Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kumar & Kumar Win, Kumar & Kumar Lose

Maybe the locals don't notice these things, but the Doctor and Future Mrs. Logistics have been in awe of how many of the Indian Olympians are named Kumar, specifically boxers and wrestlers. I realize that it's a popular name here, but India had 3 medal hopefuls in boxing (Akhil, Jitender and Vijender) and not only are they all named Kumar, but they all train at the Bhiwani Boxing Club. And they're not related.

There were two Kumars who won yesterday. Wrestler Sushil Kumar (arguably the most under-appreciated of all of the Kumars) took home bronze in the Men's Freestyle 66kg event. Boxer Vijender Kumar, competing in the middleweight division, won his quarterfinal match, ensuring him at least a bronze with gold and silver still a possibility. This means that India will win at least 3 medals in Beijing, its highest Olympic total ever. Keep in mind that this is a country of over a billion people.

Although Vijender was the most succesful of all of the Kumars coming in to the Olympics, much of the country (as well as international visitors such as myself) had recently beome obsessed with charismatic bantamweight boxer Akhil Kumar, who had beaten world champion Sergey Vodapyanov of Russia in the Round of 16. Unfortunately Akhil lost in the quarterfinals, devastating not only myself and a billion of his Indian countrymen, but also his teammates including Vijender Kumar who described him as India's Rocky Balboa and promised to avenge his loss, which he did.

Flyweight boxer Jitender Kumar (not to be confused with middleweight boxer Jitender Kumar), also lost in the quarterfinals yesterday. Jitender consoled himself by heading out to White Castle with his Korean friend Harold.

But seriously...

As an admitted sufferer of Kumar-mania, what I've found most enthralling about them is that boxing and wrestling are totally accessible sports. While I do tip my hat to India's first and only (for now) gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra, he's a privileged rich kid whose dad built him a high-tech shooting range in their backyard. That's not something that most aspiring young Indian athletes, or even American or European kids for that matter, can expect. Abhinav's father is a wealthy businessman and Abhinav himself holds an MBA degree. Both Sushil and Vijender's fathers are bus drivers. Sushil had to share a mattress with another wrestler (in a room with 20 other wrestlers, not to mention rats and cockroaches) while training for the games. All of the Kumars come from much more humble upbringings and are thus arguably a greater source of inspiration not only to their countrymen, but also to athletes from developing countries around the world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

India Strikes Gold...and the whole country goes bonkers

The big news during our first few days in India has been Abhinav Bindra, who won the first individual gold medal in India's history, and its first gold medal of any kind since its field hockey team last claimed gold in Moscow in 1980. Although cricket is now the country's biggest sporting passion, field hockey (or simply hockey as its known here, since there isn't any ice) was top dog for decades. In fact the Indian Olympic hockey team was somewhat of the equivalent of the old US Olympic basketball or Soviet ice hockey teams, winning 6 consecutive gold medals and going undefeated from 1928-1956.

Bindra took gold in the mens 10M air rifle (ie: BB gun) on Monday, and the country has been going crazy every day since. Every single Indian TV station had "Breaking News!" banners about Bindra's achievement on Monday and the locals are simply beaming with pride. Now everybody wants a piece of the Bindra Bonanza. The Indian State Railway (the world's largest employer for all you trivia buffs out there) has given him a "golden pass" allowing him free 1st class rail travel for life. He is being congratulated by legendary Bollywood superstars including Amitabh Khan, perhaps best known to younger audiences for being the original host of India's most popular game show, Kaun Banega Corepati. Still no word yet on whether or not Shahrukh Khan, Bollywood's biggest star and successor to Amitabh as host of KBC, has also sent along his praises.

I'd be lying if i said that my blogging about Bindra wasn't in some way an effort to draw traffic to this site, but I'm certainly not the only one as the LA Times jumped on that opportunity almost immediately after Bindra hit the medal stand.

Although he's somewhat soft-spoken on camera, I will say that Bindra's own blog makes for entertaining reading. However, I'll concede that I haven't been nearly as taken with Abhinav Bindra himself as I have with his adorably proud parents. His mother is already very busy looking for a bride for India's most eligible bachelor, as well as getting ready to cook him a home-cooked meal of tandoori chicken and seekh kabab. Glad to see that Abhinav and I share a fondness for Indian barbecue, as well as a mother who wants nothing more than to feed us and see us get married. It also appears that Abhinav didn't inherit his calm demeanor from either parent, as his boisterous (yet super cool) father is more than happy to tell all who will listen about the ultra high-tech shooting range that he built for him in their backyard (see below), or about how he used to let his son shoot water balloons off of their maid's head when he was only 7 years old.

Is This Really India? Hyderabad's New Airport Sparkles

We finally made it to Hyderabad late on Sunday night, or very early Monday morning to be exact, arriving at the sparkling new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (Shamshabad). In one word: WOW!

Being in the travel business and having worked specifically a lot with the Indian market I had been hearing about this new airport for a while, as well as the one which recently opened in Bangalore that we're flying out of next week. I vividly remember flying in to Mumbai (Bombay) ten years ago and thinking to myself "I can't believe this is the richest city in the country" because the airport was an absolute shit hole. I had also flown in and out of a few other Indian airports including Goa, Cochin and Chennai (Madras), all of which were nicer than Mumbai but nothing spectacular.

Shamshabad is spectacular. Seriously.

It's not quite as grand as Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, but it is incredibly clean, bright, modern and efficient. And I don't just mean efficient by Indian standards, I mean actually efficient. My first words to The Future Mrs. Logistics as we walked in to the terminal were "For all we know we could be in Zurich right now." The Future Mrs. Logistics was even more impressed, having flown in and out of the old crappy airport over a dozen times during her 7 months working here, to the point where she was almost in a state of shock.

We should have suspected that the times they were a-changin' when we landed, as all of the Indian passengers actually stayed in their seats until we reached the gate. This NEVER happens on flights to/within India.

Apparently the old airport only had one immigration booth, and Indian passengers had an annoying habit of waiting until they got to the booth before filling out their immigration cards. According to The Future Mrs. Logistics getting through immigration at the old airport was at least a one hour process. Well the first promising sign at Shamshabad was when we saw other passengers filling out their cards at desks before they got to the booths. And yes, there's now more than one immigration booth. In fact there were at least 20 of them, and even more impressive was the fact that every single one of them was staffed and being used. In contrast I remember flying through Charles de Gaulle right after 9/11 where they had at least 100 immigration booths with no more than 15-20 of them actually being used. In addition to being questionable for security, it also struck me as odd that such a socialist country such as France couldn't fill up the rest of those booths with civil servants given the country's high unemployment rate.

But I digress...

My booth was staffed by some pussy wearing a ski mask and heavy coat who apparently couldn't handle the chilly 68 degree temperatures of the airport. He was also one of those guys who felt the need to look at every single page of my passport because that's the type of thing that makes him feel important. Regardless it was still a pretty quick process.

What impressed us the most was might be the world's most technologically advanced baggage carousel, which featured some sort of laser sensor from the future that used a coordinated time-delay-response-mechanism-thing to prevent new luggage from falling on to bags that were already on the carousel. The Future Mrs. Logistics was speechless (something The Doctor always appreciates).

But what struck me most was just how beaming with pride everyone was at the airport. Although it's been open for 5 months the novelty has clearly not worn off yet, and likely won't anytime soon. The locals are clearly conscience of this achievement as it represents all that modern India is capable of. Bangalore also has a new airport which also opened this year. We're flying out of there next week so I'm looking forward to seeing how it stacks up to Hyderabad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rob Schneider - He's Big In Malaysia

The Doctor almost forgot to mention his delicious dinner at The Gulai House, a restaurant located at the Carcosa Seri Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

We had an extremely friendly and inquisitive waiter who wanted to know all about us, like where we were from (San Francisco), were we enjoying Malaysia (yes), did we like sports (yes), did we like soccer (yes), is there a soccer team in San Francisco (close - in San Jose), what other sports did we like (baseball), did we like the New York Yankees (HELLS NO, ASS HOLE!), why didn't we like the New York Yankees (because we're from Boston), what is the nickname of the Boston baseball team (the Red Sox), and so on and so on. The conversation then switched to movies.

"Do you like Rob Schneider?" he asked.

Rob Schneider?

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Rob Schneider. He is very funny. He is my favorite movie star."

Both The Doctor as well as The Future Mrs. Logistics were caught somewhat off-guard by the reference to Rob Schneider as a "movie star" as well as the concept that he could actually be someone's favorite movie star. Now Adam Sandler I could possibly understand, but Rob Schneider?

As The Future Mrs. Logistics was at a total loss for words I replied with the only thing that I could think of, "He's from San Francisco."

"Oh really? He is so funny. Have you seen the one where he plays an animal?"
"The Animal?"
"Have you seen the one where he turns in to a woman?"
"The Hot Chick?"
"What about the one where he plays..."
"Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo?"
"Oh, that is one of my favorites."

The greatest tragedy is that this poor guy has probably never seen Mr. Schneider's finest work as The Richmeister (aka: Makin' Copies) on Saturday Night Live. The McStingster! Stingatola! Sting! Stingalingaling ding dong!

And of course there's his supporting role in one of the funniest SNL skits off all time: Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic. With all due respect to the uber-popular "More Cowbell" sketch, The Doctor believes that this was the finest of Christopher Walken's many appearances on the show.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Malaysia's Logistics Impress The Doctor

Before this trip I had been to Kuala Lumpur twice before. The first time was just in transit for a few hours en route from Madras to Bangkok, and the second was two days for business back when I used to work at Airtreks.

On both trips The Doctor was extremely impressed with Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which may be the best in the world. Hong Kong still gets high marks, and while both are extremely functional The Doctor gives KL a slight edge for design and aesthetics. It's bright, open and airy with a decent amount of greenery within the terminal. The Doctor does appreciate style as well as substance, and that's another reason KL gets the nod over Singapore's Changi Airport. While Changi does feature some nice amenities like a pool, it also has low ceilings and just this weird 70's jetset vibe that's in dire need of an update.

On the monorail from the gate to the main terminal both The Doctor as well as The Future Mrs. Logistics commented on the fact that it felt like Florida. The scenery, the modern highways, the fact that we were on a monorail, etc.

KLIA is a good 25-30 miles outside of the city, a distance that can take over an hour to cover in typical Southeast Asian traffic. Luckily the Malaysians, the masters of logistics that they are, have built a convenient high speed train connecting the airport to downtown which takes exactly 28 minutes. Not half an hour mind you, but 28 minutes. All of the locals seem to know this fact and are proud to share it with you.

We got our bags rather quickly (more props for KLIA) and then went to buy our tickets for the KL Ekspres to downtown. The local language, Bahasa Malaysia (which literally translates to "language of Malaysia") is, like Bahasa Indonesia (wanna take a guess on that translation) actually a modern hybrid of many local regional dialects. Many words are simply imported from European languages such as Dutch (such as kantor, which means office) or English, such as ekspres. So when you hop on the KL Ekspres from KLIA it takes you to KL Sentral Steten. And when you have luggage the KL Ekspres to KL Sentral Steten is fare more convenient than riding your motorsaikal.

What was even more convenient was the "VIP" service that was offered, which includes porter service of your luggage from the baggage claim to the Ekspres all the way to Sentral Steten and then "limousine" transfer to your downtown hotel. In other countries "limousine" often just means a nice car, not necessarily a stretch Cadillac. I believe that our limousine turned out to be a Hyundai, although I'm not complaining.

Anyway the VIP service only cost us about $15 apiece, whereas taking the Ekspres and then finding a cab on our own would've cost just over $10, so it was well worth it. I don't think that we had to carry our bags more than 10 feet from the carousel before the porter took them, and it saved us the hassle of dealing with Malaysia's questionably honest taxi drivers with whom we would unfortunately have to deal with later. Sidenote: The Doctor learned long ago to never judge a country by its cab drivers, so he holds no grudges against Malaysia for this.

We were quite pleased when the Hyundai pulled in to the new and stylish Hotel Maya. One of the reasons that we had chosen KL as our stopover instead of Bangkok or Singapore is because it has several luxury hotels that can often be booked for $100-150/night. Well whether it was because of the falling US dollar or for some other reasons, most of those hotels were a lot more expensive this past weekend. Luckily I stumbled across the Maya, a typical cookie-cutter luxury boutique hotel a la the W (which is not necessarily a bad thing) where the rate was just over $100.

Being just a block away from the iconic Petronas Towers we requested a room with a view and were obliged with a corner room on the 21st floor (out of a possible 22 floors), although it did take over half an hour for them to give us any room at all (despite the fact that we arrived after the official check-in time and had a reservation.)

As we were walking down the hallway towards our room we started to hear some really loud construction noise that seemed to be coming from the 22nd floor, and when we walked in to our room it was pretty obvious that there was construction taking place on the 22nd floor - specifically in the room right above us. I can't tell exactly what they were doing, but damn was it loud. REALLY LOUD. We were pretty shocked that they would even consider giving us that room, so we called down to the front desk...which was fruitless because they couldn't even hear us with all of the background noise. So we went downstairs and asked for another room which we accepted...until we realized it was on the smoking floor. As Californians we couldn't tolerate that so they finally gave us another room, which we finally checked in to an hour after our arrival.

Initial difficulties aside, we were able to enjoy a quite pleasant stay at the Maya. Jet-lagged, we struggled to stay awake for the complimentary tea & coffee at the Sky Lounge in the evening. It was worth it for the views (see photo above) but we each had two sips of tea then went upstairs and passed out exhausted. There was also a cool hydrotherapy pool, kind of a cross between a regular pool and a jacuzzi.

Overall we didn't do much in KL besides sleep, eat, drink, swim in the pool and venture out to the Central Market where we saw this interesting graffiti:


We opted not to try out the "Cute Fish Spa" (see photo below) where little fish come and nibble on you in what's described as an exfoliating treatment. I have to say that it sounded intriguing, although at the same time I do remember being freaked out by little fish nibbling on me at summer camp so maybe it wouldn't have been so cool after all.

We also watched the first couple of days of the Olympics on Malaysian television. As much as self-hating American liberals might complain about the media in our country, it's at least professional and slick. The Malaysian broadcasts were sloppy and the hosts had no chemistry, constantly interrupting each other, beginning each sentence with "ok then" and generally offering totally useless comentary. And that was on the English-language broadcast. On the Bahasa Malaysia broadcast they had this fat, old and grotesquely ugly guy with a wispy mustache (which all Malaysian men have) which made me appreciate all of the plastic surgery that newsies in our great country get. U-S-A! U-S-A!

There was a rain delay during one of the tennis matches and they had no alternative programming to offer, so instead they just showed the same 30-second promotional clip 100 times in a row. I'm not kidding.

As we said good-bye to Malaysia we were once again treated to its outstanding logistics. we took a taxi (or as it's called in Bahasa Malaysia, a taksi) back to Sentral Steten. Just like in Hong Kong it's possible to check in for your flight, including checking your bags, at the train station. This meant that we didn't have to deal with our bags at all on the train, and got back to KLIA in plenty of time for our flight.

We did experience two disappointments on our way out which did slightly sully my extremely high opinion of KLIA. First we got stuck in an glass elevator, but luckily it only took us about 5 minutes to get rescued. However, while we were stuck we were taunted by two dreadlocked hippie Australian bitches and a whiny queen who shouted "See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya!" as they walked away without offering any assistance. I was really hoping that we'd see them again at someplace like the airport Starbucks so that I could "accidentally" spill hot coffee on them.

On the subject of Starbucks, the one thing KLIA is really lacking is dining options. On previous trips here there used to be a Rainforest Cafe, which while tacky, would have at least been entertaining. It appears that although the Rainforest Cafe corporation no longer runs the restaurant, the decor was kept by the new owners who now call it Rimba Jungle Cafe. Unfortunately the food there looked greasy and too spicy (not advisable before getting on an airplane), plus it appeared to have been sitting there for hours. We decided to opt for noodles instead at the Nooodles House (yes, there are 3 o's in Nooodles) which was right next door to the Cheers bar. Yes, as in THAT Cheers from TV. I've seen it in other airports like Cincinnati as well. Anyway as we walked past Cheers I commented that it was the worst-smelling bar in the world, until we realized that the smell was coming from the Nooodles House, so we scratched that off the list. Our dining options were now down to Sbarro (where, ironically, I had eaten 10 years ago on my first trip through KLIA after suffering 3 weeks of diarrhea in India) and Burger King. We initially opted for Sbarro before deciding that the food there also looked like it had been sitting around for hours, so we just bit the bullet and went to BK instead. We did justify it by reminding ourselves that this would be our last chance to eat beef for a couple of weeks since that's never an option in India.

It turned out that we were 2 of the only 3 white people on the flight, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the security personnel at our gate who stopped us to make sure that we were getting on the right plane.

Yao Greets The Doctor In Hong Kong

I also forgot to mention that Hong Kong International airport is currently fully emblazoned with Beijing 2008 Olympics stuff. In addition to being a major international air gateway to mainland China, The Doctor suspects that this is another subtle way of Beijing asserting its sovereignty over the "Special Administrative Region." In all fairness I think that people in Hong Kong are quite proud and excited that the Olympics are being held in Beijing.

Or should I say that most of the Olympics are being held in Beijing. There are a few events being held outside of the capital, including sailing events in the hopefully now algae-free city of Qingdao, as well as soccer (football) matches around the country. As many of you may know the Doctor is an accomplished Olympic historian, capable of telling you the location of every single Summer & Winter Olympics since their revival in 1896, and will happily rattle them all off to you in chronological order whether you ask him to or not. Anyway it's normal for both of those events to be staged outside of the host city, especially sailing which obviously isn't possible in a landlocked city such as Beijing. For example the same thing happened in Athens in 1996 when the sailing events were held in Savannah. For soccer there are so many matches and the sport is so popular that spreading them out among other cities in the host country only helps increase interest and (of course) sell more tickets. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics soccer matches were held as far away as my hometown of Boston at Harvard Stadium.

This year equestrian events will be held in Hong Kong instead of Beijing, a decision supposedly made due to concerns about diseases in China. However, The Doctor suspects that the issue might have something to due with protests by the horses themselves over China's dismal and controversial equine rights record. Although strongly denied by China's official state-run Xinhua news agency, reports of horses being unable to practice Falun Gong or whipped for their views on Tibet are widespread. And that's to say nothing of the issue of free speech. Unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, Chinese horses are strictly forbidden from speaking at all, with or without the use of computer-enhanced effects. Every year thousands of dissident Chinese horses are sent away to "re-education camps" and are never seen again. The Chinese also strongly deny rumors that these camps are merely fronts for glue factories.

Controversy aside, The Doctor does plan on buying some Olympic swag when he and The Future Mrs. Logistics fly back through there in a couple of weeks. The Doctor also hopes that he will once again be personally greeted by Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cathay Pacific Business Class + Marco Polo Lounge = Very Happy Doctor and Future Mrs. Logistics

Over the past 10 years that I've worked in the travel industry I've been lucky enough to fly business class on several airlines all over the world. Thus I can state with confidence that Cathay Pacific may take the cake.

We had opted to fly Cathay with the possibility of getting upgraded in one direction over flying with confirmed business class seats in both directions on Indian carrier Jet Airways for a few reasons. For one we liked the Cathay schedules better, and more importantly because Jet would have been through Mumbai, which I was pleased to avoid altogether on this trip. In general it's advisable to avoid domestic transfers in India at all costs.

Flying with Cathay also meant that we had the option to stop off in Kuala Lumpur for a day and a half on our way over to India, a city that both the Doctor and Future Mrs. Logistics are both quite fond of. We would've been satisifed with Bangkok or Singapore as well, but we were just in Bangkok last year and Singapore was more expensive, so KL it was.

The other disadvantage of Jet is that the SFO-BOM flight is via Shanghai, yet the business class industry discount they offered me didn't allow for the option of stopping in Shanghai, which we both would have enjoyed. However that also would've meant applying for a Chinese visa, which from what I hear hasn't been the easiest process with all of the Olympic security. Just my luck I probably signed some Free Tibet petition 10 years ago and am on their blacklist anyway. We were also

But I digress...

We were stoked to learn upon checking in at SFO that are upgrades for our SFO-HKG flight had been confirmed, although they couldn't seat us next to each other. This proved to be no problem as we were able to switch seats upon boarding, but it didn't really matter much since Cathay's business class mini-suites are so private that there's no option to socialize anyway.

And when I say mini-suite, I mean maxi-sweet. With the possible exception of limited elbow room, the seats were comfy, private, and had private video screens that were bigger than my monitor at work (from back in the day when I used to work). Jukebox junkies such as myself will also appreciate the create-your-own-playlist functionality in their audio programming, plus dozens of video options...including several episdoes of "Da Ali G Show" which is enough to kill hours of time on a long flight. Throw in some high-tech noise cancellation headphones (an exceptionally nice touch) and you've got yourself one hell of a business class cabin. It was easily the most enjoyable 14 hour flight of my life. Plus I finally got to see Blood Diamond so I can knock that off of my Netflix queue. The Doctor is currently in negotiations with Leo DiCaprio to play him in the upcoming big-screen biopic.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong at around 6:00 am we were a little bit disappointed that none of the shops or restaurants were open yet. While we'd expect that at smaller airports, it was a suprise at a major international airport such as Hong Kong (one of the tops in the world in the Doctor's not so humble opinion) where there were several flights arriving from all over the globe at that hour (London, Sydney, LA, etc.) The first bank of connecting flights leaves around 7-9 am, so they're definitely losing out on some easy revenue there.

Although we hadn't been upgraded to business class for our HK-Kuala Lumpur flight my man Terry had authorized us access to Cathay's Marco Polo lounge. Again my previous high marks for HK's airport deteriorated slightly as the signage for the lounge is extremely poor and we had some trouble finding it. Bad signage is one of my complaints about the new international termainal at SFO (and justifiably so), but I can't say that HK was much better, at least in this case.

We did eventually find the lounge and man was it worth it. We didn't even notice the game room with all the Play Stations until we were leaving, which was probably a good thing. What impressed me most was that the lounge was open-air overlooking the terminal rather than a totally contained cocoon like most business/first class lounges are. It was still quiet and peaceful but also bright and airy. And of course we got lots of free snacks (but no shortbread). The Doctor recommends the beef sew mai, but the Future Mrs. Logistics prefers the pork and shrimp.

Lounge postcript: They did have shortbread after all

Please allow me to clarify my previous posts. Regrettably I advised that the British Airways Terraces Lounge (which is also used by Cathay Pacific) did indeed have Walker's shortbread, although they didn't have much of it and what they did have was hidden behind oat cakes. I mean come on. Who the hell eats oat cakes in the first place, and who would eat them when there's shortbread around.

Well there isn't any shortbread left now because I grabbed the remaining handful of packets to use for snacks / digestive aids in India. Sucks to be anyone else looking for shortbread. Sadly I'm still kind of ghetto when it comes to flying business class and visiting those lounges, because the backpacker in me still can't pass up free snacks, especially ones that fit so easily in my bag and preserve well.

In other lounge news, the BA lounge at SFO is magically positioned right next to the departure gate. So when they call your flight all you have to do is walk out the lounge door and on to the plane. That's a sharp contrast to an experience I had at LAX a few years back when due to remodeling they had relocated some of the business class lounges to some random warehouse building on the tarmac. Ironically this meant that accessing the lounge, which is supposed to be a haven of calm for business travelers, meant that you had to take a series of poorly-marked shuttles out to the middle of the runway to "relax." Yet another reason why SF kicks LA's ass.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doctor Without Borders (off to Asia)

Greetings from the British Airways Terraces Lounge at SFO. The future future Mrs. Logistics and I are on our way to India for 2 weeks. She's heading back to Hyderabad for work, and I'm just going to keep her company.

First of all let me give a shout out to my main man Terry at Cathay Pacific, who was able to upgrade us to business class on our flight from SFO to Hong Kong. TERRY RULES! Quite frankly I've sold enough Cathay in my lifetime (indirectly responsible for at least $10 million in revenue) so it's not like they owed it to me...but they owed it to me.

We've got a short layover in Hong Kong (where we'll again have business class lounge access at the world famous Marco Polo Lounge), and then on to Kuala Lumpur where we'll be spending a day and a half before finally flying to Hyderabad on Sunday evening. I'm just as excited to see the Marco Polo Lounge as I am to fly business class on a top-tier carrier such as Cathay. I got to visit the China Airlines (ie: Cathay lite) lounge in Hong Kong a few years back and it was incredible. I can only imagine how nice Cathay's own lounge is there. At SFO they just borrow the BA lounge, and both surprisingly and sadly there's no shortbread here. I feel like every other business class lounge I've ever been in has those little Walker's shortbreads, so why not the lounge for a British airline?

Ok, enough bitching about lounge snacks. I've grown a little pampered over the past few years and have just gotten used to the finer things in life. Like little packs of shortbread.

More to come from Asia. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 7, 2008

The sham of fuel surcharges - Part 1

I recently read a post on Smarter Travel by Tim Winship, a frequent flyer expert and fellow industry insider who I generally admire. Unfortunately I have to strongly agree with him on the subject of airline fuel surcharges, specifically with regards to Delta's recent decision to start imposing them on frequent flyer tickets. This is a subject which I plan on blogging a great deal about over the upcoming weeks.

Fuel surcharges are without a doubt the biggest con imposed on travelers these days, and have been for several years. The fact of the matter is that fuel surcharges do NOT come down when fuel prices come down. I've been in this business for over 10 years and it simply doesn't happen. It just doesn't.

While I fully sympathize with the airlines' plight in today's economy, the industry has allowed the sham of fuel surcharges to go on for far too long.

The main difference between fuel surcharges and other recent fee hikes such as checked baggage fees is the fact that they're non-negotiable. Consumers have the option of not checking a bag (albeit within ever-tighenting carry-on limitations) or not paying for in-flight meals if they so choose. In contrast nobody has the option to decline the fuel surcharge, and thus logic says that airlines should be incorporating the cost of fuel in to their base fares. While some airlines do in fact do this, most airlines pass the fuel surcharge off as part of the "taxes and fees" associated with the ticket.

The lack of self-regulation by the airline industry has allowed fuel surcharges to skyrocket to comical porportions. For example, Virgin Atlantic now charges $213 in fuel surcharges for every long-haul flight segment. That means that a 4-segment itinerary such as round-trip from San Francisco to Johannesburg (SFO-LHR-JNB-LHR-SFO) is subject to a whopping $852 in fuel surcharges alone. That's on top of approximately $160 in additional US, UK and South African taxes that would be included on that ticket (all of which are imposed by local governments and are understandably beyond the airline's control).

Not only do the airlines have no incentive to police themselves with regards to the bogus concept of fuel surcharges, but many of them (notably British Airways) have recently been fined for collusion and price-fixing on the very subject.

Unless some external power, specifically the International Air Transport Association (IATA), steps in to regulate fuel surcharges then this sham will only continue to get worse.

And as for fuel surcharges on frequent flyer tickets, just as the airlines should simply raise their fares to account for the skyrocketing cost of fuel, they could also raise the number of miles required to redeem free tickets. This would at least protect one of the last remaining "free" services that airlines are willing to provide.

Link to original article:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Continental Airlines to join Star Alliance

Continental Airlines today announced that it was leaving SkyTeam to join Star Alliance. This comes a few months after speculation that United (a founding member of Star Alliance) and Continental were considering a merger in response to the Delta-Northwest merger.

The Doctor, who is well-connected within the airline industry and has been hearing about these discussions from various levels of middle management at several of the afforementioned airlines, is not at all surprised by this announcement. Nor was I surprised when Continental spurned United's overture to merge.

My sources had told me that all of the higher-level executives at both Continental and United had buyout clauses written in to their contracts regarding what would happen should those two airlines ever merge. In 2006 it had sounded like both sides might have been close to some kind of agreement, although there seemed to be confusion regarding who would be taking over whom. According to the Continetal people I had spoken with, who admittedly were much further down on the totem pole and were definitely not in the boardroom or on any conference call when such a merger was discussed, part of the hang-up at the time seemed to be United's refusal to adopt the Continental banner and relocate to Houston. Regardless of how the deal was legally defined or financially arranged, to the general public that's a sign of defeat. Those same sentiments were echoed by many in the Northwest with regards to the Delta merger, which to the average bystander seems more like a takeover by Delta.

Earlier this year when the United-Continental talks were supposedly heating up again I was advised by several Continental employees that such a merger was highly unlikely. For one the corporate culture at both airlines is quite different. Despite having a reputation as a union-busting airline (the very reason why many labor activists such as Michael Moore refuse to fly them), Continental actually had very high company morale. Its profits and load factors were the best amongst the US legacy carriers, and people within the company generally seemed to treat each other with respect. It ran a tight ship at its headquarters in Houston, and as an industry insider I can tell you that whenever you needed to get something done with Continental, well then it would get addressed. Not necessarily done, but at least addressed. That's a moral victory in this industry.

United on the other hand is a horribly run airline. Morale seems low at every level, especially among the rank-and-file frontline staff such as flight attendants, gate agents, etc. All departments seem to be completely disconnected with each other and sometimes getting a hold of anybody, let alone the right person, seems to be nearly impossible. At some point I'll share my own personal experience regarding a Washington-Boston flight that was diverted to Manchester, NH and my not-so-funny efforts to collect my frequent flyer miles and receive compensation for the routing change. But I digress...

Anyway, the term "different corporate cultures" was constanly mentioned by sources at Continental as being the lead impediment to any supposed Continental-United merger. From a financial side it made no sense to combine what was the most profitable US legacy airline (Continental) with one that had been in and out of bankruptcy protection 3 times over the past 10 years (that would be United).

That being said, there were certain logical overlaps between the two airlines, most notably with route networks. United has a weak presence in Latin America, which is one of Continental's biggest strengths. United also has been unable to really make a dent in the crucial New York area marketplace, with service being limited to its other hubs such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Washington.

The crucial NY-London market is a prime example where United failed in the Big Apple. It gave up on both its JFK-Heathrow as well as Newark-Heathrow flights a few years ago, which were never going to be competitive in a marketplace already crowded not only with UK carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, but also had no chance going head-to-head with the dominant local players in that market such American out of JFK (and more recently, Delta) or Continental out of Newark. In addition to having more local loyalty in the New York area due to the fact that they had more flights (which equals more convenience for business travelers as well as more options for frequent flyers to use their miles for leisure trips), both American and Continental gained by having stronger feeder networks for their London flights, whereas United was only getting feed from those other hubs such as San Francisco, Chicago, etc. The obvious problem was that those feeder markets already had their own nonstop flights to London. That meant that United's flights from JFK andNewark to Heathrow would only be filled by overflow out of those other hubs, or by local-originating traffic. Conversely, Continental and American serve dozens of cities from Newark and JFK respectively that don't have nonstop flights to London, and thus their feed was more natural and more diversified.

Continental also bring a strong online presence to Europe, whereas United had recently been cutting back much of its online European service in favor of codeshare agreements with partners such as Lufthansa. It had dropped Dulles-Milana few years ago (but recently replaced it with Dulles-Rome), and had also cut back on other service such as San Francisco-Paris. On the other hand, Continental had been constistently increasing its online European service in recent years. It did make some cuts recently such as Newark-Cologne, but most of its trans-Atlantic flights had been performing well, especially with eastbound European-originating traffic. Those Europeans, eager to take advantage of what for them has been a strong exchange rate in recent years, were eager for their own nonstop service to the New York area as well as the domestic connections via Newark that Continental was able to offer. This proved especially popular in smaller cities where locals could bypass connections in larger (and more chaotic) gateways such as Heathrow.

For example, Continental currently flies nonstop from 8 UK gateways to Newark; London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast and Bristol. Yes, Bristol. London and Bristol are just about 120 miles apart, which means that there's no real need for flights between the two cities. That means that anyone from Bristol or southwestern England (or Wales) who needs to fly out of London is looking at about a 2 hour trip to the capital, plus traffic, plus the 3 hour international check-in window that's required at Heathrow these days for security reasons. Or they could just fly nonstop to Newark on Continental. In addition to Newark and other points in the USA, Continental has been able to tap in to its strong Latin American connections from Newark for European-originating traffic as well.

So if Continental was so strong then what do they stand to gain by any kind of alliance with United. In 4 letters or less: Asia. This has been United's strong point and one of Continental's weaker points, with the notable exception of Delhi and Mumbai. In addition to those two Indian cities (both expanding yet overcrowded markets in their own right), Continental only flies to 4 other Asian cities; Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. United flies to 11 Asian cities; all of the above plus Osaka, Nagoya, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It's also slated to start nonstop service from San Francisco to Guangzhou in 2009, a route that's been delayed by a year due to the skyrocketing cost of fuel. Furthermore, most of United's flights to Asia depart from San Francisco or Los Angeles (with some out of Seattle, Chicago and Dulles as well), allowing for a more natural feed via the West Coast to Asia. Continental's limited service to Asia only operates out of Houston and Newark, limiting the natural westbound feed.

To a lesser extent Continental also picks up some other advantages such as United's flights to Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) which may explain why it decided to scrap its own unprofitable Guam-Cairns route. On the other side the Star Alliance, which amazingly consists of 20 main airlines and handful of smaller subsidiaries but yet has no Latin members following Varig's ejection in 2007 and Mexicana's withdrawal in 2004, picks up a strong Latin presence. (On a related note, Brazilian carrier TAM is rumored to be replacing Varig in the alliance sometime soon). Star Alliance also picks up a strong presence in New York, specifically Newark, which is especially valuable to the European member airlines such as TAP Portugal who stand to gain from Continental's strong feeder network there, something United can't provide.

Finally, I think in the end a lot of this did come down to what I mentioned earlier: the Delta-Northwest merger. Once that happened Contintental went from being the dominant US carrier in SkyTeam to an inevitably smaller player when compared with the new Delta. By joining Star Alliance it stands to gain by becoming a much larger player in a much larger alliance rather than being muscled out by a new larger player (Delta) in SkyTeam, a much smaller alliance.

Allow myself to introduce...myself. I am Doctor Logistics.

Finally, 9 months after the initial creation of this blog, the Doctor has finally completed his residency and is now ready to operate.

Doctor Logistics looks forward to sharing his ramblings regarding the travel industry, travel trends, Boston sports, Dutch soccer, USA Basketball, the best place to eat sausage in the Bay Area, and lots of other random topics with you.

Sadly in the delay since the initial launch of this blog last September there have already been major happenings on several of those afforementioned fronts. Most notably would be the Red Sox' 2007 World Series championship, Games 3 & 4 of which the Doctor attended along with the future Mrs. Logistics. Oh yeah - the Doctor also got engaged. More on that later.

In the fast-paced world that is the blogosphere it also seems like it might already be too late to share my thoughts about the Celtics' 17th NBA Championship. I'm going to anyway, but I'll also defer on that for now.

And of course in the past 9 months the 18-0 Patriots also blew a perfect season against the crappy Manning brother. Because I am going to try to refrain from using foul language in this blog, it is probably best off that I was not actively posting when that happened. I will say this to Tom Brady, however: When you ditch your nice girl-next-door baby's mama for a Brazilian underwear model, well then sooner or later bad things are gonna happen. It's called karma, and it's a bitch.

Dutch soccer? Watch this space tomorrow following Clockwork Orange's Euro 2008 quarterfinal match against Russia. I will definitely have a lot to say. Let me start off with this: Van Basten is a god. What took the KNVB so long to get him involved with the national side again?

And last but not least, the first travel-related blog will be posted shortly...