Hazards of high flying
It's almost New Year, and with an early Lunar New Year coming up soon, hundreds of millions of Asians will be on the move, travelling for leisure or to close that elusive business deal. Sometimes the journeys remind me of Saint-Exupery's Little Prince, wondering at the madness of express trains rushing with half the population from A to B and the other half from B to A, and then back again.
The award for the worst travel hazard goes to immigration and the Transportation Security Administration of the United States for its valiant efforts to make life miserable for as many people as possible in the name of security. Advice to the US-bound: don't go unless you are an extreme masochist.
Every traveller to the US has a favourite horror story: the Bank of Thailand governor forced to stand in line at immigration for 70 minutes because every foreigner has a right to be treated equally wretchedly; the distinguished Japanese university professor, with a valid visa, forced to wait by US officials - in Canada - for two hours for secondary screening and miss a flight because the immigration computers are not sophisticated enough to recognise her fingerprints, who's then told by the Latino immigration official, 'What's your complaint? We let you in.'
The TSA has gone beyond civilised limits in its quest for 'jihadist grannies'. This refers to strip searches of women in their 80s or 90s, some dragged out of their wheelchairs. Just to show that they are equal opportunity abusers of human dignity, other agents conducted intrusive pat downs of children as young as three. To all cases, the standard TSA answer is: 'We are just doing our duty.'
My complaint is that the TSA agents are often unprofessional and their systems may be insecure. On a recent visit to the US, I was instructed twice to go through the all-seeing body-scanner, then subjected to a pat down anyway because the scanner could not penetrate the sleeves of my cotton shirt. Meanwhile, other agents were chatting and laughing together as my carry-on bag, wallet, money, handkerchiefs - because you have to empty your pockets completely - were waiting for someone to snatch them.
My checked luggage was opened by TSA agents in Washington, the originating point and in San Francisco, a transit stop, where only baggage handlers or the TSA touched my luggage. Evidently the TSA does not trust the security of its own systems.
Travelling has become increasingly uncomfortable, as well as expensive when you add the plethora of fees that governments and airlines vie to charge to gouge hapless passengers - or 'guests' as they mockingly call them.
American airlines this year made more than US$32 billion charging for services that used to be free. A senior executive of United Airlines claimed smugly that if you buy a car you don't expect it to be equipped with all mod cons.
If you buy a car, you expect a drivable vehicle with wheels, engine, battery, seats, steering wheel, lights and indicators. You expect to pay extra for leather upholstery, air-conditioning and other frills, which are like champagne, fully reclining seats and entertainment on business or first-class flights.
Why can't US airlines allow at least one piece of checked baggage free plus a carry-on for entertainment materials and emergency supplies, and provide free water and a basic meal for flights over two hours? To charge high prices for junk food on the grounds that you don't get free food in a hotel is insulting. If you are staying in a hotel, you can walk out to a restaurant of your choice. If airlines are going to charge for food, offer a proper menu.
Cleverer Asian airlines are able to charge higher prices by offering superior service, free luggage and free food and drink even in economy, which has allowed them to continue to make profits most years. There are signs that the five-star system may be beginning to lose its shine. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines started charging for seats with greater leg-room. All airlines in this paperless world, charge 're-ticketing fees' of US$30 upwards for changing a flight, and Air New Zealand had the temerity to impose a HK$180 'service charge' on top of a HK$1,000 re-ticketing fee.
Cathay will soon introduce a new premium economy class. Whether it has got its pricing right and whether economy passengers upgrade to the new service or business passengers downgrade remains to be seen. Evidence suggests that passengers will upgrade for better service.
But chief executive John Slosar's description of Cathay's premium economy facilities suggests they are on the poor side of Air New Zealand's equivalent: 38 inches of pitch against 32 in economy and Air New Zealand's 38-40; eight inches of recline, against Air New Zealand's nine inches. Air New Zealand also wins hands-down in serving the same fine wines in all classes and business-class meals in premium economy.
Flying is not cheap for anyone. The price of a first-class one-way ticket from Hong Kong to London, HK$62,218, would provide a week's stay in a 900 square foot suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Central.
Fingers should be pointed at governments for failing passengers. Governments essentially should ensure competition to give passengers wide choice and fair prices. Hong Kong is failing. Why should that same first-class seat from London to Hong Kong cost only HK$43,857? And Cathay is cheaper in both directions, 1.17 million yen from Tokyo, GBP4,144 from London to Tokyo.
To end on a lighter note, kudos to Turkish Airlines for a fun ad showing the great Sir Bobby Charlton almost being forced to head a football.
Kevin Rafferty is a frequent traveller, clocking up 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year
The number of seconds it takes to perform a full-body screening
- 1,000 scanners are planned at US airports by end of the year