Friday, December 31, 2010

Notional Customer Service

As Snowgate - triggered by days of storms that shut down airports in Britain and western Europe, Russia and the eastern and central United States - continues to unfold, one thing is massively clear: Airlines and airports were unprepared for extreme weather, although extreme weather is not uncommon. Beyond that, airline tenants at stricken airports couldn't even come close to addressing the needs of stranded passengers - customer service was purely notional.

Layoffs and service cutbacks underlay the latest crisis, at least in the U.S., as explained in a helpful backgrounder from the Associated Press, which I read in the Washington Post. It reads in part:

"Travelers calling to rebook flights earlier this week in huge numbers were put on hold for hours or told to call back later because the major airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

"For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs - nearly one-fourth of its 2,600 reservations workers - in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs. American Airlines cut about 500 when it closed its center in Connecticut.

"United Airlines has 10,000 customer-service and reservations employees, down from about 15,000 in the early 2000s, according to Rich Delaney, president of the machinists' union, which represents the workers. United once had 17 reservations offices; it now has three, he said.''

There's more, as explained by the AP and published in the Post:

"The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.''

Finally, reports David Koenig, the AP's lead writer on the piece:

"As the airlines cut call center jobs in recent years, they also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week's storm.''

According to media reports, U.S. carriers cancelled nearly 10,000 flights from Dec. 25 through Dec. 28, grounding an estimated 1 million travelers - just in the United States.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Shape of Things to Come

Are you ready for some air rage? How about ground rage?

Both are likely to intensify in the years ahead, thanks in large part to the proliferation of mobile personal electronic devices and the desire of travelers to use them anytime, anywhere - including commercial flights.

This thought suggested to me when I read today about a 68-year man who slugged a teenage boy who refused to turn off his iPhone on a Southwest Airlines flight; the airline had announced the time to turn off all electronic devices had arrived, just as the aircraft prepared to takeoff from Las Vegas. After the plane landed, in Boise, the slugger was arrested for resorting to violence and allegedly leaving a mark on the slugee. He facesa maximum sentence of six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000 USD.

This is exactly the type of thing many of us - led by flight attendants, who will inevitably have to adjudicate when someone wants to use a personal cell phone in flight and someone else wants to read or sleep - have been afraid of. The problem is only becoming more fraught as the number of devices grows and traditional reluctance to intrude on the privacy of others erodes under the need for constant stimulus and pressure to keep working and stay in touch with home and office.

Regardless of what laws eventually govern the use of personal devices, every airline - and every travel provider such as railroad lines and subways - has got to set policies for when such use is and isn't acceptable. And then stick to those policies.

The alternative is more tension, more blackguard oaths and maybe even more violence, both between passengers and between passengers and staff. Let's try to get this right now, while ground-rules are still being set.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flinn's Funny Travel Tales

Every year, it returns: The Year in Review, the Top Ten Stories of the Year or some variation of that hardy perennial of journalism, The Year-End List. The question is not: Are you going to have to write such a story. The question is: How are you going to handle it when you draw this assignment?

This year, the San Francisco Chronicle's former travel editor, John Flinn, contributed a very funny freelance piece to the paper, published Dec. 26 ( Flinn is a funny writer and his "Top Weird Travel Stories of 2010'' is recommended reading if you want a good laugh.

One example:

"Watch what you say about the food on Ryanair, the Irish ultra-low-fare airline. In July, according to the Aviation Herald, a passenger was taken off a flight in handcuffs after he complained that a sandwich he bought on the plane "tasted like rubber.' The flight crew said he became unruly; police on the ground released him immediately with no charges.''

One more:

"In Liverpool, England, two women were arrested in April for trying to check the body of a dead relative in for a flight to Germany. Curt Willi Jarant, 91, was wearing sunglasses when his widow and stepdaughter rolled him up to the check-in counter in a wheelchair, according to the BBC. When the man couldn't be roused to answer security questions, the airline staff grew suspicious and called police. The women said they thought he was asleep.''

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Wages of Whistleblowing

No good deed goes unpunished.

That's the message I take away from the reported U.S. federal investigation of a commercial airline pilot who recently posted video footage of lax security at San Francisco International Airport, in hopes of improving the safety and security of travelers at airports around the United States. The mobile-phone video, posted on YouTube and since taken down, showed ground crews at SFO swiping cards at an apparently unguarded door to enter secure areas while airlineflight crews and passengers were subject to much more rigorous scrutiny. This, the unidentified pilot charged, creates an enormous loophole for would-be terrorists bent on attacking aircraft and airports.

In response, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration claimed that the pilot - who flies for an unidentified airline - has compromised safety by showing terrorists just how to penetrate security. The pilot's license to carry a firearm in the cockpit - a post-Sept. 11 measure - was revoked and his firearm was confiscated by federal agents.

All this has been done to a guy who was just trying to point out a glaring weakness - one that homicidal fanatics and religious and political extremists almost certainly already know about.

Airport ground crews at U.S. and international airports have ready access to sensitive areas - get a job at an airport and if you are homicidally inclined, you now have a great opportunity to do your worst. Along with unscreened freight on cargo aircraft, airport ground crews are the greatest weakness in aviation security. After years of lobbying by security-minded aviation-industry experts, cargo loaded in the belly of U.S. passenger planes is finally being screened. M0st cargo, however, flies on cargo planes. That's another area in need of serious revision.

There is ample evidence that terrorists are still intent on destroying lives and disrupting commercial civil aviation any way they can. Anyone who can help prevent them from doing that should be thanked, not punished. But the instinct of bureaucrats everywhere - guard your turf and cover your behind - has overriden common sense.

That is one reason travelers still remain at risk, more than nine years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Information, Please

As Snowgate - the winter disruption of air and rail travel in Britian and continental Europe - cascades into its fifth day Wednesday, media reports from Europe make clear that one of the worst aspects of distrupted travel continues, too: The lack of timely, reliable information from airports, airlines and train operators to their customers.

Some of this can't be helped. Sometimes operators don't know when service will get back to normal. A decision on a particular flight hasn't been made pending a review of weather-related conditions. But that is cold comfort to stranded travelers, whose misery is often compounded by a seeming indifference to their need for information.

I know this situation well and as such my sympathies go out to my fellow travelers camping out in airport terminals and shuffling in queues outside icy train stations. It does typically snow in Europe in December, so the insufficent planing and allocation of things like snowplows and de-icying equipment is hard to understand.

Back in 2006, I was returning to California from Berlin by way of Frankfurt. I blithely assumed all would be well, in spite of the snow swirling around the airport. Wrong! We boarded a United Airlines plane at the terminal gate and sat there waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Liquid blue de-icying was sprayed on parked planes, as flight attendants served a meal and United even showed an entire movie. No one knew when or if we would be departing. Finally, the airport shut down as the snow intensified, and we deplaned. The flight was cancelled.

Inside the terminal, I joined a long line waiting to book a hotel room for the night. About midway to the help desk, the public address system crackled with a call for United customers to meet an airline representative on another floor of the terminal for important news of tomorrow's remedial plan. Several dozens of us pulled ourselves out of the queue and went to the appointed spot.

No one from United ever showed up.

I and the other strapped passengers drifted back to the hotel desk - at the end of a now-longer line, as the clock approached midnight. Eventually, I spent the night at a no-frills hotel aptly called the Terminal Hotel across the street from the main Frankfurt rail station. I caught a flight home the next morning.

United Airlines and Frankfurt airport did not cause the snow emergency, but the lack of timely and useful information to stressed travelers like myself made a bad situation even worse.

Travel-industry companies, please copy: You can give a big boost to your customer relations by striving to come up with good information and sharing it as soon as possible with your customers. It will make them feel a bit better and make you look better in the eyes of the traveling public.

Otherwise, everyone is stuck with a dreadful situation like Snowgate 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Julian Assange, Traveling Man

WikiLeaks founder and media figure Julian Assange, granted bail in London today on sex crime charges filed in Sweden, has promised not to flee the English country estate of one of his rich friends for parts unknown while he appeals a Swedish extradition request. In the past, Assange has been something of a nomad, but now the former computer hacker - best known for releasing stolen Pentagon and U.S. State Department documents to the news media and posting them online - says he's staying put. He will wander no more. We'll see.

I have no idea whether Assange is innocent or guilty of the alleged sex crimes, leaving that for the courts to decide. The charges may, as Bianca Jagger, Michael Moore and other show-biz and media supporters claim, political in nature - retaliation for his WikiLeaks actions. Or not. In any case, his well-heeled supporters paid the $310,ooo USD bail, after publicly complaining that he was incarcerated in brutal conditions. Imagine, the U.K. authorities didn't even allow Assange to use a laptop in his cell! The gulag must be next.

Something that is much more certain is that Assange, a globe-trotting Australian who claims to be a journalist, has caused a good deal of harm by releasing classified documents that include names, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information about individuals who worked with U.S. officials around the world. Harm can come not just to secretive U.S. government policies, but to flesh-and-blood people who may have been sacrified to an abstract ideal of total transparency. Sometimes secrets are there for a reason.

Whatever else Assange may be, he is no journalist. Take it from a long-time practitioner of the form, he is not even close. Journalists don't just deal in leaked documents - justified in some circumstances - but also do research, i.e., reporting. They talk to a variety of people, including people whose viewpoints may conflict with their own, cross-reference information from diverse sources, and try to organize and present that information without predetermined conclusions. Assange and his loose network of borderless computer mavens do none of these things.

Assange may be an information-wants-to-be-free Internet idealist, or he may be, as angry U.S. officials charge, an attention-seeking opportunist motivated by anti-U.S. animus. News reportsindicate the U.s. may charge him under the Espionage Act. For now at least, he isn't suffering too greatly, as indicated from this account in today's Washington Post:

"He was then driven off an an armored vehicle by Vaughn Smith, the London restaurateur and former war correspondent who will host Assange at his 600-acre Ellington Hall estate northeast of London under what the British press has dubbed 'mansion arrest.' Before heading to the country, Assange stopped off for a celebratory martini with friends and well-wishers in central London.''

Ah, the martyr's life: Mansions and martinis.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

906 Million Reasons

There are 964 million reasons why airlines in the United States - which pioneered added fees for everything from checking luggage, to changing reservations, to securing extra legroom - are unlikely to roll back those policies - or even, in some cases, fully disclose them in advance to air travelers.

That's how many dollars - $906.4 million to be more precise - the 20 leading U.S. carriers earned in revenue in the third quarter of 2010 just by charging for checked bags. Only Southwest Airlines, with its "Bags Fly Free'' policy, is bucking the trend.

In the first three quarters of this year, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics cited in the Los Angeles Times, "The top carriers pocketed $2.6 billion in baggage fees and $1.7 billion in fees to cancel or change reservations.''

Airlines are charging fees on top of basic air fares because most U.S. carrriers have lost money over most of the past decade, and consumers, accustomed to low fares from low-cost carriers, have resisted airlines' attempts to raise air fares, which once were all-inclusive. First-class, business-class and elite mileage plan members are typically exempt from such fees, but of course more people fly economy than travel at the front of the plane.

When we see the math, we also see it's highly unlikey that such lucrative fees will go away anytime soon.

Some air travel consumer groups are trying to get airlines to fully disclose all fees in advance - clearly and simply, not buried in the fine print of their contracts of carriage. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel planners, says failure to do so makes it very tough to know the real cost of air travel till it's too late and the money has been spent.

This push received an unexpected boost from a respected airline veteran and aviation wise man, former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall, last week. Speaking to the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world's airlines, Crandall put it this way:

''... the industry has objected to consumer efforts to display a complete list of ancillary charges in every distribution channel in which a carrier participates ... I think the industry courts unnecessary customer discontent and risks its good name and reputation by opposing a request entirely consistent with normal retail practice. We all need to recognise, I think, that operationally attractive positions that are inconsistent with customer welfare and satisfaction are, in the long run, likely to be detrimental to our individual and collective well-being.''

The title of Crandall's speech: "The Customer is the Focus of Everything.''

Sounds like common sense to me. If you have to charge fees to make a profit, charge fees. But at least let people know what they are, so they can plan their travel accordingly. This is Customer Service 101.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 2011 SAS Crew Guide

One of the gifts of the season just arrived, earmarking some great places to go in the New Year:

It is the 2011 Crew Guide, the seventh edition of a handy paperback guidebook to some of the planet's most interesting places. Uniquely, the book is written by well-traveled members of airline flight crews such as flight attendants, pilots and pursers. Originally the writers were all with Scandinavian Airlines but SAS contributors are now supplemented by writers from nine other carriers such as SAS Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and United Airlines.

The Crew Guide breaks down tips and advice into self-explanatory categories: Eat, Buy, Sleep, See, Recover. New this year are mini-profiles of photogenic crew members, matched to cities they know well. The Crew Guide is necessarily more suggestive than definitive, as the 22 cities included in its pages have to be served by at least one of the 10 participating airlines. Bangkok, Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels and the like are included - and all are worthy choices -but other worthies such as Cape Town and Buenos Aires aren't in the 351-page book.

I was just in Beijing and Tokyo, so I gravitated first to entries about those cities. The 20-page section on Beijing is good, with outstanding restaurants such as The Courtyard and 1949 Hidden City's Noodle Bar making the cut, along with some lively markets. Tokyo, as dynamic and fascinating a metropolis as any on the planet, gets just 10 pages, though an informed contributor correctly points out that some of the best dining in town takes place under the arches of the Japanese capital's railroad bridges.

The 2011 edition of the Crew Guide continues the series' infatuation with New York City - which, at 42 pages, gets just two pages fewer than Beijing, Tokyo and London combined. Mind you, I like the Big Apple, but unlike Tokyo and Beijing, it is a city whose future is behind it, and the greatest-city-in-the-world routine is debatable.

That said, this is a engaging and helpful book, well worth the 15 euros (about $20 USD) being charged for it. Wherever you roam, advice such as this from SAS crew member Dandi Si, in Beijing, will stand you in good stead when you're trying not to look like a - perish the thought! - tourist:

"Rucksacks, walking boots, and professional outdoor equipment are signs of a newcomer,'' Si says. "As too are cameras around the neck.''

You have been warned.

No, the FAs on your next flight won't be selling the book, but you can buy a copy online at

Monday, December 6, 2010

24/7 in Hong Kong

There are numerous candidates for the city that never sleeps designation, but just a very few - Cairo, New York, Tokyo - come close to matching Hong Kong. The place is just vibrant, whether for shopping, eating or working.

I'm back for my first visit in more than a year. Flew in last night with Cathay Pacific Airways - which, incidently, just announced new serice from HK to Chicago starting Sept. 1, 2011, and a third daily nonstop between New York JFK. and HK starting next spring. I'm beavering away here at the Regal Airport Hotel's business center, trying to work up to the frenetic pace of this city.

This time around, I'll be checking out a new hotel or two, going back to old favorites and, of course, trying to catch up with Hong Kong's frenetic and varied food scene.

Reports to follow. Now, I'm venturing out into the great city. There's nothing quite like being in a subtropical climate, in a metropolis bedecked in Christmas lights and electric snowflakes.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hawaii, Remembered Right

I recently returned home from one of my favorite travel destinations: The Hawaiian Islands, in this case, Hawaii, aka the Big Island. As always, it was a delight to be there and now it is a delight to remember.

I'll be posting some thoughts and accounts of my travel to the Big Island 'ere long, encompassing the island's sights, mountain coffee plantations, restaurants, postcard-pretty drives and the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel, where my wife and I stayed.

Until then, here is something to share: Mark Twain's prose-poem about the Islands. This memory was composed in a rush of rapture by Twain, aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who visited Hawaii just once, in 1866, only to languish off-shore on his only return voyage, prevented from making landfall by a cholera epidemic in Honolulu.

Here is a passage from Twain, just for the sheer beauty of it:

"No alien land in all the world has any deep, strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of the surfbeat is in my ear, I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished 20 years ago.''

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Opting Out of 'Opt-Out Day'

I am opting out of National Opt-Out Day - the protest over full-body scanners that are increasingly used in major U.S. airports - by not flying today. But then, I wasn't going to fly over the typically frenzied U.S. Thanksgiving holiday anyway. I know better.

Sensibly, most Americans are foregoing the airport protests that Internet organizers of National Opt-Out Day were calling for. Media reports say most U.S. air travelers are understandably more interested in getting to their destinations than in opting for intimate pat-downs - also criticized as invasions of privacy - in place of X-ray scans. If lots of people chose the time-consuming pat-downs, it would lead to prolonged delays at airports at an already-busy time.

Sensibly, too, opinion polls show that most Americans understand that the Transportation Security Administration - which handles U.S. air passenger screening - performs an essential service and is well-meaning, even it it does exhibit a decidedly tone-deaf approach to customer service and public relations. Imagine if no one was screened for your flight and a terrorist simply waltzed onto your plane. Dying in a terrorist attack could spoil your whole day.

TSA's security techniques need to be reviewed and improved, and public opinion should play a role, but civil disobedience or de facto slowdowns are not the way to make that happen.

The most sensible comments I found about this ill-conceived National Opt-Out Day come from the Business Travel Coalition, which notes:

"Airports have been high-value targets of terrorists for some 35 years. On Dec. 29, 1975 (New York City's) LaGuardia Airport was teeming with holiday travelers when a bomb exploded, killing 11 and injuring 75. Today, security best-practice around the world includes moving passengers from the non-secure to the secure sides of airports as expeditiously as possible. To promote actions that impede holiday travelers at non-secure airport checkpoints is irresponsible; to advertsie it in advance to terrorists is reckless.''

Another smart observation from the BTC, a leading trade group of corporate travel-planners:

"Treating all passengers transiting the aviation system as if they are equal threats to national security represents worst-practice because it is ineffective, costly and distractive of better practices.''

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tripbase Favorite 100 Travel Writers

It's always good to be pleasantly surprised, yes? Sure. That just happened for me - I joined some pretty fast company by being named one of Our 100 Favorite Travel Writers by the useful and engaging Web site They said some nice things in citing me, which I'll refrain from quoting out of (false) modesty, even in a baldly self-promotional post.

Seriously, it's an honor, especially given the quality and utility of the site. If you haven't checked it out yet and you're thinking Who Dat? click on over to and see for yourself. Basically, it's an encyclopedic and easy-to-use travel planning site and idea factory, as you'll see. Travel writers and bloggers share some of their secrets with readers, there are fact-rich directories of destinations, flights, hotels and more, and it's a good place to touch down early in the process if you're planning to travel anytime soon.

I don't have any connection to the site or its owners and operators, by the way, I just think it's good.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Travel and Myanmar/Burma

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release today from her latest house arrest at her lakeside villa in Yangon took me back to my visit to Myanmar (also known as Burma) at the start of the decade, and sparked renewed thoughts about the interplay of travel and politics.

I published some thoughts about that in a travel piece I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, which the paper published as the Sunday travel cover story back on Oct. 22, 2000. Re-reading the piece today, I see very little I would change - including my comments about Suu Kyi's support for a trade embargo and total avoidance of travel by foreigners to her country.

Below are excerpts from that story for the Examiner. (Which was, by the way, then a professionally produced daily newspaper owned by the Hearst Corp.. Save for the name, it bears no relationship to the giveaway tabloid published today by other owners and written in large part by unpaid or barely paid aspiring writers):

YANGON (RANGOON) - It's mid-afternoon in the beating heart of the city. Traffic rumbles around the downtown park in the dry, baking heat. Local people stroll by, snacking on grilled meats at sidewalk food stalls, nibbling slices of fruit and cupping tins of cold water - captured from big chunks of ice that drip in the heat.

Burma is a beautiful country lost in time.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman of courage - demonstrated anew in September (2000), when she tested the limits of personal freedom by attempting to leave Rangoon for a political meeting, as she has done several times in recent years. The military, as it has done every time before, stopped her car, detained her, brought her food and water for a week, then forced her to drive back to Rangoon, where she remains under de facto house arrest, physically unharmed but also not free.

Viewing these struggles, I am hopeful that Suu Kyi and people like her will prevail and that deomcracy will come. But, in the meantime, as a journalist, I want to see things for myself and write about a wide variety of experiences. If I wrote only about people and places I approve of wholeheartedly, I would publish far fewer stories.

Most importantly, I am not convinced that tourism necessarily has to legitimize the status quo. In poor countries, it may well do the opposite - provided visitors deal directly with independent merchants and ordinary people outside official circles. In Burma, the average yearly income per person (circa 2000) is $300, one of the lowest in the world. Putting some money into their hands counts for something.

Moreover, tourism puts local people in contact with the outside world, easing their isolation - and lessening our blinkered provincialism. That counts for something, too. Burma/Myanmar calls itself the Golden Land, but in most of the world, it is more like the Unknown Land.

At my request, a senior U.S. diplomat in Rangoon explained U.S. foreign policy, which seeks to isolate Burma. He related some sobering facts: The junta closed the universities for four years because they were hotbeds of dissent, and it gunned down 3,000 protestors in the streets of Rangoon in 1988. To weaken the junta, Washington imposed an embargo in 1997 on new investment by American corporations (though not on Americans traveling to Burma).

But politics are rarely clear-cut, and sanctions and embargoes are not simple matters.

In the ''Lonely Planet Guide to Burma,'' a prominent dissident imprisoned by the military for three years takes strong exception to the U.S. embargo. Ma Thanegi writes:

"Two Westerners - one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat - once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people would have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution ...

"Burma has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years (now 40) of isolationism. More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backward, not forward. We need jobs. We need to modernize. We need to be part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy.''

Ma Thanegi made me think about sanctions. Nelson Mandela credits international sanctions with helping to bring down apartheid in South Africa. If so, score one for sanctions. But the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, in place since 1962, has only impoverished Cubans and has not accomplished the announced goal of toppling Fidel Castro. And sanctions against Iraq don't appear to have harmed Saddam Hussein, just Iraqi children. Saddam, still in power (until 2003), seems to get all the goodies he wants.

As for staying away from countries with pariah governments, I think I smell a double standard. America resumed trade and travel to China shortly after the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989. And Mexico, where students were mowed down in the streets of Mexico City in 1968, was a one-party dictatorship for 71 years before July 2000, but Mexico has not lacked American tourists.

Is Burma worse? I don't think so. I think it's smaller, weaker and farther away. It's easy to demonize.

I decided to go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Barack Obama's Classy Move

There are bigger things on the agenda during U.S. President Barack Obama's Asia trip than symbolism, but symbolism counts, even if it's hard to quantify. That's why it was important that Obama stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tower when he and the First Lady visited Mumbai on the first leg of the tour. The Taj was the best-known of several targets during the horrific terrorist attacks of November 2008 by Pakistan-based Islamic militants on innocent people in Mumbai.

The attackers also understood the importance of symbolism. That is why they included the Taj - India's most famous hotel and a world-reknowned symbol of its travel and tourism industry - on the short list of targets. More than 160 people died in a three-day seige in which 10 heavily armed and well-trained killers held off Indian police until commandos stormed the building, putting an end to the assault, known in India as 26/11.

I stayed in the Taj during my visit to Mumbai, almost almost exactly one year ago. (My blog posts are achived under November 2009.) It was still being rebuilt and repaired at the time but parts of the hotel were nevertheless open for business. To say that security was heavy is an understatement. Yet, for the most part the hotel didn't feel tense and staff there had a let's-get-on-with-it air of determination and defiance. The hotel GM lost his wife and two children in the attacks, yet he still works there. Such bravery is hard to imagine and deserves respect.

It was that kind of spirit that Obama honored by checking in, becoming the first foreign head of state to stay there in the two years since the attacks. It was a classy move on his part.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hotel Melia, Bilbao, Spain

BILBAO - My home base during a recent visit to Bilbao - the biggest city in northern Spain's Basque Country - was the stylish Hotel Melia, a branch of Spain's Sol hotel chain. It's a fine central-city hotel, not quite as geared up to welcome international visitors as homegrown ones, but fine nonetheless.

You know how they say location, location, location is key to the success of brick and mortar businesses like hotels, yes? It's certainly key to the success of the Melia, comfortably located between compact, nice-to-look-at Dona Casilda Park and the Nervion River, which flows through the heart of Bilbao. Frank Gehry's brilliant Guggenheim Museum, the emblem of Bilbao since it opened in the 1990s, is a five to 10 minute walk away, depending on how often you stop to gaze at the high-quality sculptures along the riverside promenade and how long you linger. A modern, clean, swift and efficient public tram system runs right outside the hotel.

My room was on the ninth floor of the 10-story hotel - an angular, massive, modern building softened with glassy banks of windows. My room overlooked the park, which was bordered on the other side by a nondescript commercial district and beyond, in the middle distance, by rugged hills that shoulder onto the outskirts of town and help contain urban sprawl. The spacious terrace outside my room gave me a better look at the outdoors and was painted hot-pink.

My standard room had a so-so-size desk set up for Wi-Fi connections (which cost extra), a clean, mid-sized bathroom, a minibar, a good King-sized bed - in short, the amenities one would expect from a four-star business hotel, which is what the Melia is during the week. At night and on weekends, it becomes more of a social destination with a trendy bar that opens at 7:30 p.m.. One minus: There is no dedicated business center in the hotel. Rather, there are two PCs set up in the lobby at a raised desk at the entrance to the bar. Good luck if you want to work there late, unless of course you have a good deal of tolerance for noise. Newspapers can be delivered to your room for a fee, though I found none in English.

Aizian, the Melia's prime restaurant, is a good place to have breakfast, offering views of the park and a buffet. In summer, the restaurant spills out onto a terrace at the lip of the park, a well-kept greensward good for people-watching. Just down the road, toward the Guggenheim and its swooping titantium roofs, a highrise under construction takes shape, designed by 'starchitect' Cesar Pelli.

Indeed, this riverside area, which served as the main port of Bilbao until the mid-1980s - the port is now on the Atlantic at the river's mouth - is a brilliantly redeveloped central city. It is walkable, safe, clean and pretty, with several nearby bridges spanning the Nervion.
The Melia, located across the street from a large, engagingly designed (but not fully occupied) shopping mall, fits in seamlessly to this brightly renewed urban fabric.

Hotel Melia can be contacted by e-mail at, by telephone from outside Spain at 34 94 428 000, on the Web at

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lounging About With Fairmont

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts launched the first of what could be many tres-trendy Intersect media lounges the other night atop Nob Hill at the Fairmont San Francisco. I say 'could be' because - as regional vice president and general manger Thomas Klein told me at the opening reception - the San Francisco space is something of a trial balloon. If it works, Klein says, "Intersect will be rolled out across the brand.''

The Fairmont brand is spreading all over the world. The Toronto company is on a growth spurt that has prompted it to open plenty of new properties and tweak many old ones. Fairmont reopened the venerable Savoy Hotel, in London, last month after a massive renovation, and it has also renovated the vintage Peace Hotel (also formerly known as the Cathay) in Shanghai.

The San Francisco Fairmont, which opened in 1907 practically in the ashes of the cit's devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, was the first Fairmont. The high-ceilinged, marbled main lobby still has a rich traditional look and feel. That all changes when you descend one floor to Intersect.

Intersect is called a media lounge because it practically vibrates with big screen TVs - including one cool screen that shows a picture visible from both front and back. It also has a full bar and a screening room for videos and films, plus club-like mood lighting and low, designer-driven furniture, some of which is more fun to look at than to sit in.

Fairmont execs see Intersect as a way of modernizing this historic property while quietly containing the modernization within the beautifully classic "old bones' of the original structure. This it does very successfully. When you leave the lobby for Intersect, you're immediately in a different world. You can play video games in that world, certainly sip cocktails, enjoy little nibbles, order room service, take a meeting or just hang out. Initially, Fairmont execs say, the space - divided into three rooms - will be used chiefly for private events booked in advance, but the company is keen for customer feedback and the concept will probably evolve over time.

Fairmont partnered with well-known entertainment industry names to design and trick-out the space. Among them: Bang & Olufsen, Electronic Arts and EMI Music.

If you're in San Francisco and want to book Intersect, I'm told you do that through Catering.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Post-Election Travel Wishlist

Now that the dust is settling, sort of, from the U.S. mid-term elections, could we talk?

We need to talk about what resident Americans and international visitors alike need in ample measure: Transport infrastructure and a travel security system that work. Getting these things from a polity that is so fractured and self-righteously angry will not be easy. But the country that once had the finest travel infrastructure in the world is going to have to retool and rebuild if we want to get ourselves and our products from one place to another safely and in good time.

Politicians of all stripes always say they want to heal not divide and create jobs not destroy them. Transport is a good place to start doing these things. It is not as controversial as hot-button social issues and, as noted, transport upgrades are badly needed.

Yes, it will require raising revenue and spending some of it. But it will also pay for itself, as Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood back in the 1950s, when he authorized construction of the interstate highway system and generated thousands of construction jobs and countless more business opportunities for vendors and suppliers.

So, here is a shortlist of badly needed projects:

Highways. Ike's dream network needs to be repaired. After 50-plus years of use in some spots, it is in decidedly bad shape. I have seen much better highways in places as far-flung as Malaysia, South Africa and Spain. A stretch of interstate near my home in California that was supposed to be repaved in 2009 has still not been touched. Rutted, cracked and badly patched, it is in even worse condition now than it was in '09. Nearly everyone in car-crazy America drives on these roads.

Rail. We need improved and expanded passenger railroads, high-speed and otherwise, to take people out of cars, ease congestion in airports and be kinder to the environment. Japan, China, France, Taiwan, Germany and other countries show America it can be done.

Air travel. We need the long-promised next generation of air traffic control at U.S. airports. We are lucky there haven't been more fatal accidents brought on in part by antiquated, radar-based and over-extended systems. We need a GPS-based Next Gen system that will bring the world's largest aviation market into the 21st century.

While we are at it, could we have a sane, balanced air travel security system? I mean, employ the latest in technology - isn't the U.S. supposed to be a leader in tech? - and combine that with rational screening and, yes, a passenger profiling system built with a variety of criteria. Someone in addition to Caucasian grandmothers needs to be pulled over in airport security lines from time to time. Americans have a laudable desire not to scapegoat entire races and religions and envelop all their members in a cloud of suspicion. This is good, but people need to understand that political correctness and bending over backwards so as not to offend must give way to a more common-sense approach. Americans seem horribly afraid to offend people - including people who are trying to kill them.

Given the gridlock in Washington these days, it may be hard to get any part of this list put into play. But we can hope, right?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back to the Future with JAL

The best recent news for Japanophiles may be the recent makeover at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport, which now sports a fourth runway and new international terminal. Both of Japan's major airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, are switching some of their long-haul international flights from far-off Narita International to Haneda, which was Tokyo's premier airport before Narita opened in the late 1970s.

In line with this, Japan Airlines yesterday launched a daily nonstop flight between San Francisco International Airport and Haneda. This was a case of back to the future for JAL, which flew its first trans-Pacific flight ever, JAL 001, from Haneda to SFO back in 1954. The plane, a Douglas DC 6 propeller-driven aircraft, made stops in the Fiji Islands and Honolulu and carried just 18 passengers.

Today's JAL - reorganizing in bankruptcy protection but continuing to innovate and launch new initiatives - still calls its Haneda-SFO flight JAL 001. It's non-stop and jet-propelled now, of course, and the journey is made on a Boeing 777-200 ER, according to JAL's Michiko Kumataka. I didn't count the number of passengers at the launch ceremony at SFO yesterday - though nearly all the men there lined up to have photos and videos of themselves with comely female flight attendants wearing uniforms from JAL's past - but I wager it was a few more than 18.

Probably the best thing about flying into Haneda - in addition to its recently acquired modernity - is its location. In contrast with Narita, where highway traffic can slow the otherwise estimable Airport Limousine bus to a 2-hour crawl, and even rail service takes a while - travelers are much closer to the city center. Reconfigured route networks will also put people flying to and from China, Korea, Singapore and other parts of Japan in Haneda airport.

At SFO's Gate A7 last night, Japan's new consul general in San Francisco cut a red ribbon with oversized scissors to officially launch the flight. At about the same time - over by a temporary table adorned with soft drinks, juice and white frosted cupcakes with "JAL New Haneda'' written on the top - JAL's Douglas Shelton told me travelers will be able to access the nearest JR station for transit to the city center in about 13 minutes.

All this gives the old airport a new lease on life.

Welcome back, Haneda.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Non-Screening Screening

Huh? Non-screening screening? Did I read that headline right?

You did. That hed stands above this post thanks to a new U.S. law that requires all air cargo loaded onto U.S.-bound passenger flights to be screened. Law or no law, much of it isn't. The law is toothless. The 75-year-old grandmother who was pulled aside for additional screening at the airport? She may be sitting above a dangerous package stowed in the cargo hold of her flight.

The cargo screening law went into effect August 1, three years after the U.S. Congress, alarmed by continuing clueless security, mandated that all cargo on U.S.-bound passenger flights be screened for dangerous materials intended to cause harm. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said at the time the law went into effect that perhaps 80 to 85 percent of that cargo is being screened now, but the private contractors, foreign governments, airlines and airports charged with screening cargo haven't all complied with the law.

This, mind you, does not pertain to all-cargo flights such as the UPS and FedEx flights flagged for carrying menacing cargo from Yemen addressed to Jewish targets in Chicago - that's another issue.

More than nine years after the airborne attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, you'd think there would be a greater sense of urgency, and that the TSA and other security agencies would be smarter about airborne threats, but you'd be wrong.

All this is limned in compelling detail in today's (Oct. 30) New York Times by reporter Christine Hauser. Hauser's piece ( ends on an ominous note:

"... part of the problem is that the TSA as of earlier this year had not approved the use of devices to screen large pallets or containers of cargo. A significant amount of air cargo headed to the United States is also given an exemption from screening if it is in shrink-wrapped bundles, based on an assumption that the shipper knows the contents are secure ...''

Moreover, Hauser concludes, the TSA "does not have a reliable way to monitor the process'' at non-U.S. airports to ensure compliance.

You've heard the expression "not worth the paper it is written on''? Enough said.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Security, Revisited

As today's discovery of apparently rigged materials sent from Yemen in the cargo holds of commercial aircraft headed to the United States shows, aviation security remains a challenge, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Every person of good will wants travelers and others to remain safe from homicidal fanaticism, religious-inspired or otherwise. The devil, as always, is in the details of how safety can be achieved and maintained.

This latest incident refocuses attention on air cargo, the weak underbelly of civil aviation. Some 90 percent of all cargo travels by sea but the just-in-time inventories of modern business and highly perishable items must travel by air. Thsese shipments need to be checked much more carefully and systematically, and not just in the immediate aftermath of an incident.

On the ground, the U.S.Transportation Security Administration, beginning right about now, is allowing airport security screeners to use the front of their hands on passengers who don't pass through the nearly 400 body-imaging machines now installed in U.S. airports or who are called aside for what agencies insist is random screening. The idea is to find weapons that could be hidden on the persons of travelers or in body cavities. This raises clear and present alarms among civil libertarians, who fear fear that personal privacy will be violated and pat-downs turn out to be feel-ups. TSA officials say not to worry. But the fears are valid. You don't suppose anyone would get a TSA job out of purient interest, do you? Nah, that would be like saying some people become youth coaches or priests and abuse their authority. Couldn't happen.

Come Monday, Nov. 1 a less off-putting policy - namely, TSA's long-pending Secure Flight program - becomes operational at U.S. airports. This is a simple rule requiring air travelers to book their flight reservations under the exact same full name that appears on their government-issued identification such as a passport or driving license, as well as provide their gender and their date of birth. If the documents don't match up, people will be denied boarding and miss their flights. That would be unfortunate, but in the greater scheme of things this is a minor matter.

Terrorists continue to target aviation. Governments continue to move - often clumsily and sometimes thoughtlessly - to counter the threats to aircraft and airports. And travelers continue to suffer frustration, anxiety and humiliation. It's a bad situation, but might as well get used to it. It's going to be with us for years to come, probably decades.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Airport Security Snafu

More than nine years after the airborne attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airport security is a mess - especially in the United States, where the attacks using highjacked jetliners took place.

Everyone is frustrated, and it's easy to see why.

For travelers, the inconsistency in airport security rules - even within one country, let alone between countries - is maddening. An air traveler never knows what to expect: Take off the shoes, or leave them on? Take out the laptop or don't? Leave the belt on or whip it off and put it in the plastic bin? Some security experts say this is part of a conscious strategy - i.e., confounding would-be terrorists by never letting them know what the security proceedures will bein place. But this is not terribly convincing to this frequent traveler. I suspect a good part of the inconsistency we see stems not from strategy but from confusion, ineptitude, the failure of authorities to talk to one another and simple disregard for travelers - in marketingspeak, "customers.''

Airlines are frustrated, too. This week, British Airways Chairman Martin Broughton lashed out at what he called "completely redundant'' security measures at airports, such as taking out laptop computers and taking off shoes for separate inspections. He also criticized U.S. authorities for imposing increased checks of passengers on U.S.-bound international flights that are not required on U.S. domestic flights. Travelers from 14 countries deemed hostile to the U.S. are, for example, singled out for extra attention at U.S. airports.

In the air, as well as on the ground, the alleged savvy of aviation security is suspect. Within the U.S., air marshals made news recently when it was suggested they should sit throughout the plane instead of clustering, as they do now, in first class. The rugged protectors of the public demurred. They want to keep their seats in first class, they said.

But I digress. We were talking about airports.

The BBC News Web site quotes Chris Yates, a U.K. aviation security analyst, as saying increasingly sophisticated machines can now be used to phase out some security measures. "We could be talking about getting rid of the shoe check,'' BBC News quotes Yates as saying, "because the metal detectors at airports are sensitive enough to pick up the metal strap in my leather shoe, so they should be able to detect whatever might else be hidden in the heel of that shoe.''

If that is true, such technology should be introduced as quickly as possible. Moreover, security experts should talk directly to one another and connect the dots to safeguard travelers. At nine years and counting, millions of air travelers have waited long enough for smart aviation security.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The True Cost of Flight Delays

Having your flight delayed or scrubbed costs a passenger money. In the United States - thanks to a University of California Berkeley study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration - we now know how much: $16.7 billion USD. That was back in 2007, the last year figures were available. Lost productivity caused by travelers who missed meetings, conventions and so on cost billions more.

It's no secret that antiquated air-traffic control systems and crumbling airports make flying on domestic U.S. flights a frustrating experience. Having to shell out money for unexpected additional expenses like hotel rooms, restaurant meals, taxis and other things makes the experience that much more frustrating.

Of course, delays can happen anywhere in the global aviation system. The most frustrating experience I have had in recent years was in Frankfurt, Germany, when a blizzard shut down Frankfurt's already overcrowded and delay-prone main airport. I and my fellow travelers sat on a United Airlines aircraft for six hours, watching movies, eating dinner and looking out the window at frantic de-icying efforts - all while not moving, and all to no avail. The airport eventually shut down, we deplaned and I joined a long queue of bleary-eyed travelers just before midnight waiting to see if they could book themselves into a hotel. United compounded the problem by announcing a meeting point for its stranded passengers to discuss plans for the following day; then, no one from United showed up.

I trudged back to the line, went all the day to the back, and finally got a room downtown by the train station in the aptly named Terminal Hotel - you felt terminal when you stayed there - before getting up before dawn the next day to catch a United flight to the U.S. It was delayed three hours.

Fellow travelers, I feel your pain.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five Cool Things About Bilbao

BILBAO, Spain - There are, of course, more than five cool things about Bilbao, the largest city in Spain's Basque Country and one of the best places to travel in northern Spain. However, these are five things I found especially appealing on my first visit to the city and its rugged, green, mountainous surrounds:

1. The Guggenheim Bilbao. No surprise here. This riverside art museum, designed by Canadian- born, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, has been a sensation since it opened in 1997. It is still a wonderment. I find Gehry, with his computer-based designs and use of nontraditional materials like titantium, becoming a cartoon of himself. Simply put, his signature use of bent ribbons of metal atop his buildings is becoming mannered. But in this branch of New York's famed Guggenheim, all of Gehry's ideas come together to make a thing of beauty; it is his masterpiece. I caught a brilliant exhibition by the British Indian artist and, for want of a better word, sculptor Amish Kapoor inside; Kapoor's use of form and color is compelling and unique and worth seeing anywhere. But while it may have been said before that the art of the Guggenheim Bilbao is the museum itself, it having been said before doesn't make it any less true.

2. Riverside Bilbao. Up until 1984, shipyards and piers for the Port of Bilbao lined the polluted Rio Nervion on its sluggish way through the city center. No longer. A visionary city master plan that preceeded the Guggenheim by more than a decade cleared out the old industrial sector, cleaned up the Nervion's waters and installed interesting public art and a relaxed waterside promenade punctuated by a children's playground, plantings and the occasional cafe. The result is a brilliantly reinvented city center that puts most notions of "urban renewal'' to shame. Bilbao did it right. And the process isn't stopping. A glassy, curved highrise by Ceasar Pelli is rising just downriver from the Guggenheim, and the new building promises to become another jewel in Bilbao's crown. Truly, this is a city of architecture.

3. Public transport. It may sound prosaic, praising workaday public transport, but when you try to get around a new city as a foreign visitor, you appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of a first-class public transport system. Modern trams cross the city and thread through greenways beside the river promenade, there is a good system of city buses, and the Norman Foster-designed Metro (the subway) is fast, clean, safe and appealing to the eye. The only missing piece is a dedicated airport Metro line from downtown. The present airport bus is not esthetically pleasing but it costs only 1 euro 15 cents and runs every 20 minutes in peak daytime hours.

4. The Port of Bilbao's new passenger marine terminal. Located downriver from the city center near the mouth of the Nervion, the bright, glassy, airy terminal is scheduled to open right about now. Bilbao is pushing hard to grow its cruise ship business and is seeing success. The port city is on cruise ship routes rounding the Iberian Peninsula between the Mediterranean Sea, England and other key ports in continental Western Europe.

5. Strolling Old Town. The historic quarter, well-served by the Metro and other public transport, is a fine place for strolling, shopping, eating and gawking. Again, it is clean and safe and its compact size and narrow, pedestrian-friendly shopping lanes present a pleasing prospect for travelers. Streets are well-marked in Spanish and Basque, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants and the old town doesn't lack pretty churches and fine examples of traditional architecture. The ornate former main railroad station affords some good photo ops and the entire district achieves a rare balance between being busy and being laid-back.

Other than the Guggenheim, I knew nothing about Bilbao before this visit. I'm glad I came.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Madrid Barajas Airport

In Madrid's Barajas International Airport I found a fine example of how a major international airport should look, feel and operate. I did no more than change planes there on my journey between Bilbao and North America, but that was enough time to enjoy the airport - especially the massive, shiny and efficient terminal 4.

Terminal 4, designed by brand-name architects Richard Rogers and Antonio Lamela, opened in 2006. About a mile and a half away via clean, modern, automated trains is the terminal 4 satellite facility. Together, the two terminals command some 8 million square feet of space inside and out. This makes for one of the largest airport terminals in the world.

Most of the time, as I discovered on my recent transit, this is good; there are plenty of flights, plenty of gates, plenty of shops and comfortable, well-designed passenger lounges. Even when you sit by the departure gate waiting for boarding to begin, the airport is comfortable - thanks in part to its soaring ceilings and enormous windows, which permit plenty of natural light to softly illuminate the space during the daylight hours.

Of course, sometimes - as when you are rushing to make a connecting flight - being in an enormous terminal is not so good. It can take up to 20 minutes to reach the most remote departure gates at Barajas with a combination of walking and riding the automated trains.

Iberia, the big Spanish airline slated to merge with British Airways, is the dominant carrier at Madrid Barajas, accounting for some 60 percent of all passengers. Iberia shares terminal 4 and its satellite facility with BA and other oneworld alliance members. Spaniards I talked to did not speak well of Iberia, and on my return flight to Madrid Barajas from Bilbao, I saw why. Lines were long in the much smaller Bilbao airport, some passenger check-in kiosks weren't working and Iberia's customer service reps took their time dispensing help and advice.

Back at Barajas, this all reversed and the Iberia reps were fine. Fine, too, were Iberia's mezzanine-level first-and-business-class passenger lounges in terminal 4. They were spacious, bathed in natural light and offered oodles of open spaces and nooks for people to work, doze, chat or watch TV. The food offerings, however, were only so-so, more snacks than meals, unlike the great airline lounges in Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.

With nearly 50 million yearly passengers, Madrid Barajas is the 11th-busiest airport in the world, the fourth-busiest in Europe and the biggest and busiest airport in Spain. For all its big numbers, I found operations to be generally smooth. Located only about 8 miles from the city center, Barajas airport is connected to Madrid by line 8 of the modern Madrid Metro.

New York City and U.S. airports, please copy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cell Hell

"HELLO? HELLO? I can't hear you. What? Hold it, hold it, whoa, you're breaking up. I'm over the Rockies. I'M OVER THE ROCKIES! I'll call you back when I get to a land line.''

Sound familiar? Involuntarily overhearing lovers' quarrels, minutes of sales meetings or plans for family vacations could be as close as the guy in front of you with his seat pushed all the way back if persistent proposals to allow the use of personal cell phones in-flight become reality.

Right now, they're just that - proposals - at least in the United States. There's still time to make your voice heard if you feel passionately about the issue one way or another. But the clock is running, and Cell Hell, American Style, may eventually be upon us.

The European Union's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration - the European Aviation Safety Association - has ruled there are no technical reasons why in-flight voice communications wouldn't be safe and efficient. The FAA says there are.

The safety of in-flight mobile phones has been debated in tech circles for years, with no clear consensus.

Since 1991, the FAA has ruled-out personal cell phones in-flight, saying their signals may interfere with an airliner's avionics and compromise safety, or scramble wireless networks on the ground. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission agrees. Seatback phone services have long been available, but never took off, in part because travelers deemed them too expensive.

In December 2004, the FCC shook things up by announcing that it might lift the ban on personal mobile phones. The commission solicited public comment from travelers and reviewed the scientific literature. Then, in April 2007, the FCC decided the ban would stay. There it remains.

With no regulatory green light, no U.S. carrier has pushed plans to allow cell phone service at 35,000 feet. Instead, non-U.S. carriers are driving the agenda. Although cabin crews dread eruptions of air rage between, say, a passenger who wants to sleep or read and one who can't sleep and wants to talk, the ubiquity of mobile phones in modern life and the fact that charging fliers to use them could generate badly needed revenue is tempting airlines to give it a try.

Bmi, a unit of the Lufthansa Group, and Irish carrier ryanair, run by Michael O'Leary - he of the cherished bad-boy public image - have put equipment in place to allow midair chat, according to media reports, and several Asian carriers are reportedly on the brink. If in-flight phone chatter takes off, U.S. carriers will be sorely tempted to follow.

If they do so, it's very likely there will be passenger push-back, at least initially. A few years back, when I wrote about this issue for the San Francisco Chronicle, I got 100 reader e-mails commenting on the subject; more than 90 were opposed to mobile phone use in the sky. For ordinary stories, I customarily received from zero to six or seven comments.

U.S. air travelers can sound off by contacting the FCC's Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC, or e-mailing, or by writing to: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiry and Complaints Division, 455 Twelfth St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20554.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Goodbye, Columbus

Christopher Columbus had one of the coolest job titles ever: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, bestowed upon him by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the monarchs who bankrolled and green-lighted his great westward journey.

Outside of Spain and his native Italy, Columbus has fallen out of favor, as he is often now seen as a symbol of conquest and imperialism. But Columbus Day is still celebrated in North America, and on this Columbus Day, it is well to remember that whatever cultural baggage he may have carried, the intrepid Italian was one of the boldest and most adventurous travelers of all time.

Consider: he made a trip that now takes hours in three tiny wooden ships over a period of months. Most of his contemporaries were convinced the world was flat, and as he sailed off in the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, many flat-earthers were no doubt chortling "Goodbye, Columbus,'' thinking "That's the last we'll ever see of him.'' But Columbus had the last laugh, visiting what Europeans soon called the New World several times and launching what became the West's Age of Discovery and the planet's first major wave of globalization.

True, Columbus was looking for India and didn't find it. And, true, he didn't "discover'' America; millions of indigenous people were already living there. Besides, Viking seafarers and fishermen from Portugal and the Basque region of Spain reached North America before Columbus ever set foot in the West Indies and mistakenly called the locals "Indians.'' Some think the Chinese may have reached South America in an earlier era, too.

None of that negates what Columbus achieved. Eurocentric and insensitive he may have been, and late he was, but once he "discovered'' America, it stayed discovered, which wasn't the case with his predecessors. He changed the world, and not many travelers can say that.

Flat-earthers are, of course, still among us. Forty years ago, they refused to believe the Apollo moon landings were real; staged on a studio backlot and filmed for TV, they insisted. These days, they mostly go into politics.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Travel Alerts, and Common Sense

I just returned from a trip to Europe. Nothing extraordinary about that, except that Americans and many others should consider not traveling to Europe, we are told. Why? Terrorist attacks. Sez who? The governments of the United States, United Kingdom and several other nations.

I am not one to minimize the risk of danger in travel. I am not one to maximize it, either. There have been terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years, but as I can report with some authority, the continent is not blowing up left and right just now. I was in Spain, which suffered a horrendous attack several years ago when politicized Islamic fanatics bombed commuter trains in Madrid. The armed Basque separatist group ETA has also launched fatal attacks at various times over the years in Spain. However, people have got to go on about their business, which most Spaniards have done - usually without untoward results. Travelers should do the same.

As it happens, I was in Basque country last week. My surroundings did not look or feel unsafe and I did not feel threatened hop-scotching from Bilbao to San Sebastian and across the border into France. Travel alerts like the well-publicized international heads-up we had last week - which warned of possible attacks in several European countries, in public places, at tourist favorites, on public transport and so on - are so vague as to be meaningless. We were told to be alert. Always good advice in a stressful modern world, but alert to what specific danger? No answer. That rachets up the stress even more, while not telling anyone what do do about stress.

Staying home is not an option - at least not for me, and not often.

Everyone has to assess their own tolerance for risk, to be sure. One way to do that is to check out the U.S. State Department's travel warnings and advisories and then decide how literally and seriously to take them. Another is simply to pay close attention to the news: online, on paper, on TV and radio - and especially to conversations with people who have recently been where you are thinking of going.

Common sense, no? Yes, and more likely to be helpful than well-intentioned but often-useless government proclamations.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Comedy and Time Travel

For some people, it's hearing a song they associate with a particular time or place, like a first trip overseas. For others, it's a smell, maybe hot cookies, like Mom used to make. For still others, it's an airplane; a plane can be a time machine that takes you from the 21st century to those rare parts of the world that still have pre-industrial, barter economies from centuries ago. These are all forms of travel: in this case, time travel.

For me, the other night, the vehicle for time-travel was comedic. My wife and I went to a 30th anniversary reunion show at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for the San Francisco comedy nightclub the Other Cafe, a popular, innovative venue that thrived in the 1980s.

Even the venue for the big show evoked a kind of time travel: The Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving piece of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition, a successful world's fair that showcased San Francisco's recovery from the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Now the Palace itself is in need of recovery; it has physically deteriorated over the years and is in the midst of a long-term, expensive restoration. The theatre is operating normally, though, and if you're in San Francisco, you can find a full bill of fare there - as well as take some great shots of the Palace out of doors.

The Other Cafe was located in the Cole Valley section of one of San Francisco's epicenters of cool, alternative culture: The Haight-Ashbury. The 49-seat club nurtured the early careers of Dana Carvey, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Pollak, Paula Poundstone, Will Durst, Bobcat Goldthwait and many others. Robin Williams performed there, though he was already famous by the 1980s heyday of the Other. So did the young Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, who were stand-up comedians working the club circuit across the U.S. in the '80s. (See I was able to walk there from my flat in the Upper Haight.

The 30th reunion show was sweet, very long (over 5 hours) and very funny. Most of the comedians are funnier now than they were when I covered live comedy back in the day for the old, Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner; more assured, with sharper timing and more stage presence. Most have aged well physically and professionally. A handful looked shockingly old, even frail. But then I hadn't seen them in 20 to 30 years, so they might have thought the same thing about me. It was a good gig I had back then with the Ex - I got paid for laughing. (If you want to read in more detail about the Other Cafe and the burgeoning '80s comedy scene, check out my Sept. 19, 2010, stories for the San Francisco Chronicle, posted at

The reunion show got me thinking about the passage of time and how people change - and how they stay committed to things they care about. The Other Cafe's former owners, led by Bob Ayres and Chip Romer, organized the reunion bash. The two men, still San Francisco Bay Area residents, have taken different paths since the club closed. Ayres, excited, voluble and passionate about show-business, wants to get back into comedy and sees the reunion show as something of a springboard to future ventures. Romer, quietly funny, white-haired and soft-spoken, is deeply involved in Waldorf charter schools and has served as a school principal; he is passionate, too, but he's passionate about something else: education and the lives of children. The former partners are still friends and both were on-hand for the reunion show.

For me, the show was a wonderfully rich trip back in time, great fun and at times unexpectedly emotional, especially when recalling people from that unique time and place that have passed away. They say that the past is another country. I think this is so. As with any form of travel, I was happy to go visit - and, as with any form of travel, I'm happy to come back home, enriched and rewarded for having gone.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hidden Fees Hoodoo

Today a trifecta of consumer groups presented U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood with a petition signed by 50,000 air travelers demanding that airlines in the U.S. more fully disclose what the groups say are 'hidden' add-on fees: extra charges for checked bags, more legroom and other features that used to be included as part of a basic airfare but now cost extra.

The three organizations - the American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Travel Alliance and Business Travel Coalition - collected signatures on a dedicated Web site, I have misgivings about the anger and casual profanity that riddle American political discourse and wish the groups had chosen another site name, but their overriding concern about fees is well-placed.

The groups acknowledge that cash-strapped airlines need to raise revenue and don't dispute their right to add fees; they just want fees disclosed more clearly. Add-on fees can add significantly more money to the price of a ticket. Often, a corporate travel manager, travel agent or individual consumer doesn't know just how much more until reaching the airport.

Industry groups such as the Air Transport Association, whose member airlines handle more than 90 percent of passengers on U.S. carriers, counter that information about fees is on proprietary airline Web sites. The consumer groups in turn counter that by saying that information is woefully unclear and hard to find. Critics consider such opaque disclosure a form of corporate hoodoo.

So, now what?

No one knows, especially given that Congressional midterm and state elections are barely a month away. But LaHood, who in June imposed steep fines for extended tarmac delays - fines that airlines bitterly opposed - appears determined to beef-up consumer protection on a variety of fronts. For its part, the airline industry seems reconciled to dealing with expanded passenger rights but would like to have a say about what happens next.

"We share the goal of making information easily available to consumers before they purchase a ticket,'' ATA President and CEO James C. May said today in a statement. "We support the use of a hyperlink to disclose optional fees immediately and clearly.''

In theory, then, the parties agree. In practice, they are miles apart. Unless strong headwinds from the U.S. elections blow air-travel reform off-course, expect to see stricter government regulation of aviation - including, but not limited to, extra fees.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Taj Hotel Cape Town

CAPE TOWN - If you were to look for the political, cultural and historical epicenter of this lovely seaside city, you couldn't find anyplace more central than the corner of Wale Street and St. George's Mall: the exact location of the new Taj Hotel Cape Town.

It is just across the street from South Africa's parliament buildings, the lushly landscaped city park called Company Gardens and the old slave lodge - now a museum. Also directly across the street from the hotel is St. George's Cathedral, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped inspire and lead the anti-apartheid struggle.

But while they say location, location, location is the key to success in business, for a hotel it is also service, service, service. The Taj, which opened officially at the end of August after several months operating in a soft opening, has sterling service in abundance. The staff in this posh, 5-star property is anything but starchy; they are warm, prompt and attentive without being in your face. That goes a long way, no matter where you are located.

Run by Mumbai-based Taj Hotels, Palaces and Resorts - part of India's Tata Group conglomerate -the new Taj is installed in two renovated heritage buildings: the 1932 original South African Reserve Bank building with its gorgeous vaulted ceiling, and the 1896 Temple Chambers. Soaring over the meticulously restored and renovated structures - so seamlessly integrated you could never tell they were once two separate buildings - is a new glass tower where the Taj Cape Town's 166 guest rooms are situated. I loved my room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and view of Table Mountain, outside balcony and extra-large bathroom. Oh, it had all the high-tech bells and whistles, too, including an iPod docking station.

The clientele so far has been a nearly even mix of business and leisure travelers, and the hotel's structure reflects that. There are plenty of meeting spaces in the large business center and four personal computers for guest use, albeit at high rates. The spacious, Indian-themed Jiva Grande Spa can help even the most tightly wound executive breathe easy. I had an Indian head massage, lasting 45 minutes, and throughly enjoyed it - and I don't usually like massages.

There are three places to eat in the hotel; the elegant, upmarket Bombay brasserie, which serves contemporary Indian fare under sumptuous chandeliers; the all-day casual dining place Mint, where breakfast is served, accessible from the mall; and Twankey, a smart-casual Champagne, seafood and oyster bar tucked away on two levels. I feasted on tikki chicken wraps and fat Namibia oysters washed down with good South African white wines there.

The only drawback for people from my part of the world - urban North America - is distance. It took me 32 hours door-to-door from hotel to home. Is it worth it? If you can afford the travel time and it fits your budget, most definitely yes. The luxurious Taj Cape Town became one of the city's leading hotels from the moment it opened its doors, providing competition at the top of the international market for the city's highly regarded Mount Nelson and Cape Grace hotels. It will be hard to beat.

The Taj Hotel Cape Town is located on Wale Street, Cape Town 8001, South Africa. Tel. 011 27 (0)21 819 2000. E-mail: Web:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Obama, Roads, Rail and Runways

U.S. President Barack Obama has come up with a truly useful plan that if implemented will have a major and strongly positive impact on travelers. So, naturally - given the angry polarization of U.S. politcs and society generally - there is plenty of opposition to it.

Obama wants to create an infrastructure bank that would bankroll billions - $50 billion USD in the first year - to repair, modernize and extend America's crumbling transport infrastructure. It would be used to build and repair roads, rail lines - including badly needed high-speed rail like the kind common in Japan and parts of Europe - and airport runways. The idea is to create construction jobs in the near term and offer first-world transport infrastructure in the medium and long term. The U.S. has not had such high-quality infrastructure since at least the 1980s. It is now very far behind other developed nations and even some developing nations like China.

There is precedent for using public money to build up U.S. transport infrastructure - and help workers and private companies with an injection of income. In the 1950s and '60s, Washington spent an immense, and justified, amount of money building the now-stressed interstate highway system. Back in the late 1860s, the federal government poured large sums into building the first continent-spanning railroad. Both projects more than paid for themselves over the years and they helped knit together a large, diverse nation.

Obama's idea is thus both practical and visionary. Hence, it faces a long road to approval. It must be approved by Congress. And, well ... as the New York Times notes in a recent report:

"Though transportation bills usually win bipartisan support, hasty passage of Mr. Obama's plan seems unlikely, given that Congress has only a few weeks of work left before lawmakers return to their districts to campaign and that Republicans are showing little interest in giving Democrats any pre-election victories.''

If this badly needed bill does not pass, Democrats won't be the only losers. So will every American traveler and commuter of whatever political stripe and every international guest who visits the United States. For once, U.S. politicans should rise above partisan bickering and do the right thing. I'm not holding my breath, but hope springs eternal, as they say.

FAA to Airlines: Wakey, Wakey

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration proposed today to slightly reduce the number of consecutive hours a commercial airplane pilot can fly and moderately increase the number of consecutive hours pilots have to rest before returning to the cockpit. If the rules-changes are adopted, they'll go into effect in August 2011 for U.S.-based operators.

As with practically everything in civil aviation, the proposal is controversial. Shaving an hour off the allowable number of consecutive hours for flying - to 15, down from 16 - and boosting consecutive hours off by about 25 percent to 30 hours - wouldn't seem to be a big deal. But passenger airlines and operators of cargo and charter flights say this would hurt productivity and complicate scheduling.

Of course, it might also enhance safety, which is the idea. Pilot fatigue has been cited as a contributing factor in a number of plane crashes - and fatal cargo and passenger crashes in recent months have shaken many from their complacency about occupying a hurtling metal tube in the sky. Air travel is still very safe, but it is not perfect, and you really don't want the pilot of your plane to be dozing at the controls. Simply put, this rules-change is a good idea.

A public comment period now begins, running till next August. To comment, go to the agency's Web site:

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Today's Wall Street Journal on ex-JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, the instant 'folk hero' who deployed an emergency chute and exited his flight with beers in hand:

"...after investigations by two agencies in which every passenger and crew member was interviewed, no one on board the Aug. 9 flight from Pittsburgh to New York backed Mr. Slater's account of what led to his now-famous escape, according to law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the probe.

" 'Absolutely no one,' said a Port Authority police official who asked not to be named. "Not one person on that flight corroborates his story.' ''

" 'He got his 15 minutes of fame,' the official continued. 'Everyone became enamored with him, but his story is totally uncorroborated by witness accounts.' ''

Monday, September 6, 2010

Under African Skies

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - There are, of course, more than seven interesting things about Cape Town, widely held by travelers to be the coolest city in South Africa. Here are seven sights in the city and surrounds that caught my attention:

1. The Company Gardens: Once the vegetable and fruit patch of the Dutch East India Co., used to grow food for scurvy-ravaged sailors, the space is now a lush, beautifully landscaped public park and garden in the heart of the city. Set into one flank is the Parliament Building with its white, colonial-era statue of Queen Victoria just outside. The park is a lovely place for a daytime stroll, though visitors are warned not walk alone there at night.

2. Table Mountain: An obvious choice, towering dramatically above the city bowl and terraced hillsides, and often draped in clouds. It's a dramatic and defining element.

3. Outside the city-center, Chapman's Peak: It gives sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other heros of the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned) and the lovely seaside promenade below in a once-seedy area that has been cleaned up.

4. The road from Chapman's Peak: A twisty, hilly artery with phenomenal views, originally laid out as a dirt track in 1915. Traffic is carefully controlled and signposted. Coming down the hillside in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope, your eyes fall upon a 6-kilometer-long white sand beach backed with wetlands. Among other things, locals ride horses up and down the strand.

5. A sign in the car park at Boulder Beach, where the big attraction is Africa's most famous penquin colony: "Warning: Please look under your vehicles for penquins.'' The beach is part of the expansive Table Mountain National Park, on the fringe of the city.

6. A roadside sign in the scrubby, windy stretch of land on the road to the Cape of Good Hope, which Vasco de Gama famously rounded in 1498 on his journey to India: "Baboons!''

There are many of these primates, skittering along the ground, sitting on top of fenceposts and wandering onto the road. Visitors are of necessity warned not to feed or touch them, as they are wild animals, not pets. One baboon that I and my group see along the roadside has a bloody tongue hanging out of his mouth. The guide from Roots Africa Tours ( tells us this one has probably lost a fight and been expelled from his group. Further along, baboons overrrun an ostrich farm and create a diversion so that their fellows can steal the big birds' food.

7. The food and the singing at Two Oceans restaurant at craggy Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. We feast on food heaped in iron skillets - rice, calamari, lobster, a white fish whose name I didn't catch, a good curry - and sit back, sated, as restaurant staff sing traditional African songs and demonstrate a dance. Decidedly touristy, to be sure, but well-done and enjoyable. The lunch is accompanied by excellent wines - one of South Africa's specialties. I sip a glass of a rose brut and sample a 2008 Hartenberg Chardonnay from the wine-growing center Stellenbosch, located an hour from the city in the Cape Winelands.

There may be something finer than drinking good wine at the ends of the Earth, but when you're doing it, it's hard to think of what that something could be.

Transparency and Airline Fees

Here's the nub of the situation:

Airlines - especially money-losers in the United States - have a justifiable business need to make money after a decade of losses. In order to do this they are adding fees for things like checked bags and extra legroom in the cabin. In line with this, airline customers - i.e., we travelers - need to know what all the fees are and how much they cost, quickly and transparently.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Business Travel Coalition - an estimable nonprofit trade group for corporate travel planners - will launch an online consumer campaign in support of a proposed U.S. Department of Transportation rule ( that would require clearer and quicker disclosure of what the BTC calls "hidden airline fees." The BTC ( has additionally declared Sept. 23 to be Mad As Hell Day in the U.S. as a means of dramatizing its support.

In the USA, where free-floating, politicized anger is the coin of the realm in a badly polarized society, Mad As Hell Day may be an unfortunate name. But there is little doubt the campaign's basic point is a good one: Consumers should know, from airline Web sites and other sources, just how much money proliferating airline fees contribute to the ultimate, real cost of their airline ticket. The BTC says checked baggage fees alone "can add 30 percent, 40 percent or more to the cost of a ticket.''

The proposed rules change doesn't prohibit airlines from making business decisions to add fees - it pushes them to clearly disclose the fees.

Airline industry groups such as the Air Transport Association ( point out that this information is available on airline Web sites. But it is often buried deep in the fine print where travelers have a hard time rooting it out. Why not make it easy?

The BTC asks consumers who support its campaign to sign a petition on the dedicated Web site Moreover, the organization asks supporters to "post a link to our Web site on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or other social network."

The BTC's chairman, Kevin Mitchell, also suggests checking out a new YouTube video "by life-long traveler Betty Stewart, and share your story about being surprised by hidden airline fees in the comments section.''

Mitchell writes: "It is imperative that we as consumers have the ability to comparison-shop and know the full cost of a trip before committing to a purchase.''

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ratan Tata on Terror

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - I came to this city of 3.5 million people to attend the opening of the new 5-star Taj Hotel Cape Town, a splendid, business-minded property that blends two renovated heritage buildings with a glassy new tower.

In the process, I heard unexpected words on terror and travel from a global business leader who knows about both. He is Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata & Sons, the huge Indian conglomerate that builds cars, makes steel and does a number of other things. Tata is a very big family business that started at the turn of the 20th century in what was then Bombay (today's Mumbai) with a single hotel: the Taj Mahal Palace.

That Taj was one of the Mumbai targets attacked by terrorists in November 2008 and partly destroyed. I stayed there a year later, while repairs and renovation were still going on and the original 1903 building was still closed to guests. It reopened last month.

In Cape Town for the opening of the new Taj, Tata had a rare meeting with reporters and spoke about the attack - and the determined response to it.

"We saw lives being taken,'' he said. "We saw the hotel burning. We decided to rebuild it brick by brick. It was an emotional time. We lost 31 people. We were able to overcome, and rebuild even better. It came out beautiful.

"It was a statement of defiance,'' Tata said. "You couldn't knock Bombay down.''

Amen to that. Continuing on in the face of menace - and taking precautions while doing so - is the only appropriate response to terrorists. Simply put, you don't let them win.

They couldn't knock Bombay down.

What Took Them So Long?

Finally, after deliberating for the better part of a month, JetBlue Airways fired Steven Slater - the coffee, tea or flee flight attendant who deployed an emergency shute to leave a flight prematurely at JFK International-New York after allegedly cursing out a passenger on the airplane intercom and grabbing a beer. This reckless and selfish act made the errant FA an Internet folk hero, but it shouldn't have. JetBlue was right to fire him - it should have happened sooner.

Flight attendants flocked to support him, pointing out, rightly, that FAs are often treated poorly by their employers and sometimes by passengers. What most Slater supporters did not say is that flight attendants - especially on U.S. carriers - are also often brusque and rude to passengers, who are, after all, paying good money to fly. FAs, however stressed, are paid to be there, and they are trained to deal with uncomfortable situations. Seen in this light, Slater was about as unprofessional as he could have been. Moreover, the would-be hero did not tell off an oppressive and powerful boss before leaving - if media accounts are correct, he dissed dozens of powerless travelers who were unfortunate enough to be in his care. This is a hero?

Slater still faces charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing. He should have a day in court, and if the charges stand up before a judge or jury, he should be convicted and hit with an appropriate penalty. People have got to understand that venting and throwing a temper tantrum on the job is not cool, not clever and not acceptable. Travel is stressful enough already without travel pros unraveling and thinking only of themselves.

Oh, one more thing: Where is the abusive passenger who supposedly triggered the whole thing?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


CAPE TOWN - Jet lag takes many forms, among them the sudden bolt of wide-awakeness that strikes at the most ungodly hour, when you are exhausted and should be sleeping soundly, but can't do it no matter what. And forget about going back to sleep once you have woken up.

On this trip, my first visit to South Africa, the wakey wakey moment has come reliably at 4:30 a.m. This is, of course, a most unfortunate time - both too early and too late to do much of anything - outside your hotel room, especially.

It seems I'm not alone. Fellow travelers in this beautiful seaside city - here for the opening of the 5-star Taj Hotel Cape Town - are having the same experience. And they're having it at the same time. The fact that the beds at the Taj are heavenly doesn't seem to matter in this regard.

Marion, a Philadelphia writer, attests she has come wide awake at 4:30. Chris, a journo from San Francisco by way of Atlanta, same thing - also at 4:30. Joe, a PR whiz from Palm Springs, California, also woke up when he didn't want to.

"When was that?" I asked.

"About 4:30," he replied, bleary-eyed.

It's something that's going around.

I love travel but it has its downside. The jet lag-inspired Big Wake-Up is definitely downside.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cape Town: First Take

CAPE TOWN - It's my first time in Cape Town, South Africa's oceanside gem, and I'm impressed. I'm still looking around, so I don't know the place yet, but the first thing that strikes a new arrival is the beauty of the city and the site. Driving into town from the airport, it reminded me of San Francisco, with houses spilling down craggy hillsides to the water. It's winter here, and the weather, too, reminds me of San Francisco: fog, sunny breaks, lots of wind, temperatures in the 50s and 60s F.

Bish Desmond Tutu's activist center, St. George's Cathedral, is directly across the street from my hotel, the new Taj Hotel Cape Town, which officially opened with a big party last night with Tata and Sons Chairman, the courtly Ratan Tata, on hand for the festivities. It's an unusual but successful amalgam of two repurposed historic buildings with guest rooms in a third structure, a 17-story glassy tower. An old banking hall is now the lobby and bar area. Just outside is St. George's mall, a pedestrianized street lined with curbside merchants selling African keepsakes and what we'll generously term art. Long Street, the city's main boho shopping and drinking street, is nearby. So, too, are the Company Gardens, the former food-growing area - now a beautiful public park - founded by the Dutch East India Company centuries ago. South Africa's pretty parliament building is located in the park, as is the country's attractive National Gallery. The dramatic outcrop of rugged Table Mountain looms over everything.

Walking around the city is generally safe in daytime - it wasn't safe even 10 years ago - and the city and nation still seem to be on a high from South Africa's successful production of the World Cup in June and July. There are, to be sure, many people just shuffling along or occupying park benches, with nowhere to go and nothing to do - a reminder of continuing poverty and class conflicts. Many public sector workers are on strike, protesting low wages, and this is not going down well with the public itself, as essential services are being disrupted. The Johannesburg Star the other day caarried disturbing reports of women forced into delivering babies outside the gates of struck hospitals, with no professional care. Scarey.

For travelers, things are still generally fine, and if you can spare the time and money, making a journey here is well worth it. I'm off on a wine safari today - just my speed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: Virgin America's Main Cabin Select

If you're interested in Virgin America - the 3-year-old start-up out of San Francisco that is 25-percent owned by British billionaire Richard Branson - check out my review of the carrier's Main Cabin Select (biz class) in the August issue of Global Traveler magazine. It's on page 19 if you've got the print edition, and posted under GT tested at if you don't.

I won't repeat all the details here. Suffice it to say Main Cabin Select is a superior U.S. domestic business class product - which is to say, it combines features of a full-out biz class and aspects of premium economy. I'm flying with Virgin America again tomorrow, again in Main Cabin Select, and looking forward to it - at least as much as one can when flying domestic. The airline is stylish, and none of its flight attendants has skipped out from completing a flight, as far as I know, though a few may be auditioning for TV's "Fly Girls.'' Of course, it is as subject to antiquated U.S. air traffic control systems and outdated airports as any other airline.

Actually, it's good to see Virgin America (not Virgin Atlantic, the U.S. carrier licenses the Virgin brand from Branson) flying at all. It took all of 2006 and most of 2007 to convince U.S. aviation regulators that Branson doesn't run the company - which would be a violation of U.S. law restricting majority ownership and operational control to U.S. citizens. Many countries have such laws and they are about as relevant in a globalized age as the latest regulations on buggy whips. Continental Airlines led a calvalcade of complaints from competitors and the new airline almost didn't get off the ground. Relative sanity prevailed and Virgin America launched in August 2007.

Here's to it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bad Idea No. 5099

It's not often that travelers truly, deeply, madly feel sorry for airlines, given pared-to-the-bone customer service, petulent flight attendants who think it's all about them, proliferating add-on fees and more, but sometimes a fair-minded person simply has to take their side.

Such is the case now for me. I read in UK newspaper The Guardian that the European Union has threatened to take legal action against the KLM unit of Air France/KLM because the carrier has compensated stranded passengers for only 24 hours of expenses occasioned by the Iceland volcanic ash cloud, instead of paying for all hotels and meals, as required by law. In many cases, I line up on side of put-upon air travelers in conflicts with airlines, but the airlines didn't cause the volcano to erupt, did they? And they didn't make the decision to close much of European air space this past spring, causing millions of travelers to be stranded, did they? They did not.

The EU is citing EU rule 261 in its criticism of KLM. This is the often-estimable law that requires airlines to compensate passengers for things that ARE their fault, like mechanical failure, or involuntarily bumping passengers from flights the airlines have overbooked. Problem is, EU rule 261 (the United States has a weaker version, generically known as U.S. rule 240) doesn't differentiate between things that airlines can control and things they can't. It's a blunt instrument operating on the premise that one size fits all. That's a false premise. An act of nature - what some may call an act of God - is way outside the portfolio of even the most dieified CEO.

In the short term, KLM may lose out with its foot-dragging, alienating both EU authorities and passengers who, through no fault of their own, ended up horribly stressed and having to pay unanticipated expenses. In the medium- and long-term, Brussels should take another look at rule 261 and revise it in light of common sense and fairness. In a business riddled with bad ideas, rule 261 is bad idea number - oh, I don't know - let's say bad idea number 5099.

The world's airlines, already reeling from the Great Recession, terrorism, volatile fuel prices, fears of pandemic disease and more, don't need this inflexible, unfair rule on their plate, too.