Tuesday, August 31, 2010


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

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

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

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

"When was that?" I asked.

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

It's something that's going around.

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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cape Town: First Take

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: Virgin America's Main Cabin Select

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

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

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

Here's to it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bad Idea No. 5099

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Travel Ban: Don't Ease It, End It

Now is the time to end, not ease, the U.S. ban on tourist travel to Cuba.

The communist-run island nation has been under embargo by the United States since shortly after Fidel Castro, his brother Raul Castro and their guerrilla fighters overthrew the corrupt, unloved Batista dictatorship in 1959. In the mid '90s under U.S. President Bill Clinton, Washington loosened rules on travel to Cuba and on sending money there. However, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 - passed under pressure from ferociously anti-Castro Cuban American leaders in the politically pivotal state of Florida - soon closed that opening.

Today's New York Times - amplified by the Wall Street Journal - reports that the Obama administration plans to return to the moderate policies of the Clinton administration's first term. Citing unnamed congressional aides, the newspapers report that changes - which wouldn't need Congressional approval - could be implemented as early as this Fall.

Mind you, Americans - who pride themselves on living in the freest nation in the world - still won't be able to travel freely to Cuba, as do people from practically every other nation on the planet. But athletic, academic and cultural organizations would have an easier time getting U.S. government licenses to send representatives to Cuba, remittances - presently permitted only to Cuban Americans with relatives living on the island - could be sent by a broader range of people, and the number of U.S. cities permitted to host flights to Havana would be expanded from the three that now have them: Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Any loosening of the vindictive, ineffective and discriminatory travel ban is welcome, even the half-step represented by this possible change. After nearly 50 years, it should be clear that denying U.S. citizens the cherished right to travel and spend tourist dollars in Cuba has not worked to bring down the undemocratic Castro government but only further impoverished ordinary Cubans who could otherwise share in the benefits of a more-robust tourism industry. Moreover, the paucity of opportunities for Cubans and Americans to meet face to face only reinforces mutual ignorance and national stereotypes.

Some time back, I lived briefly in Canada. Practically every Canadian I met had traveled to Cuba as a casual tourist, as many Canadians do now. Most people around the world are free to do the same. Americans still don't have that right.

It's well past time they did. And it's time the embittered leaders of a small but influential minority are no longer given veto power over an important piece of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama: Don't merely ease this long-standing, ill-advised travel ban - end it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Travel Quote of the Week

Oh, heck, maybe it's the travel quote of the month.

From the writer David Sedaris, in a recent issue of The New Yorker:

"I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It's as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, '(Naughty word) this. I'm going to Los Angeles.' "

Saturday, August 14, 2010

San Francisco, Robin Williams and Two Big Comedy Shows

In the San Francisco Bay Area, "Robin'' is universally understood to be Robin Williams. A Bay Area homeboy, Williams made it big on TV's "Mork and Mindy'' sitcom and pioneered innovative, risk-taking comedy in the 1980s, when San Francico produced some of the best and brightest stand-up comedians, improvisors and comic actors in the United States.

I interviewed Williams on the phone yesterday, in advance of two big comedy shows coming up next month in San Francisco. If you're visiting the city by the bay or you live nearby, don't miss these: Sept. 19's 30th annual free, outdoor San Francisco Comedy Day, in Golden Gate Park (http://www.comedyday.com/), and Sept. 25's Other Cafe 30th anniversary reunion show at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (http://theothercafe.com/. Robin says he will perform at one or both shows "if I'm here'' - meaning if no movie or TV or concert plans intervene. Because it's not definite, his name won't appear in any advertising. But he makes it clear he's interested in appearing. Both shows will run 4 to 5 hours and feature dozens of comedians.

Williams is at his best on stage. I saw him work a lot in the 1980s and early '90s, when I covered comedy for the San Francisco Examiner. He is still cat-quick when he's riffing in the moment, breaking into characters, doing voices and accents and veering between being serious and being spontaneously funny. On the phone, he told a lot of stories about comedy in the '80s, a time viewed in the Bay Area as something of a golden age of fresh, edgy, live comedy. Most of those stories are going into two feature articles I'm writing for the San Francisco Chronicle (http://www.sfgate.com/). I'll post a heads-up here and on Twitter when the pieces appear.

For now, just one tale:

"I knew a comic who was working a club in North Beach that drew a rough crowd,'' Williams remembers. "There was a drunken biker in the audience. He jumped up pulled out a gun, yelled "You Suck!' at the comic and fired the gun. The comic just froze; he didn't know what to do. It's kind of hard to think of a come-back in that situation. You know, like "Is that all you got?'

"Kevlar night!''

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai - Reborn

Now, here's some good news: The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai - probably India's most famous hotel - has been reborn. On Sunday, Aug. 15, India's Independence Day, the hotel's gorgeous 1903 original wing, will officially reopen - 21 months after it was seriously damaged in a savage attack on the city by terrorists - Islamist irregulars - from Pakistan.

I was scheduled to stay in the hotel, and like millions around the world, looked on from afar in stunned disbelief at the three days of horror at the Taj, the Oberoi Hotel, the main rail station, a cafe and a Jewish community center in November 2008. In November 2009, I stayed in the modern tower wing of the hotel; the palace wing was still being worked on.

Even with limited access, it was apparent that the hotel was beautiful - and would be beautiful again. The main staircase, a grand entryway, gave evidence of that. Security was everywhere - understandably so, as it must be - but the mood was unfailingly polite. That staff and guests could be civil and secure under such threat is more impressive than any physical plant.

For all that, the restored 1903 wing is a gem. The pricetag for the Taj's restoration and renovation - guest rooms and suites, the famous Sea Lounge, ballrooms and even the hallways, have been redone - has not been released. But world-class designers from places as far-flung as Malaysia, Spain and Italy were brought to India's maximum metropolis to do the work.

The managing director and chief executive officer of Taj Hotels, Raymond Bickson, noted at a pre-opening press conference: "Today, we have fulfilled our promise of rebuilding the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai to its former glory. The palace wing has been lovingly and painstakingly restored, and we will now offer our guests an even more customized experience.''

To mark its rebirth, the hotel is offering a Timeless Celebration offer - stay two nights, get one night free - in luxury grande rooms of the palace wing, and a Suite Celebrations offer - stay one night, get one night free - in a restored suite. Many perqs are included in the deals - not least, views of the Arabian Sea and the majestic Gateway of India monument. Details are posted at http://www.tajhotels.com/.

Here's a warm welcome back to one of the world's great hotels.

Closing Words on the Slater Rules

As noted by many, the rage-fueled JetBlue flight attendant who abandoned his post via an emergency shute - one Steven Slater - has become a sensation on the sensation-loving Internet and a folk hero to frustrated workers.

People may want to reconsider the rush to canonize Slater, however - let alone rush to play by the I Gotta be Me Slater Rules. As reported in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, Slater's story about how he was assaulted by a vengeful female passenger in a dispute over luggage may be unraveling. Neither legal authorities nor journalists have done the obvious thing in this she-said/he-said situation - interview the passenger - and there is a reasonable doubt that the passenger even exists.

How do we establish the truth of what happened on the now-infamous JetBlue flight from Pittsburgh to New York City? By following up on the legal charges filed against Slater for criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing -not by waving them aside and letting bygones be bygones, but by putting him on trial. Trial by media is not a good idea, and exoneration via Facebook isn't so hot, either. This is a case for the courts.

Being a flight attendant is, let us remember, a service industry job. Whose goals are served when an FA curses out a passenger on the airplane intercom - and children, among others, can hear the profanity - and suddenly leaves his post, however colorfully? He was being paid to be there; the passengers were not. He was trained to deal with exceptional circumstances, prepped on how to deal with rude or confused customers; passengers, who paid good money to get from point A to point B safely and without being disrespected, received no such training. He was supposed to rise above it. Media accounts are now quoting passengers who describe Slater as curt and flustered throughout the flight. So, hold the praise. Maybe he's just a jerk.

Fewer flights and fewer airline workers - U.S. airline workforces have been cut by one-fourth in the past decade, according to an Associated Press report today - lead to fuller planes, degraded service, customer frustration and more stress for air travelers and aviation employees alike. In such circumstances, it behooves us all to straighten up and fly right.

Final thought: A TV news report on one of my local stations excerpted an old episode of "Seinfeld'' that showed Jason Alexander as George telling off his fictional TV boss, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and quitting on the spot. The late owner was, of course, a powerful man. Who did Slater tell off in real life when he purportedly quit his job? The powerless, trapped on a plane.

Slater's 15 minutes of fame has already lasted too long. A trial would prolong that. But it may also establish the truth of what happened, provide punishment if appropriate - and most importantly, serve as a cautionary tale on heroism and celebrity in the Age of the Internet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Steven Slater Rules

For a society desperately, passionately, incoherently seeking a hero, we have Steven Slater.

Slater is a JetBlue Airways flight attendant - probably a former FA by now - who has 'gone viral' and become an Internet hero by taking a well-worn route to contemporary hero status: Embracing extreme behavior, self-absorption and self-righteousness.

If you haven't heard, the resident of Queens, N.Y. got into an altercation on a flight from Pittsburgh to New York City with a passenger that other travelers describe as rude. He may or may not have been assaulted by said passenger. It may have been at the beginning or the end of the flight - accounts differ. Slater reportedly responded to provocation by cursing out the passenger over the aircraft intercom (while also praising respectful passengers), snatching a beer and, most dramatically, deploying the emergency escape shute to leave the plane on his own at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He's outta here!

The 20-year airline veteran was arrested yesterday and arraigned today. He showed his respect for the court by wearing plaid shorts and what courtroom attendees described as a smirk. It's only a matter of days - that's years in Internet time - before he has his own reality TV show, a book deal, a public relations firm, a celebrity lawyer and someone to play him in the made-for-cable movie.

Airline passengers are, to be sure, often far from polite, and they have been known to take out their frustration on airline flight crews and airport workers. Stuffed into miniature seats, made to pay for food, checked bags and extra legroom, and subject to cascading delays, they have reason to be frustrated, though no good excuse for being rude.

FAs, of course, are on the frontlines of customer service. However, customer service is not much more than a rumor on many U.S. domestic flights; JetBlue is actually one of the better airlines. Deploying the emergency shute and getting off the plane takes to a literal degree what many American airline workers have already done in subtler ways: Bail out.

There will be more of this, as stressed-out workers and copycats decide to play by the Steven Slater rules. You know, the rules that allow you to do what you want to do, when you want to do it because it's hard being you. Really too bad about the other people who just happen to be there, but there's no stopping a hero, if you know what I mean.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Self-Boarding, a Little Late

As is so often the case with travel in the United States these days, U.S. airlines are coming in a day late and a dollar short when it comes to innovation.

The latest example is Continental Airlines' experiment with passenger self-boarding, being trialed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston. Basically, this consists of printing out your boarding pass at home, then swiping it at a turnstyle-like device at the airport gate. If it works as intended, you are cleared for boarding; you don't hand the boarding pass to an airline employee to do a swipe. The idea is to speed up the boarding process, according to Continental.

"One gate has been tested, and so far we've been pleased with what we've learned with the experience,'' the New York Times quotes airline spokeswoman Christen David saying. There are still gate agents around if you need them for assistence with anything, she added.

Jeez. One gate. One airport. One airline.

Continental is the first U.S. major to test self-boarding. But self-boarding is not new. I did it with Japan's All Nippon Airways in January 2008 - two and a half years ago - at Tokyo's Haneda airport - this was after booking the flight and getting my seat assignment, all on a handset. To board the plane, one places the handset and flight bar code down on a display panel at the turnstyle, and the turnstyle reads the bar code. It was simple and easy, even for a confirmed technophobe like me.

One gets the feeling that by the time America catches up to this, Japan and other world leaders in travel technology and infrastructure will have moved on to something else. "Beam me up, Scottie,'' perhaps.

At least Continental is trying, unlike some of its peers. Now, all we have to worry about is Continental's planned merger with United Airlines, which may go through by the end of this year. Continental has built a reputation in recent years for good customer service, at least by feeble U.S. standards. United, which used to advertise its service in the Friendly Skies, now has some of the surliest, don't-bother-me customer service there is. It will be interesting to see whose corporate culture prevails after the merger.

If it's United's, watch out.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Coming Attractions @ Francis Ford Coppola Winery

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. - Movie director and entrepreneur Francis Ford Coppola bought this bucolic, gently terraced Sonoma County winery in 2006, with plans to diversify the property by offering some resort-like features. Some of those new features premiered in late July; others are among the coming attractions for late fall.

My wife and I got a preview of this work-in-progress at a press luncheon yesterday, followed by a walk-around with Sally Srok, Vice President, Hospitality, at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The place is good now; it's going to get better.

Falling under the corporate umbrella of Francis Ford Coppola Presents LLC, the winery - which is open daily from 11 a.m. during the current renovation - is located in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, a prime wine-making spot. It's across the ridge from Napa Valley, where Coppola has been making wine at his Rubicon Estate for some time. The expanding winery doesn't have overnight lodging like some of the great bodegas we experienced in Mendoza, Argentina's prime wine country, but it is blossoming with just about everything else.

I have been watching Coppola's work on screen from "You're A Big Boy Now,'' made in 1966 at the beginning of his career, to "Tetro,'' his recent shot-in-Argentina family drama, which marks an artistically satisfying return to personal filmmaking for him. I was initially skeptical of Coppola's wine-making efforts, partly because making wine can be more a hobby than a serious business for stars who glitter in other fields, and partly because I'd sampled some of the lower-end Coppola wines and thought they were just OK.

After tasting high-end Coppola vintages with Corey Beck, director of winemaking, however, I am revising my opinion upward. These are very good wines, and Rustic, the first of the winery's two restaurants, dishes fresh, seasonal, sustainable, Italian-inspired food that matches up nicely with the wine. The Rustic staff say the director, himself, tasted every dish before it went on the menu. The view from the Rustic terrace isn't too shabby either, allowing a visitor's eye to sweep over lovely vineyards bordered by fruit-bearing olive trees.

If you know northern California's famous wine country, you know that the small town of Geyserville is a long drive for most visitors, being some 90 minutes north of San Francisco, farther out than better-known places. Getting people there - and getting them to stick around a while - is one reason Coppola is diversifying the property. A handsome new hillside visitors' center opened last month. A new Pool Cafe with its own menu, swimming pool and cabins, is scheduled for late fall. Bocce ball courts, outdoor game boards, picnic tables and a performing-arts pavilion are also under construction. Husband-and-wife Francis and Eleanor Coppola intend the destination to be family-friendly, Sally Srok explained, giving visitors of all ages something fun to do.

If you are a fan of Francis Coppola's movies - among them, classics like ''The Godfather'' I and II and "The Conversation,'' and near-classics such as "Apocalypse Now'' - you'll enjoy, as we did, checking out the movie memorabilia on display in the main building. It includes typewritten scripts, posters, the hand-written cast list for the original "Godfather,'' costumes, wigs - and, perhaps best of all, the ornate desk and leather chair that Marlon Brando used in the first "Godfather.'' There are also items from Sophia Coppola's films, such as the enchanting tone-poem "Lost in Translation,'' her 2004 fish-out-of-water tale of two lost American souls in Tokyo - set partly in one of the world's great hotels, the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

At lunch yesterday, we enjoyed a 2008 Chardonnay, an artfully blended 2007 red, wittily called Director's Cut, and especially a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, named Archimedes, after one of Francis Coppola's uncles and the famous mathematician of antiquity. Retailing for $50, Archimedes is made in limited production and is available only at the winery shop. Robust but subtle, with good fruit, good tannins and a purple, inky color not unlike Argentine Malbecs, it's good value considering its high quality - and a killer match for a good steak.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery is located at 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, CA 95441, just off U.S. Highway 101 at the Independence Lane exit. Toll-free tel. 877.590.3299. Web: http://www.franciscoppolawinery.com/.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The UAE and the BlackBerry Blues

The goal: The United Arab Emirates - super-ambitious Dubai, super-rich Abu Dhabi and five other statelets - wants to become a major player in air travel, tourism, banking and finance, ocean shipping, trade and construction.

The problem: The UAE - mostly, though not entirely, excepting Dubai - is very nervous about allowing the free-flow of information essential to realizing its loftiest ambitions.

The latest evidence: The UAE's decision to ban, starting Oct. 11, Web-surfing, e-mail and texting on Research In Motion's very popular BlackBerrry digital handheld device. Using the BlackBerry for phone calls will still be OK.

The reason: The BlackBerry, beloved of corporate executives and government officials around the world - Barack Obama has one - is carefully encrypted. It's so well encrypted, governments can't easily monitor the data, which are sent to a few key operation centers, in RIM's home country, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The UAE deems this a threat to its national security, saying it could make it impossible to carry out criminal prosecutions or monitor threats to safety.

The conservative Muslim government of the UAE isn't the first regime to fear the global commerce in digitalized information. When I traveled in China last September, I ran headlong into the Great Firewall of China, finding it impossible to access Blogger to write this blog, or to access Twitter. Control-freak governments, in authoritarian states even more than in nervous but relatively tolerant democracies, can't abide the fact that some exchanges of information escape their scrutiny. National security' becomes the catch-all justification for clamping down.

People who romanticize the Internet and other forms of digital information - and there are many who do, all across the political spectrum - have to acknowledge to some degree that their long-time belief that governments can't control information anymore is wishful thinking. They most certainly can, as I saw in China. Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey, Bahrain, Pakistan and others have recently expressed deep misgivings about letting people communicate with each other outside prescribed channels on devices like the BlackBerry or have free access to the Net.

In the long run, their efforts may fail. Short- and mid-term, they can make their presence felt. Google discovered this in China when it struggled over Beijing's demands that it censor search results. RIM is discovering it in the UAE. Facebook and YouTube have also run into restrictions.

Only 17 percent of the people living in the UAE are native Emiratis, as I learned last year when I traveled in Abi Dhabi and Dubai. The many foreigners who work in the federation like their gadgets, and the BlackBerry is one of their most popular choices. Travelers, too, will find their BlackBerrys affected if the restrictions go into effect as promised.

The UAE has internationalized in a short time, and this has unsettled parts of the country's society, as well as high officials. The UAE has welcomed the world, launching two modern, fast-growing global carriers in Emirates and Etihad Airways, and building showcase airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But the welcome is conditional. Is the country shooting itself in the foot? I think so. But this is pain that UAE leaders are willing to bear, at least for now.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Southwest Thinking of International Flights? Don't

Say it ain't so, Gary. Say it ain't so.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly let drop in a discussion of resurgent earnings last Friday that the all-domestic airline is thinking about launching international service. One word: Don't. Or is that two words? Regardless, it would be a bad move for Dallas-based Southwest - the world's largest discount carrier and the only major U.S. airline that is consistently profitable - to tamper with the brilliantly simple business plan that got to where it is today.

From its first flights in 1971, Southwest has been a model of consistency: It is no-frills, it is folksy, it has low fares, it flies entirely within the United States, usually with short-haul flights. Because it is making money, even in the Great Recession, Southwest doesn't have to nickle and dime passengers with add-on fees; it is the only U.S. major that allows customers to check two bags free of charge, and its witty "Bags Fly Free'' ad campaign is great for winning friends and influencing people.

Why does Southwest think adding international routes - in this case, to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, not right away but maybe by 2013 - would be good? Plenty of carriers already have them, including other low-cost carriers such as JetBlue Airways. News accounts didn't make it clear what Kelly and cohorts are thinking, giving rise to the suspicion - at least for me - that they're thinking of going international because they can, and because the airline has stopped growing in the U.S. In 2009, Southwest trimmed capacity 5 percent - less than competitors who cut even more and took to parking unused planes in the desert. Growth, however, is very much part of the corporate culture in the company that Herb Kelleher built.

"We'll be looking for opportunities to grow, and we're still a growth company,'' Bloomberg quotes Kelly as saying. "It's just that, right now, we don't see the wisdom of doing that.''

It's hard to see the wisdom of flying internationally. Such routes are typically longer than the short hops Southwest is used to taking. Already, flying coast-to-coast on Southwest, with multiple stops and changes of planes, feels like taking a Conestoga wagon with wings. The no-frills thing works fine on short-hauls; typically, people on long-haul flights over oceans and continents want creature comforts. Maybe the shrewd executives at Southwest have some wisdom they're not sharing, but fixing something that doesn't seem broken is seldom a good idea.

In the meantime - gangway! -the juggernaut rolls on. Southwest earned a second-quarter 2010 profit that more than tripled - to $216 million USD from $59 million - over the weak second quarter in 2009. Earnings jumped to 29 cents a share from 8 cents a share a year earlier.