Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Coppola's "Tetro', and Argentina

It took me a while to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola's "Tetro,'' released last year and regarded by both its boosters and detractors as a return to edgy, experimental filmmaking. The feature film, shot with digital cameras on location in Argentina - namely, Buenos Aires and Patagonia - is beautiful to look at, has a knotty emotional core, rides on the success of strong acting and effortlessly evokes the texture and mood of Argentina.

My wife and I visited Argentina (and Chile, and Uruguay) in late 2007, and the movie brings it all back. "Tetro'' is far from a travelogue, yet feels so much like Argentina, I felt I could crawl inside the frame and be right there among the noctural city cafes and broken sidewalks, chilling out with the street characters and trolling the quasi-industrial cityscapes of La Boca, the gritty central-city district where the movie was filmed. Us, we stayed in Palermo, an up-and-coming neighborhood of restaurants, bars, shops and artisans, where Coppola maintained an office during the making of the movie. It was big local news in Buenos Aires when someone broke into the filmmaker's office and made off with the laptop that held the script for "Tetro.''

All's well that ends well, though. The film is exciting, emotionally affecting, lovely to behold, shot mostly in lustrous black and white, with dialogue in English and Spanish. It wanders a bit off course in the last half-hour with an operatic embrace of "family.'' The title character, Tetro - a blocked American writer, played by Vincent Gallo as Mr. Intensity, reinventes himself when he flees New York for Buenos Aires; he is a member of a very fractured family, indeed. "Tetro'' the movie has so many strengths, its weaknesses must be forgiven. Moreover, "Tetro'' boasts a confident performance by 20-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who looks like a younger Leonardo DiCaprio and radiates ambition behind the baby fat. Maribel Verdu, as Tetro's wife and former therapist, turns in an assured, honed performance.

A bit of the film was shot in Patagonia, where, alas, I have yet to go. Seeing the sun glinting off the region's glaciers - massive, pearl-white, craggy - is enough to convince me to take a road trip there, as Coppola's characters do toward the end of the movie. Coppola, now 70, with the energy of a much younger man, directed and wrote the script. It is his first original screenplay since his brilliant "The Conversation'' during his golden age: the 1970s.

Most critics have applauded Coppola's artistic courage and return to form; the film makes few concessions to Hollywood or anyone's idea of easy commercialism. My old pal and former colleague Michael Sragow, the Baltimore Sun's lead movie critic, observed that Coppola made the film the way Elia Kazan would have done it: "This film's hypnotic, tremulous black and white makes you feel as if his camera lens refracts emotion and light simultaneously.'' Peter Howell, writing in the Toronto Sun, had a nice turn of phrase, too: "Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. films in luscious widescreen monochrome that looks almost wet.''

This movie shares little of the well-made if conventional narrative arc of Coppola's classic "Godfather'' movies or "The Conversation,'' but "Tetro'' does something else they did: It makes you care about movies, makes you want to think and talk about what you see in them. And, for me, it makes me want to go back to Argentina, too, pronto.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

LAN - South America's Best Airline?

South America is about to get a little bit closer to North America - no, not from continental drift - but from a new nonstop service between San Francisco and Lima, Peru, aboard LAN Airlines. The four times weekly flights are set to start July 1.

This will make San Francisco the fourth United States gateway for Chile-based LAN, considered by many airline pundits to be South America's best airline. I haven't flown all of South America's many national and regional airlines, to be sure, but I share the high regard for LAN, an 80-year-old company that also flies to New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

My wife and I flew on LAN in 2007 during our first visit to South America and were impressed by the smart cabin crew, the toothsome food, the modern aircraft and a generally fine record of punctuality. (There was a one-hour delay in our departure from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina; it happens.) All told, our three short-haul flights between stylish Santiago, Mendoza with its high, dry wine country, and Buenos Aires with its hearty food and superb cafe life, were among the highlights of our trip. Of course, it would have been nice to fly Down Under from Up Over on LAN, too.

Come July 1, that will be possible. Nonstop San Francisco-Lima service, with connections to major South American cities such as Sao Paolo, Brazil, will run on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. LAN, a member of the oneworld alliance with British Airways, Qantas, American Airlines and others, plans to fly with business class (think 100 percent fully flat sleepers and individual 15.4-inch video screens) and economy class on the long-haul route (think complimentary wine and liquor and more than 350 music CDs). So, it shouldn't be too painful.

Despite the global recession, LAN is one of the few international carriers that seems to be doing alright. Aviation is continuing to grow in Latin America and LAN has a rep for being well-managed. LAN actually moved up requested delivery of Boeing's soon-to-launch B787 Dreamliner to 2011 from 2014, a rare move. Certainly, the airline's executives sound confident.

"This announcement represents LAN and its affiliates' continued commitment to growth in North America and expanding the travel options available to its passengers in this market,'' said Pablo Yunis, vice president of North America and the Caribbean, of the forthcoming San Francisco service.

LAN plans to fly the new route using Boeing B767-300s configured for 221 passengers.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Selling California

You wouldn't think a place as famous as California - one of the planet's most charismatic tourist draws -would need to sell itself. But you'd be wrong, especially in these days of heightened competition and lowered economic expectations.

I recently attended a coffee and pastry morning get-together at San Francisco's Pier 39, a tourist magnet on the city's beautiful northern waterfront. The gathering was held to mark the official opening of a new California Welcome Center, one of 17 outposts around the Golden State where visiting travelers can find brochures, ask questions, pick up maps and get tips from designated staffers that the California Travel and Tourism Commission is pleased to call concierges. The Pier 39 office, which has relocated upstairs to the second level of the big, restored wooden pier with its shops, food eateries, and rowdy resident sea lions - is decidedly bigger than its predecessor. Airy and washed with natural light, it includes a priority mail center for the USPS, several PCs set up for use, even lockers to store luggage while you walk around nearby Fishermans Wharf to see the sights. I'm happy to give it a plug.

Tourism is, as you might guess, big business in California, and in San Francisco, one of the state's most popular lures for travelers. The Golden State saw a staggering 351 million people who "traveled to and through California in 2008'' - the most recent year for which figures are available - according to the CTTC. Most were Californians, many were other Americans, about 13.4 million were international travelers. Together they spent $97.6 billion in 2008. That sounds like a lot, but domestic U.S. visitors actually dropped 1 percent from 2007, while domestic air traffic at the state's airports fell 3.6 percent from 2007.

Thus, the push to raise the state's profile and give travelers a helping hand. The Pier 39 California Welcome Center, marked by a large, easy to see sign on level 2 near the heritage Eagle Cafe, was expanded because it is the second most-visited California Welcome Center in the state, CTTC officials on the scene told me. I can see why. Pier 39 is a must-stop for most first-timers, is family friendly and gives access to many other waterside attractions in San Francisco, such as the Presidio, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.

Well-regarded though it may be, the city of San Francisco has also seen a recent drop in visitors. Visitor numbers hit 15.4 million in 2009, down 5.8 percent from 2008, according to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, which tracks the numbers. Visitors' spending in 2009 was $7.8 billion, down 7.6 percent from 2008, while tourism tax revenue - driven mainly by a city tax on hotel room rates - dropped a precipitous 19.2 percent.

These, I fear, are products of the Great Recession, and visitor numbers won't rebound fully until the recession ends. Cross your fingers, open your wallet as much as you dare and let's hope the recession doesn't develop a double-dip.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Angels We Have Finally Seen On High

If I had to pick just one building - a single building, not a complex or a compound - as my favorite building in the world, it would be Istanbul's 6th century gem, the Hagia Sophia. A church turned mosque turned museum, the Hagia Sophia was the largest domed structure in the world until it was exceeded by St. Peter's, in Rome. It's still mighty big, and it feels very much a part of antiquity.

So, this soaring, magnificent semi-ruin has a prime pedigree. And it just got better. A 700-year-old mosaic of an angel, covered by plaster since 1849 to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities over human likenesses in art, has just been uncovered. Not only that, but there are three more angels in the building, also anchored under the massive ceiling and still largely obscured by plaster - and the scaffolding that has hidden parts of the Hagia Sophia from public view.

Today's New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/, the In Transit blog) cites Turkey's Ministry of Tourism and Culture as the authority that gave the go-ahead to uncover and restore this and a second mosaic angel. Consideration is now also being given to restoring the third and four hidden angels, which are paintings. Big shields attached to the walls and containing Arabic calligraphy are also being restored.

The bad news is the restoration of this grand heritage masterpiece has many years to run. The Times quotes A. Haluk Dursun, president of the Hagia Sophia Museum, as saying "The scaffoldings will remain in the Hagia Sophia for a while.''

Scaffolding or no, it's good news that visitors will be able to admire at least some of the angels we have not seen on high - and that such careful work is going forward on this treasure.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Ramble in Leesburg, Virginia

Save for legend-spangled New Orleans, I haven't spent much time in the Old Confederacy. i.e., the American South. So, when I found myself on the way to Washington Dulles International Airport last week for a flight to the U.S. West Coast, I detoured and took a look around Leesburg, a smallish town 20 minutes from the airport in northern Virginia.

The weather didn't cooperate; it was chilly and there were May showers drenching the May flowers, but the redbrick and stone downtown of this historic northern Virginia city provided an engaging place for a ramble. I borrowed a yellow rain slicker like the kind I wore in the third grade from my friend Liz, and we set off on foot, rain be damned.

A highlight: A shop called Creme de la Creme (101 S. King St.) that specializes in gift items - not cheap knockoffs but nice linens, pottery, French cutlery, stationery, graphic arts items and other goods. I bought a packet of vintage London postcards for my English-born wife and had a fine time poking through the merchandise. By then, the noon hour was approaching and the rain started falling more assertively, so Liz and I popped into the Georgetown Cafe and Bakery, to nosh and catch up; we hadn't seen each other in two years.

The Georgetown (19 S. King St.), I noticed later, was the recipient of some scathing customer reviews on Yelp.com, but we had a good meal there. Our young waitor was personable and efficient, my hearty bowlful of French onion soup was the perfect warmer for a chilly, wet day, and Liz, who has lived in England, liked her tea. No one rushed us as we lingered over lunch in the wood-paneled main dining room.

I will say this, though: The Georgetown's coffee was uninspired, and I am a java fan. To remedy this, we headed off to the Coffee Bean, a nearby shop known for its caffeinated drinks. I zipped up the rainy-day slicker, and we were off. We passed the delightfully named Tally Ho cinema, a two-screen theater that features live entertainment and movie-theme nights and bills itself at least in part as an alternative-culture space. I don't know about that, though; I noticed the not-so-alternative "Ironman II'' was playing at the Tally Ho (19 W. Market St.).

At the Coffee Bean (110 S. King St.), we settled in at a vintage wooden table in what felt like someone's living room - the shop sells beans and pours beverages and it is located in an former private home. Sadly, it may become a private home, or some other business, again soon; the Coffee Bean's co-owner told us that the place will shut down June 30, due both to the recession and the fact the owners have been running it for a long time and want to step away. In the meantime, they are selling off coffee roasters and other equipment.

We also had a look around Leesburg Vintner (29 S. King St.), a well-stocked wine shop that showcases Virginia vintages and wines from other locales, too, of course. Time was when Virginia wines would have drawn snickers or yawns, but no more. The Old Dominion is producing wines that have drawn positive reviews from consumers and wine critics. Thomas Jefferson, remember, famously tried (and failed) to produce wines at his Monticello estate upon his return from France, and while even this gifted polymath couldn't pull it off, latter-day successors armed with modern knowledge and techniques are doing better.

After Leesburg Vintner, it was off to Dulles and the great American skyway. My ramble around Leesburg's pretty and compact center was short but sweet. I hope to go back.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Virgin America's "Fly Girls'

Flying back to the West Coast from the U.S. East Coast early this week, I called up Virgin America's in-flight entertainment system, Red, and trolled through the menu. Among the many games, TV shows, musical genres, movies and news on tap were the first four episodes of "Fly Girls,'' a reality TV show launched this spring that follows the lives and loves of five young flight attendants who work for none other than Virgin America.

As it happens, I had already seen an episode of "Fly Girls,'' which appears weekly on The CW cable channel. It's a clever idea for a show, but for me, once was enough. Like most reality TV, the show is more TV than reality, and its focus on partying, sobbing, flirting and gossiping overshadows scenes of flying, although some do appear.

I did a quick look around. None of the FAs on my flight looked familar. Guess they aren't on the show. That's just as well, as the episode I saw depicted the women as ditzy, preoccupied with hanging out and meeting hunky guys and juggling their busy social calendar with the frequent flying required of FAs. And they are all women. Thirty percent of the airline's FAs in real life are men, but no men are among the featured five cast members. Many male flight attendants, by their own account, are out-and-proud gay men, but the show's producers may just have decided not to go there. Controversy, you know. Muddies the storyline, too.

Actually, reality of the day-to-day kind did show itself briefly on the show I saw. One FA is a single mother trying to be a good parent to her young son, but the demands of an on-the-go job make it tough. Another Fly Girl is at a big party of her extended Vietnamese American family, where a brother, a sister and her father admonish her to get serious and get an education instead of jetting around the country seeing cute guys. Hurt, she feels they are judging her too harshly. Preoccupied with herself, she drops a drink on a passenger she's serving from the food and beverage cart, and retreats to the washroom, emerging in tears, while a fellow FA hugs her and assures her it'll all work out. Will it? I guess you'd just have to watch "Fly Girls'' to find out.

As a former movie and TV critic for a San Francisco daily newspaper, I didn't find the 30-minute episode I saw to be compelling entertainment. The show can be coarse, and it's hard to care much about what happens and get past the melodrama. A cool house near the beach - where the five young flight attendants live for filming purposes - doesn't provide enough glam to make up for the show's flaws.

I suppose Virgin America - a generally stylish company and one of a handful of U.S. carriers I actually like - belongs to the just-spell-my-name-right school of media exposure. This is the school that teaches that any publicity is good publicity, especially for a still-small, new company. (Virgin America, based at San Francisco International Airport, took off in August 2007.)

Even so, nothing is for certain. In its initial review of "Fly Girls','' the Washington Post misidentified the airline, even though its livery and trademarks are all over the show. The Post identified the FAs' employer as Virgin Atlantic, the British airline run by Richard Branson, who owns 25 percent of Virgin America and leases the use of the Virgin brand to the U.S. carrier. Oops, sorry about that. The paper printed a correction.

Fly on, Fly Girls. Just spell the name right: Virgin A-m-e-r-i-c-a.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bumpy Ride Ahead for Beseiged British Air

Like Gordon Brown after Tony Blair and Tony Blair after he buddied-up with George W. Bush, British Airways can't seem to win for losing. Bounced about by skyrocketing fuel prices, weighed down by security costs and fears, grounded by an enormous, drifting volcanic ash cloud that brings a near-supernatural quality to flying, BA not only faces the travails other airlines do, but also has a tsunami of industrial action - i.e., strikes - to look forward to this spring.

"Bloody hell,'' as the Brits are wont to say.

Unite, a union that represents BA cabin crew, has already led two short but costly walkouts this year over the money-losing airline's attempts to reduce its operating costs and rewrite work rules. Now, it plans to launch four more walkouts: from Tuesday, May 18 to Saturday, May 22; again from May 24-28; and again from May 30 to June 3; and yet again from June 5-9.

Between erupting volcanos and volcanic union leaders, BA executives say the carrier is on-track to lose 1 billion pounds sterling (nearly $1.5 billion USD) in 2010. That would come on top of losing 401 pounds (nearly $600 million USD) last year.

BA says it will fly - albeit at reduced capacity - through the forthcoming walkouts, as it did through the earlier ones. Even so, the labor actions can't help but disrupt and perhaps ruin travel plans for many BA customers who hope to enjoy their Whit Sunday holiday or jet to the World Cup tournament in South Africa. BA says it will operate all flights out of London's Gatwick and City airports. The carrier also claims it will fly about 60 percent of international flights at London Heathrow airport and 50 percent of domestic flights there, using cabin crew who want to work and leasing aircraft from other airlines.

"We are confident that many crew will ignore Unite's pointless strike call and support the efforts of the airline to keep our customers flying,'' BA's CEO, Willie Walsh, said in a statement. Ironically, Walsh, who has taken a tough stand with labor, was the chief pilots' union negotiator early in his career at Aer Lingus, the Ireland carrier.

Stakeholders - workers, executives, investors and travelers - can argue over the particulars of BA's downsizing plans - and the devil, as they say, is always in the details. But it is hard to quibble with the broad strokes or the need. I can say as a frequent BA flier and aviation industry reporter that this historic, high-quality airline could well be in a fight for its survival. It needs to reduce costs, or no airline.

I sympathize with cabin crew members. I was on staff at a daily newspaper - newspapering being perhaps the only industry that is losing altitude more quickly than commercial civil aviation - and I saw my workplace downsized, employee benefits cut and my pension slashed by one-third. I have felt the pain of restructuring, and it really hurts. That said, BA needs to cut costs in this very turbulent environment. Taking down the company won't help anyone.

As a sympathetic but skeptical observer, it looks to me that Unite has embraced kamikaze logic. If it can't get what it wants, it will attack, attack, attack, and damage whatever it can.

I have seen this before, too. I watched over the past decade as employees - led most visibly by cabin crew - at United Airlines turned the once-friendly skies downright frosty when management cut staffing, salaries and benefits during United's long bankruptcy restructuring, and senior management, led by CEO Glenn Tilton and his most golden of parachutes, made millions. That hurt United workers and retirees. Unfortunately, United cabin crew took it out on the easiest targets, United's customers, without which there would be no airline and workers would have no jobs, no benefits, no snazzy uniforms. One has to hope that the planned merger of United and Continental Airlines - which will, if regulators agree, create the world's largest airline - will go forward with Continental's kinder, gentler corporate culture in the lead.

As for beseiged British Airways, may the gods of the sky save BA from destructive unions. And for Unite, may it straighten up and fly right with new, less self-destructive leadership.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Changes at the World's Greatest Fish Market

Tokyo's merely amazing Tsukiji Fish Market - said to be the world's largest - has proven so popular with tourists, it has revamped rules for visitor access. People will still be able to visit the market in the early morning hours, see the wonders of the deep and eyeball the finny morsels destined for Tokyo's restaurants and supermarkets that day, but access to this working market in central-city Tokyo is getting tighter.

As of April 4, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market - as the sprawling market is officially known - closed the tuna observation area, where early-rising visitors observe the pre-dawn tuna auction. The auction is a lot more interesting than it may sound; here, you can see some of the biggest tunas imaginable, hear the frantic bidding of the buyers and get a real feel for how things work in the global seafood business. Unfortunately, the auction became a victim of its own success. So many tourists came, the authorities had to shut the observation area for a rethink. It reopened Monday, May 10, and things are a bit different now.

Manami Kobayashi, who represents tourism and travel interests for Tokyo in northern California, informs me "These changes have been implemented for three reasons: the size of the facility, the influence on businesses and the safety of visitors.''

Henceforth, she says, market officials will allow a maximum of "140 visitors per day, on a first-come, first-served basis'' for the tuna auction. Visitors must register to enter. Reception opens at 4:30 a.m. at the visitors' reception area, which is located on the ground floor at the the "Data and Information Center for Fish,'' next to the Kachidoki Gate entrance.

If you go - and if you're in Tokyo and haven't been to Tsukiji market, you should - you'll join one of two groups of 70. The first tour begins at 5 a.m. and finishes at 5:40. The second tour begins promptly - and if you know Japan, you know prompt means prompt - at 5:40 and finishes at 6:15 a.m.

Of course, you don't have to see the tuna auction at all. You can forgo the auction, wander about the market on your own - taking care to stay out of the way of the workers and their zippy mechanized carts - and take in the sights. And, of course, you can follow tradition by going out for a sushi and beer (or tea) breakfast at one of the many cafes nearby after your tour.

"When visiting this market, please be very careful, and show consideration, so as not to disturb any of the market's normal day-to-day activities,'' Manami Kobayashi advises. "If you wish to enter the other wholesale markets near the tuna auction observation area, please wait until 9 a.m. This is the same original procedure that was in place before the market was closed.''

I might add: Wear boots and bundle up. The market is chilly and there is often water on the floor.

All these rules may sound fussy, but this is probably the greatest show on Earth for all things fish, and one of the uncontestable highlights of a trip to Tokyo. And this show is free, making it a welcome option in Tokyo where, as you may know, the bill can otherwise add up fast.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Two Cheers for Emirates, and U.S. Security

How good is the U.S. no-fly list of terrorist suspects and the airlines charged with helping to implement it? So good the system held up the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy when he was trying to board a flight, but didn't stop the prime suspect in this week's failed Times Square bombing from getting on an Emirates Airline plane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The good news is the suspect - a U.S. citizen attempting to flee to his native Pakistan by way of Dubai - was pulled off the plane just minutes before it took off from JFK. So, the system worked - kind of - as the Obama administration is trying to convince everyone it did. But, why was the suspected bomber - whose name was placed on a no-fly list hours before he boarded his late-night flight - allowed to pass through security and get on the plane in the first place? U.S. officials say it's because Emirates employees at JFK airport didn't check his name against the updated list.

This episode raises reasonable doubts about how hard Emirates tried to comply with the no-fly list, a deeply flawed but necessary tool to safeguard safety in the skies. Last year, I flew on Emirates - a glitzy, high-profile carrier fueled by petrodollars and backstopped by the government of Dubai - and found it modern and stylish but cold. Cabin crew are, by the airline's own account, a young, attractive, international bunch selected in large part because of the perceived glamour they bring to the flying experience. That's just so perfect for a magazine layout - maybe less so for providing warm customer service or being sensitive to security needs.

According to media accounts, Emirates didn't respond to requests for specific answers to hard questions about the Times Square suspect, but did issue a general statement saying it's always attentive to security and is cooperating fully with investigators. Well, that's fine, but why didn't airline workers at the airport check this special traveler's name against the no-fly list, and why didn't his purchase of a one-way ticket - with cash, no less - raise alarms?

This points to a big flaw in the system, nearly nine years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States with hijacked jetliners. At present, U.S. authorities depend on airlines to help implement the system on international flights. The U.S. government has not taken over the program, as some have called-for. A federal takeover won't be perfect, either, but it's a thought.

So, two cheers for Washington, and for Emirates. They apprehended a wanted man, but he nearly got away. And in coming close to slipping the dragnet, he exposed a glaring weakness in aviation security in a tense and dangerous time.

Monday, May 3, 2010

United and Continental: What the Merger Means

Now that the will-they/won't-they dance is over, and the straight-up merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines is agreed in principle, what will it mean? To the airlines? To the unions? To U.S. government regulators? To travelers?

For the companies: They will survive to fly another day, gaining greatly expanded route networks, realizing economies of scale by becoming the world's largest airline by passenger traffic and saving money by running one frequent-flier program, one advertising compaign, one reservations system and so on. As you may have heard by now, the merged company will be called United, will be headquartered in United's hometown of Chicago, fly white Continental-style planes and be run chiefly by Continental's strong top management team. CO, like UAL, has downsized with a vengence in recent years, battered by Sept. 11, volatile fuel prices, SARS and swine-flu fears, security scares and the Great Recession. Getting bigger and stronger will help the new company compete. Barring major delays, the deal could go into effect by the end of 2010.

For workers: a promise of no involuntary layoffs - though it's hard to see how that will hold up when duplicated jobs in the present, separate companies are accounted for. Management may struggle to seamlessly integrate two seniority systems and two pay scales. Unions are keeping a wary eye out for layoffs or frozen pensions and pressure to provide additional contract concessions.

For government regulators: The Obama administration promises to be more gimlet-eyed on antitrust matters than the Bush administration was when it quickly approved the 2008 merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines. Still, CO and UAL complement each other. Continental is eentrenched in its hubs in Newark and Houston, in Latin America and across the Atlantic to Europe. United is strong on Asia-Pacific routes and at its hubs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. They don't duplicate each other a great deal, and they promise no loss of service. We'll see, but that could encourage regulators to give the merger a green-light.

Most important of all, what does a new world's largest carrier mean for air travelers, both in the United States - home of these two carriers - and internationally?

For travelers, the merger could accelerate a trend toward higher fares that has already begun, albeit quietly and gradually. Passenger demand has been strong since late last year; that's having an upward effect on fares. That will continue, though fares may not go significantly higher in the short-term. 2011 could be another story, but aggressive low-fare carriers like Southwest and JetBlue should keep fares from shooting sky-high, especially in competitive major markets.

Elsewhere, cost-reductions and the diversification of annoying (for travelers) but profitable (for airlines) fees for things like in-flight meals, extra leg room and checked bags are putting pricing power back in the hands of airlines. This increases the overall cost of flying or consumers. There will be some consumer-friendly synergies, too, however, such as shared frequent-flier plans and shared access to airport lounges. Some of this, too, is already happening with CO and UAL, who are partners in Star Alliance, where they cooperate on marketing, scheduling and code-shares.

In short, nothing too startling is likely to happen following the merger of these two airlines - except possibly to push other carriers into mergers, too. American? Do you read me? US Airways, are you listening? The U.S. Big Six legacy carriers are giving way to the U.S. Big Four, and a U.S. Big Three may not be too far off. Most airline executives and aviation pundits think that's a good thing in a typically money-losing industry that has too many seats chasing too few customers. At the very least, airline mergers should help the bottom line for the survivors - and it shouldn't cause any great hurt for travelers.