Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back to the Future with JAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, Haneda.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Non-Screening Screening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Security, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Airport Security Snafu

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress. We were talking about airports.

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The True Cost of Flight Delays

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

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

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

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

Fellow travelers, I feel your pain.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five Cool Things About Bilbao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Madrid Barajas Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cell Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Goodbye, Columbus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Travel Alerts, and Common Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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