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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is It Safe To Eat Or Drink Anything In China?

This morning at DWT we tried to make the point that the very nature of commerce in China-- in Asia really-- is built on fraud and corruption. Reactionary American politicians like Pat Toomey (R-PA), Ron Johnson (R-WI) and John Boehner (R-OH) admire China so much-- Communism or not-- because their financial and commercial system embodies the very depths of caveat emptor taken to the extreme. In two weeks I'll be back in China and, I have to admit, I know I have to be warier than in most places about what I consume. What's in the bottled water? How safe is it to eat in a restaurant, even a highly rated one?

So it was with some interest that I noted yesterday that China will be handing out the death penalty for food safety violators. An announcement like that presupposes some real problems that need to be addressed. Their highest court has ordered lower court judges to toughen up the sentences for people violating food safety standards "amid deepening public concerns over the country's food safety following a wave of recent scandals." If someone dies because of food safety violations, the death penalty is now in order-- and government officials taking bribes to protect the criminals will also be facing harsher penalties.
From milk laced with melamine, pigs fed with performance-enhancing drugs to watermelons juiced up with growth-stimulating chemicals, a series of recent scandals have outraged Chinese consumers, despite ramped-up government crackdown and state media campaign against food safety violations.

From last September to April this year, Chinese courts have tried and convicted 106 people accused of violating food safety, including two who received life imprisonment last month in a "melamine milk" case, Xinhua reported.

As vegan as I can be-- especially when traveling in dodgy countries-- I'm not worried about being fed dog meat disguised as something else. Although others probably should be.
Authorities say a battle has been escalating in China between the country's dog lovers and those who consider the animals a mealtime feature.

The controversy is more evidence of China's changing social landscape, where dog meat has been a coveted food item for centuries but pet ownership has burgeoned in recent years as a booming economy created a middle class with both money and time for four-legged friends, the Washington Post reported Saturday. ... China has no laws against cruelty to animals, and animal activists estimate as many as 10 million dogs, some strays and some stolen pets are sold for human consumption each year.

But I am interested in the new organic food movement started to sprout up in China's cities. Can it be trusted? Maybe...
In recent years China has been hit by a number of food scandals and fears about safety have lingered. In 2008, 300,000 babies became seriously ill and six babies died after being given formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. In April this year, police seized 40 tons of beansprouts which had been treated with dangerous growth promoting chemicals and hormones, while this month, watermelons started exploding in the fields because they had been treated with too much accelerant.

In March health officials discovered pork that glowed and iridescent blue in the dark because it had been contaminated by a bacteria.

Amid the scares it was reported that China's government departments were running their own organic farms to feed staff, sparking criticism that officials were putting their own safety before that of the people. ... [O]rganic farmers and a host of co-operative schemes that lease small parcels of land to urbanites who want to feel the soil under their fingernails-- not unlike British allotment schemes-- report business is suddenly booming.

Peng Xunan, the founder of the "Farmlander" allotment scheme that has 200 sites across China said the plots were being rented in ever-growing numbers, and no longer just be pensioners looking to occupy their time.

"I'd say it was split three ways between families who want to teach their children where food comes from, older people in their retirement, but in recent months definitely a growing number worried about food safety concerns after all these reports of lax food safety," he said.

Interestingly, the other China-- Taiwan-- is having a similar situation, with legislators urging tougher penalties for tainted food and better regulations for factories manufacturing food products, particularly sports drinks, juices, tea drinks, fruit jam or syrups, tablets or powders, all of which have been found to be poisoned with plasticizers.
A legislator of the ruling Kuomintang proposed yesterday to revise regulations to levy stiffer penalties on suppliers of food products that threaten consumers' health, establish an information system for all products, and change the listing of plasticizers in the second category of toxic chemical products.

...Chang pointed out that the current law only stipulates fines between NT$60,000 and NT$300,000 for using plasticizers like carcinogen di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) or other toxic substances in food and beverages, not enough to deter unconscionable food processors and suppliers from harming consumers.

An integrated registration mechanism should be set up to record all information concerning raw materials, components, additives, manufacturing and packaging to help manage every step of the food and beverage supply chain, Chang said.

Such a product identity system will also help to track products, he added.

Oh-- and the crackdown and regulations... that's not what Toomey, Johnson and Boehner admire about China.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Beaches (in which within some 17 hours I set foot on two NYC area beaches for the first time)

You should be able to click on this to enlarge, and if you do, I won't have to repeat what it has to say about horseshoe crabs. Oh, I may anyway.

by Ken

I didn't see the above Yahoo notice until just now, when I was scrounging online for "illustrative" material regarding Brooklyn's Plum Beach. (You'll notice here that it's sometimes spelled "Plumb Beach," but the general usage seems to be that it's Plum Beach, named for beach plum trees that are supposed to grow in this marshy area on Rockaway Inlet, east of the mouth of Sheepshead Bay (and, therefore, of the eastern extremity of Coney Island). But it gives a pretty description of the event I surprised the heck out of myself by taking such a journey from the conceptual-theoretical stage ("you know, I could actually do this, and it might be interesting") to the actual-journey stage. It was a journey that, from way-northern Manhattan, took more than the two hours I had allotted on the route I'd worked out (the no. 1 train to the no. 2 train to the B44 Limited bus to its terminus, then hoofing it) -- almost two and a half hours, in fact.

And at the several "junction" points, as it became clear that I wasn't going to come close to making it by 8pm to this place I'd never in my life heard of before let alone been to, I told myself that the sensible thing to do would be to chalk it up to a noble effort and head back home. Some other time I could complete the journey -- the beach, after all would still be there.

Yes, but would the horseshoe crabs?

But I didn't, and at nearly 8:30, when I finally saw up ahead what looked to be a bunch of people gathered in front of what I seemed quite likely to be the Plum Beach Comfort Station, the designated meeting place, I began to imagine that perhaps I hadn't entirely missed the event. And indeed I hadn't.

I missed the start of Urban Park Ranger Andrew's discussion of horseshoe crabs, explaining that their habitat extends . . . oh, I don't remember, but something like from the Gulf of Mexico all they way up the east coast of North America (there are also Pacific horseshoe crabs, we learned, on the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia), and whatever it is, it's also a basic bird migration path, because horseshoe-crab eggs, which apparently chock full of body-building fat and protein, are super-good eats for our feathered friends. And in our area, the salt-marsh beach of Plum Beach (Andrew thinks of the whole coastal region that is now Greater New York as essentially a giant salt marsh, albeit a now-much-compromised one) is prime mating territory for the horseshoe crabs during their mating season, which locally runs about two and a half months, from April to mid-June, with moonlit nights especially favored, not for romantic reasons, of course, but for the help it provides them in finding their way to the beach and finding each other, the only reason they come onto the beach.

As the sun set, we set out in search of these ancient creatures -- who, by the way, can go a full year without eating -- and found a lonely male, but also what looked to Andrew to be a mass of horseshoe-crab eggs, which matched the description he had just given in response to a question of what the eggs look like, but surprised him because normally the female (who's way larger than the male, by the way) buries the egg clusters in the sand to provide them some protection from predators from air, sea, and land. However, someone with a smart phone was able to provide googled confirmation horseshoe-crab eggs were indeed what we were looking at.

Considering how much Andrew was able to tell us about these remarkable creatures -- and there were lots of good questions from the assembled horsehose-crab voyeurs -- it was cheering when he wasn't sure about the answer and allowed that he doesn't know everything about horseshoe crabs. As darkness set in, the crabs became bolder about venturing onto the beach, and Andrew was able to pick up mating pairs of them, who disengage with great reluctance. By the time the official presentation drew to a satisfying close, and Andrew said he was going to continue walking the beach and anyone who wanted to join him was welcome to, a shrewd hard core of us -- more, apparently, than he expected -- eagerly clustered around him, and the best part of the night, with full darkness (but a few people carrying small lights so we could see something), ensued. The horseshoe crabs were doing it all over the beach, and we were privileged to witness an important piece of the hemisphere's ecological balance taking place before our amazed eyes.

I'm embarrassed to say that I've only recently become aware of New York's Urban Park Rangers, who are a treasure. They perform all sorts of functions for the city's Parks Department, but one of them is conducting terrific tours like this throughout the city's parks. (In the only one I've taken so far, of the water course of Brooklyn's Prospect Park, on a grimly overcast Sunday afternoon, I wound up having a one-on-one tour with Ranger Vinnie, which was shortened only a bit by an ensuing downpour. The Urban Park Rangers, I had been told, come prepared to do their thing come what may.)

The return trip from Plum Beach again took nearly two and a half hours, even with a spectacular connection to the returning B44 Limited bus. I wasn't even sure I knew where the return route started, but no sooner did I think I had found the correct bus stop than the correct bus rolled in to confirm it! Fortunately, with the holiday today, I didn't much care how late I got home. And while I know I spent nearly five hours in transit, what a night!

Then I was awakened about 5am by what I realized after a moment was a torrential downpour outside, which seemed to constitute a dramatic thumbs-down on some possible activities I'd scouted for Memorial Day. I could have done one or both of a pair of Central Park tours, in areas and/or from perspectives that would be new to me. Or there was a link I'd found to a walking tour of Jones Beach, the beach that Robert Moses build on an island off the south shore of Long Island in the '30s. In nearly 50 years of living in New York, for as much as I've heard the storied name of Jones Beach, I'd never set foot there.

When I tuned in a weather forecast, it seemed pretty insistent that the rain was over, and we had a good, sunny day in store, and so I duly dragged myself to catch the 11:10 Long Island Rail Road train to Freeport, successfully met the Shorewalkers group, and was eventually able to crowd onto an N88 bus, which I was delighted to discover took my regular unlimited Metrocard, and which duly slow-mo-ed its way along the parkway (also built by Robert Moses, naturally), on what had indeed developed into a prime beach day for the first weekend of "the season," and was eventually disgorged at the western side of the Jones Beach State Park.

It's a lovely spot, though less crowded than I would have expected. Just wait till Fourth of July, I was thinking. But I won't be there. It's a lovely spot, and I'm glad I did it, in the company of people familiar with the place, and it was even worth the $16.50 round-trip train fare to do it once. It's a beach. A nice beach, but just a beach. I can cross it off my "things to do, maybe" list, though.

And tomorrow it's back to work. Sigh. Well, at least I did something this weekend. And how was your holiday weekend?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Most Peaceful, Least Peaceful Countries-- But Are They Safe For Tourists?

Different kinds of danger in different societies

We planned our trip to Nepal and Tibet all year. We've been to Nepal a few times before-- starting in 1971 for me-- and there's no need to make an extraordinary preparations for a trip there. Easy as pie these days, especially for a place so totally exotic. But Tibet is another story. You can't just jump on a plane and fly to Lhasa and walk around and take a look. Tibet is chafing under the control of China and China makes it very difficult to get in and puts extremely tight controls on anyone who does go. It's complicated and expensive and fraught with rules and regulations. Two weeks ago, China announced that no foreigners would be allowed into Tibet during late June and early July, just when we were going to be there. We had to cancel all of our hotel reservations and our serpentine, costly permitting procedures. And our airline tickets.

Only Air China flies from Nepal to Katmandu. They don't like refunding tickets. It took some maneuvering to get them to agree... I think. I think? Well, they say they'll return most of the money. We'll see if they do.

Meanwhile, we're extending our time in monsoon-ridden Nepal. That may be a mistake. Aside from daily torrential rains, it looks like there might be a civil war brewing again. The Maoists against the Communists. Everyday Roland reads the Indian newspapers to gage how safe it is to fly into Kathmandu-- above and beyond his intelligence that there is no functioning radar system in the country's only international airport, Tribhuvan. Checking for political peace is relatively new thing for American tourists who want to have a nice vacation. It never used to bother us much. Now we're always second-guessing Mexico, the Middle East, Morocco, even... Arizona.

Maybe the 2011 Global Peace Index, which was released yesterday, can be helpful. The key findings were that:
• The world is less peaceful for the third straight year

• Due to an increased threat of terrorist attacks in 29 nations

• A greater likelihood of violent demonstrations in 33 countries

• Arab Spring unrest heralds biggest ever change in rankings, Libya tumbles 83 spots

• Iceland bounces back from economic woes to top ranking

• Somalia displaces Iraq as world’s least peaceful nation

• Violence cost the global economy more than $8.12 trillion in 2010

According to the report, Iceland, New Zealand and Japan are the three most peaceful countries-- and in that order. I remember Iceland being filled with rowdy drunks when I was there... but that was in 1969 and maybe they're quieter now. All the Scandinavian countries are filled with drunks and they're all rated among the 10 most peaceful on earth. Europe in general is rated as the most peaceful place and sub-Sarahan Africa as the least peaceful. Somalia's the worst of all, with Sudan close on its tail. The U.S. improved from 85th most peaceful to 82nd most peaceful. Canada, by way of comparison is 8th most peaceful. I think it's that gun thing in places like Arizona and Texas that screws up the U.S. ranking.
If the world had been 25% more peaceful over the past year the global economy would have reaped an additional economic benefit of just over US$2 trillion. This amount would pay for the 2% of global GDP per annum investment estimated by the Stern Review to avoid the worst effects of climate change, cover the cost of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, eliminate the public debt of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and address the one-off rebuilding costs of the most expensive natural disaster in history-- the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Nepal's #95 on the list-- unless your a monarch, in which case, you could easily be shot. Here's the whole list, from best to worst and these are the 15 least peaceful places. I'd avoid most of them, although I keep wanting to visit Moscow and St Petersburg. I think Colombia is on the list mostly because they shoot union members there. It just beats out... Yemen and Lebanon!
The State Department Wednesday issued a travel alert warning U.S. citizens in Yemen of a "high security threat level" in the country. The agency said Americans should not travel to Yemen and urged U.S. citizens in Yemen to depart immediately because of "terrorist activities" and "civil unrest."

At this time, a U.S. government-facilitated evacuation will not take place because commercial travel options remain.

U.S. citizens choosing to stay in Yemen are advised to limit nonessential travel and enroll their stay in the country through the Smart Traveller Enrollment Program (STEP). Registrants will be prompted to provide their current contact information and next of kin or emergency contact information.

The U.S. also ordered all non-essential American diplomats and all diplomats' families out of the country immediately.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Preparing For Nepal-- What About The National Carrier?

Akash Bhairab-- the 2 boys are fine; the 2 goats... not so much

We've flown-- reluctantly-- on Royal Air Nepal in the past. And we're about to again-- although the name has been changed, with the abolition of the monarchy to Nepal Airlines. Roland panics; I'm fatalistic. There hasn't been a fatal crash in a decade. But this morning he sent me some old news reports. The one he was the most worked up over had to do with the head honcho at the airline being jailed for corruption. The only part that surprised me is that he was jailed. In Asia you really have to assume that everyone is corrupt-- and pray that its under control and that, for example, he isn't pocketing the money that's supposed to go for engineer maintenance.

I was more interested in live goat sacrifice to Akash Bhairab, the Hindu god of sky protection.
Officials at Nepal Airlines (formerly known as Royal Nepal Airlines), Nepal’s state-run airline, have sacrificed two goats last week to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god (who is actually painted on the fuselage of the aircraft), following a long series of technical problems with one of their Boeing 757 airliners due to which Nepal Airlines has had to suspend some services in recent weeks (it was probably a noticeable part of their international services as it is one of only two mid-haul aircrafts at the airline – the domestic market is served by seven Twin Otters).

The goats were sacrificed in front of the troublesome aircraft on Sunday at Nepal’s international airport in Kathmandu in accordance with Hindu traditions, an official said. They hope that after this sacrifice there will be no more (or not as many) technical problems to be fixed with this particular aircraft, and thus there will be less interruptions to their operations due to aircraft maintenance. ”The snag in the plane has now been fixed and the aircraft has resumed its flights,” said Raju K.C., a senior airline official, without explaining what the problem had been. Local media last week blamed the company’s woes on an electrical fault. The carrier runs international flights to five cities in Asia, and this particular flight arrived to Hong Kong safely after the ritual. It is common in Nepal to sacrifice animals such as goats and buffaloes to appease different Hindu deities.

UPDATE: And If That's Not Enough... How About A Maoist Revolution To Interrupt Your Holiday Plans?

Always worrying, that Roland. This morning he wasn't thinking about airline maintenance but revolutions and sent me this pleasant news from the Times of India about political trouble brewing again in Nepal... as I rush to do all my last minute preparations for the trip.
Last year, as Nepal's Communist-Congress ruling alliance failed to draft a new constitution within the stipulated deadline and sought more time, the main opposition Maoist party paralysed the republic for six days, calling a general strike to pressure the then prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal into resigning.

One year later, the turbulent republic continued to suffer as cruel history repeated itself. This time, it was the Nepali Congress, booted out of the alliance by new communist PM Jhala Nath Khanal and sitting in opposition that flexed its muscles in the capital on Friday, holding a mass meeting where its top leaders demanded the resignation of Khanal.

"We are here with 10 demands," said Nepali Congress prime ministerial candidate and former deputy prime minister Ram Chandra Poudel. "No party will be allowed to play the politics of arms. The Maoists have to surrender their arms and give up their fighters. Nepal's king Birendra was wiped out along with his family because they made themselves above law. The Maoist army cantonments have also put themselves above law and that is bound to lead to catastrophe."

They may be backing away from the brink... a little. I sure hope so. We'll be there soon. Communists vs Maoists-- so strange.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Time To Put Orbitz On Hold For A While

Orbitz is financing fascism in the United States by advertising on Fox News. Drop Fox is making frequent travelers aware of Orbitz's advertising policy and what that has been doing to our country. Several other organizations have backed them up and here's the letter LGBT groups like Courage Campaign, GLAAD and Equality Matters sent to Barney Harford, CEO of Orbitz:
Dear Mr. Harford,

It has recently come to our attention that your company buys advertising on Fox News Channel. Orbitz prides itself on being a good friend to the LGBT community, and we are writing you to raise our concerns about your association with a network that advances destructive anti-gay rhetoric.

Your gay-specific travel site has been warmly received in the gay community, has resulted in higher quality service for the LGBT community and has achieved an increase in growth for Orbitz. Additionally, in the last few years, leading LGBT organizations Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD have recognized the great work that Orbitz has done in partnering with and catering to the LGBT community.

In that same time period, Fox News demonstrated an indefensible bias in its coverage of core issues for the LGBT community. An analysis of coverage on everything from gay marriage to the repeal of DADT to gay individuals supports a conclusion that Fox's coverage is driven by a political agenda and cannot be considered an objective news source.

Here are a few examples of where Fox News acted in clear opposition to the best interest of the LGBT community:
Fox News gave Mike Huckabee his own show despite a history of comparing homosexuality to drug abuse, incest, pedophilia, and necrophilia. Huckabee has repeatedly used his Fox platform to campaign against gay marriage, even insultingly suggesting that marriage equality poses a threat to stable society.

Bill O' Reilly has repeatedly used his popular and prime time show to warn against the "dangers" of allowing gay people near children, to assert that same-sex marriage could lead to nuptials with turtles, ducks or dolphins, and to baselessly claim that implementing a hate crimes bill could protect pedophiles.

Fox News repeatedly perpetuated lies that repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell would impact troop readiness and morale, despite multiple reports-- including the Pentagon's-- to the contrary.

These campaigns of misinformation, smears, and flat-out lies-- which are propagated throughout Fox News' programming, including its so-called news shows-- do real damage to our families and communities. They also call attention to the fact that by supporting Fox News, Orbitz is supporting an organization committed to advancing an agenda that demeans many of your customers and advocates limiting their civil rights. It also undermines Orbitz's laudable support for the LGBT community.

Given the tenacity with which Fox is committed to this agenda as demonstrated by an enclosed compendium of its coverage, it is our sincere hope that you will rethink your decision to support them financially through ad revenue.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss this further.

Financial support from Big Business allowed for the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany. The time to nip it in the bud is now, not when it's too late. Please consider signing the Courage Campaign petition here and please consider using another service until Orbitz stops financing all the hate on O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck and the rest of them. Fox News’ history of destructive anti-gay language and actions includes:

· Giving Mike Huckabee his own show despite Huckabee’s history of comparing homosexuality to drug abuse, incest, pedophilia, and necrophilia. Huckabee has repeatedly used his Fox platform to campaign against gay marriage, and he has suggested that marriage equality poses a threat to stable society.

· Bill O’ Reilly repeatedly using his popular prime time show to warn against the “dangers” of allowing gay people near children, to assert that same-sex marriage could lead to polygamy, nuptials with turtles, ducks or dolphins, and to claim that implementing a hate crimes bill could protect pedophiles.

· Perpetuating the claim that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would impact troop readiness and morale, despite multiple reports-- including the Pentagon’s-- to the contrary.

“Orbitz loves gay dollars and, we hope, LGBT people, but by funding homophobes and charlatans like hosts Bill O'Reilly and Mike Huckabee, Orbitz sends the wrong message,” said Courage Campaign Founder and Chair Rick Jacobs. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can go to plenty of other travel sites. We count on Orbitz to do the right thing and stop buying advertising on Fox News Channel so that LGBT people can continue to shop with Orbitz. The alternatives are clear.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pakistan's Hottest Tourist Destination?

The fabulous Ilyasi Mosque in Abbottabad

Right after the extra-judicial execution of Osama bin-Laden (ex-post facto sanctioned by retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens), DownWithTyranny, my other blog, ran a post that mentioned Pakistan was considering obliterating the bin-Laden hide-out in Abbottabad to keep it from becoming a shrine. It looks like there's an equal likelihood it could become an amusement park. Forget for a moment that the slimy corporate whores at Disney have taken it upon themselves to trademark Seal Team 6, Pakistani attorney Rashid-ul-Haq Qazi, who visited the compound, had a suggestion of his own: charge people to look inside. "It would be wiser to print some tickets and charge an entry fee," he said.

Now as we now, Pakistan isn't a safe tourist destination for Americans even in the best of times. And this is pretty much the worst of times. That said, Abbottabad has always been a domestic tourist destination and the locals see a pot of gold for themselves in bin-Laden's recent demise in their fair town. I missed it when I drove, in 1969. from the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, Rawalpindi, the Islamabad building site, Gujrat, and Lahore and onward to Amritsar and New Delhi, but Pakistani tourists treasure it as a base for trips to the beautiful Kaghan Valley and the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation recommends as "places worth visiting in and around Abbottabad" the Ilyasi mosque with its water spring (photo above), the Shimla view point and Thandiani hill resort.
Pakistani hoteliers in the now notorious town where Osama bin Laden was killed by elite US forces are praying the views and balmy weather still reel in bumper tourist numbers this year.

Considered one of the quietest towns in the northwest, nestled in pine-dotted hills and popular with day-trippers from the capital, Abbottabad is listed on Pakistan's official tourism website as a "popular summer resort."

...Officials say the bin Laden episode might not dampen the inflow of tourists, since the peace of the city was barely disturbed and business has continued as usual. Indeed, said one, it might even be a bonus.

"I believe that tourism will not be impacted-- rather, more people are coming to see the place where the incident happened," provincial secretary for tourism and culture Azam Khan told AFP... Hoteliers were upbeat, saying prospects for this summer were good.

"Praise be to God, we are doing good business and expect a full season," Hummayun Khan, manager of the Alpine hotel, told AFP.

"I don't think the recent incident will have a negative impact, because the city is still normal and peaceful and people are doing business without any fear."

Jibran Mirza, a manager at Gilani's guest house, said some people may this year prefer to go to Murree, another resort town north of Islamabad, but he did "not see any downslide" in business.

"Murree is overcrowded, so families prefer Abbottabad," he added.

I can even see an HGTV House Hunters International featuring charming Abbottabad, which "is popular not just with visitors but with those looking to relocate. Its weather, peaceful reputation and the perceived security of a garrison have drawn many from other cities to work or educate their children."

Pakistani tourists are lining up to get their pictures taken in front of the nondescript walls that hid bin-Laden for 5 years. International tourists haven't flocked to it yet but curious families from Islamabad, Lahore and even Karachi have. Next up will be tourists from the Gulf states.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Best And Worst U.S. Airlines-- Short Version: They're All Pretty Bad These Days

The June issue of Consumer Reports rates the best and worst U.S. airlines. The best news didn't have anything to do with the sorry state of the collapsing airline industry itself but with the fact that the Department of Transportation announced a series of very minimal protections for consumers in April, including:
• Disclosing fares and fees. Airlines and other ticket sellers will be required to disclose all fees, including baggage charges. All fees and taxes must be included in advertising.

• Refunding baggage fees. Airlines will be required to refund those fees if your bags are lost.

• Extending tarmac delay rules. The DOT's 2009 ruling on extended tarmac delays is being strengthened and expanded. The current regulation requires domestic flights to return to the gate after three hours, and passengers must be provided with adequate food, water, working lavatories, and medical treatment. This rule will now include U.S. carriers operating international flights, as well as foreign airlines operating out of U.S. airports.

• Compensation for bumping. If you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, new regs will provide increased compensation, in some cases doubling the current amounts.

• Limiting fare increases. Airlines will not be allowed to raise your fare after you’ve purchased your ticket.

All stuff we used to take for granted... used to. Anyway, the Consumer Reporters survey included almost 15,000 readers and they were not kind. Eight of the ten airlines rated received low scores for seating comfort-- exceptions being JetBlue and, incongruously, since their seating sucks, Southwest. These two airlines also topped the overall list.
Other quality-of-flight measures also got low marks from our readers, including cabin-crew service, cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment. The proliferation of added fees further contributes to passengers' low opinion of today's flying experience, and even to their decision of whether to fly at all, as we explain in Carriers continue to squeeze with fees.

But some carriers have done a better job than others, as evidenced by a wide difference in overall satisfaction scores, from Southwest's lofty 87 to US Airways' lowly 61. Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks for check-in ease and the service provided by its cabin crews. Passengers also gave the airline high grades for cabin cleanliness and baggage handling. The latter might reflect the fact that Southwest is the only airline we rated that lets you check two bags free of charge. But bags three, four, and beyond will cost you $50 each. And like most other carriers, Southwest charges extra for items over its size and weight limits. (Our survey was conducted before Southwest's well-publicized problems this past April with cracks in several of its planes.)

JetBlue, which ranked second in overall satisfaction, was the only airline to outscore Southwest for seating comfort, possibly because it gives passengers more room than they're accustomed to in this era of tightly packed planes. JetBlue's coach seats are 32 to 38 inches from the seat directly ahead, while coach seats on most other carriers are just 31 inches apart. JetBlue was also the lone carrier on our list to earn top scores for in-flight entertainment; its seatback TV screens offer passengers 36 channels.

Bottom-ranked US Airways occupies the same unenviable spot on our list as it did in 2007, when we last assessed airlines. In addition to its low overall score, survey respondents gave it the worst marks of any airline for cabin-crew service.

Our own annual airline rating places Delta at the bottom of the heap again, but the came in 8th (of 10), worst of all the majors. Here's a little clip that only takes safety into account, for those who worry about that kind of thing:

Monday, May 09, 2011

Seeing America-- Free Walks

"The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations."
-- Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American
, the epigraph on the 2011 Jane's Walk USA website

by Ken

Really, I'd be curious to know what people did and saw around the country in this weekend of free walks (yes, free! celebrating and keeping alive the memory of that pioneer of modern urban life Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), author most famously of The Death and LIfe of American Cities, timed to her birthday (which was Wednesday).

On the Jane's Walk USA website there's a list of 25 cities represented this year: Anchorage, Austin, Baton Rouge, Brunswick (ME), Boston, Chattanooga, Heber Valley (UT), Houston, Jackson (MS), Kansas City (MO), Mesa (AZ), New Orleaans, New York City, Oakland (CA), Orange (NJ), Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Scranton, Syracuse (NY), Tempe (AZ), Waterbury (CT).

On the actual birthday, the Municipal Arts Society has an annual tour, "Her Village," in which architectural historian Matt Postal leads participants through sites associated with Jane's life and causes in the neighborhood, and winding up in front of the modest little three-story house on Hudson Street (down the block from the White Horse Tavern) which she and her husband bought and in which they raised their two sons and a daughter until pulling up stakes for Toronto in 1968, unwilling to allow the coming-of-age Jacobs boys to be subject to the draft for the Vietnam War, which they vehemently opposed.

I think my very first MAS tour was one of Matt's, which remains one of my all-time favorites from a "concept" standpoint: a walkthrough of a project that never got built, thanks in part to the activism of Jane Jacobs. It was the legendary Robert Moses's first major defeats, planned as another of his slash-and-destroy neighborhood-killers, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have provided a direct vehicular link between the Holland Tunnel on the west and the East River bridges to Brooklyn on the east, at the cost of a neighborhood filled with the kind of people that neither Moses nor the business community that supported him cared about.

Every time Moses was pushed back, he came back with an altered version of the plans, until finally community groups discovered -- with Jane Jacobs playing a major role -- that they really could fight City Hall. (Moses wore so many public hats that fighting him was in effect fighting a united wall of bureaucracies.) The strategic breakthroughs involved in the LME fight(s) involved organizing community resistance and finding ways, normally through the standard media, to make a "story" of that opposition.

It was a stark reminder of the gulf between Robert Moses's way of looking at cities and Jane Jacobs's. If you look at Moses's plans for the city of the future, you see high-rise building containing hermetically sealed dwellings that the dwellers left only to go to their cars to drive on Moses's highways to . . . well, destinations, including Moses's parks and other recreation facilities. Left out was any kind of human interaction, any kind of community -- the very thing that counted for so much in Jacobs's thinking, that and the idea that people living and working in neighborhoods are entitled to a say about the use made of their neighborhoods.

Jacobs famously loved low-rise buildings with stoops, which encouraged neighborhood interaction, and buildings with stairs rather than elevators. She was an obsessive observer, getting out "in the field," seeing what made neighborhoods work, what made them active and vital, and what made them work less well. She was correspondingly distrustful of top-down planning by people who didn't know, or often didn't care, how people actually live their lives.

My only regret about the Jane's Walk weekend was how many interesting-looking tours were scheduled in New York which I wasn't able to go on. I was out of commission Saturday because I wasn't going to be deterred from another Queens tour led by Jack Eichenbaum, with whom I've done both New York Transit Museum and Municipal Art Society tours and last week his own spectacular all-day "World of the #7 Train" tour (for which in the end he had to turn away eight would-be registrants). I didn't imagine I'd have another opportunity to walk "The Right-of-Way of the Flushing Central Rail Road" (under the auspices of the Queens Historical Society), which for some seven years in the 1870s connected Flushing to Hempstead, Long Island, and "lives on in a swath of parkland and streets," of which we walked the portion from Flushing to Fresh Meadows.

One of the things that makes Jack, as an "urban geographer," such an interesting tour leader (he's the current Queens borough historian, by the way) is his fascination with how and why areas and neighborhoods have developed and continue to develop, and one of his current fascinations is the incredibly rapid evolution of Long Island City in the wake of a major zoning overhauls by the city. He has five tours of the area coming up next weekend ("Daylight Loft Buildings in Long Island City," Saturday, May 14, and "Long Island City Shoreline to the Noguchi Museum," Sunday, May 15), the following Wednesday evening (" Queensboro Plaza to the Waterfront at Sunset," May 18), and the following weekend ("Long Island City Studio Strolls," Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22). The sunset walk to the waterfront is also part of an extensive series of Wednesday-evening tours Jack is doing from May through July under the heading "Changing Cultures of Queens: A Walking Anthology," including "Flushing's Chinatown" (this Wednesday, May 11) and "Sunnyside to Jackson Heights" (May 25).

They're all $15, and no advance reservations are required. For more information, check Jack's website.


In addition to the Saturday Jane's Walks I couldn't take, but tried to keep track of in case maybe someday I can try to do them on my own, there were a number on Sunday I might have done, but in the end I opted for "The Draw of a Vibrant Waterfront," a tour organized by two New York Harbor-obsessed bloggers, Will Van Dorp (of Tugster, recently profiled in's City Room), an English professor by day who thinks of the vast working New York Harbor as the city's "sixth borough"; and Christina Sun (of Bowsprite), an artist whose passion is directed toward the people who work the harbor -- people who mostly from someplace else. On a picture-perfect day, with just enough clouds to add drama to the blue sky, our small but hardy band took the noon Staten Island Ferry (it was a difficult decision, knowing how unpunctual people are these days, to depart on time rather than wait the half-hour till the next ferry), then headed west from the St. George ferry terminal along the north shore of Staten Island, with spectacular views of the Upper Bay from the Kill van Kull (which separates Staten Island from New Jersey) on the west to the distant Brooklyn shore on the east.

As excited as I was by my recent Municipal Art Society outing to Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center, farther around the bend on the Kill van Kull, I had one regret: that of necessity, by taking the short bus ride from the ferry, we zoomed past that magnificent shoreline. So I couldn't resist returning in the company of people who could help point me at and explain what there was to see from that wonderful vantage point, and Will and Christina (and their tugboat-savvy friend Burke) were splendid guides, and our small group included terrifically interesting people. I had a grand time.

Thanks to Will and Christine. And thanks of course to Jane.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Is It Safe To Fly on Delta?

I'm sure there's a totally reasonable explanation for why all the U.S. carriers now offer the worst service in the skies and why Delta is even worse than the other U.S. airlines. I've long given up on Delta-- and even hesitate to use the American Express credit card that is attached to it's frequent flyer program-- and always look for an alternative when I'm flying. After Friday's blatantly bigoted outrage in Memphis, I would think a lot more Americans will stop flying Delta as well.

I suppose if you're some provincial, bucktoothed bumpkin who's never seen a Muslim cleric, one look at the two Muslim scholars boarding the Delta flight to Charlotte would be enough to ensure a panic attack. Fortunately the pilot restrained himself from shooting them and merely kicked them off "his" plane (before it took off). It didn't matter that they had been searched and body-searched not once, but twice. They had Muslim beards and hippie clothes.
Masudur Rahman, a professor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, and Mohamed Zaghloul, Imam at the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were asked to deplane Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight 5452 from Memphis to Charlotte. They were subjected to additional security checks after the plane had pushed back from the gate, Rahman told Reuters by telephone.

After additional screening, the two men were cleared by Delta representatives to re-board the plane, but were then told the pilot would not take them, Rahman said.

Rahman said both men had been cleared for check-in and boarding by airline and Transportation Security Administration officials during normal pre-flight procedures.

According to a TSA spokesman, the decision to remove the two passengers was made by the airline.

Delta apologized-- to the non-Muslim passengers who were inconvenienced by the delay. The two Muslims were, ironically enough, headed for a conference on Islamophobia, where they were scheduled to lead prayers. They were 9 hours late for the conference. Delta couldn't be doing a better job if they were being paid directly by al-Qaeda. In fairness, I need to point out that Delta doesn't just discriminate against Muslims; they hate musicians (especially violinists) as well-- and musicians have joined the Delta Boycott. I hope the world's 1.5 billion Muslims do as well.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Group Travel "Survival" Strategies-- Guest Post By Pete Mandra

This is the final episode in Pete's series about his travel adventures in Africa. I hope everyone has enjoyed them as much as I have. The book is even better!

I’ve precariously canoed past watchful crocodiles and anxious hippo pods on Africa’s Zambezi River.

Mere feet separated me from a skittish Black Mamba, a snake so deadly its venom is 100% fatal to a bitten man within an hour.

Unpredictable elephants, always-opportunistic lions, and stealthy leopards demanded your full awareness when spotted in the African bush.

But as stress-filled as those truly memorable moments of my African journey were, nothing compared to the trials of group travel.

Don’t get me wrong-- signing on with a group travel tour, just as I had to visit southern Africa (and later Egypt and Jordan), is an effective way to navigate across a country while taking in its highlights. You not only eliminate the hassle of getting from Point A to Point B, but it’s generally much more cost effective than if you were to attempt it by yourself.

The challenge, though, arrives when your tour takes you through a less-developed country like Africa, where personal safety, and few diversions like museums and shopping, dictates the group spending time together for seemingly every waking moment. It is then that a strange, almost magical transformation occurs-- you stop acting like a group and start acting more like a dysfunctional, slightly manic family, filled with just enough underlying tension to drive one another crazy. In Africa, we fought over food, relaxed every ambition imaginable a little too much for comfort, and almost purposefully got on each other’s nerves. Though I can’t share all of the sordid details here, suffice to say I did start to wonder, after that whole experience, how any of us could once again function in normal, everyday society.

OK-- so I exaggerate a bit. Then why, you’re probably asking yourself, after my trying experience traveling with a group through Africa, did I participate in another such trip shortly afterwards through Egypt and Jordan? Because Africa taught me what I refer to as essential ‘mental survival strategies’ for group travel, essential to enjoying your trip and dealing with the sometimes difficult group mentality.

The following, then, are my 5 tips for mentally ‘surviving’ a group travel tour:
1. Grab alone time (when you can get it!). There’s nothing wrong with retreating to your tent or room for a little bit if you need a break. Don’t think that just because others always hang out that you are required to, also.

2. Protect that personal space! In Africa, the seat you grabbed on the truck that first day was yours for the next six weeks. It sounds crazy, but on group tours, your instinct is to protect all space in that immediate vicinity as your own, so you don’t feel too crowded and have room for your gear. Only remove gear from the truck that you need for that particular moment, using the rest as a personal space holder.

3. Stay connected with family and friends back home. Receiving an email, video chat, or just hearing the voice of a loved one has a way of bringing you back to reality, especially when you need a break from present company. And best of all, you can find an Internet café in even the most remote places in the world (though you may have to deal with a dial-up connection).

4. Zone out. Bring that music-loaded Ipod for those long road trips when you don’t want to spend another 4 hours (again) talking to your seat mate. Or be really devious and only pretend you’ve fallen asleep.

5. Go with the flow. Will the group annoy you at times? Absolutely! So expect that you may not get along with everyone, and accept that you’re personal freedom may seem compromised from the outset as you (often) follow rigid schedules and full days to take in all the sites. A mantra may help, too. Whenever I wanted to strangle someone, I took a deep breath and repeated to myself you’re on vacation…you’re on vacation. It usually did the trick.

Hopefully, after reading this you aren’t scared off if you were considering signing on with a group tour in a less-developed part of the world. Following my own advice on my Egypt and Jordan trip proved extremely helpful, so I’m confident, if you have any such concerns, these same strategies can work for you, too.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Deregulated Flying Is Now A Classic Example Of Caveat Emptor

There's only one airline flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa, Air China. It was next to impossible to book online and every time I called I got answers that contradicted every other time I called, including one operator who so did not want to be bothered that she swore that the service had been discontinued and another that said there was no way to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa (less than an hour) without flying through Beijing, which would add... oh, say 16 hours to the joint-- in each direction. I finally, after weeks found someone to actually help me, but only after I agreed to write a letter and fax it, stating that if for any reason China refuses to give me a visa in Kathmandu-- which they do regularly for all kinds of spurious reasons-- Air China is not responsible. And this is a full service airline! And, presumably because they have a monopoly, they're expensive.

While people who fly a lot often are aware of the hidden charges which creep into our final airplane bills, some may not be as conscious of what to look out for. British website suggested I share this guide on the blog in the hope that it will shed some light on the matter and that more people become aware of where the costs lie. After all, no frills airlines have sprung up all over the world and boast loudly about how much money passengers can say, but as we saw just a few months ago budget airlines are all too often unmasked as skyway robbers. Below are some of the "sneakiest tricks played by the main European budget airlines. The flights might look cheap to start with, but here-- in order of sneakiness-- is how the price can double with the errant click of a mouse.
1. Card fees

EasyJet: charge around £5.25 | $7.10 | €6.20 per person, per flight when you use a debit or credit card to book (they also add a 2.5% credit card loading charge too). If you have a Visa Electron card, however, you won't have to pay this fee.

Ryanair: impose a £5 | $7.10 | €5.60 'administration fee,' payable by anybody using a debit or credit card to book online. The charge applies both ways, so it'll add £10 | $16.45 | €11.20 per person to the cost of your flights. They don't charge if you are using a MasterCard pre-paid charge card.

Flybe: charge £4.50 | $7.40 | €5 to pay on plastic unless you're using a Visa Electron card, and it'll be £5 | €5.60 | $8.20per person, per flight if you're using a credit card.

Aer Lingus: charge £5 | $8.20 | €5.60 per person, per flight for using any credit or debit card except Visa Electron. tip: Get a prepaid card so that you can avoid costly transaction charges. These work like debit cards but aren't linked to your bank account; instead you top them up with the credit you need to make your purchase. Check which type of prepaid card the airline that you plan to travel with lets you use to book fee free & apply for your card online.

Make sure that you choose your prepaid card carefully as many apply costly transaction charges and top up fees. Doing so will mean you save a significant amount by avoiding airline booking fees.

2. Check-in fees

Jet2: will charge £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 for you just to check in at the airport, although this drops to £2 | $3.30 | €2.25 if you do it online.

Ryanair: offers free online check-in on some flights, and charge a small sum on others. If you check in online and forget to bring your printed boarding pass, expect to pay £40 | $65 | €45 per person per way. tip: Check-in online. Some budget airlines like bmi baby and the Eastern European Whizz Air don't charge at all for online check-in. Just remember to print out the proof!

3. Seat reservation fees

Jet2: charge a seating fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person, and this doesn't even guarantee you seats in the same area as your travel companions.

Flybe: charge a seat reservation fee of £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 per flight or £15 | $24.70 | €16.90 for a more spacious emergency exit seat.

EasyJet: charge around £7.25 | $11.90 | €8.15 for various types of "Speedy Boarding" options to get you onto the plane quicker. We recommend deselecting these options when booking online in order to save money, since it rarely reduces waiting time by more than a few minutes and the plane won't leave any quicker regardless.

4. Changing the name on your ticket

Easyjet: If the name on your ticket isn't identical to the one on your passport, EasyJet insist you change it for £30 | $49.35 | €33.70 online or £40 | $65 | €45 at the airport.

Jet2: will charge you £27.50 | $45.20 | €30.90 if you miss out your middle name but it appears on your passport.

Ryanair: charge around £125 | $205 | €140 to amend the name on your ticket, so remember to include your full name as it appears on official documents. tip: Check, check and check again. Just because your friends call you 'Hazza' doesn't mean the person at the check-in desk will.

5. Baggage limits and charges

Flybe: limit you to 10kg for hand luggage, and will charge you £11 | $18.10 | €12.40 for a mere 15kg of hold luggage.

Aer Lingus: you'll pay £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 per item of hold luggage for flights around Europe, this increases to £36 | $59.20 | €40.50 a piece on flights to the USA.

Easyjet: If you try to take more than your allotted amount of luggage (currently 20kg) onto an EasyJet flight, you have to pay £25 | $41.10 | €28.10 at check-in or £40 | $65 | €45 at the boarding gate for them to take it from you and put it in the hold. tip: For short breaks, consider taking hand luggage only but make sure this meets not only weight but also dimension guidelines (Ryanair are particularly restrictive on the size of hand luggage).

6. Telephone booking premium

Ryanair: charge £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for over-the-phone bookings.

EasyJet: lets you book by phone for "free," but the call will be charged at an extortionate rate. It is easy to rack up a hefty bill using this method. tip: Book online. Even if there isn't a specific fee for booking by phone, the cost of the call will be greater than the equivalent internet use.

7. Cost per kilo of overweight bags

Ryanair: will set you back £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for every kilo your luggage is overweight, and their rules state that 'no pooling of baggage allowance is permitted' so it's not possible to share your unused allowance with others in your party.

EasyJet: will charge you £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per 1kg your luggage is overweight.

Flybe: charge you £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 for every additional kilo over the meagre 15kg bag limit. tip: Weigh your bags carefully before you set off for the airport. Put as much in your hand luggage as possible, but remember that liquids over a small amount (usually 50ml) and certain sharp toiletries will need to go in the hold.

8. Sports equipment

Ryanair: will charge £40 | $65 | €45 online or £50 | $82.30 | €56.25 at the airport for any large sports equipment or musical instruments you want to take onto the plane.

EasyJet: will sell you extra weight at a discounted rate for sports equipment and musical instruments. This is £18.50 | $30.40 | €20.80 when you arrange it in advance, or around £30 | $49.34 | €33.70 at the airport itself. tip: Buy the extra weight online in advance if you absolutely need to take this kind of luggage. Otherwise, consider renting abroad or getting there by other means (train or coach).

9. Final tips and pointers

Jet2: By default Jet2 adds extra hold luggage, a 'sit together' fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person included on a booking, insurance for everybody and a premium meal for every leg of the journey. These expensive additions have to be manually deselected during the booking process. Also, be aware when checking out Jet2's prices that they add a 'variable fuel charge' of around £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per person, depending on the journey.

Ryanair: counts Reus and Girona as 'Barcelona,' despite the fact they're both well over an hour away by road. Be sure to factor in airport transfer when calculating the best deals. tip: Read every part of the terms and conditions, and triple check every amount and detail before pressing the 'ok' button to confirm your booking on the website.

Sometimes it doesn't cost any more-- in fact, sometimes it's even less-- to fly on the non-discount airlines. So do lots of airline price comparisons. I always check several services, like Kayak and, and the websites of the various airlines, before booking. But these airlines are pros; they're out to squeeze every cent out of you that they can and they're better at that than they are at maintaining good service. Always assume they're out to cheat you; they always are. Yes, always; it's in their DNA.