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

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.)

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.

    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.

Charging for carry-on bags? That's the Spirit.

Avowed nickle-and-dimer Spirit Airlines ushered in a bold new era for air profiteering when it announced today a new plan to charge passengers up to $45 for the privilege of bringing a carry-on bag.

Spirit, which already charges $25 for checked luggage ($19 if you "reserve" space online in advance; you'll find the baggage fee list here), is the first airline to take the logical step of boosting profits by charging passengers for bringing with them bags that they didn't want to check.

The claim is that this new policy will provide revenue that the carrier can use to lower its fares even further than their already-low levels. Indeed, cost-cutting is a way of life for Spirit, which is like the Walmart of air travel. Members of their subscription-based $9 Fare Club can even book so-called "Penny Plus" fares that start at one cent.

That one-cent fare, of course, incurs additional (non-ticketed) charges for "fuel" -- as if that were optional? -- and then adds taxes and fees. The resulting bottom-line cost of the ticket is usually in the $30-40 minimum range, still too low to really be a sustainable business model. Hence, the carry-on bag fee; how many people travel with nothing?

Bags up to 16" by 14" by 12" can be placed for free in the extremely limited space under Spirit's closely-packed seats. That's enough space to cover a weekend trip, assuming you're small enough to fit in the space left to you.

Otherwise, it'll be $45 for that carry-on at the gate. Pay online in advance, and you might spend just $30. $9 Fare Club members pay just $20... all for the privilege of doing something that, last week, was free.

It's a brave new world.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Breakfast at the Red Carpet Club

Gwen and I wrapped up our trip to Asia this morning with breakfast at the Red Carpet Club at Hong Kong International Airport.

I'll be posting some destination material on Hong Kong and Singapore soon, but before our flight leaves for Newark, I wanted to take a moment to discuss the breakfast itself. From an American perspective, after all, it is a marvel.

For years now, America's domestic carriers have been scaling back service. Everyone can see it on the planes, where complimentary meal service has shifted to a la carte purchasing, alcoholic beverages have gone to a $5 model (even on trans-Pacific flights, which wasn't the case as recently as 2008 when the first edition of Spontaneous Tourism was published), and pillows and blankets have been scaled back or removed entirely.

Relatively few of the millions of airline passengers who flow through America's passenger terminals on a given day, however, are aware of the cuts that have been affected in the airlines' private clubs.

Conditions in the clubs vary by brand and location, but even the best lounge -- Alaska Airlines' Board Room -- stands out by providing hot soup in addition to cold snacks and an open bar. Continental's Presidents Club, which is far more widespread, subtracts the soup. United's Red Carpet Club has a cash bar. And so on; in one Delta Crown Room I visited, there were sodas, pretzels, and yogurt-covered raisins, and nothing else.

Not so in Asia. Here at the Hong Kong Red Carpet Club, drinks are not only free but self-service from a stocked bar shelf. For breakfast, we did have danish, but we also had scrambled eggs, sausage, baked beans, and miso soup. Several kinds of cereal, finger sandwiches, and ice cream were there for the taking.

Scrambled eggs, sausage, baked beans, danish, and miso soup at the United Red Carpet Club in Hong Kong.
How is it possible that United -- an American carrier -- provides such better service here in Asia?

Simply put, Asians demand such service. Business leaders here rarely get the enormous bonuses that dominate our news headlines, but professionals are extended a level of respect that we would find surprising.

Think about that while you're choosing which kind of cracker to pick up after paying for your drink at a Red Carpet Club back in the States. It's striking.