Monday, January 31, 2011

Net-centric Nonsense

Look, I like the Internet. I'm writing on it right now. But the Internet is not essential to communication or to travel, as many news reports out of riot-torn Egypt are insisting.

The Net - and mobile phones, and social networks - are tools, not talismans. They work wonderfully when it comes to speed and connectivity, no question. But to say protestors and foreign travelers trying to flee Egypt's present chaos are helpless in the face of a government-ordered Net shutdown and disruption of mobile phone networks and social media is not true.

Think of it: The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the civil rights movement in the United States, the Prague Velvet Revolution, the protests against the war in Vietnam held around the planet back in the day, the pro-democracy mobilization in Beijing in 1989 - all these and many more were organized by determined activists who didn't have the Internet to help them organize. I'm not aware of Nelson Mandela using an iPad, but he seemed to do alright.

The pro-democracy protestors defying curfew in Cairo are still there, Net or no. Word gets out - through face-to-face conversation, in leaflets, by bullhorns, by people just hanging out, staying up all night, staying put - when people want it badly enough.

Travelers, understandably anxious to get themselves and loved ones out of harm's way, are not suffering at Cairo International Airport chiefly because they can't use airline Web sites or handheld devices to book flights out - there are barely any flights out. Airlines, also understandably, aren't willing to brave the worst of the crisis in the teeth of violence and so much uncertainty. My heart goes out to the people who are stranded; I wouldn't want to be there in those conditions. But Net-centric explanations don't explain very much.

In the meantime, news reports say the Egyptian Army has secured the precious Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, to protect it from looting and other destruction; some relatively minor breakage has, alas, taken place. Tourist access to the Giza Pyramids is shut off. The government has ordered domestic trains to a halt. Some private trucking companies are keeping their vehicles off the road, and this is choking food supplies.

Having visited Cairo in 2009 and 2008, I have seen local people carrying around big rolls of (usually) small bills. I can attest to the importance of cash in Egyptian life. It is not a credit-card society. The biggest problem now is that ATMS are down and banks are closed. That - and the scarcity of transport - are much more vexing problems than the digital disruption now ripping through Mubarak's crumbling kingdom.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Lunch With Jack LaLanne

I wasn't always a travel writer. Back in 1991, I co-authored a book with Elizabeth A. Hall, called "The Great American Medicine Show,'' that explored the evolution of alternative health therapies and movements over two centuries of U.S. history. One of the real-life characters in that book was Jack LaLanne, the pioneering bodybuilder, fitness king and health-food promoter who passed away the other day from pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay, California.

A few years after our book was published, I went to a media luncheon at Sinbad's restaurant in San Francisco, sponsored by KGO-TV, San Francisco's popular Channel 7. There were several dozen people on hand. Seated directly across the luncheon table from me, next to his wife, Elaine, was Jack LaLanne. He was well into his eighties but he still looked strong, like he could bend a barbell just by looking at it. I was thrilled. It was like a chapter from the book had sprung to feisty, octogenarian life. I was nearly as surprised as I would have been had I met the Rev. Sylvester Graham, namesake of the graham cracker, originally a crunchy, no-nonsense breakfast alternative to greasy, sugary meals, or Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Revolutionary War-era physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Unlike them, LaLanne was very much alive. He was friendly and chatty and I talked to him for a long time. Much of the talk consisted of luncheon pleasantries but occasionally it turned more serious. LaLanne, born in 1914, was a product of his time. A fine athlete himself, he bewailed what he considered to be bad behavior by modern sportsmen, especially African Americans. I pointed to Arthur Ashe, the late, great tennis player, as someone who I thought was a great role model for anyone. LaLanne grew thoughtful, paused and allowed that was true. The conversation moved on.

I was wondering when LaLanne would remark upon my own, not-very-intimidating physique. Gently, he inquired about my work-out regimen. "Well, I don't have a work-out routine as such,'' I told him, "but I do walk and I run. My legs are pretty strong, but from the waist up, I guess I don't come up to snuff.'' He suggested some techniques for developing upper-body strength, including workouts on innovative gym equipment that he invented. He was a polite proslytizer.

Reading LaLanne's obituaries today and yesterday, I thought of something silent-movie star Ramon Navarro, a pal of LaLanne's, said when LaLanne was at the peak of his wealth and fame, with a chain of health clubs and a syndicated TV show (shot at times at KGO). "LaLanne is a good man,'' Navarro said. "What he's saying is "Take care of yourself.' ''

It worked for him. When LaLanne strolled out after the luncheon, he looked great: short of stature but wide of shoulders, slim of hips, with near-cartoonish, Popeye-like biceps.

Jack LaLanne was 96.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Moscow Means Air Travelers Face Years of High Alert

The latest terrorist outrage against travel and transit came today at Moscow's primary international airport, Domodedovo International, when an apparent suicide bomber killed at least 31 people and wounded many more by detonating an explosion at an international arrivals area outside the airport security perimeter. The toll is still rising.

This lethal violence against the global economy, the right of people to travel and freedom from fear is getting round-the-clock and round-the-planet media coverage, as it should. In today's New York Times (, one of the more salient points came in the paper's lead article, all the way at the bottom, where salient points often appear:

"Monday's explosion in Moscow pointed to the continuing fascination with air travel for militants, as well as the difficulty of carrying out an attack aboard a jet, said Stephen A. Baker, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security. 'They'd like to be bombing planes and they can't, so they're bombing airports,' he said, adding that the attack 'validates the focus that the U.S. has had on security at airports.' ''

I am not so sanguine about terrorists' inability to weaponize aircraft, either in the passenger cabin or in the cargo hold. But one thing's for sure: Moscow means that air travelers will continue to face years of high alert, both in the air and at the airport. That's why travelers who complain about long waits at security checkpoints and screeners who are sometimes intransient and uncomprehending, will have to put up with the inconvenience. Being dead would be really inconvenient.

What many of us want to see is smarter security, including traveler profiling based on a number of criteria, such as behavior at the airport, the nature of the traveler's documentation, tell-tale signs such as one-way tickets purchased with cash by people with little or no luggage, intelligent watchlists, careful screening of ground personnel and, yes, ethnicity, nationality and religious affliation of travelers.

The latter cannot be the only criteria; that would be subjecting entire populations to collective guilt - something jihadists and other terrorists do when they attack civilian populations in Moscow, New York, Washington, Madrid, Mumbai or London.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein drew flak from U.S. civil libertarians in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States by 19 men from the Middle East when she said "We aren't looking for 19 blond Norwegians'' as part of our attempts to prevent future attacks. But while her remark may have been overly broad, she wasn't wrong to direct attention to groups of militants who have publically sworn to attack targets in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ethnicity, nationality and religion must be included and carefully combined with other criteria in a full menu of security measures.

The initial and perhaps reflexive response to Monday's airport bombing by Russian authorities is blaming the attack on Chechen separatists, most of whom are Muslims, or ultra-nationalists in the North Caucasus area. Russia, it should be noted, is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, in the country's restive south, which will attract tens of thousands of Russian and international travelers.

Separatists have carried out terror attacks in Russia before. This may or may not prove to be the case this time. Either way, we are, sadly, in for much more tension in travel, in Russia and around the world. Smarter security would help us deal with with this on-going travail.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Rolling in Rioja Alavesa

The road rolls through arid, hilly landscapes in Spain's Rioja Alavesa on the way to the town of Laguardia. Passing fog-draped palisades framed by rugged mountains, I see tough, hardy green shrubs sprouting from the face of sheared hillsides and bunching in the crevices. Nearing Laguardia, the landscape turns gentler and carefully tended vineyards come into view.

Rioja is Spain's premier wine region, home to splendid red wine varietals such as Tempranillo and lesser-known but good whites such as Malvasia and Viura. I had been staying in the revitalized port city of Bilbao, and after Bilbao, this area is decidedly rustic, but that's fine. Laguardia is a medieval town, home to handsome stone buildings, historic fountains and plazas and cafes and restaurants that serve traditional fare like thin-sliced, toothsome Iberian ham and, of course, Rioja wines. Once home to rough wines meant to be consumed young, Rioja has in recent years produced increasingly sophisticated pours, and is now exporting much of its production. Between the landscapes, the towns and the vintages, it's a delightful place to visit.

Rioja is also home to striking, contemporary architecture, work commissioned by wineries, themselves. One spectacular example is light-washed Bodegas Yslos, with its wave-like roof, designed by Spanish 'starchitect' Santiago Calatrava. When I visited, the buildings and land were softened outside with bunches of purple grapes maturing in lovely vineyards.

In the town of Elciego, visitors can gawk at the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal Hotel, with its swooping titantium roof, parts of it stained red in reference to the wines of the host winery, Vinos de los Herederos del Marques de Riscal, which has been operating there since 1858. Opened in 2006, the hotel, part of Starwood's Luxury Collection, is not the masterpiece that Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum is, but it commands the eye and is an enjoyable place to visit. I had a good, leisurely lunch at Bistro 1860, one of the hotel's three restaurants, then had a walk-around tour of the hotel. From the terrace, I looked out at traditional stone winery buildings, the church steeple in the near-distance, the mountains in the middle-distance. Gehry, the Canadian American architect based in Los Angeles, also designed a lot of the furniture in the guest rooms and public spaces of the hotel, which has 43 guest rooms and suites tricked-out with televisions by Bang & Olufsen.

Rioja is an easy day-trip from Bilbao and the city of San Sebastian, the culinary and cinematic capital of northern Spain. It is a bit inland, linked to the Atlantic by winds and rains that blow into the interior down long valleys that crease the landscape. Cool nights and warm days nurture the grapes. If you go, and want to visit the region's wineries (here called bodegas), call ahead one or two days and make reservations. There is a designated Rioja Wine Route (the Ruta de Vino), best experienced with a designated driver. If you plan to have lunch, note that Spaniards eat lunch late; standard lunch hours run from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., though one of my lunches didn't wind up till 5 o'clock. In short, Rioja Alavesa says: Slow Down.

For more information, see or, plus www.winecountry/

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Big Bird Returns to the Sky, Gradually

The largest commercial passenger jet ever built - Airbus's A380 superjumbo - was widely grounded late last year, when problems with engines built by Rolls Royce forced first Qantas, then Singapore Airliness and others, to curtain or even stop flying the big bird. The engines have been tweaked, the problems seem to have been worked out and airlines are gradually returning the A380 to service, as well as announcing new routes for the humongous double-decker plane.

This good for Airbus, of course, as several hundred of the aircraft are on order, led by petrodollar-rich Middle Eastern airlines. It's good for congested airports in that more of these planes once put into service could help ease congestion by moving people with fewer flights. It's good for the airlines, as they can fully utilize growing fleets. And it should be good for travelers; flying in the A380 is a memorable and usually positive experience.

Qantas is returning its superjumbos to service, having resumed flights between Sydney and Los Angeles International as of Jan. 16.

Singapore Airways recently announced it will deploy the big plane between LAX and Tokyo, with continuing service to Singapore, as of March 27.

Korean Air plans to launch service from New York's John F. Kennedy International to Seoul/Inchon International on Aug. 2, the first use of an A380 between New York and Asia. On Oct.1, Korean will ramp up some more, using the A380 between LAX and South Korea.

As it happens, I was on the first-ever scheduled commercial flight of an Airbus A380. That was Singapore Airlines's aptly numbered flight 380, from Singapore to Sydney on Oct. 25, 2007. I remember it as one big party, some eight hours long, with people popping in and out of their seats, drinking bubbly and snapping pictures of each other. The aircraft was memorably and impressively spacious and extraordinarily quiet for a plane its size.

Last month, I had lunch with James Boyd, a vice president communications in the Americas for Singapore Air, who told me that as of then ''11 Airbus A380s are back in the air. It's a well-received and reliable aircraft. We've carried 3 million passengers on our A380s and flown hundreds of thousands of miles. It's a well-performing aircraft, and 40 percent more quiet." Quieter than other jumbo jets, that is.

Speaking of SQ, Boyd said that his airline at the end of March will commence thrice-weekly service between Singapore and Barcelona. SQ also eyes three-times weekly service to Sao Paolo, pending approval from the government of Brazil. "It's an open space in our network,'' he said.
SQ plans to use Boeing 777ERs configured into three classes for its South America service.

In the meantime, it's evidently wheels-up for the A380 superjumbo, following the necessary safety fixes. It's good to have the big bird back in the sky.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hu the Man

The first time I visited China, in 1996, I went, like all traveling pilgrims, to Beijing's Tiananmen Square and gazed at the massive portrait of Mao Zedong at the entrance to the Forbidden City. More than anything, it was the sight that made me feel: I'm really here.

Current Chinese President Hu Jintao doesn't have anything like the cult of personality that surrounded Mao, and that is probably a good thing. Hu, presently on a state visit to the United States, is a different kind of leader: a technocrat, a hydraulic engineer by training, member of a post-revolutionary generation who worked his way up through the ranks of the Communist Party. He is not a dictator in the Mao mold, but Hu is very much the Man in Chinese politics. Hu has overseen the historic boom that followed the economic makeover put in motion by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Today, China has the world's second-largest economy, after the U.S. (though it has just one-10th the per capita GDP of the U.S.). That hyper-growth has put the Middle Kingdom on equal footing with the United States and cast it as the rising superpower of the 21st century.

One can't visit China and not be impressed or come away from China without feeling that you have seen the future. I have been to China a dozen times now, most recently last month when I visited Beijing and the Hong Kong SAR. In Beijing, I stayed in a hip boutique hotel called the Opposite House, in a fashion-forward district near the cluster of foreign embassies in the centeal city. I flew to the capital onboard the Chinese carrier Dragonair, deplaning in one of the world's biggest and newest passenger terminals, at Beijing Capital Airport. The city of 18 million - maybe more, who's counting? - was pancake flat when I first visited. Now, it is festooned with highrises and choked with cars. Modern shopping centers pulsate where traditional hutongs - back alleys - lined with courtyard houses once stood.

Progress has come at a cost: Chinese cities are among the most-polluted in the world. Cities like Beijing have bulldozed much of their heritage - even though such sites are, among other things, prized tourist attractions - in the rush to develop. Freedom of speech and religion are still tightly controlled. China's sway over Tibet is hugely unpopular around the world.

All this change comes courtesy of China's hybrid economy, a form of state capitalism that concentrates political clout among party leaders and gives the state power to own or otherwise control major home-grown corporations. China is expanding aggressively in both the economic and military spheres and it bargains hard to get what it wants - the U.S. agreement to let Chinese companies have access to more-sensitive American technology, announced today in Washington, is one result of China's leverage and hard bargaining.

Of course, Hu has granted concessions, too, to further at least the impression of international harmony between the two rival powers. The biggest deal in that regard is China's agreement to buy $19 billion worth of aircraft from the Boeing Co. Those airplanes will come in handy in helping China carry out a major expansion of its own airlines, which are struggling to keep up with the surge in air-passenger traffic as a newly empowered Chinese middle class discovers the joys of overseas tourism.

Count on this: As Sino-American relations evolve, travel and tourism will continue to play an important and emblematic role.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hold That Flight

Delays happen. Everyone who travels frequently knows that. Flights arrive and depart late. Your room isn't ready but you can have breakfast in the hotel cafe if you'd care to wait. Your table at the hot new restaurant - the one featured on TripAdvisor - isn't ready either, but you can have a cocktail at the bar while you wait for the crush to abate.

As it goes with small matters, so it goes with large ones.

That's why it's not a terribly big surprise that Boeing Co. ( has delayed the delivery of its eco-friendly, composite-materials 787 Dreamliner yet again - this time till the third quarter of the New Year. Originally, the gorgeous new plane - I've seen test models at Boeing plants near Seattle - was supposed to arrive at launch airline All Nippon Airways ( in 2008. Didn't happen, thanks to overextended global supply chains and technical challenges. The latest setback came about when a fire broke out on a test flight in November and engineers had to scrutinize the plane again. When it does finally fly commercially, this will be a better-than-good plane; it will be a breakthrough aircraft. (You can read about the 787 in more detail in a feature story I did last year for Global Traveler magazine,

Another delay, less sweeping, to be sure, also involving Japan, has come from American Airlines, which will delay nonstop service between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Tokyo's lustrous, refurbished and expanded Haneda International Airport ( The new service is now expected to begin on or about March 1, pushed back from previously announced Jan. 20 - Thursday. American says it needs more time to plan and wants to wait until the traditionally weak travel month of February gives way to stronger traffic. AA had already sold some tickets for early flights. Bloomberg Business Week reports that AA "will offer passengers rebookings on its existing route from JFK to Tokyo's Narita airport instead, or a refund ...''

Delta Air Lines, too, has pushed back to Feb. 19 its own Los Angeles International Airport service to Haneda, from the original January time-slot.

Sometimes the marketing runs ahead of operations and engineering. These instances are the latest examples, by no means rare.

Having recently toured Haneda airport and flown into and out of the new international terminal, I can say it's one of the best airports in East Asia. That's saying a lot, as most of the world's high-quality airports are in East Asia. Haneda is gleaming, modern, efficiently run, much closer to downtown Tokyo than Narita -which snared Tokyo's international flights when it opened in 1978 but must now share them - and blessed with good food and shops and lounges. You almost wouldn't mind getting delayed there, though I wasn't when I flew to Tokyo Haneda recently on Japan Airlines. When service to this strikingly upgraded airport gets going in earnest, the travel experience for trans-Pacific fliers will get markedly better.

And when Dreamliners are, at last, put on some of those routes, it will be better still.

Half-Steps to Havana

U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to ease decades-old U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba is a welcome step in the right direction - or, rather, a half-step in the right direction. Politics has been defined as the art of the possible, and with the Republican victories in last November's elections, a slight tweaking of the policy may be all that can be done.

Obama's executive decision, reports Bloomberg in a Jan. 14 report, will allow "educational and church groups greater freedom to visit the communist country. The plans ... will allow higher educational institutions to sponsor travel to Cuba for course work ... American citizens will also be allowed to send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who aren't part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party.''

Otherwise, the broad U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, in effect since 1960 and one of the most stunningly ineffectual trade policies of all time, will stand. The embargo, including the travel ban, is designed to starve the communist island nation of 11 million people of hard foreign currency and generate enough pressure on President Raul Castro, 79, and former President Fidel Castro, 83, to bring down the regime. And that's worked so well, as the past 52 years have shown.

The blunt truth is that U.S. political leaders are afraid to offend the Cuban American community in the south of Florida, an important political swing state. Traditionally, the community has strongly supported the trade embargo; thus, it continues, unaffected by facts. The fact is that the Castros and senior members of their government have everything they need; ordinary Cubans suffer from the embargo and travel ban, not their leaders. So, too, do ordinary Americans, deprived of their right to travel to this nearby and interesting part of the world. The members of what the New Yorker magazine has called "the cult of the constitution'' might consider this infringement on personal liberty the next time they scan the founding document for revealed truth about gun ownership, taxation and human reproduction.

I recently traveled to Spain in a group that included Cuba-born travel journalists who live in Miami. I have not experienced the pain of separation from my homeland that they have. Their antipathy to the Castros comes from hard personal experience. I respect that. I respect them, but I don't think the past experience of exiled Cuban Americans should determine the future experiences of all Americans.

The travel ban - opposed by, among others, the U.S. Tour Operators Asssociation and the National Foreign Trade Council - has always had some loopholes. U.S. journalists can visit Cuba, for example, and ordinary American tourists can and occasionally do slip into Cuba through Mexico and Canada. According to Bloomberg, "Cuban Tourism Minister Manual Marrero said in an interview last year that 1 million U.S. tourists might visit the island annually if the ban on travel is ended.'' He didn't say how many U.S. tourists visit now, but the number is bound to be miniscule. Yet, in my perambulations around Canada, I have rarely encountered a Canadian who hasn't traveled to Cuba at least once.

Americans, so proud of their freedoms, so convinced of their exceptionalism, are almost alone in not being able to travel freely to this near-neighbor.

This feckless policy should end.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

To Madrid With American Airlines

Two of the more pleasant, stress-free, long-haul flights I've taken recently were between Miami and Madrid on board American Airlines. Flying in business class helped, of course, especially given that my flight to the Spanish capital in AA's Boeing 767 took 8.5 hours with the wind at our backs; the return flight, flying into prevailing winds on a 767, was a touch over 9 hours.

A lot of things helped the time go by. American's biz-class seats are comfortable, though not as large or posh as the near-sofas on board Singapore Airlines or AA's oneworld alliance partner Cathay Pacific Airways. What really worked for me was American's casually friendly but efficient cabin crew and three well-chosen amenities.

The first of these was the nifty digEplayer ET, the handheld digital in-flight entertainment device handed out free of charge in biz class. The device - a forerunner was created by a former Alaska Airlines baggage handler to brighten up in-flight entertainment - can be fitted in the seatback in front of you for easy use or propped on your lap or a tray table. It responds to button-pushing or use of a remote. The 8-inch LCD screen is well-designed for high-resolution images and American loads the device with almost uncountable hours of movies, TV shows, games and recorded music.

Amenity number two were the Bose headphones. You can use them to hear high-quality audio linked to the digEPlayer or use the 'phones to cancel out cabin noise and the drone of jet engines. Very cool.

Amenity number three is a tad caloric but fun. American dishes out ice cream sundaes - your choice of hot fudge or butterscotch. It's a yummy way to finish off a meal before drifting off, sated, to the Land of Nod. It even worked for me - for a time, anyway - and I have a horribly hard time sleeping on airplanes, thanks to noise, movement in the cabin and the unfortunate absence of my own bed.

I have but one complaint, a quibble to be sure: The airline was out of my preferred entree during dinner service on the flight to Spain. My back-up choice was tasty, and food shortfalls occur on a number of airlines. But that's the problem: Do airlines not survey passengers to pinpoint their favorites and plan accordingly? This is like putting a pair of socks into a dryer and coming up with one sock. It doesn't stop you from walking but why does it happen?

That pales, of course, next to a safe, on-time journey, which I had both ways on American. (Not so for my connecting flight on Spanish carrier Iberia from Bilbao to Madrid, which was delayed.) Gooey ice cream sundaes, Bach and Bob Dylan on the headset, and Bond - James Bond - on-screen also have a way of smoothing things out.

Climate Change at "Sarah Palin's Alaska''

One of the several recent gigs for Sarah Palin - former governor of the U.S. state of Alaska, obsessive attention-seeker, putative candidate for President of the United States in 2012 - has been television tour guide. Palin has been hosting an eight-part documentary series on Discovery Communications' TLC, traipsing about the 49th state with her family, talking with locals and showing off the sights to be found on her native turf.

Until now. Discovery announced that the show has run its course, and thus Palin's part-time job as a tour guide is over. When it premiered last Fall, a TLC media release informed potential viewers that "In each episode Sarah is joined by various family members as she shares the state she knows and loves - from salmon fishing in Bristol Bay to hiking along one of our country's most breathtaking glaciers.''

The end of "Sarah Palin's Alaska,'' as the show is called, came about by coincidence just as she tumbled into yet another, unrelated controversy.

This one is a dispute over placing either gunsights or surveyor's marks (take yer pick) over a map of 20 congressional districts held in last November's election by opposition Democrats and telling her Republican followers "Don't retreat, instead reload.'' One of the districts targeted on the online map was held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who is fighting for her life after being shot in the head Saturday by an evidently deranged 23-year-old. In U.S. political and media circles, debate now rages over whether military-style rhetoric by Palin and many others combines with America's gun culture to produce deadly violence.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska'' has ended for more prosaic reasons: The commercial climate has changed. Its ratings slipped, from 5 million viewers for the first panoramic episode, to 3.2 million by the eighth and final showing. TLC spokespeople do not characterize the end of the series as a cancellation, saying the show was contracted for one season and time is up.

Before its acquisition in 1991 by Discovery Communications, TLC - the cable TV channel that carried Palin's series - was known as The Learning Channel. Three months after the debut of the outdoorsy, nicely shot, filmed-on-location Alaska series, what have we learned?

* The series was as much about an ambitious politician and Clan Palin as it was about what Alaska offers as a travel destination or a place to live.

* Sarah Palin really likes guns. She's often shown firing them.

* Sarah Palin really, really likes being on camera. Being on camera with guns is definitely OK.

* It's fun to shoot and kill wild animals - not primarily for food or clothing, but because there's something just, you know, dang enjoyable about it. Not to mention gutting and skinning them.

* Having the kids and husband Todd on camera, too, is a swell way to promote family values. Oh, and speaking of Todd, he's a fellow who registered a decade or so ago as a member of the Alaska Independence Party - twice - though he doesn't belong now and Sarah never has. The party, which operates statewide, would like to see an Alaska independent of the United States - you know, the country Sarah would like to be president of.

Well, gosh darn it, the show is off the air now. Alaska is still there, though. Seeing the place not through a personality-driven TV series but in person as, say, a passenger on an inner-passage cruise ship might be a better way to go, after all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Passion of Pilot Christopher Liu

Maybe you remember about two weeks ago in the midst of the Western world's holidays, when a U.S. airline pilot called Christopher Liu posted a video on You Tube of what he said was lax airport security. Liu took the video down after the Transportation Security Administration ( and the airport in question, San Francisco International (SFO), raised a stink, accusing him of misleading the public and violating security procedures himself.

Well, things are pretty much back to normal now - and that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It's a good thing because the 50-year-old Liu, a veteran pilot who flies for American Airlines following service in the U.S. military, has returned to the skies. Despite the controversy, American, to its credit, has not fired him for being a whistleblower, as some employers might have done.

Liu has got his life back. But it's a different life. He and his lawyer say that six federal agents came to Liu's home outside Sacramento, California, and confiscated the permit and firearm he was permitted to carry in the cockpit to protect the plane from terrorist attack. His crime? Well, he hasn't been formally charged with anything, but it seems he has embarrassed the TSA, an outfit that normally does a pretty good job of embarrassing itself. That's a serious offense in the unfriendly skies post-9/11 in an America that remains understandably jittery about the prospect of more attacks.

Liu has seemed to relish his time in the spotlight and there is a certain amount of self-regard on display. Still, he continues to campaign for revised airport screening rules that would subject ground crews - some of them are airline employees and some are private contractors - with access to aircraft and runways to much tighter scrutiny. His Web site: is The site calls him "An American Hero.''

He's not a hero to SFO, which responded to media reports by saying that a door opened with a swipe card that Liu showed in his video leads not to the runway but an employee break room. (Liu has responded to the response by saying there is another door leading out further down the hallway.) SFO emphasizes that its security meets or exceeds all federal regulations and said it has often been ahead of the curve - phasing-in what it terms "the first biometric access control system'' in 1993, for example. (

I fly out of SFO a lot and it is one of the few major U.S. airports I can walk into without cringing. It is a clean, well-lighted place for travelers, it is usually well-run and it even has decent food and drink on offer, as well as an excellent aviation history museum. I have met and interviewed SFO officials, including airport director John Martin, spokesman Michael McCarron and other senior executives, numerous times. I have never known them to lie.

Still, regardless of what Liu - an experienced pilot but not a security specialist or professional communicator - got right or wrong in his video and subsequent public statements, he has called attention to an ongoing problem:

Nearly 10 years after Sept. 11, 2001, there are still serious gaps in air travel security, especially when it comes to ground crews: the people who clean aircraft, load luggage, pack cargo and otherwise service aircraft. SFO, with other major U.S. airports, says its airside ground crews have passed stringent, 10-year background checks. That isn't the case everywhere, particularly outside the U.S., where airport security is sometimes nonchalant.

So, returning to normality, when it comes to security, can also be a bad thing.

If we lose our sense of urgency when it comes to reform, we are right back to where we were in terms of risk. Liu's broad points are backed up by, among others, Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major U.S. carrier (he doesn't say which one), who has for some years written a blog called Ask the Pilot for His personal Web site is Among other trenchant observations about rules - strict ones for passengers and airline flight crews, looser ones for ground crews - Smith notes:

"Uniformed pilots cannot carry butter knives onto an airplane, yet apron workers and contract ground support staff - cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, caterers - can, as a matter of routine, bypass TSA inspection entirely.''

When the TSA came down hard on Christopher Liu for allegedly violating security protocols, Smith wrote "What the pilot really did, of course, is throw a ring of well-deserved embarassment around TSA's neck. And in typical fashion, the agency's response is not to review, revise or even acknowledge its foolish rules, but to harass and bully and threaten the person who drew attention to them.''

And that's just in the United States. Anyone who flies internationally, as I do, is struck right away by the inconsistent rules from nation to nation. There are hundreds of major international airports around the planet. The wildly varying rules between them are not all due to smart planning and the need to shrewdly shift tactics and keep would-be terrorists off-balance, as security officials claim. Some of the inconsistency - with all its awkwardness and anxiety for travelers - is due to the fact that national leaders and airport officials fail to communicate clearly with each other and have trouble agreeing on basics.

We have failed to solve this problem - to connect the dots, in a favorite phrase of our time - for many years. On his site, in an essay called "Terminal Madness,'' Patrick Smith sketches out accounts of no fewer than 29 successful attacks on air travel from 197o to 1999, pre-9/11. Most were carried out by Palestinian nationalists and Islamic radicals, but deranged individuals, Sikh extremists, drug cartels, Cuban exiles and others have gotten in on the act, too.

Security is an immense and evolving problem in a globalized world. It will take our best minds, drawing on their personal experience, to improve our record and protect innocents. However artless, Christopher Liu's passionate advocacy and willingness to speak up is a contribution.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mayor Quan

Some of the most interesting journeys are the ones you take closest to home.

I thought of this the other day when an old friend of mine took the oath of office as mayor of Oakland, California. She is Jean Quan, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold the highest office in the city of 300,000-plus souls.

I lived in Oakland, at three different addresses, years ago, but took a while to get to know it. One of my de facto tour guides was Jean, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a UC Berkeley student activist who graduated to broad-based, progressive-left community organizing years before she ran for the Oakland school board as a concerned parent, and won, then ran for the Oakland city council, and won again. You know how Barack Obama used to list 'community organizer' on his resume for the several years he spent working in the neighborhoods in Chicago? Jean has worked that beat for nearly 40 years. Talk about paying your dues.

I saw hardscrabble neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco while hanging out with Jean, met her husband, the smart, sympathetic physician Floyd Huen, and their two young children, now grown and holders of Ivy League degrees. I learned about traditional Chinese family customs from them years before my travels took me to China, a place I've now visited about a dozen times. If I had never made the long journey to the Middle Kingdom I still would have known a little bit about Chinese culture, thanks to Jean and Floyd, their family and friends. It wasn't all sober-minded learning, of course, and it certainly wasn't structured, but it was learning just the same. It didn't come as a big surprise when Jean got involved in education through the school board. Politically and culturally, she has long been an educator.

The San Francisco Examiner's food critic, the late Jim Wood, a colleague of mine, wrote an engaging and amusing piece about taking the great foodie Julia Child and her husband Paul to a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant on San Francisco's funky Sixth Street, called Tu Lan. As Jim's story goes, they had almost literally to step over a sidewalk denizen to get into the place, a classic, cheap, good greasy spoon. The fellow recognized her: "Bon appetit,'' he said.

Tu Lan was a favorite lunchtime haunt of San Francisco daily newspaper-types by then - we're talking about the early '90s - but I had been there way before, thanks, of course, to Jean Quan, who first took me there. I think she knew every inch of the neighborhood, a gathering place for people up against it. "Try the imperial rolls,'' she said. I did; they were terrific.

Jean Quan's campaign slogan during last fall's grassroots, underdog campaign was "Taking back Oakland block by block.'' I wasn't involved in the campaign, having lost touch with her over the years; we haven't talked in forever. But I watched from afar with a certain sense of I-knew-her-when pride. She will have a challenging time governing Oakland, a culturally rich, materially impoverished town that is also dogged by high crime, budget shortfalls and a reputation as the unglamorous sister of the sleek city across the Bay: San Francisco.

Nevermind the always-quoted remark of another Oakland homegirl, Gertrude Stein, who said "There's no 'there' there.'' Stein meant there were few surviving traces of her girlhood years later, not that the whole town was a big nothing. There's plenty of 'there' in this working-class city in the East Bay. Some of it can rival San Francisco, notably the nest of artisan markets, restaurants and shops in the Rockridge area and the fast-developing Uptown area that is, despite its name, actually near downtown. Such destinations are worth making a trip to see.

Congratulations to Mayor Quan, who is, as folks used to say, bringing it all back home.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome to Brazil...Or Not

American Airlines launched a thrice-weekly nonstop flight Dec. 16 between its home base in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and to show off its business-class service and introduce U.S. journalists to the big, vibrant home of samba and football and the Girl from Ipanema, AA decided to do a short media familarization trip.

I was invited to participate. I said sure, excited to be going. It would be my first trip to Rio and only my second to Brazil, which is hosting the summer Olympic Games in 2016 and soccer's World Cup in 2014, enormously popular events sure to attract scads of foreign tourists.

But first I had to get a visa, a routine matter, usually. It's a piece of documentation I have secured many times in nations around the world. The fee, $140 USD and non-refundable, seemed a little steep, but the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C. explained that was because it is the equivalent sum that the United States charges Brazilians to visit the United States. This tit-for-tat business seems a lot like schoolchildren kicking dirt on one another in the schoolyard, and it might be nice if one of them rose above it and showed how to behave hospitably, but since that isn't on, I thought OK.

That's when my problems began. I went to the consular Web site, filled out the online application form and clicked on the calendar to make the required appointment to submit my documentation in person. Clunk! Although it was December 21, 2010, the first available appointment was on Jan. 12, 2011, the day before the Jan. 13 trip starts. No problem, I thought, I'll pay an extra fee to expedite the visa. Nope. Brazil does not offer an expediting fee in the U.S.

Flummoxed, I went to both of the U.S. public relations firms representing American and the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, which were co-hosting the journey. They suggested contacting commercial visa-service agencies they knew in New York or Dallas to speed things up.

But there is a jurdisdictional problem in doing that, due to Brazilian regulations; I learned I would have to work through an agency located in the consular region where I live - in my case, Northern California. So, I went to the Web sites for two national agencies that have San Francisco branch offices. At the Travisa site, I discovered the application would take 10 to 20 business days; that didn't give me enough time. headed its section on Brazil in red text that read: "Due to a new software system installed by the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, there are technical issues which are resulting in extreme restrictions with travel submissions to the consulate per day.''

Curses, foiled again.

E-mails flew back and forth between yours truly and the PRs, who very much wanted to be helpful, and tried to be. A fellow, Brazilian, from the Rio CVB suggested going to the consulate ahead of the appointment, telling them who I am (the new King of Pop, I mused, or at least King of Travel Writers); he felt certain they would get right on it. I took the first leg of the four-hour, 70-mile round trip ride on public transport from my home, took a number in the consulate's attractive, well-lit waiting room and when I got to the application window was told I would need a letter of invitation. I pointed out my letter of invitation from American Airlines.

"It needs to be a Brazilian entity,'' I was told.

I showed the Rio daily schedule I was given on Rio CVB letterhead.

"That's just an itinerary,'' I was told. "You need a letter.''

This was the first time I heard from any source that I needed a letter of invitation from Brazil.

Was Kafka Brazilian? I wondered. And did I somehow miss it?

E-mails flew some more. Yesterday, I got a voice message from a person on the consulate staff who didn't give her name, instructing me to show up this morning between 9 and 11 a.m., so processing of my visa could begin. Finally! Once again, I embarked on the four-hour, 70-mile round trip journey. I strolled in, a VIP. But wait a minute, not so fast.

The lady from the consulate who greeted supplicants - I mean, visa applicants - asked if I had an appointment. Certainly, I replied, showing her my printout for my Jan. 12 appointment while explaining that I had received a phone call telling me to come in right away. "I'm sorry, sir,'' she said. "You don't have an appointment.''

"I was invited, and told to come here today by the consulate,'' I said. She shook her head no. "I was!''

"I'm a journalist,'' I added. She shrugged.

"I need to talk to somebody,'' I said.

No can do, she replied in so many words. Nor could I take a seat in the waiting room. I didn't belong there. I didn't have an appointment. I could leave the premises. I left, embarking on the final leg of the four-hour ... well, you've heard that part.

I won't be going back, and thus won't be going to Brazil. I'll miss what will most likely be a superior new service from AA. A few days ago, not seeing more of Brazil would have sorely disappointed me. Now, it's fine.

The moral of the story: I'm not saying don't go to Brazil. Your experience may be very different from mine. I will say this: Be careful and be prepared. Start preparing well ahead of time. I would have done this myself, save for the inconvenient fact that I was traveling successively in Spain, Japan and China in the several months before the planned trip to Rio and had to have my passport with me. I couldn't leave it for an indeterminate time at a consulate.

Brazil is a big, developing, vibrant country with big ideas for itself and about itself. As mentioned at the top of this post, it will be hosting thousands of foreign visitors, many of them Americans, who will be eager to see the Olympics and the World Cup, and enjoy the famous beaches and landmarks of Rio such as Sugar Loaf Mountain. Brazil should be making it easy for travelers, including journalists, to visit. Instead, it's making it hard - ironically so, because almost every Brazilian I have met personally has been welcoming and warm.

If my experience is anything to go by, this proud, ambitious country has a long way to go before it is ready to welcome travelers, especially to world-class events. Here's hoping it gets there soon.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2011: The New Year in Review

Right, that's not a typo. We're reviewing 2011 in travel. My feeling is: Why wait? The news is seldom really new. We pretty much know what's going to happen. So:

Airline add-on fees rise and multiply: Want to sit down? Want to use the toilet? That'll cost you.

Space tourism faces flight delays: Richard Branson and the boys are frustrated this year when air-traffic control officials say they'll have to put test flights to space on hold, absent a next generation ATC system.

U.S. revises airport security rules: Yep, again. Won't tell anyone why. Simultaneously, the Homeland Security chief visits Israel, studies the tough airline and airport rules there, says she'll think about maybe adopting some. Isn't quite sure which ones. Appoints a blue-ribbon commission.

High-Speed Rail: It speeds up, in China, where a new high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai is set to open this June (seriously), a year ahead of schedule. It slows down in the U.S. where lawsuits, work rules and property owner resistance sidetrack plans for environmentally friendly fast trains. Oh, and anti-government Republican state govenors return federal transport funds to Washington - you know, the capital of the evil empire.

Air Fare Sales: They're shorter. You have 60 seconds to catch the announcement on Twitter and book.

Hotel room discounts. Ditto.

And speaking of hotels: 2011 is the last year for all those media bedbug stories, not necessarily because bedbugs have been eliminated but because the famously attenuated media attention span has shrunk still more, and the spotlight has moved on.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Heroes and Zeroes in Travel 2010

You have your heros and you have your zeroes when it comes to leaders in the travel industry. The year just passed had an abundance of both. Here is a shortlist of people who made waves, for good or otherwise, in 2010, starting with the good guys:


Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, U.S.: Lahood, to his credit, has tried to make sense of the crazy-quilt of transportation policy. In 2010, he gave passenger rights some long-awaited teeth by approving hefty fines for U.S. domestic carriers that park planefuls of passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more on domestic flights. Coincidence or no, long waits on the tarmac fell markedly when the new rules came into effect, perhaps because airlines cancelled more flights. Long waits during the recent East Coast snow and ice storms for arriving passenger jets flown by international carriers may mean the rules could tighten for those carriers, too.

Kate Hanni, head of Some critics say Hanni, a former realtor and singer in a rock band, has not met a camera or microphone she doesn't like. True or not, Hanni is a articulate spokesperson for the rights of air travelers, especially in the U.S., and her effective advocacy spurred airlines to be more aware of customer service and resulted in the tarmac delay fines cited above.

Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition. Mitchell, whose group has represented corporate travel planners since the mid-1990s, was again a persistent and well-spoken advocate for transparency in travel, especially when it comes to air fares and disclosure of extra airline ticket fees.

Giovanni Bisignani, outgoing director general of the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association. For eight years the head of IATA, the trade group for most of the world's major airlines, the former head of Alitalia turned what had been a moribund talking-shop into a leading global advocate of fair-minded ownership rules, rational routes and pro-active steps to combat aviation's contribution to climate change.

Richard Branson. The British billionaire and chief of London's Virgin Group. For embracing fun in air travel and reviving a bit of the cheeky entrepreneurship that characterized the airline industry in earlier times.

Hero of the Year: Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, for holding out against charging stiff fees for changing flights and continuing the carrier's consumer-friendly "bags fly free'' policy in the face of escalating luggage-checking fees by nearly everyone else.


Ben Baldanza, CEO of Spirit Airlines, a U.S. low-cost airline that became the first airline in the land to start charging customers for carry-on bags.

Michael O'Leary, the CEO of Ireland's ryanair. The Ebenezer Scrooge of airline executives, he called for charging passengers for using the loo. It hasn't happened yet, but even if it's a publicity stunt, it's a suggestion too far.

Zero of the Year: No contest: Steven Slater, Steven Slater, Steven Slater. The cursing, beer-snatching JetBlue flight attendant who, claiming a passenger had hit and scratched him, deployed the emergency escape shute and left his post and his job when his flight landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. An exhaustive investigation turned up no such passenger and not one person on the flight backed Slater's story. He was arrested and agreed to accept court-imposed psychological counseling.