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Monday March 7th 2011
Business travel
Gulliver
Hotel reviews
The mysteries of TripAdvisor
Mar 7th 2011, 10:51 by P.J.C. | LONDON
MANY people rely on TripAdvisor when booking their hotels and there is a kind of vicarious thrill to be had from reading about people's dreadful experiences: the dead rat found in the room fridge, the vomit left in the washbasin. But what about the rave reviews?
It seems likely that people will only be inspired to write a review if their experience is either very good or very bad, with the result that reviews will cluster in the five-star or one-star categories. Nevertheless, suspicions should surely be aroused when a hotel has a large number of five-star reviews where the contributor has reviewed no other establishment. Researching one establishment in California, your blogger found that more than half the five-star reviews were by sole contributors (or by people who had only reviewed this same hotel on more than one occasion); in contrast, three-quarters of those who awarded fewer than five stars were multiple reviewers.
Now it could be that regular reviewers tend to get more choosy about handing out five stars. But it could also be that hotels get friends to plug their establishment and move it to the top of the rankings. So how is the traveller to tell?
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Jet fuel prices
The airlines' Qaddafi problem
Mar 6th 2011, 17:43 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
LIBYA is in the midst of civil war as rebel forces strive to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. In the meantime, the North African country's oil output has been halved, and fuel prices around the world continue to rise under the threat of further revolt in the Middle East—and especially the protests planned in Saudi Arabia for March 11. A leader from this week's print edition examines the risks of an oil shock:
[T]he biggest danger lies in the Middle East itself, where subsidies of food and fuel are omnipresent and where politicians are increasing them to quell unrest. Fuel importers, such as Egypt, face a vicious, bankrupting, spiral of higher oil prices and ever bigger subsidies. The answer is to ditch such subsidies and aim help at the poorest, but no Arab ruler is likely to propose such reforms right now.At its worst, the danger is circular, with dearer oil and political uncertainty feeding each other. Even if that is avoided, the short-term prospects for the world economy are shakier than many realise. But there could be a silver lining: the rest of the world could at long last deal with its vulnerability to oil and the Middle East. The to-do list is well-known, from investing in the infrastructure for electric vehicles to pricing carbon. The 1970s oil shocks transformed the world economy. Perhaps a 2011 oil shock will do the same—at less cost.
We can hope that an oil shock would transform economies. But in the meantime, a lot of people are going to be affected. Rising oil prices are already changing business travel as fuel price pressures force airlines to increase ticket prices. Even when oil is relatively cheap, jet fuel costs represent some 30 percent of airline overhead. As prices rise, that percentage grows, and ticket prices have to go up, too. And really expensive oil causes a vicious cycle that devastates the airline industry. Portfolio's Joe Brancatelli explains
Hundred-buck-a-barrel oil and the pain it inflicts the carriers' always-precarious bottom lines creates a vicious circle of chaos in business travel. As basic fares rise, leisure travelers fall away and opt for "staycations." That means airlines look to business travelers to carry more of the financial load. But rising fares force business travelers to reassess their plans and cancel trips. That negatively impacts the economy at large, which further depresses demand for airline travel. That requires airlines to slash seat capacity and ground aircraft, which means fewer flights and more inconvenience for business travelers. The added inconvenience of flying leads business travelers to cancel even more trips. Then, in desperation, airlines slash fares to attract leisure travelers and end up flying planeloads of unprofitable flyers.
The International Air Transport Association, the trade group for the big airlines, downgraded its outlook for the year earlier this week based on rising oil prices. And with jet fuel over $3 a gallon, the Washington Post is raising the spectre of 2008, "when oil prices surged to record levels and U.S. airlines lost billions of dollars." IATA isn't quite so pessimistic—it thinks that capacity cuts in the North American market and a still-recovering economy will help offset some of the damage from higher fuel prices. But for business travellers, the news is still bad: ticket prices will almost certainly continue to rise as long as the unrest in the Middle East continues. And if the protests planned for Friday in Saudi Arabia materialize in any meaningful manner—or the grip of the royal family there appears to wobble at all—even the Post's 2008 comparison may soon prove to be a far too rosy vision of airlines' future.
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Trains vs. planes
Trains and partisanship
Mar 5th 2011, 20:49 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
PAUL KRUGMAN, sometime spokesman for the American left, defends high-speed rail:
I think about the trains/planes comparison something like this: planes go much faster, and will continue to go faster even if we get high-speed rail; but there are some costs associated with a plane trip that can be avoided or minimized on a rail trip, and those costs are the same whether it’s a transcontinental flight or a hop halfway up or down the Northeast Corridor. You have to get to the airport at one end, and get from it at the other, which is a bigger issue, usually, than getting to and from train stations that are already in the city center. You have to wait on security lines. You have to spend more time boarding.
Gulliver agrees with all this. But many of Mr Krugman's commenters (and the commenters on this site) don't. "'High-speed rail' is a upper-middle class toy," one warns. "Trains are more expensive the planes, and nobody will ride them as long as planes exist because they are slower and more expensive" another hollers. Other commenters respond with evidence of useful, efficient high-speed rail systems in other countries, or warn of the spectre of higher jet fuel prices. Mr Krugman responds to his commenters:
Some of the comments on my various pro-train posts have been along the lines of “Oh yeah, try taking the train to Los Angeles.” But that, of course, misses the point.
Matt Yglesias disagrees. The fact that you can't take the train to Los Angeles from New York is exactly the point, he argues. The title of his post says it all: "You Can’t Take The Train to Los Angeles, So The Runway Shouldn’t Be Full of Planes To Boston." Improving high-speed rail on the America's east coast would be a great way to improve the quality and quantity of flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It's a good argument, and one that has inspired several follow-ups from my colleague M.S. at Democracy in America. But I'm just as interested in why this argument is so contentious as I am in the actual argument itself. What has turned high-speed rail, of all things, into a topic that drives debate among America's top pundits? The American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie may have an answer:
[T]oday at Grist, Sarah Goodyear points out conservative pundit George Will's reversal on high-speed rail. Ten years ago—in the wake of 9/11—he proposed high-speed rail as a safer alternative to short-distance air travel. These days, he sees high-speed rail as a progressive plot to destroy our freedom-loving habits of mind.This isn't to play "gotcha," as much as it is to note a simple fact about our world: We're all partisans, whether we admit it or not.......This isn't a bad thing. Yes, partisanship can be taken too far and veer into ideological blindness, but, in general, it is a useful way of organizing our thoughts on policies and politics. Indeed, it's how most voters process political information. Political commentary would be much more bearable if pundits were willing to accept the partisan origins of their biases and skepticism, instead of playing a game where we pretend to be open-minded observers. Most are anything but.
Mr Bouie might be overstating the influence of partisanship a bit, and it's hard for people to know exactly what is driving others' opinions—or even one's own. Still, partisanship is certainly a useful frame through which to view both the most ardent opponents and the most passionate defenders of HSR. There is political science research that shows that a president weighing in on one side of a given debate (as Barack Obama has with high-speed rail) dramatically increases political polarization on that issue. Of course, if Mr Bouie's theory is correct, we should be able to point to some lefty supporters of HSR whose support seems to be driven primarily by partisanship—or even a few who, like Mr Will, have switched positions on the issue. Anyone have a nomination? Let us know in the comments.
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Airline news
Allegiant's new idea
Mar 4th 2011, 16:27 by A.B.
Three gobbets for today:
• Allegiant has come up with a new way to share the pain of rising oil prices with passengers. It has filed a request with America's Department of Transportation for permission to sell a type of flexible ticket. The purchase price would be less than a normal ticket's, but it could subsequently rise or fall (with the customer either paying more or getting money back) depending on oil-price flucutations between the purchase date and the flight date. The maximum possible price would be shown at the time of purchase. If you understand the oil market, then such a ticket could be worth a gamble. The Crankyflier blog has a good explanation.
Emirates has the best in-flight food of any carrier, according to Skyscanner's poll of 1,200 passengers. Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Aeroflot and Qatar Airways rounded out the top five.
• IF you name your premium-economy seating "Economy Comfort" (and we're looking at you, KLM and Delta), what not-very-subliminal message are you giving about the joys of your regular economy seating?
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Doing business in New York
Unpeeling the Big Apple
Mar 3rd 2011, 16:50 by A.B.
OUR CORRESPONDENT in New York explains what visiting business travellers need to know about the teeming city.
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Hotels
Questions for Starwood
Mar 3rd 2011, 9:07 by A.B.
ON MONDAY I'm going to be meeting Frits van Paasschen. He's the boss of Starwood, the hotel group that counts St Regis, W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton and Aloft among its brands. If you have any particular questions about the company or indeed the hotel industry that you would like him to answer, please write them below.
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The Geneva motor show
Genevitis
Mar 2nd 2011, 15:32 by I.C. | GENEVA
THIS week thousands of motor-industry executives and motoring journalists descended on Geneva for the motor show, held incongruously in one of Europe’s smallest car markets in a country more famous for watches then wheel spin. Once a gentle affair in a couple of halls at the exhibition centre next to the airport, it has now grown so large that cars heading there face gridlock on the roads from the city centre. Many visitors never see the fine prospect of the lake and its iconic water spout, because they cannot get hotel rooms in town. Car companies block-book expensive suites for their bosses on an annual basis, but minions and journalists find they have to go as far away as Lausanne to get a room.
The happy hoteliers of John Calvin’s town rub their hands at this influx. Prices for a distinctly ordinary town-centre room can be as high as SFr395 ($425), while the grand hotels along the lake and by the Rhone charge as much as SFr650-900 for standard rooms. It’s that peak demand-during-trade-show thing that hits everything from the Frankfurt book fair to the Hanover trade fair or the Paris fashion show—to the annoyance of all but hoteliers.
In Geneva, restaurants and taxi drivers join in too. A seven-minute ride from the airport to the nearby Hotel InterContinental—a grand affair on the hill at the edge of downtown Geneva—sets you back over SFr20, while an onward trip to the downtown banking district on the other side of the Rhone costs SFr45. There are very few bars outside the grand hotels, and even they charge about SFr7.5 for a pint of lager. A two-course meal with half a bottle of wine in a (rare) brasserie will set you back about SFr100. But there is one bit of good news for motorists: should they deign to take public transport, they will find Geneva hotels often give out free travel passes for the city’s excellent trams and buses. These have the added advantage of gliding in their dedicated lanes past the gridlocked chauffeur-driven Mercs and taxis.
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Restaurants
France: a great place for cheap food
Mar 1st 2011, 16:16 by A.B.
THE press release accompanying Michelin's latest guide to the restaurants and hotels of France has a slightly unexpected emphasis. Perhaps the company feared that its book might lose relevancy in these belt-tightening days, but it mainly trumpets the growing number of "Bib Gourmand" restaurants. These wallet-friendly establishments offer three-course menus that cost €35 or less in Paris and €29 or less elsewhere. Their number has risen by 117 to 601 and now, for the first time, they outnumber the starred restaurants.

And yet, while admired, none of these Bib Gourmand restaurants actually earns a Michelin star, unlike 571 of the 3,419 restaurants in the guide. So they're cheap, yes, but they're not offering "very good cuisine in its category", the requirement for one star. Still, Michelin has another good reason to celebrate France's cheaper eats: there is rather less to say about top-end dining. For the first time since 1992, no new restaurant was promoted to three stars. Last year's 26 three-starred restaurants have become 25, thanks to the demotion of Les Loges de l’Aubergade in the Lot-et-Garonne. Michel Trama, the disappointed chef, compared his lot to that of a Formula 1 driver: "Have I hit the gravel for good, or just for once race? Have I lost the battle or the war?"
He can at least console himself with his restaurant's continuing existence. One small Normandy restaurant which won its first star has already closed down since the inspection because of a lack of customers.
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Train horrors
Good Samaritans on the 10.15 to London
Feb 28th 2011, 12:48 by A.B.
ALWAYS first with the news, I have just come across the heart-warming story of Tom Wrigglesworth. He’s a stand-up comedian who, back in October 2008, took it upon himself to defend a fellow passenger facing up to the Byzantine awfulness of the ticketing systems that operate on Britain’s railways. As recounted by Victorian Coren in this weekend's Observer, a 75-year-old passenger had got on a Virgin train from Manchester to London that left 30 minutes before the one for which she had actually purchased a ticket. The ticket inspector on the train decided to charge her £115 for a new ticket, which was ten times what she had originally paid. Enter the good Samaritan.
The gallant Wrigglesworth stood up and began a whip-round in the carriage. It didn't take long; everyone was disgusted by the policy and sympathetic to the elderly passenger. Wrigglesworth handed over his gathered £115 to safeguard the bullied old lady… at which point the train staff radioed British Transport Police and asked that he be arrested for begging. They were waiting for him at Euston.
In true Dave Carroll style, Mr Wrigglesworth got creative in his revenge and used the story of the journey in his stand-up show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009. Sadly I can't find any footage of the routine online, but 28 months after the original event, I warmly salute both his gallantry and his retribution.
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A business bans the TSA?
A Seattle cafe bans TSA agents... or does it?
Feb 27th 2011, 21:38 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
THE ESTIMABLE Chris Elliott had a great story last week on a cafe near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport supposedly banning Transportation Security Administration agents from the premises. "We have posted signs on our doors basically saying that they aren't allowed to come into our business," Mr Elliott's tipster told him via email. "We have the right to refuse service to anyone." That's not all:
My boss flies quite a bit and he has an amazing ability to remember faces. If he sees a TSA agent come in we turn our backs and completely ignore them, and tell them to leave.Their kind aren’t welcomed in our establishment.A large majority of our customers — over 90 percent — agree with our stance and stand by our decision.We even have the police on our side and they have helped us escort TSA agents out of our cafe. Until TSA agents start treating us with the respect and dignity that we deserve, then things will change for them in the private sector.
The story was quickly picked up by the local and national press, and soon Mr Elliott was receiving inquiries from local journalists, looking for his tipster's contact information. Even the TSA itself felt compelled to make a statement—a spokesman said its employees had not been banned from any Seattle cafes. As Mr Elliot points out, that's pretty meaningless—"They’re not paid to monitor discrimination practices at restaurants." But later in the week, several local outlets published stories suggesting the tipster's story was fake—or, in the words of the Seattle Weekly's Curtis Cartier, "smelling more and more of bullshit."
Now Mr Elliott has published a follow-up post noting that the name his tipster orginally offered was a pseudonym and suggesting he believes it's possible "she made the whole thing up." But there are still some lessons to be learned here. This whole episode is just more proof of my theory that the "TSA horror story"—or really, just about anything to do with how awful US airport security can be—is a meme with a permanent grip on the national psyche. And if people are going to the trouble of inventing stories about the TSA, that means these stories have a particularly broad appeal. Mr Elliott's story got picked up by national media before anyone even knew whether the cafe in question even existed at all. In this particular case, the story is a fascinating inversion of the traditional tale of TSA mistreatment—this time, aggrieved airline passengers are taking their revenge. It's tailor-made to go viral.
Mr Elliott, for his part, says he believes his tipster's "words struck a chord with American air travelers that I couldn’t have foreseen," and notes that "a lot of readers weighed in with strong opinions about barring TSA employees from businesses." He adds that "it might be a good idea for the TSA to address that hostility." All that seems right. But I'm going to come down against this perhaps-theoretical banning of TSA agents from places of business. What TSA security screeners do may be invasive and inconvenient, or even occasionally stupid, but it's neither illegal nor immoral. They're just doing their jobs—which, at least theoretically, consist of protecting their fellow citizens. Banning them from your coffee shop would be misguided and wrong.
What about you? Do you think it's a good idea for businesses to ban TSA agents? What do you think of this whole episode? Let us know in the comments.
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Guns on planes
Flying the well-armed skies
Feb 26th 2011, 22:54 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
REMEMBER Farid Seif? Mr Seif is the Houston Iranian-American businessman who mistakenly carried a Glock handgun through security, onto a plane, all the way from Houston to Indianapolis. When he got to his destination and realised his mistake, he alerted security officials. There was reportedly "nothing else" in Mr Seif's carry-on besides the weapon. Yet the security screeners at George Bush International, America's eighth-busiest airport, missed it entirely. The scariest part of that story was that Transportation Security Administration officials told reporters that this type of incident was "not uncommon."
Now another Texas airport, Dallas-Fort Worth, is proving the point. This week, a high-level TSA source told the local NBC affiliate that "An undercover TSA agent was able to get through security at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with a handgun during testing of the enhanced-imaging body scanners." Really:
The TSA insider who blew the whistle on the test also said that none of the TSA agents who failed to spot the gun on the scanned image were disciplined. The source said the agents continue to work the body scanners today.
This is not confidence-inspiring. It's actually infuriating. If TSA screeners can't even stop guns getting through security, why are they taking away our bottled water? Incidents like this only lend ammunition to TSA critics who say the whole airport security apparatus is an enormous waste of time and money. The TSA's attitude towards the reporting of these sorts of screw-ups isn't helpful, either. They only provided NBC with a brief statement claiming that they don't reveal the results of cover testing for "security reasons" and arguing that " advanced imaging technology is an effective tool to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items hidden on passengers." That's pretty much the public affairs equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and saying "lalalalala we can't hear you!"
As Gulliver has argued before, it is really hard to have an accountable TSA without greater transparency about the results of covert testing. The TSA continues to try to have it both ways on testing. Instead of leaking hints to the press that failure rates have decreased since the last public reports, the TSA should back up its whispering with actual data. If it won't, some enterprising congressional committee should subpoena it. "Trust us that this works" just isn't cutting it anymore.
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In-flight distractions
Something's bugging me
Feb 25th 2011, 18:01 by A.B.
AN angry British Airways customer has responded to a pair of disastrous journeys by setting up a website chronicling her miseries. Zane Selkirk flew from Los Angeles to London Heathrow on January 28th and from Bangalore to London Heathrow on February 5th—and on both flights she claims to have been attacked by bedbugs. Her new website, BA-bites, goes through every aspect of the trip and provides various photos. It also details the rather desultory response Ms Selkirk got from BA staff on both occasions, although I suspect readers may be more concerned at the carrier's lack of hygiene than its lack of PR skills.
BA was sufficiently concerned to take the two planes out of service, and it did indeed find bedbugs on one, which has been fumigated and returned to service.
Now bedbug bites are not much fun, as Gulliver can testify from his youth-hostelling days. But you have to be truly angry at a customer-service response (or else very bored) to put together an entire website devoted to your itchy experience. More to the point, I do have some sympathy for BA. It operates 250,000 flights a year at a time when New York is suffering a massive surge in the numbers of bedbugs. And the BBC has even referred, not very helpfully perhaps, to a "global pandemic" of the beasties. So some of the more intrepid bugs have hitched a ride with a passenger or their luggage and then made merry in premium economy. Horrible, yes, but I don't think we can expect a carrier to inspect their bedding after every trip. (Or do these incidents indicate that this needs to change?) For the time being, though, I think we excoriate BA for a lacklustre response to Ms Selkirk's complaint and chide it for the presence of the bugs. Not the other way round.
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Canadian fees
Charging Canadians to fly to America
Feb 25th 2011, 11:08 by A.H. | TORONTO
GIVEN the myriad fees already imposed by Canada's government and airlines on passengers, another one should hardly rankle. But the American government's proposed $5.50 inspection fee for Canadian flyers has prompted plenty of squawking. "The problem is that it's just one more of a thousand paper-cuts that are hurting the competitiveness of our Canadian air travel industry," said Daniel-Robert Gooch, communications director of the Canadian Airports Council, which represents more than 200 airports. Birgit Matthiesen, of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Canada's largest trade and industry association, said: "The raising of any fees on the Canada-US border is troubling." And a new poll suggests 64% of Canadians would favour imposing a fee on visiting Americans if the US inspection fee is enacted.
Even Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, has weighed in, saying a flight fee is not a useful way for the US to raise revenue. This criticism is somewhat ironic given that Mr Harper's government seems to believe passenger fees are indeed a great way to generate revenue. Passengers flying from Canada to the US must pay a security charge of more than C$12.
But the proposed inspection fee, which was introduced in the 2012 US budget, is not actually a new one, but rather an end to an exemption air and marine travellers from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean have enjoyed since 1997. Some 16m Canadians fly to the US every year, so the fee would raise about $90m from Canada alone—chump change given America's projected $1.6 trillion budget deficit for 2012.
A recent survey by the Hotel Association of Canada showed that 21% of Canadians drove to an American airport last year to benefit from cheaper airline tickets for US or foreign travel, up from 18% in 2009. It's unlikely that another $5.50 fee will stem that traffic.
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Delhi's airport link
Delhi gets its airport link
Feb 24th 2011, 18:31 by A.B.
A 28-KILOMETRE rail line opened in Bangkok last August that links the city centre to the airport in as little as 15 minutes. Not to be outdone, Delhi's high-speed airport link finally opened yesterday, and a colleague has written on the topic on our Asia view blog. Like Bangkok's line, Delhi's was plagued by delays, and indeed it should have been ready for October's Commonwealth Games.
Recriminations fly back and forth between the private company that is to manage the train for the next three decades—Reliance Infrastructure—and its partner, a public body, Delhi Metro Rail, which was responsible for building the structure of the line. Each side blames the other for delays. And though the trains are running, they are yet unable to travel particularly fast; two intermediate stations are not complete; and a promised city check-in service for luggage is not yet working.
But despite the service's teething problems, it is already taking passengers from city centre to airport in 20 minutes. Costing 57 billion rupees (some $1.3 billion) to build, it provides an example of the kind of public-private partnership that could be hugely beneficial to India's cities.
Delhi’s new train and metro are welcome examples of an Indian city that has succeeded in thinking creatively about how to ease dreadful congestion. Other booming cities, notably Mumbai and Hyderabad, are now reaching out to private actors to help build city rail networks, just as many states have handed over airport construction and operation to firms. The only hope of spending $1 trillion on infrastructure in an effective way is to get more private partners involved. Delhi’s airport express got off to an imperfect start. But better late than never.
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Face-to-face meetings
You can't share a beer over e-mail
Feb 23rd 2011, 17:06 by A.B.
THE justifications for face-to-face meetings are manifold and well known. This article on the Harvard Business Review's blog offers one businessman's rationale for the expensive airfares and inconveniences to senior employees that resulted from his insistence on monthly management meetings in different locations.
By breaking down the geographic and psychological borders between subsidiaries and involving all of our senior managers in a regular, rigorous business analysis of each operation, we created a team that felt a sense of ownership not just of their P&L, but of the entire company.
The writer goes on to admit that such a pace was unsustainable—and indeed unnecessary once personalities had gelled—so the meetings were scaled back to quarterly affairs. And so to the nub of the article:
Big multinationals hold meetings like this as a matter of course, but in many ways I think they're even more valuable for small companies — even if they stretch managers' time and put demands on limited cash flow. Small companies tend to lack the infrastructure and controls of large companies, and our monthly in-person meetings helped overcome that.
I'm interested by the notion that smaller companies have a greater need for face-to-face meetings than bigger ones. I think that's what instinct tells us, though I do wonder whether workers in some faceless über-company would struggle to feel a sense of community without meeting distant colleagues. Answers, then, please to a very general query: which has greater need of face-to-face meetings, the smaller company or the bigger?
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Delta
Delta's fine
Feb 23rd 2011, 12:03 by A.B.
AMERICA’S Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined Delta Air Lines $2m over its treatment of disabled passengers. This is the largest fine the DOT has ever levied in a case not involving safety violations.
Delta was remiss, the DOT said, when it came to "providing enplaning, deplaning, and connecting assistance" and in the way it responded to complaints. Airlines are required by law to help disabled passengers get on and off planes, "including the use of wheelchairs, ramps, mechanical lifts and service personnel where needed."
The DOT looked at all the complaints it received from Delta passengers in 2007 and 2008, as well as a selection of the complaints that Delta itself had received. It noted a number "egregious violations" of the applicable law, and cited examples, including one disabled passenger being left in a plane for 15 minutes after all other passengers had disembarked, and another being left at the wrong gate and so missing their flight.
Delta settled out of court, but has not admitted culpability. Of the $2m penalty, only $750,000 must be paid as an actual fine. The rest can be put towards improvements in the way it treats disabled passengers. So, for example, up to $834,000 can be spent on a wheelchair-tracking system
Since 2008 the DOT has fined 11 other airlines over their treatment of disabled passengers.
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Liveability ranking
Where the livin' is easiest
Feb 21st 2011, 16:06 by A.B.
VANCOUVER remains the most liveable city in the world, according to the latest annual ranking compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The Canadian city scored 98 out of a maximum 100, as it has done for the past two years.
The ranking scores 140 cities from 0-100 on 30 factors spread across five areas: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. These numbers are then weighted and combined to produce an overall figure. The top ten cities occupy the same positions as last year, with the exception of Melbourne and Vienna, which have swapped places.
The report, which some companies use to determine hardship allowances for relocated employees, explains what makes a high-ranked city:
Cities that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density. This often fosters a broad range of recreational availability without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure. Seven of the top ten scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, where population densities of 2.88 and 3.40 people per sq km respectively compare with a global (land) average of 45.65 and a US average of 32.
At the other end of the ranking, Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is in 140th place, thanks to particularly poor scores for its stability, health care and infrastructure. Somewhere between the extremes sit London and New York in 53rd and 56th places. They are let down by stability scores of 75 and 70, the result in turn of poor scores for the perceived threat of terror and the rates of petty and violent crime.
UPDATE 23rd February: It turns out Vancouver is only the 29th-best place to live in Canada. Those standards must be pretty high.
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No-fly lists
How the American no-fly list applies outside America
Feb 21st 2011, 12:54 by A.H. | TORONTO
A BRITISH man prevented from flying home from Canada because his name was on America's no-fly list could be just the first of many such instances, says the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Dawood Hepplewhite was not allowed to board his Air Transat flight from Toronto on February 13th when it was discovered that he was among the 8,000 to 10,000 people prohibited by the US from flying over its airspace. Even though Canadian airlines are not under any legal obligation to give passenger information to the US, Mr Hepplewhite was subsequently denied flights on Air Canada and British Airways.
It's unclear how Mr Hepplewhite's name was given to American authorities. Under existing Canadian privacy legislation, Canadian companies are not supposed to supply customer information to foreign governments. But that will change if a piece of Canadian legislation known as Bill C42, now in its third reading in the House of Commons, is passed. The bill puts in an exemption to the country's privacy laws that will allow airlines to divulge passenger information to the US, essentially giving American authorities the final say on which passengers will be allowed on flights due to pass over American airspace.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has “serious concerns about the lack of legal safeguards in Bill C42” and also the about the no-fly list's fairness and the listing process in general. “If a person believes they were wrongfully placed on the US No Fly List, it is apparently very difficult to find out why they were placed on the list, and difficult to get their name off of the list,” the association said. The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, has brought a lawsuit challenging the no-fly list as “unconstitutional” and “un-American”.
Mr Hepplewhite has reportedly blamed his appearance on the no-fly list on his conversion to Islam and the fact that he was once interviewed for a teaching job in Yemen, widely considered a terrorism hot spot. But his story has a somewhat happy ending. The British High Commission intervened and got Mr Hepplewhite and his family on an Air Transat flight to Glasgow on Wednesday. If it hadn't done so, Mr Hepplewhite would have had to appeal to US Homeland Security to clear his name, a process that would have meant spending another 45 to 60 days in wintry Canada.
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Airline fare increases
The big airlines get cold feet
Feb 20th 2011, 22:54 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
ON MONDAY Delta and other major American airlines increased prices on first-class, business-class, and seven-day advance tickets in an apparent attempt to wring a few more bucks out of business travellers. Short flights went up $20 each way, medium-range flights went up $40 each way, and long-haul flights over 1,500 miles went up as much as $60 each way. Delta initiated the increase and was quickly followed by American, but by the end of the week, both airlines got cold feet and backed off the price increases. USA Today's Roger Yu explains:
The network airlines' most recent attempt to raise business travel fares was their second in as many weeks. They've also raised fares more broadly — affecting most of their seats and leisure travelers — five times since December.But the airlines' failure this week may be a sign of the tentative pace of the recovery of business travel, which sank along with the economy in 2008.
Rick Seaney, the CEO of air-fare watchdog FareCompare.com, told Mr Yu that Southwest Airlines, America's largest discount carrier, seems to be in the driver's seat when it comes to fare increases this year. Southwest didn't raise its prices in two of the five rounds of increases in the past few months, and "If Southwest doesn't participate, [other airlines] tend to tiptoe around those [routes] to make sure they're at equilibrium with Southwest," Mr Seaney told Mr Yu.
The bottom line here is the same one Gulliver has been spouting for weeks: any economic recovery is far from solid, and the business-travel recovery is even more tenuous than the improvement in the broader economy. Airlines are still having trouble raising their prices. In the short term, that's good news for those of us who have jobs and are travelling—we're travelling cheaper and better. But in the long term, a more solidly grounded recovery would be good news for all of us. When the airlines start being able to raise their prices without blinking, we'll know we're really on the road to recovery.  
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High-speed rail in Florida
Rick Scott deep-sixes Florida high-speed rail
Feb 19th 2011, 21:48 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, DC
RICK SCOTT, the newly elected Republican governor of Florida, made national headlines this week when he announced plans to reject $2.4 billion in federal money intended for the construction of a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.
Mr Scott worries about cost overruns and long-term operating costs. Those are legitimate concerns. But in the short run, the governor's decision probably wasn't the best for Florida's economy—the federal money would bring spending and jobs to the state. So it's unsurprising that other Sunshine State politicians, including Jeb Bush, the former governor and younger brother of former president George W. Bush, criticized Scott's actions.
If Florida rejects the money for the Tampa-Orlando project, it will almost certainly be used in other states. (Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has already sent President Obama a letter saying his state would be happy to take the money.) Ray LaHood, the Obama administration's transportation secretary and a former Republican congressman, has said Florida has until February 25 to change its mind before the money gets reassigned.
High-speed rail supporters around Florida are working to get Scott to reconsider. A veto-proof majority of the state Senate sent Mr LaHood a letter on Friday urging him to give the money to Florida despite Mr Scott's objections. "This is like holding a gun to our heads and telling the federal government: Don’t give us this money or we’ll blow our brains out," Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told the St. Petersburg Times.
Gulliver is skeptical of Mr Scott's motives for rejecting the rail money. The governor says the rail line, which he calls a "boondoggle," wouldn't have as high of a ridership as currently projected—citing a study from the Reason Foundation. But even Republicans in Florida have attacked that study as "inaccurate."
Mr Scott could have some deeply held, high-minded policy objection to the Tampa-Orlando line. But it seems a lot more likely that he is simply following the lead of other newly elected Republican governors around the country. Ohio's John Kasich and Wisconsin's Scott Walker dramatically raised their national profiles by sticking a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration and rejecting rail money targeted for their states. So far, Mr Scott's move seems to be earning him the same kind of press—and the same sort of credibility with the GOP's conservative base. Now some in the media are even talking about Mr Scott as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. That could be just what the governor wanted out of this.
All that said, the Tampa-Orlando project has serious flaws that Gulliver has noted before. There were no plans to connect the project to the new SunRail system, for example. Moreover, researchers at the think tank America 2050 have found that city pairs that are less than 100 miles apart "are better-suited for auto and commuter rail networks" than for high-speed rail. Tampa and Orlando are 85 miles apart. There are plenty of places the money could be better-spent.
Mr Scott's rejection of the rail money might end up being bad for Florida, which could probably use the boost to its economy. But those 2.4 billion dollars will probably end up being put to better use in Maryland or New York or Connecticut or California anyway. Why worry about scrapping high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando when you can have it between Washington or Boston or San Francisco and Los Angeles instead?
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TSA
Not guilty by association
Feb 18th 2011, 13:17 by A.B.
A TSA SUPERVISOR working at Newark airport pleaded guilty earlier in the week to stealing from passenger luggage. As Reuters reports, Michael Arato had taken "kickbacks from a subordinate officer, whom he permitted to steal between $10,000 and $30,000 in cash from travelers over the course of a year ending in October 2010". The subordinate co-operated with the investigation that preceded the arrest of Mr Arato, who now faces a sentence of up to 15 years.
This is a superb story with which to bash the TSA. At a time when many Americans are fed up with intrusive security procedures, commenters have been lining up to sound off about the horrors of the administration, viz the responses to these reports of Mr Arato's doings. But these reactions strike me as unduly harsh. Whatever your views of full-body screening, it is important to resist the temptation to villify TSA officers as a group. Doing so certainly doesn't help them to do their job nor passengers to enjoy their airport experience. Two officers in Newark have been found to be corrupt; nothing implies the problem is endemic.
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British Airways
London Airways?
Feb 17th 2011, 18:06 by A.B.
A LETTER to the editor makes a good point in relation to a recent article in The Economist about London. It deals with aviation, so I've grabbed it:
SIR – It was interesting to read about “Londonism” and the challenges presented to Britain by having such a dominant city (“The capital’s creed”, February 5th). You might also have mentioned how Britain’s so-called national airline, British Airways, has distanced itself from the British regions in favour of operations at London’s airports, thus supporting the London-as-a-city-state concept.This is unique among large European countries. Lufthansa has two main hubs, at Frankfurt and Munich, and secondary ones at Dusseldorf and Hamburg. Berlin’s new airport will open next year. Air France is not merely entrenched at Paris; it has a hub at Lyon and subsidiaries flying from airports all over France. In Spain, Iberia is building a second hub, after Madrid, at Barcelona. I could go on.In Britain if you really must fly on BA, you make your way, usually with difficulty, to London. Or you try to find another carrier. The airline should rebrand itself as London Airways.
I'm not sure that's entirely fair. On a crowded island such as this I suspect it wouldn't make much commercial sense for BA to set up a second hub. What the airline could improve is the way it feeds passengers from outside London into its hubs. Otherwise they will increasingly choose to ignore BA and take feeder flights to better-organised hub airports on the continent.
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Loyalty programmes
Delta improves its loyalty scheme
Feb 16th 2011, 17:18 by A.B.
SOME good news from Delta Air Lines, which has announced that its SkyMiles loyalty points will no longer expire. Previously, they would disappear into the ether two years after the "last qualifying mileage activity". Now, with effect from the start of this year, they become ageless.
Jeff Robertson of Delta commented: "We know how much customers value their miles, so eliminating mileage expiration is a major win for them." I suspect it's not actually a "major win" for customers who value their miles. Those customers' mileage accounts would not have been inactive for 24 months in the first place. It's the irregular flyers who forget they are members of the scheme and can't remember their log-in details who stand to benefit. It's a nice bonus for them and a wise move from Delta—the first of its kind from a legacy carrier.
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Hotel prices
Russian alpha beds
Feb 16th 2011, 12:02 by A.B.
MOSCOW still has the most expensive hotel rooms of any city in the world, according to the latest annual survey (PDF) by Hogg Robinson Group (HRG). The average price of a bed in the Russian capital declined over the course of 2010 by 3% when measured in pounds (12% in roubles) to £258.67, yet keeps the city in the top slot for a sixth successive year.
Abu Dhabi, which was behind Moscow last year, plunged to 19th place, mirroring Dubai’s fall in the previous year, and for much the same reason of soaring supply. As a result New York moved up to second place with rates of £211.92, an increase of 3% on 2009.
The biggest increases were seen in Australian cities, with costs in Sydney and Brisbane soaring by 21% and 32% respectively. The report attributed to this to a strengthening of Australia's dollar and its resource-rich economy. And it was a recovery in the financial sector that helped London avoid the downward trend shown elsewhere in Europe. Instead, its average rate rose 3% to £156.91, though this was still only enough to place it 29th out of 75 cities, below the likes of Istanbul, Johannesburg and Mumbai.
Most expensive cities: 1) Moscow £258.67 2) New York City £211.92 3) Geneva £203.42 4) Paris £200.90 5) Zurich £198.58 6) Washington, DC £193.12 7) Hong Kong £191.24 8) Stockholm £189.30 9) Doha  £183.54 10) Riyadh £175.82
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Aviation security
Clever hounds
Feb 15th 2011, 17:14 by A.B.
FOLLOWING on from our recent piece on explosive-detecting mice, I would direct your attention to this post on a sister blog, Babbage. It tells of a recent experiment that showed how sniffer dogs react to the signals their handlers unintentionally give. So if a handler thinks he has spotted a potential source of drugs/explosives, his behaviour will convey that message to the dog, and the dog is then more likely to "spot" the drugs/explosives by, say, sitting next to the bag. As the piece describes the experiment: "The human handlers were not only distracted on almost every occasion by the stimulus aimed at them, but also transmitted that distraction to their animals–who responded accordingly." Read the whole thing. (And then campaign for more mice.)
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