Saturday, August 29, 2009


Hubris, thy name is Boeing ... and Airbus.

The world's two giant aircraft-makers - embracing globalization but stretched to the limit by it - are still struggling to make what they proudly term "game-changing'' new airplanes and deliver them to customer airlines. The latest delay came in June, when Chicago-based Boeing Co. announced there would be yet another delay - the fifth since 2007 - in delivery of its B787 Dreamliner, a long-range airplane made of carbon-composite materials that airlines are counting on to generate less pollution and burn less fuel than do their current fleets. Now, Boeing says its first test flight of the 787 won't take place till the end of this year, with the first deliveries in late 2010 - two and a half years late.

Delays play havoc with the business plans of airlines and put off the day when the traveling public can start to reap the benefits of flying in relatively clean and quiet jetliners.

Toulouse-based Airbus, for its part, is two years behind schedule on its superjumbo A380, due primarily to problems in the extensive electrical wiring needed for the plane. The A380 has been flying for nearly two years but only three airlines are using it, as orders stack up, awaiting faster production by Airbus, a European consortium dominated by the French and Germans with some input from the British and Spanish.

I flew on the first scheduled commercial flight of an Airbus A380, traveling from Singapore to Sydney on Singapore Airlines flight 380. The date was Oct. 25, 2007, and the ride was spectacular - not least because of the movie-premiere-like party going on throughout the seven-hour flight, but also because of the astonishingly quiet performance of the enormous, double-decker plane. Since then, Emirates and Qantas have started flying the A380, too, though both are still waiting for most of the planes they ordered, as is Singapore Air.

The Dreamliner, too, promises to be a fine new airplane, though aviation industry pundits are understandably skeptical about the manufacturer's grand claims for it. "There was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of the chatter on the street was "Will this aircraft ever fly?'' Alex Hamilton, an analyst with Jesup and Lamont Securities, told after the latest Boeing explanation and apologia.

That's a bit silly. With billions in research and development committed to the 787 and Boeing's prestige on on the line, the aircraft will fly. The question isn't if but when.

In the meantime, imagine being All Nippon Airways, the launch customer for the 787 and buyer of 55 of the aircraft. ANA was expecting to take its first planes in May 2008 and fly them to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. That plan was dashed.

In Tokyo last year, I interviewed several ANA executives. When the question of the Dreamliner came up, the vexation in their faces was apparent. When I asked if they would seek financial compensation from Boeing for lost business, they said they just might. No one has commented on how much such compensation that could be.

Last week - following a Boeing announcement that it is making headway on resolving a problem left unsolved by an Italian contractor in afixing the wings to the body of the 787 - ANA issued this statement:

"We understand the need to make the best and safest aircraft possible and appreciate that delays due to engineering issues of the current nature must be solved in order to move forward and achieve this. However, as launch customer and future operator of the 787, the length of this further delay is a source of great dismay, not to say frustration.''

Some of Boeing's current difficulties come from overpromising, some from the increasingly globalized nature of manufacturing, with its extended supply chains, worldwide outsourcing and many subcontractors - some relatively unknown to Boeing and Airbus.

Despite their struggles in managing far-flung contract manufacturers, Boeing has said it is looking into starting a second production line for the 787 Dreamliner. If final assembly takes place outside Boeing plants in the state of Washington, that would be a first for Boeing.

Meanwhile, airlines and air travelers alike wait, and wait, to fly the sky of the future.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Travel and Taxes

Are taxes levied specifically on hotel room bills, airlines, car rentals and other travel-related things discriminatory? And are they by nature illegitimate and downright nasty?

Such are the implications of a new report jointly produced by a foundation linked to the National Business Travel Association ( and the employee travel spending tracker Concur and released by the NBTA this week at its annual meeting in San Diego. While both travel prices and tax revenue - general sales tax and travel-specific taxes - have fallen due to plummeting business and leisure travel and cautious consumer spending, the NBTA report warns that travel costs for Americans will rocket back up when the recession ends.

Fay Beauchine, chair of the NBTA Foundation, said in a prepared statement that "Taxes increased and more were implemented across the United States to make up for government revenue shortfalls during the recession. So, when the economy recovers, travelers will take a double hit of rising prices and exploding taxes...''.

This, the foundation clearly believes, will be a bad thing.

Will it? Does it matter what those taxes are used for? If we want things like roads and bridges that don't collapse, fire and police protection. airports that aren't falling apart, or music classes in schools, and - oh, the arts - it may indeed be necessary to hoist what the foundation calls "a discriminatory tax burden'' on our frail shoulders.

Consider the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, to cite one example. Instituted in 1961 and now notched at 14 percent of visitors' hotel bills, tax revenue from hotel room rentals in San Francisco - a tourist town where tourism is the largest industry - has for 48 years funneled millions to worthy and often-needy recipients in the city.

Among other things, the hotel tax supports Grants for the Arts (, a San Francisco city agency that in the 2008-09 fiscal year awarded $11.5 million to 231 groups and activities inside the San Francisco city limits. Cultural institutions as august as the San Francisco Opera, as festive and fun as the St. Patrick's Day and Carnaval parades and as grassroots-minded as neighborhood arts centers have found good things to do with the money.

Why shouldn't visitors help to keep those ventures alive? Local residents need and want them, and a good many travelers flock to San Francisco for its high culture and edgy arts scene, cultural diversity and offbeat energy. Travel-related taxes in turn help nourish the attractions that draw those visitors, joining travel and taxation in a feedback loop.

Look, no one deeply loves paying taxes, and opposition to taxes of any kind is a quasi-religious tenet in the United States, I realize. But if Americans want the cultural depth and richness of Europe and the 21st century infrastructure of Japan and parts of fast-developing China and the Middle East, the money has to come from somewhere.

Travel can and should pay its fair share.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

90 Years of International Flight

International air travel began 90 years ago today, on Aug. 25, 1919, when George Stevenson-Reece ponied up about 44 British pounds to become the first (and only) paying passenger on the first regularly scheduled commercial international flight. It went from Hounslow Heath airstrip near London to Le Bourget Airport, Paris.

Stevenson-Reece flew on a direct ancestor of today's British Airways, called Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. The rickety aircraft carried only Stevenson-Reece and the pilot, Capt. E.H. Lawford. The flight, carried out with the aid of a compass and visual sightings of landmarks on the ground, took 2 hours and 30 minutes, more than three times longer than the trip takes now.

Stevenson-Reece was a reporter for the London Standard, the only evening daily newspaper still publishing in the British capital. He or his newspaper paid the rather hefty fare, which would cost 1,706 pounds (about $2,800 USD) in today's money.

To mark the 90th anniversary of the occasion, BA put out a press release and the Standard sent one of its current reporters, Nick Curtis, aloft in a still-airworthy version of the Airco de Havilland 4A plane used on that first flight. Curtis didn't get to go to Paris, but he did get a nice ride above the Kent countryside, noting in his story that:

"Stevenson-Reece carried newspapers, a brace of grouse for the British ambassador Lord Derby, and some Devonshire cream for a restaurant suffering from a post-war lack of ingredients.''

The launch of international flying changed travel forever, although widespread commercial passenger service didn't really take off until after World War II.

In the 90 years since that history-making flight, BA - Britain's nationally owned flag carrier from 1940 till it was privatized by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in 1987 - made itself into one of the world's most distinguished airlines. It has often been an innovator:

In 1952, BA predecessor British Overseas Airways Corporation launched what BA tabs "the world's first pure jet service,'' flying between London and Johannesburg.

In 1958, BOAC started the first transatlantic commercial jet service, from London Airport (as Heathrow was then quaintly and memorably called) to New York's Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International).

In 1976, BA and Air France created the first and so far only supersonic jet passenger service, with the Concorde, which flew until 2003.

As it happens, I was aboard the last regularly scheduled Concorde ever flown, in the last of three Concordes that arched 11 miles high from JFK to Heathrow before touching down for the last time. BA laid on a party, complete with huge tented area and red carpet, at Heathrow. I imagine the final passenger manifest - which included David Frost, Joan Collins, Christie Brinkley and Piers Morgan, for celebrity-watchers out there - was carefully vetted in New York. At least I hope so, because I walked out of the party, out of the airport and to a waiting car without going through British Customs. It was an amazing feeling to just stroll into the United Kingdom.

In 2000, BA made another change, introducing the world's first fully flat-bed seat in business class, a move that has certainly caught on widely in long-haul travel.

In 2008, BA opened state-of-the-art Terminal 5, a classy new facility at generally woebegone Heathrow. The new terminal had a rocky opening but has largely stabilized. It saw 20 million custiomers in its first year of operation.

So, congrats, BA. And cheers, George Stevenson-Reece, wherever you are.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Flight Delay Dilemma

The jury is still out on whether enacting federal "Passengers Bill of Rights' legislation is the best way to solve the chronic problem of flight delays and airport strandings in U.S. domestic travel. But it is increasingly obvious that the issue - stoked, most recently, by a 5.5-hour delay on the tarmac at New York-JFK airport of a Sun Country flight headed for Minneapolis-St. Paul and a 4-hour delay on the runway at JFK of a Delta flight headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul - that America's crisis-racked airlines are facing intense scrutiny in the court of public opinion.

Corporate and business groups that have traditionally opposed greater federal intervention on the grounds that there would be dire unintended consequences, and that flying is best left to airlines, themselves - are lining up for a seat at the table. The thinking behind that is that it's better to have a say in writing regulation, if any, than standing by to be told what it will be.

Right now, legislation is pending in both the Senate and the House that would, among other things, allow passengers being held on a plane that has pushed back from the gate for more than 3 hours to get off the plane, providing it is deemed safe by the captain.

One of the most active business groups spearheading a 'stakeholders' meeting' in Washington, D.C. next month is the Business Travel Coalition, an organization of corporate travel planners whose member companies set up trips for corporate road warriors.

The BTC's latest salvo reads in part:

"To focus the debate on root causes, such as bad weather or antiquated air-control technology, is to avoid discussing the real problem: which is how airlines respond to irregular operations...According to Department of Transporation Bureau of Transporation Statistics, for the 8 months ending May 31, 2009, 578 flights experienced tarmac delays or 3 hours of more.''

Continues the BTC:

"Airline industry spokespersons characterize the aforementioned 578 flight delays of 3 or more hours as statistically insignificant, even though tens of thousands of passengers were impacted. The argument that extended ground delays are statistically insignificant is lost on the daughter who had her 85-year-old father parked in a hot metal tube for five hours in August; this is first and foremost a health and safety issue.''

That hits the nail on the head.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for American carriers, has been invited to the Washington meeting, which will be keynoted by former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall on Sept. 22.

I don't have the solomonic wisdom to know if the legislation pending in Congress is the right way to solve this decade-old problem. But while U.S. airlines understandably have a lot on their minds with swine-flu fears, weak consumer demand and volatile fuel prices, they would be wise to participate in such brainstorming sessions, lest they be seen as the problem instead of the solution.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lockerbie's Legacy

The hero walked down the stairway from the plane, his hand raised high in triumph before a nationwide television audience. He was home, and jubilation was proclaimed in his native land.

Some hero. Some triumph.

The hero was the convicted mass murderer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, found by a British court to be guilty of helping to plan the 1988 midair explosion that destroyed a Pan American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people on board died, as did 11 more on the ground who were killed by falling debris. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was working undercover at Libya's national airline. The attack on innocent people resulted in years of economic sanctions and international isolation for Libya, ruled since 1969 by the odious Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The Lockerbie bombing was one of the most high-profile attacks ever on civil aviation, joining the mid-air bombing of an Air India jetliner, the mid-air destruction of a Korean Airlines plane that was shot down by a Soviet fighter and a handful of others. It was later eclipsed in sheer loss of life by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States with hijacked jetliners, but remains infamous and is one of the well-remembered events that has joined travel and terror in the public mind. This is especially so in the U.S.; 189 of the Lockerbie dead were Americans.

Megrahi's release this week from a Scottish prison appears to be the result of swirling political headwinds and the complex calculations associated with them. Among these are the frankly juvenile desire of the Scottish National Party government to thumb its nose at British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor government in London; the maneuverings of UK oil giant BP to get back into Libya, start drilling and start making money now that sanctions are no more; and the misdirected intention of the Scottish government to show compassion to a sick man; Megrahi is said to be suffering from terminal prostate cancer.

Yet, it can be argued that compassion has already been shown to him. For one thing, Megrahi got a trial, something terrorists routinely deny their victims. He was treated humanely in prison, another compassionate measure. The American relatives of the dead, robustly and rightly backed by the Obama administration, asked only that Megrahi be kept in prison for the rest of his days; they didn't demand that he leave this world. Not even this scrap of decency was shown to them by Scottish authorities, now scrambling for political cover after the entirely predictable jubilant welcome given to the conquering hero when he landed at a military airport in Tripoli.

Some of the British victims' families were not convinced that Megrahi committed the crime for which he was convicted, and the man, himself, has maintained that he is innocent. Most people who have studied the case disagree, including the Scottish justice minister who freed Megrahi.

The Lockerbie bombing has caused long-term damage to travel and tourism and has poisoned relations between Libya and much of the world. This latest sharp twist makes it that much more harmful. It's an unfortunate turn of events, and the officials who put this man on a jet plane to enjoy a safe flight home should have known better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secure Flight Scare...Relax

Domestic air travel in the United States is unpleasant enough without imagining things. That's what the rumors flying around about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's new Secure Flight program are doing.

The other night, a news anchor at one of my local TV stations practically shrieked into the camera "What new information you're going to HAVE to give the government!'' in her intro to a report on the program - which is designed to deter terrorists from sneaking onto a flight.

Want to know what that information is? Your name, your date of birth and your gender.

Sounds like a dastardly guvmint plot, doncha think?

As misunderstandings go, it's not quite up there with people shouting down members of Congress and admonishing them to "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!'' - Medicare is a government program to begin with - but it's close enough.

Secure Flight started early this year when U.S. carriers were instructed to collect the above info from their passengers, and accelerated Aug. 15, when the TSA took over from the airlines to husband that info. Members of the traveling public have expressed concerns that they might be prevented from flying if their identification isn't in order, but in relatively rare cases will that happen under Secure Flight.

All told, it's a benign program that, if anything, arrives much later than it should have. It's been nearly eight years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when mass murderers used hijacked commercial aircraft; one would think that a nation that is serious about its security would have started collecting and cross-referencing such basic, basic information much sooner.

Will the program be implemented seamlessly? Probably not. But it should help reduce false-positives - that is, the detention of innocent travelers who have the misfortune to have a name that is the same, or nearly the same, as someone on a terrorist watchlist. Someone like Sen. Ted Kennedy, for example, who was hauled off to one side at an airport and questioned several years ago because someone that security officials are watching apparently has the same name.

The Secure Flight program requires only that travelers book their flights under the exact same name that they use on their main government-issued ID, whether that be a driver's license, a passport or something else. Reconciling the various forms of your name - a nickname on the ticket, say, but the full, formal name on your main ID - will have to be done. And that's all.

As reporter Michelle Higgins points out in her summary of what the new rules will and will not do (, posted Aug. 16):

"Under Secure Flight, the security agency checks a person's name against the terrorist watchlist shortly after a reservation is made, and usually well before someone gets to the airport and a boarding pass is printed, said Paul Leyh, the program director of Secure Flight. Once a person is cleared, Mr. Leyh added, Secure Flight gives the airline permission to issue that passenger a boarding pass.

"In other words, anyone with a boarding pass has already cleared Secure Flight.''

In other words...relax.There are much bigger things to worry about than this.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Push for Passengers' Rights Is Building

It's too soon to know for sure - re: my post early this week - whether an air passengers' bill of rights in the United States is is an idea whose time has come. However, developments over the past two days suggest that support for basic reform in air travel is gaining traction inside the American business community, the U.S. Congress and beyond.

This build in momentum has has been given a big push by the recent hold overnight of an ExpressJet regional service operated for Continental Airlines at an airport in Rochester, Minn. Dozens of passengers sat for some six hours without adequate water, food or restrooms, the latest of a string of such highly publicized incidents.

On Thursday, Aug. 13, the National Business Travel Association endorsed a three-hour time limit on the length of time airlines can hold passengers on an airplane while it's away from an airport terminal and stranded on the tarmac. This is a key provision of a U.S. Senate bill called the Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (S1451), introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

The NBTA additionally backs provisions of the bill that would require airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperatures and ventilization and working restrooms while a plane is on the ground. Airports and Airlines would be required to draw up contingency plans, reviewed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and be subject to fines if they didn't write those plans. The bill would also create a consumer hotline.

NBTA President and CEO Keven Maquire said in a statement "For years, the business travel industry believed the airlines and the federal government would work together to fix the problems that led to excessive tarmac delays, but enough is enough. When we've got travelers stuck on planes sitting on the tarmac overnight, it's clear the problem has spun out of control, and legislation is the best solution.''

Airlines believe legislation restricts their ability to operate flexibly. They push back hard against such proposals. But the European Union has already instituted its own version of an air passengers' bill of rights, and now, support is building in the United States.

Also on Thursday, Aug. 13, (formerly the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights) and the Business Travel Coalition, a national association of corporate travel planners, joined forces to start a new group designed to serve as a global advocate of passengers' rights. The group is called It will soon hold what organizers term a "stakeholder hearing'' of industry leaders to air their ideas for reforming air travel; that meeting is planned for Sept. 22, in Washington, D.C., with former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall - credited as the inventor of frequent flyer miles, BTW - as keynote speaker.

"I think there is a need to put together a group that can work across borders on these issues and help one another, particularly because in recent years, these issues have really become global in nature,'' said Kevin Mitchell, who heads the BTC, in Aviation Daily. Mitchell divides his time between Philadelphia and the EU capital, Brussels.

It's good to see reformers are thinking globally, as aviation is a quintessentially global business. Whether new laws will be enacted - and whether they'll be tough, fair and consistently enforced - will go a long way toward deciding if this is travel change we can believe in.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Toronto Film Fest and the Fairmont Royal York

The Fairmont Royal York, a meticulously restored grand dame hotel in downtown Toronto, is rolling out a "TIFF and the City'' package for next month's 34th annual Toronto International Film Festival that illustrates the difference between price and value.

The Royal York (, long an institution in Toronto, is offering lodging on its Gold Floor - the name the hotel's parent company Fairmont Hotels and Resorts gives its premier club floors - beginning at $389 Canadian ($357 US), based on double occupancy. The offer, which runs Sept. 13 through Sept. 19, includes a number of add-ons such as two martinis and 10 passes per couple to film festival screenings. The deal is available until Aug. 31 unless it sells out first.

Now, $389 (or $357) and up is not cheap. If you haven't got the scratch, you haven't got it. However, if you are a cinefile, as I am - I was a movie critic at the old San Francisco Examiner for eight years - and if you are a fan of sophisticated big cities, as I am, this offer is good value.

The amenities, which also include passes to the soaring CN Tower near the Royal York, a greeting at the hotel by a Gold Floor concierge and a complimentary continental breakfast, don't guarantee a good time but they certainly help, and the Gold Floor shows off the Royal York - a heritage railroad hotel originally run by Canadian Pacific - to best advantage. Located near Toronto's efficient subway loop and directly across the street from busy Union Station, the hotel is nicely positioned.

Back in the '90s, I covered the Toronto Film Fest (, tel. 416.968-FILM) pretty much every year and watched it grow into one of the most diverse, high-quality film festivals in the world. There are films to suit nearly any taste - the fest screened 312 movies last year, culled from 64 countries - lots of good food at or near the central-city venues where the movies are shown, and lots of opportunities to socialize with fellow cinephiles. I once saw part or all of eight movies there in a single day - not surprisingly, it was too many. But press screenings are free and bouncing from one screening to another can be productive and fun for a writer.

There is a lot of star-gazing at the TIFF, as Hollywood unveils many of its major new features at the fest before they go into theatrical release. Maybe too much star-gazing, actually, though people have fun pretending they're in Hollywood and local media fall all over themselves to cover festival and studio parties - televising them, even - that most people can't attend. That grumble aside, it's hard to fault the fest. It's just very good.

The star of the show is of course, Toronto, itself. Toronto tries to impress visitors with tall buildings and stylish touches, but its real virtues are homey: green, thriving neighborhoods right downtown, good public transport, relatively low crime, easy sociability and a certain vibrancy. Hollywood it's not, but the drear, gray image of decades ago when the town was known derisively as Toronto the Good is long gone.

If you can make it to T.O., film festival time (the fest runs this year from Sept. 10-Sept. 19) is a fine time to go. Heck, the weather is even good, as the hot and muggy summer gives way to the short, crisp Canadian fall with its scarlet maple leaves. I miss the town, I miss the festival and I miss the hotel, where I sometimes stayed on assignment last decade.

If you go, put on those wraparound shades and tell everyone "ciao, baby'' for me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Passengers' Bill of Rights: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

How would you like to be kept pent-up in a commercial jetliner for, say, six, eight, even 12 hours, along with crying babies, overflowing toilets, no food, little water and a general feeling of frustration and claustrophia?

Thought so. Me neither. And yet, thousands of airline passengers have had just that experience - due to mechancial difficulites with planes, bad weather, very long back-up queues for take-off and so on - at airports across the United States in recent years.

Is this the year an airline passengers' bill of rights - hanging in the air, lo, this past decade or so, as an idea - comes into being? There's no way to know for sure, but continuing and well-publicized incidents like the all-night stranding on a Minnesota tarmac of a cramped regional jet operated under Continental Airlines increases the possibility that a passengers' bill of rights is an idea whose time has come.

The key provision of pending federal legislation in the House (HR 624) and Senate (S.213)
is a rule that would allow passengers held on a stationary jetliner for more than three hours to leave the plane - apparently by moveable stairs rolled out on the airport tarmac - provided the captain thinks it is safe and the plane isn't slated for take-off within the next 30 minutes.

Similar bills have been proposed before, only to die in Congress, as leading U.S. carriers said they could lessen the number of such incidents on their own. To allow intrusive federal law, they said, would hamstring airline operations and perhaps even result in more delays. Individual airlines and the industry group the Air Transport Association ( are firmly against it.

Even large stakeholders in the U.S. air transporation system, such as the Business Travel Coalition, which represents major corporate travel planners, are uncertain whether a 'bill of rights' would be a good thing or a bad thing. Today, Kevin Mitchell, the respected head of the BTC, put out a call to members and industry experts for ideas about should be done.

On the other side are passengers' advocates such as the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights (www.flyers, many of whose members have been kept stranded, and steaming, for hours, on the tarmac - or who have other complaints against the airlines.

Me, I dunno. I have some sympathy for the airlines, as they have to work in close concert with busy airports, they've taken a lot of shots lately from the global recession, swine flu fears and volatile fuel prices. Working with the public isn't always a piece of cake, either. But the public is the only reason airlines are in business, and when the inevitable uptick in air travel returns someday, more-congested airports could only make this hard-to-take situation worse.

In the meantime, maybe taking the time-honored path of letting your Senator or Congressperson know what you think - politely, constructively, not like the shoutfest town meetings Americans are seeing on the critical issue of health reform - is a way to move forward.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Safety First, Again

Following the latest civil aviation misery - the collision over the weekend of a sighteeing helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River in New York City - thoughts turn once again to aviation safety and what's being done about it.

This was, after all, the same city section of river where a US Airways plane made an emergency water landing back in January with no loss of life. This time, with the loss of five Italian travelers in the chopper and four more lives lost in the plane, we weren't so lucky.

Fortunately, the new Federal Aviation Administration chief, Randy Babbitt, gets it. Or least least, he seems to.

In comments made Aug. 5 to a pilots' union, Babbitt addressed the training and work rules of the overworked, exhausted and underpaid pilots at small, regional feeder lines that operate small jets and propeller planes for the big, name-brand airlines. Things have got to get better, he said, and if they do not, new federal rules will see to it that pilot standards are tightened.

Some pilots at commuter airlines fly as many as five times a day, Babbitt noted, and they frequently work without enough rest. That should be reassuring to us all.

But then, all of us who have flown in those tiny, funky planes have hair-raising experiences to talk about. I once flew through a snowstorm in a two-prop plane that detoured on its way from New York City to Harrisburg, Pa. to make an unscheduled stop in Scranton. While on the ground, I saw past the thin curtain separating the cockpit from the half-dozen packed and scared passengers, and caught our young pilot looking at an unfolded paper in his hand: A map.

When we finally touched down safely in Harrisburg, the woman next to me - she was a total stranger to me, I was a total stranger to her - held hands, tightly.

Babbitt seems to know what things are like out there - and up there. "If you think the safety bar is too high,'' he said in his speech last week, "then your standards are set too low.''

Tough and necessary words. Let's hope he and the FAA back them up. We need improved safety in the sky, and we need it just as soon as we can get it.

Keeping the Nation Safe from Toothpaste

Here is some recommended summer reading, travel division:

Check out the Room for Debate blog on the the New York Times site, An Aug. 1 discussion excerpts a few of some 600 reader suggestions on how to improve domestic U.S. air travel, and it makes for reading that is by turns funny, infuriating, all-too-familar and occasionally thought-provoking.

The posting that resonated the most with me came from a reader who complained about the treatment from Transportation Security Administration airport screeners over toothpaste:

"On a recent flight from Phoenix airport, a security agent confiscated my toothpaste, because it was labeled 4 ounces and the limit was only three. This in spite of the fact that the squeezed-up tube showed that I had obviously already used up more than half of the contents. I realize that we have to take precautions to protect ourselves from the fanatics and nutcases of the world, but surely there is room for a little common sense.''

One would think so, dear reader and fellow-traveler, And yet, there seems to be something about toothpaste that makes American security agents all the more rigid and suspicious at airport screening stations.

Recently, my wife was stopped at San Francisco International Airport by a screener who rifled through her neatly packed carry-on suitcase, declining to say what he was looking for, while taking his sweet time while doing it. Finally, he pulled out an offending item: My wife's toothpaste, a 9-ouncer, which he confiscated. Too big, he said. It ran counter to the 3-ounce-maximum rule for liquids and gels, he said. When my wife pointed out that her toothpaste was a clearly labeled paste, not a gel, he said nothing. There was no relenting on an arbitrary decision and no apology for the wild goose chase and her now-riotously disorganized suitcase.

Look, we all realize that overworked and lightly paid airport screeners have an important job to do. But all too often, they're not doing it. Reporters and undercover Feds routinely sneak forbidden items through porous security in tests, and the frequent lack of courtesy at many U.S. airports offends foreign visitors unnecessarily and rankles Americans, themselves. The Times reader had it right: A little common sense, not to mention civility, would go a long way.

Oh, one more thing in that exchange that's worth noting: It includes a rare defense of (sensitive) profiling at airports:

"Get rid of the silly, non-effective so-called security measures,'' another readers writes. "My 71-year-old mother, with health problems, should not need to remove her shoes and be treated like a 23-year-old man. Exclusionary profiling makes sense at airports.''

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heads Up: 7 New Travel Deals

News about travel deals - for airlines, hotels and resorts, theme parks, car rental agencies - flood my inbox and cross my desk all the time. Here are seven new travel deals you might be interested in, most of them designed to get people back out on the road this Fall. As always, caveat emptor. Read the fine print, and if it looks good, go.

1. AirTran Airways launched a fare sale today through midnight EDT Thursday, offering one-way fares starting at $39 for travel from Aug. 18 through Dec. 16, with blackout dates around Thanksgiving. Cheapest fares are on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Samples: $39 from Baltimore-Washington International to Charlotte, $54 from Orlando to Atlantic City. ( or 1.800-AIR-TRAN).

2. The Bermuda Department of Tourism is offering up to 40 percent off participating Bermuda hotels in honor of Bermuda's 400th anniversary. Sale ends Wednesday, Aug. 5 and is good for travel from Aug. 21 through March 31, 2010. (

3. The Epic Hotel, a stylish boutique property in Miami with a good restaurant, called Area 31, and a happening waterside bar, is offering rooms from $129, valid for Thursdays through Sundays. This is a cool, modern hotel - I stayed there a few months ago and liked it. This sale ends Friday and is good for travel from today through Sept. 30. (

4. Virgin America, the 2-year-old airline based in San Francisco, is putting tickets on sale now through Aug. 11 for travel from Aug. 18 through Nov. 18. Sample fares: Boston-San Francisco, starting at $119 one-way before taxes and fees, and New York-Las Vegas, also starting at $119 one-way. ( or 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN).

5. Walt Disney World is offering six packages, called Magic Your Way, available for travel through Dec. 17. Some variations go as low as $70 per night and includes entry to a Walt Disney World Resort and one Walt Disney theme park. Paackages are good for travel from Sept. 27 to Dec., 17, and tickets must be booked by Sept. 27. (

6. Traders Hotels, the well-regarded 4-star business-oriented hotels operated by Hong Kong's Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, are offering a second night free from now through Sept. 30, to travelers who book between Aug. 6 and Aug. 15. Traders has hotels in a number of big Asian cities, including Kuala Lumpur, Yangon (Rangoon), Beijing, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. (

7. Jet Airways, an internationally respected Indian carrier, is offering "boarding pass delights,'' along with its domestic low-cost unit, JetLite, that include discounts at participating hotels in India. For example, showing a Jet Airways or JetLite boarding card would get you a third night free at participating Marriott Hotels in India. (

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fast Track to the Winter Olympics

The six-month countdown to the 2010 Winter Olympics begins this month - Aug. 12, to be exact - and the Games, the first ones planned for Canada's west coast, are on the fast track to success.

I met with a phalanx of Canadian tourism media relations people last week, to get the skinny on the Olympic Games, whiuch begin Feb. 12, 2010, and the ParaOlympic Games, which start exactly a month later, on March 12.

And while the half-dozen public relations people who joined me at breakfast in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel were understandably and necessarily promotional, they have reason to be confident that the Games - to be held in the seaside city of Vancouver and the mountain resort redoubt of Whister, British Columbia, are on the fast-track.

For one thing, as Whistler's delightfully named Breton Murphy pointed out, the sporting venues have been finished for two years and tested in high-level international competitions ahead of the Games. Unlike the near-improvisational Games in Athens, these Olympics are being planned to a fair thee well, with preparations running ahead of schedule.

Tickets for most events are still available, I was told.

Americans must buy Olympics ducats through, the same California company that sold tickets to the Summer Olympics in Beijing last year. Some events go for just a few bucks, but tickets to the opening ceremony - to be held indoors for the first time, in Vancouver's BC Place complex - can cost several hundred dollars each. Ditto for the men's hockey games, showcasing stars from the National Hockey League, and guaranteed to drive hockey-mad Canadians into a tizzy.

The city is certain be crowded, so travelers hoping to stay in or conveniently near Vancouver should book their lodging early. The Web site for that is In anticipation, Vancouver has seen a spate of hotel openings, starting with the stylish boutique property Hotel Loden last October and continuing in January of this year with the spectacular new highrise Shangri-la Hotel, which occupies the first 15 floors of the tallest building in town.

Major infrastructure projects - certain to be legacies of the Games for decades to come - are running right on schedule, the visiting tourism sextet told me. The extension of Vancouver's SkyTrain is expected to open in September, providing a long-needed rail link from Vancouver International Airport to downtown (estimated travel time: 25 minutes). The widening of Highway 99, the main road that links Vancouver and Whistler and runs through spectacular mountain landscapes, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Other legacies of the Games include the Olympic Villages in both Vancouver and Whistler, which will become housing after the cheering has faded. In Whistler, where there is a housing shortage, the athletes' village will be turned into affordable housing. The central city village in Vancouver where other athletes will stay is environmentally themed, with the whole neighborhood being considered for LEEDS certification - that's the 'green' credential to have in the construction industry, explained Tourism Vancouver's Emily Armstrong (no relation to yours truly).

Armstrong, BC Tourism's Mika Ryan and other members of their team attended the Games in Beijing last summer, to help them prep for these Games, and their excitement was clear to see.

Not all Olympics have come off well, at least away from the sporting venues - witness Atlanta's shaky performance in 1996. But when the Games are carefully and sensitively done, as they were in Los Angeles in 1984 and Sydney in 2000, they bequeath physical upgrades and an emotional charge to the host city and nation that can last a long, long time.

We won't know for sure how successful these Games will be until 2010 is history. But based on the organizers' track record so far, these Games - the first in Canada since the Calgary Winter Games of 1988 - have every chance of scoring gold.

Let the countdown begin.