Friday, August 29, 2014

Now You Can Defend Your Right to In-Flight Comfort. But …

The old adage that there are two sides to every story just doesn't always hold water. Every so often we come across an issue for which there is a totally rational and justifiable argument on both sides: everyone is right; no one is wrong. Resolving an issue like that is tricky at best. And sometimes just impossible.

So it is with the Knee Defender. This ingenious device -- I'm not sure something can be called a "device" if there are no moving parts -- slips over each of the two supports of the tray tables in seat backs on a jetliner. And it can literally be locked in place. 

 Once installed, the person seated in front of you cannot recline their seat … thus safeguarding the pathetic amount of leg room with which the airline has grudgingly provided to you. 

I have a personal interest in this. In a few weeks I'll be on flights of six hours, seven-and-a-half hours, and four hours as I go from Maui to Seattle and Seattle to Paris by way of Reykjavik. Employing a Knee Defender on those flights could make a huge difference during the 18 hours I'm going to be spending in the air. It would be $21.95 well spent and I'm really tempted.

But wait. What about the person in that seat in front of me? Doesn't paying for that seat include the right to recline it? Seems to me a strong case can be made for that. It's a quandary. And it could lead to trouble.

In fact, it did. About a week ago, the Knee Defender was the cause of a confrontation on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver. A male passenger had employed the gadgets on his tray table and, in so doing, prevented the women seated in front of him from reclining her seat. She took exception, words were exchanged, and things escalated to the point that she doused him with a cup of water. That was enough for the captain, who diverted to Chicago where both passengers were ushered off the plane. 

(How could they not tell us what happened next? Were there shouted recriminations in the passenger lounge at O'Hare? Or did the man and woman sort it all out and end up having dinner together? Somewhere in Hollywood, a writer has already incorporated this incident into a treatment for a film. It's a romantic comedy starring George Clooney.)

Anyway, I sympathize with those two people. They were both right. The fault, dear reader, is not in their stars. It's the damn airlines, who mercilessly cram as many of us as possible into their aluminum tubes.

That does not mean I'm excusing the way that particular incident escalated, causing at the very least, minor inconvenience for more than 250 people. Had it been me, I would have removed the Knee Defenders or, even more likely, not used them in the first place. Besides, with my luck, the person in the seat in front of me would turn out to be a guy … and an Olympic weightlifter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lots of Politicians; Damn Few Leaders.

It was early in 1970 and Frank Fasi had been mayor of Honolulu for about two years when the crisis hit: bus drivers for the privately owned Honolulu Rapid Transit company went out on strike. Public transportation on the Island of Oahu came to a virtual standstill.

The shutdown had, in fact, been engineered by the owner of HRT, Harry Weinberg. Essentially, he provoked the strike, then refused to negotiate with the union drivers. With no possibility of a resolution, Weinberg expected the City of Honolulu to eventually step in, buy HRT, and take over the operation … allowing him to walk away clean and with a satchel full of tax dollars.

 It probably would have worked if anyone but Frank Fasi had been mayor of Honolulu. Frank was a former Marine officer -- tough, smart and certainly up to doing battle with Harry Weinberg. For one thing, Frank knew that the HRT equipment was old and would soon need replacing. Instead of negotiating the purchase of HRT with Weinberg, Frank set out to start a brand new transit system owned and operated by the City of Honolulu.

Within a few weeks, he learned that Dallas, Texas, was about to start replacing a large number of the buses in its system. With the city attorney, Frank flew to Dallas to negotiate the purchase, only to find himself in the middle of a labor dispute between the transit workers and the City of Dallas. That was a problem, because Dallas couldn't get a commitment for federal funds to buy new buses to replace the ones being sold to Honolulu as long as there was a pending labor dispute.

Pointing out that no one could be more impartial than the Mayor of Honolulu, Frank wound up helping to mediate the dispute in Dallas. Then he flew to Washington to expedite the release of funds to the City of Dallas so they could, in turn, release their buses for Honolulu.

There were some 35 buses in all and they left Dallas in a caravan headed for the west coast where they were loaded onto a container ship. I've often wondered what motorists on highways in Texas and New Mexico and Arizona thought when they passed a string of 30-some buses, each with "HONOLULU" showing as a destination.

It was around the first of March when that container ship arrived in Honolulu harbor. Helicopters hovered above as TV cameramen filmed the arrival. Once the ship had docked, a giant crane lifted the first bus off the deck, swung it over the side, and set it down on the pier. That's when Frank, wearing a cowboy hat presented to him by Dallas officials, gleefully climbed into the driver's seat, fired it up the engine, and drove the bus in figure eights around the terminal parking lot. The media went nuts.

That was halfway through his first term as our mayor and was pretty much the start of an amazing political career. When he finally left office, Frank Fasi had served as Mayor of Honolulu for a total of 22 years. Today, he is remembered as the best mayor Honolulu ever had. Nobody's a close second. You can ask anyone.

First the Airlines, Now the Hotels Are Nicking Us.

The late Senator Everett Dirkson of Illinois, famous for his deep voice and a manner of speaking that bordered on pomposity, is probably best remembered for a remark attributed to him, "A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money!"

Well, $2.25 billion is a significant chunk of change. That's the estimated amount of money hotels in this country are going to be raking in this year from add-on fees. They have taken a page from the airlines' book, you see, and are finding ways to extract a few extra bucks from us … after we've accepted the room rate.

 Check it out the next time you book a room on line. You settle on the standard room, then up pops a new page that says if you really MUST have two queen beds, they'll be happy to guarantee that's what you'll get … for an additional fee of $10 or $15 a night.

My pet peeve is finding out that the internet connection in the room is going to cost me an additional $17.95 a day. The  NARP board member responsible for, among many other things, negotiating with the hotels in the various cities where we hold our semi-annual meetings insists that there be no charge for accessing the internet.

Of course, there's also the notorious mini-bar, which has always been a rip-off with prices three or four time what the item would cost you at the neighborhood convenience store.  Ironically, the mini-bars are often a headache for the hotel, since they have to be checked every day and restocked as necessary. That all takes time and (all together now) time is money.

More and more of the mini-bars now come equipped with sensors. If an item is removed for more than 40 seconds -- ka-ching, ka-ching -- you'll find it on your bill when you check out. But, as always, the solution to one problem just creates another one: you'll be still charged if you remove an item, but change your mind and put it back more than 40 seconds later!

And don't try to buy some snacks or drinks outside the hotel and stick them in the minibar's fridge to keep them cold. A recent visitor to Las Vegas discovered when he was checking out that the hotel had charged him a "service fee" of $25 a day for stashing a couple of sandwiches in their little fridge!

Truthfully, I don't have a problem with businesses doing what they can to maximize income. But do it on the up-and-up, will you? Don't lure me in with what appears to be a fair and attractive price, then hammer me with a bunch off additional costs after I've committed. That smacks of deception and no one likes to be treated that way.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Amtrak's Cardinal Should Be A Daily Train.

This is one of my favorite rides. The Cardinal runs between New York and Chicago, but it takes a meandering southern route that makes it, without doubt, one of the two or three more scenic Amtrak rides in the eastern part of the country.  After the westbound train leaves New York's Penn Station, it heads down through the Northeast Corridor to Washington, then continues to the southwest. 

 One of its stops, about two-and-a-half hours after leaving Washington, is Charlottesville, Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is located. I have never been there, but it's moving up toward the top of my "must-see" list.

 Three hours later, the Cardinal reaches White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, which is where the famous Greenbrier resort is located. 

But it's really the scenery that makes this such a special ride. The Cardinal takes you across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, passes over the Appalachian Trail, runs through the Shenandoah Valley and then …

 … into the New River Gorge. This is the highlight of the trip for me. The train switches from one side of the river to the other several times, so I head for the lounge car to relax with a beverage and catch the view from both sides. 

I always try to work in a ride on the Cardinal when I travel to the east coast, but's not easy. This train only runs three days a week and, furthermore, it's a small train with usually only one Viewliner sleeping car, so space is limited. Somehow it always seems that either it's not running on the day I need to travel or there's no space left in the sleeper. Very frustrating! 

In fact, Amtrak runs two trains that operate only three days a week -- the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Both are constantly under attack by anti-rail forces because less than stellar ridership results in a high cost-per-passenger. 

Yes, it sounds contradictory to say that, under the circumstances, those two trains should run daily, but the old railroad axiom Double the frequency, triple the ridership has been proven over and over. My difficulties in trying to ride one of my favorite trains is a good example and helps prove the point.

The good news is that within the past few years there has been increasing pressure from citizen groups to make both the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited daily trains. And indeed that ought to happen. Furthermore, NARP (the National Association of Railroad Passengers) is on record as supporting the increase in frequency for both trains. And we intend to keep the pressure on!

I'm Getting Ready to Fly, So Cue the Volcano!

It always happens. Just before I leave on a trip, something pops up to cast doubt on the whole thing … something that will interfere and cause me to cancel or delay. This time it's the damn volcano in Iceland.

In almost exactly a month, I'm leaving here on Hawaiian Airlines and heading for Seattle. An overnight there and the next afternoon I'm booked on Icelandair to Paris. That's in two hops: Seattle to Reykjavik, connecting there for the flight to Paris. So, of course, the volcano gods in Iceland heard I was coming and got one fired up.
You'll remember that happened in the Spring of 2010 and the damn thing puffed out so much ash -- a "plume" that drifted across half of Europe -- that flights in and out of many European cities were cancelled for several days. Modern jet engines are almost miraculous in their durability and reliability, but bad things happen if they ingest airborne particles of ash from a volcanic eruption.

We almost found that out the hard way quite a few years ago. As I recall, it was an Air New Zealand 747, flying at night across the South Pacific. They flew through a cloud of ash they never saw on their radar and all four engines quit. The pilots finally managed to restart them not too long before things would have gotten ugly.

Four years ago, aviation authorities would only permit flights that were operating under visual flight rules … when pilots could actually see the drifting plume of ash and avoid it. Even so, the estimate is that 95,000 flights were cancelled. Multiply that by a couple of hundred passengers on each flight and you've got an awful lot of disruption.

So here we go again. I'm keeping a sharp eye on the news reports, but haven't yet begin to think about a Plan B. 

I really don't think I'm a demanding traveler. I just want my flights to be "uneventful" and the weather to be decent when I get wherever it is I'm going. Is that so much to ask?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Borders Are Still There, But Most of the Guards Are Gone.

My first trip to Europe was in the summer of 1954. The American Field Service ran an exchange-student program in those days, with American kids going to Europe to live with a local family for the summer and European kids coming to the U.S. for the full school year. I applied and requested that I be sent to France, my rationale being that I had studied French in high school, had an aptitude for the language, and thought that a summer in France would be a big step on the way to actual fluency. The AFS accepted me, but I was sent to Germany.  I later realized that, because it was only nine years after the end of World War II, most of the kids in the AFS program went to Germany as part of some effort to restore reasonably good relations with the German people.

By the way, I ended up in Schweinfurt and the head of the family to which I had been assigned, Herr Handschuh, ran the local brewery … so it wasn't a total loss.)

That was my first exposure to train travel in Europe. I don't remember much about those train rides, except that the trains were always crowded and the the border crossings took forever. Oh … and the seats were wood and awfully damn hard.
Years later -- it was in the early 80s -- my wife and daughter and I went to Europe and took several trains, including one from Vienna to Budapest. That was before the Iron Curtain came down and crossing into and out of a satellite country was a sobering experience. When our train stopped at the Austria-Hungary border, uniformed and armed guards came through the cars, scrutinizing our passports and checking our customs declaration. 

Once that had been completed, we were politely asked to step out into the corridor while they searched our little compartment … one man removing the seat cushions and then shining a flashlight into the narrow space between the ceiling and the roof of the rail car. His companion stood watching, one hand resting casually on his automatic weapon.

Outside, armed guards were positioned every 50 or 60 feet on each side of the train while another team moved along the length of the train, one man using a mirror on the end of a pole to inspect the underside of each rail car; the other with a dog on the end of a leash. I remember thinking at the time that if the security was this tight going INTO Hungary, what would it be like when we came OUT after leaving Prague? (It was pretty much the same procedure, but with guard towers and a 100-yard no-man's-land.)

I thought about those earlier trips last summer when I took trains from London to Paris to Switzerland, back to France, then across Germany en route to Denmark and Norway. No borders. No guards. No nothing. It was like driving across the U.S. and passing from Pennsylvania into Ohio and then crossing into Illinois, all without ever slowing down. Such is the result of the European Union growing out of the Common Market.

I wonder if the economic difficulties some of those countries have experienced can be explained at least in part by all those border guards being out of work?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Portland Leads the Way … Again!

Ask almost anyone into transportation issues which City in the country is the most enlightened and progressive when it comes to transportation infrastructure and I'll bet that 90 percent would say Portland, Oregon.
 When it comes to getting around a fairly large city without a car, Portland has it figured out. There's a light rail system that gets you from town to the outskirts. There's a delightful streetcar system that's free in the central part of town … just hop on and hop off. There's commuter rail for people living in the suburbs. 

And there's plenty of Amtrak service. The Cascades run south to Eugene and north to Seattle and Vancouver several times a day; the Empire Builder will take you to Spokane and on to Chicago; and the Coast Starlight comes through once a day in each direction between the Bay Area and Los Angeles down the coast and Seattle up north.

For those occasions when you do need a car, there are no less than five car-sharing options, including Zipcar and Car2go.
Under construction now is another bridge over the Willamette River. It's a beauty, too … about a third of a mile long, graceful and quite pleasing to the eye. But here's what makes this bridge different: no cars! Yep, the Tilikum Crossing Bridge is strictly for public transit, specifically light rail, buses and streetcars. And get this: there will also be two 14-foot-wide paths, one for bicycles, the other for pedestrians.

What an enlightened approach! If you ask anyone who lives in Portland to tell you what they like best about their city, you will find that almost without exception they will rave about all the public transportation options available to them. We can only hope that more cities around the country will follow Portland's example.