Tuesday, November 29, 2011

AMR in Chapter 11

At last, years after fellow U.S. carriers went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization to cut costs, AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines, filed Chapter 11. It could - and arguably should - have been done long ago. (www.aa.com).

For travelers, the impact won't be felt strongly, at least not at first. AMR's new chief executive officer, Thomas Horton, says that American - the world's third-largest airline - will over time trim its route structure and reduce the number of flights. The airline is operating normally and AA flights are landing and taking off at hub airports at Los Angeles LAX, New York JFK, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Miami and Chicago. Tickets are being honored as per usual. The airline's frequent flier program has not been affected, nor have its code-shares and other forms of cooperation with oneworld alliance partners Japan Airlines and British Airways.

The big losers in this filing are AA employees, who number 78,000, and now face layoffs and deep cuts to their defined-benefit pensions. AMR shareholders are simply sunk. The company's stock, which soared north of $40 USD per share in 2007, fell to 33 cents today. The Chapter 11 filing makes the stock worthless.

AA lost $162 million USD in the third quarter of this year; it was the 14th time in the last 16 quarters that the company has lost money. According to a report in today's Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com), AMR has lost $20 billion USD since 2001. That number sounds high but if true, that is about half the combined worldwide losses of all airlines in that time-frame. It's an enormous amount of money, brought about by a combination of low-cost competition, volatile fuel prices and the high cost of servicing pensions.

Under Horton, who replaces longtime CEO Gerard Arpey, American has a chance to straighten up and fly right. The changes will be painful for workers and shareholders but, long-term, travelers will probably benefit from a streamlined, modernized airline. This is especially true as AA starts to take possession of the 460 new planes it has ordered - an order the company says will not dwindle as it makes its way through bankruptcy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Santa Fe's Kakawa Chocolate House

When I asked Peter Wolf, co-founder and owner of Kakawa Chocolate House, what got him into the business of making and selling chocolate, he smiled and replied without hesitation: "The buzz.''

I can see why. On a blustery, rainy morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when a power failure knocked out the lights, it was Kakawa's chocolate creations that proved illuminating. Nestled in an intimate former private home in the high-desert state's capital city, our small group peered through dim natural light at delicious-looking, house-made chocolate bars and chocolate truffles in their display cases.

The buzz Wolf alluded to made its presence felt when I sampled what he aptly described as an elixer. The naturally occuring caffeine and modest amount of sugar provided a pleasant lift, perfect for an inclement day. I was sipping a rich, dark, thick, largely unsweetened brew derived from a drinking chocolate favored by Thomas Jefferson. Served from a blue and white cup and saucer, it was unbelievably good, velvet-smooth. Kakawa whips up other chocolate drinks inspired by historical sources (as well serving its own, strictly modern creations). Some of these elixers are as close as we can get these days to the drinking chocolate enjoyed by Aztec nobility in pre-Columbian Mexico or, later, in the shops and cafes of Old Europe.

Wolf, a contractor when he's not selling chocolate, is a cocoa proslytizer. He knows, and cares about, the natural and cultural history of chocolate. A section on Kakawa's Web site is entitled "Cosmology.'' Kakawa's chief chocolatier, Ariana Rossi, has the chocolate molecule tatooed on her forearm.

If all this sounds a little bit precious, don't be put off. The quality of Kakawa's products justifies any explanation or marketing claim made for it. If you find yourself in the lovely desert town of Santa Fe anytime soon, go.

Kakawa Chocolate House is located at 1050 E. Paseo de Peralta (near the popular shopping street Canyon Road), Santa Fe, NM 87501 USA, tel. 505.982.0388, www.kakawachocolates.com.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Misery Air: United

It's Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and I know I'm supposed to feel thankful, but when it comes to flying United Airlines - the big carrier at my main airport, San Francisco International (www.flysfo.com)- I just can't.

My feeling about United (www.ual.com) can be summed-up like this: Misery, thy name is United Airlines.

My wife and I flew Chicago-based United from SFO to Washington Dulles International earlier this month, paying a bit extra for Economy Plus, to get a little extra legroom. That worked out OK, but what didn't go well was the passenger-flight crew relationship. Simply put, the crew on our flight couldn't have cared less about the comfort and convenience of their customers.

The main source of tension was the overhead luggage bins. By the time most passengers clambered on board the needle-thin, single-aisle aircraft - following frequent fliers, military people in uniform, and people who needed help boarding - the bins were full. Seated in row 7, I, for example, had to stow my carry-on in the bin over row 35. I was lucky to find a spot.

This situation has come about because airlines, led by money-bleeding United, have reduced the size of aircraft on many routes, slashed the number of flights and instituted extra fees for everything from extra legroom to checking bags, in an attempt to finally return to profitability. Hoping to save money in tight times, many passengers are, not surprisingly, opting to carry on their bags. The rub: There is not enough space for them. So, passengers struggle with their bags, increasingly frustrated, the boarding of aircraft is delayed and take-off is delayed, compounding frustration.

Rather than help, United flight crews such as the sarcastic, snickering bunch of flight attendants on our overbooked flight, all too often stand idly by, amused by the frustrations of their customers.

"Come on, honey, try again, honey, move it, honey,'' one FA said loudly as a diminutive woman struggled to find space for her bag. Later, in voices, loud enough to be heard by passengers, the FAs gathered in a tight knot and talked, laughing all the while, about a passenger who went fruitlessly from one side of the aisle to the other, trying to find a space to stow a bag. Another FA on the intercom said in a hectoring voice that the plane could not take-off until all the overhead bin doors were closed and if we wanted an on-time flight we had better get the lead out.

Blame the customers - it's the customers' fault for a situation United itself created.

United's largely notional idea of customer service came about several years back when staff had to give back benefits and wages to management bent on downsizing. Employees couldn't strike back effectively at management so they have taken it out on people they can push around - their customers - who, it must be pointed out, are the only reason these disgruntled employees have a job in the first place.

Back on Oct. 1, 2010, United merged with Continental Airlines, creating a new company, United Continental Holdings Inc. In recent years, Continental had forged a reputation for a generally well-run and traveler-friendly company. When I flew Continental in November 2009 from London to Newark, near the end of a round-the-world trip, I was pleasantly surprised by how good Continental was.

The merger has yet to fully finish-up, however, and the can-do Continental culture has not replaced the miserable United culture, even though chief executive officer Jeff Smisek came over from Continental to run what is now the world's largest airline. As a useful piece in the 24 November Chicago Tribune by reporter Gregory Karp points out, the new United hasn't received an SOC - single operating certificate - from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the merged company permission to cross-crew its flights. Until that happens - Karp reports it should come soon - the customer-friendly Continental staff can't blend in with their United counterparts. (www.chicagotribune.com).

As it is, the frequent flier programs of the two heretofore separate airlines will fully merge Jan. 1, 2012, and the company will soon take additional steps to become one in the coming months. As I and other long-suffering United customers can attest, it can't happen a minute too soon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving a Travel Turkey?

The Thanksgiving holiday season begins in earnest today in the United States, where Turkey Day might just be a travel turkey again this year.

Why? Let us count the ways.

1. Crowds. No way to avoid them. Along with Christmas and maybe Fourth of July weekend, this is the busiest leisure travel window of the year in the U.S. Expect crowded airports, long lines at security and everything that goes with that.

2. Crowded planes. The airlines have been cutting back service, flying fewer routes and using smaller planes, since Sept. 11, 2001, and aviation downsizing has continued apace since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

3. Jammed overhead luggage bins. Smaller planes, combined with a three-year trend for U.S. carriers to charge extra fees for checked bags - Southwest Airlines is a notable exception - means passengers try to carry it all on, quickly filling the limited storage space in the smaller planes. As passengers struggle with luggage, it takes more time to board the plane, creating additional frustration.

4. High costs. Orbitz Worldwide Inc. reports that the average round trip air fare in the U.S. from today through Sunday, 28 November, has risen 11 percent to $373 USD from Thanksgiving last year. For road warriors, gasoline is also up and there will be crowded highways; the American Automobile Association forecasts 4 percent more people will drive to Grandma's place this Thanksgiving than last. Think it gets better at hotels? Nah. According to TravelClick Inc., the average nightly rate for U.S. hotels is 5 percent higher than last year at this time, at $126.35 per night.

What can be done about all this? Not a lot, but you can make incremental improvements, using loyalty points, paying extra for flying premium economy class and trading that SUV for a vehicle that sips, rather than chugs, fuel.

Short of that, well, just perservere. Getting there will not be half the fun, but when the turkey reaches the table at Grandma's, it'll be alright. Hey, it's still Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Road to Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, PA. - The road to State College - home of Pennsylvania State University - passes through wrinkled, weathered mountains, down long valleys flanked by tree-covered ridgelines, past modest farmhouses with satellite dishes in the yard and, finally, winds down into a hill-ringed bowl called Happy Valley. The enormous football stadium - Beaver Statium seats nearly 108,000 fans - is overlooked by Mt. Nittany, namesake of Penn State's Nittany Lions sports teams.

These days, the road to Penn State - which I drove with my wife and relatives last weekend for a fraught football game against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers - is more like the road to purdition, and Happy Valley is far from giddy with joy.

As most people in North America know - and all fans of U.S. college football are aware - a high-profile former Penn State assisant coach is under arrest for alleged child molestation. Moreover, two senior Penn State officials are in custody for supposedly covering up the offenses and lying to a grand jury. The university president has been deposed. Penn State's legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, has been fired. Some of the alleged abuse occurred while the accused worked for Paterno and several alleged assaults occured on university property. Paterno is not charged with any crime, but the famously morally upright coach has been slammed for following only the letter of state law, passing on information about the supposed assaults to his university superiors but not calling police, himself. He resigned, effective at the end of the season, but was fired just hours later. By phone.

It was an intensely emotional time to be at Penn State at last Saturday's game, on a visit I had planned long before the current storm broke. I visited a community suddenly - and, it can be argued, belatedly - introspective. I saw people deeply saddened about the apparent experiences of at least eight abused boys and determined to rebuild their university's honorable reputation. The Nittany Lions football team walked arm-in-arm onto the field at the start of the game in a slow processional and knelt at midfield with their Nebraska opponents prior to kick-off. It was a moving moment. Nearly all 108,000 spectators observed a long moment of silence. One jerk yelled out "Play football!'' "Shut up!'' a woman retorted. After a few titters, the huge crowd was absolutely silent. There was eloquence and dignity in the silence.

After that, the game - won by the visitors, 17-14 - seemed anticlimatic. People understand there is more at stake than football. For Penn State fans, it was a singular experience, partly because of the seriousness of the charges of child abuse and partly because Joe Paterno was no longer on the coaching staff he joined as an assistant in 1950. It's hard to overstate how revered JoePa, is he is called, is in Pennsylvania. Back in the '80s, I strolled into one of the many lackluster "family'' restaurants that dot the state and nearly walked into a life-size cardboard cutout likeness of Paterno. I almost expected the coach to show us to our table. Last weekend, after wandering through lingering fall color on PSU's leafy campus to the hugely popular campus Creamery, I noted that Peachy Paterno - vanilla ice cream with peaches - is still on the menu. Well, for now, anyway.

Today, more sad news: Paterno's family just announced that the 84-year-old has lung cancer, supposedly treatable. Let's hope so.

There's a lot of accountability to be established, a lot of healing to be done and a long road ahead for Penn State - and there's a lot of thinking to be done about the wisdom of falling in love with a sport, a coach or an institution without also bringing a measure of scrutiny along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Carmel, California's Aunt Fairy Bird

I lunched recently at Casanova restaurant, in Carmel, California, where I came across this short history of the restaurant's cottage-like building - rendered in what I'd call Carmel Hobbit architectural style - as printed in a local newspaper, the Carmel Pine Cone. I am reposting the undated item because I find it charming:

"Some years ago, we were walking along Fifth between San Carlos and Mission, when we suddenly heard a gentle "hello'. The sound came from behind a screen door in a tiny house, the worse for wear, just past the Shell station. We approached the door (which never opened) and met Aunt Fairy Bird, a small black lady who had lived there for over 50 years.

"Her house, situated as it was in downtown Carmel, was in truth a shack, but it was coveted by nearby landowners. She lived there alone for many years. When she died at nearly 90, not long after our only encounter, her house and a lot were the object of spirited bidding in an estate sale. We learned that she had once been the cook for Charlie Chaplin, that her husband Tom had been a popular handyman in Carmel, and that she was a handy-lady for several Carmel families.

"While cleaning uup her house, her executor found a great many Social Security checks that she had saved, hidden in the pages of newspapers and magazines. With him we helped open her safe deposit box and found a gold watch and two $2 bills. Aunt Fairy Bird's place is now occupied by Casanova Restaurant. Approach it with some reverence.''

Actually, Casanova is worth visiting not just for history but for cuisine. Run by a Belgian family, it is now a destination restaurant in this popular seaside town and is known for country French and Italian food.

Casanova is located on Fifth Avenue between San Carlos & Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California USA. Tel. 831.625.0501. www.casanovarestaurant.com.

Travel Bug, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Just back from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the smell of burning pinon pine still in my nose, and a sharp memory of 20 degree F weather and flying snow, in my head. To get in out of the cold - and just for fun - I stopped by Travel Bug, a welcoming and well-appointed travel books, map and travel accessories shop, right near the 400-year-old town plaza. After spending some time browsing, and buying just two of the many appealing books I saw there, I'm adding Travel Bug to my short list of great travel book stores, where it joins New York City's Idelwild (www.idlewildbooks.com) and London's Stanford's (www.stanfords.co.uk).

Simply put, Travel Bug (www.mapsofnewmexico.com) is terrific. You can sip an espresso or nosh on snacks at tables topped with topographic maps laid out under glass; pick up a GPS device or warm socks, a Tilly hat or an inflatable globe of the world. If you're in this ruggedly beautiful part of the world, be sure and stop in. Travel Bug is global in scope but locally rooted and independently owned. If you do stop by, don't forget to pick up a guidebook or street map of Santa Fe ($5.95 USD), an eminently walkable town, even if winter does sometimes arrive in early November.

Travel Bug is located at 839 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501 USA, tel. 505.992.0418.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Cool Things About Stockholm

There are far more than five cool things about Stockholm, of course, but here are some I especially liked on a recent visit to the Swedish capital:

1. Ostermalmshallen Market. This spacious indoor market occupies a heritage building, and it is a beauty. Stocked with bakeries, fishmongers, cheese sellers, coffee makers, sweet shops, produce vendors and more, it's a great place to snack, shop or have lunch, and a great place to people-watch. On my first visit, a sharp-eyed local called my attention to Benny Andersson, the former member of ABBA, walking the aisles with an environmentally sensitive string bag. Shoppers and workers pretended not to notice him. Benny bought some cheese. Which is only appropriate when you consider how much cheese ABBA sold. Located on Ostermalmstorg. http://saluhallen.info.

2. The Royal Dramatic Theatre. In Swedish, the Dramaten. This ornate structure is the showcase for high-art, theatrical division. The great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, also an accomplished man of the theatre, was artistic director there after he retired from filmmaking. Public tours, including the extensive costume department, are available to the public, and the classic, horseshoe-shaped main auditorium and marbled halls are impressive. Nybroplan. www.dramaten.se.

3. Kvarnen. In English, "The Mill.'' A well-appointed, spacious tavern with a full, bustling bar and busy kitchen, this is the fictional hangout for Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's insanely popular trilogy of crime novels - you know, the one that begins with "The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo'' and concludes with "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.'' I didn't see the tiny, punked-out Salander there or anyone who looked like her, but the fish is fresh and tasty, the schnaps and beers are cold and this is a lively spot to hoist a few and eat casually and well. It has a stylish edginess to it; when the manager gave me his business card, I saw that it is made of metal. Tjarhousgatan 4, www.kvarnen.com.

4. Gamla Stan. In English "Old Town.'' This is the narrow-laned part of town where Stockholm began in the 13th century. The heart of the district is perhaps unavoidably touristy but locals visit, too. The Royal Palace, the enormous and grand official residence of Sweden's kings, is in Gamla Stan, just off the water. In warm months, people sit outside drinking coffee - Swedes consume copious amount of coffee - or licking ice cream cones. Swedes supposedly eat the most ice cream of any people in Europe. Yet, Sweden is chilly. Go figure.

5. The Red Room at Berns Salonger. The Red Room is, incongruously for a stately European hotel and performing arts venue, a pan-Asian restaurant, albeit an Asian restaurant that also serves Swedish staples like the rich moose meat I sampled at lunch. Story goes: Some Chinese were stranded in neutral Sweden when China was invaded at the start of World War II, and couldn't get home. If you have a lemon, make ... dim sum. The Red Room was transformed into the first Chinese restaurant in Sweden. Before that, it was a haunt of artists and writers, including August Strindberg, a regular, who set a short story in the restaurant - then more like a private club, and pre-Asian - and entitled it "The Red Room,'' natch. Berzelii Park, www.berns.se/en.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


My aunt Sis Armstrong had another, given first name, but absolutely no one called her anything but Sis. I suppose that's because this late-blooming, intrepid traveler felt like kin to so many people. Sis passed away the other day, an unconventional person from a conventional background, who had an insatiable curiosity about the great world.

Sis didn't travel seriously until late middle-age, but by the time advancing years kept her from the road in her early eighties, she had seen first-hand parts of the world she only glimpsed in photos and dreams during her younger years: Spain, London and parts of southern England, Italy, much of Canada and the United States. In her later years, she typically traveled on customized tours with the estimable group Elderhostel, where professors and other experts gave talks and led tours of places visited.

She traveled independently, too, especially after she retired from a career in retail and work for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A working-class woman who didn't go beyond high school and lived her whole life in the small city where she was born, she largely educated herself.

At age 70, Sis and my mother - who, at the same age, had never been on an airplane - flew from Pennsylvania to my home in California. Once on the ground, they trekked all over San Francisco on the city's less-than-stellar public transport system, never deterred by unknown territory or inconvenience. Sis walked right up San Francisco's famous, and steep, hills with robust strides.

When she was nearly 80, Sis went with a group from her church to the Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where she served as an unpaid volunteer teacher, building bridges between cultures. Inquisitive, intelligent, fearless and possessed of a keen social consciousness, she was a remarkable woman in many ways. Engaged with her community, she was known to many, a beloved figure. Sis was one of life's true travelers.

Rest in peace.