For instance, when I departed Mumbai airport last month on Egyptair, I was walked right up to the check-in desk and whisked through airport security in a separate line because I was flying business class. A similar thing happened to me in September at San Francisco International Airport, when I departed for Hong Kong aboard Cathay Pacific Airways, again in business class. A Cathay employee walked me to security, hoisted my luggage onto the conveyor belt at the X-ray machine, helped me re-pack on the other side of security, then walked me to the business lounge, chatting pleasantly.

RT programs may yet revive in the U.S. and make a go of it as some kind of "bespoke'' customer service, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Most people see them as costly and superfluous, and there's a good chance that perception will hold.

Heads Up: Two Air Fare Flash Sales

If you are interested in holiday and winter travel, there are some good deals out there for flights within the United States and across the Atlantic - the latter in business class. But you'll have to move quickly to take advantage of them.

Up until midnight EST on Thursday, Dec. 10, American Airlines is pushing a short-lived economy-class fare sale on its U.S. domestic network. One-way fares based on a round-trip purchase include fares such as: Philadelphia-Miami from $64; Chicago-New Orleans from $89; Los Angeles-Orlando from $129. Tickets must be booked on the airline's Web site, What does 'from' mean? It means listed fares don't include taxes and fees, which will boost the total a little. Also, the lowest listed fares apply only to designated days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Fares have been lowered on other days, too, just not as much. The sale is good for travel through March 10, 2010. There are blackout dates, namely: Dec. 18-20, Dec. 22-30, Jan. 2 and 3, Feb. 12 and 13, Feb. 15 and Feb. 20 and 21. For more info, go to

Leading German carrier Lufthansa has also got a brief - i.e. flash - sale on offer. It is discounting trans-Atlantic business-class fares until Friday, Dec. 11, and the informative bargain-hunting site Travelzoo says fares have been slashed by as much as 70 percent on selected routes. Sample one-way fares include: Boston-Lisbon, $782; Detroit-London, $1,069; Miami-Amsterdam, $1,082. I have flown Lufthansa in business class (and in economy class, as well), and while it doesn't have all the latest bells and whistles of the premium Asian carriers, it is comfortable and well-run. For details, go to Travel dates in this sale is for departures from Dec. 23 to Jan.1, with returns by Jan. 9.

These two quickie sales sound good to me. But, as always, conduct your due diligence and read the fine print. And if you do book, happy travels.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Open-Skies Should be Good for Travelers

Japanese and U.S. negotiators are beavering-away this week in Washington, D.C., trying to nail down the final details of an open-skies agreement between the United States and Japan. Travelers should hope they succeed. An open-skies agreement would liberalize the rules governing aviation between Japan and the U.S., potentially benefiting passengers.

New rules would allow greater access to trans-Pacific routes and give U.S. and Japanese airlines access to more airports, offering travelers more choices of airlines, flights, destinations - and, in theory, lower fares.

Under rules written shortly after World War II, Japan's erstwhile national flag carrier, Japan Airlines, and its major rival, All Nippon Airways, have been granted access to selected U.S. airports. Delta Air Lines (by buying Northwest) and United Airlines (by buying old Pan American Airways routes) control lucrative landing slots at Tokyo's Narita International Airport. They are the only two U.S.-based passenger airlines legally permitted to operate there in a big way. Open-skies would allow more airlines to become major players and increase competition.

A far-reaching pact could also clear the way for antitrust immunity for global airlines that want to hook-up and forge code-share arrangements, fly customers on each other's planes, use each other's airport lounges and send people onward on each other's routes. This would, for example, permit an American business traveler to fly to Tokyo Narita airport on-board American Airlines, then onward into the hinterlands of China on AA partner airline JAL.

This can all get a little technical and wonky, to be sure. But if an open-skies pact is signed - media reports predict a deal as early as this week - a more-seamless travel experience on both long-haul routes over the Pacific and short-haul flights within Asia and the U.S. could result. Any open-skies deal will have to be struck by government officials, as governments - not airlines or airports - write the laws governing international aviation.

While the deal-makers haggle in Washington, the airlines, too, are busy trying to tweak the system. With most nation-states casting a cold eye on trans-border airline mergers, for reasons of national prestige and national security, bilateral competition between airlines is evolving to become a competition between the world's three major airline alliances.

JAL, for example, is a member of the oneworld alliance, which also includes American Airlines and British Airways. Oneworld greatly values JAL, as the Japanese carrier has superb connections in fast-growing Asian markets. Rival airline alliance SkyTeam has offered a billion-dollar (U.S.) aid package to JAL to lure the airline to SkyTeam, led by Delta and Air France/KLM. Star Alliance, the largest of the three global airline alliances, counts Japan's ANA as a member. Fellow Star member United is seeking anti-trust immunity from U.S. and Japanese authorities so it can work more closely with ANA.

So, the wheeling and dealing is intensifing in both the private and the public sectors, all at once.

JAL is key to how all this plays out. Once government-owned, JAL is now a private company. It is struggling due to the downturn in the global economy and staggering under enormous debt and pension obligations. Media reports in Japan say the Japanese government is considering giving a financial aid package to JAL, to keep the carrier flying, and that the package approaches $8 billion (U.S.). Like open-skies, this deal isn't done yet. Should Tokyo come up with an aid package, it will be the fourth time since 2001 that the Japanese government has funneled public funds to JAL.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cash is King - Still

When you live in my part of the world - urban North America - it's easy to believe that the long-promised cashless society so beloved of futurists has arrived. I can charge a $4 latte at Starbucks with a credit card in the United States and Canada, so I half-believed I could travel without cash - well, with some cash, but only a little - when I went around the world recently.

Mistake. Cash is king - still - in much of the world. Credit cards, even debit cards, are still not used or really trusted in many places, even some places in western Europe, where globalization and modernity reign most of the time. Not fully understanding that millions of the world's merchants still fervently believe in metal and scrip, I withdrew just $300 U.S. from my bank before embarking on my 28-day trip to four continents. That's plenty, I reckoned.

Things started out fine in New Zealand and Singapore, where plastic and digital numbers flashing on a screen are standard-issue legal tender. But they started going downhill fast in India, then in Eygpt, and even in Rome, Barcelona and Lisbon, where it was cash, baby, and don't try to tell me that little rectangular piece of plastic in your wallet is money.

Cab drivers were especially resistant to credit. A cabbie in Barcelona pretended to swipe my American Express card, then my Visa card, and wouldn't let me do it when I saw he was faking it, pretending the cards didn't work A taxi in Barcelona was plastered with credit-card decals but when I proferred a credit card to pay the fare, the driver wouldn't take it. Ditto in Lisbon, where multilingual signs in my taxi assured passengers we could conveniently use our international credit cards -then the driver told me his reader was "broken.'' In a cafe, also in Lisbon, a waiter called over the manager when I pulled out my credit card and he produced a card-swiper, then seemed not to know the difference between a credit card and a debit card when we half-talked, half-pantomimed in English and Portuguese. I dug into my pocket for euros to pay the bill.

By the time I got to London, my cash on hand was nearly nil. There are plenty of international automated teller machines there, of course, so withdrawing more cash is entirely possible. But Londontown loves plastic, so I was able to charge most anything, even 5 pound (about $8 U.S.) repasts at the fine fresh-cut sandwich and salad chain Pret a Manger. Ditto in Manhattan. At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, when I arrived curbside, my cabbie told me his card-reader wasn't working. I had $60. I handed it to him and walked to Departures with less than a buck in my pocket, which is what I had when I arrived home in California.

The moral of the story: Take enough cash with you, and make sure you have ready access on the road to ATMs you can readily access, because cash is king. Even now. Even in the 21st Century in much of our shrinking world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Award-winning Airlines, Zagat Department

There are but a handful of more over-used words in the English language than "award-winning.'' I'm award-winning, you're award-winning, we're all award-winning. Still, there is undeniably a feel-good factor in winning an award, and some awards do mean something: The Nobel Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur 'genius' grant, and some others.

In the travel and entertainment fields, the Zagat Awards mean something - along with awards from Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Global Traveler and a few others. Starting out by publishing grassrootsy dining guides written by ordinary people, Zagat in effect anticipated the user-written reviews now found everywhere on the Net. In the meantime, Zagat has grown into something of a media empire - an empire that gives out awards, of course.

All of which brings us to Zagat's 2009 Airline Survey of passengers and travel agents. The results were recently announced, and the winner is - the envelope, please - Singapore Airlines, which won for best international carrier, as well as for best premium class and best economy class. No surprise; Singapore wins a lot of awards, partly because the airline is indeed very good and partly because it carries a halo effect and voters automatically think of Singapore.

Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates Airways tied for second in premium class, with Emirates also winning second for its economy class service. Virgin Atlantic Airways and Air New Zealand deadlocked for third in premium class, with All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand and Thai Airways bunching up at third for economy class.

"The 2009 Airline Survey ... covered 73 international airlines and 16 domestic U.S. carriers, rating premium and economy classes on a 30-point scale, covering factors such as comfort, food, in-flight entertainment and luggage polices,'' Zagat said in a statement.

The top U.S. carrier? Continental Airlines, though it scored only 15 points on the 30-point scale. I recently flew from London to New York with Continental. I liked the airline, but its relatively anemic Zagat score shows - accurately, I think, due to aging fleets and flawed customer service - just how far even the best U.S. carriers have fallen compared to the world's best.

In a statement announcing the airline awards, Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey, sought to explain the low scores of Continental - and lower scores by other U.S. carriers - thusly:

"The newer airlines continue to do well in the survey. Being less expensive to operate, they can therefore afford to provide better service.''

With all due respect to Tim Zagat and his company's accomplishments, I don't think so.

Being new isn't the reason for success - as shown by the overall winner. Singapore Airlines traces its roots to 1947. It became known by its present name in 1972, when it hived off from Malaysian Airlines. The carrier is nearly 40 years old by the most conservative estimate.

Cathay Pacific? Founded in 1946. ANA? Almost as old. Virgin Atlantic? It's been flying since the 1980s. Air New Zealand is not new, nor is Thai. The only young carrier in the winners' circle is Emirates, and Emirates is unusual because it is owned and subsidized by the government of Dubai and fueled by petrodollars - hardly a common business model.

No, the reason some airlines please customers much more than other airlines do has little to do with age. It's because they want to please customers. They make customer service a priority and they work at it. Having adequate funding always helps, to be sure, but staff training, staff attitudes and management priorities shape airlines - and every other business.

That's the secret of success in the travel field - and it's an open secret.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance II

As I mentioned in my previous post, I just finished taking a round-the-world trip on board eight Star Alliance member airlines. I booked the journey at, the Web site of this global airline alliance - the largest of the world's three airline groupings, with more than 20 members. The story of what happened on my 28-day trek is detailed in my last 49 posts.

What I want to do now is tell travelers how they can go about booking trips of their own.

You can book a RTW trip through individual airlines and travel agents, to be sure. But if you are comfortable on the Internet, the entire process can now be done online, a change that Star Alliance effected in July.

My advice to travelers wishing to do this is to, first and foremost, have a reasonably clear idea about where you want to do before signing on. This will speed up the process considerably, as there are pivotal decisions to be made, and you want to keep moving forward. I knew where I wanted to go. I booked the trip, down to dotting the I's and crossing the T's, in just under two hours. Net-smart people can probably do it faster.

So, sign on to and click on 'book and fly' on the lower right of the home age, then click on 'start now,' which brings up the next page.

Here, you can access links to FAQ in boxed text on the right side of the page. When you've done that, click on 'book a RTW journey' and wait a short time for the next page to load.

That brings up the third page, where you enter 'traveler details' - chiefly your country of residence and what class you want to travel in - which will give you a fare estimate in your country's currency. When you've done that, hit 'next' in the lower right.

By now, you'll have the hang of it.

On the fourth page, you start to build an itinerary. You'll be seeing some cool maps that show major hubs and other destinations that Star Alliance members serve, and the regions shown will change as your flight plan advances. Once you've entered your city of original departure in the box provided, you start entering additional places that will take you around the world and back to your original city. Note that you can have up to 16 flight segments and 15 stopovers. You have a year to use whatever ticket you end up booking.

Once you plug-in the sequence of cities and dates, you'll be presented with rosters of flights operated by relevant Star carriers. Some of the flights are code-shares. As you might expect, popular places served by many carriers afford you a lot of choices, and lesser-known destinations offer fewer choices - maybe just one, though that's rare. I try whenever possible not to change planes, but, of course, getting nonstop flights is harder and they are not always available. On some flights, you may be told you have to upgrade or downgrade from your preferred class - and again this most likely to happen with popular destinations: your Romes, your Londons, your New Yorks. Booking far ahead helps, though there's no guarantee, as some cities don't seem to have an off-season.

Once you've gone through the construction process, you can revisit your itinerary before finalizing it. My wife and I built imaginary wish list itineraries so we could test-drive the system. We both selected business class. Once or twice, when my wife wanted to omit a choice, she was sent back to the beginning of the process. This didn't happen to me, though I am the more tech-challenged of the two of us. If you decide to book, you'll be asked your personal details, make your payment with a credit card, and then you will get a confirmation.

In our RTW scenarios, we received estimated pre-booking fares of about $10,000 (hers, for a proposed 29,000-mile journey) and $12,000 (mine, for a 34,000-mile trip), though the site notes that these are best-guess figures. This is cheap for journeys of this magnitude and complexity. Note that you do have to be as flexible as possible about travel dates and cabin classes to get the very best deals. Individual member airlines decide how many designated RTW seats to provide, and on which flights and which dates.

Prior to this past summer, Star allowed prospective passengers to build an itinerary online, but wasn't set up to actually book the trips and handle payments. Now that it is possible, there is an additional useful tool on hand for setting up ambitious airborne trips.


Well, it's round.

Having just finished my globe-girdling trip, always heading westward, I arrived in the same city I first departed from. I didn't fall off the edge of the planet, surrounded by scary monsters. Inexplicably, the Flat Earthers got it wrong.

I am home after 28 days in the sky - and eight airlines, nine countries, 11 hotels, 11 flights, 34,000 air-miles, 84 meals, 49 blog posts and 65 tweets.

It was a travel epic, it was fun, there was always something interesting going on. On occasion, it was physically challenging; sometimes all those time zones leap up and bite you in the chest. But for a trip with so many moving parts, it was agreeably smooth. Of course, constructing a big trip through a global airline alliance helps immeasurably with connectivity.

Interested in taking a trip like this? I'm going to re-post my earlier piece "Booking a Round the World Trip with Star Alliance'' as an FYI.

I loved my trip, and I love being back home. It is Thanksgiving eve, I am finally unpacked, and there is a turkey to be stuffed and roasted. If you are in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving. Wherever you are, here's wishing you the best of the end-of-the-year holidays.

P.S.: Right after the Nov. 26 holiday, I'll be back writing travel news, features, tips and product reviews on this blog, and on Twitter. I will post some fresh, less time-dated material on my Web site,, as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Transcon with United

NEW YORK - The last of 11 flights I took on my round-the-world trip aboard Star Alliance carriers, United Airlines flight 15, carried me to San Francisco from New York. I have flown United many times, but this was my first experience with the airline's p.s. (for premium service) offering, which operates between New York and Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco.

Like much of the airline industry, especially airlines in the United States, United has been burdened financially this decade. It spent more than two years reorganizing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has bled several billion dollars in losses due to a powerful combination of yo-yoing fuel costs, security worries and expenses, flu fears and, since 2007, the Great Recession. This has inhibited the airline's ability to invest in new products, with a few exceptions. The p.s. offering, aimed at high-yield business travelers, is one of the exceptions.

As a showcase product, p.s. has received investment and attention from United's Chicago parent company, UAL Corp., and it shows. The cabin crew on my transcontinental flight was experienced and friendly, the seats in business class were comfortable and had plenty of pitch - the space between rows. Even when the passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, I was not crowded, a rarity in a business class without hard plastic scallop shells to establish perimeters.

Moreover, United was rolling out its new in-flight Web surfing and e-mail program, which first-time users on my flight were allowed to use for free. The system, Gogo Inflight Internet, is available on a number of U.S. carriers. For flights of more than three hours - this flight lasted about six hours - most carriers charge $12.95. So far, United has put Gogo only on its New York-San Francisco-Los Angeles p.s. flights.

It was a good flight. I have used Gogo on other carriers; I didn't use it this time. I did check out United's in-flight entertainment program, which included 64 pop music albums, plus classical, country, jazz and world music, and some 40 movies, as well as TV shows and games. Flight attendants passed out portable media players to use instead of seatback screens or pull-out screens. Lunch was served, and it was presentable. I had a good Argentine Malbec, that country's signature red wine, to go with chicken in morel mushroom sauce. The flight took off 25 minutes late from JFK International Airport, due to the customary congestion in New York area airspace, but our pilots were able to make up for it en route; in fact, we arrived at San Francisco International Airport nearly half an hour early after flying above the clouds in the East and rust-red deserts in the West.

This was United at its best. Candidly, the Red Carpet Club in JFK terminal 7 was considerably more modest and spare than the airport lounges of most other Star Alliance member carriers I have flown with. But once United got airborne, the experience was a good one. It was a gratifying capstone to a colorful, engaging trip around the planet.

The Pierre, New York

NEW YORK - There's nothing like ending a long journey on a high note. I did that by spending the last night of my round-the-world trip at the Pierre, the famed Beaux Arts luxury hotel on New York's Central Park.

Opened in an elegant, Georgian-style building in 1930, the Pierre has changed hands several times in its history. At one point it was owned by oil zillionaire J. Paul Getty. It was operated for years by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. In July 2005, management was assumed by India's Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, which operates 5-star properties in Asia. I stayed at the company's flagship, century-old Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, in Mumbai, early in my RTW trip. Shortly after taking over the Pierre, Taj started refurbishing the property. By the time the re-do was finished this past summer, Taj had spent what it says was $100 million U.S. on the Pierre, remaking the interior of the guest rooms, updating the bathrooms, expanding and brightening the lobby reception area and opening the first branch of the London destination restaurant Le Caprice outside the United Kingdom as the hotel's fine-dining redoubt.

My wife and I stayed at the Pierre during its soft opening in early June. It was clear then that the hotel would return to excellence, but soft openings are by definition uneven and incomplete. Le Caprice wasn't open yet and there were still traces of the construction done throughout the hotel, which left apparently unwashed windows in a handful of spots. The ensuing five months of operation have taken care of all that. The place gleams from top to bottom, the hospitable and personable staff have got their act polished to a high sheen, and Le Caprice - which opened in September and has its own entrance onto Fifth Avenue - looks great, done up in black and white Art Deco-ish style, with lots of mirrors to catch the light.

The 41-story Pierre, in its present configuration, has 189 guestrooms, including 49 suites. I stayed in one of the suites. It didn't have the park view of the room that my wife and I stayed in five months ago, but it was much roomier, boasting three wall-mounted flatscreen TVs, formal but comfortable Old World furniture, an expansive, marvelous bed covered in high thread-count linen, a spacious bathroom with separate shower and bath and a big desk in the 'living room.' I set up my laptop on the desk and spent several productive hours writing and Web surfing.

The Rotunda, on the ground floor, has lovely murals painted on the ceiling. Located right nearby is Two E, the Pierre's stylish, edgy-in-the-good-sense bar, with its smart-set clientele. Le Caprice, where I had a Sunday morning breakfast of Scottish salmon, scrambled eggs and good coffee, can be accessed inside the hotel through the Rotunda.

The physical property is impressive, befitting a hotel of the Pierre's stature and history, but what I really like about the hotel is the warm service and a lack of pretention that is not always found in grand hotels. Abby, the young woman who checked us in back in June, checked me in again, greeted me by name and remembered me, lo, these months later. All the hotel elevators are run by elevator operators - a traditional touch that brings an air of graciousness.

In its short time back in business - the guestrooms were closed for months while they were being refreshed - the Pierre earned a 5-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association, one of 113 hotels and resorts in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to win that coveted rating. Now that the hotel is operating at full-service, it has special holiday promotions and a package keyed to the Winter Antiques Show on offer.

In short, the Pierre is back. I felt fortunate to stay there. I slept like a baby on the last night of my month-long, globe-girdling trip, went for a brisk morning constitutional in Central Park, just across Fifth Avenue, before check-out, and left New York feeling like a million.

For more information: The Pierre is located at Fifth Avenue and East 61st St., New York, NY 10021. Web: Telephone: 212.838.8000.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

NEW YORK - Getting to New York was the hard part. Not in the air, where Continental Airlines did a fine job bringing me to the USA from London - on the ground, where cab fare, Lincoln Tunnel toll and tip for the ride from Newark Liberty International Airport set me back $90.

After that, things could only get better. And they did, with gratifying speed. After checking in to the grandly restored Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue, across from the southeast corner of Central Park, I set off on foot to have a look around town. It was Saturday night, Thanksgiving was nearly at hand, Christmas was not far off, and Manhattan positively glistened. Night had fallen, but it wasn't cold - maybe 50 degrees F, and dry. The sidewalks were alive with people.

Fifth Avenue was electric, figuratively and literally. Lights and decorations everywhere. The Cartier store wrapped in an electronic "ribbon'' for the shopping and gift-giving season, and every shop illuminated inside and out. I people-watched and walked. At Rockefeller Center, I strolled off the avenue and stopped by the ice-skating rink, which went in Nov. 18. The icy surface was ready to receive skaters but literally no one was skating - only crowding round the outside of the rink, as though expecting something exciting to happen any minute. Maybe Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump were making themselves ready to come out on skates, or maybe Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding were set to re-enact their 1990s battle as part of a fond reunion tour, I dunno. The place looked great but nothing was happening just then. I soaked up the mood for a New York minute and moved on.

I passed a long line outside Radio City Music Hall, and pushed on to Times Square. It was absolutely jammed, with tourists sitting at the cafe-style tables that the city put out in blocked-off portions of the famous intersection this past summer. What's a little frosty November weather? The tables and chairs are still there, and still occupied. Huge outdoor video screens and neon advertisements throbbed and looked ready to explode. The city seems to have amped-up and at least trebled the available wattage from five years ago. You could read a newspaper by the overhead lights, if people still read newspapers.

Sunday morning, I had a lovely breakfast at Le Caprice, at the Pierre, and then went for a walk in Central Park. It was a sunny, crisp, breezy morning. The sky was a clear blue of the type seen best in Fall on the U.S. East Coast. It was about 9:30 a.m. The horse-drawn carriages were fully booked and making their aromatic way through the park. Joggers were jogging, dog-walkers led pooches around. Chestnuts were roasting on grills and buskers were already busily busking. It was a delightful way to start the day.

When it was time to head out to JFK airport for the last leg of my round-the-world trip - home to California - I returned for a thankfully brief time to Taxi Purgatory. This time, fare and tip were a measly $60. I, having been overseas for a month, was short of cash and wanted to pay with a credit card. When we got to the airport, the cabbie mournfully informed me that it was to be cash-only; his credit-card machine was "broken.'' I informed him it is illegal to operate a yellow cab in New York without a working card-reading machine. He shruggged. In New York, as elsewhere around the planet, the taxi-driving tribe continues to wage its long-running war on the world's travelers. There are two sterling exceptions: The polite, scrupulously honest, white-glove-wearing cabbies of Tokyo, and the super-informed, witty drivers of London black cabs.

I was on the curb outside the terminal. "Home, Jeeves,'' I wanted to say. But of course this was to be an airplane journey, and Jeeves doesn't fly. I strolled, wheelie and briefcase in hand, into JFK terminal 7, sailed through security and headed to United Airlines' Red Carpet Club, boarding pass in hand.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Across the Atlantic with Continental Airlines

NEW YORK - I crossed the Atlantic Ocean yesterday - restfully, uneventfully, right on time - on board Continental Airlines, the newest member of the Star Alliance group of carriers.

Continental's late-October shift to Star is so recent, it has yet to fully play out. When I arrived at London Heathrow airport's terminal 4 for my flight to New York, I was directed to a lounge run by SkyTeam, the alliance Continental left so it could join Star. I imagine full integration into Star Alliance is proceeding apace and that this lounge arrangement will soon cease. Indeed, airline locations at Heathrow are changing quickly as it is. After Heathrow terminal 5 went into operation in March 2008, the multitudes lightened up at terminal 4, which, like much of Heathrow, is undergoing extensive renovation for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

We flew west with the sun, passing over the symmetrical walls of Windsor Castle. Minutes later, clouds shrouded the Irish Sea, not clearing until just before we landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. During the 7 and a half hour flight, Continental flight 111 hummed right along. The U.S.-national staff was friendly, funny and off-hand in the way that Americans typically are. When a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter sat down next to me, attentive flight attendants promptly moved me to another seat, so I could have a comfortable flight. I hoped, too, to give the mother a seat of her own, so she would not have to hold her little girl throughout the trans-oceanic flight. Late in the journey, I noticed a bleary-eyed Continental pilot on break occupying the seat I had vacated. The long-haul flight included two meals. The wines were not identified on the business class menu, but when I ordered beef, a flight attendant poured a decent French red to accompany the meal.

Like other major U.S. carriers, Continental has lost millions in recent years, buffeted by an economic storm of volatile fuel costs, deep recession, flu fears and security costs. Continental does a good job in straited circumstances; indeed, it is often cited by aviation pundits as the most highly regarded U.S. legacy carrier. It is widely regarded as the U.S. airline most competitive with global leaders - some of which have not been hit as hard as airlines in the United States during the current crisis. In this case, SkyTeam's loss is Star Alliance's gain.

The Metropolitan Hotel, London

LONDON - My home-away-from home during my three-day stay in London has been the Metropolitan Hotel, a stylish modern hotel favored by rock bands and fashionistas that, remarkably, manages to be long on warmth and short on attitude.

Operated by Como Hotels and Resorts and opened in the mid-1990s, the Metropolitan is located on Old Park Lane, across from Hyde Park. It occupies a distinctive glassy cube amidst a cluster of hotels, including a highrise, fortress-like Hilton, an InterContinental and a Four Seasons (currently closed for remodeling). The original Hard Rock Cafe is a block away. The Green Park and Hyde Park Corner tube stations are walking distance from the hotel. COMO also runs the delightful Halkin Hotel in London, and the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok.

I had a comfortable third-floor room overlooking busy, busy Park Lane and the eastern edge of Hyde Park. The usual joggers, dog walkers and horse riders have been joined by a temporary 'Winter Wonderland' exhibition of shops and night time lights put up for the season. My guestroom had a spacious bathroom with separate tub and shower, a nice, long desk, comfortable bed and free Internet hook-up - a boon for the traveler, especially a business traveler like me. Small surprises await in the desk drawer: A package labeled Indulgences includes, among other things, a mini-vibrator and a condom. Hey, the Metropolitcan cares, and wants you to have a good time.

But while the guestrooms are comfortable and large for London, the Metropolitan sells more than rooms. Indeed, the hotel is a favored haunt of Londoners as well as visitors. The capital's first Nobu restaurant is on the property, dishing up nouveau Japanese cuisine, and the Met Bar is a frequent venue for parties and events. Jo James, the hotel's high-energy public relations person, told me it had originally been conceived as a whisky bar, but evolved into a private members bar. The Met Bar often invites people it has in mind to become members, but travelers can become members, too, James said. After 9 pm, the bar is members-only, though anyone can have a drink in the spacious, welcoming lobby at virtually any hour.

Indeed, activity at the Metropolitan goes on pretty much 24/7, as it is a favorite of night owls. When I did a late check-in shortly after 11 p.m. on a Wednesday upon my arrival from Lisbon, the Met Bar was going full-blast and a number of other travelers were checking in and out, too. To ease the stress from all this activity, the hotel offers its spa program, Shambala, which James describes as not just about pampering yourself, but detoxifying the body and building a healthy lifestyle through nutrition, yoga and other types of work-outs.

Modern, of-the-moment hotels often age badly and date quickly, but this does not seem to have happened with the Metropolitan. It is still a very popular, lively hotel that has kept its edge in an intensely trend-conscious metropolis.

For more information: Web: Telephone: 011 44 20 7447 1000.

This Realm

LONDON - Happiness gives way to wistfulness whenever I leave England, especially London, with its depth of culture, arts and history - and, now, even great food. Yet, leave I must, to New York, the last stop on my round-the-world trip before returning home to California.

I used the last of my time in London soaking up current offerings in major museums, which the British capital has in abdundance. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently mounting a major exhibition of work by the British artist Anish Kapoor. Over at the National Portrait Gallery, running into January, is a photography exhibit called "Beatles to Bowie,'' which highlights the role photographers played in constructing the public identities of famous pop stars in the 1960s.

Both exhibitions are well worth seeing. But then, so are so many other things in London.

I took-in some scheduled shows and events, but mostly I wandered. This is my favorite thing to do - going on urban walkabout - in big cities, at least those that are pedestrian-friendly. For the most part, despite its ferocious street traffic and congestion, London is hospitable to walkers. This most agreeable to me, as I don't always have a plan in mind when I come to London. Indeed, I don't have to be 'doing' anything to enjoy London.

I am a foreigner here, yet have always felt at home. For my wife, who was born and raised in London, the city was home before she emigrated to America. It's not likely that another former Londoner, William Shakespeare, had the Beatles or Bowie or Twiggy or the Rolling Stones in mind when he wrote lyrically (in "Richard II") of ''this realm, this England,'' but that is the magic of charismatic cities like this one. Trends come and go, but the city's magic endures down the years.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'Tis the Season in Londontown

LONDON - As I look out the window of my parkview room in the Metropolitan Hotel, I see flashing lights of green, red and blue illuminating the trees of Hyde Park. They are part of a big seasonal display, complete with artificial snow, in the famous park during the long approach to Christmas and end-of-the-year holidays.

I haven't seen London so done up in Christmas gear before, though I have been here at this time before. Big shopping arteries such as New Bond Street sport overhead electronic bows and ribbons, and name-brand shops such as Fortnum and Mason have holly and boughs from Christmas trees in front. At the posh Burlington Arcade on Piccadilly - or in Piccadilly, as the Brits say- glittering seasonal decorations abound. I am mainly window-shopping this far ahead of Dec. 25 - for me, as an American, the season doesn't really begin until after Thanksgiving - so all this is eye candy, but it's still fun.

I am not a churchy person, but I do enjoy the cultural, non-commercial side of Christmas, and London, a world center of art and culture, has that covered, too. The British, like those other masters of Christmas, the Swiss and Germans, open up churches to all for music and art celebrations of the season. One such moment provided a highlight of my current visit to London.

Like most visitors, I had been outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields many times, standing on the steps between its dignified columns to gaze out over London and take-in the sights of Trafalgar Square. But, oddly, I had never gone inside. I rectified that last night, to hear a program of, chiefly, Vivaldi compositions played by the accomplished Feinstein Ensemble. The church pews were hard enough to challenge anyone's faith, but the acoustic renditions of Vivaldi with flute, recorder, oboe and other sonorous instruments were inspirational. To complete the picture, St. Martin's lights were dimmed and the beautiful, vaulted interior was lit largely by candlelight.

When I left the performance for the nighttime walk back to the Metropolitan, I felt I had been blessed, not in the overt religious sense, but simply by virtue of being enveloped by such loveliness.

Christmas in London can do that.

More Travel Tips from SAS Crew Guides

LONDON - I began dipping into SAS Crew Guide's 2009 edition for travel tips as soon as I hit Barcelona, kept going in Lisbon and am now checking out their leads in London.

The 'back story' - as they say in Hollywood - is detailed in one of my Nov. 14 posts. Suffice it to say here that the Crew Guides are annual paperback books from Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and several fellow Star Alliance members on where to go and what to do in cities served by those airlines. Widely traveled airline crew members are the tipsters.

Just before I left Lisbon earlier this week, I found a good seafood restaurant in the central city, thanks to the 2009 guidebook. (The 2010 edition will be issued at the end of this month and is available online for 15 euros from The restaurant in question is called Solar dos Presuntos, located on a narrow commercial street downtown, at 150 rua das Portas de Santo Antao. It occupies the ground floor of a tile-fronted, four-story building and is marked at the entrance by a fishtank with live lobsters for seafood lovers to inspect before ordering. The food is sumptuous, if a bit pricey for generally affordable Lisbon, with entrees generally a bit north of 20 euros (about $30 U.S.).

Here in London, I have been tucking the eminently portable book into a coat pocket, pulling it out to thumb through the pages. I know London pretty well, having made more than 30 visits, and it is my wife's hometown. I was pleased to see the wonderful travel book and map bookshop Stanford's (12-14 Long Acre, near Covent Garden) included, as well as a backpacker's favorite restaurant, the Stockpot. At the Stockpot outlet on Panton Street opposite the Comedy Theatre, I saw a three-curry dish on the menu for 4 pounds 50 pence (a bit over $7 U.S.) and a gammon steak with fried egg for 7 pounds (roughly $11 U.S.). I love London, but it is not cheap. The Stockpot, popular since the 1950s, is a no-frills choice, but it is good value for money. For inexpensive, good-tasting, healthful food, I have to say I prefer the many Pret a Manger outlets around town, but it was good to be reminded of the tried and true Stockpot.

The book also told me something I didn't know about a place I do know: Namely, that the good Waterstone's bookshop at 203-206 on Piccadilly has a toothsome cafe on its top 5th floor, with views down toward the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, it does, and thanks to the Crew Guide, I found out about it. As a bibliophile, I'll be back to the bookshop, and when I want a little nourishment for the body to match the nutrition for the mind that I'm getting from books, I'll have a bite at Waterstone's, too.

Lisbon to London on TAP Portugal

LONDON - Portugal's leading carrier, TAP Portugal, brought me to London, the second-from-last stop on my round-the-world journey on Star Alliance member airlines. It was a happily undramatic trip. Departure and arrival on time, staff courteous and professional - all to the good.

Two things distinguished my trip on TAP from most flights I have taken:

First, the carrier presents a nice array of three Portuguese white wines and three reds in business class - not just the country's justly celebrated port wine. The wines aren't as well known as they deserve to be outside Portugal, so this could help raise their profile a bit.

Second, TAP has a seating feature I like: Namely, a space, bordered by armrests and at seat-level, located between the window and aisle seats in business-class. This gives passengers more room to spread out. I liked this a lot, especially given that I was seated in a bulkhead row - thus, there was no place under the seat in front of me for storage. No problem, though; I sat my briefcase into the space between seats, and had ready access to notebooks, magazines and other items I wanted to use during the flight, which lasted just under three hours before touching down at London Heathrow's terminal 1. The English wind was strong as we landed, but otherwise, it was a smooth ride all the way.

Lollygagging in Lisbon

LISBON - People in Spain told me to expect a more laid-back mood once I arrived in Lisbon. Big city or no big city, capital city or no capital city, it is a relaxed place, they said.

They were right. The locals were friendly and casual, unfailingly helpful and more-often fluent in English than I expected. I began with a checklist of places I wanted to see - the castle, the heritage monastery in the Belem district, the rakish bohemian neighborhood of Bairro Alto - and more, besides. I saw many of these places, but as time went by, I spent more and more of my waking hours lollygagging - just wandering, looking around.

Lisbon is relatively cheap - I don't have confirmed stats in front of me, but as a general observation, I'd say prices in Lisbon are two-thirds of what you'd pay for the same good or service in, say, Rome or London.

My wife booked me into the central-city Hotel Avenida Palace. She had stayed there on her own some time ago, and loved it. I swapped rooms at check-in so I could get a double bed, which probably put me into a smaller room, but I was fine with that. The hotel, restored in in the late 1990s to its century-old, Belle Epoque style, was closed while Lisbon prepared for the world's fair Expo 98. It is a traditional hotel, with a grand, curved central staircase, a quietly splendiferous bar, high ceilings and carpets and gilt trim. Right outside the six-story hotel is the Estacao do Rossio, the big train station. On the other side of the Avenida Palace is the Restauradores plaza, big, busy, filled with traffic. On the square, not 100 meters from the Avenida Palace, is a helpful tourist information office, marked with the small letter i and signs that read Ask Me Lisboa. The staff are multilingual and polite. Maybe 10 minutes by foot toward the river is the brand-new Museum of Design and Fashion, installed in a former bank.

It rained but once on my four-day visit, so I took advantage of the Avenida Palace's location to step out and explore the central city on foot. Lisbon is hilly, but downtown is reasonably compact and easy to navigate. The historic building fronts of Centro are listed, and thus protected, but the interiors of many structures have been gutted and modernized. The waterside multi-modal transport center, Cais do Soche, has a gorgeous Art Deco exterior and up-to-the minute facilities for river ferries, subways (the Metro) and light-rail on the inside. A transport museum, installed in March 2009, depicts the history of the city's efficient, cheap system, which includes, among other things, delightful, small, yellow and white trams and funiculars that run on tracks and climb the steepest of Lisbon's hills.

To get a broader sense of the city, I took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour for 15 euros. Recordings in eight languages tell you what you are looking at. There is a red line and a blue line. Each tour, if you stay on the bus, takes about two hours. There is not another tour bus for another hour, so don't hop off unless you really want to see and do something. The 24 hour ticket is good for both lines. If you have time enough for just one line, my advice is to take the red line: It goes to waterside Belem, and passes traditional and modern landmarks such as Lisbon Tower, the historic monastery with its fabulously detailed doorway, and the striking new architecture of the Belem Cultural Center; the center includes a good art museum. The blue line, which I took the day after my ride on the red line, includes the Expo 98 site, where modern Portuguese architects were given freedom to create, and came up with angular, vertical 'statement' buildings.

At the end of my lollygagging, I was pleased to return to the Avenida Palace, to its correct quietude and historic decor, and turn-in, dreaming of stops to come on my round-the-world journey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two good cafes in Lisbon

LISBON - One of the joys of traveling in European cities is savoring European cafe life. In continental Europe, cafes supply food and drink, of course, but not only that. They are great people-watching places, often have engaging ambience and in a number of ways serve to give a traveler the flavor of the place he is visiting.

I found a goodly number of good cafes during my visit to Lisbon on my round-the-world trip. Two, in particular, stay with me in memory.

The wonderfully named Caffe Ritual, in the Rossio train station, in the historic city center, is one. I enjoyed a macaroon and a small cup of strong espresso there for just 2 euros and 70 cents, while rail commuters streamed by on their way to work. I say wonderfully named, as having a coffee and a bite in a place like this is nothing if not ritualistic.

The white exterior walls of Rossio station are beautifully detailed with 19th century decorative touches; two horseshoe-shaped archways at street level comprise the largest entryways and are trimmed a little incongruously with bruised-purple paint. Inside, the station has been completely retooled and modernized. Upstairs, on the second level, there are automated ticket kiosks and staffed ticket booths for passengers, along with buzzy newsstands, flower shops and the aforementioned Caffe Ritual, which occupies a hole-in-the-wall space close by the automatic ticket-taking machines where passengers board their trains. There must be a hundred cafes in Lisbon just as good, but not many can boast such an entertaining location.

Another cafe I liked is Suica, located on the main Rossio plaza, downtown, with its gorgeous fountain, dignified 1840s National Theatre and wavy charcoal-grey and white paving stones. Caffe Nicola, on the opposite side of the plaza, is much prettier to look at, with big wall paintings and an Art Deco interior, but Suica, while utterly lacking in the decor department, is cheaper and relaxed. While there, I had the best sardines I have ever tasted, grilled and served in an open-face sandwich with pickled vegetables. Before I left Barcelona, workers at my hotel smiled when I told them where I was going. One said, "Ah, Lisboa! Portugal has the best fish." Judging from the freshness and grill-toasted crunch of the sardines I savored in Lisbon, he wasn't kidding.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lisbon Airport, the Star Alliance Lounge

LISBON AIRPORT - When in a crowded airport, it is always a relief to chill-out in a nice lounge. That is what I am doing now, sitting before one of the six free PCs in the Star Alliance lounge operated by TAP Portugal, as I await my flight on TAP to London.

It is a nice lounge, designed to the max, operating on split-levels. The downstairs level has good food on offer, including little veal pies, a selection of wines and spirits, a good coffee-making machine, bits of fruit and assorted pastries. Upstairs, TV channels projected onto the walls show Eurosport, fashionista updates and news. Bamboo grows along one side. The whole place has mood lighting like you would expect to see in a club. Upstairs, elegant leather chairs and couches provide comfort; downstairs are cherry red and lime green modular furniture out of `The Jetsons.´

The business-class VIP lounge is found past security but before Customs and passport control, so it is good to leave it a bit early for flights, especially if you have a far-away gate. Finding the lounge can be a challenge. I squiggled around through terminal 1, up a flight of stairs, down hallways, around corners. It took a while, but the signage is good, and I soon settled in.

Next stop, London, destination number eight on my round-the-world trip. London is my favorite city in the Western world, so I am more than ready to get back there.

Incidently, a TAP Portugal ( check-in worker graciously checked me in, even though I arrived four hours before my flight, the designated check-in desk for that flight was not yet open, and he was manning another station. It was a nice gesture that helped a weary traveler get access to the lounge, and with plenty of time to enjoy it.

Hooker for the Barbarians

LISBON - I have been in cell hell many times, when mobile phone yakkers felt secure enough to share information about their lives with whomever was around, whenever the mood struck them. This happened most recently on the otherwise estimable 15 euro hop- on, hop-off big bus tour that takes people around Lisbon. There is nothing more touristy but it gives you the lay of the land in a new place - then you can go back to places you liked.

Anyway, imagine you are inadvertently overhearing hearing this in the middle of an otherwise interesting city tour:

`Hello, Mary, hello, hello. Can I ring you right back? Hello.

`So, you went to the game? How was it? A draw. Well, that is good, iddnt it? I mean, that way nobody wins and nobody loses, everybody happy.

`You will want to see Thomas play next time his team are in town. You know, he has got a new girlfriend, and it must be serious, she is coming over to live with him. Yes, he is playing hooker for the Barbarians. They will be in town on the 5th.

`Thank you, Mary, thank you. Hello? Oh, you are breaking up. Ring you back, luv.´

I believe hooker is a position in rugby, is it not? Of course, in some cultures, hooker for the barbarians has a different connotation, though it may still be classified as a sport.

To Portugal with Portugalia

LISBON - I flew to this busy capital city on my first visit to Portugal on board Portugalia Air, part of a code-share with Star Alliance carrier TAP Portugal. I had not flown on either airline before, so it was all new, and it turned out to be a good introduction. The flight left Barcelona on time, and it arrived on time under glowering, leaky skies. Hey, this is November.

Flight TP745, was on a mid-sized, single-aisle Fokker 100. Another first; I had not been on a Fokker before, either, as far as I remember. The eight-seat business class was cozy but comfortable. The flight crew got their work done while also being chatty and casual. Airline food is frequently derided by frequent travelers, and often with cause, but lunch was good. The main dish was salted white fish Portuguese style, served with a custard tart for dessert - a popular dessert on the ground here, as I was later to discover. Somehow, the fish was moist and flavorful - not a given, considering it had to be heated in a cramped airline cabin.

Lisbon International is a mid-sized airport with a modern arrivals hall. Lots of construction going on, though I am not sure at this point what is being built. Unlike major airports that are far removed from the city, Lisbon airport is just a 20 to 30 minute ride, depending on traffic, from the city center. A taxi costs 10 to 12 euros. The best way to go between airport and city is the Aerobus, which makes a number of central-city stops - identified by recorded announcements - and costs just 3 euros 50 cents (about $5 U.S.) one-way. This is quite a bargain in often-pricey Western Europe, though Lisbon seems on the whole less expensive than Rome, Paris, London.

Glad to be here. Lisbon offers a good mix of history, with its vintage downtown core, and modernity, with the futuristic Expo 98 site on the east side of town, right on the wide Rio Tejo. Good cafes abound all over. Vasco da Gama is the big man on campus. The famous navigator is the namesake of a bridge, a tower, a boulevard and a shopping center.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Highly Recommended: The Hotel Arts Barcelona

BARCELONA -The Hotel Arts, my highrise aerie during my lamentably short recent visit to Barcelona, lives up to its name.

The hotel, a gorgeous seaside property managed by the U.S.-based Marriott Corp. and its Ritz-Carlton hotel group, showcases eye-catching contemporary Spanish art throughout. It makes an art of cuisine, as well. There are five in-house restaurants, ranging from casual outdoor dining by the terrace swimming pool in summer, to year-round fine-dining at Enoteca, whose chef has earned a Michelin star, and classy tapas at Arola, helmed by a two-star Michelin chef. There are no formally awarded stars at Cafe Veranda, as far as I know, but the breakfast buffet there is sumptuous, with the likes of Iberian ham and pork loin, fresh whole figs, a wide selection of cheeses, dishes such as Eggs Benedict with shaved black truffles, and first-class coffee.

The Hotel Arts also benefits from a prime location. It overlooks Port Olimpic, a once-benighted stretch of land along the Mediterranean Sea that was reclaimed for the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. This is now coveted waterside real estate. From my corner suite on the 27th floor, I enjoyed sweeping views of the Mediterranean, the wide, white-sand beach fronting the sea, and - off in the cityside direction - a panoramic view of the Barcelona cityscape, bordered in the distance by dramatic, rugged hills. The suite came complete with two flatscreen TVs, a spacious bathroom with separate shower and bath, an elegant espresso-maker and a bed so comfortable it took a city as enchanting as Barcelona to lure me out of it.

It is something of a cliche to say that the most important asset of a business is its people, but in the hospitality business, it happens to be true. The Hotel Arts has a friendly, efficient staff. They are fluently and smoothly multilingual and ready to help the jet-lagged traveler. They orient you, they help you get grounded and they are a fount of local knowledge about Barcelona.

I stay in a lot of hotels, in a lot of countries, and I like them more often than not. However, few are in the same league as Hotel Arts Barcelona. Highly recommended.

For more information: Web: Telephone in Spain: 34 93 221 10 00.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Star Alliance Lounge, Barcelona Airport

BARCELONA AIRPORT - Star Alliance member Spanair runs a sparkling biz class lounge in the new terminal 1 here. The terminal, just 6 months old, boasts polished floors, a plentitude of windows and a high roof admitting natural light. It is one of the largest and nicest-to-look-at terminals I have been in anywhere.

The lounge, with wraparound views of the main concourse through floor to ceiling first-floor rooms, is a beaut. It has a full bar, an espresso-making machine, six free, wide-screen PCs and dozens of work stations in their own set-aside space for plugging-in laptops. Wood paneling and polished floors, with low couches and chairs arrayed around the space, complete the picture. The lounge is spacious, big enough to handle all but the largest crowd. There is no hot food, but a wide range of baked goods, nuts and crackers help to make up for it. If you are going to be in an airport, its a nice part of the airport to be in.

I am awaiting word of takeoff on TAP, the major Portugese carrier, for Lisbon - my first visit to what is more properly called Lisboa. It will also be my first flight on TAP.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


BARCELONA - I feel a bit wistful about leaving this lovely, pretty seaside city after just two nights and a day and a half. It is populated by stylish, quietly self-assured people, as good-looking as the beautiful people I saw in Rome, but seemingly less inclined to use fashion to Make a Statement. The locals are justly proud of the splash their city made while hosting the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, but Barcelona doesn't seem to be resting on its laurels. The place is lively, friendly and very much worth a visit. I just wish I could stretch it out.

Like every visitor to this Catalan metropolis tucked away in the northeast corner of Spain, I made a pilgrimage to see Sagrada Familia, the unfinished cathedral started by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. I could see the spires from my hotel, the Hotel Arts. I walked 40 minutes to get there, passing by a childrens' soccer game - er, futbol match - a butcher's shop with beautiful hams hanging in the window, pigs' feet still attached, and innumerable sidewalk cafes. Nearly all the tourists on hand seemed to be on bus tours. Elderly men and a few women played what appeared to be a local version of bocce ball in a vestpocket park facing the cathedral, oblivious to the tourists taking photographs and recording videos.

Although I made this tourist pilgrimage, I am not a true believer in Gaudi (1852-1926), whose name sounds somewhat like the English word "gaudy.' ' Appropriately so. The enormous building (adult admission 11 euros, 15 euros with a guide) is way over the top and way busy as design. Indeed, it theatens to give kitsch a bad name. I know Gaudi is a local hero, and I'd like to like him better, but Gaudi strikes me as an eccentric uncle with a budget.

So, that was a bit underwhelmng. But I loved everything else about Barcelona. The food, for one thing, is outstanding - fresh and flavorful, centered on seafood, sausages, ham and rice. I lucked out with temperate fall weather and dry skies, with days of hazy sunshine. I walked the Rambla Santa Monica and watched locals and visitors consume paella and enormous glass mugs of beer and sangria; they drank the sangria through straws. Mimes and street artists were everywhere, as were hawkers of apparel, keepsakes and artworks. Off on the sidestreets, things occasionally got grotty: a tatoo- and piercing-shop here, a peep show there - but for the most part, it was a fine-looking, popular, relaxed central-city promenade. Along the walkway by the sea, Rambla de Mar, sea breezes cleansed the air and families strolled to the city's aquarium and wandered along the wide, white-sand beach. Across the thrumming boulevard from the beach, big government buildings such the ornate, historic headquarters of the Port of Barcelona dominate the horizon. In the middle distance, rises a cylindrical building that is the spitting image of London's Gherkin. In the warm evenings, people are out late, enjoying the city.

It's an exceptionally fine place, Barcelona. Next time I come here, I hope to stay a good deal longer.