Friday, April 30, 2010

Boycotting Arizona

So, Arizona passed a law empowering local police to ask for identification and check the legal status of people on the streets, to see if they are in the United States legally - the tourist magnet of Arizona also being a state where an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants live.

The much-publicized law, scheduled to go into effect July 29, has attracted attention from all over the U.S. Supporters defend it as necessary to keep from being flooded with mainly Hispanic migrant workers who cross the border without bothering to ask. Opponents deride it as racist. From the latter group have come calls to boycott Arizona - all of it, its meetings and conventions, its sports teams, its big tourist draws, like the Grand Canyon, all of its products. Media reports say Arizona's tourism industry generates $18 billion a year in revenue, so a travel-and-more boycott could hit 'em in the pocketbook, right?

But, hey, why stop there? There are many ways to punish a jurisdiction that has the effrontery to pass a law some people don't like. Let's think outside the box.

Some livid demonstrators have called for boycotting AriZona iced tea - though the sugary drink in the mega cans is not made in Arizona, it's made on Long Island. Close enough.

Why not expand the circle of concern and boycott Hawaii? It's got a memorial to the sunken World War II battleship USS Arizona, remember? If they change the ship's name, the boycott could be called off.

For really creative thinking, I like the recent Bronstein at Large blog post by San Francisco Chronicle editor and scribbler Phil Bronstein (

Bronstein thinks big. He writes:

"Let's just throw the entire state of Arizona into the slammer. And not just the old-school mobsters, dicey arms salesmen and jaywalkers - all 6.6 million residents should be put away in a safe place until we sort out what kind of ongoing criminal-thought enterprise they've got happening there.''

Bronstein, a Californian, continues: "Is refusing to attend conferences enough? How about immediately creating a demilitarized or Gaza Strip-like zone in the space where our state touches theirs?''

Arizona's population is about 30 percent Hispanic, and some 200,000 jobs there are dependent on travel and tourism. You don't suppose those workers would be hurt by a boycott, do you?

Details, details. Why worry about details when being angry and feeling bad feels so good?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tear It Down and Start Over

Finally, some sense in travel.

An official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said yesterday that we might as well tear down New York's LaGuardia Airport and start over by rebuilding it rather than patch the place up. The same could be said for other facilities in the United States, where decades of neglect have turned air and rail transport centers - as well as the nation's once world-class highway system and bridges - into dangerous, inconvenient, crumbling eyesores.

The Port Authority's executive director Chris Ward was unusually and refreshingly candid when he told listeners at a Crain's business breakfast in New York that LaGuardia - an outmoded airport that serves, if that is the word, 26 million passengers a year - is far beyond repair.

Additionally, "LaGuardia should not be the gateway for fliers into New York City,'' Ward said. "It should fundamentally be torn down and rebuilt again.'' If it takes a combination of public and private funding - meaning airlines would pay to build their own terminals - so be it, Ward said.

This may come as a shock even to New Yorkers, who pride themselves on being worldly wise. It surely would surprise many Americans, who have an inflated and outdated idea of their country's supremacy in all manner of things, including the quality of its buildings, roads, highways and airports. This misunderstanding endures only because most of my fellow Americans neglect to travel abroad, and many of those who do travel do it in a protective bubble of packaged tours, seeing some things but not necessarily learning much about what they see.

Airports in cities as far-flung as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul-Incheon, Bangkok, Beijing and Barcelona - expanded or built from scratch in the last decade - are far more streamlined, well-run and beautiful than any airport in the U.S. If Americans realized how far behind they were, they might feel a sense of urgency and push to replace LaGuardia and many other facilities. Whatever happened to that splendid idea to build a new Pennsylvania Station for rail travel in the big post office in New York? It's been talked about for years.

Now would be an opportune time for the Obama administration to earmark gobs of the federal stimulis money for transport facilities, as well as other infrastructure such as parks and schools. This would put people to work during a deep and stubborn recession, enhance safety and efficiency and make the travel experience a more pleasant one. Sounds like a win-win if there ever was one.

This is no time for foot-dragging or hand-wringing. Let's move.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Aviation After the Ashes

Now that the skies are apparently clearing of volcanic ash over most of northern and western Europe, it's time for the travel industry - especially the aviation wing - to figure out what to do if it happens again. Decisions made now will shape the holiday travel plans and business decisions of millions of travelers.

There's no predicting exactly how or when a volcano will erupt, but some of the devastation to travel that we've seen from the giant cloud of volcanic ash over the last 10 days could be mitigated if there is a good plan in place. Not having a clear, coordinated response to the aviation shutdowns posed by the ashes from Iceland cost the world's airlines an estimated $1.7 billion USD through Tuesday in lost revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airports Council International reports that European airports, many of which reduced flights or shut down entirely during parts of the crisis, have lost an additional $250 million USD. When the bill is totalled, costs will probably soar somewhere north of $2 billion USD.

For airlines already reeling from a toxic combination of security scares, pandemic scares, global recession and volatile fuel prices, this is a serious blow. Giovanni Bisignani, the outspoken head of IATA, put his finger on it when he noted "For an industry that lost $9.4 billion USD last year and was forecast to lose a further $2.8 billion USD in 2010, this crisis is devastating. It is hitting hardest where the carriers are in the most difficult financial situation. Europe's carriers were already expected to lose $2.2 billion USD this year - the largest in the industry.''

Bisignani, who has crusaded for years for a 'single European sky' - that is, a unified, continental air-traffic control system to replace the current 27 national systems in the European Union - was scathing in his criticism of European transport ministers. He noted it took three days for the ministers to get on the telephone for a conference call, by which time the crisis was well underway.

The lack of a coordinated response was noted by many.

In a feature story today Reuters news service comments "At one point, most Dutch and French airspace was open, Germany was open for visual take-off and landing only, and Britain was entirely closed. Tens of thousands of flights were cancelled and millions of people have had their travel disrupted over the last nine days.''

The notion of a single European sky gained some traction this morning when Spain's transport minister, Jose Blanco, told reporters that Eurocontrol, an agency that coordinates between national air-traffic control systems, should simply take over air-traffic control duties directly in the 27 EU states.

"This week has shown the need to carry out a joint reflection on improving Europe's mechanisms in reacting to situations like this,'' Reuters quoted Blanco as saying.

Bisignani and others are already calling for financial compensation to airlines charged with feeding and billeting stranded passengers in a crisis not of their making. Airports want to be compensated, too. Whether or not this happens, there is precedent for it: The United States set up a temporary loan program worth $5 billion USD for U.S. carriers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shut down North American airspace for three days. National governments are strapped for money right now, but the idea should not be dismissed out of hand.

If nothing else, the air travel shutdowns - a temporary boon to trains, hotels and car rental firms, certainly - showed just how dependent we are on air travel. The Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation sums it up well:

"Our whole global economy is built around fast movement of high-value products, from fresh produce through computer products, car parts, urgent medical supplies and even gold. More economically important even than that, entire supply chains rely on immediate delivery of ingredient products for manufacturing and retailing. Thus, there is a near-endless variety of affected companies and consumers as the blockage moves downstream.

"Then there is the world's largest industry, tourism. The disruption to tourism flows caused by the European grounding stretches far beyond the local impact, with all the potential tourists by air also being prevented from flying in either direction.''

In short, a fine mess. Let's not let it happen again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain, Traveler, 100 Years On

Mark Twain, the great American writer, was also a great traveler. Born Samuel Clemens, this engaging, perceptive and witty man died 100 years ago today, on April 21, 1910.

Twain is remembered for his folksy way with a joke. But he had a corrosive sense of humor when the situation called for it. Twain's wit was put fully into play when he went on the road. He traveled the USA and the world by river steamboat, stagecoach, horse and buggy, on horseback and by oceanliner. One of his best early books, "The Innocents Abroad,'' and an uneven but entertaining later book, "Following the Equator,'' were nonfiction travel books.

In "Innocents Abroad'' Twain wrote:

"The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.''

One of Twain's most trenchant observations about travel - and certainly the most inspiring - is this declaration, also from "Innocents Abroad'':

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.''

Sam, we miss you.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fight Over Carry-on Bag Fees

Airlines need to make money, especially in a deep recession, so they can keep flying. Air travelers need to save money, especially in a deep recession, so they can keep traveling. That is the crux of the battle over fees that commercial airlines in the United States have been charging on top of their basic air fares for the past five years.

The cause of the commotion right now is the fee for carry-on bags - ranging from $30 up to $45 at the departure gate - that Florida-based Spirit Airlines has announced. The fee is set to go into effect on August 1. So far, no other U.S. airline has followed Spirit's example, but we may assume they are watching to see if this will fly. An enhanced revenue stream would, of course, be good for money-losing airlines, and fees have become important sources of revenue for carriers.

Understandably, the new fee is drawing anger and frustration from travelers, who have been hit with fees for seats with extra legroom, fees for food, fees for heavy bags and fees for even the first checked bag - now this. But those same travelers, motivated by the understandable desire to economize, have pushed back when airlines have attempted to raise air fares, thus requiring them to dream up other ways to make money. So, it's a perfect circle - and a perfect mess.

Spirit Airlines' president and CEO, Ben Baldanzas, defends the carry-on fee by arguing that people try to tote so much stuff on board, they slow down boarding and deplaning. He also says that his airline is lowering fares by more money than it plans to charge for carry-ons - a claim that as far as I know has not been independently confirmed. The new move "is designed to relieve the carry-on crisis, saving you time and money ... Everyone Wins!'' Spirit exults in a statement. Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Predictably, the matter has inflamed the always-flamable blogosphere. And predictably, the issue has become politicized. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) calls the carry-on fee "a slap in the face to travelers.'' He is calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to outlaw it. The fee appears to be legal, however, and Schumer's move feels just a bit like grandstanding. Friend of the Little Guy. The Traveler's Pal.

In any case, it isn't clear how rescinding this admittedly not-so-welcome fee would help resolve - if not the exaggerated "carry-on crisis'' - the very real revenue crisis now hammering airlines.

Me, I resolved long ago to avoid the long airport wait-times and hassle of, uhm, lugging around luggage. I only take what I can carry on-board the airplane, even on long international trips. I travel light. The idea that I might have to pay a fee to do this in future does not inspire, and it doesn't make me want to make my first-ever trip on Spirit Airlines.

In short, this may be a story with no Hollywood ending. But that's how we live now in the world of travel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Taiwan Freshens Up

International business executives know Taiwan - or know of it - chiefly as a home of high-tech manufacturing: computers, monitors, semi-conductors and the like. International leisure travelers - especially Japanese and, increasingly, mainland Chinese - know there is more to Taiwan than tech, though: Beautifully rugged mountains, for one thing; steamy hot springs and limpid lakes, for another; the 24/7 big-city energy of Taipei, for still another.

These days, the island is freshening up, building up additional attractions and putting out the word to travelers about this China-in-miniature. I'm glad to help. I liked the place when I visited and hope to go back. In the meantime, I consulted the Taiwan Visitors Association (, chatting with Sylvia Yu, director of its San Francisco office, and Lin-Chuan Hsiao, deputy director, to find out what's on the agenda in the near term.

Cycling and flowers, they told me.

Specifically: an expanded network of bike paths and roadways for health-minded, sturdy bicycle riders. How sturdy? Well, sturdy enough to handle the island's hilly - and occasionally vertical - interior, or go the distance on a 600-kilometer (about 370 miles) ride around the island, hugging the coast. Given the stunning cliff faces, ocean beaches, tea farms, national parks and other attractions, there is plenty to see while pedaling around Taiwan. This is a bit more ambitious than what I'm looking for, but I am happy to know that cars, buses and motor scooters haven't wholly replaced two-wheel pedal power, even in the busy streets of Taipei.

Cyclists have banded together to promote their favorite past-time, providing updates on the Web site If you're on or near the island, note that Bike Day will be marked on Sunday, 4 May. Taipei's ccheerier version of Critical Mass, called Bike Smiling, is held at 3 pm. on the fourth Sunday of every month. Feeling competitive? The high-intensity race Tour de Taiwan may be for you. It's been held every year since 1978 for the logo-splashed spandex set.

The big flower show mentioned earlier - one of the world's biggest, actually - is scheduled for late this year in the capital city ( There will be a profusion of bloom from a wide range of flowers at various spots around Taipei, notably the Yuanshan district. Organizers of the event, called Flora Exposition, say they are expecting 6 million people to show up, and are adopting as the expo's 'green' motto "reduce, reuse and recycle.'' All told, there will be 14 exhibition halls. A soft opening is planned for 10 October, with the official start set for 6 November. The city of 2.6 million people will be in bloom through 25 April of 2011.

All the more reason to return, I figure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

oneworld, Ready or Not

MARINA DEL RAY, Calif. - The high-end airline alliance oneworld celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. This year, it's accelerating efforts to further integrate its 11 members on the operational side. Those changes are coming both alliance-wide and in bilateral deals between member airlines hoping to get through tough economic times by joining forces.

Indeed, deals - pending and fondly hoped-for - dominated talk by airline CEOS at yesterday's conference here on the breezy, sunny seaward edge of Los Angeles.

One item that got everyone's attention was the ever-closer cooperation between American Airlines and Japan Airlines. JAL is restructuring in bankruptcy, and is expected to emerge as a much smaller, leaner operation. That has focused the minds of executives at American, who helped convince JAL to stay with oneworld after rival alliance SkyTeam wooed the Japanese carrier in hopes that it would peel away from oneworld and join SkyTeam. Didn't happen.

JAL's president, Masaru Onishi, attended the conference. He didn't confirm reports in Japan's Nikkei business daily that JAL will cut up to 16,500 jobs. Nor did he comment on a report in U.S.-based Business Week that JAL has proposed paring pension payments to retirees by as much as 50 percent.

Onishi did join American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey - who chairs oneworld's directors - in touting plans for joint trans-Pacific cooperation.

Japanese media have reported that JAL's major creditors are demanding huge international cutbacks. If a big route reduction actually happens, JAL will become more of a short-haul, Japan-focused airline. That would open up international opprtunities for its Japanese rival, All Nippon Airways, a member of Star Alliance. It could also mean American greatly ramps up its own trans-Pacific service.

JAL spokeswoman Yap Sze Hunn told me at the conference that the big decisions on JAL's restructuring are expected to be made this June or July.

I asked Arpey if American, in essence, wants to take over any abandoned JAL international routes. Referring to applications to the U.S. and Japanese governments for antitrust immunity, Arpey replied that "Until we get immunity, we are not allowed to talk to JAL about routes.''

But, Arpey added, should antitrust protection be granted, the two carriers will launch a number of joint ventures that could reshape trans-Pacific air travel, especially on well-traveled routes between Asia and North America. He didn't spell out what those ventures would be.

Already, Arpey said, AA and JAL have 11 employee teams working on matters of mutual interest. He said AA is, for example, sharing information from its FuelSmart program - i.e., how to cut back on use of costly and polluting jet fuel - with JAL.

For now, JAL and AA are funneling passengers onto each other's flights, relocating operations in major airports so that transfers between airlines become faster and easier for travelers, and expanding access to AA airport lounges for JAL's passengers.

Arpey said that AA has applied to launch service between Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Haneda International Airport, the convenient in-city airport in Tokyo. That possibility was opened up by an Open Skies pact signed early this year by the U.S. and Japan. "If we are awarded those routes, we'll start them right away,'' Arpey told me.

British Airways and Spain's Iberia, both members of oneworld - the style-minded alliance likes to lower-case its name - announced Thursday that they plan to conclude an outright merger late this year, subject to regulatory approval. Each airline will keep its name, livery and identity, acccording to BA's CEO, Willie Walsh, who attended the meeting here.

While talk was dominated by the courtship dance between JAL and American - a matter of intense preoccupation to the big contingent of Japanese reporters who winged across the Pacific to cover this meeting - other matters of interest to travel-biz types came up, too.

I chatted on the sidelines with Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Tony Tyler. He told me that the Hong Kong carrier's lucrative premium business-class traffic is finally beginning to recover after a frightening freefall brought on by the Great Recession.

"It started to rise late last year, and it has continued into this year,'' Tyler said. "It seems the bankers have started to travel to China again.''

When inquisitive journos asked American's Arpey about what AA will do if rivals United Airlines and US Airways merge - as many media reports say they want to do - he declined "to speculate about something that may or may not happen.''

Arpey did allow that "There will inevitably be consolidation around the world in the airline industry.'' But he downplayed the signifcance of mergers, as opposed to airline alliances and the kind of joint venture deals that oneworld partners are crafting.

"I don't necessarily think that consolidation is the answer to all of the economic challenges that the industry faces,'' Arpey attested. "I don't think that is the silver bullet for solving some of the industry's financial challenges.''

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Growing the Historic Hotels of America

You may not have heard of the organization Historic Hotels of America. But if you love the feel of burnished wood, the taste of dry sherry in cut crystal or the look of a restored Victorian grande dame building, you may savor staying in one of the group's member hotels.

Historic Hotels of America has added 14 new members to its roster of more than 200 U.S. hotels and resorts since the start of 2010, I recently learned. I attended a luncheon hosted by the nonprofit organization's manager of marketing communications, Gina Galatro, who let it be known that the art and commerce of preserving and promoting vintage hotels is very much a going concern.

The nonprofit, 21-year-old HHA ( has enrolled, among others, Cork Factory Hotel, of Lancaster, Pa. and the Hotel St. Francis, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, as new members. Like the group's other members, they are commercial hotels that occupy time-honored buildings, some lovingly restored to a highpoint of an illustrious past, such as the Hotel Jerome, in Aspen, Colo., which dates to 1889, some of which occupy repurposed and renovated old structures, such as the Napa River Inn, in California's prime wine country.

"By inviting these new members into our collection of distinguished properties, we are continuing to encourage historic preservation while showcasing each hotel's rich history,'' says HHA's executive director Thierry Roch. "Our goal is to bring these historically special hotels and their authentic experiences to the attention of the traveling public.''

All this is part of a much broader effort to hold onto tangible reminders of America's past - to its collective cultural memory. HHA is a hotel brand affiliated with the nonprofit, 60-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation (

"To be selected for membership ... a hotel must be at least 50 years old, listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or recognized locally as having historic significance and have faithfully maintained their historical integrity, architecture and ambiance,'' says the HHA.

In other words, merely being old doesn't get it done.

I have stayed in several hotels on the HHA honor roll - not because I knew they were members, but because I was drawn by their legacy, their location or their look - and found it to be a good experience, by and large. I admire the Nob Hill grandeur of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, the lush hillside garden at the Hotel Hershey in chocolate town USA (though not the eye-watering prices in the hotel's beautiful Circular Dining Room) and the manicured grounds and private villas of the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, Calif.

It must be a challenge, running and promoting heritage hotels in a futurethink country like the United States. It's good to know someone's out there looking out for the interests of these grand properties, and keeping the past - tangibly, palpably - alive in the present.

Pow Wow - Yowza!

This year's enormous U.S. Travel Association confab, International Pow Wow, isn't set to take place until next month in Orlando, Florida, but already organizers are beavering away, planning next year's gathering in San Francisco. Along with the World Travel Mart in London and the annual global travel industry version of Woodstock in Berlin, Pow Wow ranks among the leading travel biz meetings on the planet. So, it takes a lot of planning.

Why should you care? Well, with more than 400 international journalists set to cover it, Pow Wow, which includes media tours, news conferences and networking opportunities galore, will go a long way toward shaping the stories you see, read and hear in the next year about traveling to and within the United States. And the sales opportunities that all that face-time - the event lasts five days - affords to people who run hotels, airlines, tourist boards, tour companies, cruise-ship lines and the like will help determine what those people put on offer for travelers.

Travel-biz people from more than 70 countries are expected to attend the Orlando edition of Pow Wow. There will be some 1,100 information booths in South Hall at Orlando's Orange County Convention Center and 5,000 travel biz types on hand to visit them.

For the host city, the event, which changes venues every year, is a big deal.

Next year's International Pow Wow will be held at San Francisco's Moscone Center, and tourism people in the northern California city are even as we speak drawing up to-do lists, planning social and business networking events and anticipating receipts.

According to numbers-crunchers at the nonprofit San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (, the host organization for the 2011 Pow Wow, to be held next May 21-25, the big travel show will generate $4.5 million in event-related spending (hotel rooms, labor, convention center food and beverage sales) and $2 million in spending by individual attendees (restaurant meals, shopping, taxis). In the long term, all those journalists parachuting into San Francisco are expected to write 300 to 400 articles about the city; the stories will appear in media outlets with a combined circulation estimated at 100 million. By the SFCVB's reckoning, that worldwide exposure is equal to spending $5.3 million on advertising to promote the city.

So, yes, travel is big business.

U.S. Travel, Pow Wow's sponsoring umbrella organization, was for years known as the Travel Industry Association of America, till it changed its name recently. U.S. Travel ( doesn't yet know where it will hold Pow Wow in 2012, but the host city for 2013 has already been selected: It's Las Vegas, baby.

Come 2013, what happens in Vegas will presumably NOT stay in Vegas.