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.