Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Cheers for the U.S. DOT

I was pretty pleased these past few days, hearing about the U.S. Department of Transportation's plans to strengthen air passengers' rights when it comes to getting bumped from a flight, being compensated for lost luggage, suffering through delays on the tarmac and so on. Then I remembered I am facing eight domestic flights in the next two weeks - only two of which, nonstops on Virgin America - are likely to be pleasant, and my mood darkened.

Now, reading over the list of changes, I'm thinking not hip, hip hurrah for the DOT, but just hip, hip - hold the hurrah. The rules-changes are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough?

No. Especially in a time when air traffic controllers - zonked on the job from lack of sleep - fall into deep slumber or chill out by watching a movie rather than direct pilots how to land. Even U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama's pilot was given inaccurate information from an air traffic control tower last week. The First Lady! And that was a military ATC, too.

I'm all for boosting compensation when a bag is lost and the airline is culpable. Ditto if a traveler is involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight. Have you flown in the United States lately? If you do manage to wedge yourself into the plane, you may find - as I did this morning when I tried to book a seat on a flight departing 10 days from now - that every seat is taken. Airlines are also supposed to become more transparent about listing ancillary fees that brought them $2.5 billion USD in revenue last year; that, too, is devoutly desired, as it can be hard to know the true total cost of a flight at the time of booking.

People in civil aviation reflexively - and understandably - say that safety is their highest priority. In line with that, DOT should understand that boosting an ATC's time away from the tower to nine hours from eight - one of the rules-changes scheduled to take effect in late August, after the busy summer flying season - is not enough. These people are exhausted. (So, incidently, are many pilots.) Treating people who control the movements of planes and the lives of millions of travelers like sleep-deprived hospital interns is not a good idea. (Having sleep-deprived hospital interns is not a good idea, either.) Adding a second ATC to the lone worker pulling duty overnight at 28 U.S. airports is a good, and long overdue, move.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the PBS "NewsHour'' that his department and Federal Aviation Administration administrators will make additional changes in American air travel if necessary. Get ready to make them, Mr. Secretary. It's necessary.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Grapegrowers Preview 2011 Wines in Napa Valley

Fighting a new invasive pest, pulling less-popular wine grapes and planting more- popular ones, investing in technology, sweating climate change and water supplies, and hoping for a fine 2011 harvest is preoccupying growers in lovely, manicured Napa Valley. If it all comes together, northern California wine country will remain an especially pleasant place to visit. And the wines will be especially pleasant, too.

That's a lot to pull together, and success is never assured. So say members of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, a 37-year-old trade association ( with some 550 members who held a "bud-break'' press conference the other day to preview the year ahead - and consequences for California wine tourism.

In spite of the very real and serious issues at hand, it was the most serene setting of any press conference I have attended - and I've attended hundreds all over the world, mostly in windowless hotel ballrooms. Not here. Tables were spread beneath old oak trees, just steps from terraced vineyards. Flowers adorned the table. A soft, cooperative breeze blew, and wine was, of course, served with lunch.

The press conference was held at Napa Valley's Vine Hill Ranch, a 70-acre spread near Oakville, farmed for the past half-century by the Phillips family. Family scion Bruce Phillips says his family grows wine grapes under contract for a number of established wineries. Wine grapes only. "There are no table grapes grown anywhere in Napa Valley,'' he told me.

"Napa Valley is an exceptional place to grow wine grapes,'' says Jennifer Putnam, the association's executive director.

Chiming in, Matt Ashby of Constellation Wine, remarks "People think harvest is the most stressful time for grape growers, but it's not. Springtime is very, very stressful - everything is waking up in the vineyards. But with weather, you can never be sure what is coming next. With frost, within a couple of hours you could lose the entire crop.''

Travelers and locals cruising Highway 29, which threads north and south through the heart of California's - and America's - prime premium wine region, feast their eyes on budding grapevines. A rainy winter saved the region from drought. But, Philips says, cool weather has caused the buds to open two weeks later than usual - with still-uncertain prospects for the 2011 harvest.

Growers acknowledged over their glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon that U.S. wine sales are still down - a consequence of the recession that began in 2008 and the slow recovery of the United States economy. They are using this relative downtime to pull slow-selling grapes such as Zinfandel and Merlot and plant grapes for the big, lusty reds, most notably Cabs, that Napa is known for worldwide.

Growers are also investing in technology used to measure water supplies, wind speed and other variables, and calibrated to alert growers when trouble is brewing. Trouble like last season's invasion of the European Grapevine Moth, which burrows into grapes, destroying the fruit.

Jennifer Lamb, of Herb Lamb Vineyards, says that cooperation between grape growers, scientists at the University of California-Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture disrupted the mating season for the moths, killing most of them. Now, growers are trying to tweak methods of pest control so they won't inadvertently harm what Lamb calls "beneficials'' - insects that prey upon pests.

Money, as well as pride, are at stake. A lot of money. The wine trade is a $40 billion USD business in California and a prime tourist lure in the scenic hills and valleys of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Livermore and Monterey in the north and Santa Barbara and others in the south. Wine-tasting, lunch on the grounds, dinner at nearby upscale restaurants, and finding lodging near pretty wineries draw visitors to the Golden State. Any major lapse could tarnish California's glow.

Of course, California's grape growers and wine-makers compete with each other, as well as with rivals around the planet. Which is why Napa Valley tries to distinguish itself from all other places.

Says Bruce Phillips: "Napa Valley concentrates on luxury, premium wine grapes. That's not true of all the appellations in the state and the country.''

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frighteningly Real Reality TV

How real do you want reality television to be? It could be realer than you might like if someone trains the cameras on U.S. air-traffic controllers - you know, sleeping, watching movies and using their personal mobile phones while on duty. The show should combine elements of "Survivor,'' "The Apprentice'' - with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as The Donald - and, oh, let's say "Lost.''

Good idea?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The FAA: A Modest Proposal II

While we're reforming the troubled U.S. Federal Aviation Administration - pace my previous post - why not make the FAA make U.S. carriers list their added fees in a transparent, easy-to-understand way?

That's what the Business Travel Coalition ( and the American Society of Travel Agents ( are asking Congress to do in Senate and House bills to reauthorize and refund the FAA (

Airlines maintain that they list ancilliary taxes and fees - everything from securing an exit-row seat to paying for a second checked bag - on their Web sites. But consumer groups counter that actually finding the information amidst the tangle of data in a fast and easy way is, well, neither fast nor easy.

Airlines, especially U.S. carriers, have come to rely on ancilliary fees in recent years for raising revenue in a tough business environment in which travelers resist fare hikes. Fair enough. Airlines have to make money to stay in business and keep flying. But if we as air travelers are going to have to navigate through the assorted "bespoke'' services offered for extra money - and pay for extras like government passenger taxes, carbon-offset fees and airline fuel surcharges - it would be customer-friendly to post those fees and taxes clearly and prominently. That way - as the BTC and ASTA rightly argue - passengers and corporate travel buyers would have a clear idea of the total cost of their bookings.

Sounds fair. Should do.

The FAA: A Modest Proposal

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has its share of troubles, what with exhausted air-traffic controllers falling asleep on the job and the ATC boss resigning, disturbing in-flight incidents related to faulty aircraft maintenance popping up with increasing frequency and conservative budget-hawks threatening to slash $4 billion USD from the agency's budget. Bills to reauthorize and fund the FAA are before Congress right now, and the stakes for millions of travelers flying within, to and from the United States couldn't be higher.

One thing Congress should do is heed a call from the Transport Workers Union ( to bring overseas maintenance operations entirely under uniform FAA standards ( Presently, U.S. carriers outsource aircraft maintenance to a high degree, and drug and alcohol testing, identity checks and inspection of facilities is not always carefully carried out in the dozens of non-U.S. facilities that work on planes for U.S. carriers. This, the TWU charges, imperils safety.

A contextural note: The quality of maintenance does not derive primarily from where the work is done, but how it is done. FAA inspectors are authorized to visit non-U.S. facilities, some of which are very good. Countries such as Germany and Singapore, which do plenty of maintenance, do first-rate work. Moreover, there are some smaller facilities in the U.S., itself, that do not meet standards as rigorous as those of the major hubs. As it is, FAA inspectors complain they they do not have adequate staffing to oversee all the places they are charged with visiting.

All major U.S. airlines do some non-U.S. work. American Airlines does the least, with only 12 percent in 2009 (the last year for which government and industry numbers are available), according to data compiled by the union. The Northwest unit of Delta Air Lines, with 61 percent of its maintenance done overseas, outsources the most, with US Airways right behind with 60 percent, according to the TWU. The average of seven carriers reviewed by the union, whose members work on planes, was about 40 percent.

According to an April 6 report in the Dallas News, "Workers in overseas repair facilities, working on U.S. aircraft used by U.S. passengers, are not subject to routine background checks or drug and alcohol tests. At least one member of Al Qaeda was found working at a major maintenance facility in Singapore in 2003.''

Then, the kicker: "The faulty procedures, which allowed these serious lapses in security, have not been addressed and will not be corrected by pending FAA reauthorization without amendment,'' according to the newspaper (

Amend it, then. This sounds like a modest, and reasonable, proposal considering the stakes. Lives are at risk. If it takes an amendment, amend. If it takes a few dollars more, spend them - audit and check that they are smartly spent, but spend them.

There are millions of reasons why. Behind every one of those reasons is the face and name of a traveler.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nobu and the Crystal Symphony

I have never been on an ocean cruise. I have set foot on cruise ships - twice - but neither of them have moved while I was on board. The first was the Queen Mary II, on a port call to San Francisco. The second was the Crystal Symphony, a handsome, 922-passenger vessel operated by the luxury line Crystal Cruises (

My wife and I attended a media event on the ship last night, entering through the woebegone, drab Pier 35 facility that serves as a dreary gateway to a glittering city. San Francisco has been talking about building a new cruiseship terminal for years; better hurry.

The Crystal Symphony is well-appointed, with a guy tickling the ivories - that's piano-playing - while passengers and guests boarded near a waterwall in the hotel-like lobby and reception area. From there, a small knot of journos, spouses and partners set off on a tour. Built in 1995 and extensively redone in 2009, the ship has eight decks and seven restaurants. There are several appealingly snug bars, a library, a relatively large and unappealing (to this non-gambler) casino and a very large and beautifully appointed business center with dozens of Macs that is open 24/7. The ship is an upmarket offering for sure - pricey but with lots of options, including a cinema.

For me, the highlight of the evening was dining at The Silk Road, the onboard sushi bar and Japanese-cum-Peruvian restaurant run by Japan-born celebrity chef Nobuyuki "Nobu'' Matsuhisa. Appetizers were imaginative and savory, three kinds of fruit-flavored creme brules at the end were just sweet enough and not heavy, and the main courses in-between worked wonderfully. Our server was pushing a Nobu bento box, to encourage diners to sample a wide range of Nobu creations. I saw no need to go past his signature dish: succulent black cod with miso. It's no exaggeration to say it melts in the mouth.

Nobu is nothing if not widespread in his business interests - his Web site lists 23 restaurants, arrayed around the world. The Silk Road is his only restaurant on a cruise ship. Crystal Cruises definitely wins bragging rights for that coup.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pennywise and Pound-Foolish

U.S. domestic politics gets curiouser and curiouser when it comes to travel and transport - and everything else.

Last Friday, it was announced with great fanfare that Democrats and Republicans struck a deal at literally the 11th hour to slash federal spending by $38 billion. Believing he had done something wonderful, President Barack Obama dropped by the Lincoln Memorial to high-five startled tourists. On the third full day after the deal, political reporters, who till then had obsessed about details of the negotiations, finally reported some detail about what is to be cut; surely, this is one of the most serious failures of reporting on a major story in recent memory.

In the 11 April Washington Post, reporter Philip Rucker previews the cuts. Among them, Rucker writes, are "a roughly $1.5 billion reduction in high-speed rail grants, a signature Obama administration program.'' If true, this puts the U.S. on a fast-track to Third World status when it comes to our outdated, deterioriating travel infrastructure. It also adds weight to the derisive remarks Republican politicians made about high-speed rail after the annual State of the Union message, when rail became a conservative punch-line.

As for the notionally liberal President Obama, it's hard to know what to think of him. Elected in 2008 on a message of hope, vision and "change we can believe in,'' Obama seems ready to abandon his cherished programs, policies and principals at any hint of serious resistence. What does Obama stand for? What does he believe in? The only certainty is that he likes power very much and will do what he needs to do to cling to power in the election of 2012. Writing as one who didn't drink the Kool-Aid on Obama, I can't say I'm surprised.

So, badly needed rail is delayed at best, and perhaps derailed. As Rucker points out in the Post (, though, there is one kind of transport that is getting plenty of bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. Writes Rucker:

"Meanwhile, funding for an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter program is not expected to be included in the spending bill, according to a source with knowledge of the decision. The Ohio district of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R.) stands to gain from the costly and controversial defense project, and General Electric Co. (which paid no federal taxes last year on billions in profits - D.A.) was reportedly lobbying over the weekend to keep money for the project in the budget.''

Saturday, April 9, 2011

SFO's Terminal 2 is Back, and Way Better

Back in 1954, San Francisco International Airport opened what is now terminal 2. For years, it served as SFO's international terminal - a gateway to and from the great world. When, in December 2000, SFO, the San Francisco Bay Area's major airport, opened a beautiful new international terminal, terminal 2 morphed into an airport version of the Arabian peninsula's Empty Quarter - vast, sparsely inhabited (a few offices operated there), unused by travelers.

That was then. This week, a drastically revamped terminal 2 finally reopened to passengers, as a domestic terminal, for the first time in just over a decade. Designed by the architectural firm Gensler and rebuilt for $383 million USD, it is stunning - airy, spacious, welcoming, high-tech to the max, stocked with first-rate food and beverage outlets like the Bay Area company Peet's Coffee & Tea and studded with power outlets and work stations.

I traipsed through a community open house Saturday, and the experience took me back to childhood when air travel was considered fun, even glamorous. It says something about my childhood entertainment options that my parents, little sister and I used to go to our local airport on the East Coast and watch the planes take-off and land. We didn't fly then but we could dream. San Francisco International Airport Director John Martin, who I chatted with at the open house, said he used to do the same thing. "In high school, my girlfriend and I did that,'' he grinned. A suitable past-time for a future airport director. I'm not sure what my excuse was.

In any case, the new terminal is as handsome as any domestic air terminal in the United States - and it is the first domestic U.S. terminal to win LEED Gold certification, thanks to its extensive recycling program, energy efficency, water-reduction measures and other steps. Martin says the terminal - which opens to flights on Thursday, 14 April - came in "on time and under budget.'' Some 5.5 million passengers are expected to use it annually. SFO has three other terminals.

The reborn T-2 will be home to San Francisco-based Virgin America, which will operate seven gates, and will be used for domestic flights by American Airlines, which will operate another seven. For American, it is something of a homecoming.

AA flew from T-2 from 1954 until its shutdown. In the reconfigured space - largely unrecognizable to us longtime fliers who remember how it used to look - American will operate an Admirals Club passenger lounge awash in natural light, graced inside with small living pine trees, hotel-lobby-like seating and great runway views. The new lounge - the only one in the reinvented T-2 - is about twice the size of the old Admirals Club in T-3, which AA is vacating. The T-2 lounge has LEED Silver status.

"We built this terminal to put some of the romance back into air travel,'' Martin says. "It's a facility that sets the standard for passenger comfort. It's a dream terminal.''

On the basis of design alone, the romance is back. Of course, workaday aviation hassles such as security inspections and baggage-handling systems will remain as operational realities - nothing too romantic there. But airport officials are justifiably proud of the new terminal, and had smiles on their faces as thousands of camera-toting locals wandered happily through the bright new space, while singers sang and bands played and little kids ran around, laughing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Safety and Saving Money

An air traffic controller falls asleep in the control tower at Washington Reagan National Airport. A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 gets a rip in its outer skin, forcing an emergency landing and a nationwide review of older 737s. A rocking, shaking take-off of a United Continental Airlines flight is aborted, with the plane returning in a hurry to New Orleans Airport.

These things all happened in the past week or so - coincidentally just when both U.S. President Barack Obama and the opposition Republican Party are looking to slash the budget of the regulatory Federal Aviation Administration as part of ongoing and bitterly partisan spending wars on Capitol Hill.

I agree with the conservative mantra that you can't solve problems solely by throwing money at them. Conversely, the sacrificial cuts advocated by the GOP - should they go beyond fat and into muscle - could end up sacrificing the safety of the traveling public at a time when the aging fleets of U.S. carriers are really starting to show their decrepitude. Beyond the budget battle looms a possible shutdown of most of the U.S. Government by this weekend - again, the sticking point is money.

The FAA and the travel industry are just part of an exremely complex situation - but an important part. Travel, trade and much national and international commerce depend on a safely operated, well-run transport system. Somehow, someone, somewhere has got to grow up and stop using travel infrastructure as a political football. A tall order, I know. But lives, as well as a nation's solvency, depend on it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Five Cool Things About Napa

Downtown Napa, that is. Northern California's Napa Valley - "up valley'' - is world-renowned and well- worth visiting. But now, downtown Napa city - until fairly recently a drive-through or maybe a place to get gas - is a destination in its own right, the result of unusually smart urban renewal. Here is a short list of cool places and things to do there:

1. La Toque. This is chef Ken Frank's superb, Michelin-starred restaurant in the Westin Napa Hotel. Frank, who first learned to cook in France as a young whelp, describes his adult self as "a French chef in a California body'' and you can see why when you savor his French-accented California cuisine, matched with a first-rate wine list. This is a genuine destination restaurant. (

2. Back Room Wines. Located in the heart of things near the corner of First and Main streets, this well-stocked wine shop is the brainchild of properietor and wine wizard Dan Dawson, who apprenticed at the French Laundry for eight years. It's not a bargain site but there is good value for money considering the quality of the California and international vintages on offer. Dawson is often on the premises. He's easy to talk to, erudite without being pretentious and dryly witty. 1000 Main St., Napa, California 707.226.1378 or 877.322.2576,

3. Art on First. Whos on first? Art. Art who? Just kidding.
You know the old adage: If you have a lemon, make lemonade. Downtown Napa is now loaded with high-end, high-quality places to eat, hear music and drink wine, but it is still burdened by too many empty storefronts. Result: Art on First, a self-guided walking tour that takes you past storefronts graced with temporary, often imaginative art installations in what could otherwise be dreary empty spaces. I was shown around by artist Gordon Huether, a Napa native whose own Gordon Huether Gallery recently opened, also on First. Huether's late father was a window-display designer, so maybe it's in the blood. (

4. Uptown Theatre. This once-drab four-plex cinema was transformed last year into an 800-odd seat venue for live music and comedy, its Art Deco splendors carefully and lovingly restored. Touring acts like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Boz Scaggs and Joan Rivers play the place, which is a short walk from most downtown attractions. Shows are for 21-and-overs. 1350 Third St., Napa, Calif. 707.259.0123,

5. Oxbow Market. This is a scaled-down version of San Francisco's wildly successful Ferry Building, with its one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants and farmer's market. When I was last at Oxbow over a year ago, there was a tentative, unfinished feel to the place. Not so now. It was abuzz with locals and visitors at lunchtime last week, and its foodie and Wine Country line-up will please virtually anyone who eats. Hog Island Oysters, the Model Bakery, the maize restaurant Pica Pica and a branch of the Olive Press olive-oil maker are a few of the stars. First Street, Napa.

Fact is there are more than five cool places downtown, but you get the picture. Like all big-idea ventures, the new downtown Napa is a work in progress; the good news is progress is there, and not-hiding, in plain sight.