Monday, November 30, 2009

Bonito Brasil

"Dallas is not available," my managers stated flatly. It was June and the end of the one year assignment I had taken in Los Angeles. They were now trying to find new homes for each of the six of us on the team and after telling me my first choice was off the table made me an offer: San Francisco.

"Give me the weekend to think about it," I countered. Neither city offered a cheap cost of living but I knew I didn't want to stay in L.A. Taking the position meant secure, high visibility employment. Turning it down started the 30-day clock for me to find something else within the company or leave. I needed to think and I had to act fast.

I took the rest of the afternoon off, dashed to LAX and hopped a flight to Miami from where I picked up a connection to South America. Some 17 hours after leaving Los Angeles I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, the legendary Brazilian party town that I was about to experience in legendary fashion.

After arriving at the hotel I immediately signed up for a half-day tour. Our itinerary included the beautiful stained glass cone of the Sao Sebastiao Cathedral. The design of the building allows naturaly light to shine in from all sides but the most memorable moment here for me was being scolded by the tour guide for wandering off to get a better picture angle. Rio's opportunistic street urchins were everywhere and any tourist was fair game.

The biggest lesson I learned was that Carnival is indeed a citywide event but only after each samba "school" competes in tournament at the Sambadromo, a mile long boulevard where performances are staged in front of judges and high society. This quiet, unassuming stretch of concrete dead-end comes alive in ebullient grandeur once a year but otherwise sits empty. We ooh'd and ahh'd politely at the canyon like risers around us but the thrill is definitely of the need-to-be-there variety.

A drive by of the massive Maracana Stadium sufficed as a visit on the tour as we motored on to the statue of Christ the Redeemer high above the city. Words only minimize the impact of the view. Religious or not, even Christian or not, the site, the statue and the setting never fails to bring the strongest emotions to the fortunate visitor. We could have stayed the rest of the day but had to press on.

The beach culture being what it is in Rio it seems natural to include at least one on the tour. Unexpectedly, though, we were taken to a fairly quiet section of a park and down a path through some greenery to a forlorn, sand-pitted stone statue. This impressionistic earth-toned carving, intoned the guide, was as important to the rhythm of Rio as Carnival itself.

It was Yemanja, goddess of the sea. Afro-American traditions across the ocean identify her as the queen of the ocean, protector of children and the essence of motherhood, from whom all life comes. Every New Year's Eve, citizens of Rio in the millions come to the ocean to honor her spirit and then, of course, they party, in sort of a just for family warm-up to the international madness of Carnival.

The last stop for the afternoon just as the sun was beginning to wane belonged to Sugarloaf Mountain, the bookend to Corcovado as an international symbol of Rio. Looking like half of an American football sticking out of the sand, Sugarloaf sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, guarding sun-soaked beaches laid out in all directions and stocked with speedos and T-back thongs. The mountain offers panoramic views of the ocean, city and mountains; the trouble is getting to the top for that world class view.

Rock climbers help themselves, the rest of us take a hanging cable car. The fight scene from "Moonraker" playing in my mind, the contraption sailed quickly and smoothly to the summit where the view exceeded its billing, as everything in Rio does. Facing west we viewed a textbook golden sunset over the city, the welcoming arms of Christ the Redeemer enveloping us in warm silhouette. Later, sighs of relief at reaching solid ground mixed in with sighs of satisfaction at the end of probably the best half-day city tour I've ever experienced.

And the timing was perfect, too. Back at the hotel I changed clothes, caught the shuttle back to the airport and flew back to Los Angeles that same night. Thirty-five hours of flying for barely 12 hours on the ground in Rio? It was worth it, and I made my decision about San Francisco, too.
Gotta go.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Upgrading for Nothing

Recently I had an opportunity to wrap up some business in the middle of an extensive series of trips around the country. That meant that I could leave from where I was, in this case Rochester, New York and fly to my next destination a day early. Here begins the problem.

Gone are the days when a simple call to the airline would rebook the ticket and often at no charge. My continuing ticket on Continental Airlines was, according to the travel agent, no longer worth the paper it was written on - the $150 change fee of plus the additional cost in fare based on what was available for the time I needed to travel was over twice the remaining value of the original ticket. I had to start from scratch.

That being the case I discovered a thru-flight on Air Tran that fit my plans beautifully and for less than the cost of Continental's change fee alone. I'd never flown Air Tran before so that added to the small sense of adventure I was having. The additional cost to the company in having to buy a plane ticket at the last minute was virtually negligible and I was getting a lot done and in less time than anticipated. Things were going great and were looking even better when I got to the airport.

For only $49 I could upgrade to First Class on the first segment of the thru flight or both segments for $20 more. The company wouldn't pay for the upgrade but I didn't mind shelling out of pocket myself to experience a more comfortable level of service at such a reasonable rate. Sold. I had a smile on my face right up to the time we took off when things went downhill from there.

First Class on Air Tran in my estimation is much ado about nothing. The seat was fine, of course, but the service added up to little more than anything Southwest Airlines might offer. I don't drink so I don't care about the free booze while the pretzels, cookies and hard candy were an open disappointment for me where I was expecting at least a cold plate service of some kind. The extra room was nice, yes, but all I really got that was different from the coach experience was free servings of Fuze soft drinks.

Uh...not. If I were a more frequent customer I would at least be accustomed to the true nature of the upgrade product. Air Tran is not strong in my home town and my business travel will not ordinarily take me to any markets where they compete. The flight attendant and the seat were both fine but even for less than $70 the upgrade doesn't add up to anything I would voluntarily pay for again.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MCT, Don't You See?

“Blue Sky.” Not only is it a weather outlook but it is also an often-used phrase at the airlines. Not only are blue skies ideal to fly in but they also imply the “best-case-scenario” that every airline wishes it had on any given day of the year. One of the critical components of a blue sky operation is being able to connect traffic at any collection point on the system.

Each airport publishes a minimum connect time or “MCT” that outlines how much time is needed to connect between one flight and another. Herein lies the start of the fun: if an airport says the customer needs at least 25 minutes from one plane to the next then that means from the time the 1st plane is scheduled to arrive and the 2nd is due to depart. In that calculation is the time required to deplane, get to the next gate plus any security or immigration formalities and re-board for an on-time departure, checked baggage included. Note that I did not mention time to use the restroom, make phone calls, check e-mail, shop or get refreshments along the way.

That’s a lot of business to handle in 25 minutes even for a smallish airport and definitely under blue sky conditions but are you ready for the real meat-n-potatoes of it all? Like anything else this straightforward guide is loaded with exceptions that all airline schedulers, schedule writing software and reservations systems read and interpret in order to create the choices you enjoy (sic) all over the world today.

BOS DD- .30( 1) DI- .40( 2) ID-1.30 II-1.30
ORD DD- .35( 3) DI- .35( 4) ID-1.10( 5) II-1.10( 5)
DFW DD- .40( 6) DI- .40( 7) ID-1.10(7a) II-1.00
LAX DD- .30( 8) DI- .40( 9) ID-1.30 II-2.00
MIA DD- .40(10) DI- .45(10) ID-1.35 II-1.20
JFK DD- .35 DI- .40 ID-1.15 II-1.15
RDU DD- .25 DI- .35 ID- .55 II-1.00
STL DD- .30(14) DI- .35 ID-1.30 II-1.30

DD = Domestic to Domestic
DI/ID = Domestic to/from International
II = International to International

Similar to DNA, these are the four genetic building blocks that create “valid” airport connections around the world. The real devils, however, lie in the numbers in parentheses that typically denote even more time for connections between widebody flights, commuter flights or particular destinations. The chart above, a partial listing of American’s major cities, includes “(8)” at Los Angeles which says that connections to American Eagle need five extra minutes while connections to Hawaii need 40 minutes instead of 30! Where no airline has a major presence all airlines simply use the airport guidelines.

Is th brain fried yet? The bottom line is this information, available online, is how airlines and airports try and ensure an on-time operation across the entire global system. Now, go take a look at their on-time dependability record, remember how long it took to get off the plane and clear customs at Los Angeles and then do what I do:

Take whatever the airline says is the minimum and double it – at a minimum!

Gotta go!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not The Best Day At Best Buy

I needed a new computer. My first home computer was a Compaq Presario, a gift from family to support my aspirations in becoming a published writer. It had Windows ME for an operating system yet still lasted eight years. The laptop I bought to replace it died over a month ago with maybe two and a half years under its belt. I set out shopping.

Recently my employer sent me on a marathon three week business trip around the country. Trying to find the sweet spot of sales tax and bargain pricing I shopped a dozen retailers across half a dozen states from Wisconsin to Florida and back by way of New York, California and Ohio, learning and researching what I needed in terms of processor, graphics card, memory and even optimal operating speeds and temperatures. By the time I made it home to Dallas I knew what I wanted and promptly set out to hesitate from cold feet at the last moment!

Bargains were all over the floor since the hard-driving "Back to School" buying season was winding down but we're still talking a decent sum of money here. I didn't care if it was on "clearance" since any machine would be "obsolete" within six months but still automatically better than the dead one on my office floor.

I found the holy grail at a third Best Buy in Southlake, Texas. After literally thousands of miles across the country and more than a few indifferent experiences with Best Buy I ended up staying with them simply because of the sweet price that I had found on a Gateway tower and not the Toshiba laptop I had traveled the country hunting down. Go figure!

I could have been hustled in to an inadequate machine or a grossly over-powered one anywhere but the Best Buy deal tossed in the 23" monitor virtually free at only $100 over the cost of the base unit. That killed every other option on the spot, including a custom built machine as suggested by two of my more computer savvy friends in Arizona.

It was all nearly ruined at the cash register. The apparently new girl overcharged my credit card and left a large sum of money suspended on my account that no amount of phone calls or yelling by her supervisor at my credit card company could fix. I would have to wait 48 hours for the charges to clear from one system to the other before I could get my machine.

Not. Fuming, I went home, resigned to my fate and intending to firmly but politely rip in to my card company. Surprisingly, they sent me back to the store, all charges reversed as if nothing unusual had happened at all. My package of products was right where I'd left them 45 minutes earlier and the bug-eyed supervisor who'd tried her best couldn't believe I was able to get something done that she, the retailer, couldn't.

They say the last best impression of any service is often at the door on the way out of the establishment. With a massive choice of retailers within 15 miles of my house it is entirely within my prevue to decide who gets my hard earned money either across different companies or different stores within the same corporation. Best Buy was going to get my money because I still couldn't beat that price. I went back to the Southlake store to give them a chance to redeem their register screw up entirely because of the hard work and stellar service I'd received on the sales floor.

Gregory is his name. He knew his business, cared about me as a customer and taught me a lot all at the same time. And I love my new Gateway, too. The only thing he messed up was not being at work the day I bought the machine like he said he would!

Gotta go!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 5

In Sunday school I learned of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, Ur of Chaldea and Ramoth-Gilead. I imagined the "sacred waters" of the three great rivers, Jordan, Tigris and the Euphrates flowing through Mesopotamia and Judea. As a young child I read the stories and saw the Ray Harryhausen films of Baghdad, Joppa, Phoenicia, Damascus and the great city of Persepolis. My head spun with the tales of Darius, Xerxes, Sinbad, Scheherazade, Aladdin and Gilgamesh. Flying carpets, Genies, one-eyed Cyclops? Are you kidding? When can I go? Shazzan!

I've had to visit each of these lands either through the 24 hour tragedy of CNN or the don't-go-or-you'll-destroy-it beauty of National Geographic. On one hand I can't go because of the political environment on the ground. On the other I shouldn't go because as a clumsy, heavy-footed tourist I'll unwittingly step on some holy pebble in the road and crush it to powder or bend a blade of grass that flowers once every 30 years and permanently alter the eco-system that relies on that particular variety of weed. Whaddya gonna do?

I wanna go!!! Item Number 5 on the Traveling Optimist Bucket List is to see the Middle East, a long-hidden and often forbidden part of the world. I've been to Israel and Egypt and I am free to travel to Jordan whenever it suits me. I wish for the day, however, when traveling to the big three, Iran, Iraq and Syria will be as routine as going to Greece.

How I have long envied citizens of other countries who are not restricted by their governments from traveling to these uniquely historic lands. Canadians can travel to Cuba and flock to the island nation in droves each winter. I can't. The French fly to Syria and Lebanon as a matter of course. Why not me?

How is an American tourist going to overthrow President Assad when all I want is Syrian tea, bakhlava and an afternoon at the bazaars? He's two years younger than me, probably speaks better English and looks like someone who enjoys a mean game of tennis or racquetball.

Thanks to Google Maps I can see an aerial image of Persepolis, to the northeast of Shiraz in central Iran as plain as day but I'm not physically there, on the ground, smelling the air and keeping the sand out of my eyes. From the comfort of my living room I cannot fully imagine great hosts of warriors and exotic merchants coming and going across the eastern desert plains.

Thanks to National Geographic I am able to view gloriously rendered images of mystic lands complete with erudite narrators and award-winning writers to enlighten, entice and tease me with the places they've been but I am as yet not permitted to travel. Reading the yellow bordered magazine in bed with a light snack and a glass of water before lights out does not give me the immediacy of life on the Tigris with bleating goats and giggling street urchins running from frazzled mothers wrapped in burkhas while shopping for the daily meal.

I'm no fool. I know full well that, if nothing else, my personal safety is not an assured thing in this part of the world. I know of the political differences between nations which keep the borders closed as well. It has always been interesting to me, however, that journalists, photographers and film crews from "The Great Satan" can safely travel and report from beneath the veil in the course of their duties where an average tourist armed with little more than a camera, credit card and curiosity cannot. When?

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Hubs in "The Heart of it All"

Sometimes things pop in to the mind that give one pause, a moment to scratch their heads, reflect a little bit and ask…why is that? One such moment kicked in to my head the other day and that is why no airline has ever successfully operated a hub in the great state of Ohio.

Many will immediately jump and point at Cincinnati as being the lone example but truly successful hubs do not close. In my mind they grow, evolve and cement themselves naturally in to the collective traveling conscious. Despite all efforts to make this happen at “CVG” it never seemed to really catch fire.

But let me not digress. Ohio is a stalwart guardian and contributor to the significant history of this country. It is home to several major corporations, the birthplace of seven presidents and a key bellwether state for every presidential campaign. Nearly 12 million people live in the state while tourists flock its cities for everything from the Soap Box Derby in Dayton and the NFL Hall of Fame Ceremonies in Canton to apple festivals and home games for the Indians, Cavaliers, Bengals, Buckeyes, Reds and Browns. So why have they not been able to hold on to a hub?

Over the years various airlines have built and dismantled large operations at Dayton (Piedmont), Columbus (America West), Cleveland (United and Continental) and Cincinnati (Delta). Cleveland once operated nonstop flights to Hawaii while Cincinnati is clinging to the last handful of flights to Europe. In that time America West and Piedmont were folded in to USAirways who then pitched and later folded its tent at Pittsburgh, United put its eggs into Chicago and Cleveland plays third string in Continental’s world to Houston and Newark.

That leaves Cincinnati. At its peak Delta fielded around 300 flights per day at Northern Kentucky International Airport, not counting service by its regional affiliates. These days one is lucky to count 80 “mainline” Delta flights at a field that had built a fourth runway and new midfield concourses to improve overall operations – read: specifically for Delta. It is an inevitable no-brainer for the new Delta to keep Detroit over the Cincinnati hub.

This column is not generally inclined towards industry watching of this kind as there are plenty of other sites that gleefully live and die by the high drama provided by the airlines. It is nonetheless an interesting irony to me that a key transportation center of the country, laced with interstates, waterways and rail systems linking it to every corner of the country has never produced a sustainable hub of significant size. Ohio has the people, the facilities and the location, key ingredients all, to make a hub work. Sadly, unless a brand new start-up comes along with nation building ambitions, it won’t happen for some time to come.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Optimist's Optimum

The kind of vacation I just returned from makes it difficult to try and encapsulate the entire experience in one article. At the same time if I were to share my experience regarding every facet of the adventure I would probably be posting articles will in to June of next year! Then the idea came to me that would fall somewhere in between those extremes. Publications such as Conde Nast Travel are constantly ranking service providers in a myriad of categories so I thought I would do something similar.

Below please enjoy the listing of service providers I employed to get me to, from and around both New Zealand and Australia while also keeping me in lodgings and fed in most cases. The links are to their individual websites but for the more noteworthy in each category please look for an article to be posted in the near future.

I give you, "The Optimist's Optimum"

Best Airline:
American Airlines
Qantas Airways
Jetstar Airlines

Winner: Emirates
Why: I flew their trans-Tasman service between Auckland and Sydney on the new A380. The flight was on time, the aircraft roomy, the 34" pitch the most generous of all the flights and a full hot meal service that was included in the price of the ticket. Laptop power and a USB port at each seat beat Qantas by nose (shared power) and an entertainment system designed for flights longer than 12 hours - we were in the air for less than three. The Emirates system came with its own directory booklet that featured not only how to use the system but all of the games, music, television and movie programming on offer, including numbered codes for each item to punch in to the satellite phone controller to take you directly to your selection instead of scrolling through the endless listings one at a time. On-demand technology finished off the icing by allowing passengers to choose what and when to stop and start their programming. Oh, and how about the wood trim in the coach!?

Best Airport
Dallas/Ft. Worth
Los Angeles

Winner: Sydney
Why: This one was close between both Australian airports, really. Melbourne almost got the nod simply because the airport featured one terminal for both international and domestic operations, similar to Wellington. Both of those airports, however, are smallish affairs. Between them, Melbourne would get the nod although Wellington offers views and approaches over the water that are challenging to pilots and exciting for plane watchers.

That was the edge that Sydney got over the others in the same class. All featured separate terminals either for airlines or between international and domestic flights but Sydney wins overall. The terminal was easy to navigate, distance between gate and runways fairly short (sorry DFW) and, while DFW is the only one that has a dedicated observation area, the views of Sydney airport across Botany Bay from the beaches along General Holmes Drive are second to none.

Best Car Rental

Winner: Hertz
Why: Very simple really. Hertz allowed me to receive credit for my AAdvantage frequent flyer account, Europcar did not. More heinous than that, however, Hertz allowed me to change the form of payment at the end of my rental, Europcar did not. Both cars were similar, the Toyota Yaris at Hertz and the Hyundai Getz at Europcar, both were clean, ran well, sipped gasoline and the counter staff were helpful and pleasant. Not getting mileage credit or particularly being allowed to alter payment, however, are hard to get over.

Best Restaurant
The Meat and Wine Company

Northerner Motor Inn
Daniang Dumplings
Tony's on Wellesley
Bordeaux Bakery

Okurukuru Winery

Winner: Tony's
Why: The surprising contender was the Northerner Motor Inn in rural Kaitaia, New Zealand. The attached restaurant served enticing food thoughtfully prepared and in a nouvelle style quite unexpected in a city of only 6,000 and heavily dependent on the summer tourist trade which was still a good month away.

Tony's is a favorite because of the old world decor and the generous cuts served in unique styles, from a fiery peppercorn and cream sauce to the "Pacific" which includes crabmeat stuffing and lobster sauce topping succulent fillets. My choice, the "Scotch Fillet" was a bit more rare than the medium/medium-rare I preferred but both meal and service were otherwise par excellence.

Best Hotel
Sydney Travelodge
Wellington Mercure Willis Street
Rendezvous Auckland
Mantra Tullamarine
Northerner Motor Inn

Winner: Rendezvous Auckland
Why: With the exception of the Mantra and the Northerner I booked the other three online through either Expedia or Orbitz. Rendezvous was one of the ones that was paid in advance but the rate was less than $70/night. What a steal! A member of the Clarion/Choice chain of hotels, this was a former 4-star property that still in my mind deserves the rating. Queen bed, marble vanities, separate glass shower, Jacuzzi tub and a location in the heart of the city, barely two blocks from the Sky Tower. This is "the" new address for me in Auckland whenever I return, on par with any Hyatt or Hilton to be found in the United States.

Best Tour
Harrisons Cape Runner
Host Family - Taranaki

Winner: Host Family
Why: Always go with a local if they are willing to take you around. There is no time limit on how long to stay at any one location, no scheduled "rest" breaks at gift shops on the take who also happen to have restrooms. Even better, as in the case of this picture here, sometimes the views and locations are better than any place the scheduled tour can reach. This particular view is enjoyed by wedding parties who wish to use the mountain above the lake as a backdrop for their nuptials. Had I driven around the Taranaki region of New Zealand on my own or as part of a tour I would most likely have not enjoyed anything this spectacular.

Harrisons offered a solid, comprehensive nine-hour tour of Cape Reinga and Ninety-Mile Beach out of Kaitaia in the Northland region of New Zealand, about five hours north of Auckland at the very tip of the island. They offered access to Ninety-Mile Beach I wouldn't have dared with a rented car so kudos to them for that. Like any guided tour, however, they were on a schedule which meant short visiting windows at some of the attractions along with the "rest stop" at the town gift shop and artifacts emporium which means they share the receipts for any sales made between them. If it weren't for Ninety Mile Beach alone I would have never signed on but this is what happens to cars that venture on to the sands and stop in the wrong places.

Best Internet
Gloria Jean's
Rendezvous Auckland
Melbourne Airport

Winner: Gloria Jean's
Why: A large internet cafe featuring more than 60 workstations, some with CD and DVD burn capability is attached to one of this chain's stores in central Sydney. What I liked was being able to establish a user account by paying in as little or as much as I liked, including come-and-go privileges for unused internet time. I did not have to use all my paid time in one sitting and could pay to add as much time as I liked without fear of being timed out and logged off in the middle of critical e-mails or other work. The charge? An astoundingly cheap Australian $5 bought me over 3.5 HOURS on the web!

Melbourne Airport offered $5 but only for 30 minutes, knowing there were only so many options at an airport and especially once past security. Rendezvous offered a similar rate, $5 for 30 minutes but also only up to 10mb of downloadable material. I blew threw the meter several times while trying to watch sports highlights from back home without knowing why I was timing out well short of my limit. Not good.

Best Music Store
Real Groovy
JB Hi-Fi

Winner: JB Hi-Fi
Why: First let me say that I love Real Groovy. It is a very large and funky record store that would fit right in with Rasputin's or Amoeba in Berkeley, California, featuring new and used CDs, DVDs, vinyl LPs, printed and tie-dye tee-shirts and all the usual trappings one might expect in a music store of this kind. What caused me to choose a more conventional chain such as JB Hi-Fi, however, was the fact that they had the music I was looking for but also a very helpful stock clerk who knew her inventory and her music. The ding against Real Groovy this time was the performance stage/runway they added in the back of the sales floor, ostensibly to showcase up and coming local talent as well as bring in potential new customers at the same time. This was a bad thing because a local band cranked up a short set list in full volume just when I was trying to sample a new band at a listening station. Can't do both at the same time and in this case I was pressed for time. Kinda hard to feature new releases at listening stations while a one-off band is playing music others in the store may not care to hear.

Gotta go!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Qantas Cleans Up

Round Two. We had tried to fly from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles, California the day before with the brand new A380 on Qantas. Like all new technological marvels this one was grumpy and didn't feel like flying that day. After nearly six hours on board between boarding, take-off, landing again and deplaning, I and 400 new nearest and dearest friends managed to make it from Sydney to Melbourne, nearly 500 miles in the opposite direction of our destination. After a night at an airport hotel, our continuing saga picks up here:

Saturday, November 7th, Melbourne, Australia (Friday, November 6th, Dallas, Texas)

0839 - I rumble awake after a thoroughly restful night at the Mantra Tullamarine Hotel just five minutes from the Melbourne Airport. A call to the front desk informs me that buses will be around to collect the stranded starting at 1015 for a 1300 departure.

1030 - I'm on the first of several buses back to the terminal and am relatively close to the front of the line for check-in. The regular Melbourne - Los Angeles service on Qantas, a 747-400, was experiencing a rush in business from over 100 diverted passengers who either wanted an earlier flight or nothing to do with the Airbus A380. More room for the rest of us, I said.

1320 - Boarding begins. All of us were far more rested after a night at the hotel than we were yesterday on the original flight. I'd been up seven hours before even boarding the flight at Sydney while others had traveled from as far away as Perth, on the west coast of Australia, to make the connection at Sydney. All around the restaurant at breakfast I observed new friendships and light conversation over our adventure thus far as if on some grounded cruise ship. We shared our stories in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

1339 - The Captain's first announcement and we're a little leery of his voice which thus far has only brought bad news. All systems go, the plane is both cleaned and "clean" and I settle in to my new seat, 83K, for what will be the longest nonstop flight of my life at 8,026 miles. The middle seat is empty and I share my row with a cheerful Canadian TV brand manager on her way back to Toronto after being in Cairns for a family wedding.

We share a laugh over the absolute paucity of television programming options in the South Pacific relative to the US and Canada. On top of that her husband, originally planning to go, had to stay behind for work and ended up enjoying three weeks plus an extra day of hockey season bachelorhood. He doesn't cook so she knew at least the kitchen would be clean but what about those pizza boxes?!

1404 - Lift off. Where I'd booked the flight just to experience the new A380 I was now enjoying my second fully loaded take off in as many days. We take off to the north and bank to the right towards Canberra, the Australian capital city and break out over the ocean between Shell Harbour and Wollongong, 50 miles south of Sydney, a sense of deja vu sweeping over us. Back where we started after an hour of flying and 13 hours to go. Completely re-catered, the menu was either braised lamb or chicken szechuan and this time the bar was open for good.

Between the meal and four movies I chat with the flight attendants and heap praise on them in all seriousness for their professionalism. By their labor agreement half of them did not have to take the trip on the 2nd day. For whatever reason they all agreed, however, and saved all of the passengers at untold additional hours of waiting for replacement staff to get to Melbourne to work the flight. They shared a little dirt with me that of the four A380s in the Qantas fleet, three of them were out of commission on that same day! One was stuck in London, ours in Melbourne and the third, expecting to fly from Sydney to Singapore, had cancelled all together.

We all understood that new airplanes come with teething problems. In this case, fuel was not transferring evenly across all of the tanks. Either the plane would have been "flying wonky (lopsided)" or would have burned too much fuel, never a good thing and especially not on a 14 hour flight! While annoying and costly, the problems eventually get solved and the new planes ultimately turn in to solid workhorses for the airline. I felt safe with both the A380 and with Qantas. Despite the delay and even sitting in coach, the flight was over too soon.

0857 - Touchdown! Sitting in the back of a two-deck airplane and 400 people I'm in no hurry to deplane at Gate 123 in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Being one of the last to leave actually allowed me to sincerely thank the cabin crew again and chat convivially with the pilot whom I ribbed good-naturedly about his wet runway from the night before. I may not return to the Land Down Under for another two or three years but I let them know they had not lost me as a future customer.

0940 - Customs and Immigration at the notoriously jammed and abrasive LAX was in fact a breeze. Being the last off the plane I'd found a sweet spot between my flight and the next arrival, an All Nippon Airlines flight from Tokyo. I made it through in less than 15 minutes, baggage included.

It wasn't over yet. I still had to go over to the American Airlines terminal to find a flight home to Dallas. Chaos reigned here thanks to the arrival of our delayed flight where a large number of us discovered Qantas had done nothing to rebook onward travel. In both Sydney and later in Melbourne the mindset was "Get to L.A. and deal with it then."

Profit-wise they'd lost their collective shirts on this flight. All the fuel burned in leaving Sydney and returning to Melbourne, flight crew salaries, spoiled catering, hotels and meals and all of this before having to compensate other airlines for protected travel on flights other than those originally booked. I'd paid American for roundtrip transportation only to LA and back but Qantas made me miss my flight home. That meant that they would have to pay American a negotiated flat rate to get me back to Dallas. Discounted maybe, but still more money they were out of pocket for not operating on time.

I was the first such passenger which alerted American to what became a far larger problem, including a few I spotted who must have taken the earlier flight from Melbourne to try and avoid this headache!
Even this, however, didn't really perturb the professionals at American too much. They created a separate line to process the "QF11" people separate from their normal traffic to give everybody a chance to make their flights on time. Since the problem was all on Qantas we were given boarding passes for our respective flights to get us on our way and told that the two airlines would clean up the accounting and paperwork between them later.

1210 - AA#2444 departs for Dallas/Ft. Worth, I'm in 9C, the exit row aisle at the front of the coach cabin, the entire row to myself as a newly minted AAdvantage Gold Frequent Flyer with Priority Access on a flight that was only about two-thirds full.

1655 - Smooth landing in Dallas twenty minutes ahead of schedule and I'm starving, having had nothing to eat since breakfast on Qantas before landing. Dinner on me with a friend who picked me up at the airport at a favorite BBQ restaurant (like there was any other choice?) and I walk through my door over 52 hours after waking up in Sydney two days before.

I'd do it all again in a minute!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Duel in Dallas

Something may be happening in the Dallas air market that I'm curious how many people have truly considered or are aware of. Specifically, in 2014 the long debated and sometimes hated Wright Amendment restricting flights at Love Field in central Dallas will be lifted. Or will it?
Proponents for and against the Amendment have locked horns for over thirty years over the measure, despite easing of restrictions in 1997 and, most recently, 2005. I am not here to recreate old arguments but rather to ask a simple question:

Which of the airlines at DFW would readily return to Love Field given the opportunity?

Here is where the Wright Amendment, though "completely" lifted in 2014 will in fact live on. The agreement reduces the maximum gates at Love Field from 32 to only 20, 12 of which are controlled by Southwest Airlines. With eight gates left, who can really do much of anything at the airport that will offer serious competition? Short of starting a new airline and quickly ramping up to fill those eight gates, no one. See Muse Air. Given the level of service they provide at DFW today, however, airlines like United, USAirways, Continental and Air Tran really only need two gates each to run their operation, three at the most.

The main issue to decide is which of the two airports is cheaper to operate from. Woe to DFW if they have been charging premiums all this time! The DFW nonstop advantage will be gone but if Love Field thinks it can GET a premium for only eight gates it has to remember that the smaller airlines have been at DFW and their customers are used to DFW. Without a cost advantage those carriers would have no reason to leave the centrally located DFW.

No international service would be allowed at Love Field but that would be a wash to the smaller airlines in the market. United and Lufthansa are not exchanging much at Dallas and neither is KLM to Northwest or Delta. They handle their business at Chicago and Atlanta, respectively. If anyone benefits from this it is a bone thrown to American.

So it seems to me that the Wright Amendment may no longer be in force as a living piece of legislation after 2014 but the last will and testament didn't do as much as it could have done to foster growth at the smaller airport. The gates are restricted, the service is domestic only and the largest operator there certainly plans to move quickly to lock the airport in its favor. The one window of opportunity remain the eight unused gates if someone at DFW is willing to pull up stakes and move across town.

Love Field will never look like or be as diversified as it was in its heyday but it is entirely possible to see some major US carriers flying over downtown again for the first time in over 30 years.

Gotta go!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Qantas: Quandary or Quagmire?

OMG, what an adventure! I've just returned from a long-anticipated vacation to New Zealand and Australia. I'm exhausted but very relaxed at the same time. Exhausted, as one might expect, from a combined travel time of over 52 hours, but relaxed from the overall effects of a wondrous two week journey through the South Pacific.

Yes, I said 52+ hours of combined travel time which included two hotels, two airlines, four airports and about 25 hours of sitting on and flying in airplanes. When I travel on vacation I have no worries and take most everything in stride. I had three days to get home and back to work on time so it, the return journey, starts here:

Friday, November 6th, Sydney, Australia (Thursday, November 5th, Dallas, Texas)

0800 - Rise and shine at the Sydney Travelodge Hotel. Have to eat, dress, check-out, return the rental car and check-in for the 3PM Qantas departure on the new A380 to Los Angeles.

1030 - Arrived at the airport to check-in but was told the counters only open four hours before departure. By 1115 I'm checked in and running the gauntlet of duty free shops to the gate.

1410 - Gate 9 finally opens for boarding. Similar to the check-in counters, gates open only just prior to boarding for departures to the U.S. for security purposes.

1430 - Boarding begins 40 minutes prior to scheduled departure for a 1-million pound airplane configured for 450 people in four classes of service over seven zones on two levels. My seat is 70A, a window just at the trailing edge of the impossibly massive left wing.

1520 - The first public address announcement stating why we have not pushed on schedule at 3:10PM: There is a problem with the Fuel Management System. Ok. Fuel management is fairly critical for a 13 hour flight over open water but I had built more than three hours of time in to my transit at LAX so I wasn't particularly worried. We push back at about 1600.

1615 - Back to the gate. Captain still not satisfied with the repairs and wants another look.

1700 - Push again, and nearly two hours from scheduled departure. I'm wondering if the United flight, scheduled only 15 minutes after Qantas but with the venerable 747-400, left on time.

1715 - Southbound take-off, over Botany Bay, slight right hand turn until we clear the coast then left for a northeast track to California. Dinner is served and I went with the beef in red wine instead of "Greek Chicken."

1930 - Roughly halfway across the northernmost reach of the Tasman Sea and due south of Noumea, New Caledonia comes the captain: "I hope you've enjoyed a nice dinner," he says encouragingly. I smell set-up, however. Sure enough, the Fuel Management System has essentially failed. The choice was either divert to Fiji or return to Sydney - we're turning around, he says, and going back.

Some chuckling but mostly grumbling through-out the plane, not only for having to turn around but because the more exotic Fiji was not selected as a place to relax and wait for Qantas to get its act together. Sydney was really the best choice for a host of reasons. We were not in an immediate life-threatening emergency, the maintenance base was at Sydney and, exotic as it may be, the chances of Fiji having enough hotel rooms for a planeload of stranded passengers suddenly dropping in were not as high as Sydney, a city of four million people.

2100 - We're doing "Lazy-8s" just off shore waiting on clearance to land. Rains to the north have shut down Brisbane who has diverted all traffic to Sydney so the skies are full of stranded flights by the time we arrive.

2130 - Rain showers have moved to swallow up Sydney as well. The captain comes on again to announce his decision to divert to Melbourne, another hour away. Why? Because - wait for it - "the runway is wet."

Fits of laughter and outrage fills the plane as we swing southwest and home in on Melbourne, some 450 miles away. Not only that but the cabin crew inform us that the bar is closed. The carts were sealed for landing in Sydney and, once sealed, by law could not be re-opened. They were also on edge and heading in to a defensive strategy, being unsettled at whether or not their airline was being laughed at (yes) or some were just laughing out of good humor (yes) along with those who were bent out of shape over the inconvenience (yes) amid worries about connections at Los Angeles (yes).

2157 - Word has reached the captain that his "wet runway" explanation needed more - a lot more - clarification if he was to save his and the airline's reputation. Were the rains and seas so high that waves were crashing over the embankments and submerging the landing strip? Nope. Simply that wet conditions and a very heavy airplane such as ours don't mix. In just over four hours of flying we had not burned off enough fuel to be light enough to land, including dumping fuel while holding off-shore. The captain explains that he simply did not want to risk being able to stop the plane safely in wet conditions. Melbourne was dry and thus increased his margin of safety. And Melbourne also handled the A380 and would be able to fix the fuel management problem. Fine. The more self-absorbed and indignant among us ate a little crow as we all chuckled for the rest of the flight, still filled with a heady mixture of mirth and madness. Landing indeed, at 10:22PM, took every inch of a dry runway to bring the massive machine to a manageable halt.

2232 - Our gate is occupied. Of course; like anything else could go right this evening? We wait for an Emirates departure to Dubai before parking.

2306 - Deplaning begins. All baggage must be claimed. Where the cabin crew said we would need to fill out "Arrival" forms for Australia we were told by Immigrations that it wasn't necessary since we never truly left the country. "Did Not Depart" was stamped in to our passports and we joined a massive line in Baggage Claim to find out where we would be staying for the evening.

00:52 - I am finally in my hotel room with still no word from Qantas on when we would be departing. We were scooted off to the hotels - our driver needed directions on how to get there - with the understanding that Qantas would call the hotels once they found out the status of the plane and the hotels would inform us once they'd received any word. I knew better than to expect a mechanic at that hour of the night miraculously being on duty or even called in to fix the plane so felt fairly confident we would not be receiving a 6AM wake-up call for an early morning departure.

After a light meal at the hotel restaurant that was comp'd by the airline I went to bed not even bothering to set the alarm or ask for a wake-up call. They could come get me if I didn't wake-up first.

To be humorously continued...

Gotta go!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Did You Really...?

As in visit a state or a country if you weren't there long enough to at least bed down for a night?

I’d written previously about a Day Trip to Copenhagen that touched on the subject of whether or not the full Denmark experience could be had in less than 24 hours on the ground. While that may be possible, even the only option in The Vatican, San Marino or the island nation of Nauru it begs further consideration in larger countries or any place with a long and storied history such as Denmark. Personally I like to at least bunk in for a day or two and hopefully visit more than one destination in a given place but here are four types of day tripping that I've been just as guilty of.

“The Turnaround” – These are the visa and postcard collectors who are on the ground only as long as it takes to walk, ride or fly back across the border. One clever trick might include a six hour layover in Tokyo; knowing they have plenty of time to get hung up in customs they’ll officially “enter” Japan then go right back upstairs, complete the exit formalities for leaving the country and calmly proceed to the gate for their continuing flight, passport stamped, veteran immigration officials completely unperturbed.

“The Pass Thru” - Some in the US will say that as long as they cross the border to a state, they’ve been there. Rhode Island, Delaware and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi come to mind as places “on the way” to somewhere else that take less than an hour to drive thru. The exits seem to be for locals or tourists who need gas. Heck, I’ve talked to people in San Francisco who only set foot in Oakland while heading to Tahoe.

“The Port Call” - Cruise lines are famous for shore excursions, this we all know, but a weeklong sail through the Baltic still only gives you nine hours in Stockholm. Sweden is larger than Germany but it has only one city worth seeing and even then for barely half a day? I find that hard to believe for the sake of Sweden. They say you can always come back but how many people really do once the bloom is off the stem?

“The Border Patrol” - San Diegans and Texans are famous day-trippers in to Mexico but are they aware that beyond the five miles in they went to do some shopping there is over 3200 miles of country between Tijuana and Cancun? The European Union is designed exactly for such things, especially for anyone sharing a border with the Low Countries. A majority of the greater distances are flown these days but the point and question remains – is one toe over the line the same experience as the whole enchilada?

One thing I'd bet for sure is, "real" visit or not, the states, nations and merchants of the world would all welcome you for a day versus not at all!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The UpgrAAde

My original job description did not necessarily include a lot of traveling. Like anyone looking for work I indicated flexibility in saying I would accept whatever level of travel the position came with. In a tough economy the travel budgets were thin and being a rookie meant staying close to home and under watchful eyes. As the job evolved I ended up today managing a western United States territory.

Living near DFW Airport in suburban Dallas/Ft. Worth and having previously worked for American Airlines they were the natural choice for my preferred airline. It helped also that my employer enjoys a corporate discount program with them. That means that I am in compliance with policy and get to earn miles for nearly all of my travel. Sweet.

As can happen sometimes emergency projects pop up and somebody has to step up and help bring in the win. I ended up traveling from one side of the country to the other as a true road warrior over a span of nearly four weeks. One leg of the trip found me in Tampa, Florida from where I would fly home, swap out a fresh suitcase and keep going to the next stop on the itinerary. At the Tampa airport that Sunday evening I was checking in at the automated kiosk as normal when a different screen popped up, breaking the anticipated rhythm of the transaction.

For only $90, my own money of course, I could upgrade to First Class for the two hour flight home. Bag fee waived, dinner included, it seemed like a pretty good deal until the fine print starting hitting me in the face. I was booked for the 6:30PM departure but had arrived in time for the 4:00PM flight. I had already bought my upgrade and proceeded to the gate where I decided to see if I could get the earlier flight.

Yes, they said, I could stand by for the earlier flight but it would only be for the first available seat. It did not guarantee First Class. In fact, the way it was explained to me First Class was not an option at all. I would forfeit the $90 all together. There would be no refund for a service not only unused but declined!

What a one-way deal! They take the money, make it specific to a particular flight and won't honor the option of at least a stand-by for a different departure? I'd have to buy another upgrade option for the earlier flight but guess what? It wasn't on offer for that one, only the flight I was originally booked for. I'd already spent the money so I waited for my original flight and flew home.

I did a little sleuthing and discovered the UpgrAAde is only offered on flights that are basically hurting for business. Either the overall load factor is down meaning any extra dollar will do or they have unclaimed seats in First Class and, again, will take what they can get but ONLY on the flight THEY choose.

Please. Ninety bucks is ninety bucks; who do they know that will buy an UpGrAAde for each flight to cover the spread and end up using only one? It should at least be good for that segment on that day. Then came the final insult - no bonus miles. That settled it.

Never again. I appreciate the extra room of First Class but for only a two hour flight and the restrictions it is essentially not worth it. And our corporate policy recently changed to book the cheapest flight in the market; previously we were restricted only to the cheapest nonstop.

Gotta go!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Flying In The Face of Blackface

And there it is, all the proof that some need about the state of race relations in Australia. A highly offensive skit played out on national television and then sensationalized thanks to global media coverage because a celebrity judge happened to be from a country where such antics died out over half a century ago.

My heart was indeed pained to hear of the infamous "Jackson Jive" skit on Australian television. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. I wrestled with the thought of canceling that portion of the trip altogether, extending my stay in New Zealand and only stopping in Sydney long enough to catch my flight to Dallas. Most assuredly others here in the United States would have done exactly that or the "Toldja So" crowd simply reaffirming their intention never to set foot in Australia so long as they live. Then I remembered something a mentor once said.
Individually we are poor, he intoned, but collectively the economic power we carry is impossible to ignore. Is it likely that the borders will be closed and ambassadors recalled between Australia and the United States? Hardly, hearty soul. The simple truth is that without individual travel and cultural exposure there is no opportunity to disprove the negative connotations explicit in ignorant, "innocent fun" such as this. In other words, without dialogue and interaction on common ground the only image they will have is the one they create themselves, as wrong and wrong-headed as it can be.
In to the teeth of this firestorm I am flying today, and on Emirates, no less, the flag carrier of the Middle Eastern nation of the United Arab Emirates. I've just wrapped up ten glorious days in New Zealand driving around the North Island and visiting old friends. My onward itinerary on this two-week vacation only includes three days in Sydney where I'd hardly spent any time previously. I'm looking forward to time on the beach, Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, the Olympic Village, paying my respects to "Dame Crackers" and exploring the music scene post-Little River Band, Men at Work, AC/DC and INXS.
A half century ago is still not all that long in the United States where such matters continue to play out in the work place, the market place and the neighborhoods of this land. Does that mean our Australian cousins are at least 50 years behind the advances realized in America? Can we or even should we use the same scale of history to assess what's going on in the land Down Under?
Again, hardly. I'm not going to Sydney, Australia with suitcases full of pamphlets, affidavits and banners for change. I haven't booked a hall for speeches and testimonials and have no expectations to hold a press conference or have a walk-on at some early morning talk show to give my views on race history and Oz-US relations. I'm a tourist bringing sensible clothing, my iPod and a camera, as any holiday maker would, along with my good character, sense of purpose and, dare I say it, irrepressible optimism!

I'll see what I see when I get there.

Gotta go!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Great California Burger Battle

Virtually every non-vegetarian American loves a good hamburger and I'm certainly one of those. Most food critics would love to point to a higher end entree as the great American contribution to international food but the humble burger arguably holds the high honor. Now comes the age-old argument over who makes the better hamburger. In California the debate is squarely and hoty debated between two home-grown grease joints, at least from where I sit and I've sat in and enjoyed both.

In-n-Out Burger opened in Baldwin Park, California in 1948, a mom-and-pop shop if ever there was one. The menu started simple and remains close to the original concept to this day: hamburger with or without cheese, a special sauce, fries and a drink or shake. It was ground-breaking for this outfit to open its first stores outside of California which has still only "expanded" as far as Utah.

Californians swear by this statewide favorite, identifying with it on a personal level unlike virtually any customer relationship in existence. The simple concept, the fast service and consistent product bring expatriate Californians home from across the country in droves or online to have their fond memories frozen and shipped all over the world.

Then there's Fatburger. It is the smaller of the two chains although it has stretched farther afield, boasting outlets across the country, in Canada and, most strikingly, one each in Hong Kong and Macau!
Coming on to the scene four years after In-n-Out, Fatburger opened in Los Angeles and developed an equally fierce following of its own. I first heard of the chain as a child watching "Sanford & Son" and hearing Lamont regularly tell his father he was going out to get a Fatburger. I thought it was just a particularly greasy hamburger and not associated with any company in particular. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and stumbled across the Redondo Beach store, however, the "Sanford & Son" theme song popped in to my head as I popped indoors for my first Fatburger.

With a nod to Fred G. Sanford, and the "G" stands for Greasy, Fatburger is my favorite. Their menu is simple enough, offering a variety of burgers, including a monster called the "Triple King" which can include chili, bacon and a fried egg of all things - defibrillator optional - but the key for me is that the burgers are larger and the fries are far superior.

The choice was admittedly difficult to go with Fatburger but be assured that In-n-Out gets its share of my business thanks to one store and that one store only. The Westchester store on Sepulveda just at the eastern corner of the two north runways at Los Angeles International Airport. Good, old fashioned hamburgers, airplanes landing from all over the world almost literally within arm's reach and, weather permitting, sweet California sunshine?

Only thing missing are The Beach Boys.

Gotta go!