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.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I and the Caucus

I went to Des Moines, Iowa. I wasn't quite sure the reason; some friends at the time lived there but they weren't the closest of friends, honestly. They traveled regularly to Chicago where I was living at the time so there wasn't much reason to go but I ultimately figured why not, got on a plane and went.
Forty-five minutes after take-off the flight landed in the state capitol of Iowa, center of American presidential politics. Again, not sure the reason behind that but I could research that history easily enough. By the time I arrived and got my hotel room I was more than a little curious about the city, its people and the surrounding area. To dispel a myth right from the start it was not completely surrounded by corn but there was no major highway leading from the airport in to town, either. I wasn't completely in the sticks but they probably weren't too far away, either.
A comfortable population of just over 200,000 call the city home with the entire metro area not quite hitting 600,000. Wow. It seems as if I've lived in "suburbs" with larger populations. Still, the downtown skyline was impressive enough in having at least one decent skyscraper, 801 Grand, while a very nicely landscaped river park system runs east-west through the heart of town. Interstate #35 runs up from Texas north to Minnesota while I-80 crosses it on the run from New York to San Francisco. At the center of all of this is the Iowa State Fairground, home of the daddy of all state fairs.
My friends picked me up that evening and promptly took me to the inner east side of the city where the warehouse district held some of the larger and more popular night spots in the city. One was a country western themed place which was smallish by Chicago or Dallas standards but nonetheless turned a healthy business, blaring country music for the locals, not one of whom was chewing a stalk of wheat. The second place we went to was more along the lines of something you would find just about anywhere in Los Angeles, multiple venues under one roof catering to all comers in all stripes. Even then, warehouse club or not, everyone in the place seemed to know everyone else on sight if not by name.
Like just about every other state in the union Iowa derives its name from indigenous place names but Des Moines itself is shortened from Ft. Des Moines which takes its French origins from the "River of Monks" that runs through the heart of town on its way to the Mississippi. The native American nations did not fare well in the area but their story pales in comparison to their Sioux Nation brethren further west and north. The fort created to control the locals was abandoned after they were removed from the area but the population lingered and eventually grew in to the city I flew to see one weekend in June.
I went to satisfy a curiosity and when my plane left I knew it would be under rather unforeseen conditions that would cause me to return. I've lost touch with my friends there and have no family of my own in the area. But I went, it was pleasant enough an experience and I'm happy to say that I did.
Gotta go.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

First Time in San Francisco

The plane landed from Tucscon just after sundown. It was during a time in my life when my wants did not translate in to real costs but somehow my parents came up with the money in 1979 to send me around the country to visit friends from Junior High. We used to live in the same town in Germany but that was the year before. Now the whims and ways of the United States Armed Forces scattered us all to the far corners of the United States and I missed them. After ten days in Southern Arizona I was now on my way to the second leg of the trip, ten days in Northern California with my other good buddy from back in the day.

Arizona was fun but unbelievably hot. I remember my friend's family admonishing me to stop wearing long pants, something to this day I still prefer over shorts but in Arizona I accepted and then came to like the adjustment quite well. After the blistering heat of the Sonora Desert some time in the ocean breezes along the west coast would be welcome relief indeed. My friend and his family met me at the airport and proceeded north in to San Francisco and the Presidio, the famous Army base overlooking the Golden Gate.

I don't remember the precise route we took in to the city but I was understandably disoriented after my time in the Southwest and never having been to the city by the sea before in my life. Part of me was envious of my friend because they were posted to this new and wonderful part of the country whereas my family had returned to familiar territory in Central Maryland at Ft. Meade situated between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Who hadn't heard the amazing stories coming out of the Bay Area, the bridges, the waterfront, the constant weather and the eclectic mix of people, culture and curiosity. It was all around me albeit shrouded in the darkness of the night and the famous rolling fog that started in from the ocean a tad earlier than usual so I was told.

Unbeknownst to me my welcoming party had planned a small tour and took me straight to Ft. Point just under the south landing of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was dark, it was foggy, there was a mist in the air but out of the car we got and groped our way to the very edge of the water. The waves crashed below us and the mighty bellow of the bridge foghorn sounded up above somewhere in the thickness of the swirl. I was facing north and didn't know it. Alcatraz Island was off my right hand shoulder but I couldn't see it. One of the greatest cities in the world was at my back and I had no clue. I stood there in vocal disbelief that I was anywhere near the bridge as well; there was no visual proof of anything other than the white-gray of the fog swallowing everything as if out of some cheesy 1950s horror film.

We finally made it to the home of my friend and his family deeper in to the Presidio and I welcomed cool linens and a soft pillow after my travels from Arizona and the ride in from the airport. I was safe and happy in San Francisco and though tired couldn't wait to begin touring the area. And I was in for the biggest surprise in the world when we went back to the same spot under the bridge the next morning!

Gotta go.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Whales and Seals

It was Todd's first trip to New Zealand. One of us, I forget whom, had won two free tickets on Air New Zealand, the national carrier of a country I'm quite familiar with, and we made arrangements to go for a couple of weeks. On the flight down I was thoroughly humbled by a grandmother from England who traveled two hours to London's Heathrow Airport, flown 12 hours to Los Angeles, was my seatmate for the 12 hour flight to Auckland from whence, following a healthy layover, she had another three hour flight to Brisbane. All for the sake of seeing her first grandchild. I kept my agonizing to a minimum.

Following some time in Auckland we made our way south to Christchurch to visit with friends and to hopefully experience real whale watching for the first time in either of our lives. I'd done some research before flying down about expeditions launching from the small coastal town of Kaikoura and had set all the arrangements for the 2nd day of our arrival on the South Island. Of the three tours scheduled between early morning and high noon we were booked on the 2nd starting at around 10:30 the following morning.

We picked our way to NZ#1, the two-lane national highway leading north along the eastern coastline to Kaikoura, paying attention to every road sign since every road looked the same as well as the British Commonwealth driving on the opposite side of both car and highway. Despite being tired from an evening with friends and the early hour upon us there was time aplenty to notice the bucolic beauty of rural New Zealand, something to that point I had never experienced in this part of the country. Farms, sheep of course, short trees, fruit groves and all of it covered in thick carpets of green. In a country of only four million confined to two middling sized islands (the North Island could fit in Ohio) they were thankfully blessed with not needing a lot of space along with the fact that much of it is quite mountainous and rugged, limiting any desire to create a lot of sprawl from the start.

Large pods of bachelor sperm whales gather off the coast of Kaikoura on the northeast side of the South Island. They gather here as they wait to mature and grow large enough to compete for females but also because one of their favorite foods, the giant squid, is known to collect here in great quantities as well. Diving up to a mile deep for their prize, when they surface the sight is nothing short of spectacular, blowing huge plumes of spray as they seek to replenish sorely depleted oxygen reserves. These brutes average 40-45 feet in length and are the largest toothed-whales in the world. The deep waters of Kaikoura are not always tame, either. These are active, deep Pacific waters with no reefs or shoals to tame the seas.

Three hours of driving and we had arrived. Kaikoura would be right at home as a one-horse town somewhere in Wyoming. Not much to look at, one road through town to the rest of civilization and one angry, roaring ocean just off the right shoulder. We hadn't noticed the storm clouds getting thicker the closer we drew to our destination. Unlucky us, they came together with a vengeance right off the coast but having come all this way we refused to let the weather tell us our tour was in jeopardy.

The sign in the window of the tour offices did that instead. All whales had either gone deep or further out to sea to escape the boiling cauldron nearer to shore. With up to a 10-foot chop at the surface there was nothing to see and nothing worth the risk in trying. Sorry, thanks, come back another day. As with most tourists there wasn't "another day" built in to our timeline. Asking about other activities in the area we were advised of a seal colony a few miles south where one lone seal steadfastly snoozed on the rocks while the others also absconded to better climes and locales.

Three hours' drive and some eight thousand miles from home for one stinkin' seal? Nice!

Gotta go.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Not Enough Land...

"So, Ma," I asked. "What do you think of Hawaii?" It was 2005 and we had arrived only the day before for an unplanned stop over on the way back from Japan. There was some time left in our vacation with my aunt and cousin so the three of us decided to visit Hawaii for one last hurrah before heading home. The aunt and cousin had never been to Hawaii before, indeed, they'd never been to any of the places we visited on this trip, and Mom had not returned to the 50th state in over 30 years so we figured why not? Today found us on the North Shore facing the massive expanse of the Central Pacific from a high overview.

"Not enough land for all that water" was her now famous reply. Charged with a heady mixture of absolute fear of open water along with memories of the tsunami reports coming from Bali in 2004 Mom saw very little in the way of scenic beauty. While not visibly shaking in her shoes she gamely went along with us for the ride around the island fighting to keep an eye on the road and the water at the same time.

We weren't there in time for the famous "Big Wave" season when surfers the world over arrive to tackle seasonal waves coming from as far as Japan and culminating in monster waves up to 20 or more feet high. That was a good thing if for no other reason than traffic was non-existent, no more than the usual island trade plus a few other curious tourists who chose to venture beyond the pineapple plantations in the center of the island. For me it was a first because I had never completely circumnavigated an entire island before and it gave me a first real perspective on the size of Oahu, 2nd largest in the chain, compared to the largest body of water on the planet. Maybe Mom was stating the truth after all.

We chose a random beach to pull over and get out of the car for a little while where three of us lit out for the water as soon as we could get our shoes off. There was no tide, the surf almost non-existent - for that side of Hawaii, anyway - and the air and water cool, blue and inviting. My aunt could barely contain her glee as she hopped in and out of the water, recalling one good story after another of her days as a young girl in South America. My cousin was pleased to simply stroll in the waves as they lapped over the sands while I made as big a splash as someone my size would be expected to make. That's when the screaming started.

"Come out of that water!" Over and over again Mother implored us all to leave the waves which in her opinion were far too high and strong. "You gonna get pulled out to sea! Y'all get outta the water!" One wave had indeed snuck up behind auntie and flattened her on the beach. When she reappeared in the froth, hair all off on one side, salt and sand in everything else, she was howling with laughter, free of the cares of the world once more.

"I give up," Mom declared. "Y'all drown if you want to, I can't watch. I'm going to the car." One and all made it home just fine.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Airlines live by the economics of unit costs per mile. Using that formula I just filled my car at $3.35 a gallon here in the great but not always cheap state of Texas. A 16-gallon fill-up sets me back right at $54 for regular unleaded. My car's mileage over the course of a week of commuting to work and one or two trips for groceries and essentials is about 350 miles. That is right at 22 miles to the gallon over both highway and city mileage. If it were all highway I can add at least another 60 miles to that total before having to pull up again. An entire year of fuel burn, if I drove the same every week, including vacations, would be 832 gallons at an expense of $2800 for 18,200 miles. In airline breakdown that is 6.5 cents per mile with no change in the price of gas or the mileage driven. Doesn't sound so bad but how does that compare to flying?

This month Qantas will launch direct service from my home town of Dallas/Ft. Worth to Australia, featuring nonstop service to Brisbane with return nonstop service from Sydney. The smallest plane in their fleet that can handle the route is the 747-400ER which is no small bird to begin with. The A380 is too big, there aren't enough of them yet and the ones they have are suffering persistent teething problems with engines and fuel pumps. The new 787 would be perfect to start out but oops, those aren't delivered yet or ready to fly at this writing. The 747 it is and here are a few numbers to toss around for just this one flight that will operate only four days a week.

The -400 version has been around since 1989. It expanded upon the original -100 model to the tune of an additional 2300 miles in range (think of flying 11 hours from Athens to New York and then keep going another six hours to California without stopping). It ships 15,000 more gallons of fuel per flight in order to make that added flying possible and weighs 140,000 pounds more than the first one did for Pan Am back in 1970.

Did I say 15,000 more gallons? Yes, for a total of 63,700 gallons fully loaded for just one flight. And you can bet this flight will have a full load of fuel almost regardless of how many passengers are on board. That kind of fuel would need 76 years to burn for just me and my car but that's not a fair comparison. Spreading that fuel load over 450 passengers and you're talking 145 gallons per person to fly all the way to Australia. At 22 miles per gallon in my car that isn't even half the distance of getting there if driving to Brisbane were even possible!

There are millions of cars in the United States alone much less around the rest of the world. My car seats five but carries only me 95% of the time. Boeing 747s rarely operate with only one paying customer on board though it has happened. As of March 11th, the IATA website indicates the price of jet fuel ran at $3.15 per gallon, 20 cents off of what I paid. At that price Qantas has to shell out over $200,000 per flight for the new service from Dallas, the kind of money that would again take me over 70 years to spend if the price held steady that long. Spread it over 450 paying customers, though, and the cost is $445 per person, each way, about the same as it costs me to drive my car for two months.

I just looked at Qantas' website where the cheapest roundtrip ticket between Dallas and Brisbane is, wait for it, $988 round trip. That's hardly $100 over the total cost of fuel at the IATA price and does not necessarily include surcharges, airport or security fees much less the price of labor for the pilots and flight attendants or even the food. Yes, for 17 hours in the air they do feed you.

Just like you I don't like to pay any more than I have to for gas or the cost of a plane ticket. At the same time it is a bit more understandable when they say "seats are limited."

Gotta go.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Qantas to Dallas

Hooray! Qantas is finally coming to Dallas after a long-awaited and much anticipated announcement to begin service in May of 2011. We all knew the only thing holding them up was an uptick in the economy that would sustain the first non-traditional (anything other than Los Angeles or San Francisco) nonstop service to the land down under. Though in fact the service comes by way of discontinuing their service to San Francisco which freed up the aircraft assets needed to fly the route it is surely welcome news in these here parts.

San Francisco never made much sense simply because it is a United Airlines stronghold, a founding member of the Star Alliance. Qantas has been in bed with American Airlines through oneworld and guess where American’s strongest base is located. No brainer that over 800 silver birds a day launch from Dallas bringing tons of connecting traffic with them. Just like at Los Angeles, the southbound departure to Brisbane which then continues to Sydney doesn’t depart until late at night leaving all day long for traffic to build at Dallas to fill the airplane. Even without much in the way of connecting business the Dallas/Ft Worth area is fourth largest in the country in terms of population at nearly seven million, was recently cited for having more corporate headquarters in the area than New York City and thus has no shortage of the affluent and well-heeled.

Am I invested in this new service in any way? Nope, but I am a fan of Qantas, having flown them on more than one occasion. I also live in the area and have close friends in New Zealand. This service just made it a heck of a lot easier to stay in touch without having to deal with Los Angeles but also continuing to earn AAdvantage frequent flyer miles. There’s not really a lot to complain about regarding this service, scheduled to launch with my favorite airplane, the 747-400 offering coach, premium economy and business class.

Actually there is just one little thing that I’m concerned/curious about and that is the plan to launch nonstop to Brisbane. Sydney is simply too far for the 747, the A380 is too large for the market (not to mention grounded due to engine troubles) and the 787 probably a year away from entering this particular market. Brisbane is all of 276 miles closer and thus within the extreme limit of the range of the plane they’re planning to use. Wow, a whole 276 miles. I remember when United attempted nonstop service from Los Angeles to Melbourne but the equipment they used more often than not had to call in to Honolulu for extra fuel thanks to headwinds, payload or both.

That was a different model 747 that didn’t have the same range as the one Qantas will use but the extreme limits present the same problems with seasonal headwinds and such like. The routing of the flight will take it through Texas west-southwest across Mexico and across Baja California for about four hours before breaking out over the Pacific for the final 13 hours to Brisbane. That routing leaves precious few North American alternates to choose from on this side of the flight if refueling is an unavoidable part of the plan. What’s left after that?

Hawaii would be too far to the north so that leaves Tahiti or Fiji as having air strips and facilities well positioned and capable of handling a middle of the night fuel stop or worse. With that said I am in no way concerned about the safe operation of the service. I only wonder if I may be lucky enough to experience an unscheduled “technical” stop as part of my vacation adventure. There is a solution, though.

Instead of trying to make Brisbane they could fly the route nonstop to New Zealand where my friends are. Auckland is 800 miles closer and comfortably within range of the 747. They could drop me off and then keep going to Sydney from there. But maybe they and Air New Zealand (offering a competing nonstop to Houston to hook up with Continental Airlines) have already thought of that!

Gotta go!