Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Turbulence for the Registered Traveler Program

As of June 22, 2009, the largest participant in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)'s Registered Traveler program has ceased operations. To some, this news will be shocking (especially anyone who recently invested $199 in an annual memberhip). But in truth, the program has never made any sense.

Registered Traveler was created by the Bush Administration to provide a way for a private company to re-insert itself into a newly-federalized airport screening process. But because no one wanted to risk profiling, missing someone, or exempting the wealthy, Registered Traveler--which was always intended to have a monetary cost--could not replace the too-familiar process of shoe, belt, and laptop removal that we all experience whenever we fly.

As a result, TSA's program requires Registered Travelers to be fingerprinted, undergo background checks, and have their iris images scanned. But having gone through the process and obtained valid cards, Clear members still go through regular security screening. The only time savings is that they go to the front of the line--if, and only if, the airport from which they are traveling actually has a Clear lane, and at its height, Clear had operations at just 18 airports.

Now, I think that an expediting screening program for frequent travelers is a great idea. What isn't a great idea is making companies compete in this space, because what they're doing (i.e. meeting standards for security) is dictated by the government and falls under government jurisdiction. A single contractor, chosen competitively to operate Registered Traveler on behalf of the TSA, could have pulled this off much better.

Clear competitor FLO Card continues to operate for the time being. But unless and until the model changes, the rationale behind anyone operating a Registered Traveler program or signing up for one is, well, unclear.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The End of Socialized Air Travel

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought calls for a new "ownership society," the end of the "socialism" of previous years. Personal responsibility and paying only for one's own consumption, we heard, was the way of the future.

Airlines listened. They understood. And, over the last nine years, they have acted.

In 1990, tickets included checked and carry-on baggage. Curbside baggage checks were for the airlines' convenience as much as their passengers, and these were free (tips aside). Virtually every flight included at least a sandwich; mealtimes called for hot meals.

Fast-forward to 2009.

Meals? Free only on Continental; otherwise, plan for $6-8. U.S. Airways desperately wanted you to pay $2 for that soft drink, but thankfully, their competitors held the line. For now.

Checking bags will cost you $15-20 for the first bag, and as much as $50 for the second. Add $2-3 to check those bags at the curb. Oh, and if you didn't pay those fees online, United and U.S. Airways plan to charge you an extra $5 for the privilege of paying the fees in person at the airport.

Want to choose a specific seat? You'll pay as much as $20 for an exit row or aisle seat on most airlines; some charge for choosing any seat.

And RyanAir, the Irish carrier at the vanguard of fee creation, has added a fee for checking in online; the airline plans to outright eliminate its airport check-in desks.

Socialized air travel is dead. Today, you will pay for everything you want a la carte. And if that means paying a higher bottom line price, well... learn to want less. Welcome to the ownership society.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cramped in Coach?

In the 1950s, a study by Harvard University of seating on passenger trains found that 18 inches of width was the minimum needed to comfortably accommodate passengers. But narrower 17" seats to add less weight, which makes planes cheaper to fly. Airlines have also found that by spacing seats closer together, they can cram in additional rows.

How do they get away with it? Legacy airlines' best customers are often given complimentary domestic upgrades based on their elite status. First Class seats remain plenty comfortable. If you're an occasional flyer, though, you're going to be stuck in the "cattle car."

Prefer comfort? Low-cost carriers offer the most spacious Coach seats and the greatest reclining seat pitch. JetBlue's seats, 18" wide with at least 34" of seat pitch, stand out at the top of the list.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sao Paulo? Not as dangerous as you may think.

Reading the State Department travel advisory or most guidebooks, one could easily get the impression that Brazil in general, and Sao Paulo in particular, is a very dangerous place.

I don't doubt the claims of daylight robbery, or that the murder rate in Brazil is four times as high as in America; the people who write such things know their business. But I can say that I, having gone to the world's third-largest city on a typical weekend of Spontaneous Tourism, didn't encounter any of that danger.

Some of that can be attributed to planning. My wife and I stayed in an upscale hotel a few blocks from Avenida Paulista, widely known to be the safest place in the city. I kept my camera hidden when not in active use, divided money into small portions carried in various places, and kept my wallet in a less predictable spot than my back pocket. Our passports stayed secure at the hotel.

We also took the guidebooks' advice in trusting the Metro subway system but shunning the packed buses that regularly cruised the streets. Getting to and from the airport, we opted for taxis.

But that was basically it. We walked the streets of Jardim Paulista, the Centro, and the area around Parque Republica with confidence and had no trouble.

And we had a fabulous time! We devoted Saturday to Avenida Paulista, including a delightful exhibit at the Museo de Arte Sao Paulo (MASP), a stroll through Parque Trianon and coffee at the Casa da Rosas, a Versaille-style garden. The national cocktail, a caipirinha, is made with crushed lime, ice, sugar, and a rum-like liquor made from sugarcane, and we enjoyed several at the hotel bar before dinner.

Sunday was entirely different. Coincidentally, we chose as our weekend to visit Sao Paulo the same weekend as the Gay Pride parade, a massive event that last year drew some 2.5 million people and probably had even more in attendance this year. There are no "open container" laws in Brazil, and it's an odd sight for an American to see thousands of people wandering around swigging from bottles of wine, beer, and liquor.

We were there for the start of the parade, around noon, in the midst of the crowds. That was, in fact, the one security incident of our trip: Gwen's wallet was stolen out of her purse. But that's a risk at any event that masses seven figures in terms of attendees, and it was a lesson learned that will help her next time. In the meantime, it's easy enough to replace a wallet when there isn't much of value inside of it.

But we did break away from the parade at that point, and jumped on the Metro. We toured the Museo de Arte Sacre (sacred art), visited the Cathedral de Se and historic railway Estacao de Luz, and ended up in Parque Republica by around 4:00 p.m. At that point, we made our way back to the hotel and headed to the airport.

People often ask, why would you go to another country and stay only for a weekend? This trip provides the same answer to the question that I give each and every time: because on Monday morning, I'll have spent my weekend in Sao Paulo, while the person asking spent his or her time sitting at home.

This was a great trip.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Deciding on a trip

The week leading up to Independence Day is one during which Gwen has a rare break. No work, no school; genuine free time. It's the ideal time to consider a trip.

Continental has fare specials to Hong Kong right now. We could go for four days (in-country time, or ICT) for about $800 per person. United has similar fare specials to Australia, for about the same price. It's tempting.

But should we go?

Even an avid traveler like me is not immune to the inertia, the inclination to do nothing. Yes, there's free time; what if we just spent that time around town? There's nothing wrong with that, certainly. But I can be at home any time, right?

On the other hand, my mind argues with itself, you never are just "at home." You're always planning to go somewhere else.

And that's basically true: my time spent at home is the hours between those spent at work. So, to travel, or to stay put?