Saturday, June 27, 2009

Absolutely Nothing About Michael Jackson

Famous people - or, as we reflexively call them now, icons - entertain and comfort us. They dazzle in the good times and lift our spirits in bad times, like the old Busby Berkeley musicals did during the Great Depression.

But life goes on outside the spotlight, and sometimes ordinary people have to do extraordinary things just to get by. Consider this week's news that some 7,000 workers at British Airways - which lost $600 million in its most recent fiscal year - have agreed to voluntary paycuts. A reported 800 BA employes even agreed to work for free next month.

One of the latter is the carrier's CEO, Willie Walsh, who said he will work for free in July. Walsh makes a reported $1.2 million a year, so this will not be a hardship for him, but it does help set an example. The 20 percent fall-off in lucrative trans-Atlantic business travel has hit BA especially hard. BA is one of the world's more accomplished airlines, so when a carrier of this quality has to struggle, we are in tough times, indeed.

Things didn't get any easier last weekend for BA - the former UK flag carrier, now privately run - when Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic Airways, a much smaller but nimble rival, suggested in media interviews that BA may not survive the recession. Whether or not this is true, it seemed a comment designed to rattle BA's investors. Mind you, I like Branson. I've interviewed him thrice and believe he has a great sense of fun often absent from commercial aviation, but his remarks were hardly cricket.

I thought about all this as I sat in the passenger lounge at Kuala Lumpur International Airport recently, where a compact, still-boyish looking fellow with short cropped hair sat reading the sports section of the Daily Mail across from me. It was Walsh. I was tempted to attempt an interview, but the lounge seemed basically off-limits. And, besides, the man has troubles enough to contend with. Silently, I went back to my book.

Those of us who fly a lot and write about travel understand that the pain is widespread, not limited to any one carrier. Air India delayed paying some workers for two weeks because of liquidity problems. Qantas, the fine Australian airline, said this week it will defer delivery of 15 previously booked Boeing 787 Dreamliners, also for money reasons. Falling consumer demand and the steadily climbing price of fuel are squeezing airlines around the world.

And the pain, of course, goes well beyond the travel business. Ordinary people, far removed from the spotlight of fame and media frenzies, will build heartfelt, impromptu shrines on the sidewalk, and light guttering candles, even as they lose their jobs.

Dubai After the Fall

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Much has been written, broadcast, tweeted and otherwise disseminated about the Fall of Dubai during the global economic meltdown. But don't believe everything you hear. Dubai has indeed slowed from its feverish peak, but neither the deep global recession nor desert heat that can hit 130-plus in the summer has stopped this tiny statelet from pursuing its ambitious plans.

Truth be told, Dubai is not the most fun-loving travel destination in the world. But it is a prime business center, a place to see a world-class boomtown in situ and a playground for the world's rich - at least in the good times.

For the better part of this decade, Dubai has put in motion a construction boom matched only by the most dynamic cities in China. A credit squeeze had put some of Dubai's building plans on hold, and real estate values plummeted 41 percent since this time last year, but projects already underway are continuing to be built. And that's still a lot of construction, as I discovered on my first visit here.

Across busy, 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main drag, the Burj Dubai, a slim, irregular structure that will be the world's tallest building when it is finished, is still rising apace. Too much money and prestige are on the line in this showcase project for it to stop. Directly across from my hotel, the Shangri-la Dubai, a modern, highrise business redoubt, construction continues 24/7 on a glass and steel curtain of skyscrapers. I wore earplugs at night to muffle the noise. The light, the hum of traffic on new roads, the clamor of construction are as ubiquitous as the dust blown around town by the desert wind. At Dubai's glittering main airport, the designer shops, lounges and restaurants were absolutely packed.

In short, Dubai may be falling, but it is falling from such giddy heights that it is far from touching the ground.

Some of the broadly shared perception that Dubai is dying stems from a story published by the New York Times on Feb. 12 citing unamed newspapers reporting that foreign workers - fearing debtors' prison, which still exists here - had abandoned 3,000 cars at Dubai International Airport in their haste to escape the collapsing economy. That number - 3,000 - has since pinged around the world in stories that duplicate other stories - but are largely free of original reporting - in an endless feedback loop. Neil Rumbaoa, the Shangri-la's director of communications, told me some cars had indeed been abandoned at the airport by departing expats. But no one could verify the number, and 3,000 may be far too high.

Early this years, fellow UAE member Abu Dhabi lent Dubai nearly $10 billion to deal with the slowdown. While not as high-profile as Dubai, Abu Dhabi is much larger - it covers 85 percent of the federated UAE - and richer - i.e., it has most of the oil. On April 18, Agence France Presse quoted Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammad, as saying he expects the UAE's economy to grow 3 percent this year, down from 7.4 percent in 2008. However Sheikh Mohammad insisted, the worst is over.

In the meantime, the gorgeous, sail-shaped Borj Al Arab Hotel, which claims to be the world's first 7-star hotel, thanks to its opulence, pampering service and exorbitant room rates (think $1,000 a night to start), continues to tower near the construction site of Dubai's palm-shaped artificial island. A seaport that will supposedly be twice the size of Hong Kong harbor when its expansion is finished is also still being built out. Such grandoise dreams have earned the UAE the unflattering nickname "the Emulates.''

Wouldn't you know it, Dubai has the world's largest indoor shopping mall. When I checked it out, you could have rolled a bowling ball through and not hit any shoppers. This was one time I believed the reports of a meltdown were true. But on the whole, Dubai's economy seems to be stabilizing, not stopping. Dubai has announced it will build a new shopping mall twice the size of the present world's largest. It will probably happen.

Certainly, Sheikh Mohammad expresses confidence. And while he could be expected to spin the news, my sense of things following my brief visit to the UAE is: It wouldn't be wise to bet against Dubai (or Abu Dhabi, for that matter) in the long run.

"We are not building to be a model for the highest building in the world, the best airport and the most luxurious hotel, and the largest seaport and man-made islands,'' he told AFO. Dubai, he claimed, has "succeeded through investments in human resources, its unique geographical location (it is roughly midway between south Asia and western Europe) and trade expertise.''

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

CLEAR-ly Opaque

CLEAR, the largest U.S. registered traveler program, failed yesterday when it couldn't reach an agreement with its largest creditor to continue operations. I suspect the program - and two microscopic-sized, rival RT programs still in existance - won't be missed, as most travelers didn't use it and few had heard of it.

Directly affected, however, are the several tens of thousands of people who ponied up $199 a year to go to the head of the security screening lines at about 20 U.S. airports. They got there by flashing a biometric CLEAR card embedded with personal information, such as their Social Security number. CLEAR's owner, Verified Identity Pass, Inc., said none of those people will get their money refunded, as VIP is broke.

It's a bleak end for the latest brainchild of entrepreneur Steven Brill, the major domo of Court TV, American Lawyer magazine and other ventures. Brill recognized an opportunity after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for a program that could help speed selected air travelers through stepped-up airport security. But CLEAR's future was always opaque, thanks in part to government dithering. It took untill 2005 to get federal approval for CLEAR to take off, and it never did gather much momentum.

The mandate for RT programs changed under the new Department of Homeland Security from security-minded measures to airport concierge services for affluent travelers. Basically, the $199 a year gave customers a pass to the front of the line, where CLEAR employees helped them load and retrieve the little plastic bins for personal belongings. And that was it. CLEAR customers still had to go through the same Transportation Security Administration screening lines the rest of us do. This was a distinction without (much) of a difference.

The only difference most travelers will notice now is slightly longer security lines at some airports, especially at times favored by business travelers, who held the majority of CLEAR memberships. So on the West Coast, for example, those early-morning flights at 6 and 7 a.m. to the East Coast might be even more gnarly than usual. But there should be no major changes anywhere in the country.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lessons from the Washington Metro Crash

Many lessons can be learned in the coming days from the horrific collision on the Washington, D.C. Metro commuter line today that killed at least 9 people. Lessons about training, technology, human error and equipment failure will be among them.

The Washington Metro is strictly a local line, but all of these factors come into play wherever and whenever travelers step onto a long-distance train, a ferry or a cruise ship, an airplane or a tour bus. There are early indications that the moving train that slammed into a stationary train was operating with outdated brakes and warning systems. This information must be taken as a belated wake-up call, especially in the United States, where travel infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate to an alarming degree over a period of decades.

Simply put, the U.S. is part of the Third World when it comes to travel and transportation infrastructure. Our bridges are shaky, our highways cracked and pitted. Our rail lines are slow and substandard. Our gloomy airports are overcrowded, in disrepair and antiquated; the airline industry has been calling for several years now for a new generation of satellite-based air traffic control - tabbed Next Generation, or Nextgen, for short - to replace the U.S.'s outmoded radar-based system. All for naught. Yet, until we get badly needed upgrades, in the air, on the water and on the ground, more accidents and more deaths are certain to follow.

As an American, I am often shamed by the non-stop "greatest country in the world'' rhetoric from my fellow U.S. citizens. As a world traveler, I am amazed by just how unworldly many of my fellow Americans are. They seem to assume that because we once led the world in so many things, that we lead it still. Not so. When it comes to travel and transportation, the U.S. trails many other lands, including some developing countries, in efficiency, safety and amenities.

I recently returned to California from Malaysia, where I used the sparkling Kuala Lumpur International Airport, built early this decade. Its state of the art main passenger terminal and the dedicated rail line between the airport and downtown KL are world-class in every sense. Ditto when it comes to Korea's Incheon (Seoul) International Airport, which always scores high in approval ratings from international travelers, right up there with Hong Kong's spectacular airport and Singapore's justly celebrated international airport.

When I was a small boy, my parents admonished me to clean my plate at mealtime. "There are starving children in China.'' There are still some starving children there, thanks to the dramatically uneven development between China's prosperous coast and its impoverished interior. But in its showcase cities, China is building transportation infrastructure that matches any in the world for quality. In Shanghai last year, I rode the world's first magnetic propelled train (''the maglev'') from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the city center; the ride couldn't have been any smoother or faster (top speed approaches 300 miles per hour). In Beijing last year, I used the vast and brand-new passenger terminal - the world's largest - at Beijing Capital International Airport. Again, the experience was awe-inspiring. America's airports haven't inspired that kind of feeling since the 1960s, at the beginning of the jet age.

These kinds of facilities don't just pop up. They get built because political leaders decide to give them priority, cut through red tape and spend the money to build them. In the Western world, where environmental safeguards and workers' rights are taken more seriously than in most places, it is not easy to build big showcase facilities, especially during a financial crisis. But simple upkeep and timely upgrades are crucial for traveler safety and comfort.

Today, as the U.S., the U.K. and other countries rebuild their economies with massive government-funded programs, political leaders must give serious thought to the job-creation and safety improvements that come from upgrading existing travel infrastructure and putting shovels in the ground for new projects. Putting things off will only make the situation worse - and cost more money later, when badly needed projects are finally built.

Now is the time to get started.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pandemics of Panic II

Yesterday the World Health Organization declared a pandemic status for H1N1 influenza - a bug spread in no small part by global travel - but the organization stopped short of telling people not to travel or endorsing border closings or travel quarantines.

What does that mean for travelers? At this point, not much. Travelers should continue to exercise common sense - not traveling if you're sick, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing your hands frequently - but panicing about the pandemic isn't warranted.

The WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, allowed that the flu, while it has spread rapidly, is so far at least a mild bug for nearly everyone who comes down with it. This latest flu, derived from swine, has as of this writing infected about 28,000 people in 74 countries, killing about 150 people. The 1968 flu pandemic killed about a million people. The infamous 1918-19 influenza tsunami is believed to have killed tens of millions. The advent of better sanitation and improved public health accounts for the dramatically lower number of deaths. As things stand, ordinary seasonal flu already kills about 500,000 people worldwide, according to the WHO.

Although it apparently started in Mexico and quickly spread to the United States, the contagion is taken most seriously in the Asia Pacific region. Australia, which has had a recent outbreak, has ordered some school closings. East Asia, where memories of SARS and the bird flu are strong, has instituted careful measures at airports. When I visited Malaysia and Korea last week, all airline passengers were scanned by walk-through machines that read our temperatures. At Korea's Seoul/Incheon International Airport, screeners passed a small machine behind - not in - passeners' ears as they deplaned. Some airport workers wore surgical masks. Asian airlines have stepped-up scrubbing of their aircraft, and one carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, reports it is replacing used pillows, blankets and headset covers instead of cleaning and re-using them.

In both of the major Asian airports I used, the mood was calm and cautious - and that's as it should be. The virus could yet mutate into a more serious form, and experts say it may return next year. So far, though, we seem to have escaped the worst possible scenario.

Would that things stay that way. As long as they do, don't let the fear of flu - and the P word, pandemic - make you stay at home.

Monday, June 8, 2009

KL from SkyBar at Traders

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - When I last visited KL, nearly 10 years ago, the city seemed like a garden. Looking out from more than, say, 10 stories up, one saw a canopy of green tropical trees. Many of the trees are still there, but as evidenced from SkyBar, the breezy rooftop bar on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel, the city has recently sprouted a forest of new highrise buildings.

There are, of course, the brilliant Petronas twin towers - 88 floors high, shaped like two electronic wands or twin ziggurats, connected at the 41st floor by an enclosed metal-and-glass walkway. Since I last visited, the towers have gained some company. Not least is SkyBar itself - graced by spectacular views and cooled by a swimming pool that runs down the center of the space. It draws a hip crowd of spiky-haired individuals at night, hotel guests splashing about in the water by day. Traders, coolly stylish and very well-appointed business hotel, opened in January 2006, and is joined at the hip to the 2-year-old Kuala Lumpur Convention Center. A vacant lot far down below is set to become a Four Seasons Hotel. Also nearby is another high-end hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, also a highrise.

But if development has changed the face of central KL, there are still many trees, some with bright, flaming flowers. The tall buildings near Traders surround a small but fine green park and small lake. Families stroll there on weekends and the occasional hardy jogger, plugging away in KL's smothering tropical heat, is also to be seen.

Me, I relaxed over chicken satays and duck egg rolls with a Tiger beer, watching the city lights come on. A DJ was scheduled to spin and scratch later that night, but I didn't stay to see the place morph into a trendy club, which it does in the wee hours. And not solely for Traders guests -SkyBar is a popular destination in its own right. It was enough to chill out with a drink and watch the nightime haze swirling between the Petronas towers. I half-expected the Batman logo to materialize, projected on the nighttime sky. Maybe with another drink.

Simplifying Air Travel

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - The cascade of glum financial news continued at the world's biggest civil aviation conference, on today's second and closing day.

Airline and airport executives, execs at industry vendors such as Airbus and Boeing and several hundred presslings - that's us journalists - heard insiders such as JetBlue Airways CEO David Barger say the New York carrier will take delivery of only three new planes this year, down from the 36 it thought it was ordering until recently. Blame the global economy for that.

But while the numbers are still bad in the travel business and well beyond it, innovations that will change the way we travel continue to be developed, recession or no.

One of the pet projects of the International Air Transport Association - holding its big annual general meeting here in Malaysia's capital -is called simplfying the business. This initiative led to the near-total disappearance of paper tickets in recent years, in favor of electronic tickets. That saved the airlines a bundle of money, and deeply cut back the use of paper - for them, anyway. Travelers, of course, still use paper when we print out our e-tickets.

Now, particpating airlines are promoting the use of airport kiosks to read two-dimensional check-in bar codes sent to travelers' mobile phones and even kiosks to self-tag your checked bags rather than have an airline employee do it. A prototype of this futuristic form of air travel has gone live at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where it is in the early stages of testing by the public. Look for much more of this in years to come as automated and tightly integrated systems are rolled out in the world's busiest airports.

The thing these innovations have got in commom is that they encourage and enable travelers to Do It Yourself. That saves the airlines money - they don't have to pay employees to perform these tasks - and if the new systems work as advertised, they will save you a lot of time when you travel, cutting the precious minutes you have to spend in line.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

IATA's Post-Crisis Flight Plan

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - The financial news in the airline industry continues to be glum, but the International Air Transport Association today revealed ambitious plans for the world's airlines notwithstanding the present economic downturn.

IATA's Director General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, told hundreds of industry-insiders and media at today's annual general meeting that his organization of 226 commercial airlines has set a goal of carbon-neutral growth for the year 2020. Presently, airlines generate about 2 percent of the carbon gases believed to contribute to global warming; the steadily increasing number of flights has led observers to expect that number to rise to 3 percent if left unchecked. Airlines take a good deal of flack from environmentalists and national governments for not being green enough, so this new target is an attempt by the airline industry to meet that criticism.

How will the world's airlines meet this lofty goal?

According to IATA, it's do-able, provided airlines get support from aircraft manufacturers committed to cleaner aircraft. Airlines wouldn't mind seeing some of the trillion or so dollars being handed out in stimulus plans to develop cleaner biotech fuels. Beyond that, airlines think they can cut back on carbon emissions by flying new, more fuel-efficient aircraft, making greater use of bio-fuels and prodding regulators to create a new "single European sky' to replace the many bilteral agreements and zigzag air routes with one streamlined continental system.

Additionally, Bisignani called for harmonization of airport security measures around the world, so that millions of air travelers can expect the same set of rules and procedures wherever they may roam; that's certainly not the case with today's maddening crazy-quilt of rules.

In his annual state of the industry speech, Bisignani - a free-market champion - also called on governments to lift restrictions on foreign investment and the outright purchase of airlines in other nations. The present regime is antiquated, he argued, and nationalistic restrictions on ownership make it difficult for airlines to raise sufficient capital to operate and upgrade. It's hard to argue with him, especially when considering the crumbling state of transportation infrastructure in places such as the United States, where I live. The U.S. restricts foreign ownership of American carriers to 25 percent, partly for reasons of national pride and partly in the believe that this saves jobs from being lost to overseas carriers.

IATA insists this only harms airlines and thus airline passengers. Bisignani summed it up nicely with this tart observation: "All we want is access to global capital, but old rules stand in the way of a healthier industry. If we cannot pay the bills, saving the flag on the tail will not save jobs.''

On a Wing and a Prayer

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - There is a bright green arrow on the ceiling of my room at Traders Hotel; it points to Mecca, so that devout Muslims in this overwhelmingly Muslim country know which direction to face when praying. Airline executives may wish to pray now, too, as their industry's finances continue in free-fall; if only they knew which direction to turn.

That's the emphatically downbeat sentiment right now on the opening day of 65th annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association, the trade organization for 226 of world's commercial airlines. IATA's numbers-crunchers, unveiling their research here at the confab in Malaysia's capital and largest city, predict airlines will lose $9 billion US this year, nearly double the loss expected just six months ago. That's down from the $10.4 billion US airlines lost in 2008, but it's scant comfort for executives of the world's struggling carriers - and their millions of passengers.

Why should you care? Simply this: If the numbers continue to be bad for much longer, travelers are looking at fewer flights, more-crowded flights, cutbacks of amenities, older airplanes staying longer in the sky, and delays of long-planned cabin and service upgrades. Airlines have to make money to spend money. Right now, most are counting heavy losses.

Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's smart, peppery director general and CEO, couldn't have been more blunt in his annual state of the industry speech in Kuala Lumpur this morning. "Optimists see growth by the end of the year, but pessimists view this as a mirage and expect an L-shaped recovery,'' Bisignani said to hundreds of assembled airline executives, vendors and suppliers and world media. "I am a realist. I don't see facts to support optimism.''

"After Sept. 11, 2001, revenues fell by 7 percent,'' Bisignani said. "This time we face a 15 percent drop with a global recession.''

Airline CEOs were similarly downbeat. At a oneworld alliance press conference this morning - called in part to promote the application for anti-trust immunity in the U.S. and EU for members such as American Airlines and British Airlines, who want to work more closely on lucrative trans-Atlantic routes - airline honchos' faces were long.

Oneword managing partner John McCulloch said alliance members are concentrating this year on paring their costs. He didn't specify how that will be done, but the implications are not encouraging for consumers who value comfort and convenience in travel.

"It will be a very difficult time for some time to come, I believe,'' Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Tony Tyler sighed. There was more of the same from British Air's CEO, Willie Walsh: "Everyone is facing a weak economic environment and weak consumer confidence,'' Walsh said.

So, where do we go from here?

We'll learn more about that as the meeting unfolds. I'll be posting throughout, with an emphasis on what's new and what airline corporate flight plans will mean for travelers.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Korean Air's Comeback Kids

INCHEON, KOREA - Time was when Korean Air couldn't buy a break. Troubled by high-profile disasters, South Korea's biggest airline was dogged in the 1980s and '90s by a poor reputation.

What a difference a decade makes. Korean brought in international aviation experts to consult with company leaders, raised the bar on its product, retooled its once-hidebound corporate culture and is now one of the world's most respected and forward-looking airlines.

I'm seeing the results first hand, having flown from New York JFK to Incheon International Airport, just outside Seoul, Korea's capital and largest city, on a beautifully appointed and well-run Boeing 777. I flew in business class - which KAL calls Prestige - and it was a delight. The food and beverages - who would sneer at Laurent Perrier Champagne and spicy Korean beef? - were first-rate. The flat-bed seat on this triple-7 was just this month made flatter, wider and longer. The LCD monitors at every Prestige seat were enlarged and graced with sharp definition. There were dozens of movies, games and TV shows, accessed through a remote or touch-screen. Best of all, the superbly trained staff was attentive without being intrusive.

I met afterwards at KAL's headquarters on the edge of Seoul with two KAL executives: Steve Sukwan Kim, general manager passenger marketing development team, and Arnold(Boyoung) Song, team leader of the U.S. route management team.They said the carrier would press ahead with cabin upgrades, the purchase of new aircraft and other plans, despite the weak global economy and weakening of South Korea's currency, the won.

Although it's not widely known, KAL operates more trans-Pacific flights between Asia and North America - about 90 departures per week this summer - than any other airline. The carrier flies often to neighboring China and Japan and promotes Incheon International as a major hub and transfer point in East Asia. The sparkling, seaside airport was opened on reclaimed land in 2001 and has expanded continuously since then, with still-more growth in the works.

Kim said KAL expects to take possession of its first superjumbo Airbus A380 in December of 2010, and receive the fuel-efficient Boeing B787 Dreamliner by 2011. KAL, Kim and Song said, will make first use of the A380 on flights to Los Angeles International Airport and JFK. They wouldn't disclose how many seats will be on the huge aircraft, but they did say they won't be putting closed-door suites in first class.

"The cabin crews say it makes it too hard to communicate with passengers, and the passengers feel uncomfortable,'' Song says.

He said KAL plans to spend $200 million USD over the next several years upgrading the seats in all three classes and is considering whether to add a premium economy class. In the present collapse of premium international business travel, many airlines have done well with premium economy, given that companies have forced executives to trade down and/or cut back on air travel. Indeed, business class on my New York-Incheon flight was only about one-third full.

Despite sagging load factors, "We won't consider cutting business class fares,'' Kim says. "We want to maintain a certain level of fares in business class. But we will offer them more.''

This is not the time for Korean to cut back, as many other airlines have done, the two men say. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year - the former national flag carrier was privatized in 1969 - the company wants to look forward, not backward.

Korean has had a hard history until this decade. In 1983, in a notorious Cold War attack, a Soviet fighter shot down a KAL flight over Siberia with much loss of life, and in 1997 a KAL jetliner crashed near Guam, killing over 200 people.

While no one can afford to be complacent about safety at any time - witness the recent Air France tragedy over the Atlantic - Korean has improved its safety record dramatically, in line with its other broad and deep improvements. The carrier is now one of the world's 20 largest airlines and is actually no. 1 in volume of cargo . In the estimation of this frequent flier, KAL is one of the 10 best airlines for customer for service in the world. The turnaround is quite remarkable. Korean Air's comeback kids have something to be proud of.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Peek at the "New" Hotel Pierre

NEW YORK - Soft openings - when a hotel is accepting guests and gearing up ahead of its official opening - are by definition works in progress, but they offer fresh, early looks at a hotel before the crowds get there. Such is the case with me right now: I'm staying at the Hotel Pierre, the venerable New York 5-star, looking out over green and leafy Central Park and taking a two-day peek at the reborn Pierre.

The Hotel Pierre has been an important hotel in midtown Manhattan since the early 1930s. With its elegant styling and prime location at Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street, it has long attracted its share of the rich and celebrated and has for years been a favorite of affluent brides. Managed by India's Taj Hotels and Resorts since 2005, the Pierre re-opens this week, following a $100 million renovation that has taken 18 months so far.

What's different? The lobby, for one. Gone is the old bar, replaced by a new, contemporary watering hole called 2 East, that's accessed just off the serene lobby; it's down a few steps and folded within a windowless room. The main lobby itself, marble-clad and more traditional in design, is nicely illuminated, with a high ceiling, somehow combining airiness with solidity.

Taj, a major player in India, regards the Pierre as its flagship in the USA, where it also operates the Boston Taj and San Francisco's Campton Place. The company renovated all of the Pierre's 189 guestrooms and suites, installing 40-inch flatscreen TVs and iPod docking stations. Wi-fi and Ethernet connections are available in all the rooms. The in-room safes are easily big enough to take a laptop and have a power outlet. Bathrooms, in the New York manner, are on the small side and the hotel's prices, also in the New York manner, are on the high side: Think $2 per minute to use the Internet in the 4th floor business center. But while you pay to stay here, quality is usually high. Room rates, which will start at $895 per night when the hotel formally re-opens around Oct. 1, can be significantly lower during the present soft-opening phase.

The Pierre still has a ways to go to reach its accustomed 5-star status, but with a four-month rollout before the grand re-opening, there is time to get operations up to speed. Also coming: The first U.S. location of the tony London restaurant Le Caprice. Hotel public relations staffers say this upmarket fine-dining establishment is expected to debut in the renovated Pierre by late September.

In the meantime, soft-opening glitches notwithstanding it's fascinating to watch Taj put all the pieces - old and new - together. Fully loaded and reset, the Pierre should be a strengthened position to contend in the fiercely competitive New York luxury market.