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.

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.
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.