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Archive for the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ Category

On Flying (in planes)

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I do hate the old-hag manner of going ‘things used to be better in the days..yadda yadda….’, but in case of flying (on airplanes), the statement is probably true.

Or else, I must have been much less demanding and easily pleased twenty three years ago, which was the last time I flew half-way around the world on Singapore Airlines and figured I was in heaven or something. On the other hand, the recent trips between Brisbane and Kolkata on the same airlines were quite the disappointment.

But then, back in the mid-80s, flying was still somewhat of a novelty (to us at least) and had an aura of luxury surrounding it, even for Economy Class. That overall aura and glamour has all but eroded as flying became cheaper and ubiquitous. And in the post-911 era, flying is almost a chore, especially for domestic flights within the US: long security lines, rude flight-attendants, over-priced airport food, non-existent inflight service, unexplained delays, cramming of more and more passenger in smaller planes etc. One looks forward to these flights with dread.

International flight experiences, minus the chaos that is Los Angeles airport, fare slightly better. Plus, I am careful about avoiding obvious pit-falls such as flying Aeroflots, Royal Jordanians or Bangladesh Bimans. (I figure I’d rather pay an extra $200 than be stuck in Moscow bereft of my passport, told in Jeddah that my remaining non-stop segment has been converted into a 2-stop on – on two different airlines – or worse, not allowed on the the plane at all in spite of a confirmed ticket because some dude paid extra money at the check-in counter – all true stories that happened to people I know. And I have flown Air India and Indian Airlines on international segments – but those stories deserve a separate post). Even then, trips on Qantas, British Airways, Malaysian and China Airlines (this was before I was aware of their horrendous safety record) have been a mixed bag of expereinces. Somewhat true to stereotypes, personalized services and food were slightly better in the Asian airlines compared to the European or Australian ones. But there were are experiences aplenty: Malaysian once gave us a half-broken seat that would not recline (for a 12hour flight) and did not seem to be bothered to do anything about it and British Airway’s scheduling errors once led to a nightmare 10-hour wait in a queue at Heathrow, sustained only by warm bottles of Coke.

In this scenario, I was quite looking forward to the Singapore Airlines flights. Apart from the previous highly positive experiences with them (albeit two and half decade ago), the airline’s reputation for punctuality, safety and service is matched only by Cathay and more recently, Emirates.

Well, only the flight from Singapore to Kolkata was delayed by an hour due to technical problems and we did manage four flights without a crash – so they were delivered on punctuality and safety ! However, the service was a bit of a let-down. The so-called ‘warm towels’ handed out were regularly quite cold, and smelly (not the good smell). In one trip, half of the passengers got the towels before take-off and half later. Then there was the irritating habit of serving spirits only with the meal; pre-dinner Gin and Tonics had to be asked for (the horror!). The worst part was their highly touted personal entertainment systems. The system had about 99 channels – great variety of choice, including some of the latest blockbusters; but rather than a on-demand system like Qantas, the movies played on a loop. For some reason, quite a few of these movies started midway at the beginning of the flight and there was no indication as to when the next loop would start ! A minor inconvenience of course, especially given that I wasn’t going to spend much time watchin movies anyway. And all these lapses in services would have been quite acceptable on any other airlines, but I guess I had much loftier expectations from Singapore.

In their defence, the food and drink on all sectors were of very high quality, including the red wine. They even served ice-cream as deserts on some sectors. One only hopes that the attendants should know better one not be expected to ask for a slice of lime in the G&T. And their Boeing 777-200 (not the 777-300ERs) have quite a bit of extra leg-space – always welcome for vertically extended people like me.

On a slight aside, the best airlines service I have encountered in recent years have been on Qantas domestic flights. I have flown both short (1 hour) and long (5+ hours)-haul flights, and apart from the slightly cramped seats and tendency for long queues at the check-in counters, there is very little to complain about. Australian domestic flights do not have the stupid liquids and aerosol bans, and getting through security is much more hassle-free. They have a high ratio of on-board attendants to passengers, and these are usually a cheery lot. On any evening and all long haul flights they serve wine, not only pretty decent South Australian Shiraz ( they offer but I have never tried the white), but they actually hand out a whole 375ml bottle – to be poured into a proper wine glass that is actually made of glass ! On both my long-haul flights, the attendants were even quite insistent that I try out a second bottle. It does help that Qantas only has to compete with Virgin in Australia, and not a whole bevy of low-cost airlines.

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Among other flying notes: a bit of venting against co-passengers. When the flight it half-empty, why would you wish to be cramped up occupying the aisle seat in a 3-seater row ? One can easily move out to a another empty row and make life comfortable both for yourself and the remaingin two passengers. Yet this kind of obstinacy of clinging on to the assigned was demonstrated twice by different passengers, occupying the third seat next to ours when plenty vacant ones were available. Yes, I suppose we would have moved, but it is usually easier for the single person to find a different seat.

Also, when you don’t feel like reading a book, and the movie choices have whittled down to Aaja Nachle or 27 Dresses, a couple of G & Ts are of immense help in digesting either the silly song and dance routines or the saccharine-coated chick flick moments.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

May 7, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Post-colonial angst

with 7 comments

Post-colonial angst (brought up during a conversation by GreatBong ): Defined as the post-modern flip-side of colonial hangover; an inability to shed the smug sense of superiority from the colonial days of the British Empire. And this TimesOnline article by Kevin Eason about Tata’s bid for Jaguar and LandRover takeovers (briefly mentioned in the previous post) is but one example.

It must have taken Mr Eason an incredible amount of will-power to steer clear of Soministic tendencies [1], but that doesn’t stop him from indulgence in pointless nostalgia for symbolisms of the British Empire (someone tell him we have turned a new century) and criticisms of Tata that are at best dubious.

For example, he says:

The disposal of Jaguar and Land Rover by Ford is just another sign that the sun has not only set on the British Empire but the lights have gone out as well. Ford may have been an American multinational company, but its long history and substantial presence here always made it feel as though the two charismatic brands had stayed within our grasp. But Ford’s hopeless inability to manage Jaguar, in particular, has served to underline that the world is looking to the East for its salvation.

Translation: we can be comfortable with foreign ownership, as long as it is American, but going East is a far too much ! The next passage is far more staggering in its alienation from reality:

At least under Ford the two Midlands-based companies could be promised an interchange of high-technology, design ideas and talent with their parent business. But what will Tata bring except for size? Precious little, probably,

Strange statement to make, given that Ford possibly has the worst record for technology innovation in recent times. Further, a global company like Tata with its involvement in seven business sectors (not to mention neat 100 products) has ‘precious little’ to offer ? This is bordering on churlishness. But he keeps harping on the technology issue :

If Tata is buying the badges in a postimperialist bout of muscle-flex-ing, they could be making a huge mistake. Meanwhile, the factory workers in Solihull and Birmingham must be wondering what brilliant ideas will come from a manufacturer whose only headline-grabbing vehicle is a car that comes at the price of about four iPhones.

This is simply hitting blow the timing belt. If the author cannot merit the necessity of technical nuance in producing a cheap car, he could at least refrain from indulging in meaningless comparisons. The only way four iPhones could help in transporting you is if you called a taxi with one of them!!

Lest anyone accuse me of narrow nationalism or double standards on crying-wolf etc, the reason this article pissed me off was the total lack of logic or reasonable arguments. I care little for who owns Jaguar and Land Rovers (personally I wouldn’t touch either of the cars with a barge pole) and Tata’s ownership will not find me in a chest-thumping mode [2]. There are enough sound financial reasons for Tata to steer clear off this deal. Yet sadly, the article is based solely on prejudices and exposes the inability of its British author to stomach a new reality.

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[1]: Which is not to say Somini Sengupta isn’t picking up the mantle herself to churn out more drivel.

[2]: However, the symbolisms cannot be avoided. An Indian owning flagship British companies, Tata owning some of the most expensive, as well as the cheapest car etc.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 11, 2008 at 8:05 pm

This Nano doesn’t shuffle

with 9 comments

But it can carry you from point A to point B. The Tata Nano.

The much anticipated Nano (a name I don’t really care for much) was unveiled today amidst much fan-fare. Touted by Tata as ‘the people’s car’, it is the world’s cheapest automobile. Additionally, if you are so inclined to think such manners, it is an ‘environmental nightmare’ (even though there seems to be evidence to the contrary) and an assertion of India’s growing economic might [1].

Speaking of global might, it is possible that in addition to the cheapest car, Tata will also own some of the most expensive brands if their bid to buy Jaguar and LandRover goes through. Talk about a spectrum.

[1]: Check the link – even while talking about cars, there is a sly dig at the recent cricket controversies. :)

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Jaguar’s potential sale to Tata, however, hasn’t made everyone happy. US car dealers apparently think it will dilute the brand value (of Jagaurs).

“I don’t believe the U.S. public is ready for ownership out of India of a luxury car make,” Ken Gorin, chairman of the Jaguar Business Operations Council, told the Wall Street Journal. “And I believe it would severely throw a tremendous cast of doubt over the viability of the brand.” (link)

Hmmm…..I can imagine the before and after scenes. Pre-takeover:

Customer: I want to buy a luxury car.

Dealer (showing a Jaguar): How about this one. It will break down often, cost you high maintainence, and is generally unreliable. But ….oooooh look……. it is a Jaguar, the Brits make it and Ford owns it.

Customer: hmmmm…..

Dealer: it is enormously expensive and a great status symbol.

Customer: Yay-diddly-doo – thats the one I want then. Where do I sign?

Post Tata takeover of the brands:

Customer: I want to buy a luxury car.
Dealer (showing a Jaguar): How about this one. It will break down often, cost you high maintainence, and is generally unreliable. But ….oooooh….. look it is a Jaguar, the Brits make it and errrr…an Indian company called TATA owns it.

Customer: hmmmm…..

Dealer: it is enormously expensi-

Customer (interrupting): ….wait did you say – India ? Dammit – I don’t know how to drive an elephant.!! And I really wanted something faster……..

Dealer: ….but sir, its still a car, in fact the same car as before – not an eleph-

Customer (interrupting again): and do I have to wear one of them turbans ? I can’t do that – everyone’ll think I am Osama !!!

Dealer: sigh ! forget about it.

PS – here is an even worse piece on Tata’s takeover bid: dripping with post-colonial angst. Will rant about it separately.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 11, 2008 at 1:14 am

On the way……

with 4 comments

Currently about 1/3 of the trip done (another 3hours of wait + 14hours in air). RDU-DFW-LAX sections were tiring (I just cannot sleep sitting up) but uneventful.

A few hours at LAX, especially at their appallingly mismanaged, exceedingly chaotic International Terminal has been interesting though. Getting food (which we last about 12 hours earlier) proved to be an adventure with only one proper sitting restuarant in the whole terminal where they made us wait 30 minutes for a seat and then another 20 minutes while no servers showed up ! If there was any time in my life when I have been ready to murder someone, this has to come close.

Currenltly, however, we are well fed, having eventually ended up eating at a Japanese to-go place in the food court (even as a snatch and run, followed by a police chase was in progress !!).

As a somewhat airline geek, its fun watching the planes land now and gawking at the 747s parked at the gates. They are simply a marvel of engineering (I cant wait to lay my eyes on one of these beauts !)

And in case anyone is remotely interested, here’s my reading list for the flight:

The Kite Runner
– Khaled Hosseini
The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
System of the World – Neal Stephenson (abot 600 pages to go !)
The two latest New Yorker editions
A 50 page scientific review (for the times when I need to force sleep)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

May 16, 2007 at 11:44 pm

Bye Bye, Love.

with 11 comments

With a heavy heart, I will be bidding farewell today to a dear love. It’s been just over two years, but we had become so close – trusting and understanding each other, yet not demanding too much.

But keys to the Atlantic Blue Pearl, 250l-ft (at 3600rpm) torque producing, turbo-charged pure driving thrill will be handed over today. The morning weaving through traffic commutes while listening to NPR, the winter mornings warming my tush on the soft-leather heated seats, the full-throttled go at traffic lights leaving most cars in the lurch (it failed a few times, but respectably so, against Porchses and ’vettes), the pleasure of the short-throw shifter with Momo knob – pleasant memories all.

Anyhow, such is life. Hope she finds a good home.

There is no joy in talking about mixing cocktails on this day, so FCB is off (in fact its on temporary hiatus). Just any cheap (but single-malt) scotch for me, please. The Blantons last night was real smooth, especially pleasing with the Pannacotta, but tonite, I need something stiffer.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

May 11, 2007 at 10:58 am

Pigs Fly: A CEO’s mea cupla

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The CEO of JetBlue airlines, David G. Neeleman, admitted to a failure in communications systems which led to over 1000 flight cancellations for over a week (including a full plane that was stranded on the JFK tarmac for six hours) after last week’s northeast snowstorms.

David G. Neeleman said in a telephone interview yesterday that his company’s management was not strong enough. And he said the current crisis, which has led to about 1,000 canceled flights in five days, was the result of a shoestring communications system that left pilots and flight attendants in the dark, and an undersize reservation system. Until now, JetBlue and its low fares have enjoyed overwhelming popularity and customer satisfaction ratings.

…..

“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” he said. “We had an emergency control center full of people who didn’t know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn’t get a hold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’ ”

The part of the company that locates pilots and flight attendants and directs them to their next flight assignment is far too small for an airline JetBlue’s size, Mr. Neeleman said. He vowed to train 100 existing corporate office employees to work in that area when needed. Within two weeks, the area can be better backstopped, he said, and within 30 days, “flawless.” (link)

Wow – this kind of admission of ‘we screwed up’ is pretty rare for a company CEO. Rarer still is this part:

Mr. Neeleman said he would enact what he called a customer bill of rights that would financially penalize JetBlue — and reward passengers — for any repeat of the current upheaval. He said he would propose a plan to pay customers, after some amount of time, by the hour for being stranded on a plane.

He says knows he has to deliver. “I can flap my lips all I want,” he said. “Talk is cheap. Watch us.”

There is growing sentiment in Congress to pass legislation that would mandate limits on the time passengers can be kept in a plane on the ground and also set compensation standards for stranded passengers. The airline industry hopes to fend off such a measure. Mr. Neeleman said he wanted to make the penalties to JetBlue “more aggressive than any airline lobbyist would let Congress do.”

Of course, he is not exactly a saint and my cynical side says that this is part of a strategy to win back the high customer approval ratings enjoyed by the company. Still, it is refreshing to see someone in the airline industry taking a measure of responsibility.

Personally, I have flown JetBlue a few times and loved their leather seats with personal DirectTV on every seat, the surprisingly friendly service and funky blue chips. They had fallen from  grace when they decided not to respect customer privacy (handing over travel information to DoD contractors) – but perhaps this should mend it.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

February 19, 2007 at 10:26 pm

You can’t brush your teeth…but….

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….err….its okay to be naughty while flying.

Via Neil Gaiman’s blog, came across the Transport and Security Administration(TSA)’s final list of ‘permitted and prohibited items’ for flying that will save us from the terrorists (The Fine Print they forgot: this will not protect you from FAA’s violation of its own rules, or overworked control tower workers and pilots who cannot read compasses).

It starts of with a summary of liquid and gel products that will be allowed to "ensure the health and welfare of certain air travelers":

* Small amounts of Baby formula and breast milk if a baby or small child is traveling * Liquid prescription medicine with a name that matches the passenger’s ticket * Up to 5 oz. (148ml) of liquid or gel low blood sugar treatment * Up to 4 oz. of essential non-prescription liquid medications including saline solution, eye care products and KY jelly * Gel-filled bras and similar prostethics * Gel-filled wheelchair cushions * Life support and life sustaining liquids such as bone marrow, blood products, and transplant organs carried for medical reasons

(Emphasis mine)

For those who aren’t aware of what KY Jelly is – do check it out here. But TSA actually clarifies heplfully in their next section about make-up and personal items :

Personal lubricants – Up to 4 oz. Yes Yes

(the ‘Yes’ refers to Carry-on and Checked-in luggages)

Meanwhile, toothpaste remains on the banned list.

So, just in case your cheked-in luggage gets misplaced – not an uncommon scenario – your dental hygine could take the proverbial hike, but you are saved in case you suddenly need a rectal exam or if you simply feel like fooling around ;-) .

Needless to say, this list also comes as a relief to some Mile-high Club aspirers.

UPDATE: Patrick Smith, a pilot who regularly writes on airplanes and air-travel related issues at Salon, has a couple of scathing takes on airline security in general and the cluelessness of TSA, here and here.

The specific changes have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless. The first variety have taken place almost entirely out of view. Armored cockpits and explosives screening for checked luggage have been the most welcome and, frankly, the longest overdue implementations. The latter remains something of a work in progress, with a goal toward comprehensive scanning of all checked bags, as was introduced in Europe on the heels of terrorist bombings in the late 1980s. Until that time, partial scanning is better than none, and we are safer for the effort.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the madness going on in plain view on concourses all over America. After enduring pointless pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects for more than four years, passengers now face the prohibition of liquids, gels and even cosmetics.

(If you are not a Salon.com subscriber, you have to subject yourself to a mindless ad for a few moments before accessing the whole article).

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

September 6, 2006 at 5:33 am

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