Friday, March 30, 2012

Air Scare, Again

Three days after a JetBlue Airways pilot had a midair meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers, prompting an emergency landing, industry analysts are talking about stress.

Stress on flight crews prompted by declining salaries, packed airplanes, fears of terrorism and more. No one is excusing the pilot's shouting, incoherent rants about Jesus, 9/11, the sins of Las Vegas (where the plane was headed) and his subsequent wrestling match with passengers, but this is the context, commentators emphasize, in which the frightening incident took place.

All true enough.

Stress falls on passengers, too, though. And unlike airline employees, air travelers are not trained to handle energencies or paid to be there. Rather, they file onto crowded planes, where they are charged extra for every little thing, try to pile luggage in too-small spaces to avoid checked luggage fees, struggle to open a laptop or a newspaper when the person in front of them pushes their seat back.

That's the state of domestic U.S. air travel, the glamour of flying long gone for most fliers.

Oh, and passengers pay to endure this. And that's after enduring long airport queues, frequent flight delays and the bullying of TSA screeners swelled up with too much self-importance and too little sensitivity.

What is to be done?

For starters, revamped psychological screening for the most important person on any airplane: The pilot. Meltdowns by flight attendants - like the one onboard an American Airlines flight just two weeks ago - are bad enough. But when the person with the lives of dozens if not hundreds of other people in his hands goes beserk, it's much worse.

As for the captain in question, he is facing up to 20 years on charges of interfering with a flight crew. He may be troubled, he may have had a very bad day, but this is a person who should, at a minimum, find another line of work. Legal authorities will rule on the charges; if he is found guilty, the authorities should throw the book at him. JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said in an interview on NBC's "Today'' show that he knows the pilot personally and finds him to be "a consummate professional.'' Enough of cliches, please, and enough of denial.

Fortunately, the co-pilot on JetBlue flight 191 was calm, cool and collected and landed the plane safely in Amarillo, Texas after barring the cockpit door.

Airlines eternally announce that safety is their number one priority. Indeed, it should be. Commercial aircraft are not hotels or spas or restaurants. They are narrow metal tubes hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet off the ground. The confidence of the U.S. flying public has been shaken. The airline industry needs to regain and solidify public trust, not with marketing gimmicks and denial but with training and policy changes, informed by what they have learned from these scares in the air.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Say It Ain't So, Joe

In this blog, and on, where I am a contributing editor, I have weighed in about United Airlines, a once-great carrier that is struggling to turn itself around.

Now comes travel-business writer Joe Brancatelli, who runs the lively, punchy Web site,with a post today on United's continuing problems with its reservations system. I'd say say it ain't so, Joe, but it is so, and worth repeating.

From an e-mail that Brancatelli sent out to his site's members:

"Well, surprise, nothing's changed. The airline's phones are clogged and the waits continue to last for upwards of two hours. That's if the system doesn't just hang up on you. The super-elite lines are answering faster, but then you face long, long holds to get your problems fixed - if they can be fixed. The Web site was down and/or nonfunctional for several hours yesterday (Monday 26 March). The upgrade situation is still inexplicably broken. United continues to offer no timetable for when the data transmission they originally claimed was nearly flawless will be fixed. It continues to offer no apologies and no make-goods, even for its best customers. As I said last Tuesday, it's time to book away. No airline is worth this kind of grief.''

I couldn't agree more. Outside the Commonwealth of Independent States - i.e., Russia and its former (kinda) satellites - United (aka Misery Air) is the worst major airline in the developed world when it comes to customer service.

And getting even worse.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Westin Verasa Napa

For years, the city of Napa - located near the southern tip of California's Napa Valley winemaking region - was a place to refuel the car and drive on. Now, sprouting savory restaurants, art galleries, live music venues, the foodie-favorite Oxbow Public Market, ever-more places to taste and buy wine, and several new hotels, it is becoming a destination in its own right.

Napa city is still a work in progress but progress is being made, due in part to the emergence of hotels that fill the space between upscale bed and breakfasts and downscale motels and motel-like lodgings. The most notable newish place is the 2-year-old Westin Verasa Napa ( My wife and I stayed there over the predictably rowdy St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Our stay was simultaneously both terrific and awful.

Awful because the rowdies filled the hotel and, fueled by alcohol, turned the elevators and hallways into verbal free-fire zones. Awful because sound-proofing inside the guest rooms was poor, letting all the noise from the hallways in, barely muting talking, weeping and laughing between rooms and failing to muffle traffic noise from the busy roadway outside the hotel. Awful because our bathroom was small and old-fashioned with a shower inside a small tub and not enough shelf space. Awful because there was a flat-screen TV in our room but, man, was it small. When city taxes and hotel amenity fees were tacked-on to the bill, the price rose from the listed $249 to an actual $306.


Terrific, too, because we had a lovely meal in the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, the Michelin-starred LaToque, helmed by the talented chef Ken Frank. Terrific because our standard room came complete with a sink, dishwasher, drawers filled with cutlery, an empty refrigerator, a microwave and a coffeemaker; we weren't staying long but if we had, it would have been a comfortable room to hunker-down in. Terrific because the hotel has a swell location walking distance from Oxbow Market and Napa's riverfront promenade and downtown. The Wine Train's Napa city station is across the street from the Westin. Terrific because the double king bed was commodious and comfortable.

So, it's fair to say this is a classically mixed review.

Some of our problems were due to happenstance, to be sure - St. Patrick's Day, for example - not the hotel. But the Westin also made an inexplicable error. It came at check-in, when the desk jockey gave us our room keys and wrote out the room number on paper while repeating it verbally. Three times, we tried opening the door at the room he told us about, using changing sets of keys. Finally, the front desk figured out that the original guy keystroked the wrong room number into the hotel's computer system, so when the keys were magnetized, they were programmed for another room.

All this may sound like this seasoned traveler is saying to other travelers: Don't stay there. Indeed, our experience is enough to prompt me to consider other options next time, but I'm not saying don't stay there. The Westin is not cheap considering it is a somewhat standard cookie-cutter hotel, but Napa city and valley are not cheap. The hotel's location is good and the staff was friendly and tried hard. Just know that there are some flaws and factor them in if you are planning a trip to this late-blooming but increasingly attractive city in northern California's Wine Country.

The Westin Verasa Napa is located at 1314 Mckinstry St., Napa, CA 94559 USA. Tel. 707.257.1800, toll-free reservations at 800.937.8461, Web:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Wolgan Valley Resort Review

If you are interested in high-end travel and interested in Australia, check out my fresh review of Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa posted at's hotels section. It begins like this:

"Emirates is an airline known for posh service, state-of-the-art infrastructure and attention to detail. Those qualities are showcased splendidly in the Dubai carrier's owned-and-operated Australian luxury retreat, Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa.

"Wolgan Valley - the valley itself and the namesake resort on the valley floor - are reached by a three-hour drive through the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales, west of Sydney.'' includes a number of pretty-to-look-at color photos with the piece. You can find information directly from the resort by going to

Sunday, March 18, 2012

My CA Wine Country Piece in Alaska Airlines Mag

If you're flying Alaska Airlines this month, check out my feature story "Rich Bounty: Sampling artisanal foods in Sonoma and Napa.'' It begins like this:

"Gently I swirl the golden-green liquid, admiring how it catches the light, inhaling the floral aroma. Then I take a sip, letting the pleasantly grassy, peppery notes soften into a mellow aftertaste.

"I am in the tasting room of Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead, in Napa Valley's St. Helena, but I am not tasting wine. I am sampling Prato Lungo extra-virgin olive oil - one of two types of oil produced here - made from olives harvested in Long Meadow Ranch's restored, 140-year-old olive groves ...''

The magazine does not post much material online, but if you are flying Alaska Air this month, you can find the story on page 28 of the California Traveler Planner in the March issue.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Throw the Book at Her

Remember the American Airlines flight attendant who went off a few days ago while on a plane at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, ranting over the plane's public address system that she couldn't be responsible for the plane crashing? What ever happened to her?

Far as I can determine, nothing. Police and DFW authorities announced at the time that no legal charges would be filed against the flighty flight attendant, and no news reports I've seen have said they were. Her employer seems to be keeping quiet about the matter. No public word on whether the ranter - who terrified passengers on-board an AA flight scheduled to take-off for Chicago - has been fired, suspended, fined, slapped on the wrist or sent to her room.

This decidedly non-professional professional should be sacked at a minimum and possibly charged. If a passenger had done this, the TSA would be all over him or her, and rightly so. Why any less for an airline employee?

The FA, who has not been identified, was caught by cell-phone videos going on and on for some 15 minutes before passengers shut her down and she was escorted off the plane. The flight took off 80 minutes late and no passengers were hurt. That's good, but two other flight attendants were reportedly taken to hospital for treatment.

Coming, as this incident does, not so very long after a JetBlue Airways FA cursed passengers, swigged a beer and deployed an emergency exit chute at New York JFK Airport, it gives a frequent flier pause. At least that guy was fired and had to show up in court to explain his antics. Why not this person? With memories of Sept. 11 painfully fresh, this type of disruption is more than an inconvenience to passengers.

Cabin crew are, after all, trained to remain calm in stressful situations and paid to help, not frighten, customers. There must be consequences for incidents like this. Throw the book at her.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Few Chosen Words

"Make way for the self-researched know it all, fresh from reading opinions and online hotel reviews by mystery shoppers, sometimes using phony names and even phonier claims to product expertise.''

Travel Weekly contributor/travel agent Richard Turen's die-Internet-scum dart.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My United Biz Class Review

Check out my fresh review of United Airlines BusinessFirst long-haul, international service at

"Just before take-off on United Airlines, passengers see a video of Jeff Smisek, chief executive officer of United Continental Holdings Inc., extolling United's commitment to customer service. When pre-flight drinks are rolled out, the message is reinforced; paper napkins arrive with these words imprinted: "Planes change. Values don't. Your priorities will always be ours.''

Oh, yeah? (continued)...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wolgan's White Wallabies

Three weeks ago I was luxuriating at Australia's Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa, a posh property surrounded by national parks just west of the Blue Mountains. It's about a three-hour drive from Sydney and is owned and operated by Emirates Airline (

Luxury can be defined in a lot of ways: cosmically comfortable bed, gourmet food, pampering spa and more. It can also be characterized by access to rare sights in the natural world. Wolgan, a 2-year-old property in a dramatic setting that reminds some travelers of the floor of America's Grand Canyon - except much lusher - has that, as well the the beds, the food, the spa, etc.

One of the coolest things that happened during my recent three-night stay at Wolgan ( happened when I strolled out on the big, wrap-around wooden verandah outside the main lodge, and had my attention called to a white wallaby by the guy who was showing me around. There, in the middle distance on a grassy hillside a little joey - snow-white, in contrast to the usual grey or brown - was hanging out out with Mum.

The animal was too far away for me to get a good photograph with my rather basic camera (and rather basic photography skills). But you can see images for yourself by doing a Google search under 'white wallaby.'

What's a wallaby? Glad you asked, mate. Wallabies, while not kangaroos, look to me a lot like small 'roos; they also have a touch of rabbit, with pink noses and more pink inside their long ears. Of course they have a powerful tail and hind legs, and, like kangaroos, they get around by hopping.

"There are three white wallabies on this property,'' I was told. "They're extremely rare, about one in 25,000 births.''

You can see them, usually at dawn or dusk, in Wolgan Valley's heavily wooded, sometimes rugged expanse.

Now, that's luxury.