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Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

Equal-opportunity purveyor of useless abuse

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — With hundreds of millions of people having traveled for Christmas and the New Year, and as millions more prepare to do so for the Chinese New Year later this month, I am reminded 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.

Once the question of whether your journey is really necessary is raised, it is a good time to ask who or what has helped travelers and who or what has made life in the air most miserable.

The award for the worst travel hazard goes to immigration and the Transportation Security Administration of the United States for their valiant efforts to make life miserable for as many people as possible in the name of security.

Advice to the U.S.-bound: Don't go unless you are an extreme masochist.

Every traveler to the U.S. has a favorite horror story: the Bank of Thailand governor forced to stand in line at immigration for an hour because every foreigner has a right to be treated equally wretchedly; the distinguished Japanese university professor, with a valid visa, forced to wait by U.S. officials in Canada for two hours for secondary screening and miss a flight because the immigration computers are not sophisticated enough to recognize her fingerprints. After a two-hour wait, the secondary check took just 30 seconds, and the immigration official told the grumbling professor: "What's your complaint? We let you in."

The TSA has gone beyond civilized limits in its quest for what blogger Christopher Elliott calls "jihadist grannies." This refers to several strip searches of women in their 80s or 90s, sometimes forcing them out of wheelchairs. Just to show that they are equal opportunity abusers of human dignity, other agents conducted intrusive patdowns 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 U.S., I was instructed twice, no choice, to go through the all-seeing scanner, then subjected to a patdown 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 to Asia, where only baggage handlers or the TSA touched my luggage. Evidently the TSA does not trust the security of its own systems.

Global airline security systems assume that every passenger might be a terrorist, when in reality terrorists are hiding like the proverbial needle in the haystack. The way insecurity officials go about the search, hassling everyone, they are likely to be pricked in the backside by the needle, while the hay is trampled.

The U.S. government seems unconcerned, either about the indignity or the damage to America's reputation as a bully. Does President Barack Obama sit in such lofty imperial splendor that he does not know what is going on in his empire?

Traveling has become increasingly uncomfortable, as well as expensive when you add the plethora of fees that governments and airlines vie to charge to see who can gouge more from hapless passengers — or "guests" as they mockingly call them. U.S. airlines together last year made more than $32 billion charging for services that used to be free.

A senior executive of United Airlines claimed that if you buy a car you don't expect it to be equipped with all the modern conveniences.

What smug nonsense. If you buy a car, you expect a drivable vehicle with wheels, engine, battery, seats, steering wheel, lights, indicators, as part of the purchase. You expect to pay extra for leather upholstery, air-conditioning and other fancier frills, which are like champagne, fully reclining seats and entertainment on business or first-class flights.

Why can't U.S. airlines allow at least one piece of checked baggage free plus a carry-on for reading and entertainment materials and emergency supplies, and provide free water and a basic meal for flights over two hours?

To charge high prices for snack food and sandwiches 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, let them offer a proper menu.

More clever Asian airlines are able to charge higher prices by offering premium service, 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 dazzle.

Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines started charging for seats with greater legroom. All airlines in this paperless world charge "re-ticketing fees" of $30 and upward for changing a flight.

Air New Zealand had the temerity to impose a $24 "service charge" on top of a $130 re-ticketing fee merely to change a date of travel.

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 CEO John Slosar's description of Cathay's premium economy facilities suggests they are on the poor side of Air New Zealand's equivalent: With 38 inches of Cathay premium economy pitch and 32 in economy against Air New Zealand's 38 to 40; plus 8 inches of recline against Air New Zealand's 9 inches.

Air New Zealand also wins hands-down in serving the same fine wines in all classes and business-class meals in premium economy class.

Flying is not a cheap. Checking prices for travel next month when the hectic holidays are over, I found the price of a first-class one way ticket from Hong Kong to London — at HK$62,218 — would provide a week's stay in an 80 square-meter suite at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

For a quick comparison, Cathay is advertising RETURN economy flights for just HK$6,320, though taxes and extras bring the price to more than HK$10,000.

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 the other way round, from London to Hong Kong, cost only HK$44,526.45?

Japan, as in so many other things, does worst: First-class from Tokyo to London costs ¥1.78 million on All Nippon Airways, while the journey the other way is ONLY £6,897.63 or ¥834,615.

Cathay via Hong Kong is cheaper in both directions: ¥1.246 million from Tokyo, £4,144 from London to Tokyo or ¥501,000.

To put these fares into perspective, consider that HIS was advertising RETURN economy fares from Tokyo to London of ¥34,000 (plus probably the same in fees and taxes). Still, it shows the madness of first-class travel.

Kevin Rafferty, a Hong Kong-based journalist, travels 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year.

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