Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blogging and more at 37,000 feet

Skeptics maintain that air travelers won't pay up to$12.95 per session for the ability to Web surf, check e-mail, text-message or do other high-tech tricks in the sky, but U.S. domestic airlines- led by Virgin America, the airline I am on right now _ are rushing ahead to create wi-fi in the sky.

Virgin America, a stylish start-up that first took off from its home base in San Francisco in August 2007, this week became the first U.S. carrier to equip every aircraft in its fleet with wi-fi. I paid $12.95 for my 5-hour plus flight from San Francisco to New York to access gogoinflight, the system VA uses. Virtually every other U.S. airline - among them Air Tran, Delta, American and United - are also using gogo, an Aircell brand, or soon will be.

It works fine, if slightly more slowly than Web service on the ground, enabled by transmission towers scattered across North America. The system doesn't work over water, so it can't be used for overseas flights.

New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey reported last week that Aircell says its airline customers spend a hefty $100,000 per plane to make their aircraft wi-fi-friendly. That's a lot of money, especially in a deep recession, but carriers are evidently convinced that air travelers want to work and play online to pass the time and get things done. VA executives say about 25 percent of their customers go online en route, and from what I can see from my premium eocnomy seat in what VA calls Cabin Select, that seems about right. Of course, VA has perhaps the most tech-savvy passengers of any domestic carrier. This is a gadget-mad customer base.

Me, I'm happy to be online off the ground. Now, if they'll only keep voice communications, whether via Skype or personal handsets, off the planes, we'll have a cheery and productive time up here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Prime Summer Deals: A Sampler

In Wednesday's post, I reported that dire economic conditions generally - and in the travel-biz specifically - are prompting travel providers to cut prices and offer deals. Proof? Read on, and you'll see a sampler of deals; all were announced or kicked-in just this week. As always, if you book, carry out due diligence: check the fine print and be sure a deal works for you:

* Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong's classy major airline, is offering triple miles in either its own Asia Miles program or in oneworld alliance partner American Airlines' AAdvantage program to passengers who fly across the Pacific in first or business class. Starting June 15, travelers flying on Cathay from Los Angeles, New York JFK or San Francisco to Hong Kong can earn triple miles, provided their trips originate in the United States and they have completed round-trip travel by Aug. 15. (www.cathaypacific.com/us).

* I indicated in Monday's post (May 18) that post-flu Mexico would be on sale. The sale is beginning. RIU Hotels & Resorts, which operates swank resorts on Mexico's Pacific and Caribbean coasts, is offering rates starting under $100 per person (not per room) for the month of June. Rates begin at $73 per person at the company's newest property, Riu Emerald Bay, which opens May 29 in Mazatlan, and, at 40 percent off, are not much higher elsewhere. (http://www.riu.com/ or tel. 888.RIU.4990).

* Amtrak is cutting fares 25 percent on some trains in the Eastern U.S. this summer. The fare cuts start Tuesday, June 2 and run through Sept. 3. Two weeks advance reservation is required. (http://www.amtrak.com/).

* Marrriott International Inc. is offering members of its Marriott Rewards program double points through June 26, with two nights worth of credits for every one-night stay. (www.marriottrewards.com/doublenights). Marriott is also slating 20 percent discounts for staying Thursdays through Sundays at any of 2,500 properties it runs around the world. That deal began Thursday and runs through Sept. 7. (www.marriott.com/globalratebreak or tel. 1.877.MARRIOTT).

* The Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C. is offering lodging and breakfast starting at $229 per night for families of two adults and two children. The package includes a copy of "City Walks for Kids,'' a guide to more than 100 free things to do in the capital city. Available through Dec. 31. (www.fairmont.com/washington or tel. 1.877.570.5566).

Right now, the cascade of travel deals that began during the drear days of winter and rolled on through spring is continuing into the summer. No doubt there's more to come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Dismal Science Meets a World of Opportunity

What we have here is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is the global economy is still tanking. The good news, for individual travelers, is that travel providers - airlines, hotels, cruise ship lines - just keep cutting rates and offering enticing deals. For those with the means and desire to travel, there are incredible savings to be had.

More on that in a minute.

But first some dismal travel-related news about the dismal science: economics.

Harvard economics professor Robert J. Barro reported in a recent study that there is about a 20 percent chance of the U.S. economy, the worldd's largest, sliding into a depression, which he defines as at least a 10 percent contraction of per-person gross domestic product or consumption. That hasn't happened since the 1930s, but the really scary thought is that this decade could end up being the '30s with mobile phones.

Consider these travel-biz numbers:

* The International Air Transport Association, the trade organization for the world's airlines, reported that commercial airlines lost $8 billion in 2008, way up from the already bad $5 billion IATA expected as recently as December. Nearly half of the losses occurred in the fourth quarter of last year and were driven by a drop in consumer demand for air travel. IATA hiked its forecast of global airline losses in 2009 to $4.7 billion from an earlier estimate of $2.5 billion.

* Singapore, a major Southeast Asia hub for cruise ship lines and airline passengers, experienced a double-digit drop in visitor arrivals in early 2009 compared to the same period in 2008.

* British Airways, a leading trans-Atlantic carrier and one of Europe's biggest airlines, reported this week that the number of premium passengers in lucrative business- and first-class fell off some 17 percent this April from April 2008. BA said earlier it expects to lose some $212 million this year and is looking at making job cuts.

The silver lining in the gloom: These dire developments are prompting vendors to offer consumers the carrot of deals instead of the stick of sky-high prices.

Major hotels are, for example, offering fourth nights free - that's a de facto discount, though hotels still hold onto their higher official rack rates. Cruise ship lines are among the deepest discounters, cutting some prices in half for the rest of 2009. Cash-strapped airlines, battered by rising fuel prices last year and now hit by falling consumer demand, are slashing fares and offering hotel packages. Just one example: Travelocity reports that airfares for 100 popular destinations inside and outside the U.S. have dropped 40 percent since last year.

This is bad for travel providers, to be sure, but good for travelers.

Details of specific deals change constantly but when one deal expires, another seems to pop up. In this very fluid situation, the most important words to remember are 'fast' and 'flexible.' If you can move quickly and be open to considering a variety of destinations, these otherwise trying times are among the best of times to be in the sky, on the road or on the waves.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The 10 Best Movies About Air Travel

We've all seen movies on airplanes, of course. But what are the best - or at least the most memorable - movies about air travel?

Here is my list. As a travel journalist, I'm a frequent flier. Moreover, for eight years, I was a movie critic for the San Francisco Examiner. I've seen a lot of movies - some of them at 8 in the morning at film festivals and press screenings. On the whole, watching movies on planes is better than that.

Anyway, in no particular order:

1. "Airplane!" This may be the most flat-out enjoyable movie about air travel, ever. Released in 1980, this knowing spoof of air disaster movies is still funny, if politically incorrect. Think of the older white woman who attempts to speak what she believes to be hip talk to young black men by blithely explaining "I speak jive.'' Not to mention the comically anxious passengers who watch as two ordinary American travelers try to land the plane.

2. "United 93.'' The dark, tragic antipode to "Airplane!'' This 2006 picture is a skilful docudrama that recreates the last moments aboard the hijacked United Airlines plane that crash-landed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Incredibly sad, incredibly hard to watch, it nevertheless compels attention.

3. "The Aviator.'' Not a great film, but this bio-flick about the reclusive mogul and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, directed by Martin Scorcese and starring a credible Leonardo DiCaprio as the dashing but mad Hughes, is entertaining from take-off to landing. The supporting performance by Alec Baldwin as Pan Am visionary Juan Trippe is worth the price of admission.

4. "Catch Me If You Can.'' DiCaprio again. He's boyishly handsome and charming as a consumate con man who convinces everyone he is a professional airline pilot (among other things), though he has absolutely no idea how to fly a plane. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a born storyteller's brio.

5. "Airport.'' Based on Arthur Hailey's novel of the same title, it's a blissfully exaggerated melodrama, released in 1970, that takes a common idea - the idea of a big airport as a small city - and puts it on screen with a starry cast that includes Burt Lancaster and Helen Hayes.

6. "Tokyo Joe.'' One of Humprey Bogart's little-known roles, this 1949 feature was shot on location in war-ravaged Tokyo. Bogart is an American war veteran who starts a cargo airline in Japan - amid complications from American officials running the U.S. occupation.

7. "The Terminal.'' Spielberg again, with a bit too much sentimentality about an immigrant to the United States who gets caught in legal limbo and can't leave the airport. The movie is nevertheless carried by Tom Hanks' engaging Everyman performance.

8. "Octopussy.'' What can I say? It's Bond ... James Bond. We're both shaken and stirred by Agent 007's adventures in the sky circa 1983.

9. "Snakes on a Plane.'' The title tells the story with this so-bad-it's-good thriller/horror flick. With Samuel L. Jackson as a cool under pressure FBI agent.

10. "Air Force One.'' Harrison Ford is heroic as the President of the United States, battling Gary Oldman-led Russian hijackers on-board the President's plane.

Pandemics of Panic?

The swine flu - er, Influenza A H1N1 - seems to be stabilizing following the initial outbreak in Mexico that sent scary images of people donning face masks and reports of school shutdowns and business closures shooting around the world. What at first appeared like a possible pandemic now seems more likely to be a dress rehearsal - and a wake-up call for public officials, journalists and travelers.

The flu certainly got the travel industry's attention, and as a travel journalist, I can see why. It hit travel at a delicate time, just as the travel biz was already struggling with the global economic crisis. Airlines already burdened by falling consumer demand in the Great Recession slashed the number of flights to Mexico. Some cruise-ship lines aren't even calling at Mexican seaports, preferring to err on the side of safety, till the all-clear finally and definitively sounds. In China, there was an overreaction, as Chinese officials interred Mexican travelers, to show how tough they could be - on others - after dragging their feet with SARS and avian flu a few years back. In Hong Kong, officials quarantined a major hotel for a week, following one confirmed H1N1 case.

Hindsight is always easy, of course. But even in the early days, back in late March and April, the flu outbreak seemed to me to be generating more fear of illness than actual illness. I thought: Why disrupt the routine operation of business, and throw the multi-billion-dollar travel world into turmoil for what even then appeared to be a disease only marginally more serious than seasonal flu? I think it, still.

Consider the numbers: Some 500,000 people worldwide die from influenza every year, according to the World Health Organization. Two months after the H1N1 flu was first reported, about 8800 cases have been recorded and 74 deaths attributed to the illness. I don't mean to make light of this; any illness is unpleasant and any premature death tragic. But seen in context, this is a minor spike in disease.

Of course, this flu could still have a resurgence. Absent that, lessons from this outbreak are clear: We should all take prudent steps to prevent contagion, on the road and at home, and we should not panic. Political leaders should stick to the facts and not posture or take ill-advised decisions to cover their backs.

Travelers should use common sense and follow the guidelines posted by tourism authorities, airlines, tour operators and industry groups such as the International Air Transport Association (www.iata.org) and the U.S. Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org), and health authorities such as the WHO (www.who.int) and America's Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov). Broadly, that comes down to washing your hands, keeping your hands away from your face, using hand-wipes on planes and in airports and not traveling at all if you are sick. Do these simple things, and the risk of transmission will be reduced.

Tourism in Mexico - which accounts for about 8 percent of that country's economy, according to the New York Times - will come back. Huge hotel discounts (think 50 percent and more) and government subsidies to Mexican airlines and airports will help. But some of this could have been avoided. Thanks to the worldwide system of disease reporting and the 24/7 news cycle, speed can easily outstrip judgment; at its worst, this can produce pandemics of panic.

Next time, we need to keep all this in mind.

You can find more thoughts on travel and my recently published articles on my Web site, www.wishyouweretravel.net.