Travel Newsstand: March 15-29, 2018
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Read all about it! How to spend $2.1+ million a night at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. How do you solve a problem like United? All the president's (corrupt travel) men. An update on Cathay Pacific's fight for survival as a premium airline and TAP Air Portugal's unlikely revival. A model and her carry-on casserole. And much more.
The $2.1-Million-a-Night Rate at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh
The extended family battle for control of Saudi Arabia rages on. The New York Times this week recreated conditions at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, commandeered as a makeshift jail for Saudi royals and other officials who've fallen out of favor. An earlier Times piece reported that the supposed corruption crackdown netted around $106.6 billion in assets from detainees, including Alwaleed bin Talal, the famed investor and hotel owner. (Ironically, his company, Kingdom Holdings, owns Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton's archrival in luxury lodging.) The Ritz-Carlton Riyadh reopened in February and began accepting non-royal prisoners as guests starting on February 14. Shall we do a little back-of-the-envelope math? The 492-room hotel closed November 4, 2017, meaning it hosted royal detainees for 101 days. That's a total of 49,692 room nights. Since the prisoners surrendered $106.6 billion to um, settle up their bills, that means the nightly rate worked out to $2,145,214. A bit pricey, to be sure, but the rooms did apparently come with hot-and-cold running torture and room-service coercion, so, you know, totally worth it. On the other hand, for those of us not accused of corruption, rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh next weekend are selling for about $315 a night.
From the Archives: TAP's Revival, Cathay Pacific's Survival
TAP Air Portugal reports it carried a million passengers in February, a nifty feat for an airline that could easily have disappeared decades ago. Even better, TAP reported it carried at least a million passengers for the 12th consecutive month, the first time it managed that feat in its 73-year corporate history. TAP's revival in recent years is credited to David Neeleman, creator of JetBlue Airways. As TAP has revived, so has the profile of Portugal, now the "hot" destination in Europe. Chris Barnett last year covered TAP's startling turnaround. ... Meanwhile, I reported last month on Cathay Pacific's existential crisis as a premium carrier competing in a world of knock-down fares and service. This week comes news that its 2017 loss tripled to about US$185 million, the first back-to-back annual losses in its 71-year history. Although revenue rose nearly 5 percent, passenger load factor fell, fuel costs jumped and other operating expenses also rose. Not a good combination, to say the least. Also distressing: Cathay is adding seats to the coach cabins of its Boeing 777 aircraft. That means an unpleasant 10-across (3x4x3) configuration compared to the current, and comparatively roomy, 9-across (3x3x3) layout. ... On a lighter note, it's St. Patrick's Day this weekend followed quickly by St. Joseph's Day, my name day (onomastico), a big deal for Italians and Italian-Americans. I wrote about the confluence of the two--and my holiday-related favorite travel, food and songs--two years ago.
All the President's (Corrupt Travel) Men
You'd have thought President Trump's cabinet members got the message when Tom Price was forced to resign last year as health and human services secretary after running up bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars of chartered-jet flights. Apparently not. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been flying first class everywhere he goes and cited an imaginary exemption for his actions. He survived an attempt by Congressional Democrats to clamp down on his up front proclivities. But he's also stiffed Republican Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Gowdy wants the records of Pruitt's first class jaunts. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under fire for his profligate travel expenses and seems to be mixing government travel and political jaunts, an ethical no-no. He's also on track to be $200,000 over his travel budget for the fiscal year. And the only Obama era holdover in the Trump Cabinet, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, (left) is also in hot travel water. A VA audit found that he expensed a pricey trip to Europe for his wife under false pretenses. His chief of staff then abruptly retired after an allegation surfaced that she doctored E-mail to justify Shulkin's travel-expense violations.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like United?
How do you solve a problem like United Airlines? Well, I suggested breaking it up, but nobody listens to me. So this week we have the tales of its cruelty to animals. As a blogger calculated from government figures, three times more animals die in United's care than the other U.S. airlines combined. Thus it shouldn't come as a shock that United was forced to apologize this week when a flight attendant demanded a passenger put a dog in an overhead bin and the animal died. No matter, of course, that the flight attendant violated United's in-cabin pet policy and made a mockery of its PetSafe program. United thinks it can solve the problem by issuing bright[ly] colored bag tags to customers traveling with in-cabin pets. Meanwhile, as it was trying to extricate itself from that PR fiasco, the airline inadvertently shipped a family pet to Japan.
Of course, the doggie doings completely overshadowed last week's United controversy. Management eliminated a long-standing quarterly bonus for employees who met certain performance metrics. (Yeah, I know, what metrics does United measure?) In its place, United executives planned a lottery with one employee winning $100,000 and others winning bags of marbles. (Okay, I made that last part up.) The blowback was so fast and so furious--"we misjudged how these changes would be received," admitted serially clueless United president Scott Kirby--that the airline is "pressing the pause button." United isn't restoring the quarterly bonus, you understand, simply backing off its idiotic lottery idea until it invents a new (we assume) idiotic idea to (we assume) further enrage employees. Inc. magazine columnist Chris Matyszczyk suggests the affair shows exactly how companies shouldn't talk to employees.
Tight Connections ...
Searching and seizing Is the TSA illegally searching passenger laptops and other electronic devices before wholly domestic flights? The agency--whose credibility is approximately zero--says certainly not. But The Guardian reports that the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed suit against the TSA "demanding that the government disclose its policies for searching the computers and cellphones of domestic travelers."
Probably a coincidence CNN reports that Defense Department employees spent more than $138,000 at Trump-branded hotels during the first eight months of Donald Trump's presidency. About half the spending was at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, the so-called Florida White House.
Comfort food for the skies Model, frequent flyer and omnipresent social-media personality Chrissy Teigen got the heads-up from the TSA to carry the equivalent of an emotional-support casserole as a carry-on. Gary Leff, uh, dishes on the details. -- Joe Brancatelli
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