Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum

Those niggling extra fees that cash-strapped airlines have added-on in the last couple of years? They will account for a whopping $58 billion USD in ancillary revenue in 2010, according to a new report from Sydney's Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.

Upshot for travelers: Expect more fees, at higher levels, for more services. Money-losing airlines need the revenue they bring in, especially so since consumers seduced by low-fare carriers resist fare increases. Call it "bespoke'' service, call it customization, call it what you like, it's the trend of the moment and it is only going to intensify. You want to check a bag? Get some extra legroom? Have lunch en route? You're going to keep paying more for it.

This trend started with low-cost carriers in the United States on domestic routes, though now nearly all U.S. carriers have followed suit. LCCs in Europe and Asia are embracing fees, too, and a few big legacy carriers such as British Airlines - which is facing a scary bottom line and strike threats from staff - are adopting similar policies.

"Air fares around the world, particularly in the U.S., have fallen sharply since the onset of the recession, making baggage fees and other ancilliary revenue items an increasing lifeline to the airline sector,'' said CAPA executive director Peter Harbison in a statement.

Other ancilliary revenue streams are flowing toward the airlines from items such as in-flight advertising, access to airport lounges and what CAPA terms "related travel products,'' including insurance, care hire and accommodation.

"A sizeable figure, $58 billion USD, however, represents just 12 percent of airline revenue, suggesting we are just at the start of the movement to monetise services and products passengers used to receive as part of the ticket price,'' Harbison said.

For airlines, it's probably necessary. For travelers, it's read it and weep - and reach for your wallet.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama's Transport Report Card: a so-So C+

The National Business Travel Association - which tracks developments in transport in the United States and advocates for industry stakeholders - just issued a report card for U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama's grade: a less than inspiring C+, just about average.

To put matters into perspective: Obama has held office for just a year, and he has a lot on his plate: global warming, war and peace, the national and global economy and more. Moreover, the NBTA is just one group. But it is a well-informed and attentive group, and the organization's assessment of what Obama's doing and not doing is worth taking seriously.

The administration's highest grade - an A - comes on infrastructure, due mostly to the $8 billion Obama has pledged for much-needed, long-delayed high-speed rail projects. It's great to see the U.S. take a leaf from Japan, China and Europe's book and pay attention to rail again, but airports, highways, bridges, tunnels and other essential pieces of travel infrastructure need serious tending to, as well.

At the other end of the grading system, the administration gets an F for not actively supporting long-term funding for an updated, next-generation air traffic control system at the always-stressed Federal Aviation Administration. It gets an incomplete for White House efforts on energy and climate change.

Other grades fall in-between the very top and the very bottom. There's a B+ for airline performance and aviation congestion - but some perspective is needed there, too. On-time flights and congestion have improved marginally in the U.S. due to the simple fact that fewer people are flying into the headwinds of the Great Recession. The real test will come when travelers return to the sky and the road as the recession finally winds down.

Michael W. McCormick, the NBTA's executive director and chief operating officer, sums things up this way:

"The refusal of our government to prioritize the modernization of our aviation system is a significant failure. Our economy relies heavily on the efficiency of air travel. In fact, business travel alone contributes $260 billion to the U.S. economy. We've found that investment in business travel could lead to the creation of millions of new jobs.''

One could add the fact that these aren't solely American issues. The U.S. has the largest air traffic system in the world. What happens in the U.S. has major consequences for travel everywhere. Let's hope Obama earns a steadily rising grade in the years to come.

Friday, January 29, 2010

More Travel Turbulence Ahead?

The United States economy grew by a healthy 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to the first estimate by the U.S. Commerce Department. Well, we'll see. The Commerce Department twice lowered healthy-sounding reports of growth for the previous quarter, after more data came in. Will the same thing happen again?

Me, I am not yet convinced that we are seeing those much-touted green shoots of recovery. Virtually no one I talk to - not the operator of our local laundry, not the contractor who is doing work on our house, not the owner of a private school, not most people I know or companies I follow in the travel business - thinks we are emerging quickly from the worldwide economic free-fall that started in earnest in 2008.

The latest scary metric comes from the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association,whose member airlines carry 93 percent of the world's air travelers. The year 2009 saw the greatest decline in civil aviation since 1946, according to IATA statistics released this week. Students of history will recall that 1946 was the first year after the end of World War II.

Oh, the petrodollar-fueled Middle East aviation sector still grew (up 11.2 percent) in 2009, as did Latin American traffic (up 7.1 percent). But the much-larger markets of Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America fell - down 5.6 percent, 5.0 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively. Worldwide, passenger demand was down 3.5 percent, though there was some growth in December over the extremely weak month of December 2008.

"In terms of demand, 2009 goes into the history books as the worst year the industry has ever seen,'' says Giovanni Bisignani, the former Al Italia chief who heads IATA as its director general and CEO. "We have permanently lost 2.5 years of growth in passenger markets and 3.5 years of growth in the freight business.''

"Yields have started to improve with tighter supply-demand conditions in recent months, but they remained 5-10 percent down on 2008 levels,'' Bisignani said. "Airlines will lose an expected $5.6 billion USD in 2010.''

So, is the glass half-empty or half-full? I'd like to think it's half-full, but with the exception of unique travel companes such as Southwest Airlines - which, incredibly, declared its 134th consecutive quarterly dividend this past quarter - the major stakeholders in the travel biz such as airlines, hotels, tour operators and cruise lines continue to grapple with turbulent times. Fasten your seatbelts - there's a long way to go.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Tech Travel Tools

The travel biz is still down in much of the world, but that's not holding back new travel tech, especially when it comes to travel update alerts and social networking.

Just this past week, several new initiatives came to my attention. Such as:

** Ever-active Lufthansa says it has "introduced additional features to My Sky, a social networking tool that automatically sends flight status updates to users' Facebook and Twitter accounts. A new e-mail option allows travelers to send updates via e-mail, including a personalized message and the ability to select who will receive the update and when.''

MySkyStatus, Lufthansa reminds customers, "tracks all carriers, so that travelers of any airline can share departure, in-flight location and arrival updates, no matter where they're flying.'' (

** Etihad Airways, the elegant national flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, is rolling out a new Apple iPhone aplication for members of Etihad Guest, "the first application of its kind to offer users real-time loyalty points redemption,'' the airline says.

The app is available free for downloading from the Apple Inc. iPhone store, which Etihad Guest members can use to: redeem points for more than 1,700 products at the Etihad Rewards shop; access exclusive promotions; view account information; and scroll through a directory of the airline's program partners.

** Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, the Hong Kong luxury group, is offering a multilingual mobile Web site at that, the company says, will give users access to interactive maps and enhanced photos of Shangri-la properties around the world. This offering, in English, Chinese and Japanese, is designed for smart phones and optimised for the Apple iPhone. Shangri-la is probably the leading 5- and 4-star hotel company in China and is opening new hotels in Europe in the next several years. In 2009, Shangri-la opened a glistening highrise property in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Canada, as well.

Meanwhile, the travel biz is in many ways still sputtering. Air travel, in particular, is being bumped around, and business in the front of the cabin is especially bad. According to the authoritative numbers-crunchers at Geneva's International Air Transport Association, "The number of passengers traveling in first or business class in November was 6.7 percent lower than a year earlier.''

2008 was, as we remember, an awful year. So, we still have a ways to go before the travel biz - not to mention the rest of the world economy - is back where it should be. Nice to know, though, that innovation is not stopping, even in these challenging times.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The 10 Best Movies Ever Made About Travel

Travel is one subject that filmmakers just can't leave alone, and it's easy to see why. Real-life travel highlights heady possibilities for adventure, escape, fantasy, discovery, sex and romance - not to mention scenery. All that makes travel prime material for reel-life, too.

As a travel journalist, I am addicted to globetrotting, and a decade of reviewing movies and covering the film-festival circuit for a San Francisco newspaper confirmed forever my love of the movies. I decided to put movies and travel together to come with a list of the 10 best travel movies ever made. (I wrote the first version of this piece for; this is the slightly tweaked 2.0 version.)

These pictures are feature films - that is to say, they are fiction. They are not travel documentaries (by your leave, Michael Palin; hope you don't mind, Rick Steves.) They are not films that use travel just for beautiful backdrops, like the James Bond flicks or the innumerable caper movies out there. These films - scary, steamy, funny, dreamy - have travel at or close to their core.

In no particular order:

"Up in the Air.'' OK, it didn't do so well at the Golden Globes. This current hit earns a place on the 10-best list anyway for Jason Reitman's smart script and adept direction and vivid performances by George Clooney as a smooth but hollow "career transition consultant,'' Anna Kendrick as a just-graduated B School barracuda, Vera Farmiga as a worldly business traveler with a secret and Jason Bateman as the boss with a heart of glass. The movie turns conventional and bogs down toward the end, but it captures perfectly the impersonal intimacy that corporate road warriors experience. When much-traveled Clooney, on an airplane, is asked where he's from and says "I'm from here,'' it rings true.

"Around the World in 80 Days.'' An old-school Hollywood epic, this 1956 costume adventure, starring David Niven as a London gentleman in the 1870s determined to go 'round the world in 80 days to win a wager, is based on the novel by Jules Verne and shot in wide-screen 70 mm. Producer Mike Todd spared no expense for sets and on-location eye candy. The story takes Niven's gentleman and his butler (played by the Mexican comedian Cantinflas) on a breathless jourrney from Europe to India to Japan, the U.S. Wild West and back to London. It becomes a literal and figurative flight of fancy when the peripatetic pair visits Spain in a hot air balloon. Never mind the 2004 re-make; this one is the one to see.

"Enchanted April.'' This color-drenched 1992 feature, based on a 1922 novel, epitomizes a subgenre: The story of repressed, buttoned-up Britons and other Northern Europeans who go to sunny, sensual Italy (or France, or Spain or the Greek isles), find romance and learn to lighten up. Shot in beautiful Portofino, Italy, this tale of the redemptive power of travel has a sterling British cast that includes Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Alfred Molina. Polly Walker is the slinky Lady Caroline, complete with Roaring '20s Louise Brooks helmet hair and come-hither eyes.

"The Beach.'' Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a young American backpacker who gets in way over his head, directed by Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire'' fame and shot on drop-dead gorgeous tropical islands in Thailand, this 2000 release spotlights the grotty, risky side of travel. Tilda Swinton is convincingly predatory as a dropout cult leader on a hidden isle. The story, based on a 1996 novel, is a showy but sobering cautionary tale for innocents abroad.

"Roman Holiday.'' The screen's most beguiling enchantress, the young Audrey Hepburn, plays a cosseted princess who wanders incognito and delightedly wide-eyed through the Eternal City in the company of a worldy-wise American journalist (Gregory peck). Her lighter-than-air performance in this modern fairy tale, released in 1953, won a Best Actress Oscar for Hepburn. Today, nearly 60 years after the film was made, weathered commemorative plaques around Rome mark the spots where director William Wyler shot key scenes.

"Lost in Translation.'' Director Sophia Coppola's second feature, released in 2003, has a dreamy, out-of-body charm that disguises its intricate structure. Bill Murray, as an uninspired American movie star visiting Japan to make a TV commercial for big bucks, meets fellow fish-out-of-water traveler Scarlett Johansson, whose photographer husband is forever scooting off to shoot starlets and rock bands. These two lonely souls, jet-lagged and sleepless, meet in one of the world's great hotels, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and set off to explore neon-lit Tokyo. The couple forges a May/September romance that combines wistfulness and zaniness in equal measure.

"Murder on the Orient Express.'' What's a travel best-list without a crime on a train (or ship or plane)? Agatha Christie's novel supplies the murder and the train, and an all-star cast - including Albert Finney as Inspector Poirot, with Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and other luminaries - supply knowing, enjoyably broad acting, while perhaps the most famous long-distance train in the world races from Istanbul to England. There are 13 suspects and many red-herring clues in the 1974 release, the first of several starry, big-screen adaptations of Christie who-dun-its.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles.'' It's 1987, and affluent family-man Steve Martin is seated next to a decidedly downmarket shower curtain-ring salesman played by John Candy, a gabby, sloppy guy who pretty much lives his life on the road. Martin is trying to get home to suburban Chicago and his wife and kids for the holidays. Comic complications ensue. He can't seem to shake the needy but oddly endearing Candy, and he can't for the life of him get home quickly, no matter how many frustrating changes of itinerary he makes. Directed by the late John Hughes with a deft storyteller's touch.

"Road to Singapore.'' This willfully goofy 1940 comedic ride to the tropics of Southeast Asia is good fun, with Bing Crosby providing the silky crooning and Bob Hope the can-you-believe this wisecracks. There are, of course, gorgeous dames and exotic locales (actually, sets). Almost any of the seven Hope-Crosby "Road' pictures, released from 1940 to 1962, can fill in, as all follow the same dated but well-crafted escapist formula. Zanzibar, Morocco, Rio de Janeiro, Bali and Hong Kong are other destinations in the series - as is far off-Utopia.

"Before Sunrise.'' Writer-director Richard Linklater creates a magical, two-character chamber piece in this 1995 movie, starring Ethan Hawke as a college-age American guy traipsing around Europe and Julie Delpy as a young Frenchwoman doing the same. They meet on a train and spend a romantic night wandering around Vienna and talking about life before promising to meet again, maybe. The 2004 sequel, "Before Sunset,'' shot in Paris, is good, too, but lacks this film's charming sense of discovery.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

JAL, R.I.P.?

The airline world is abuzz with rumors about the possible bankruptcy or outright failure of Japan Airlines - JAL. Will the Japanese government rescue JAL for the fourth time in the past decade, to offset its massive losses? Will Delta Air Lines and the SkyTeam alliance lure JAL from the oneworld alliance to SkyTeam for a cool $1 billion? Will JAL opt for a $1.4 billion investment and code-share offer from oneworld's American Airlines and British Airways?

No one knows for sure what shape a reconfigured JAL could take in the weeks and months ahead. The only certainty is that it will be a very different airline, probably a smaller one. If U.S. or other foreign carriers buy into JAL, the airline will be useful to them mainly as a conduit to the rest of Asia, where civil aviation is still growing, despite the global economic downturn.

JAL, industry observers say, expanded too fast, ran with too much overhead and carries huge debt from borrowing and substantial pension obligations. Tackling all these issues will be paramount, no matter what future form this very good airline takes, or who is at the controls.

Make no mistake, JAL is a very good airline, indeed.

It recently came first in a survey of global airline on-time performance, just ahead of its Japanese rival, Al Nippon Airways, and Scandinavian Airlines, which came third.

Statistics aside, flying with JAL is just a very pleasant experience. I flew with JAL in April 2009, on a trip my wife and I took mainly to see Japan's justly famous cherry blossoms (the sakura). We loved seeing Tokyo's Imperial Palace, its moat lined with pink and white sakura, some branches bowing low over the water before the palace's massive stone walls. In Kyoto, the cherry blossoms softened city parks and lined the Philosophers' Walk, a narrow macadam path in central Kyoto that runs alongside a limpid stream.

Back in Tokyo, I whisked through security at Narita airport for my return flight in less than 10 minutes - a big improvement from the glacial lines I have at times endured at Narita. The JAL Sakura Lounge is one of the best I have seen anyhwere in the world, graced with lovely food, a full-bar, smoking and non-smoking sections, even a cell phone-free zone. Want to sip a beer? An automatic dispenser tilts the glass, to minimize the suds. The lounge is expansive and washed with natural light and spreads out over two levels.

Returning home in JAL business class, Japanese polish and refinement were everywhere evident. The cabin crew were gracious, the food was good, accompanied by pleasantly flowery, chilled sake. Flat-bed seats inside hard plastic shells assured privacy even as they provided much-needed rest. Lunch came in a lacquer bento box accompanied by steaming green tea. The in-flight entertainment system was on the blink for part of my flight, but that was the only glitch on a 8 hour 45 minute flight to San Francisco International Airport.

Most passengers don't know it, but JAL is an industry leader in environmental measures. The carrier has reduced its carbon emissions by 20 percent since 1990, according to Yasuroi Abe, JAL's vice president for environmental affairs. This has been done, Abe told me in an interview at JAL's central-Tokyo headquarters, by flying smaller, lighter planes, flying newer planes, even reducing weight by using lighter dishware in first- and business-class, and less paint on the outside of its 270 aircraft. In January 2009, JAL ran one engine on experimental bio-fuel during a successful test flight. Like many airlines, it hopes to come up with an environmentally friendly, affordable alternative to petroleum.

Will this accomplished airline - Japan's erstwhile national flag carrier, privatized in 1987 - survive in recognizable form? I hope so. Now, we wait.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Like a Virgin

They play hardball in the travel biz. Ask anyone at Virgin America, a San Francisco-based, low-fare, high-style airline that launched commercial passenger service more than two years ago - and hasn't stopped fending off legal challenges ever since.

I don't know if Virgin America - which licenses its name from minority owner Richard Branson's UK-based Virgin Group - ever truly expected a smooth ride, but if so, I imagine the carrier has lost its innocence by now.

First, the fledgling airline's application to the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin service was held up when several mainline U.S. competitors, led by Continental Airlines, charged it wasn't in compliance with U.S. laws that restrict foreign ownership of any U.S. airline to a minority share. The application was approved, but only after the airline jettisoned its founding CEO, Fred Reid, who the DOT thought was too close to Branson. Branson tapped Reid, a former Delta and Lufthansa executive, to get Virgin America off the ground. Virgin America's first flight finally took off in August 2007.

Then, in early 2009, the Alaska Air Group Inc., which operates Alaska Airlines, similarly charged that Virgin America was not U.S.-owned and controlled. After renewed deliberation, DOT ruled last week that it is, while prompting several changes in the stakes of investors and the appointment of the airline's current CEO, former American Airlines executive David Cush, to the board of directors. This expands the board to nine members from eight, with seven of the directors being U.S. citizens.

As if all that wasn't enough, U.S. aviation legend Chuck Yeager, the former aircraft-test pilot - a main figure in Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff'' and the 1980s movie adaptation of the same title - has sued Virgin America. Yeager claims the airline used his name "maliciously, oppressively and fraudulently,'' in promotional material, according to Andrew S. Ross's The Bottom Line column in the Jan. 8 business section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Virgin America, according to the Chronicle, praised Yeager in passing in an e-mail sent to its frequent fliers to ballyhoo on-board Wi-Fi, which it has pioneered among U.S. airlines.

"Not unlike Buzz Aldrin or Chuck Yeager, you have the opportunity to be part of a monumental moment in air travel,'' the e-mail reads, as quoted in Ross's reporting. Yeager says the airline didn't ask permission to use his name, and is asking for "the revenue and profits'' derived from its use, as well as "exemplary and punitive charges.'' The Chronicle's headline on the column: "Yeager's Suit - the Wrong Stuff.''


Virgin America might prefer the exposure it will be getting on a new reality TV show, "Fly Girls,'' premiering on the CW network. "Fly Girls'' follows five young, not-average-looking female flight attendants who fly a lot and party a lot. The FAs work for Virgin America. That should be a boost to brand awareness.

As for Branson and foreign ownership, I can only say this: Most countries, convulsed by national security fears and worried about potential job losses, limit foreign ownership and control of their airlines. But, why? Business is global now, and the airline business is the main mode of transport for global commerce, especially travel and tourism. As much as any industry, civil aviation makes business more international than it's ever been. (I'll revisit this subject, and argue that such ownership rules are outdated and mercantilist, in another post.)

The British? Speaking as an American, I daresay the Brits haven't harmed the United States since they burned the White House during the War of 1812. You'd think we'd be over it by now. They're mainly a good lot. Of course, the British did give us Slade, Princess Di and Madonna faking a lady-of-the-manor English accent, so maybe it's OK to fear them after all. Probably not in aviation, though.

Virgin America, which flies to 10 U.S. cities and has ambitions to fly to 50, deserves a break. It's a good airline, a leader in in-flight technology, and a spur to much-needed competition in the U.S. domestic market. Allowing the airline to operate on that level playing field that everyone keeps nattering on about wouldn't be such bad thing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Darwinian Travel

Everyone knows Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a great scientist, formulator of a breakthrough theory of earthly evolution. What a lot of people don't know is that he was also a great travel writer: precise, acute, adventurous and a gifted descriptive writer.

I recently completed a round the world trip; it took me 28 days. Travel was a bit different in Darwin's day, well before the age of jet planes. His round the world trip on the HMS Beagle, which took him to South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and to numerous island groups, including the Galapagos, took five years. Darwin, a robust man in his twenties when he made the sea voyage, wrote his first classic book, "The Voyage of the Beagle,'' in 1839, three years after returning to England. I just finished reading the book, and it is brilliant.

A good many things have changed in travel since the 1830s, but one thing that hasn't is people's propensity to jump to sweeping conclusions about places we have just visited.

But let Darwin say it:

"... as the traveler stays but a short time in each place, his descriptions must generally consist of mere sketches, instead of detailed observations. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge, by inaccurate and superficial hypotheses.''

T'was ever thus, we can be certain.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Lounge the World's Airports

What we have here is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that with the double whammy of delayed and canceled flights and snarled, crisis-driven airport security, travelers are more likely to spend more time in airports than ever before. The good news is, airports are growing more attractive - especially if you can get into posh passenger lounges, where options for eating, drinking, working and relaxing abound.

Here are 10 airport lounges around the world where you might not mind being grounded:

MIAMI INTERNATIONAL, American Airlines Admirals Club. Expansive, with comfortable seating, big-screen TVs tuned to news and sports, some basic hot and cold snacks and a decent bar just off a central lobby-like space. The lounge is helpfully divided into snug work spaces and quiet places to chill, with half a dozen private shower rooms. A good place to pass time before those early morning/late night flights to Latin America - a mainstay of AA in this gateway city. Located in the main terminal, concourse D, across from gate D30 and up one floor.

NEW YORK JOHN F. KENNEDY INTERNATIONAL. Lufthansa Airlines Premium Lounge. Opened in January 2009, Lufthansa spent $10 million U.S. upgrading and enlarging this lounge. Actually, it's a 16,000 square foot complex of three lounges: first class, located on the third level, serves the German carrier's highest-level frequent fliers and includes a dining room and shower facilities; the Senator lounge , on the second level, boasts parquet floors, showers and a bar stocked with German beers and wines; business class, on the main level, is 75 percent larger than its predecessor, with a cinema-style theater with four LCD televisions and 18 seats. The food throughout is handled by Vienna's DO & Co., which also caters Formula 1 events. Located in terminal 1, directly behind security.

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL, United Airlines Red Carpet Club. The largest lounge in SFO's glittering, circa-2000 international terminal, this business-class redoubt has a large expanse devoted to work cubicles, a sweeping runway view for people who'd rather daydream, and a hosted bar good for two free drinks. The only downside is the minimalist food offerings. Downstairs, United has a smaller, quieter, gracious first class lounge with pieces of fine-art. Located in the international terminal, just past security, on the right, up one floor.

LONDON HEATHROW, British Airways Galleries. BA spent a reported $125 million U.S. designing and building a suite of six passenger lounges in the just under 2-year-old terminal 5 at Heathrow, the world's busiest airport for international travel. It shows in quality of materials and attention to detail. The first class lounge has a dining room, dozens of free-access, wide-screen PCs, a Champagne bar and, in a nod to environmental concerns, a virtual hearth. The business class lounge has good food and a huge work area for firing up the laptop, plus free Wi-Fi. Located past security on level 5, in terminal 5.

LONDON HEATHROW, Virgin Atlantic Airways Clubhouse. When Richard Branson's cheeky, upstart carrier opened its Heathrow Clubhouse lounge for Upper Class (Virgin's combined first/business class) fliers back in the '90s, it seemed the Mother of All Airport Lounges, with its manicurist, massage therapist and putting green. The competition has intensified since then, but Virgin's signature lounge is still a gem, with, among other things, a library for quiet time away from mobile phones, a cocktail bar, observation deck and restaurant-style meals. Located in terminal 3, lounge zone H, on the way to gates numbered in the 20s.

ISTANBUL ATATURK International, Millennium Lounge. This spacious lounge, shared by a number of international airlines, is nothing to look at, but it offers decent hot food, non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks, snug seating areas and refuge from the crowds and high prices in Turkey's largest airport. Moreover, it's open 24 hours, a rarity. Located in the main international terminal, up one level, after main airport security and before a second screening at the departure gates.

ABU DHABI INTERNATIONAL, Etihad Airways Premium Lounge. The sumptuous first class lounge of the United Arab Emirates' national flag carrier boasts a kitchen and chef's table, a spa, cigar lounge, Champagne bar, day beds and sleek modern furniture. The business class lounge also has a spa, plus a cocktail bar, an art gallery and business center. Open 24 hours a day. Located in terminal 1, just past the departures immigration desk.

DUBAI INTERNATIONAL, Emirates Air. This elegant lounge shows what money can buy - which, it turns out, is a lot, even in the Great Recession. The first class lounge has a wine cellar, spa, buffet and juice bars, a childrens' play area and free Wi-Fi. The business class lounge has a spa (for a fee), showers, two business centers, PCs and a conference room. Located in terminal 3.

HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL, Cathay Pacific Airways. Cathay has two blue-chip lounges at its home airport in Hong Kong. The Wing, for both first- and business-class travelers, features the superb Long Bar, which overlooks the concourse and is flooded with soft natural light; the Noodle Bar has some of the best airport food on the planet. Open from 5:30 a.m. till the last flight departs and located on level 6 and 7, the main concourse. Cathay's newest lounge, The Pier, lacks the abundant natural light of The Wing, as it's located on a lower level, but is similarly kitted out and comfortable. The Pier is open daily from 6 a.m. till 11:30 p.m. Located on level 5, northwest concourse, near gates 62-66.

SINGAPORE CHANGI INTERNATIONAL. Singapore Airlines' Silver Kris Lounge and Kris Flyer Gold Lounge host the carrier's frequent fliers and holders of the Star Alliance gold card. Both the
airport and the airline score consistently high on surveys of frequent long-haul travelers, and it's easy to see why. Buffet food offerings are toothsome, there is plenty of room to work and dozens of free PCs. Some work stations look out over Changi's lush signature indoor tropical gardens.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

H1N1 Flu: The Y2K of this Decade

Do you remember the sky-is-falling furor surrounding the conversion of computers to the 2000s when the incredibly-hyped new millennium was fast-approaching in the late '90s?

I sure do. I was assigned by the San Francisco Examiner to go to San Francisco International Airport on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, to bear witness if Federal Aviation Administration head Jane Garvey's arriving plane fell from the sky come the witching hour, as view-with-alarm Y2K Cassandras said it might. It didn't. Garvey, who was jetting around the skies of the United States all through the night to reassure anxious travelers, continued on her high-flying tour.

With every public pronouncement about H1N1 influenza - the so-called swine flu - I am reminded more and more of the Y2K non-event, which produced very few untoward incidents with computers anywhere. The world's techies tweaked some systems, but in some countries - notably, in the developing world - few or no adjustments were made, and the outcome was the same as in countries that spent a lot of money and time facing down the Y2K threat.

Ten years on, a similar phenomenon is happening with the flu. Public health officials in many nations - at the urging of the World Health Organization and its view-with-alarm director, Hong Kong physician Margaret Chan - have declared H1N1 a worldwide pandemic. From spring 2009 onward, we saw incidents where entire hotels were quarantined, airline passengers and crews took to the skies while wearing surgical masks, schools shut down and travel numbers dipped, due to global fears of the flu.

Back in May, I called this a pandemic of panic, and I believe it was a good call. According to WHO statistics, up to 500,000 people per year die from ordinary seasonal flu. WHO statistics last week put the worldwide number of deaths from H1N1 at 11,500. I don't mean to make light of the tragic, premature deaths of the victims, but looked at rationally and globally, this is a blip on the medical radar.

Chan and other experts warn that the virus could yet mutate in dangerous and unpredictable ways, maybe even joining forces with the truly lethal avian flu virus - H5N1 - so we mustn't lower our guard. Taking common-sense steps to prevent the spread of contagious disease, such as washing hands and covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, is always advisable. Panicking is not. Flu fear is no reason not to travel, not to go to school, not to go to work, not to see friends.

The world's medical laboratories have rolled out enough vaccine for many millions of preventive swine flu shots. Some of that vaccine has gone unused in rich nations, where, Chan allows, the disease seems to have peaked. These countries are contemplating shipping the excess vaccine to poor countries where cases are still rising, such as Egypt, Vietnam and Indonesia.

As for Chan, herself, there is a certain irony. Following months of her warnings and admonitions, we find this tidbit in an Associated Press story filed from WHO headquarters in Geneva and published in the New York Times on Dec. 29:

"Chan acknowledged she had yet to get her own swine flu shot. Only just back from leave, she said she asked her medical service to find out where she can get vaccinated.''

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


When the United States unveiled a list of 14 countries whose citizens are due for extra screening in U.S. airports, the list was dominated by countries that have produced both actual and wanna-be terrorists: your Saudi Arabias, your Yemens, your Irans.

Also on the list in the wake of the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing near Detroit: Cuba.


This makes no sense, except as a relic of Cold War politics - and, of course, as a bow to the politically powerful South Florida Cuban American community, seen as a swing vote in U.S. elections by vote-conscious politicans, Barack Obama not excepted.

Cuba has never attacked the United States. The United States has, however, attacked Cuba. I would suggest that citizens of the U.S. could be put on a list for extra screening when they enter Cuba, except that the U.S. forbids most of its citizens from going to Cuba in the first place. This long-standing travel ban has effectively squelched what could be a thriving tourism trade. Journalists can visit Cuba, and a few other Americans manage to travel there through Mexico or Canada, but far more would go if they could do it legally.

Here's a notation from History 101: In 1961, the U.S. armed and equipped a small army of far-right Cuban exiles and turned them loose inside Cuba, where they were soundly defeated by the heavily armed far-left government of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Since then, there have been a number of botched attempts by U.S. interests to assassinate Castro.

The Cuba of Fidel - and now, Raul - Castro is not without major faults. The Cuban government does not tolerate dissent and uses the U.S. as a handy whipping boy whenever anything goes wrong economically or politically in Cuba, which it often does. Most seriously from an internationalist perspective, Cuba harbored Soviet missiles in the early 1960s, nearly triggering a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. This was one of the first and sternest foreign-policy tests for a young U.S. president called John F. Kennedy. In the 1960s and '70s, Cuban adventurism saw Havana supporting insurrections in Latin America and Africa. Cuba has dispatched spies to the U.S. to keep tabs on its Cuban American foes, too, but this is standard-issue spycraft, as practiced by many countries. It is not terrorism.

Successive U.S. presidents - ever mindful of their anti-communist cred and that influential Cuban American voting bloc - have treated Cuba harshly, beaming propagandistic TV and radio broadcasts to the island, choking remittances from Cubans living in the U.S. to their needy relatives in Cuba, maintaining an increasingly anachronistic trade embargo on most commerce and investment on the island - and limiting the freedom of U.S. citizens to travel there. In effect, that also limits the right of U.S. citizens to see the realities of the world for themselves, and to think for themselves. The insensibly villified Bill Clinton tried to loosen trade and travel restrictions in his second term in the White House, but when Cuban fighter jets shot down planes taken by Cuban exiles into Cuban airspace, even half-measures became politically untenable.

It is in this light that the inclusion of Cuba on this new screening list must be viewed. It's sad and it's absurd. But rigid politics, as ever, are shaping security policies and the world of travel.