Safety at sea — bigger ships, bigger stakes

Titanic and modern cruise ship

As cruise ships grow ever larger and more complex, safety becomes even more paramount. Don’t take yours for granted.

If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you know “the drill.”

It used to be known as a lifeboat drill, later a safety drill. These days, cruise lines often call it a “safety briefing.”

And if you’ve ever been through one, you probably don’t have much love for it.

When the ship’s signal sounds, you have to stop whatever you’re doing and walk, wander or blunder your way to your assigned muster station.

There, after waiting for everyone to file in, you watch to a shipwide demonstration on how to don a life vest, what to do and not do, where to go and not go, what to listen for.

You then follow the herd of fellow passengers out on deck to your assigned lifeboat, where crewmembers take a head count or even call roll to make sure that everyone who’s supposed to be present is accounted for.

Finally, another ship’s signal means you’re free to go back to the reason you paid all that money to come aboard this vessel in the first place, namely have a good time.

In more than 30 years of cruise travel, I’ve never met a cruise traveler who wouldn’t love to duck out of a safety briefing — and on every cruise, someone tries.

Especially if they’ve already hit the ship’s bars.

The reason why you shouldn’t is best illustrated by the image above. Take a good, hard look at it — and everything it implies.

The ship in the foreground is the RMS Titanic, the largest cruise ship of her day, with a capacity that was almost unthinkable at the time — nearly 2,500 passengers.

Behind her is a modern-day Royal Caribbean cruise ship of the Oasis-class. And if she looks big enough to swallow Titanic whole and ask for seconds, it’s because she is.

An Oasis-class cruiser can carry 5,400 passengers. Her 2,700 cabins outnumber Titanic’s whole passenger manifest.

I said Titanic was the biggest liner of her day. Her day lasted barely a year before an iceberg did her in.

That sinking, and the huge loss of life that went with it, is why cruise ships hold safety briefings.

When you go through one of these, you might think the whole thing is a joke. It isn’t. If you missed the ship’s safety briefing, whether innocently or on purpose, the crew can put you off the ship.

The law that governs all this is called SOLAS, short for Safety of Life at Sea.

By now, you may be thinking, “But that was more than a hundred years ago. Ships are better designed and built than Titanic was, and their crews are better, too.”

All of which is true. But none of that renders ships invulnerable to mishap. Mother Nature still calls the shots at sea, and things can still go wrong, no matter how impressive the vessel.

Remember the Costa Concordia? That wasn’t a hundred years ago, or even five years ago. And when she struck a rock and capsized, she had more passengers on board than Titanic had passengers and crew combined.

Those numbers, and the possible consequences of a major emergency at sea, are only going to grow as cruise ships continue to get larger and become more complex.

All of which is why you need to take safety seriously when you cruise.

And that shouldn’t end when the safety briefing does:

  1. Make sure that you and everyone traveling with you knows:
    • A. How to put that life vest on in a hurry, even in the dark.
    • B. Always knows where to quickly grab a life vest anywhere on the ship — especially on the newer mega-ships, which may not stash life vests in your cabin anymore.
    • C. Where your assigned muster station is and how to get there from any point on the ship.
  2. If you’re traveling with multiple family members or friends who might be scattered about the ship when an emergency hits, have a plan and make sure everyone knows it. Everybody meet at the muster station.
  3. Don’t worry about packing or gathering up anything except family and friends. What doesn’t breathe is replaceable. You and your loved ones aren’t.

AIRLINES: American puts the U.S. up for sale

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American Airlines tries to tempt travelers with some temporarily lower fares on the last of its spring flights in the continental United States.

The folks at Smarter Travel are reporting that American Airlines is offering sale fares this week on 2,600 routes across the United States.

I’m not going to mention the usual “fares as low as” amount, lest it give you the false impression that all or even most of the discounted flights are that cheap. They aren’t. The cross-country flights aren’t even close.

Still, you might be able to score a bargain — if you book by Thursday, April 24. After that, this sale turns into a pumpkin.

As usual, catches apply:

  • You have to book at least 14 days in advance.
  • You have to stay over at least three days or on a Saturday night before returning.
  • Your trip has to be completed by June 7.
  • There are multiple blackout dates on which you won’t be allowed to fly at the sale price, including Fridays, Sundays, the entire Memorial Day holiday weekend and June 6.

Regular IBIT readers know why I’m no longer bullish on fare wars. Technically, however, this is not a fare war, since other airlines are unlikely to match it.

Indeed, it’s the sheer number of routes being discounted that make this worth mentioning at all. Those discounts, however, do not extend outside the US, so don’t start reaching for your passport.

Still, if you can find a fare to your liking to a great destination — and can work your way around all the restrictions — it just might be worth your while.

Airline booking site says, “Take the train!”

CheapAir.com will now let you make reservations on Amtrak, a clear sign that the travel industry is recognizing consumers’ frustrations with air travel.

It’s one thing for Amtrak to let you reserve seats on its own Web site. But when an aggregator that deals with multiple airlines now says, “You can book trains now, too!,” that’s thought-provoking.

And the thought it’s intended to provoke is that the train is a more comfortable, less expensive and definitely less aggravating alternative to flying.

According to USA Today, CheapAir.com is including Amtrak among its listings.

There may be another booking site out there that will let you book flights and rail travel in the United States at the same time, but I haven’t found it yet.

(NOTE: CheapAir.com is NOT to be confused with CheapOair.com, a completely different outfit — although I suspect the two ARE confused several thousand times a day.)

For now, CheapAir.com will only let you book Amtrak tickets on its heavily used and extremely popular Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC.

The company is already planning to do the same on Amtrak routes in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

This link to CheapAir’s blog explains how the new service works.

The fact that it’s being offered at all is eye-opening, especially when you hear the reasoning from CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee:

“For many markets…it does make a lot of sense to consider rail instead of flights, especially when you factor in all the hassles and transport time to and from the airport.

“If you’re coming from out of town and not used to even thinking of rail, all of a sudden, when it’s presented there and you see it’s significantly less expensive and not that much longer…you’ll see a great option you didn’t know existed.”

Klee’s comments get to the heart of what makes this move worth noting, namely the hell that is now air travel if you’re among the masses who can’t afford to fly in the well-heeled classes.

I suspect it’s mainly an effort by CheapAir.com to generate a little buzz and thus distinguish itself from that large and confusing herd of travel booking sites on the Web.

But more importantly for us consumers, it means that the travel industry is not only recognizing, but is now responding, to the growing unpopularity of air travel.

Does this mean that people are going to stop flying en masse? Hardly. But it does show that the industry recognizes that travelers are looking for alternatives, and will make an effort to offer them.

The biggest obstacle to this idea is the CheapAir.com site itself. Visually, it’s very dated, the Web design equivalent of 80s chic. Worse, it doesn’t feature this new Amtrak booking option prominently on its home page, forcing users to hunt for it.

But that’s nothing that a little site makeover can’t fix. The idea itself is definitely sound and don’t be surprised to see at least some of CheapAir’s competitors follow suit.

American rail travel may still be lagging behind the rest of the developed world in speed and efficiency, but if an airline booking site finds it worthwhile to help you reserve train tickets, then Amtrak must be doing something right.

TSA…again

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The latest abuse of a traveler by federal airport security may have you wondering if things will ever get better. The answer is not encouraging.

This time, it’s a woman, left mute by a stroke, denied boarding by a TSA inspector at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Phoenix.

Why? Because the inspector couldn’t get the woman to talk.

She had all her proper identification. Her ticket was in order. She had her sister with her to explain the situation.

No matter. Apparently in the mind(?) of this particular TSA gate guardian, if you can’t talk, you can’t fly.

The unfortunate woman did eventually reach Phoenix — after an eight-hour bus ride.

AIRPORT COMEDY
I’m beginning to think the main purpose of the TSA is to provide late-night talk show hosts with comedy material. I certainly hope so, anyway.

It would mean they were actually doing something worthwhile.

The TSA may not be the biggest reason that today’s air travel is such a miserable experience, but it’s usually the first one you encounter at the airport.

Stand a spell. Take your shoes off. Take your wallet out. Take off that faux leather belt and slowly back away from it while we radiate you a bit.

The federal government calls this security. Countries where they really do airport security, like Israel, call it a joke.

And the airport where this latest minor atrocity took place, is a major case in point.

It was only last year that an unemployed mechanic walked into LAX with a military-grade rifle and started shooting TSA inspectors. He shot three, killing one, before being wounded and captured by police.

These guys were there to protect the traveling public, but stalked by a gunman with a rifle and murder on his mind, they couldn’t even protect themselves.

SECURITY THEATER
By its own admission, albeit an unintended one, in papers filed in a federal lawsuit, the TSA itself doesn’t even believe that terrorists are plotting attacks on airliners anymore.

I’ll say it plain: The TSA in reality is little more than air travel theater, created to give travelers the impression — or more accurately, perhaps, the illusion — of airport security.

Where does this all leave the poor TSA inspectors? It leaves them with an important, difficult and largely thankless job, for which they are neither well-prepared nor well-paid.

A starting “Transportation Safety Officer” who graduates from trainee status earns between $29,300 and $44,000 a year. That works out to about $3.30 to $5 an hour.

A supervisor can make between $39,000 and $61,000 a year — or roughly $4.50 to $7 an hour.

Suddenly, flipping burgers at Mickey D’s doesn’t sound like such a bad gig.

Could the United States do better with airport security than the TSA in its current state? Could it attract a higher caliber of candidates as its TSOs? Of course, it could.

WHO WANTS TO PAY?
For that to happen, however, the requirements would have to be a lot tougher. The training would have to be much longer and more extensive. The salaries offered would have to be a lot more attractive.

And someone would have to be willing to pay for all that.

So who wants to step up with their checkbook? Congress? The airlines? The nation’s airports? You?

Let’s be real, shall we?

Washington is in no mood these days to raise spending on much of anything.

The airlines would rather eat tarmac than cut into their profits to pay for better airport security. The same is also true of the airports themselves.

Of course, the airlines always could raise airfares to cover the added security costs, but with travelers already chafing over a laundry list of costly add-on fees, how far do you think that idea would fly, with anybody?

What all this means is that, barring a major change by the feds in their approach to airport security, the TSA will remain what it has always been, a punchline without a laugh track.

CRUISE: Going small on the “Father of Waters”

Grande Mariner
Grande Caribe dining
Grande Caribe
Grande Caribe cabin

While the world’s largest river cruise outfit considers offering cruises on the largest US river, one small-ship operator is already doing it. Chicago to New Orleans, anyone?

Last fall, I told you that Viking River Cruises was exploring the idea of offering cruise vacations on the Mississippi River.

That was big news because Viking is river cruising’s 9,000-pound gorilla. It dominates in Europe, the world’s worldwide biggest river cruise market, is expanding into South America and Asia, and cranking out new ships at a furious pace.

So when an outfit like that starts making noises about bringing one of its sleek, slender river cruisers to the largest and most important river in your country, you pay attention.

What I didn’t know then was that there was a cruise line that was already there, Blount Small Ship Adventures. And when these folks say “small ship,” they’re not kidding.

ON THE MISSISSIPPI
You won’t find its vessels anywhere in Europe, South America or Asia. You’ll find them instead in the Caribbean and Central America, on the our Eastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes.

And you’ll find them on our “Father of Waters.”

Blount offers a 15-day Mississippi River cruise between Chicago and New Orleans — in either direction, nearly 2,000 miles each way. It also does shorter cruises of eight, nine or 12 days on the Mississippi.

Actually,the cruise takes you on portions of seven different rivers flowing into the heart of the country, including the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Tennessee.

But the Mississippi definitely is the star, snaking its way down the Mississippi Valley from Great Lakes country on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

River cruisers like those that Viking operates are a fraction of the size of ocean-going cruise ships, accommodating hundred or so passengers where one of the floating palaces of Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean or NCL would typically number their passengers in the thousands.

SMALL SHIPS, BIG RIVER
Blount’s two river ships are even smaller than that, with a maximum capacity of 88 passengers in 44 cabins.

How’d you like to be on a small ship on a big river?

When you speak of the Mississippi River and its valley, you’re talking about a nation’s agricultural breadbasket, industrial heartland and home to one of the most diverse populations of wildlife on the planet.

It has been witness hundreds of years of human history, traces of which you can see on its shores. Whole nations of native peoples once called it home.

Blount ships aren’t just small. Their shallow draft means they can sail in less than seven feet of water, which means they can take you where larger cruise ships dare not try, and put you directly ashore by means of a built-in bow ramp. No dock required.

They even come with a retractable wheelhouse to sail under the lowest bridges, a truly handy feature when the Mississippi is running high due to heavy rains and winter storm runoff upriver.

Another thing I like about these vessels is that they’re sleek and modern. No faux antebellum Mississippi paddlewheeler.

Disadvantages?

HEFTY PRICE TAG
One is price, the bane of small-ship cruises from the consumers’ point of view. The smaller the ship, the fewer the passengers, thus the greater the cost per person.

In the case of their Chicago-New Orleans cruise, that cost ranges from $312 to $431 per person per day, depending on your choice of cabin. Multiple those costs by 16 days, and you’ll get an answer you probably won’t like.

The cabins themselves will be fairly tight compared with what veteran cruisers see on the ocean-going behemoths, and public spaces will be at a minimum. So don’t come looking for split-level theaters, giant water slides or broad, glitzy promenades lined with shopping.

The star of the show is the river itself, the third longest in North America, and the endlessly changing scene on its banks.

Not everyone would see that as a drawback, however. The Mississippi is more than capable of putting on a show. This is no lazy river.

So while the river cruise industry’s Goliath makes up its mind on whether it wants to take on this river, the industry David is already doing it. Check them out.

TRAINS: Austria’s Railjet

Austria is relatively new to high-speed rail and theirs is not the fastest, but from the look of their Railjet express train, they’re doing a lot of things right.

As an unapologetic fan of rail travel, especially the high-speed variety now common across Europe and much of Asia, I’m always on the lookout for something innovative in train travel.

It looks as if the Austrians have come up with one aboard their national high-speed line, Railjet.

Austria is a relative newcomer to high-speed rail, having launched Railjet in 2008. It runs the length of Austria and connects the country with Germany, Switzerland and Hungary.

A new line later this year will connect to the Czech Republic.

With a top speed of about 140 miles per hour, it’s hardly the fastest high-speed passenger train in the world, or even in Europe. But Austria being a relatively small country, anything much faster probably would be overkill.

Passengers have their choice of three classes — Economy (aka 2nd class), First and Business. I list them in that order because on this train, Business class is their premier service.

All seats come with power outlets and all look to have decent legroom. First and Business Class come with a single-seat side for those traveling solo, really plush-looking leather recliners and more than enough legroom for anyone short of an NBA center.

About the only thing really separating First and Business Class seems to be that in Business, your seats come in a semi-enclosed compartment.

Attendants serve snacks and drinks from carts reminiscent of airliners, but Railjet is one of the few high-speed trains in Europe with a restaurant car.

If you’re sitting in First or Business Class, your drinks and snacks come with your ticket, and you have the option of having restaurant meals served at your seat, albeit for an extra charge.

For most travelers, Economy Class is probably more than adequate, but with the surcharge for a seat upgrade costing only 15 euros, why not treat yourself? Let’s face it, you’ll never pay that little for a First Class seat on an airliner.

Two other things really stand out about Railjet.

One is the lengths to which they’ve gone to accommodate disabled passengers — not only with specially designed spaces to accept wheelchairs on board, but offering 50 percent discounts to disabled or elderly travelers. That’s classy.

But the thing that first hooked my attention in the first place about Railjet — and as it turns out, Austrian inter-city trains in general — are the things they do to keep children entertained.

The end car on Railjet trains has a kids cinema and play area, complete with slides and others things to climb on.

About the only area where Railjet seems to fall a bit short is when it comes to wifi. The train does indeed comes with free wifi, but only while running within Austrian territory. But that really is a very minor quibble.

Comfortable seats. Food and drink that come to you. Power and wifi for the laptop and kids happily playing away at the back of the train — where I can’t hear them. Sounds like the Austrians are doing a lot of things right with their high-speed train.

A little run from Munich to Vienna on Railjet sounds like fun, does it not?

NOTE: The YouTube video above comes from The Man in Seat 61, one of the best Web sites for anyone interested in train travel. Highly recommended.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
What you learn on a train
TRAINS: Bring back the North American Rail Pass
AFRICA: 2 rails, 3 trains, 5 stars

CRUISE: Murder in Honduras

Norwegian Pearl

Four months after a US family is robbed at gunpoint and shot at on Roatán Island, a cruise ship crewman is shot to death in the same place.

A crewmember of the Norwegian Pearl has been shot and killed in Honduras during a robbery attempt.

According to media reports, was gunned at the port of Roatán last Sunday by a man trying to steal his mobile phone on broad daylight on the main street in the port town of Coxen Hole.

The alleged gunmen, an ex-convict recently released from a mainland Honduran prison, then fled on a borrowed bicycle.

The entire incident was captured on surveillance video.

It can’t be that easy to hide on an island only 40 miles long and less than three miles wide. Within two days, local youths in a nearby neighborhood spotted him, grabbed him and called the police.

He reportedly has confessed to the slaying.

Even so, Norwegian Cruise Lines has struck Roatán from its list of destinations. Don’t be surprised if other lines follow suit, if only to put pressure on the Honduran government to tighten up security on the island.

This comes four months after the US State Department issued a travel warning on Roatan after a New Orleans man and his three teen-aged daughters were shot at and robbed at gunpoint on the island.

But Jeff Smith and his kids had rented a 4×4 and driven off to the less-developed east side of Roatán. Mr. Bagan’s murder took place on the more populous and tourist-oriented west side, in the biggest town on the island, within walking distance of where the Norwegian Pearl was anchored.

Roatán is popular with eco-tourists, scuba and snorkeling enthusiasts, even retirees, all of whom go for the great tropical climate and scenery.

Still, it sits just off the mainland of Honduras, already known for having the highest murder rate per capita in the world, despite that rate having dropped two years in a row.

If I were on a cruise with a planned port call at Roatán, I’d probably stay on the ship that day. Just sayin’.

Jacob Bagan, like a great many cruise ship sailors, was a native of the Philippines. He was 27 years old.

Cruising Africa

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All images by©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

The Mother Continent is quietly becoming a destination of interest for the world’s cruise lines. Travelers can find both ocean and river cruises with wide ranges in style, accommodation and price.

I’ve said it many times: Small dreams are a waste of sleep. One of my bigger dreams is to cruise western Africa.

But this is no idle fantasy. I know this can be done, because it’s being done already, and with a frequency that really took me by surprise.

Avoya Travel alone maintains its own list of Africa cruises well into 2015 — at least 130 of them from nine different cruise lines.

One of them, the river cruise specialist Ama Waterways, offers nearly 100 cruises out of South Africa that include visits to Cape Town and the Stellenbosch wine country and flights to one of the world’s great natural wonders, Victoria Falls.

Nor are we talking about rough-and-ready freighter or expedition cruises, either. Most of the cruises on the Avoya Travel list are being run by lines like Crystal, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar.

Cruise lines like these tend to fall into one of three price categories — upscale, very upscale and OMG. Many range in length from two weeks to more than a month, which makes the cost even more breathtaking.

At the other end of the scale, the Italian mass-market line MSC has the shortest and cheapest Africa cruises on the Avoya list — Cape Town to Walvis Bay and back, four nights, $279 for an inside cabin.

The most expensive cabin, a suite, goes for $469.

The Avoya list itself is by no means all-inclusive.

Princess Cruises offers a mammoth 30-day cruise that runs the entire length of West Africa, from Cape Town to Ceuta in Spanish North Africa before finally ending in London, with nine African port calls in between.

Holland America offers Africa cruises. So too does the Cunard line, the ocean liner specialist that made the names Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and QE2 household names in the travel world.

If these mass-market-style cruises don’t float your boat, so to speak, you could always sign up for an African expedition cruise from G Adventures, Canadian adventure travel specialists.

Two British cruise operators are hitting Africa.

Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines offers an 11-night West African cruise that departs from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and calls on Senegal, the Gambia and the Cape Verde Islands.

The other, P&O Cruises, has sailing from opposite ends of the Mother Continent, starting from Egypt in the north and from Australian ports for cruises in southern African waters.

If you’re not intimidated by language barriers, you can find even more Africa cruises available.

The German travel company Plantours Kreuzfahrten does a cruise from the German port of Hamburg to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal. And later this year, she will begin calling regularly on Sierra Leone.

All of these cruises present real challenges to American travelers in terms of cost, distance and time. In virtually every instance, you’ll have to fly to meet your ship and return home, which represents at least two lost days.

Even so, it figures to be an unforgettable experience.

AFRICAN CRUISE RESOURCES
Avoya Travel
CLIA — Cruise Lines International Association
Cruise Africa
Cruise Critic
Travelocity
Vacations to Go

AIRLINES: Africa extends her reach

Six major African airlines acquire new-generation long-range wide-bodied jets. It may be just a matter of time before they’re carrying US travelers to the Mother Continent.

Together, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 represent the newest generation of jumbo jets — slightly smaller than other twin-engined jumbos and much smaller than the aging Boeing 747, but with longer range than all of them.

And Boeing’s various initial Dreamliner bugs notwithstanding, Africa’s airlines literally are buying into both of them.

Kenya Airways is the latest African flag carrier to begin flying the 787. The first of nine Dreamliners is due to arrive in Nairobi on Friday from Washington state.

EXTENDED RANGE
The airline also has a larger Boeing 777ER on order, and plans to have all ten of the new jets in service by July 2015.

The “ER,” by the way, stands for “extended range,” the common thread running through all these purchases.

Rival Airbus has yet to deliver its first A350; that should happen sometime this summer, but that hasn’t discouraged the world’s airlines from lining up orders for the latest Boeing rival.

And Africa is in the mix.

As with the Dreamliner, the hallmark of the A350 is a design meant to go farther on one load of fuel, enabling Africa’s airlines to reach more destinations with direct flights to Europe, Asia…and eventually, one hopes, the United States.

HIGHLY ADVANCED
Kenya Airways is now one of six African carriers picking up new jets with longer reach. Nigeria’s Arik Air and Morocco’s national flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc, are flying Dreamliners, while two of Libya passenger lines, Afriqiyah and Libyan Airlines, have ordered the A350.

Airbus A350

AIRBUS A35) — Airbus Industrie


Ethiopian Airlines is buying both.

It was the first African airline and the second in the world to fly the 787, considered perhaps the most technologically advanced airliners ever to fly, and it’s already flying them as far as Shanghai, China in the east and Washington Dulles airport on our East Coast.

These and other African airlines are looking first to add more European destinations to their route maps, and strengthen their presence in the booming Asian travel markets, as well. But potentially the most lucrative — and most untapped — market may be waiting for them here.

CHALLENGES ABOUND
Before African airlines can start touching down in Atlanta and Dallas and Chicago and LAX, however, both the Dreamliner and the A350 will have to prove themselves. The Dreamliner’s teething troubles are well-documented and the A350 has yet to carry a paying passenger.

But even after both planes shake off the inevitable glitches that come with a new aircraft design, winning permission from US aviation authorities to make more flights to the United States won’t be easy for Africa’s airlines.

Each will have to satisfy Washington that it has overcome the chronic maintenance, infrastructure and security shortfalls that have bedeviled African aviation as a whole for decades.

So far, Arik Air, Ethiopian, South African Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Cabo Verde Airlines (Cape Verde Islands) are the only ones to make the cut.

SAFE SKIES FOR AFRICA
But they won’t be the last.

Since 1998, the FAA has been working out of an office in Dakar, Senegal with airlines in 48 African airlines to help them meet international safety standards. The program, launched by the Clinton administration, is called Safe Skies for Africa.

Arik Air is one of its graduates.

Even after those hurdles are hurdled, there will still be the matter of finding US airports with enough gate space to handle more international flights — from anywhere.

Even so, there is no reason to believe that African airlines, slowly but steadily growing in confidence and expertise, may one day find their way to an international airport near you.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
AIRLINES: A new African bird
Africa’s airlines — going UP, going DOWN
AFRICA — The air game changes

CRUISE: Autism at sea

Oasis of the Seas in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Oasis of the Seas in Ft. Lauderdale, FL — ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

Royal Caribbean touting itself as the world’s first autism-friendly cruise line, with special services, features and activities for autistic children and their families.

Earlier today, this email dropped into my mailbox from Alan Fox, chairman and CEO of the cruise aggregator site Vacations to Go:

Autism Badge 2

“Over the years, I have been asked many times if any ships were friendlier than others in helping families with autistic children. I’m pleased to announce that Royal Caribbean now offers services and activities to accommodate families with children who have autism.

Autism-friendly toys are available for loan on all ships. Counselors can provide a tote bag of toys that can be used in the Adventure Ocean children’s centers or brought back to the stateroom.

Sailings with at least five children with autism on board will offer films presented in a low-volume, low-lit environment, where guests may freely talk and walk around during the showing.

Other autism-friendly features include priority check-in, boarding and disembarkation; special dietary offerings, such as gluten-free and dairy-free foods; and pagers for parents of children in the Adventure Ocean program.”

Did a little checking and sure enough, there’s Royal Caribbean, billing itself as “the world’s first autism-friendly cruise line.”

Wow.

The company claims its efforts to make its ships comfortable for autistic children and their families have been certified by an outfit called Autism on the Seas, which has spent the last seven years working with Royal Caribbean to set up its autism cruise program.

Autism On the Seas started out as a program that sends trained staff on cruises with families to help autistic kids at sea during a cruise — and give their parents some much-needed down time.

The group also works with cruise lines on behalf of autistic families that prefer to vacation without having an AotS staffer along with them.

Autism is a developmental disorder in children that blocks different parts of the brain from working in synch. That creates a wide range of problems that can dog a child throughout their life, including repetitive behaviors, delaying learning to talk, or preventing them from talking at all.

This condition is on the rise in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one child in 68 is subject to some form of autism, a ten-fold increase in the last 40 years.

Both boys and girls can suffer autism, but it’s about four to five times more common in boys.

Even in the most loving and committed family, bringing up an autistic child can be draining, exhausting, and no one in the household escapes the strain. Medical experts recommend that autistic families take regular breaks to relieve the stress.

A cruise would certainly qualify. But bringing an autistic child on a cruise ship presents challenges of its own.

All of this makes the efforts of Royal Caribbean and Autism on the Seas worth noting, especially with autism a growing problem in this country.

To learn more about autism and find resources to help families cope, to go the Autism Society home page.

AIRLINES: The “Wings of Nigeria” reach the US

Arik Air Airbus A330

Arik Air Airbus A330

Nigeria no longer needs to rely on Europeans to operate its trans-Atlantic airline flights to the United States.

Amid all the mystery and tragedy of Malaysia MH370, a little good news from the airline world…and it comes from West Africa.

Last week, an Airbus A330-200, flying the colors of Arik Air, touched down at New York’s JFK International Airport after about an eight-hour flight from Lagos, Nigeria.

It wasn’t the Arik Air flight ever to land in the United States; the airline has been making that run since 2009. But it was the first time in 20 years that a commercial aircraft registered to Nigeria had made the trip.

Before that, Arik Air’s other US flight had been operated by a Portuguese company. Now, Nigeria is reaching across the Atlantic on its own, with its own jumbo jets.

Not bad for an airline only seven years old.

It took more than a smile and a nod from President Barack Obama to make this happen. The airline to jump through three years’ worth of hoops from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation before receiving the official go-ahead.

Of the 18 major airlines currently based in Africa, Arik Air, which calls itself “the Wings of Nigeria,” is one of only six allowed to fly to the US. The other five are:

  • Air Maroc
  • Cape Verde Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • South African Airways

Two US airlines, Delta and United, offer direct flights between the US and African destinations. Others connect to the Mother Continent via codeshare flights with European airlines like British Airways, Air France and Germany’s Lufthansa.

Having US government clearance to operate its own planes to US airport should enable Arik Air to add flights to more East Coast destinations, making it easier for American travelers to visit Africa.

And as new-generation airliners with longer range come into service like Boeing’s Dreamliner and the new Airbus A350, perhaps one day, I’ll see jumbo jets rocking the colors of African airlines at LAX.

Am I dreaming? Sure. But small dreams are a waste of sleep.

AIRLINES: Is Eastern coming back?

Eastern Airlines L1011 TriStar

Eastern Airlines L1011 TriStar

A group of investors is quietly making moves to return one of the most storied names in US airline history back to American skies.

If you’re a “millennial,” you almost certainly don’t remember Eastern Air Lines, one of several US airlines that died off not long after you were born.

But if you’re that 20something’s parent and grew up on the East Coast of the United States, there’s a good chance you do.

Now, it looks as if there are some other folks who remember Eastern, and they’re positioning themselves to bring it back.

Travel Weekly is reporting that “A group of investors and entrepreneurs has acquired the rights to the trademarks of the old Eastern Air Lines and hopes to start a new airline using the old name.”

They’re got the rights to the name, the trademarks and symbols, right down to Eastern’s old “hockey stick” logo that adorned everything from its stationery to its wide-bodied jets.

No dates have been announced yet, but the plan is to start with running charter flights with a single leased Airbus A320, and easing into regularly scheduled passenger service over time.

*U P D A T E*
The new Eastern Air Lines hasn’t made its first flight, but it’s already growing.

Bloomberg is reporting that Eastern 2.0 is already shopping around for more airplanes — up to ten used airliners from Boeing — and eyeing new one from Airbus. These boys are serious.

Even more intriguing is word that Eastern’s new owners have been chatting up the Chinese aircraft maker Comac about possibly acquiring their new narrow-body C919 airliners for use in the United States.

Comac, aka the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, is working in tandem with Canada’s Bombardier Inc., on long-term plans to build airliners — and break the grip of Boeing and Airbus on the world’s airlines.

Media reports describe the main mover in this deal as Edward Wegel, an airline industry veteran who worked with Eastern back in the 1980s.

A lot of this country’s aviation history is tied to Eastern. Over the decades, it was owned by a carmaker, bought by a flying ace and run by an astronaut.

Along with American, United and Delta, it was one of the “Big Four,” going toe-to-toe with them in New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

Based in Miami, it pretty much owned Florida, so much so that when Disneyworld opened in Orlando in 1971, it became Disney’s official airline.

Eastern Air Lines first took off in 1934, but it didn’t really seem to take off in the public’s imagination until its owner, General Motors, sold it to World War 1 fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, for $3.5 million.

By the time Rickenbacker left with the dawn of the Jet Age, Eastern seemed invincible east of the Mississippi. It could take you north to Canada, west to California or south to the Caribbean getaway of your choice. It was the unofficial airline of the American snowbird.

It was the first to fly the iconic three-engined Boeing 727, the Boeing 757 and was the first US airline to fly the Airbus A300, the world’s first twin-engined jumbo jet.

So what went wrong?

It was slow to embrace change. It staked the company’s fortunes on a jumbo jet that proved to be a dog, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

For a little while, things got better when former astronaut Frank Borman took over as president after leaving NASA, but it couldn’t last.

Airline deregulation threw Eastern against low-cost, low-fare competitors that it couldn’t match. Trying to save cash by forcing wage cuts started an ugly war between labor and management — at exactly the moment when each side needed to have the other’s back.

Bleeding money from multiple wounds, Eastern folded in 1991.

Now, if Wegel and his cohorts get their way, Eastern may soon be taxiing for a fresh takeoff into the 21st century. Can they pull it off? We’ll see.

VANISHED WINGS
When Eastern Air Lines closed up shop in 1991, it joined a long list of US airlines that, in the words of a popular New Orleans Christmas song, “Ain’t Dere No More:”

  • Pan Am
  • Continental
  • National
  • Braniff
  • TWA
  • Western
  • PSA
  • Air California
  • Hughes Airwest
  • America West
  • Piedmont
  • Frontier
  • Midway
  • Northwest
  • Ozark
  • Transamerica

And believe me, this is only a small fraction of the actual total.

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius