Monday, August 29, 2011

Teacher of a Lifetime, An Open Letter

Dear Ms. Cushing,

My life changed forever the day I walked in to your 5th grade class at Boeblingen Elementary & Junior High School in suburban Stuttgart in 19-, well, never mind; it's been a while so we can both simply leave it at that. Like most other 10-year olds my reading material consisted mostly of comic books. The story had to have pictures for me to tap in to the narrative and engage in the action or I simply couldn't be bothered. Then I joined your class that Fall.

At first glance you were a story all to yourself, an embodiment of the California sun culture if ever there was one: shoulder length straw shaded blond hair, slightly frizzed but styled, sharp, piercing green eyes, an angled jaw line that bespoke both beauty and zero tolerance and a voice right out of the San Fernando Valley. All this and I was never sure you were actually from California but the yellow Volkswagen Beetle you drove only completed the package for me. You were quite simply visually arresting, your demeanor brooked no mischief and your personality commanded attention. I was hooked, turning in probably the best work of my elementary school life. Then you played your trump card.

Every day after lunch you read one chapter from a book geared towards young readers, many of them Newbery Award winners and included titles I still remember today, including "Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell. You created a means to educate while settling excited children fresh from recess in one masterstroke. We didn't need pictures or have to read for ourselves; your vocal inflections and pacing in addition to the choice of material allowed us to drift away to far off lands simply by putting our heads down and listening. "Dolphins," though, was a poor second to the signature series you began the Fall term with, "The Chronicles of Prydain" fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander.

Through the five books of the series based on Welsh legends you held an entire classroom mesmerized, enchanted and enthralled, taking us to a different world and a different culture with each page. You taught us the art of the cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter despite bleating pleas to continue the story. The most astounding thing for me was your creation of completely different voices for each character. Just in changing your voice we knew who was center stage without the writer's tool of "Taran said," or "said Fflewddur." A substitute teacher filled in one day but had nothing in the way of your touch with a good story. We made you reread that chapter the very next day.

We were perhaps too young to see ourselves in Taran's maturation through the series - I remember us all heaving a collective "Ewww" when Taran announced his desire to marry Princess Eilonwy in "Taran Wanderer," the 4th book. I even saw Prince Ellidyr more as Taran's misunderstood best friend than arch rival in "The Black Cauldron," my favorite of the series. We were both exasperated and infatuated with Gurgi and instantly enamored of the all powerful father-figure in Lord Gwydion. We knew we all wanted to be Taran's friend, a character to which Harry Potter owes much, or at least be like him through his incredible adventures.

Because of you. I found a recent edition of the series with the original art work after years of repeatedly collecting paperbacks to read again and again from start to finish. I hear their voices, your voice, in my head with each reading, the "Tut tut," of old Dallben or the "MY BODY AND BONES," bellow of King Smoit. My love of reading was cemented in your classroom and remains with me to this day, no pictures required.

Lauren Cushing, I have tried over the years to find you to let you know the strength of your influence upon me over these many years. If no other student that year or since has ever tried to reach out and acknowledge who you are and what you meant I wanted to be at least one who tried. Teacher of the Year? You are my Teacher of a Lifetime. Wherever you are I remember, love and thank you.

Gotta go.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Language, Y'all, Language!

Every industry has its own language. The jargon and especially the acronyms that save time and syllables are some of the tools that keep conversations quick while trying to remain competitive in the marketplace. Some of the language and terms are entirely for internal consumption as the "BOH" (back of the house) employees devise new products and services to introduce or discuss industry trends and so on. Actually ALL of the language is for internal consumption but some of it can spill over in to the public arena through the simple means of being overheard by the customers being served.

Wanna learn how to speak "airline?" An "ASM" is an available seat mile while an "RPM" is revenue per (seat) mile. One airplane seat on a flight that travels 100 miles = 100 ASMs. Most airplanes don't hold just one seat so that is where the numbers can get mind boggling. One hundred seats flown one hundred miles = 10,000 ASMs; if Dallas to Oklahoma city is 100 miles you get the idea. It is "airline" for simply saying every seat on the flight is available, "open," unsold. The "RPM" comes in after the flight has left and the revenue is spread over those 100 seats whether or not all of them sold and regardless of the fare each seat collected. Almost like roulette every penny collected has to cover the table or in this case, the cabin. One bet (paying passenger) covering the table (the entire flight)? Odds of hitting (making money) are slim, right? More fares, more passengers, mo' money, mo' money, mo' money!

At the airport is where most of the jargon comes in to direct contact with the traveling public. "LOL" is not "laugh out loud" but airline-speak for Little Ol' Lady who is typically traveling alone and needs assistance. Likewise "UM" is short for Unaccompanied Minor who also needs assistance getting from A to B but unless you fall in to one of those special categories terms such as those won't mean much to you. It's the crew language that really gets almost poetic when you hear it, learn it and understand it.

When an airplane parks at the gate it must be physically turned around to point back out to the runway for its next flight. It is a "turnaround" or a "turn" for short. Gate agents, Flight attendants, pilots and ramp crews all have this term in common. For the air crews, working a "Miami Turn" means they're going to Miami and coming straight back. For the ramp an airplane may arrive from Kansas City and "turn" (as in "turn in to...") an outbound to Orange County. Or it could be a "thru" from Nashville to Denver. For the airport gang a "RON" is an aircraft remaining overnight at their facility while the "overnight" part for the pilots and flight attendants gets translated in to a "layover" as part of their 2-, 3- or 4-day "trip." For air crews, a "trip" might sound something like this:

"I picked up a 3-day, Atlanta Boston Turn, Raleigh layover, Detroit, LA, Salt Lake, Dropped the Atlanta - Miami on Day 3 to get in some skiing, picked up a Memphis turn back to Salt Lake, then home to Atlanta on Friday with the next three days off before a Honolulu 3-day and still kept all of my hours!"

We won't get in to the acronyms that make up the core of the business and those are the three-letter codes for each airport serving a given city but some, like LAX or most colorfully, "The ATL" are already part of the public vernacular. In this day of TSA and heightened security crews might be verboten from discussing their business and especially their trip itineraries but at least you may have more of a sense of what they're talking about if they are overheard. Outside of their families, their unions and the state of their airline there's nothing flight crews love to talk about more than the kinds of trips they work.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Buying a TV

OMG, buying a TV, right? We had made the decision to switch from Time Warner to AT&T because of the sweet package they were offering in our area. Three TV hook-ups for the master bedroom, the living room and, finally, the kitchen. I mean, in one shot we were going to go from only the 32" in the living room to three independently tuned sets in the most important rooms of the house. Sweet!

We already had the 32" and there was a 19" high-def left over from a previous address so all we needed was to decide what size of television to get and then with what features. We set our budget at no more than $700 and then had to decide whether or not to get the biggest TV we could for the money or the best picture quality. Hoping for a decent compromise between the two we set out for Best Buy believing that something in the 40"-47" range would work. Anything bigger can come later but definitely a step up from the 32" in the living room, which will get moved to the bedroom in favor of the new TV we hoped to bring home.

As the cable guy was setting up the new network we verified a few simple things we needed to know before heading to the store. The refresh speed is measured in hertz and the higher the number the faster the speed. Ok. Nearly every TV on offer is "HD" (High-Definition) so did we want a plasma, an "LCD" or thin profile "LED." Plasma is supposedly better in darker rooms and for sports and action films but run hotter and at higher refresh speeds. Hello, electric bill. We agreed to stay away from the new 3D sets as being too faddy and annoying having to wear those glasses at home.

TVs in show rooms are set to the highest possible "brilliance" to grab your attention walking through the door. The brighter the better goes the trend but those brighter ones tend to be the cheaper models. At the same time all the different makes, models and sizes simply overwhelm the novice shopper with choices, images and other features. How to pick one TV from nearly 100 on the walls and shelves all around you? Does anyone remember going in, buying a Zenith, RCA or maybe a Curtis Mathes, taking it out of the box, plugging it in, pulling the on knob and then simply fiddling with the rabbit ears? Remote control? That's what the kids were for!

Heading in to the store we knew the size range we wanted and the features we were interested in. We started at a 42" Panasonic plasma, made it all the way up to a low-end 55" LCD made by Insignia, the house brand and then settled back down to three 46" (measured diagonally) options by Insignia at the low end, Samsung at the top and Westinghouse in the middle in terms of our perception of picture quality. The Westie and the Insignia were the same price but only offered a one-year manufacturer's warranty where the house brand offered two years. The Samsung was $300 higher than the other two and therefore out of budget and the running.

We settled on the Westinghouse and were ready to wrap up the deal in about 30 minutes of total time in the store until they threw the "calibration" curveball at us for an additional $200 to get the best picture. What? Why aren't the TV's set to optimum out of the box? Why so much over the cost of the TV? Why the scare tactic of voiding the warranty if the customer does something wrong? Why not just fiddle with the brightness and color balance options at home the way most of us have been doing these many years?

In truth we were "just looking" anyway and not expecting to make a purchase the same day we'd decided to go looking. Calibration, huh? Thanks for the "out." Time for some more homework.
Gotta go.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What Is a True Vacation?

Happy 4th of July!

Now, What, exactly, is a vacation? To those companies who offer paid time off, leave, whatever it's called it is time away from work with full pay. How that time is used is entirely up the employee but what, exactly, is a "vacation?" Is it working on the house, planting the spring garden, going to see Grandma, catching up on Netflix or just laying on the beach for a few days?

For most of my adult life I've rarely gotten past the three-week vacation mark in terms of earned time off. I've had to squeeze in trips to visit the family over the holidays as well as weekenders to New Orleans and even London, England just to make it through the year. In each of those with so little time on the ground available to really relax and enjoy both people and place I would always come home as rushed as if it were just another day at the office. Anything in the way of big trips was saved for the end of the year when there were plenty of national holidays to tack on and stretch precious vacation time like breadcrumbs to meatloaf.

When I made it to four weeks I truly had no idea how I would use it all. The income doesn't always match the wish list of places to go and things to see and do, does it? I was actually reluctant to take time off if the only thing I could afford to do was sit at home. And herein lies a huge difference, so I'm told, between Americans and our European cousins where the latter would readily jump at the chance to get away from the office. Americans like me, on the other hand, can feel useless and worried for sitting around the house doing nothing while work piles up and we get behind with each passing day.

I've always maintained that a true vacation is being out of touch with those people, places and things that define both personal and professional life. Visiting the family over the holidays is exactly that, a holiday. Going to Greece for the first time? Now that's a vacation.

A key component of any vacation for me is being physically separated from everyday life but also in this day and age being electronically unavailable. No cell phones, pagers, smart phones, e-mail or internet. There is nothing going on back at the office that can't wait for me to return and I've left explicit instructions for coverage if my vacation coincides with a project deadline of some kind. Until I return, "I know you're on vacation but this will only take a minute," will never have a chance to turn into an hour-long conference call. From the beach. In Rio. With sand in my biscuits.

The longest vacation I ever took spanned three weekends but really added up to about 12 days in Australia and New Zealand. I was ready to come home and more than paid the price for it when I opened my e-mail inbox the following Monday but who goes to the South Pacific for only a week. It almost takes that long to get there (mentally anyway).

A vacation is being able to not think about office politics or projects, about letting go completely without feeling guilty about leaving in the first place. If, that is, you can get it scheduled at all.

Gotta go.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bodrum and the Beach

Bodrum, Turkey is a site of exquisite Mediterranean beauty and loaded with significant history. Few Americans have ever heard of the place yet it is a popular enough destination for Europeans, only 4.5 hours flight from London. Europeans seem more willing to explore and enjoy out of the way destinations, even ones in the United States whereas Americans seem interested only in marquee destinations.

Want proof? When Americans think of a European vacation the vast majority automatically rattle off the usual big-splash suspects of London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Munich, the big city tours. When Greece and Spain come in to the conversation those destinations remain limited to Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, Barcelona, the Madrid region and possibly Ibiza/Mallorca. That's it. Their entire "foreign" experience summed up in to one or two destinations and whatever is within a day's drive or an hour's flight or sail from there. Oh how there is so much more!

For the sake of it just Google "British Holiday Companies" and see the endless list that pops up. Well established names like Thomson, Thomas Cook, Monarch and Direct Holidays. Pick any of their websites and just browse the destinations each one offers, many in competition with at least two or three other outfits and some including their own in-house air transportation. Thomson Holidays, for example, is affiliated with Thomsonfly, billed as the third largest airline in the United Kingdom.

A charter airline owned by a vacation company the third largest in the country? And where do they fly? Between the two sister companies there are listed seven destinations in Egypt alone, six in South Africa and 22 of the Greek Islands. Thomas Cook lists the entire country of Brazil as a destination but specifies 12 unique options in Bulgaria. Bulgaria? Not to be chintzy, Thomas Cook offers over 30 destinations in the United States, from Aspen to Cincinnati and Charleston to Portland.

The Europeans live in the big cities we want to visit so it makes sense they want to go someplace else, especially when we come to town! Spain IS Florida to most Brits, so long as it has an airport, some kind of accommodation to choose from and predictably bright and sunny weather with beaches and surf to enjoy they're all over it, from Sitges to Malaga, Alicante and back. Americans go to Egypt for the pyramids; the Europeans have already been so they hideaway by the sea at Sharm El-Sheikh, again soaking up the sun before heading north to home and the gloom of winter.

But back to Bodrum. Right by the Mediterranean, Bodrum offers a 13,000 seat amphitheater, a huge crusader era Castle of the Knights of St. John and the remnants of the Great Mausoleum, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. All that plus sun and sand, too? Hell, few American vacation companies would even offer something this exotic and out of the way. American Express' website couldn't even spell B-o-d-r-u-m! The question is, how to get there on the cheap from this side of the Atlantic?

The airport code is "BJV" and airfare alone through Travelocity from Chicago for travel on July 1st and back on the 15th started at $2,111 round trip on Turkish Airlines with one 2.5 hour stopover in Istanbul. Expensive but far easier to get to than previously thought. To assuage any third-world visions of what this region of Turkey must be like, the airport is only 20 miles north of town, it opened a new international terminal in 2000, boasts a 9,500 ft. concrete runway and is served by some 40 different airlines!

By comparison, using the same days of travel, a roundtrip ticket from Chicago to London started at $878 on American Airlines. Searching Monarch Holidays from the UK, a seven-night Bodrum package including air leaving on July 3rd and returning to London on the 11th produced five pages of options ranging from $365 at the budget Delta Hotel to $1,750 per person at the top end Kempinski Barbaros Bay pictured above. That includes flights on Monarch Air, the house airline in operation since 1960 and offering Boeing and Airbus equipment to over 100 destinations worldwide, plus the hotel. Uh, and did you also notice the four extra days in London, too? Those hotel nights are not included but at the low end hotel choice the savings is still an amazing $868 over the Turkish Airlines fare alone.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The New LAX

Los Angeles needs a new airport. There's very little new about that statement, to be sure, but the fact remains that Los Angeles International is fast running out of room to do what it needs to do in serving the 2nd largest metropolitan area in the United States. So we can concentrate on the uniqueness of "LAX," let's get the other airports in the area out of the way right up front.

Ontario, Burbank, Orange County and Long Beach are "satellites" that serve their immediate area with domestic and some international service to Mexico and Canada. None of them are big enough for much of anything else so the locals are accustomed to driving up to 70 miles to get to LAX where nonstops to Hawaii, Asia, Australia or Europe are readily available. These four have little hope of becoming another Gatwick or Orly for Los Angeles in the way those airports compliment Heathrow at London and Charles de Gaulle at Paris, respectively.

The terminal complex at LAX has been redesigned at least three times from the original concept, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the Delta Flight Center and various gate reconfigurations to accommodate the 777 and A380. Another redesign of over one billion dollars is underway to carry the airport for the next 50 years or so. What next? Let's say there will be and the 747s, 777s and A380s of the present day will all be long gone, outliving their usefulness by contemporary standards. Will airports even look or operate the same by then? Before this turns in to a commercial piece on Star Trek, let's go with the technology in hand and figure out what to do with LAX or figure out where to put its replacement.

Palmdale has been bandied about on numerous occasions. It is in the high desert with plenty of land around it that nobody seems much interested in. It is also a good 50 miles north of L.A. past the San Fernando Valley and right next to Edwards AFB, the reason so many seem enamored of the area. Edwards is an active military base that serves as protector of Los Angeles in case of attack, a shuttle landing site and an airplane graveyard. In short, though historically significant to American aviation (Chuck Yeager's breakthrough happened here) on paper it seems, it doesn't have much to do but has a ton of land and plenty of potential to turn in to the kind of commercial facility Los Angeles needs.

The government won't give it up without a fight, the locals don't want to drive there and no airline will support any move to pay for the kind of facility they constantly say they need but is not their responsibility to build. I don't live in the area so all of this is easy and academic to me. I'll put up with Los Angeles until a better solution comes along - some thought it might be El Toro but that hasn't happened either. I say do what the Chinese did in Hong Kong: Spare no expense, go with Edwards, build a freeway and high speed rail network to support it and let the future, unborn tax-payers finish paying for something that was always a part of their lives and therefore no big deal.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dignity: At Last and Almost

The American political system is a long and arduous road for those seeking major social change, costing much in the way of time, sometimes political careers and even lives. New York State made history on June 24, 2011, becoming the sixth and largest state to allow same-sex marriage in this country. For many it was a moment of jubilation in "closing the circle" between the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to finally being granted nearly equal civil rights more than 40 years later. Here in Dallas, Texas the event did not even warrant a sideline in "The Dallas Morning News" website.

I took a quick look around some of the other national papers the morning after the news broke which, of course, was emblazoned all over CNN.Com just as it was in the New York Times. The Denver Post had a link under the "National & World Video" section titled "Stonewall celebrates gay marriage." It was the banner headline in the Washington Post with several related articles, videos and op/ed links at the top of the page. It was at least front page news in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and was again the lead story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not surprisingly no mention could be found on the front pages of papers in Birmingham or Nashville but I was surprised not to find a front page story on the Philadelphia Inquirer website Philly.Com. The Statesman carried the story as the 5th headline for the good people of Austin, Texas while the Houston Chronicle ranked it the third story below an update on voter approval to have a Confederate flag specialty license plate. The Houston article was also quick to point out directly in the hyperlink that such unions are "not recognized in Texas." The article itself was a mish mash of feed from the Associated Press and Reuters discussing some of the last minute maneuvers, reprisals against the Republicans who supported the bill and the difficulty of getting a divorce in states like Texas where such marriages are not legal or recognized. For Dallasites there was an article on the Dallas Holocaust Museum featuring an exhibit on the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany.

Judy Garland, our beloved Dorothy, died tragically on June 22, 1969 with her funeral held five days later in New York City. It has long been debated whether or not her death was in any way a causal factor of the riots that took place the very next day on June 28th in Greenwich Village, New York City. It can certainly be said that, as is the case in most riots, the victims of systemic police persecution that day had had enough. The events seem coincidental when lined up on paper but surely most people know the feeling of being picked on and then, worst of all, being kicked when already down. Even that famous line from "What's Love Got to Do With It" comes to mind when Tina, fed up, had taken all she was going to from Ike: "I ain't in the mood today!"

The timing of the bill couldn't be better for its supporters. The New York Gay Pride March is this weekend. Stonewall, Judy, even the one year anniversary for my partner and I. And while some cities as expressed through their news media bury their heads in the sand and hope it will all go away or at least not come to them, life surely goes on and evolves through ever more enlightened eyes and increasingly inspiring ways.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 24, 2011

One More Time, American Airlines

What is wrong with American Airlines? The service is on par with the other legacy carriers, the schedules are convenient and the prices also largely in line with other offerings. The problem is they don't seem capable of making any money, having lost over $450 million last year while every other airline in the sandbox brought home at least a little somethin' somethin'. What gives?

When asked this question the CEO Gerard Arpey said that he was waiting on favorable contracts in both labor and fuel to end at other companies such as Southwest. Uh, yea. And how does that fix the problems at home? American never filed bankruptcy in the decade since the attacks of September 11, clearly a point of pride for all at this proud corporation but now equally clearly a bad mistake according to conventional wisdom. Labor costs at American remain higher than most other airlines despite the rumblings from the rank and file that they've given all they can give in concessions and other give backs.

The shocking revelation here is the simple fact that American Airlines is actually sitting still, waiting. This airline, arguably more than any other in the country, made its bones and broke more than a few thru innovation and daring, bold action, often dragging the rest of the industry along, however reluctantly. The DC-3 owes a lot to American, as does much of the information technology in use today to say nothing of frequent flyer programs the world over. American never, ever, sat still, so to here that they are "waiting" for other airlines' cost to rise up and meet their own is nothing short of appalling. The last time around, it seems, American had introduced B-Scale to save itself rather than wait to see what the other guys were doing.

Route development at American appears to have been largely stagnant ever since the Miami operation was purchased from Eastern Airlines. There have been a lot of hub closures such as San Juan, San Jose, Raleigh/Durham and Nashville but the only recent triumph is a huge, billion dollar terminal at JFK which remains largely under-utilized. So far the only thing coming out of New York is anti-trust with British Airways and Iberia along with mileage sharing with Jet Blue. Little in the way of new, showcase routes (Helsinki, anyone?) have emerged that also happen to make money.

What, truly, has happened that can be called ahead of its time or at least ground-breaking? Sleeper seats? Yawn. Wi-Fi? Whatever. Is it possible that there is nothing left for any airline to innovate and roll-out to the rest of the industry? Emirates has showers on board while Virgin Atlantic has introduced double beds but few others are stampeding to sign up for similar features. The 747 was the revolutionary airplane in 1969 which virtually every major carrier felt they had to have to keep up. The A380 is really just another, larger, widebody. The "new" 787/A350 types are made of plastic. Fine, but they still won't fly any faster or offer more in the way of onboard comfort for any cabin that isn't already out there. What is the next big thing on the horizon and will it be American Airlines that brings it?

American must find a way to deal with its operating costs and then come out swinging with something, anything, that nobody saw coming but absolutely everyone has to have but take years to catch up to. They need another DC-3. They need another SABRE. They need another AAdvantage. One more time.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

B.A.'s Avenida de 9 Julio

We will not discuss how skinny I am in some of these photos. Let's just say that this trip was a long time ago and leave it at that. But I remember it well.

"Ezeiza," or "EZE" in airport code, is the international airport about 15 miles outside of Buenos Aires or "B.A" as it is known around the world. Opened in 1949 it sadly did not appear to have had much attention paid to it in the years since other than make it usable for widebodies hauling in from overseas. I wasn't impressed, to say the least, considering B.A. is such a cosmopolitan city where others in this tier have "statement" airports to impress and/or intimidate visitors with. The impression from this airport was one of having some catching up to do but I and my friends weren't in Argentina to rate the transportation. We were here to experience the city and it's more intrinsic offerings.

We took a shuttle service in to the city which dropped us off at our low-rent hotel for the next couple of days which nonetheless went by the lofty name of the Waldorf Hotel on Paraguay Street. It was not too far from major attractions but offered the kind of rates budget travelers prefer so they can spend money on fun, food and drink instead. The bed was comfortable enough, the linens clean and the water hot; we were good to go. And go we did, despite being fresh off a ten-hour overnight flight from Miami.

This was a whistle-stop tour of the Argentinean capital, requiring the covering of much ground and still having energy to adjust to the Latin rhythm of the place. We'd heard about some things, knew about some others and wanted to see anything else in between before having end our stay and head back north in less than 48 hours. First among the ones we knew about was the massive, awesome and unbelievably choked Avenida de 9 Julio, the promenade through the heart of the city billed as the widest boulevard in the world. It is pretty fat, I must say, seemingly almost wider than it is long.

The road evokes comparisons to the older Champs Elysees which is not nearly as wide but surprisingly twice as long: Avenida de 9 Julio only runs for one single kilometer while "the Champs" extends for a grand total of two. At some points, however, the Argentinean avenue has up to 11 lanes of traffic in each direction including parallel roads within the same area. Architecturally the main focus of "9th of July Avenue" is the Obelisk at the center of the route, again evoking Cleopatra's Needle at the very end of the Champs along with the famous opera house, Teatro Colon. After that it's apartment blocks, small office buildings and store front shops here and there but nothing that really captures the eye after the green spaces stretched all along the road.

Why was I so keyed up about this road? Not simply because of the size of the place but because of its history which is slightly, existentially connected to my own. On July 9, 1816, Argentina won its independence from Spain. My birthday is on the same day, although I came along a few years later.

And even now I'm not quite as wide!

Gotta go.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Away Argentina

South America, "Deep" South America, is a long-ass way away. There's just no other way to say it. When you say "South of the Border" around most Americans that usually does not extend any further in their minds than the Caribbean or Mexico. Many Americans, again, think of a ten-hour flight or longer as traveling east to Europe or west to Asia but aside from those marathon flights to Australia few know that major destinations in Brazil, Argentina and Chile take nearly as long to get to. Add in to the fact that none of these countries are more than two or three time zones ahead of much of the United States and the distance just doesn't compute.

I'm a huge geography buff, having been enamored of maps and different parts of the world from a very young age. I knew from earliest childhood that Argentina, for example, was a ten hour flight just from Miami but being that young, of course, I had yet to experience the journey for myself. I would be in my late 20s before finally making the voyage to the international city that is the capital of the country, Buenos Aires.

The flight from Dallas was two and a half hours in itself, including some healthy turbulence over the middle of the Gulf of Mexico before landing around nine o'clock in the evening for our connection to Argentina. I and the group of friends who came along with decided on Argentina not only because none of us had ever been there before but also because there were no visa requirements to add to the expense of our short first venture to the "Other America." The nightlife in "B.A." can hold its own against any of the delights to be found up north in Brazil so we didn't feel short-changed at all for the experience. Blasting "Shout" by Tears for Fears in my headphones as we backed away from the gate at Miami, this trip was starting out full of excitement and anticipation as any good vacation should.

We stayed awake for the perennial thrill of the takeoff and the chance to catch any glimpse of Cube as we made our way due south. A late dinner was served and then pretty much lights out for the duration of the trip until daybreak the next morning. When I awoke there was a carpet of green below me as the expansive forests of central Brazil spread out below me. This was only seven hours in to the flight and as everyone knows, daylight comes early at 39,000 feet, especially in the Southern Hemisphere Summer of mid-February. Ugh, that moon's bright!

I thought of the early aviation pioneers who might actually recognize the forest canopy below me. Undeveloped when air travel was in its infancy, the backwoods of Brazil have changed little but for the logging that is rapidly taking it away. And then any bare strip of land would save many a pilot until nonstop travel became possible as I was enjoying that very moment. Pan Am, who did much to open South America to adventurous Americans is gone now. So is Varig, once the proud flag carrier of Brazil. Even the second generation trailblazers in Eastern and Braniff have been dismissed from the skies but the links they forged remain strong today. Argentina may not have the cache of Spain, say, but the language is the same and the allure should be. It was for me.

Gotta go.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Where Is The South?

During this weekend celebrating "Juneteenth" in Texas I was reminded of recent changes in the American mindset regarding what is currently considered the American South versus how large the South really is. I was recently amazed at how contemporary opinion can absolutely rewrite history. It happens regularly and many in the conversation either don't know any better or choose not to contradict the speaker, especially if the setting happens to be the speaker's home. Being polite is one thing, allowing revisionist blowharding to be accepted as truth is quite another.

On the way to a business conference in Florida while driving the rental away from the airport my colleagues and I were talking about various parts of the country and what it must be like to live there. We talked about the South, the "Deep South" and the Southwest, going over their similarities as well as some key differences from one region to the next. Somehow the subject came up regarding Maryland and Delaware and their place in the American South.

"They're not in the South" one of my more loudmouth co-workers unequivocally proclaimed. I politely pointed out that they were considered Border States during the Civil War and were prevented from actively participating in the conflict; their inclusion would have completely surrounded Washington, D.C. with Confederate States, an untenable and unacceptable position for the seat of the federal government. That's all well and good my highly opinionated peer said dismissively but that still didn't place either state in the "real" South. Even the truth that the Mason-Dixon Line ran along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border wasn't enough in their minds to be considered a part of the South. The Mason-Dixon Line has been reduced to an historical technicality.

At a recent Memorial Day party a similar conversation took place only this time regarding my home state, the great State of Texas. We were discussing traveling for family reunions and I mentioned that my mother's family was in the "Deep South" of rural Virginia. While not as far south geographically as Alabama, Mississippi and southern Georgia the mindset of the "Deep South" permeated this part of Virginia and the Carolinas as much as anywhere else. In that mix of opinions came Texas' place in the South.

"Texas is not in the South" came the last-word opinion of the party's host. After allowing myself time to collect my thoughts and continue my argument I stated that Texas was indeed in the South and that the traditional feel and mindset of the American South could be found alive and well in the eastern part of the state. The Talladega Forest region that extends in to Texas from Arkansas and Louisiana as deep in to the state as the Tyler-Lufkin-Nacogdoches line was as southern as any part of Tennessee could ever be. El Paso not so much, perhaps, but all along US Highway 59 as far as Houston the traditional "South" can be found. Anybody remember James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper?

I guess in their crude way I am supposed to go along with the argument that times change and that feelings and basic instincts evolve, etc. Those were different times and, indeed, Northern Virginia around Washington, D.C. is a whole other country compared to any part of the state from Richmond and Charlottesville south. At the same time, Texas is simply too large to be part of any one region geo-politically. El Paso is famously closer to Los Angeles than it is to Houston while Amarillo is barely connected to the coastal culture of Corpus Christi. I still held the final trump card in the debate as far as I was concerned.

Juneteenth is the celebration of the coming of Emancipation to the State of Texas in 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln's initial declaration. Now celebrated in 37 states across the Union, it was first celebrated in Texas which, like Delaware and Maryland, was a slave-owning state, plantations included. To any Black American breathing, that puts all three states squarely in the South. Happy Juneteenth.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Long Haul Lament

The first 747 was designed to carry almost 400 people from the East Coast of the United States to Europe, basically a double-decker bus on a relatively short haul service. Later versions and even later widebodies stretched those demands to cover the West Coast of America deep in to Central Europe and on "very" long haul flights to Asia. Today there are "Ultra" long haul flights such as New York to Hong Kong and Singapore or Los Angeles to Dubai. Surprisingly few of them today are served by the venerable old bird who started it all in the first place.

Why? Kinda simple, really. The 747 can't make it. Technology and fuel capacity can only do so much and most feel the 747 has been taken literally as far as it can go, the new "Dash-8" series notwithstanding (and that is a model still yet to fly in commercial service so no one really knows). Most of these ultra routes are flown with smaller planes that still have very large fuel capacities, making 16 hours between California and the Middle East a stretch but a doable one.

Qantas, long distance travel master supreme, has recently introduced nonstop service from Sydney to Dallas/Ft. Worth, my hometown. The aircraft they use is a 747-ER for "Extended Range" which means it is stuffed with fuel in every possible location, sacrificing some cargo space but not passenger room. The easy part is that Sydney to Dallas is flown with the wind at its back so the plane gets a nice push most of the way to help bridge the distance. Heading back down south is another story with absolutely no margin for error. Dallas/Ft. Worth is typically a three hour flight to the West Coast from which it is typically a 14-hour flight to get to Australia, three extra hours tacked on to an already long service.

Airline planners typically hope for "blue sky" conditions that will allow a flight to operate as scheduled...most of the time. Trouble is when you advertise nonstop service customers expect and accept no excuses for pulling over to get gas. For a variety of reasons Qantas does not want to stop between Dallas and Australia. Any island along the way such as Hawaii or Fiji will most likely charge exorbitant rates for fuel not to mention fees for landing and using their facilities in to the bargain.

Within a week of inaugurating service a story went out that called Qantas on the carpet for leaving three stuffed baggage containers behind as a weight saving ploy to allow a nonstop flight. It took another 24 hours for the affected customers to be reunited with their belongings. One has to wonder if only the Brisbane customers were affected; I'd hate to think of the mess it would cause if any of those bags were going to other destinations. Will it happen again? Sure, at some point. Has it happened before?

Some time ago in a bid to compete with Qantas to Australia United Airlines offered nonstop service from Los Angeles to Melbourne, also with a 747. It didn't last long because the distance was simply too far for the model United operated. Stops were routinely made in Hawaii for fuel until they finally threw in the towel, red faced from the exertion and humiliation. Melbourne is now only available on United after a scheduled stop in Sydney.

United tried again in a different market, offering nonstops from New York to Hong Kong but learned the same lesson. "Nonstop" service making a "technical" stop in Anchorage damaged their reputation and doomed the service after maybe six months.

Are airlines biting off more than their engines can chew with these extreme routes? Does anybody really want to endure 17-20 hours on an airplane (especially in coach) for the sake of avoiding a connection? One friend of mine sent one of his employees to Sydney from Dallas on assignment recently. That guy deliberately chose a connection via Los Angeles just to avoid the new service altogether. He got to stretch his legs on the ground for a couple of hours and enjoy the new A380 on the way down in to the bargain. Not bad, I say.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Football Uber Alles

Football overshadows absolutely everything in sports crazed America. A friend traveling on business to Dallas from Washington, D.C. remarked at all of the stars carved in to the highway overpass support columns around the city, thinking Dallasites were way over-enamored of the Dallas Cowboys. I had to explain to him that, firstly, Texas is the Lone Star State. The star on the helmet derives at least in part from this historical association. Then I looked around the other teams in the area and found a single star on the Dallas Desperados arena football team and, another single star on the chest of the bull in the FC Dallas logo and, square in between the shoulder blades, still another single star on the jerseys of the Dallas Mavericks. I began to wonder if the Lone Star State association was really at play here or if Jerry Jones had finagled his NFL team's presence in to the very fabric of the other area teams, a constant reminder of which team and sport still ruled on high over North Texas.

Pundits have been counting the Mavericks out since the first round of the playoffs, thinking Portland would pull the same kind of upset the Golden State Warriors did the year before. Or was that in 2007? (I really don't follow basketball.) When the Mavs advanced to meet the Lakers the funeral dirges for Dirk and company rang out from Manhattan to Mazatlan. Uppity Oklahoma thought they could outlast the aging Mavericks with youth but forgot the first lesson in southwestern cattle's usually the old bull that beats the young buck; with brains.

Here comes the heat. It is sometimes hard to tell which phenomenon the signs around Dallas are referring to, the Summer heat or the Miami Heat when they say "Beat the Heat!" but the sentiment is the same. Both need to go away but the question in the back of my mind is who the rest of the country is rooting for. I read the Mike Wise column in the Washington Post who did a polite but effective job of questioning the mind and conviction of LeBron James. Mr. Wise was not exactly rooting for Dallas so much as he was simply perplexed at the fade-away game Mr. James has consistently turned in during the 4th quarter.

Wise was at Game 5 in Dallas last Thursday, a beat writer for the Washington Post, home rag of some of the most ardent football fans in the nation, the ever-loyal, perennially disappointed Redskins Faithful. No fan base in the country despises the Cowboys and essentially everything else about Dallas like fans of the Redskins. But this is basketball and one of their most respected writers is in town covering the remarkable hiding the Mavericks have taken to every opponent thus far, Miami included. Could they, gasp, actually be rooting for a Dallas team?

It might be as simple a question as whether or not they hate the Heat more. LeBron abandoned Cleveland, which garnered negative press around the country. The Wizards and Heat are in the same division with Washington finishing last (hmmm..familiar) but I'm not sure if the two teams have much in the way of a rivalry; the Orlando Magic is in that group. Even if they did, could a Redskin fan in the Fall find it in his heart to root for Dallas during the Summer?

Gotta go (Mavs).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Air Rail

American airports have a long way to go to catch up to their European counterparts. Every major airport on both sides of the Atlantic has at least one decent business hotel either directly on the property or very close by so that is not the issue. All of them are accessible by major highway as well so again that is not the complaint. It is hard, extremely hard to compare the food court concept at most U.S. airports with the local food offerings at airports in Germany, France and Spain although European airports are just as guilty when it comes to fast food. No, my complaint is the lack of decent public transportation at most of the major airports in the United States and the constant bickering that goes with trying to improve access.
Looking at just public transportation, right now Dallas/Ft. Worth International has a public bus system that runs from the South Entrance in to downtown Dallas after about 90 minutes worth of riding and transfers. This compares to 25 minutes in to town with smooth traffic. Light rail service is being built, similar to the Washington Metro being extended out to Dulles but who knows when that will be completed. For the 3rd busiest airport in the country it is simply shameful that some kind of rail service was never included or at least built in to DFW's master plan.
Atlanta's Hartsfield/Jackson, O'Hare at Chicago, San Francisco and Reagan National at Washington all have subways that run directly in to the terminal building or at least within a short covered walk. Let's compare that to Heathrow where the Underground serves no less than three stops but the Paddington Express offers a hi-speed nonstop option in to the heart of the city as well.
What Heathrow doesn't have is a direct rail link within the national rail system, something Frankfurt and Paris both offer, including the high-speed "ICE" and "TGV," respectively. It is simply amazing to land in Paris and hop a "bullet train" to Brussels, arriving in less than 90 minutes instead of having to back track south in to the city, finding the correct station (out of six) and then making your way back to the Belgian capital. Certainly Amtrak is no match for the French SNCF rail network but it is simply the inter-modal transportation options available elsewhere that I have to wonder how it would enhance traveling here in the United States.
The Swiss set the gold standard for linking various public systems together along with the Dutch. Trains, buses and planes are linked to allow at least one connecting option on any given day from any point in the country to the rest of the world at large without having to use private cars short of driving to the nearest station. Distances are shorter from even the farthest corners of the country but the simple fact is the system is in place and works very well.
National rail service in the United States is all but dead but there are some things that can still be done for most cities. Light rail connections in to town even if it is the only rail service in the entire area would be a start. The regional hi-speed rail systems the current administration is planning would be great to link the major airports a la Charles De Gaulle, too. We need something, and it has to start somewhere.
Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Trannies

Hah! And what exactly were you thinking this article would be about? since it portends to be a travel blog then hopefully some of you will know that "trannie" in this context is jargon for "Transcon" or transcontinental service of the nonstop kind from coast to coast. It could also refer to Transatlantic or Transpacific flights but rarely if ever would it refer to something like Transasian or Translatin. A flight from Buenos Aires or Rio to Santiago, Chile would be considered a transcon flight but the distance is not quite four hours of flying time and I'm not sure they even have the term in that part of the world. That said, let's take a look at the three we're most familiar with.

A transcon almost invariably refers to a domestic flight within the United States that leaves from one coast state, flies across the continent and arrives at another coastal state. The primary routes for this would be New York to California with other serious contenders being Boston and Washington, D.C. to California. Others qualify, such as Seattle to Miami or Atlanta to Portland but those markets tend to be smaller and, in the case of Atlanta, the city is not right on the water like Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco. Still, Georgia has a coastline so if the good people of the Peach State want to call their Atlanta to the West Coast flights transcons then who am I to begrudge them. Et tu, Charlotte.

The other two are not as US-centric although certainly the United States plays a large role in both markets. When one thinks of a transatlantic service it almost always means from somewhere in the United States to some place in Europe. That is not fair, however, to the other countries that also enjoy nonstop service across the ocean such as Brazil and even Peru, the latter of which supports a nonstop service to Madrid on Iberia. It makes sense the minute you think about it but there are still others as well, such as Buenos Aires to Frankfurt and even Sao Paulo to Cape Town, South Africa, probably one of the loneliest flights on the planet as it is the only regularly scheduled service across the South Atlantic at only three times per week.

Transpac is comparatively easy to decipher: the US and Canada to Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Or is it. What about the flights BETWEEN Asia and the Anzac Region? While vacationing in Auckland, not the largest market in the world, I found nonstop services on offer to Australia (duh), Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong, any one of which could get the average Kiwi the rest of the way to Europe. Wow. Compared to that spread Los Angeles seemed almost a token market despite being the largest of the lot after Australia.

There is a lot of commercial flying out there, a lot of it seemingly concentrated on North America but certainly a respectable amount of it connecting people and places with literally no connections to the United States (or Canada) whatsoever. Know what? If they don't make the headlines you can assume every last one of those flights operated just as safely, too.

Gotta go.

Monday, June 6, 2011

You Touring YouTube

YouTube can be an even better way to see the larger world around us and in so many ways. Even better than some travel programming it is possible to see snippets of ordinary life in far away corners, spectacular scenery in places unheard of or experiences never even considered outside of our everyday lives. Just type in the YouTube search window and that is the extent of your wait to visit some exotic corner of the planet or specific moment in time - there is no waiting for scheduled programming.

The list is endless of the places one can go thanks to the camcorder efforts of the average tourist. YouTube to them is much easier to utilize than maintaining their own website while still wanting to share images of their vacations, honeymoons or family get-togethers with the rest of the world at large. The wisdom in posting some of these private moments is equally endless in debate but there they are for the curious and voyeuristic alike.

The thing that intrigues me about these images is being reminded that the rest of the world is alive and going about its business the same as I might be doing at that same moment in time. The more mundane things like rush hour traffic in Paris don't hold my attention for too long beyond simply seeing it and comparing it to the commute experience in, say, Washington, D.C. Simple things like people in other countries playing with their dogs just as I would mine at the end of a long day. Of course people have pets in other parts of the world but it doesn't register that they would or that the interactions appear to be exactly the same but for the language involved. A particularly funny moment involved unaware American tourists getting an up close view of a male camel bellowing romantically to any nearby female.

All of us have a list of places we've always wanted to go but for one reason or another are not quite sure we will ever get there. One of those for me is Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. I stumbled across a video of a prone tourist floating in a tidal pool at the very edge of the 300-foot falls, his body at the surface with his head over the edge as if he could wash over the cataract at any second, proof of the power of the falls thundering seemingly at the end of his outstretched arms. I mean, seriously? The political environment in Zimbabwe and general health concerns in the area notwithstanding, I gotta do that!

Being an airplane nut I experienced as much of the inflight experience with the A380 as possible before actually flying on the plane for the first time in 2009. Watching 747s land in St. Maarten is not on my list of accomplishments yet but heaven knows there is plenty of footage taken by others who have experienced the good and bad of being that close to the engines on the beach head just at the end of the runway.

If I never get to any of these places they are only a click away on the internet without the marketing shills pushing upscale hotels and high end restaurants at me in to the bargain. The only thing I haven't done is post any of my own. Remember that debate about the wisdom of such a move?

Gotta go.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Wrong Way McDonald's

One of the strangest things I had ever done was to go through a McDonald's drive-thru backwards. Many of you have already tried to visualize going through in reverse either so the guy riding shotgun would be able to place his order directly but that's not what I meant. This relates to my first experience at the world-famous restaurant chain at one of their franchises in England. "Backwards" means that the drive-thru wraps around the building in the other direction, as in clockwise!

Many things are different about the overseas experience with fast food, all of which make it at interesting enough to almost be an adventure but certainly not the normal routine expected at home. In Germany a Filet-o-Fish is called a "Fisch Mac," for example. We all know by now that a country that operates on the metric system would therefore not have a "Quarter Pounder" on the menu so it might have a name like the French "Burger Royale" instead. Likewise they by now understand that the German word for big, "Gross," would NOT translate to steady sales from English speaking patrons who happen to stop by. Another reason for names like "Koenig'sburger" (King's Burger).

In England the product names tend to translate fairly easily so no worries about what exactly is being selected from the menu. The interiors of the restaurants from one country to another are also fairly innocuous and easily recognized, perhaps with a few local flairs thrown in just so the natives will feel more connected as well. While on business in London one time, though, we were in a hurry as most business travelers tend to be and decided we had just enough time to hit the drive through before going back to the office.

McDonald's was nearby, everybody knew the brand, the product and what to expect so in we go to the parking area, except I happened to be the one that was driving. Instinctively I started turn right to join the "queue" for the drive-thru. "No, mate, turn left!" my local companions warned before I completed my maneuver. In England with right-side drive (from the passenger seat to most others) the menu board and attendant speaker is on the right hand side of the car. To face it properly and not be considered a total "prat," the line for the window starts at the left side of the building.

Drive thru's in general tended to be more of a novelty at the time as opposed to something absolutely required in the design of the establishment. This is Europe, after all, where population density is much greater than America and land is certainly not to be frivolously paved over. Even at a lot of highway rest stops the logic leans towards entering the restaurant as opposed to pulling over in a drive-thru. One has to get gas in the first place, which means getting out of the car, plus the fact that a gallon of regular there is easily twice the cost in the United States. Not something to burn through so readily while idling in a drive-thru waiting on a burger and fries.

So here I am trying to navigate the narrow lane for the drive-thru near Heathrow Airport from the left side of the building while piloting a car from the right hand side of the front seat. Even though my favorite sandwich at Mickey-Ds is the Filet-o-Fish I knew better than to order something like that while in England, home and reigning king of fish and chips.

I went with a Quarter Pounder!

Gotta go.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Windows Beware

Take in a show at a live theater and the establishment knows the viewing angle of every seat in the house. They are very careful to point out those seats with a partial or obstructed view so the customers know what they're in for at the point of purchase. Book a "window" seat on an airplane and that is not always what the passenger is going to enjoy, is it?

I booked Qantas to New Zealand a couple years ago and requested the exit row window at the third passenger door over the wing, thinking I had a steal of a seat on my hands. They did not charge an extra fee for the leg room even though the view was 110 feet of metal, I had the sidewall to cuddle up against for the 12-hour flight down south. Nice? Not. The evacuation slide housing jutted in to the space where my legs were supposed to go and all I had was sidewall. The "window" was squarely in the row behind me, forcing my neck to pivot like some drunken owl to see outside if the people in the row behind me decided to leave the shade up in the first place. Lesson learned.

I never like to sit behind the wing of an airplane so when I choose a window seat there's usually an unobstructed view that comes with it. Not so the poor fools who either take what's left or don't know any better, especially when flying on the MD-80 or something similar. On American Airlines there are two rows of seats between the aft galley and the lavatory on the left hand side. Those two rows have windows, the first right next to the engine intake and the second square in the middle of the engine housing itself. How peaceful.

Even in the front, however, things are not guaranteed, as shown by those rows near the entry doors. Some widebodies such as the 767 and 747 run air ducts within the skin of the plane through the sidewalls which forces some rows again to stare at blank panels for the duration of a flight. Heaven help you if you're claustrophobic. To look at the plane from the outside it is easy to see where these window breaks are located. Thanks to the fact that nearly every airline has their own row numbering system, however, it is hard to tell or remember if Row 15 is the one to avoid or Row 21.

You would think that the premium cabins would pay close attention to such details to ensure their best customers always have a window if that is their seat of choice. Think again. The latest cabin designs for some business and first class configurations have angled the seats to what appears to be nearly 45 degrees from vertical. Not facing the window, though, no, but away from the sidewalls with the feet pointed in to the aisle. Really?

Sitting up front is definitely all about the space while the design was probably intended to meet emergency evacuation standards but still. What's the point of the window if my back is to the wall and I have to do the drunken owl neck thing again just to take a look outside? When I wake up from a snooze I like to see if the Milky Way is out there or maybe an island or range of mountains, perhaps.

Then again, I can always ask for a middle or an aisle seat and avoid the problem altogether.

Gotta go.

Monday, May 30, 2011

O Say Can You See

Bin Laden is dead. I was in Florida on business that Sunday night when President Obama made his near-Midnight Address. My partner had texted me to turn on the TV and I waited to hear what the news media couldn't contain themselves to announce. I sat through the growing crowds outside of the White House and wished I was there in the streets with them. But I had business to attend the next morning and contented myself to roll over after CNN started to repeat itself and sleep. Soundly.

I'll never forget where I was when the news finally came any less than I will forget where I was that Tuesday morning almost ten years ago. That time the day had barely started in Chicago when the still horrifying images flashed endlessly that day and much of the next few weeks. I and 300 million other Americans waited, patiently, frustratingly, with growing and diminishing hope that this killer would be caught. And killed.

Many felt that George W. Bush's legacy would be made if he could find and kill bin Laden before the end of his second term. Nearly all in his administration, especially the second term, would be forgiven if Bush could bring him in. Many worried that if he were captured some defense lawyer, though it might pain him deeply, would do his absolute best to at least get a mistrial and turn the S.O.B loose on the world again to laugh at the American "justice" system and terrorize the world again merely by continuing to live.

The media tried to stir up questions about whether or not his killing was legal. Much of America and the rest of the world quickly and eagerly jumped on the viewpoint that it was a legitimate act of war against an enemy of the state. HE declared war, we accepted, and executed the rules of engagement. Justice, thank God, was done. Even the most deeply religious member of my family had only one thing to say: "Goooooooood!"

The debate will rage on capital punishment, the eye-for-an-eye system of justice and whether or not he should have been captured alive or if the Pakistan special forces should have been involved. Recall one thing: the Pakistan government was reluctant to grant overfly rights to American forces to reach Afghanistan. They were persuaded to come around but the message was clear early - there was a lingering trust factor. The other serious issue is the similar to that of capital punishment: should anyone pay tax dollars towards jail and safe harbor through a lengthy trial. VERY few on this side of the Atlantic would have been willing to shelter and try such a criminal for even that long much less "life in prison?" Seriously?

It is Memorial Day Weekend, and one we all will hopefully remember for some time to come. This man deserved to die and I'm quite proud and comfortable to say that I am glad he's gone. He took thousands of lives and ruined millions more but guess what? Our flag was still there.

Gotta go.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Blurring Burbs

There was a time in the aviation sector when the "Big Four" referred to Eastern, TWA, United and American Airlines. Everybody else was a bit player hunkered down in some far-flung corner of the country but the Big Four covered nearly all bases. Dying airlines and talks of monopolies reached Capital Hill as many raised concerns of a small group of competing airlines serving the nation while having too much power in the way of fares and frequencies along the way. As I drove home from work one evening I came to the conclusion that the fear mongers were not paying as much attention to the retail sector as they were to the airlines.

There used to be about 15 unique airline brands offering flights between New York and California, the bread-and-butter run for just about any airline wanting to call itself one. Now there is maybe six. Compare that to the average suburb in the United States but the difficulty with finding monopolies in the retail sector is that there are so many parts to retail, petroleum, restaurants, green grocers, department stores, electronics and home improvement. Imagine if dry cleaners ever franchised. "I get my cleaning at So-And-So's" and everyone from Boston to Burbank knows what you're talking about!

No matter where I am in my metropolitan area I run across the same names. McDonald's, Exxon, Bank of America, Home Depot and Best Buy. They bring with them their respective competitors at nearly every turn, like Burger King, Wendy's, Lowe's, Shell and Wells Fargo. The eat-in restaurants are no better with household names like Olive Garden, Chili's, TGI Fridays, Chipotle, Outback and even Morton's. I see it everywhere. Out of all of these choices there still seems to be very few within each sector to choose from. The ones lining the main thoroughfares are the usual suspects from one end of the country to the other. Shopping? Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, JC Penney's, Macy's, Nordstrom's and Bloomingdales.

The reality is there are a decent number of regional favorites in just about every category for the locals to choose from and to keep the big boys honest but herein lies the paradox. Those passing through have never heard of them and are probably reluctant to try something they're unfamiliar with. The only way to increase their profile is to join the ranks of the national brands and further homogenize the American landscape. Look what happened to Cracker Barrel and Chiki-Fil-A.

The one thing I have noticed is that green grocers for the most part have kept their local identities. That doesn't mean, however, that they haven't gone corporate, though. Los Angeles has Ralph's and Pavilions, Chicago has Jewel-Osco, Washington/Baltimore has Giant and the Southeast is saturated with Publix, Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion. Over all of those are Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway brands, the latter alone owning Randall's, Vons', Tom Thumb and Genuardi's, some 1700 stores across the country plus Carrs in Alaska! The most interesting name of all? Family owned Schnuck's of St. Louis.

Yea, I know, kinda hard to get jones'd up on supermarkets but other than them is there anything left truly unique about your hometown that can't be found anywhere else in the country? All the China Dragon, China Pearl, China Garden and Taste of China buffets don't do it either and be careful: there is or just might be an In - N - Out Burger coming soon to a location near you.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Debit Denied

I'm mad. That is certainly not how one wants to come home from a spectacular vacation but I'm mad just the same. I'm old enough to remember the days of stopping to get traveler's cheques before going overseas and having to plot where the nearest American Express office was to convert them at the best rates of exchange. Only fools and the rich used cash advances from their credit cards while overseas while the rest of us relied on cold, hard cash and the hotel safe. Today's traveler can use their debit cards for safety, convenience and attractive exchange rates but therein lies the problem and the reason for my anger.

In the ever evolving world of "fee-basing" I discovered upon returning home that an "International Transaction" fee was assessed each and every time I used my bank debit card. From as little as a 30-cent minimum to nearly $8, the fee ranged on the monetary value of the sale. The additional insult was my bank claimed innocence in the matter, that it was merely a pass-through from the local bank in the country I was visiting who assessed the fee in support of converting the currency values. They wanted a commission, basically, for electronically converting currencies at the point of sale. Please.

The additional mud in the eye was the fact that the "International Transaction" fee said no more than that. There was nothing tying it to the actual transaction for me to trace and either accept or challenge later. I mean, I used my debit card just to buy soda and popsicles at a convenience store - who keeps the receipt for something that simple and even if I did, how do I know which fee went with it? Not knowing about the fees before I departed exposed me to nearly $50 of unplanned charges against my bank account upon my return which, thankfully, I had funds to cover. Still, my blood boils at the thought of even one of those fees resulting in a $35 NSF fee from the bank. I was gone three weeks and used that card at least 4-6 times per day - do the math.

The real anger, though, came something like the third day in to the vacation when my card was suspended. You go on vacation, you make sure you have money in the bank to cover your expenses right? You go out of the country, however, and that suddenly flags as a major departure from your "normal spending pattern" which triggers an alert at the bank to shut the card down as a safety precaution. I checked my funds before I left, the card and account both were in good standing, I'm over 8,000 miles from home and have been suddenly cut off from my financial lifeline?

A few aggravating and agitated long-distance calls later and I've reached my bank, verified my identity and location and had the card reactivated. I'm good to go for the rest of the vacation. I accept their apology for the inconvenience and thank them for looking out for my financial security...but I'm still mad. And I've got an idea how to fix it, too.

Gotta go.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Highway Rivalry

I-35 runs from the Mexican border at Laredo almost to the western tip of Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota. Strung along that highway are millions of sports fans who support such teams as the Vikings, Twins, and Timberwolves through the Chiefs and Royals of Kansas City. Then there is the "I-35 Rivalry" stretching from San Antonio to Oklahoma City with Dallas/Ft. Worth smack in the middle and definitely not the peacemaker of the set-up by no means. What makes it truly interesting at the southern end of this particular interstate is the deeply entwined loyalties most of the people have for one team in particular but vehement and equally divided rivalries when it comes to other teams and sports in the area.

Believe it or not let's start with the one team that brings the region together every Fall, the Dallas Cowboys. Outside of Greater Houston the entire rest of the state is primarily Cowboys Country while Cowboys Nation extends deeply in to Oklahoma as well except for the Northeast corner that skews more towards the rams or the Oklahoma Panhandle which might lean to the Broncos. The average citizen on the street in Oklahoma will tell you they want nothing to do with anything coming out of Texas but bleed blue in spite of their pronunciations at least from September to January.

Where the splintering begins remains in the game of football, however, at the collegiate level where Dallas becomes the epicenter of the rivalry between the Texas Longhorns of Austin and the Oklahoma Sooners of Norman . There is no strong professional baseball rivalry since the Rangers are the only team along I-35 until you get to Kansas City. real rivalry there at the moment. Things heat up for basketball, though, which probably is the showcase sport of contention for the region.

The San Antonio Spurs really get under the skin of Dallas Mavericks fans while there is no love lost in the other direction either. The gleeful thing for "Mavs" fans this season is that San Antonio was eliminated from the 2011 playoffs. The irony of it all is that the Mavs are now locking horns with, of all cities, the Oklahoma City Thunder, late of - wait for it - Vancouver, Canada! It's too early to call it a conspiracy but if Dallas wins the Oklahomans will have one more reason to loudly pronounce their hatred of all things below ("beneath" to some folks) the Red River. At the same time, if the Thunder win the semis to advance to the Finals the tune won't change a whole lot from the former scenario.

If I look at I-5, the backbone of California and the West Coast I'd see a more clearly defined landscape. With the exception of Los Angeles not having a football team each major city has its own set of football, baseball and basketball teams to celebrate, from San Diego to Seattle. Likewise I-95 running the Eastern Seaboard of the country; to each his own in every major city from Miami to Boston or even I-80 from New York to San Francisco. There truly doesn't appear to be anything like the I-35 Rivalry anywhere else in the country.

It happens. Enemies gather in Dallas in October for "Texas-OU Weekend," formerly held at the Cotton Bowl downtown but now played in Arlington at Cowboys Stadium. They do battle on Saturday and then return the next day to the exact same venue proudly wearing and swearing by the Silver and Blue! Whaddya gonna do?

Only thing anyone on the RIGHT side of the Red River would do: Go Mavs!!!

Gotta go.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Traveling Under Contract

In the travel industry service providers have this mysterious arm of employees called sales managers. Or Account Executives. Or something along those lines to give the grueling and cruel position some sense of power and respectability. Like the ubiquitous "Fuller Brush Man" they beat the bushes of corporate America hustling for the attentions and business of other corporations in what can be summed up as some of the most cut throat day trading left on the planet.

The corporate volume agreement is a key tool used to guarantee a revenue stream from a major customer in to the service provider, be it airline, rental car company or hotel. Travel providers operating on microscopic profit margins need every penny they can get. Corporations with far flung operations want as much of a break in travel costs as they can get. Now comes the fun...can they get a better discount from United or America, from Sheraton or Hyatt, from Avis or Hertz? McDonald's?

Most restaurants do not generally have a sales force beyond their marketing division which deals in print advertising and television commercials. After that their reputation, location and whether or not they accept the corporate card of choice are usually all they need to get people off the streets and in to their dining rooms. Hotels have rooms to fill and they measure their performance in terms such as "room/nights," or how many nights each room of a given property can generate. A one-night stay? Meh. Too much work. A group of 30 for ten nights each? Now you're talking! More of those, please, and how about some help with all those meeting rooms?

Rental car companies have huge fleets of cars in all sizes to keep on the roads and the longer the rentals the better for them. They have to move the car, often as a loss-leader to get to the margin boosting add-ons like collision damage waivers, GPS and category upgrades.

Same with airlines only amplified to an unimaginable degree. They have thousands of empty seats to fill, any one of which might be available for sale from one to six times a day depending on how often that particular aircraft takes off and lands within a 24 hour window. Add in other variables like market competition, day of the week and time of the year and that seat can have literally dozens of possible fares attached to it. Do you go after Grandma or General Electric?

Buy more, get more, basically, and other "toys" can come with those contracts, too, like free nights and cars, upgraded cars, rooms and seats in First Class. Airlines will even "match" membership status across frequent flyer programs. Other incentives can include memberships to the airline club lounges or even their particular brand of "Special Services" which amounts to individualized airport concierge service at the largest (and most notorious) hubs and key markets.

Today everybody pretends that their agreement is exclusive and that penalties will be invoked if the corporation double-dips with other service retailers in key markets. Doesn't happen. The corporate account often has multiple contracts designed for different things that covers the spread of their travel and lets them hit their travel targets across the board. No airline in their right mind will kill the goose so they can have all of the golden eggs. In markets like Chicago, New York, Boston and Los Angeles, it's sign here, then here, handshake, here's your bag of treats and thanks for buying exclusively with us!

Wink wink, nudge nudge.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Home in the Hotel

The best service providers offer their customers a choice. When traveling there is a choice of dining options at a restaurant, choice of seating on an airplane, choice of car categories at the rental counter and choice of rooms at the hotel. Each tries to cater to the myriad tastes and preferences of the traveling public while making each feel as if only their wishes are the ones to be met, for the most part with casual, everyday success. There is one instance where hotels at least, have failed miserably and that is the feeling of being at home.

I'm one of those that refers to my hotel as "home" after a few days on the road; as in, instead of when I get back to the hotel it's "when I get home tonight." Still, no matter how well appointed and plush any room I've ever stayed in, from the Crown Plaza to the Shangri-La, no matter how modern the technology may be in places like "Le Meridien Cyberport" none of them really evoke the sense of being in one's own bedroom. I have appreciated luxurious mattresses, fine furnishings, spectacular televisions and high-speed internet. I have enjoyed some of the best in high-end toilletries but I have never in my years of traveling experienced the one thing that truly transforms the hotel bed in to the bed at home.

Fabric softener.

SCENTED fabric softener to be more precise! I'm not hypo-allergenic. My family over the years has used Gain, Tide and Cheer for the wash and never anything but Downy April Fresh for the rinse cycle. When dryer sheets came along we went with and stayed with Bounce. Less popular and more economic brands have come in to the mix based occasionally but our trifecta has typically been Tide, Downy and Bounce with Clorox thrown in to the mix for whites.

As in bed linens. High volume chain establishments up to and including cruise lines have tons of laundry to go through and uncountable gallons of water to pay for, process and be accountable for in today's green society environment. Linens have to be mass-washed and sterilized as much as possible since it is certainly not cost effective to toss them in the trash after every guest. Industrial strength detergents and bleaches are used daily; if any fabric softener is brought to bear it is most assuredly as non-scented and hypo-allergenic as everything else down in the laundry room or at the local service contractor. Despite knowing uncounted hordes have slept on these linens no traces of them must be left behind. No scented detergents or softeners, either, less someone break out in a rash or other untimely reaction.

A recent cruise vacation I went on found the room to be comfortable and the queen-sized bed to be plush but the near razor sharp top sheet alone was enough to make me wonder if it wasn't some form of disposable paper. I just returned from a business trip to Florida and the linens at my hotel were certainly softer than those on board ship. I was still aware, however, that "cool and crisp" meant lifeless and hard edged.

I don't know if fresh cut flowers might help, a little Lemon Pledge on the furnishings maybe, or what it will take for the big chains to understand and find an affordable way to bring a little home to the hotel experience. I do know where I can find it, though, if only there were more of them. A bed & breakfast.

Gotta go.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Failing The 2nd Generation?

My generation of Black Americans was the first. Those of us born in the 60s grew up too young to know firsthand many of the pains and sufferings that came with the Civil Rights Movement raging all around us. Our concerns were limited to diapers, bottles, regular feedings and learning how to walk. As we got older using a public toilet only meant making sure we went in to the correct one for our sex, not our race. We walked in the front door of every restaurant and stayed at motels when our families were tired of driving as we went "down home" to visit relatives or drove across the country to new homes in new states. We shopped at malls named "Glendale" like any of our white friends would, often seeing them in the same stores or even traveling together so our moms could keep an eye on us. Suffering to us was going to bed without getting any candy.

Recently I was on business to Florida and was just winding up an evening at dinner with co-workers. One I dropped back at the office where he'd left his car so we could travel together while the other I'd dropped at the hotel before heading out for some last minute shopping of my own. Upon returning to the hotel I had left the car and was making my way across the drive in to the lobby when I heard the plea "Excuse me, Sir" for me to stop. This was Florida and I'm not from New York so whatever instinct I should have possessed to simply keep walking was not in my make-up.

Here comes this tallish, lanky and obviously stoned young man who began with the usual schpiel of meaning no harm and just wanting some help. Inside of a minute he'd made his plea for a couple dollars for gas to get his stalled car started so he could get home. The hotel was a reputable brand in a good neighborhood on a busy thoroughfare less than a mile from the interstate but the first rule of safety in the parking lot of any establishment is never under any circumstances open or even reach for your wallet in public. I was tired and alone and wanted to get inside to safety and upstairs to pack for the flight home the next day as soon as possible. I politely refused and proceeded inside.

In his own words this person was 19 years old and high, having just "smoked a J" before realizing his alleged predicament. Being Black American as well he was also hoping that I could "hook a young brother up." After I'd refused and gone upstairs to my room which faced the parking lot I first checked out of the window to see if he'd seen the car I had alighted from and if it had been damaged or attacked after I'd left him. The car was safe and so was I as I began packing for the flight home the next day.

A mixture of sadness and anger washed over me as I worked my way through a week's laundry along with thoughts of what had just happened. This child of less than 20 years clearly did not know or was never told of the sacrifices made to offer him a better start than many before him could have ever dreamed of. This young man who could easily have been a child of mine had no real sense of the opportunities created from blood, sweat and politics that he was smoking away with each pipe and reefer he could get his hands on. On top of that this foolish fellow tried to play me for gas when a couple of dollars wouldn't get him across the street at today's prices! More likely this young junkie who's life looked already over was short on the cost of a fix and his dealer was waiting nearby to get paid.

Did my generation fail him or did he fail himself? Either way heaven knows he's not alone.

Gotta go.