Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sad Fate of Wilmington Train Station

Wilmington Station, 2008
For decades, trains that arrive in and depart from Wilmington, Delaware have used a station built in the pre-Amtrak days of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

It would be inappropriate to call this small station "grand," in the way that one might refer to Union Station in Washington or to Grand Central in New York.  It's not even as large as the stations found in Baltimore or Newark (though, in fairness, Wilmington is a smaller city than either of these). Yet it had a industrial-age sense of grandeur nonetheless.

Prior to his election as Vice President, Joe Biden -- then the senior Delaware senator -- regularly took the train to and from his home state.  He walked across the polished brick floor almost every day to board the Acela to the nation's capital.

Thus it was that in 2010, when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was passed, Wilmington Train Station received money for upgrades and renovation.

As conceded earlier, Wilmington Train Station cannot be compared to any of the grand stations of the past, and certainly not to Penn Station in New York.  In this case, however, it is apt to draw a parallel, because as with Penn Station, what happened here is a cautionary tale.

In 1968, the sweeping expanses of Penn Station were demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden, office buildings, and a new train concourse that to this day is a confusing, maze-like underground mall of dubious appeal.  In 2010, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act transformed Wilmington Train Station into a cheaply modern station along the same lines:

Wilmington Station, 2010


Polished brick is now gray tile.  Burnished brass is now laminate.  The lighting has gone from soft yellow to harsh white, and wooden benches encircling columns have been replaced with the double benches of blue metal mesh.

In 1968, the New York Times said of Penn Station that, "civilization gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves."  Ironically, civilization paid far more to transform lovely Wilmington Train Station into what it is now than it would have cost to preserve it as it was.

But that is what we deserve.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

When a White Christmas means a travel delay...

Southern states like Atlanta and South Carolina rarely experience the wonder of a White Christmas.  Snow makes for lovely landscapes and is generally regarded as a magical thing at Christmastime.  But as the tallies for predicted snowfall stack up, the impact is taking another, less-desirable turn: travel delays and cancelations.

In response to Christmas Day snowfall predictions ranging from three inches in Atlanta (where Delta maintains its primary East Coast hub) to up to 10 inches in Norfolk, Delta has already announced plans to cancel some 500 flights nationwide.  AirTran, which maintains a strong presence in Atlanta, will also feel this impact.

Other airlines will not be affected as strongly on Christmas, as their own hubs lie farther up the coast.  But the impacts will come later.  Sunday predictions are for 2-5 inches in Washington, D.C. and 5-10 inches in Philadelphia, impacting United and U.S. Airways respectively.  Along the way, Southwest's operations at BWI will get buried in the mix.

Late on Sunday and continuing into Monday, 10-15 inches are anticipated in New York, impacting not only Continental's hub in Newark but also all of the international flights in and out of JFK as well as New York's JetBlue service.  Boston may see 12-18 inches on Monday.

What to do if a flight is cancelled

If you flight is cancelled, you'll be accommodated on a later flight.  However, that may be too late to manage your holiday plans as they stand.  The problem with snow cancellations in particular is that they tend to wipe out other options as well. 

Amtrak, for instance, keeps moving through a few inches of snow, but a few feet tends to impact the rail lines.  Bus services like BoltBus and MegaBus, being subject to the challenges of the highways, are also impacted by snow.

Your best friend is information.  Check flight status using sites like FlightStats.com so you'll know the situation as it unfolds. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Airlines, Fees, and Profits

Everyone knows that the airlines have added a lot of fees over the last few years.  From aisle seating to checked baggage, onboard food to priority boarding, many things that used to be free now cost money.

What many people probably haven't realized is the extent to which airlines depend on these fees.

U.S. Airways President Scott Kirby says that his airline expects to earn nearly $500 million in profit this year, but that "a la carte revenues represent 100% of that profitability."  In other words, absent the series of add-on fees that U.S. Airways has imposed, it would only break even.

What does that mean for travelers?  It depends. 

If you're the sort of person who wants rock-bottom fares and expects nothing of an airline that you wouldn't get on a bus--and not one of those next-generation buses we've talked about; I mean an old-fashioned Greyhound bus--you're going to be very pleased.

On the other hand, if you expect to get a seat of your choice, travel with luggage and want to have a snack onboard the aircraft, understand that the fare you see may not be the final price you'll pay.

The good news?  Each airline is following its own strategy.  Southwest, for instance, does not charge for checked baggage because it has significantly lower labor costs, while Spirit even charges for carry-on bags. 

That means that, however you like to travel, someone probably has you covered.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA Screening: Much Ado about Nothing

I don't like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  I've never liked them.  I didn't like them when I first got into traveling on a regular basis in 2005, and my opinion of them has only gone down over time.

Procedures are erratic, and not in useful ways that might confuse terrorists, but in ways that suggest cluelessness, like requiring at one airport that shoes go into bins and in another that they go directly onto the belt.

Most of the TSA agents are respectful, but some are surly.  I saw one berate an elderly Japanese man who spoke no English because he didn't understand that he had to take off his belt -- something not required by Japan's own airport screening.

I decided years ago that were I to run for public office, it'd be in part on a platform of drastically reforming the TSA.

So, when it comes to how you're treated, passengers, I'm on your side.

But let's be clear: my opposition to the TSA is based on ridiculous antics that don't make us safer.  I dislike absurd procedures like the way that hyphenated names are logged for special screening, or that legal marriage certificates aren't sufficient proof of a name change to allow use of a previously booked airline ticket.

I don't object to TSA actually doing its job, i.e. providing real security through effective screening.

I've had to deal with effective screening all over the world, including real terrorism hotspots like Kashmir and Tel Aviv.  Where it's warranted, even when it's annoying, good screening makes sense.

That brings me to the current, overblown hype about pat-downs and full-body scanners.

My fellow Americans, our country has been at war for nearly ten years.  While most of you go through your days completely unaware of it, hundreds of thousands of soldiers are currently deployed to combat zones.  We've spent over a trillion dollars that we don't have to fight terrorists, and we're doing it precisely because you wanted to be safe.

There is also plenty of evidence that the screening being done is absolutely necessary, from the so-called Christmas Bomber last year who demonstrated that explosives can be hidden in underwear to the long-known fact that women and elderly people can be involved in suicide bombing plots. 

As sick as it is, even those cute little teddy bears carried by three-year olds can be packed with explosives -- hell, drug cartels have long since been able to make "plastic" dolls out of molded cocaine! -- and while it's very unlikely that a three-year old is him or herself a bomber, can we be sure that someone hasn't set the tyke up to carry a weapon onboard?  No way.

So the next time that you start complaining that it's unfair that the government asks you to walk through a harmless full-body scanner, or you get angry because you need to be given a very thorough pat-down by a professional security officer, think about the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are freezing, bleeding, and enduring hell for you.

Yes, they volunteered.  But no one forced you to buy an airline ticket.

Get over yourselves.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Megabus announces D.C. as its newest hub!

Express intercity carrier Megabus has long offered service to and from Washington, D.C. from its base location at 10th and H St. NW.  Now, it's expanding that service.

Beginning on December 15, 2010, Megabus will offer travel from the nation's capital to these destinations:
  • Boston, MA
  • Buffalo, NY
  • Charlotte, NC
  • Hampton, VA
  • Harrisburg, PA
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Raleigh/Durham, NC
  • Richmond, CA
  • Toronto, Canada
Click here for the interactive Megabus route map.

Megabus is a subsidiary of Coach USA and competes with both BoltBus and next-generation Greyhound service.  Each of these services offers more legroom and lower fares than traditional bus service as well as free onboard Internet access via wi-fi. 

However, the addition of new Megabus routes originating from D.C. puts Megabus far ahead of its competitors: from Washington, BoltBus offers direct service only to New York, and while Greyhound goes everywhere, it has next-gen buses only for routes to Boston, New York, and Montreal.

That means that if you're looking to go anywhere outside of the Northeast Corridor, Megabus offers you the best value for the price -- with fares starting as low as $1.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Post-merger update: United and Continental

It's been a little over a month since United and Continental concluded their legal merger.  While still operating as separate airlines, both carriers are now owned by the same company (United-Continental Holdings) and there have been some changes to bring things into line: 
  • The Red Carpet Club no longer charges for bar service.

  • Each airline includes the other's elite flyers in eligibility lists for complimentary upgrades.

  • CEO Jeff Smisek addresses both sets of passengers in his pre-takeoff video recording.
Flying with United over the Veterans Day holiday, though, what struck me were the differences:
  • Both airlines now offer buy-on-board food, but United's menu is different--and about 50% more expensive, with a salad going for $6.50 on a Continental flight and almost $10.00 on one operated by United.

  • Both airlines' lounges offer complimentary wi-fi, but at the Red Carpet Club you'll need to get a scratch-off card with a code on it, while Continental offers open connectivity to anyone inside its lounge.
Of course, it's going to take time to get all of this straight, and as I've said before, I'm not in any way opposed to the airlines charging prices that make them profitable.  But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that what ultimately emerges from this process will be an airline that sets a higher bar for U.S. airlines. 

Here's hoping that United and Continental are better together than they were apart.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Experience Amtrak's Great Dome


Many years ago, when traveling by rail was a luxurious experience, America built the finest railroad cars in the world.  Those days are over, but many of the old cars still exist, having been handed over to Amtrak when it began operations in 1971. 

Among these amazing old rail cars is Car 10031, the Great Dome. With 90 seats, the Great Dome began its life as the Ocean View and was one of just six cars whose signature domed glass ceilings spanned their entire 85-foot length.  Today, it's the only such car left in Amtrak's inventory.

Car 10031, the Great Dome
For several years, Amtrak has brought the Great Dome into service on its Adirondack route linking New York City and Montreal.  This year, Amtrak is offering passengers a very limited chance to experience this vintage railroad car another way, as part of its Cardinal route between Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The Great Dome is being included on just four trips, one of which unfortunately was today (Train 50 from Chicago to Washington).  The other three are:
  • Nov 5, Train 51, WAS-CHI
  • Nov 6, Train 50, CHI-WAS
  • Nov 12, Train 51, WAS CHI
Amtrak's Cardinal route is featuring the Great Dome on just a few trips between Chicago and Washington, D.C.
To take advantage of this rare opportunity, passengers don't need to get a ticket for the dome itself.  Any passenger riding on the train, whether in Coach or in Sleeper First Class, may sit in the Great Dome on a first-come, first-serve basis.

As I'm writing this, ticket prices start at just $83.  Unfortunately, having found out about this slightly too late, I can't make any of the dates.  If you can and do, though, send pictures!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Continental-Amtrak Partnership

I'd like to take a moment to reveal to all of you a special opportunity -- one of those truly rare moments in time where great things are possible

Here it is: Continental OnePass members can transfer miles into Amtrak's Guest Rewards program on a 1 mile = 1 point basis.  This is phenomenal.

Why?  Let me explain.

Continental, like all legacy carriers, awards miles on the basis of straight-line distance flown.  OnePass also awards bonus miles:
  • To elite flyers (25% for Silver level, 100% for Gold and Platinum);
  • For booking with a Continental credit card (25%, plus 2 miles for every dollar spent);
  • For booking online (500 miles);
  • For shopping online with partners (up to 8 points per dollar spent); and
  • For participating in periodic promotions for buying or doing various things.
Amtrak, on the other hand, has adopted a model like Virgin America: passengers earn one Guest Rewards point for each dollar spent.

Because of this utterly inequitable relationship, a slight expenditure on airfare -- say, $300 for a round-trip ticket to Washington D.C. to San Francisco -- can with all bonuses tallied yield as many as 12,350 miles.
Transfer those miles, for free, into Amtrak, and you've instantly matched the earnings one would see from more than $4000 spent on train travel even if Amtrak is running a triple-point bonus promotion. 

Of course, the opposite is true as well: Guest Rewards members who have attained Select or Select Plus elite status can transfer their Guest Rewards points into OnePass at a 1:1 ratio. 

But why bother?  The value of those points in airline terms is negligible; even the cheapest Continental award fare is going to cost you 15,000 miles.

On the other hand, here's a brief (and incomplete) list of some things for which our hypothetical Continental OnePass member could redeem his or her 12,350 shiny new Guest Rewards points:
  • Four one-way Coach tickets on the Northeast Regional (3000 each)
  • One one-way First Class ticket on the Acela (10,500)
  • One three-zone Coach ticket, which covers a coast-to-coast three-day trip (10,500)
  • One $100 gift card with Hyatt, Hertz, AMC Cinemas, Barnes & Noble, or other top chains (10,000)
  • Five one-class Amtrak upgrade coupons (10,000)
And that's off of a single $300 cross-country round-trip airfare.  If you travel internationally, that 15,000-mile flight to Singapore could be worth more than 45,000 Guest Rewards points for a cost of about $1200.

As I write this, I don't know if the unique partnership that Continental Airlines forged with Amtrak will survive the Continental-United merger.  I hope that it does, because I'm a fan of passenger rail.

But in case it doesn't, I've just transferred 60,000 miles from OnePass to Guest Rewards.  That's enough for ten round-trip tickets in Coach from D.C. to New York, so visiting my in-laws won't cost anything.  *grins*

Monday, October 18, 2010

On the Horizon: Skycouch

Air New Zealand has an interesting new idea: Skycouch seating, where passengers can book a row of three seats that converts to a sofa bed-like space where they can lay flat.  The seating is designed for couples or small families. 
Skycouch Seating

I think that this is a great idea.

Lie-flat beds in First and Business Class cabins are great, I'm sure1, but most people are never going to be able to afford those seats.

This won't be free, of course, and I doubt it will be cheap.  But it will be cheaper, and people are often willing to pay somewhat more for improved comfort over the course of a 15+ hour flight like the one from Auckland to Los Angeles.


1 While I've had premium-class seats on numerous airlines over the years, I haven't had the opportunity to try out one of the recent generation of lie-flat beds.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Travel Registration

If you'll be traveling abroad, you may want to register your travels with the State Department at http://travelregistration.state.gov.  This automated registration makes sure that the U.S. government has the ability to know that you are in-country should extraordinary circumstances require evacuation of American citizens.

It's a really nice idea.  Unfortunately, the site is slow, clunky, and entirely too cumbersome for me to bother with it.  I'm sure that I'll wish otherwise if I'm caught in a sudden rebel uprising.  In the meantime, if you really, really like typing out the details of your entire trip, you'll be glad to know that the State Department has anticipated your desires and designed a site just for you.

Visas: An introduction.

It comes as a surprise to many Americans that we need visas to travel to some countries.  At least half of the people who are surprised are simply unaware that visas even exist; usually, these are folks who either don't have passports (a huge number of Americans) or who got them only for a trip to Europe or, more recently, Canada.

But among those who do understand the concept of a visa, a relatively large number of Americans whose travels haven't taken them to visa-requiring countries assume that American travelers are exempt from visas.  Their logic is that since we come from the most advanced nation on Earth, it'd be extremely unlikely that we'd be going somewhere to try and slip onto the social welfare roster or take away a job from the local populace.

It's not bad logic on the surface, because Americans tend to view control over immigration as a way to keep people off of social services.  But it's wrong.

Americans need visas to visit a range of countries, including a few developed nations like Australia but also the larger developing countries that our media regularly cites as industrial powerhouses -- Brazil, Russia, China[1], and India -- and an array of smaller developing nations.

For the most part, it's not that these countries worry about Americans slipping into their countries unnoticed and lining up for free food or subsidized housing.  Actually, it's precisely that Americans have money.  So, if they want to visit, why limit the take to whatever sales taxes are collected on their purchases?  It's easy to collect additional money by requiring a visa.

There's also a degree of tit-for-tat to the process.  Americans pay more for visas in Brazil, for instance, than do the citizens of many other countries, because the Brazilian government decided to charge American visitors the same price of a visa that the American government charges Brazilians.  Makes sense, right?

You can look up the visa requirements for any country based on the passport on which you travel using sites like VisaHQ.  Americans are often better served by the Department of State's travel pages, though, because in addition to the visa requirements that Americans in particular have for each country, these pages also include travel advisories and medical information.

In most cases, when a visa is required, it means filling out paperwork that includes when and why you intend to visit, providing two of those passport-sized photos, and paying the fee.  Some countries may require interviews at their consulates or other security measures.  Visas of this sort are usually pasted into one's passport.

There are also countries that provide visas either electronically (as is the case with Australia) or upon arrival (such as Bahrain).   These visas are included in the entry stamp (which is really unto itself a visa, demonstrating permission granted by the border officer for the traveler to enter).

In a few rare cases, visas may need to be processed outside of the United States; for instance, Americans are not forbidden by the U.S. government to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but there isn't a North Korean embassy in the U.S.  Tours of North Korea are tightly organized, though, so in these instances, the process of getting visas will almost certainly be handled by the tour provider. 

Whenever you travel, it's absolutely essential that you know whether you'll need a visa and what kind of visa you need.  For most people, the basic tourist visa is sufficient and appropriate.  Anyone planning to have a job of any kind while in a country will need a work visa.  Students generally have their own special visas, and some countries regulate the presence missionaries through visas issued solely for religious work.

You should photocopy any visa that is pasted into a passport in advance of travel.  Leave one copy left at home in case there are problems and another carried on you while you're in country.  This is especially critical in countries that require an exit visa, without which you will not be allowed to cross the border to go home. 

One piece of good news for American travelers: we usually have access to multiple-entry visas, which are good for access for an extended period of time that may range as high as five or ten years from the date of issuance. 

There's often a minimal price difference between a single and a multiple-entry visa, so save yourself the hassle and get the longest-duration visa you're allowed to obtain.  You never know when you might have the chance to go back!

[1] Travelers to the Chinese mainland require entry visas.  Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions (SARs) that at this time do not require visas for American travelers.  Travel to Tibet requires special permission beyond an entry visa.

Friday, October 1, 2010

United marks merger with a new benefit

United and Continental closed their merger today.  Effective immediately, the shares of both companies have been consolidated (CAL 1.05:1 with UAUA) and are trading as United-Continental Holdings (NYSE:UAL). 

 The return of the UAL symbol, which was lost during United's most recent bankruptcy, is a sign that Continental's strength is both a hand up and way forward for United, whose employees have long wanted to do a better job than their lackluster, clueless management team would tolerate.  (Most of those folks, like the UAUA symbol, are now out the window.)

Most of the two former partners' operations will remain separate for some time.  Consolidating airlines is, after all, a huge undertaking.  But for members of the United and Continental airport lounges, there's one benefit that takes effect right away and will matter to both groups:

Effective immediately, the United Red Carpet Club offers a selection of complimentary alcoholic beverages.

Other benefits, including integrated elite upgrades and access to one another's premium economy seats (i.e. Economy Plus on United), will come later in October.  The switch to complimentary alcoholic beverages in the Red Carpet Club, though, is a "tone-setter" for the whole merger.  Presidents Club members had long enjoyed free drinks, which United's club charged for bar service.  Post-merger, things might have gone either way.  But "the new United," under the leadership of former Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, has chosen the right path, putting the customer first the way that Continental has done for years.

These days, mergers mean cuts.  Wall Street expect them, and employees and customer alike fear them.  The days of building a company so that it was generate consistently strong profits from satisfied customers are over.  It's all about driving up share prices and selling off the assets for a high return before throwing the workforce out on the street -- what did those folks do, anyway?  They sure weren't important executives! -- and finding a new target for the same treatment.

But it doesn't have to be that way, and while we'll have to wait and see what the months ahead hold for the world's new largest airline, today's close of the much-awaited Continental-United merger to create "the new United" is off to a good start.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Southwest buys AirTran! Continental updates its meal policy!

We usually don't see so much activity on a Monday, but there were two big developments today in U.S. domestic travel industry:
  1. Southwest is buying AirTran Airways; and
  2. Continental is really and truly doing away with complimentary meals for domestic Coach passengers.
I was very surprised to hear about the Southwest-AirTran deal.  Mostly, I was surprised by the lack of advance coverage; we'd heard about the United-Continental deal with months before it was announced.  But it also seems like an odd match-up.

Sure, AirTran has gates at some airports where Southwest would like to add service, like (where?).  But Southwest is a one-class carrier.  Absorbing AirTran will mean reconfiguring all of the planes to eliminate the Business Class cabins that are in place now, and that seems like a lot of work.

I'm also sorry to see AirTran go, precisely because of those Business Class cabins.  We have lots of excess capacity and mergers make sense, but AirTran had broken new ground by offering two-class service for affordable prices.  Virgin America has two-class service, but its First Class offering is much pricier than the front cabins on AirTran flights.  I can't help thinking that we've lost something here.

As for Continental, I'd been totally confused by the situation on meals ever since my recent Alaska trip.  I lobbied for an end to free meals months ago and was happy when they first announced they'd be doing away with them, and these for-purchase food items sound really tasty.  I'm all for it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Continental still serves meals, sometimes.

Back in March, I wrote about Continental's decision to end complimentary meal service for Coach passengers.

It was, as I understood it, a "done deal."  So, Gwen and I were surprised on a recent flight segment from Houston to Seattle when flight attendants came around passing out trays with chicken enchiladas, carrot sticks, salad cups, and Kit Kat candy bars. 

There was no meal offered from Seattle to Anchorage.  However, we encountered a similar meal service (this time with a turkey sandwich) flying from Anchorage back to Seattle -- and no meal from Seattle to Newark.

That led me to do some checking, and according to Continental's posted dining policy, meal service is still in effect for flights over three hours in length that fall between "standard meal times:"
  • Breakfast / Snack: 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.
  • Lunch / Snack: 11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
  • Dinner / Snack: 5:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. 
To be sure, these are not gourmet meals.  I also doubt that they'll survive the merger, as United already has an established product line of (quite tasty) fresh food items sold onboard.

But getting something to eat was a pleasant surprise. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Would you like less legroom on your flight?

American airline passengers complain about legroom.  I mean, whenever Americans fly, they complaint about pretty much everything, but legroom is one of the biggest complaints I hear onboard aircraft.

Well, for all that you consider that 30-32" seat pitch woefully inadequate, Italian firm Aviointeriors has actually come up with something smaller.

The SkyRider seat is patterned on a saddle design.
The SkyRider seat is patterned after a horse saddle.  By having a contoured base, it can actually accommodate a... well, rider, with as little as 23" of seat pitch.  That means that in an economy cabin with 30 rows of 30" standard seating, an airline could actually fit an additional nine rows of seats by putting in SkyRider seats and squishing everything closer together.

SkyRider seats are specifically intended for shorter flights.  RyanAir enthusiasts shouldn't be surprised if these appear soon on the plane soon.

That said, there are three reasons we're unlikely to see these in America:
  1. They're not FAA-approved;
  2. The typical U.S. flight is long by the standards of most other countries; and
  3. Passengers almost certainly wouldn't tolerate them.
FAA approval might be forthcoming, of course, if there were enough testing done.  And an that third point, I admit I'm making an assumption here.  Ten years ago, I'd have assumed that Americans would never tolerate checked baggage fees or the elimination of Coach meals. 

But even if those we could clear those jumps, they'd still be of limited use in a country with such long flights.  So, you're not likely to see many SkyRiders here.

If we did, would they be comfortable?  As an Aviointeriors spokesman points out, cowboys ride in saddles for hours.

But Americans would still complain.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Roaming Alaska

Alaska may be America's Last Frontier, but this is the twenty-first century. "Far" just isn't as far as it used to be, at least in the cities. And Anchorage, while small by Lower 48 standards, is a city.

I was therefore quite expecting that when I turned on my Verizon BlackBerry Storm on my first morning in Anchorage, there would be signal, and there was. The familiar 1xev block appeared, telling me that the 3G CDMA signal we call EVDO was available. But after a few minutes, I was surprised to see that it still appeared exactly that way: lowercase, meaning that while 3G service was available, I wasn't getting it. Verizon, it turns out, doesn't have coverage in Anchorage.

I was roaming.

Once feared for its potential to mean huge per-minute charges, domestic "roaming" is now mostly a novelty concept for customers of major cell phone plans. But my experience reminded me of how precarious the access to data that we assume every day really is. There can be infrastructure, and signal. But sometimes, it's not enough.

Sometimes, despite all of the technology, you're left roaming.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fees and Rewards: Airline Priorities

Over the last two years, we've seen U.S. domestic airline amenities cut back and fees put in place for things that used to be free.

Many airlines have eliminated pillows and blankets, ostensibly in the name of hygiene. One can genuinely agree with the merits of this idea, yet that justification has nicely underpinned offers for passengers to buy their very own new pillows and blankets; do we really imagine that it was primarily health and not revenue that led to the move?

Then there's luggage. Free checked baggage used to be a given, but most airlines now charge even for a first checked bag, and only Southwest still allows two free pieces of checked luggage per passenger. Spirit has gone the opposite direction and added charges for carry-on bags in addition to those for checked luggage, telling passengers in effect that their ticket prices are genuine only for those who have no intention to stay more than a few hours and are pointedly not traveling on business.

And, of course, food and beverages. The industry balked at U.S. Airways' 2008 attempt to charge for all drinks (something that low-cost carriers in other countries do). But complimentary meals, which had been waning since the traffic declines after September 11, 2001, finally vanished this year when Continental pulled the plug.

There's an interesting countertrend emerging, though: while airlines are charging for things that never cost money before and charging more for things that used to cost less (like curbside luggage and alcoholic beverages), they are also taking more opportunities to extend those benefits for free or at discounted rates to passengers who qualify.

Again, take luggage. The legacy carriers charge $25 or more for a first checked bag and up to $50 for a second. But if you hold elite status with the airline you're traveling -- or if you're an elite member of a partner airline -- you won't pay that fee.

Similarly, Continental recently boosted the cost of onboard alcoholic beverages from $5 to $6. But if you're paying with a Continental credit card, you'll actually pay $4 -- less than you paid before the price went up.

In the months ahead, keep a lookout for more of these special discounts and benefits.  They may move people around in the skies, but airlines are in business to make money.  For a while, they forgot that.  Now, they're remembering, and airlines are bound to expand the list of what is given at no cost to their most profitable customers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Approved: The New United

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the proposed merger of United and Continental, after the latter agreed to transfer some of its gates at Newark-Liberty International Airport to low-cost carrier Southwest.  A shareholder vote is scheduled for September 17 (which is also the last day to trade September options, by the way), and a passing tally looks assured. 

There is some noise being made by opponents seeking judicial intervention to block the deal, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Oberstar is talking about re-regulation.  Oberstar says that, if the merger goes ahead, "our domestic carrier fleet will have shrunk to four network carriers."  (In making that claim, he dismisses Southwest, JetBlue, Airtran, Frontier, Spirit, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian, Virgin America, Sun Country, and a few others.  But who's counting, right?)

The fact is, this is going to happen, whatever Oberstar says.  The question is, what lies ahead for passengers?  And the answer is, in the short run, nothing.

In a post-merger scenario, Continental and United will at first continue to operate as separate airlines under common ownership by a holding company.  (United Air Lines is already owned by a traded holding company as a result of a previous bankruptcy, so this is itself nothing new.)

The two Star Alliance airlines have already been working to extend cross-carrier benefits such as elite upgrades, so we can reasonably expect to see those roll out pretty soon after the merger is finalized.  Straightening out booking and routing systems, aligning flight schedules, and building a combined frequent flyer program will take longer.

One also has to keep in mind the ever-present labor issues of the industry  -- though my casual asides with United employees suggest they are thrilled to be coming under the management of Continental's executive team, which has long been held up as the gold standard for airline labor-management relations.  (As an example of why, Continental still maintains and funds a pension plan for its employees.)

By early next spring, Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, who will be the CEO of the new United, envisions that the combined carrier will be ready for "Customer Day One."  That's when everything will be in place from a passenger point of view.

And the last step, where the Department of Transportation issues a single carrier certificate for the new airline?  That will probably be next winter.

But it matters about as much as Chairman Oberstar's ability to count.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Children on Airplanes

According to a recent poll, which I understand was not scientific but is nonetheless telling, almost 60% of passengers would prefer that children be segregated from other airline passengers.  Turns out that it's the presence of children, not flight delays or baggage fees, that flyers find most annoying.

As a dad, I understand that parents do a lot to try and comfort or control their children.  I also understand, though, that part of being a parent is an almost-immediate shift in one's ability to tolerate noise.  Within hours of our daughter being born, my wife and I were dealing calmly with a screaming infant, doing what we could to soothe her while our levels of frustration stayed conspicuously in check.

As a frequent flyer, I can attest that this level of frustration can spike rapidly in a plane, especially -- and some will take issue with me drawing this distinction, but I will anyway -- when there's a crying baby or annoying youngster in First Class.

Some will ask, why is First Class special?  I could smirk and accuse the questioners of being socialists, I suppose.  How else can one understand the annoyance passengers express when people who pay ten times what they've paid for tickets are entitled to better amenities?  It's amusing to me that in a nation where questioning the merits of free markets and deregulation is decried as treason, Americans nonetheless rally to object to a $750 ticket coming with a $10 sandwich while a $100 ticket on the same flight doesn't offer a meal.

But I digress. 

Putting families in a special section of a plane is basically unworkable.  Blocking off the section with soundproofing would be a potential safety hazard in the event of an emergency, and in any event, airlines have no advance notice of how many parents are traveling with children under two years of age if these infants are traveling on their parents' laps.

But it really does make sense to have families sit at the back of the plane.  It would:
  • Put them closer to the lavatories;
  • Make it easier to get water from the galley; and
  • Give them a practical excuse for boarding first (something that otherwise makes no sense, since it just puts a huge number of people crowding the aisles in random places).
And it would really help improve everyone's trip for parents to not have to endure the endless angry glares of the people around them.  For many parents, that in itself would be a good trade-off.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Baby on Amtrak? Changing can be tricky.

When Gwen and I recently went up to New York to introduce friends and family to our newborn daughter Tara, deciding on a means of travel was easy. We chose Amtrak because the train would:
  1. Save us the hassle of airport security;
  2. Give us space to move around; and
  3. Make it easier to bring home gifts.
Did they mean to put one here and forgot?
Amtrak has long sought to promote itself as a family-friendly way to travel. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find no changing tables in the restrooms in Amtrak's trains on the Northeast corridor, neither in the newer Acelas nor the older Northeast Regionals.

Sure, we can all accept that a changing table on a train is a risky proposition; the train moves. But think about it: the baby needs to be changed either way. Absent a changing table, parents are left to struggle with changing babies on toilet lids or handicap transfer seats, or on the floor. Each option is considerably more risky than a well-designed changing table.

video

The transfer seat is flat but not wide enough and has no safety strap.

I'm not sure whether changing tables are available on the Superliner or Viewliner cars used outside of the Northeast. We've traveled on most Amtrak routes, but we didn't have a baby at the time and thus weren't looking for changing tables. It's also possible that there may be some restrooms among the Northeast rolling stock that do have changing tables.

But what good is that? Realistically, every train restroom should have a changing table, just as planes include these in their lavatories. Train trips are long, and babies need to be changed frequently. Having tables just makes sense.

For now, be warned: if you're traveling by train with a baby, changing your baby is going to be more challenging than it needs to be.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Imagine PS: The ultimate in green transportation

We've heard a lot about clean diesels, gas-electric hybrids, and plug-in hybrids.  Tesla has an electric roadster with a 240-mile range that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds.  Within the next year, we'll see the debut of GM's Chevy Volt, which uses electricity as its primary power source but has a supplemental gasoline motor for extended-range travel, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf.

It's all very impressive, but if you want to ultimate in green transportation, you'll be surprised to learn that it's much simpler (and cheaper) than any of those much-touted vehicles.  The real breakthrough isn't the idea of using lithium-ion batteries in cars but rather in providing the electric in a fashion that doesn't generate any pollution: by hand.

Yes: The Imagine PS is street-legal!
Enter the Imagine PS by obscure start-up company HumanCar.

The Imagine runs on electricity and has a plug-in charging capability, but it's not primarily meant to be plugged in.  Instead, the Imagine is powered by the passengers themselves, who -- by pulling hand cranks from front to back -- generate from their own effort the current that makes the vehicle move.

And by all regards, it really moves: the Imagine can hit 60 mph on flat terrain and can climb hills at 30 mph.

With four passengers, the Imagine runs on "human power" alone.  The plug-in capability supplements the vehicle when fewer than four passengers are working, though, so even one person can drive it.

Is the Imagine PS going to change the world?  As a final product, no; it's impressive but not likely to win converts who would prefer, among other things, vehicles based on the green technologies I already mentioned. 

But at $15,500, it's certainly a lot more attainable than a $40,000 Volt or a $100,000 Tesla roadster.

And besides, who really wears the outfits modeled on the runway?  No one; they're concepts that influence mass-market clothing later in the season.  So too may it be with the Imagine: it shows us what is possible.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Express" seats? Ridiculous.

In general, I've been defensive of airline fees. It's no secret that U.S. airlines have been hurting; most have lost literally billions of dollars each of the last few years, first due to super-high fuel prices and then because of the pullback in business travel unleashed by the recession. 

That's why I accepted fuel surcharges, higher fares around holidays, and even the elimination of free meals by my favorite airline, the last airline to offer them.

But there are some areas where the line has to be drawn.  Spirit Airlines' fees for carry-on bags are one example of going too far.  Today, American Airlines has given us another.

According to MarketWatch, "American Airlines said Wednesday it would begin charging passengers for the privilege of sitting in the seats closest to an airplane's front exit."  Prices will start (!) at $19 to book one of these "Express Seats," whose only desireable trait it that its occupant is able to get off the plane slightly sooner than those seated farther back... umm, what?! 

This is just nonsense.  Unless you're American Airlines, in which case it's part of a new program called -- tada! -- Your Choice(SM).

Well, at least they got that right.  It is Your Choice(SM).  Take advantage of that, and fly with someone else.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

JetBlue brings back the AYCJ Pass

Want to spend September touring America and the Caribbean?  JetBlue has something for you: the All-You-Can-Jet pass.

The JetBlue Route Map 
AYCJ is available in two forms:
  • AYCJ-5 is good for travel Sunday through Thursday and costs $499.
  • AYCJ-7 is good for travel every day of the week and costs $699.
Here are the details:
  • Domestic taxes and fees are included.  (International taxes and fees aren't.)
  • You can travel from Sept 7 through Oct 6.
  • Flights only need to be booked three (3) days in advance.
  • You can also change or cancel flights without penalty as long as you do so at least three days in advance.
Consider that JetBlue lets you bring along a checked bag for free, that they've got more than a dozen destinations in the Caribbean, and that this pass kicks in immediately after Labor Day, when you'd otherwise be done with beach season.

Alas, I won't be able to use it.  Gwen and I are taking our daughter Tara to Anchorage over Labor Day, then we're going to visit relatives in California later in the month before flying to India for a wedding in early October.

But I think it's a really great deal.  Kudos to JetBlue for keeping travel fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Years with Pet Airways

Novel ideas for new airlines come and go.  Remember ultra-discounter SkyBus, based on the RyanAir model?  Gone. 

How about SilverJet, MaxJet, and L'Avion, the all-business class airlines?  No more. 

From spunky little Independence Air to long-established Aloha Airlines, high fuel prices and volatile demand make it difficult to run a successful airline. 

www.petairways.com
Yet two years since its launch, in the midst of the worst economic environment the world has seen since the advent of widespread aviation, Pet Airways is still going strong.  That's particularly surprising because Pet Airways doesn't fly people at all; as the name suggests, it's an airline for pets, and who'd figure that market would weather the Global Financial Crisis?

But the fact is, Pet Airlines has adopted what is thus far a winning strategy: its fares for in-cabin, supervised pet transportation are basically on par with the fees charged by people-airlines to transport pets in the cargo hold.

Consider that a handful of pets actually die in those holds every year, from exposure and loss of pressure among other problems, and one can see why dedicated pet air travel might be more than a luxury good for those who need to transport their pets from one place to another.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Top marks for the Air New Zealand Lounge

It happens to me every time that I travel overseas. First, I encounter an international branch of a U.S.-based airline club, and I'm astonished at how much better the amenities are overseas. Then, I visit one of the clubs actually operated by a foreign carrier, and I'm left with disbelief.

At the Red carpet Club this morning in Melbourne, I had sausages, raisin toast, a ham croissant, and fresh fruit as well as a bowl of cereal. That was really something, because at home, a visit to United's club would have offered bagels and fruit but no hot foods.

Contrast that with the Air New Zealand lounge in Sydney, though -- which stands in for United passengers given its role as a Star Alliance affiliate -- and it's a whole new level.

As I write this, I'm having some delightfully spicy curried chicken over rice, having previously finished a hot dog with all of the fixings. My Bacardi and Diet Coke was not only free, which would have been true in my own Continental Presidents Club but not in a domestic Red Carpet Club, but was also self-poured. That's normal overseas; it's unheard of in the States.

Really, the clubs outside of America are so nice that it's almost a shame that the layovers tend to be as short as they are. It's like lingering at a buffet, or an all-inclusive resort.

Anyone reading this blog would be right to complain that I don't update it enough. The truth is, I haven't been traveling as much as I used to; I'm only up to about 60,000 miles this year so far, and it's August.

The good news? I've been in Australia all week. You're welcome to read about my personal adventures on LiveJournal (which for the moment I keep distinct from this blog; I may change that).

In the next few days, I'll also be posting profiles for Adelaide and Hobart, and discussing my experience on Great Southern Rail's Overland route.

It'll have to wait, though. My flight home boards in 20 minutes. Cheers!

Destination: Melbourne

Victoria, Australia

Languages: English
Currency: Dollar (AUD)


For decades, Melbourne was the most important and famous city in Australia. In 1957, however, an ambitious project to build an opera house got underway in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales. It took 16 years to finish and incurred a final cost of around 14 times what had been estimated, but the bold structure bestowed upon its home an allure that catapulted Sydney ahead of Melbourne.

Since that time, the capital of Victoria has lived in the shadow of its neighbor to the northeast. Among locals and international visitors alike, there is a pervasive sense that Sydney is simply better than Melbourne.

Nonsense! While it is indisputable that more businesses now have their Australian headquarters in Sydney than in Melbourne, the latter retains a vibrant economy and a population of nearly 4 million. People get along well enough here.

Things to Do
To point to the Sydney Opera House as some sign that Melbourne has been eclipsed in the arts is simply not so. It's in the Melbourne CBD[1] that you'll find the impressive Australian Centre for Moving Images (ACMI), a sprawling arts complex devoted to cinematography, film, and animation. Melbourne also hosts a renowned annual film festival that bears its name, and the city is adorned with hundreds of galleries.

For wildlife, Melbourne offers both an excellent aquarium (also in the CBD) and a zoo an easy tram ride from your likely accommodations. These are at least of equal caliber to their counterparts in Sydney -- certainly no reason for Victorians to feel inferior.

One large draw to Melbourne is the Crown casino complex. If you're into casinos, you might as well check it out. Having frequented Las Vegas, though, I found nothing new here.

The Docklands, formerly used for the practical purpose that their name implies, have been reimagined as a district of luxury living spaces, outlet shopping, and excellent eateries. Whatever you'd like to eat, you'll find something that fits your tastes.

Melbourne is also a place for sport, particularly as the central hub for that sport rarely understood outside of the area, Australian Rules Football. Should you happen to find yourself in the city when a game is going on, give it a go. I wasn't able to go while I was in Melbourne but have been told that tickets are pretty cheap (about $20) and that it's quite an experience.

Visa Requirements
Virtually everyone coming from outside Australia needs a visa in advance, the only exception being New Zealand residents (and they still get visas, just on arrival rather than in advance). For citizens of most developed nations, including those traveling on American, European Union, and Singaporean passports among others, the application can be made electronically on the Web and provides an electronic record attached to the traveler's passport rather than a physical visa stamp. 

Learn more about Australian visa requirements on Melbourne's official Web site. 

Getting There
International flights come into Melbourne-Tullamarine Airport (MEL), as do most domestic flights. It's quite common for flights from the United States to deliver passengers to Sydney and then continue on to Melbourne. Depending on how that shakes out, you may clear customs in either city.

From the airport, travelers will likely find the SkyBus a hard value to beat: it runs four times an hour, 24 hours per day for every day of the year, and a $16 one-way ticket includes delivery to the front door of your hotel. $22 gets you a round-trip ticket that includes pickup (assuming that you're leaving after 6:00 a.m. when pickup begins).

Interstate rail service (from Adelaide by Great Southern Rail or Sydney by CountryLink) comes into Southern Cross Station, which is where SkyBus delivers passengers prior to their hotel transfers and also the hub for long-distance coach service. Several tram lines service Southern Cross, so it's as convenient place for travelers to be.

Learn more about travel to the from Melbourne on the city's official Web site.

Getting Around
Melbourne is extremely easy to navigate. There's an efficient system of electric trams for travel nearly anywhere within the city, including a free City Circle tram that (predictably) circles the CBD. From underground stations at key points as well as the main rail stations, you can pick up the Metro regional rail network for transit to the suburbs, and V/Line trains connect to much of the rest of Victoria.

If you do need to take a taxi -- for instance, should you need to catch the SkyBus before the trams start running -- you can expect to pay about $10 to go from one side of the CBD to the other. Cabs hailed on the streets are safe and I found the drivers quite friendly.
 
Melbourne has for some time been transitioning from its previous generation of paper farecards to a permanent card similar to London's Oyster.  As of August 2010, all Melbourne trams, buses, and trains (including V/Line Zones 1 and 2) accept the Myki smartcard.  Eventually, Myki will be accepted all over Victoria.

Learn more about getting around Melbourne on the city's official Web site.

Melbourne as a Base for Further Travels
The consolidated transit available makes Melbourne a great base station to use for trips to other parts of Australia.Both Southern Cross Station and Tullamarine Airport have facilities for securing bulky luggage. Flights to Adelaide, Hobart, and Canberra are often available through JetStar and Virgin Blue at low cost for those without checked baggage, so these facilities can be very handy.

If you do plan to leave luggage, be aware that the automated locker system at Southern Cross accepts only cash and no bills larger than $20, but the cost is per-locker.  The SmarteCarte storage facility in Tullamarine's International terminal is per-piece and costs about twice as much.

Parting Thoughts
There's a lot to see and do here. Sydney is worth seeing, but writing Melbourne off would shortchange your trip.


1 A commonly used Australian abbreviation for Central Business District, what Americans would typically call the "Downtown" area.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

VRE transitions from Amtrak to Keolis

Regional rail lines are found around the country, and most of them are operated as state partnerships with the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak

For most of its history, Virginia Railway Express was one of these.  As of yesterday, however, VRE service is now operated by Keolis Rail Service America, a subsidiary of a French company.  The decision to change service providers was made for cost reasons, with Keolis bidding to operate VRE for considerably less than Amtrak was willing to accept.

Might this shift anticipate a broader move away from Amtrak?  It's not clear. 

For decades, bystanders and travelers alike have noted that while Amtrak is a money-losing corporation rather than a public-sector agency, it functions as the de facto national rail provider in large part because private companies have not been able to make rail profitable.  (Indeed, Amtrak was created to release the railroads from their legal passenger obligations.) 

That makes it unlikely that a domestic competitor is going to challenge Amtrak any time soon.

What the VRE transition does raise is the possibility that private foreign providers--and there are quite a few that are very experienced in running First World rail systems--could step in to compete with Amtrak.  Given that these companies are committed to rail service, it's hard to see how that competition could be a bad thing.

VRE riders will continue to have access to certain Amtrak trains through the use of Step-Up tickets.  (Reports that this arrangement would end on account of the transfer of management were a mistaken interpretation of the annual realignment of which Amtrak trains accept Step-Up fares.)

As for whether the new management will bring other changes, we'll have to wait and see.

Bring back airline regulation? Not likely.

To hear Congressman Oberstar tell it, a return to the days of airline regulation is the only way forward that makes sense. Oberstar is proposing (read: threatening) to introduce legislation that would re-regulate the industry if the proposed merger of United and Continental is approved.

Most Americans who grew up in the deregulated era have little perspective on what this would mean. We hear tales of wonderful service, gourmet meals, profitability, and high wages and benefits for airline employees. Luggage was checked for free, pillows and blankets were widely available, and all tickets were refundable.

It sounds nice, and it's true. But there's another side of that coin.

Under regulation, fare prices were set with government approval. They were difficult to change, and in practice, prices among carriers barely varied. They were also much more expensive.

How much more?

Go price a fare of your choosing searching for the lowest available price and write it down. Then, look up the same price as an "unrestricted" or "Class Y" coach fare. That second price--typically three or four times the lowest-available rate today--approximates the regulated fare (1).

During the days of regulation, a cross-country flight was priced in the thousands of dollars. Needless to say, flying was restricted to the wealthy.

Today, that same fare might be $250 on a flexible schedule. Flying is for everyone.

Oberstar is just the latest in a long line of politicians who have made noise about restoring airline regulation. But taxpayers have already pledged their full faith and credit to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out America's super-wealthy. Ceding air travel to those same fat cats is just not going to happen.

--
1 On Continental.com, an August 15-22 EWR-IAH round trip (connecting two hubs) has a lowest-rate fare of $426. The unrestricted fare is $1614.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Last Days

On July 16, AirTran and Frontier will officially end their partnership. I'll be sorry to see it end, because this sort of cross-carrier pairing is what the low-cost airlines need in order to lure domestic business travelers away from the legacy airlines.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

U.S. Airways is still looking for a merger partner

Having been blown off by United Airlines, which it's pretty clear at this point was only making eyes at another carrier in order to make Continental jealous, U.S. Airways is still looking to tie the knot with another legacy carrier.

Call it optimism, which is probably what CEO Doug Parker would prefer. Call it desperation, which is my take. Either way, U.S. Airways President Scott Kirby says it's very likely.

Feel free to laugh. Boasting the most surly staff, the least enthusiastic customer base, and a dysfunctional corporate culture, it's hard to see why U.S. Airways would entice either Delta (which is still digesting its own merger with Northwest) or a post-merger United (which, amazingly, Kirby calls "a high probability").

That leaves American Airlines. I think that if there's going to be a merger for U.S. Airways at all, it will probably be with American, which had long been the largest U.S. airline (and thus, the largest airline in the world) until the Delta merger. After United and Continental merge, American will fall to #3.

But a merger with American isn't an easy deal. To demonstrate that it could bring along its passengers, U.S. Airways would first need to leave the Star Alliance and integrate with American's OneWorld alliance -- far from an easy task.

And would the passengers really follow anyway? I doubt it. American is big enough, with enough flights around the country, that anyone who preferred OneWorld over the Star Alliance would already have made the switch.

I do see U.S. Airways departing the scene, mind you. But my vision is more of a yard sale.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Higher ticket taxes? Oh, please.

There's been a lot of speculation regarding higher ticket prices as a result of industry consolidation, particularly given the recent announcement of a merger deal between United and Continental.

Now, we learn that a bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would raise the taxes on domestic airline tickets.

Airlines are apparently fighting the measure, "warning the increase would impede industry growth and raise consumer prices."

But it seems like a whole lot of angst over nothing. For all of the fuss, the proposed tax increase would raise the "Passenger Facility Charge" from $4.50 to an astonishingly underwhelming $7.00.

That additional $2.50 would raise nearly three billion dollars that would go towards terminal and runway improvements.

And aren't terminal and runway improvements worth it?

I mean, seriously: are you going to put off your purchase of a $400 airline ticket because you're being asked to pay $2.50 in extra taxes? Would you even notice?

I doubt it.

And for an airline industry that gleefully imposed checked-bag fees that can add up to $60 to a flight for the privilege of checking two bags -- and that has in at least one case added a fee nearly ten times' the proposed tax for the "privilege" of a carry-on bag -- to talk about how this affects passengers is simply ridiculous.

Airports, runways, and air traffic infrastructure all cost money. $2.50 is a small price to pay.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New United

It's official: Continental and United have agreed to a merger.


The new airline will retain the name United as well as that company's headquarters in Chicago, and will use the Continental logo and color scheme. Jeff Smisek, CEO of Houston-based Continental, will be the CEO of the merged airline, which will leapfrog over Delta to become the world's largest. Current United CEO Glenn Tilton will take on the Chairman role for two years before passing that to Smisek.

Announced this morning, the move was anticipated ever since news about a month ago that UAL was in merger talks with U.S. Airways. (For the reasons that I mentioned at the time, many suspected that the real goal was to prod Continental along.)

The deal is subject to the usual hurdles of antitrust investigation and union agreement, but there's little overlap between the UAL and CAL route maps, and many United employees view Continental as the ideal of what an airline should be. Given that Smisek will be taking the reins of the new company, my guess is that their support will come easily.

For Continental frequent flyers like me, one almost-guaranteed downside is the probability of higher elite-status requirements. United uses a 30-60-100K tier system; Continental has a 25-50-75K system. Does anyone think doubling the pool of potential elite members will result in using the lower standard?

But this is good news for a lot of reasons, and I'm all in favor of it. These have for some time been my two favorite international-scope airlines. Together, under the right leadership, I see the potential for them to revitalize the service element of air travel.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

United and U.S. Airways... uniting?

According to the New York Times, United and U.S. Airways -- both members of the Star Alliance -- are "deep in their merger discussions, though a transaction is not expected to be announced for at least several weeks."

As the Times article mentions, these are two airlines that have tried to merge before, announcing a deal in 2000 that collapsed under fierce union opposition.

A merger between United and U.S. Airways would create one of the world's largest airlines, but it's hard to say what it would mean for the third domestic member of the Star Alliance; Continental left Skyteam precisely because the merger between Delta and Northwest risked leaving it as the junior partner, and it's hard to see how a UA-US tie-up would be good for CAL.

Actually, I'm surprised to hear that United is in talks once again with U.S. Airways. It's true that America has too many airlines, so mergers do make sense. It's just that all of the United people I've asked, including on planes and in the Red Carpet Clubs, expressed a lot of enthusiasm for a possible future merger between their airline and Continental, while most of them had nothing but contempt for U.S. Airways.

Any UA-US merger would kill prospects for a subsequent UA-CAL deal simply on account of antitrust regulation.

But United CEO Glenn Tilton has made no secret of his interest in finding a merger partner, and Doug Parker gives the impression he'd merge U.S. Airways with any airline dumb enough...umm...visionary enough to take him up on it.

We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Destination: Hong Kong

Hong Kong
Special Administrative Region, People's Republic of China



Languages:
English and Cantonese (Official), Mandarin (Widespread)

Currency: Hong Kong Dollar (HKD)




If you've never been to Hong Kong, the name probably conjures up images of a heavily-Anglicanized city, where English is universally spoken and, other than the British accents, it's easy enough to think you've never left home.

That impression is almost entirely wrong.

Certainly, Hong Kong is home to a First World level of technological sophistication and hundreds of familiar American and European brand names; in Kowloon, you'll find an Outback Steakhouse just a block off of the Promenade. But it's difficlt to be here for even a few minutes without realizing that you are, in fact, in China.

I never had occasion to visit Hong Kong in the years leading up to its transfer from the United Kingdom to China. Certainly, there have been some changes regarding the nature of Hong Kong's government, which is now a combination of elected and appointed representatives, with the balance tilted slightly in the direction of appointments. But it is worth remembering that Hong Kong was never independent; it went from being the last of the dominions in what had been the British Empire to its current standing as a "Special Administrative Region" within the People's Republic, its foreign affairs in both cases controlled from far-away national capitals.

So, when I say that a visit to Hong Kong is a visit to China, I don't mean it in a strictly literal sense, even though that is now true from a perspective of territorial sovereignty. Instead, I mean that this place has a Chinese culture. English is an official language, but it's Cantonese--and increasingly, Mandarin--that you'll hear everywhere. It's nothing like Britain, and I suspect it never was.

Hong Kong within China: A Bit of History
Strictly speaking, "Hong Kong" is the name of only the southern island of the territory. That island was ceded "in perpetuity" to Britain in 1842 at the conclusion of the First Opium War; the larger island of Kowloon was ceded under the same terms in 1860 at the conclusion of the second such conflict. Britain then acquired a much larger section of land--the so-called "New Territories," including Lantau Island--in 1898, under terms of a 99-year lease.

Britain was compelled to return the New Territories in 1997 without precondition. It could have retained Hong Kong Island and Kowloon indefinitely, but doing so presented logistical problems. The British and Chinese governments therefore negotiated an arrangement under which the entire territory would be transfered to Chinese sovereignty. In exchange, China guaranteed to retain most aspects of Hong Kong's existing government structure (and its freedoms) for 50 years.
The Hong Kong "Special Administrative Region," or SAR, encompasses all of what prior to 1997 was British territory. As a part of China, its foreign affairs are managed by Beijing. But under the "one country, two systems" model, Hong Kong residents live very different lives from their counterparts a short distance away in Guangzhou or elsewhere in the People's Republic, enjoying freedoms of speech, religion, and press (as well as unrestricted Internet access) that most Chinese do not.

Visa Requirements
Hong Kong maintains its own passport controls and has different visa requirements than mainland China. Citizens of the United States and many other developed nations do not require Chinese visas to visit Hong Kong as tourists. If you arrive in Hong Kong under such circumstances, you may also include a trip to Macau SAR as part of your itinerary without any additional visa requirements (though Macau maintains its own distinct passport controls, so such a trip will involve formally leaving Hong Kong before boarding a plane or ferry to Macau).

You will need a Chinese visa, however, if you plan to take the train to Guangzhou or visit any destination on the Chinese mainland. Americans can expect to pay $330 for a five-year Chinese tourist visa and should apply through the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. before making any travel plans involving the mainland. Expedited services are available, but trying to obtain a visa in Hong Kong is unwise as any delay may result in missing flights or other forms of transportation.

Getting Around
Many of the key tourist and commercial areas are accessible via the excellent MTR rail system, which is very similar to the systems in Shanghai and Singapore. Where the MTR does not go, including the southern coast of Hong Kong Island and certain places within the New Territories, fleets of modern and comfortable buses fill in.

Virtually all travelers will want to buy an "Octopus" stored-value card. One-way tickets are available, but the Octopus card works on most transit, including the ferries and even the Peak Tram, and it's far more convenient than having to deal with individual ticketing for each trip.
A special note for those arriving by air: at over HK$100, the Airport Express train is a relatively pricey way to get from Hong Kong International to Kowloon or Central. Grab a bus from the terminal to nearby Tung Chung MTR station, and you can follow the same tracks on a local route that takes only a little longer and pay about one-tenth the price. (We didn't realize that until we were leaving.)

Highlights
There is a lot to see and do in Hong Kong. Here are some of the things that Gwen and I enjoyed during our recent trip:
  • The Kowloon Promenade. The Hong Kong skyline includes more than 7000 skyscrapers. (For comparison, New York City has about 4500.) Walking along the Promenade offers amazing views day or night. It's also a convenient way to get to the Star Ferry terminal.

  • The Peak. Like just about everything else in the former British Empire, the highest point in Hong Kong is named for Queen Victoria. These days, while the harbor does continue to bear her name, Victoria Peak is simply "The Peak."

    The views from the Peak are awe-inspiring, especially on a clear day. Most of our days in Hong Kong were not so clear; large-scale manufacturing in Guangzhou on the mainland makes Hong Kong's air quality mediocre at best. Even so, we found the views incredible. (Beware: Restaurants on the Peak are very expensive. Cheaper food is available, though.)

    But the most impressive At some points, the Peak Tram climbs at a 45-degree angle.
    part of the Peak is the process of getting there, by way of the Peak Tram. A funicular (cog) railway, the Tram was built in 1888 and is a marvel of nineteenth-century industrial engineering. Use your Octopus card for the fare to save time and money.

  • The Star Ferry. For about HK$100, you can take an hour-long "Harbour Lights" tour of Victoria Harbour. But for about HK$3, which is less than US$1, you can just take the Star Ferry across from Kowloon to Central, then take it back the other way, and get a lot of the same experience. What's important is that you fit in a harbor trip on the Star Ferry in some fashion.

  • The Big Buddha. Built in 1993, the Tian Tan Buddha (represented as the "Big Buddha" on every English sign along the way) is the largest Buddha in the world...outdoors...made of bronze...that is seated...and smiling. If such a qualified distinction sounds a little silly, don't let that distract you: this is an impressive sight.

    The Tian Tan Buddha, nestled in the clouds.If you're inclined and of sufficient fitness, you can take an extremely long introspective journey along the Wisdom Path from its origins near Tung Chung MTR station (close to Hong Kong International Airport) all the way up to the Buddha and a nearby monestary. Most of you will opt, as we did, to take the Ngong Ping Cable Car, which also originates from beside the Tung Chung MTR; it costs about HK$160 for a round-trip ticket, and if the 25-minute trip up into the sky is less strenuous, it is nonetheless spectacular.

    video

    The downside of the Cable Car is that, unlike the Wisdom Path, it drops you off in the tourist-trap "village" of Ngong Ping, where the Buddha's quest to escape wordly consumption is celebrated through an array of shops, a few animated shows, and even an appallingly fake Bodhi Tree. But a short way from Ngong Ping is the long stairway that takes you up to the Tian Tan Buddha itself, and it's worth the effort.

  • Wong Tai Sin Temple. Fragrant incense, intricate shrines, bridges over ponds inhabited by wandering turtles, and opportunities to have your fortune told by [word] are all part of the experience here. If you're not familiar with Taoism, as most Westerners are not, don't worry; the devout are here to pray, and they do take it seriously, but they don't mind tourists curiously observing and taking photos so long as you behave respectfully.

    There's no cost for admission, but you should plan to drop a few coins in the boxes provided, as these are used to maintain the shrines that you're here to see.
Depending on your particular style, you may enjoy adding to your itinerary the experience of high
tea at Hong Kong's Peninsula
The traditional high tea with silver tea service.
Hotel, one of the world's great
luxury hotels. You'll need pants or skirts rather than shorts, but the dress code is not particularly fancy. HK$380 gets you the traditional high tea experience, which includes sandwiches, scones, and pastries along with your choice of tea, while a la carte is available for those on tighter budgets.

Hong Kong is also a very popular place to have suits and dress shirts tailor-made. Shops can be found all around Tsim Sha Tsui (on the harbor-facing side of Kowloon), offering deals of six, seven, or even eight shirts for HK$1499 (about US$200 as of this printing).

McDonald's Specialty Items
Americans traveling abroad tend to avoid McDonald's, imagining that it's all the same food that they get back home. Outside of France, rarely is that the case.

We ate breakfast as McDonald's in Tsim Sha Tsui on our first day in Hong Kong. In addition to real brewed coffee (not instant, which is ubiquitous) and American-style hashed brows, a total expense of HK$46 (about US$7) got us these entrees:

Ever seen Sausage-and-Egg Twisty Pasta
Don't believe the hype. It's always going to be fast food, but McDonald's is successful precisely because it caters to local tastes, and a stop in here while you're abroad can be a great way to get a sense of the place.

Travel Guides
Travelers looking for online guides to help plan their itineraries may want to refer to guides from Frommers, Fodors, and Continental. (I've linked to main pages in accordance with these sites' own policies, but the guides easy to locate.)

For print references, handy pocket-sized guides for Hong Kong are available from Time Out and also from Lonely Planet's Encounters series.