Monday, November 29, 2010

Short Flights Are the Longest

Everyone has tales of mayhem, madness and misery revolving around air travel including yours, truly. Some hate to fly, others are afraid to fly and then there are those who expect something for nothing. Layered in to that, of course, are the transcon flights stuck in a middle seat, the ten-hour flight to Europe next to a spoiled brat or screaming baby or the nightmare lines at check-in, security and baggage claim after a six hour delay for mechanicals and bad weather. Nothing starts a conversation among strangers like the shared, often embellished but just as frequently true and horrific stories of flying these days.

I'm kind of strange in that the longest flights in the world are the ones I enjoy the most, even in coach. I've flown London to San Francisco, Frankfurt to Chicago and both Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles in the back of the bus, none of which were my preference but all of which I survived just fine and would do again with no hesitation if meant staying home or going to Rome.

The longest flight in any class was Los Angeles to Hong Kong, a 15-hour haul that chased the sun from 1PM in California to about 8PM on arrival with scenic views of Yosemite National Park, Alaska and Siberia on the way over. Plenty of legroom, a flat-bed seat, no neighbor to step over or seatback leaning in to my lap. The upper classes are unquestionably better than being crammed in to a "slimline" Barcalounger that may or may not have a foot rest which is really little more than a road hazard on the way to the aisle.

Most seasoned travelers have their unique ways of coping with the drudgery of long-haul flying. One friend of mine from college took two Dramamine, drank a half bottle of wine and then pulled the blanket over his head with instructions not to be disturbed until landing. Others, like me, bring any amount of work, reading, music or videos to watch in case the inflight system is beyond dull, out of date or out of order. For me, the simplest method on top of all of these is to simply and quite seriously sit back, relax and enjoy the ten to twelve hours you're out of touch with the world.

Being anxious on a long-haul flight is counter-intuitive; fidgeting is most certainly not going to burn time any faster. Where I run in to trouble is being anxious on flights that aren't scheduled for longer than an hour and a half. As soon as I get on the plane I'm ready to get off and be where I'm supposed to be. The inevitable long taxi times to and from the runway, the endless circling to land and the wonder if the flight attendants will have time to pour me a drink all add up to the truest misery of air travel for me. Then comes today's realities of two hours before departure for the formalities, time at the destination for luggage and rental car?

I don't mind investing up to five hours of ground time on both ends for a flight that lasts three times as long. If flying were an ATM experience the "fee" for an international flight would still be a ridiculous 33% on top of the principle but two hours in advance of a 45-minute flight on the Shuttle?

I'd rather drive.

Gotta go!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pipes and Snakes

I've never been one when privileged to travel on business simply to confine myself to the hotel, the office and a conference room. While absolutely aware that the company pays the freight for me to be out of town and expects a solid return on its investment I've also felt that as part of the compensation it is not unreasonable to stop and smell a few roses while in new or at least different surroundings. As long as I'm not adding to the company bill I don't mind taking time on my own to explore local attractions and experience why others call the area home where perhaps I never would.

Having flown in to Tucson to save what would add up to almost half off the air fare I took Sunday as the day to make my way north to Phoenix where I would be for the rest of the coming week. The early morning wake-up call saw me heading west along Highway #86 towards the Sonora Desert Museum for the first few hours of the day. I was a teenager the last time I was here but remembered that day well for its extremely large but thankfully caged examples of the Arizona state pet, the Western Diamondback rattlesnake. I was wondering if that same monster was still there.

That one wasn't but the highlight of the day for myself and other tourists was most decidedly of the unplanned variety. Two male rattlers came across each other and decided to engage in a round of "Thumbs," trying to pin each other to the ground in a show of dominance for any females that might also be nearby. The unplanned part was that I was less than five feet from these wild snakes that were loose in the park! The nonplused park ranger said there were about 70 or so slithering around keeping them busy trapping one or two a day. These two were both a good four feet in length and the loser, mad enough at losing the fight was not at all happy at being disturbed by the rangers pincers.

Two hours drive west of town and in the deep Sonoran Desert is Organ Pipe National Monument. I debated even going because of the drive to get there, time at the park and then the two and a half hour drive north to Phoenix at the end of the day. I might never be in this part of the country again so it was a question of going or not bothering. I'm glad I bothered.

The scenery wasn't quite Rand McNally in terms of rugged desert with mesas and peaks surrounding a ruler-straight stretch of asphalt but near enough to a scene like that. Highway #86 ran straight as an arrow for a nearly hypnotic length before flowing with the land to Highway #85 south to the park. I was the only visitor this crisp October day at three-thirty in the afternoon. The rangers suggested the 21-mile drive on unpaved road to see the Arch Canyon which is typically a two-hour drive through the signature pipe organ cacti along with various odds and ends of local flora and fauna.

I didn't see any more rattlers though I surely felt surrounded by them at any given moment I was away from the car. I might not have noticed if one had crawled across my shoe, I was so taken with the surrounding wilderness. This is the Arizona of travel brochures, glossy tourism magazines and films featuring the Duke and Randolph Scott. This is the America that never makes the evening news around the world. This is the kind of land ignored at highway speed and dreamed about once you get home.
And it was surely worth the time to have an entire national park to myself if only for a couple of hours.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mission Arizona

By the time the plane landed and I'd collected my luggage and the rental car I had maybe a solid afternoon of dashing about the desert around Greater Tucson to see what there was to see after a 32 year absence from this part of the country. Tombstone and Old Tucson were out as being too kitschy for me at the no longer young age of 40-never mind. I wanted the real Arizona, the living, breathing, historic southern state late of Mexico by way of the Gadsden Purchase and more than a few indigenous cultures. I wanted the Arizona of the Spanish Missions, saguaro cactus reaching nearly three full stories in to the sky and the red rocks of the sun, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Hey, I ain't that old!

A quick bite at In - N - Out Burger by the side of the highway to buy some time to make sure the two dozen travel brochures I'd picked through would yield the right combination of things to do and I was off, roaring down Interstate I-19 towards a previously unknown bit of history - the best kind - called Tumacacori. In this national park lie the ruins of three Spanish missions, the oldest of which dates from 1691. The one pictured here is the only one really worth seeing as it is the only one still standing and largely intact. The grounds evoke an era of no roads, hard scrabble living and unyielding frontier heat as the Jesuits fought wind, weather and warrior to convert the locals. It was a perfect blue sky early afternoon to start the whirlwind tour and a great way to see a nearly forgotten attraction by the side of the highway.

Motoring back north towards Tucson and the next stop on the list of things to do I was trying to decide what to do. Should I should rush through this next one just as quickly so as to try and get in a third before the sun went down and my time-warped body clock started over-drafting energy I knew I wouldn't have later? I had my answer as I pulled in to the parking area for the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, hardly ten miles south of Tucson. It still serves the Tohono O'odham people on whose land it has sat since 1699. The aesthetic claim to fame here is the elaborate, almost overwrought decor of the interior which has led some to describe it as the Sistine Chapel of North America.

I wasn't ready to go that far, for one reason being the setting, while beautiful, was still in the middle of a desert instead of anything even close to the Eternal City. The gold, myrrh and incense of the inside serves the standard purpose of awe and intimidation but the size of the building also detracts from such a lofty claim to greatness. Just the same it was and is a beautiful example of mission architecture and survives where few had before or since. After about an hour I knew what I had left to do.

The Pima Air Museum in South Tucson adjacent to Davis Monthan Air Force Base is a permanent homage to gallant, glorious and ghostly aircraft from days gone by. The airbase itself is the final resting place of over 4,000 military aircraft going back to at least the Korean War but the main attraction is Pima. Here I saw everything from the little "James Bond" spy plane seen in "Octopussy" to marauders like F-14s, F-4 Phantoms, B-52s, one of the 707 NASA "Vomit Comets" and an impossibly enormous beast called the B-36 "Peacemaker."

A splendid example of an old "Air Force One" Boeing 707 used by LBJ was also on hand but the crown jewel for me was the Lockheed Constellation, the inimitable "Connie" in full TWA colors. I'd never seen one up close.

Three stops in roughly seven hours, including driving and I'd seen certainly more than I had expected, all of it new and beautiful, especially Pima. One wonders if a 747 will one day make it over from the nearby commercial aircraft boneyard at Marana.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tucson Savings

My offices were in Phoenix but the airlines were demanding some fairly ridiculous air fares to get between Dallas and the capital of Arizona. Someone in their pricing departments still seem to think that they can try for and get over $1100 for a roundtrip ticket on a flight segment of less than 1,000 miles. Not from me, certainly. Yes, my employer is footing the bill but gone also are the days of taking whatever ticket the corporate travel planner came up with. We each are responsible for planning our own itineraries and with that comes the expectation to be as frugal as possible with the company’s money.

I booked a ticket to Tucson. I was going to be in Arizona for a week so the hotel and car rates weren’t going to change because I chose an alternate way there and back. Yea, I’d pick up at least one extra tank of gas but that would be small potatoes compared to the almost 50% savings I got in the airfare. Moreover, since I’m fairly junior in the ranks of management I know better than to think it is imperative at any cost that I arrive nonstop at my destination. The explorer in me has no problem at all tooling around places I haven’t been before or at least in a good long while and seeing what there is to see so long as I’m on time for work come Monday morning.

The one previous trip to Tucson was over 30 year prior during the Summer of my junior year in high school. One of my 9th grade classmates had moved with his family to Sierra Vista, about an hour and a half south and close to the Mexican border. I was visiting for my 16th birthday from my parents and looked forward to my first visit to the State of Arizona. We toured Old Tucson, the Hollywood film set west of town where exterior shots were filmed for any number of movies as well as the popular television western “Gunsmoke.” We toured Tombstone, site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral and also the Desert Museum zoological park.

As a teenager I liked Old Tucson but didn’t see much point in returning as an adult by myself. I was disappointed with Tombstone all those years ago as it was highly commercialized even then and nowhere near to what I would have expected a desert ghost town to be. I knew better than to expect anything else this time around. There were some recently discovered cave complexes east of town but caving was never really a strong interest of mine, especially given the prices they were charging for admission so all of this left me standing at the often ignored tourist kiosk thumbing through high gloss brochures for all manner of ways to spend my time and money in the Greater Tucson area.

I had a day and a half before I needed to be in Phoenix and the entire Sonora Desert to figure out what to see to capture the essence of post card Arizona.

Gotta go.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Need Ice!!

"Yu vant dat mit eis?" the German flight attendant asked politely as she and her comrades wheeled their overflowing and rickety drink carts down the left-side aisle. I was in an aisle seat heading back to the United States from a vacation in the Middle East by way of the Lufthansa fortress hub at Frankfurt. Lufthansa is a solid airline, one of the premier carriers in the world not so much for its level of service but more for its attention to detail and its legendary cultural compulsion towards operating on time. As the saying goes, you can set your watch by the German train system and use that to hop a flight on Lufthansa just about anywhere the sun shines. Unfortunately, German culture along with the rest of Europe in general foregoes one thing most Americans like me can't live without - ice.

After ordering my Coke which, again per German preference, came with a spritz of lemon fizz, the flight attendant served an eight ounce tumbler of the sparkling beverage with, count'em, two small cubes of ice. I mean these were the kind of cubes we Yankees automatically write off the minute they hit the drink simply to begin cooling our favorite libation. Sure enough these two pitiful things began circling in tighter circles in the center of the cup and getting smaller with each rotation. I couldn't tap her on the shoulder to ask for more; true to her training and upbringing she was already three rows back and heading to the galley almost as fast as the 747 was roaring to Chicago.

I've often engaged in conversations with friends and acquaintances from several countries around Europe and the result is predictably the same. Europeans prefer all beverages except coffee and tea at room temperature. It is the natural way in which water comes, the only way to drink beer or whiskey and chilled at best for vodka and white wines but nothing ever comes "on the rocks." The Germans and other peoples around the Alps like their milk and cream as close to factory fresh as it can get which quite often means warm from the cow or at least warmed up on the stove or steamed before hitting the table. Besides, goes the final argument, the ice takes up too much room in the glass for all the money paid to enjoy the drink in the first place.

"Y'all don't live in the desert!" goes one of my counter-arguments. Neither do most Americans but the heat of the southern United States virtually requires drinks to be as close to freezing as possible while maintaining liquidity. Who wants to drink "room temperature" water when the outside temperature and humidity can bring that water seemingly close to boiling? If the dry heat of the Southwest comes in to it along with triple-digit temperatures, if we could drink a solid block of ice we would!

The bottom line is each side views ice according to custom. When in Europe I've had table or bottled water served as is and thought nothing of it. Bottled water is cheap and tap water is free where any other drink in Europe can easily can set you back almost a solid day's pay. Besides, even grown men like me love the memories that come with warm milk in the morning - once you get past wondering if the milk was left out all night.

Not too long ago I remember a conversation with a lady who shared my passion for Coca-Cola. We traded tips on the best way to serve the fizzy confection. Hers was a bit more ritualistic than mine, requiring the placement of three cubes of ice precisely, no more no less, with the soda poured over that slowly. Mine isn't as elaborate but it left her and all the Europeans I've ever met thunderstruck just the same.

I prefer the inflight service on foreign flag carriers like Lufthansa, Qantas and Emirates but I know that, if nothing else, I can get ice on United and American. Fill that cup/glass/whatever to the absolute rim with ice, preferably crushed, and pour!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

One Man's Heaven

When a friend comes in to town for business you always try to hook up over dinner. Oftentimes it is the only time you have a chance to visit and catch up as any number of meetings, conference calls and deadlines can and do get in the way during the course of the business day. Even though it was a noticeable distance from the house when the firm is picking up the tab for a chance to reconnect the time and gas are the least I can do. This time, however, was unlike none I have ever experienced before. We went to a brand new eatery and fun/hen house by the name of "Redneck Heaven."

I'm explaining to my suddenly very concerned father on the phone while waiting for my friend to show up that it is not 30 miles from the nearest paved road surrounded by livestock and open fields with strange burn marks in the soil. Along the lines of "Hooters," "Twin Peaks," and "Bone Daddy's," "Redneck Heaven" is a variation on a tried and true theme - breasts (not always chicken), beer and burgers served up by barely legal beauties only this time instead of wearing orange they're in bikini halters and "Daisy Duke" shorts. The only thing not in line with the full costume were the flat boots each wore instead of the spiked heels their namesake inspiration ran through the countryside in on the "Dukes of Hazzard." The roof of the General Lee, Confederate flag and all, hangs from one of the walls while the famous "Dixie" horn sounds anytime anything cheeky happens. The one and only establishment as of this writing sits right next to the Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville alongside heavily traveled Interstate I-35 just north of Dallas.

"Not too popular with the brothas?" was the first question I got upon returning to work the next day to tell my office mates all about it. I was in fact the only customer of color in the place but there were two "sistas" helping with the serving and causing their fair share of mayhem with the men folk one would most definitely expect to find in a place with a name like that. My buddy, in from South Carolina, don'tcha know, practically squealed with delight when he came in, rubbing his hands together and hunching his shoulders like the proverbial kid with the cookie jar.

As he took his seat our "Daisy" plopped in to the seat between us as if it was the most perfectly normal thing to do. Apparently it was because the table next to ours had no open seat so their "Daisy" simply sat in one of the highly appreciative men's laps and took their orders without missing a second thought. The food was standard fare with one exception. I was convinced by our "Daisy" to try the "Mississippi Mud Burger," an open faced half-pounder cooked to order on a slice of thick, buttered Texas Toast and drenched in onions and brown gravy.

Oh my. Frivolous flesh was never my thing but I'd go back for that burger on a regular basis! Good thing I don't drink, either, because one classic sleeveless bubba in the back downed the house special without breaking a sweat. The "Minnow Shot" is a shot of liquor with a live minnow in the glass. He chewed the hapless herring b-e-f-o-r-e downing the booze that would have otherwise put the flapper out of its misery. Shrieks of delight from the "Daisy Chain" while the horn blared "Dixie" for one and all to cheer the cable guy on.

All this on a Monday night during the football game. Friday they plan to have a "She-Devil/Angel" costume party. Our "Daisy" didn't know which to choose so I gave her an idea to think about: red boots, black "Daisy Dukes," a tail and topped with angel wings and a halo. Best of both worlds.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Night of Mavericks

I'm not a big fan of basketball. I remember being eight years old and going down to the local gym to check out a ball and see what I could do at the free throw line. Not much. There was no one around to tell me that I would grow taller one day and that the net would not seem so high and out of reach. There was no one watching, giving pointers, encouraging me that my shot percentage would reverse itself from dismal to decent, maybe dependable or possibly even deadly. Not this day. I had enough of embarrassing myself, checked the ball back in and went down the street to the bowling alley where I acquitted myself rather well for the first time out and have been bowling ever since.

Later, when I made it to college at the slender height of 6'3" and just south of 200 pounds the other freshmen in my class drooled at the prospect of me playing center on their new team. Sit back and smile with me at the memory of their dumbfounded faces when I explained to them that not only did I not play the game but that I cared very little about it. Me, the only Black male in the class and by race alone one who should have been the cornerstone of their otherwise all White team of dreams. Chuckle.

I find myself enjoying an incredible renaissance in my life here in Dallas which included a recent invitation to a pre-season game of the Dallas Mavericks at the glitzy American Airlines Center just north of downtown. I'd been to the venue once before for, get this, a hockey game featuring the home team Stars who at the time were not too long removed from their original home in Minneapolis. Even today it remains a crown jewel in the city for its architecture, amenities and unobstructed sight lines.

The key here was the fact that these were the cheapest imaginable cheap seats at only two bucks a throw so it's not even worth mentioning that I could touch the roof with the palm of my hand. That is, if I didn't get vertigo from the steep angle of the seats looking down on to the court seemingly a mile below. Not being a big fan of the game - I will at least say I root for the Mavs simply because I live here - I wasn't complaining. They were almost free and the Texas Rapid Express rail service was barely two miles from my front door and dropped me off literally at the front door of the arena.

I bought a bottomless bucket of popcorn, hiked to my seat with my buddy and enjoyed a few carefree hours watching the Mavericks phone in a warm-up effort against the Washington Wizards. They lost and it was a school night but overall it was an enjoyable evening out on the town in the Big D. If nothing else it was a diversion from the rapidly unraveling season of the Cowboys. The Rangers were on their way to the World Series, the Mavericks and Stars were both tuning up so it felt at least that mid-October evening as if there was reason to be optimistic in North Texas.

Since then I've been back for a regular season match up between the Stars and the Anaheim Ducks. They lost, too so now, in early November, with the Rangers having lost the Series and the Cowboys three-fourths' dead I wonder how the season looks for FC Dallas.

Gotta go.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Mystery of Calvary

The Via Dolorosa was a brick paved alley through densely built Jerusalem neighborhoods where I had imagined it would be a dusty trail leading out of the nearest gate to the crucifixion hill at Calvary. The nine stations of the cross are packed with markers and merchants steadfastly fleecing the faithful who routinely walk "the way of suffering" to re-enact the last walk of Christ. I vaguely recalled that Jesus had been tortured on this walk, had performed a few last miracles and had fell under the weight of the cross at least once but wasn't up on my biblical history to remember exactly which station witnessed any of these events. No need - all was conveniently marked for both profit and posterity at each one. There was even a chance to carry a make-shift cross for a photo op, including the crown of thorns. Lovely.

We made our way to one of the most famous hills in the world only to discover it was surrounded by apartment blocks and crowned by a massive basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And straight through the main door we discovered the hill had been well and duly razed for the sake of the chambers inside where five more stations were marked highlighting the stages of crucifixion.

Just inside the main door was a flat slab of rock, the "Stone of Anointing" where Jesus' body was laid after his death, washed and wrapped in linens prior to interment in the tomb at the base of the hill. Up a set of stairs to the right were a series of rooms, the first highly gilded and vested of which is where Christ was nailed to the cross while the one immediately to the left and equally ornate and thick with incense is where the cross was stood erect for the slow, agonizing death of Jesus.

Back down the stairs we joined the back of a good-sized line to see the alleged Tomb of Christ. There was barely room for one visitor at a time as much of the space was taken up by all manner of candles, statues of Mary, crucifixes and hanging orbs billowing still more fragrant smoke from every shade of holy oils. If you weren't claustrophobic the heat and smoke made it impossible to breathe in there for very long. Was that also part of the plan to keep the faithful moving?

The benefit in having the basilica was in not having the site swallowed up by urban housing and having some tour guide point to a kitchen window on the 2nd floor as the place where the great sacrifice occurred. Still, I found it hard to invest in the long held mystique and tragic wonder of the events that took place here. None of them occurred under the heavy stone of a building! Where was the desolate hill outside the city limits that good society avoided, leaving it to the military and the mourning brood?

I saw yet another set of stairs that led in to the lower reaches of the building. It had no barriers restricting entry or any hordes of pilgrims stacked up to get downstairs. It seemed cool from the heat of "the" tomb and peaceful from the multitudes above so I went on my own to see if there was something there.

There was. For me the mystery was solved, permanently, peacefully and privately.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hour Long Jeans

My body is not in transition from a higher to a lower weight, sadly, or a lower to a higher weight, thankfully. At the same time it was time to buy some new jeans. My favorite blue pair fit in the waist more or less but with a 30" inseam they were most certainly high waters that I could no longer justify wearing. Plus, they'd finally worn a hole in the crotch rendering them no longer fashionably faded.

For the sake of cost if not exactly the perfect fit I had been buying my jeans at Wal-Mart for the longest time. I mean, yea it shows in the cut but who can pass up $20 jeans? Knowing that I would potentially double my paying price - but definitely no more than that - I headed for Cavender's Boot City, one of the popular western wear chains in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Who knew that I would be there for a solid hour picking out exactly the right pair!

I haven't worn "Slim Fit" in I can't remember when so I knew automatically to cut my losses there. Part of what took so long was the myriad colors and shades of jeans available; no more just basic black and deep or faded blue, there was chocolate brown, tan, gray, camouflage and acid washed. Add on to that whether or not one could pull off high waist, zipper or button fly, Wrangler, Levi or Lee.

I knew I wanted a pair of deep blue jeans. They fade after a few washes but never end up the "sky blue" color after years of wear. I knew what general size I needed but wasn't in a big hurry to be anywhere that evening so decided simply to invest the time to find the best possible pair I could find. Being in Texas I also bowed to conformity in choosing Wranglers, the more popular brand for real and urban cowboys.

The counter staff were solicitous and helpful in seeing my obvious dilemma - finding a pair of jeans that fit but wouldn't also broadcast the full volume of my girth. The first go-round I went in to the changing room with three pair of jeans, the "I Wish" size, the "Most Likely" size and the "God I Hope Not" size. Thankfully, the most likely was closest to the mark, remembering that fresh jeans are snug through the waist and thigh until they relax enough to hold you the way you want. Still, the counter help suggested I try a new line called "Stretch."

This style of stretch was not like the "Slim Fit" in being intended only for the most reedy of ranglers. These were designed to stretch more than the regular fit product while still attempting to hang naturally from the frame. Uh..not. Like the half moons between button-holes in a shirt too tight for reason I knew better than to even try those things. Wanting a sale, the sales guy went back to the drawing board and said to at least compare between the regular and relaxed fits. Fine.

Regular Wranglers did the trick. Four solid trips to the dressing room and at least ten pair later I found the one that did the trick for under the budget set. My look was improved and my wallet was saved. Trying to be a courteous shopper I even folded and reshelved the pairs that didn't make the cut before picking out a couple of interesting shirts to finish the day.

I'm still my mother's son but I'm definitely not her little baby anymore. An hour...just for some jeans.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Check a Bag? Read the Tag!

So many different people and systems are involved in handling passenger luggage by the airlines that it is hard to keep track of. Each airline has its own way of doing things but the basics of each system are the same: check the bag to the correct destination on the same flight or series of flights as the passenger and have it on the claim belt no more than 20 minutes after arrival.

At connecting airports most bags run through the main baggage system unless they're running short of time when "hot" bags are transferred directly from one plane to the other. From A to B one bag can touch a dozen pairs of hands counting the ramp crews that load and unload them. Given so many moving parts one thing I have not seen is a listing of how many ways the system can fail. Here are a few of the most common.

"FTL" - Fail to Load. Pure negligence and nothing else, the airline simply did not load the bag. Whatever the explanation and however human and well intended they wanted to be it is their problem to fix.

"FTX" - Fail to Transfer. The handoff between airlines did not occur but the last airline you flew has to clean up the mess even if they never got the bag. They try hard, though, because what goes around...

"Short Check" - You're going to Fairbanks but the tag reads only as far as Seattle where the last transfer took place. This can happen if there is more than one reservation involved or if the originating airline does not have a record of onward travel. Show proof of your entire journey at check-in and read the claim check to make sure the bag is in fact going where you're going.

"MisLoad" - All of the connecting bags were loaded in Cargo Hold#4 but for some reason your bag was loaded in Hold#2 with the "locals" only going as far as the next stop. It may even end up on the claim belt if it is not noticed at the plane during off-loading. These are among the easiest to trace and fix.

"MisRoute" - Most airlines have more than one way to connect traffic. If flights are leaving to Dallas and Chicago fairly close to each other, either city can get the bag to Los Angeles. If it's not on one carousel it might be on the other so check with the agent before storming off. It could be only a few minutes behind or it might already be there. These get trickier if Dallas is the only direct way to get there.

"Late Check" - Entirely your fault, plain and simple. You show up late and some airlines make you sign a waiver of responsibility if the bag doesn't arrive when you do. They'll try their hardest but here again some won't even let you check in at all these days for security reasons.

"MisCon" - Real simple here, you missed the flight. Any number of reasons, air traffic control, mechanical, gate occupied, yada yada. Miracles do happen but each circumstance dictates how long it may take, especially if it's compound like bad weather on top of cancellations or diversions followed by mechanicals but by and large the bag gets on "the next thing smoking" right along with you.

"WB" - Weight and balance. Sometimes there are simply too many bags or too much weight for one airplane to carry, especially if that plane is full. Twenty marines can show up with 100 bags weighing 60 pounds each, on average. It is simply too much for a puddle-jumper between Atlanta and Dothan even in good weather.

"TSA" - If your bag raises suspicion for any reason whatsoever it might not make the first flight or any other on your journey. The airline suffers the bad mark but think about every single item you pack. Large spray cans, bowling gear, firearms, tool kits and solid plastics might not get confiscated but they will hold things up.

"TagOff" - Not much to explain here, the tag fell off. Make sure the agent secures the tag firmly but it can still get torn off by accident during handling. Here comes the call for name tags as well as some kind of identification inside the bag itself.

Garden variety things happen every day. Sometimes it helps to air some dirty laundry in public so everyone has a chance to travel clean.

Gotta go.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Big Bird Cutting Big Teeth

Here we are again, up in arms around the world as the international media gleefully report about what might have happened if Qantas Flight #34 from Singapore to Sydney had dropped from the sky because of an engine explosion shortly after take-off. There were over 450 passengers on board plus 26 crew on board the Airbus A380 aircraft, less than two years in service with the Australian carrier who is famous for having never experienced an aircraft fatality in 60+ years of jet service. Nobody died in the accident, either on board the airplane or on the ground below but that doesn't stop the headline hunters from whipping up - or trying to whip up - a sensation about the possibility of an "unfathomable" tragedy.

I certainly know better than to put undying (sic) faith in the technical advances of aviation. Most of these advances are pre-paid with human tragedy that leads to the improvements usually seen as unnecessary. No one wants to pay for them and the likelihood of such a disaster is remote...until it happens and then, following hand wringing, mourning, litigating and court order a "major breakthrough" is announced and all is right and safe with the world again. Until the next time.

I also have no doubt that as far as was humanly possible during the development of a plane this big, over one million pounds on take-off and can fly up to 8,000 miles nonstop with more than 500 people on its back the whole way, everything conceivable was thought out, tested, re-tested and tested again. Much of this played a key part in the non-accident that took place earlier this week but make no mistake, it was paid for.

Bird strikes have been around since the Wright brothers; not much one can do about that except try and contain the damage a sizable bird would cause if ingested in to an aircraft engine. Other foreign matter such as volcanic ash have also been known to cramp an engine while smaller things as innocuous as a paper clip have also gotten in the way of well laid plans when introduced to a machine purpose built to suck up huge amounts of air but nothing else whatsoever. They're not meant to take in the kinds of things a household vacuum earns its reputation inhaling from the family carpet. All they are built to eat is air.

At the end of the day this may amount to exactly that, little more than a bird strike, as garden variety a mishap as is likely to happen. Take note of the fact that the plane held together, the passenger cabin was not compromised, the other three engines on the beast performed flawlessly, the pilot compensated for the imbalance and landed the cutting edge bird exactly as he was trained to do. A few skittish fliers got more than they bargained for, a few thrill seekers on board (isn't there always at least one) got the ride of a lifetime and no doubt a few self-absorbed suits groused about the inconvenience of it all.

This little teething problem is costing Qantas some cash and a few hits on its reputation but both airplane and airline will bounce back in to the bright blue above; part and parcel of running an airline and breaking in a still new airplane.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Walking in Jerusalem

Independent city-states have rarely worked throughout history to preserve their own independence unless they are completely surrounded by a single country (Germany) and become a part of that country's political body (Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin). Or they might survive and even thrive if they are on an island to themselves (Singapore) and well connected to a former colonial power (Great Britain). Monaco, as essentially French as it can be, once maintained its independence from France only so long as a male heir is produced to continue the bloodline of the ruling Grimaldi family.

They changed that requirement in 2002 but some things never change. Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel while also claimed as the capital of Palestine. Leapfrogging claims go back to the first written tablets on who got there first and which of them captured the city from the other. It's like constantly adding "+1" or "times two" to the last and largest calculable number - the claims and counter-claims are not likely to end anytime soon.

My friends and I took the day to walk around this most ancient of western capitals, yearning to see the Jerusalem of the Old and New Testaments while faced with the urban sprawl and winding streets choked with traffic to be found anywhere else in the civilized world. The Old City does sit on a hill, thickly walled on all sides and crowned with the magnificent Islamic mosque of Dome of the Rock. Shorter than the Eiffel Tower but easily as iconic this is the instantly recognizable symbol of the city. Like most things associated with Jerusalem it is not free of irony or controversy.

It was deliberately built in the center of the the Temple Mount, sacred Jewish site of the Temple of David, the second of which had been destroyed by the Romans. Add to that the fact that the holiest Jewish site of the Western or "Wailing" Wall, though cited as the last surviving part of this second temple is in fact hardly more than a retaining wall that helps support the entire platform upon which the Dome of the Rock is built! Walking around the walls of the city we came across another stick in the eye: The "Golden Gate" through which the Messiah will return to Earth is bricked up, shut off, closed. Suleiman I ordered the gate sealed so the Saviour would never return. A Muslim cemetery was later built in front of the gate for good measure.

Uh, who fancies their chances in seeing a new temple built in place of the Dome of the Rock? Would they tear down the Dome or simply build over it? Methinks if they follow the original plans then the Dome is too high. It goes without saying, of course, that the Islamic community will not smile on either idea. The Dome of the Rock is considered the oldest Islamic house of worship in the world; security around it is Fort Knox tight. Taking out a few bricks at the Golden Gate is the easy part but notice that this hasn't been done yet either. Not even the Israeli government has dared to dig up the Muslim graves laid before it.

It all sounds like as solid a stalemate as any to the Middle East peace process. The foundation of the Temple Mount, including the Western Wall is supporting one of the holiest sites in all of Islam. The holy portal also known as the Gate of Mercy through which the Messiah is supposed to return is bricked up like any ordinary abandoned building.

Are either of these landmarks linchpins to the peace process? Probably not but seeing what was happening in the center of the city it became a little easier to understand why the Crusaders raised a basilica over the hill of Calvary.

Gotta go.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Knock Kneed Lobster

Incongruity or things that don't always make sense right away come up rather frequently when you're traveling around for business or pleasure. In today's vernacular what I'm essentially saying is "Who'da thunk it?" In this case the two things that don't automatically come together in the mind's eye is Phoenix, Arizona's love for very English fish and chips.

One after the other, some one-off Mom & Pop "chippies" by the side of the road, others with a chain of outlets across the valley, one is never far from one of these greasy delights from across the pond. Having lived and traveled in Europe I've been accustomed to the joys of a golden fried filet paired up with thick, starchy planks of deep fried wedges since I was a child. I remember living in Atlanta and putting in regular calls to Arthur Treacher's for what remains some of the tastiest fish and chips on this side of the Atlantic.

I've been to Long John Silver's and Captain D's on many an occasion and have the gut to show for it but I simply didn't expect to see the number of local varieties that serve Greater Phoenix. Understand also that these are all restaurants dedicated to the art of fish and chips. Other food offerings are on the menu but these are not wanna-be pubs or airport taverns that ALSO serve fish and chips. These establishments and their customers LIVE for fish and chips - in the middle of the Arizona desert.

An uncle encouraged me to visit a favorite haunt of his since the days of his own childhood in Central Phoenix not too far from the airport. Every return trip he makes to visit family includes a stop at the Knock Kneed Lobster at 32nd and Washington for a taste of bygone days and a bit of fish. Who could resist such an endorsement as I made sure to include the place on my list of per diem options for dinner one evening.

To look at the place is to pass right by if you even notice it at all. A low white building sits at the northeast corner of the intersection looking for all the world like someplace only locals would know or care about. No immaculate landscaping, attractive architecture or over-the-top neon screaming to passers-by, it is a typical one-off shop that quietly goes about its business of serving large portions of golden fish and shoe-string potatoes, bottles of vinegar and sauce dispensers at the ready.

The menu was overloaded with other choices but if this is a one and only visit I go with the claim to fame signature dish for my evening of calories, carbohydrates and cholesterol. The verdict? Not bad. I honestly have a (ruined to some) taste for Long John Silver's over the meal I ate at "KKL" but I allowed that if it is something you grew up with there must certainly be nothing else like it. The filets were large but it seemed as if they were pounded rather thin and slightly crunchier than I prefer. They definitely were not in the same size category as those served in England which seem to be the whole fish instead of just one filet of cod. The meal was passable but no real great shakes.

Would I go back? Well, let's just say that I'd probably want to try Ed's, Pete's, Brad's, Mandy's, Lazy Lou's or The Codfather first, if only to have something to compare them with.

Gotta go!