Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gogo's ATG-4 takes off

Gogo Plane Lab

On November 12th, Gogo unveiled its new and improved in-flight Wi-Fi system, ATG-4 (ATG stands for Air-to-Ground) which is currently onboard 40 of the 1,683 commercial airplanes in the U.S. that are currently equipped with Gogo in-flight internet systems. Virgin America, US Airways and Delta Airlines are the launch partners for ATG-4.

Passenger using Gogo in-flight on Virgin America

Travelers may only notice the improved speed and connectivity on a cross-country flight where in-flight Wi-Fi usage tends to be higher. Key improvements with ATG-4 are two modems rather than one and four antennas (two on the side and two underneath the plane).  The positioning of the four antennae enable the aircraft to search for ground-based cellular towers in all directions of the plane. This allows ATG-4 to deliver a peak speed of 9.8 megabytes per second rather than ATG-3's 3.1 Mbps speed.

Gogo test plane: ATG-3 antenna (left) and larger ATG-4 antenna (right)

ATG-4 should allow about 65 passengers to comfortably connect whereas the current system can accommodate about 22 passengers comfortably. The system is designed for web surfing, e-mail, online chats, Facebook status updates and tweets rather than streaming video because of the amount of bandwidth video requires.  If the system detects someone is trying to use Hulu or another video streaming service, their connectivity is automatically slowed down.  Gogo Vision is the product offered by several airline partners where passengers can pay 99 cents to watch a TV show or $4.99 to watch a movie where the content is onboard the plane for seamless streaming.

Virgin America "screw it, let's do it" plane equipped with ATG-4
(photos courtesy of Virgin America)
Virgin America was the first airline to begin offering ATG-4 on one of its planes, an airbus named "screw it, let's do it." Virgin America spokesperson, Abby Lunardini, says the name comes from a Richard Branson quote about being an entrepreneur. "We just installed, so don't yet have a great deal of guest feedback, however on testing we definitely saw improved speed and bandwidth," says Lunardini.

In-flight Experience on Gogo test plane

When I had a chance to compare ATG-3 to ATG-4 on Gogo's Wi-Fi test lab plane, I noticed only a slight improvement in connectivity, but I was taxing the system tweeting photos. While testing ATG-4, one tweet actually got away from me before I could attach an image. It happened so quickly that I didn't realize I had prematurely tweeted, so I suspect sending emails would be greased lightning fast.

Live monitoring of connectivity on Gogo test flight. Right two graphs show both vertical and horizontal signal strength from the two ATG-4 modems onboard.

Gogo introduces holiday Wi-Fi packs

On November 14, Gogo rolled out Gogo Holiday packs with discounted prices for either two or three all day Wi-Fi passes good on any of Gogo's partner airlines (including Alaska, American, Delta, Virgin America and US Airways).

One of the chief advantages to me of in-flight Wi-Fi is that it can allow me to complete work while traveling, so that I can truly disconnect when I reach my destination... unless I'm on deadline.

Additional detail for Aviation enthusiasts

Gogo anticipates launching ATG-4 Wi-Fi service on American Airlines and United's p.s. fleet in 2013. An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed that American's new planes would be equipped with Gogo's ATG-4 system. Gogo's Chief Technology Officer, Anand Chari, says they expect 500 planes will be equipped with the new technology by the end of 2013.

American Airlines was the launch customer for Gogo in July 2008. Shortly thereafter, Virgin America partnered with Gogo to install Wi-Fi systems on its entire fleet.

Paul Skrbec of Delta Airlines says: "Delta has more than 560 domestic mainline aircraft and more than 250 Delta Connection 2-class regional jets equipped with Wi-Fi. More than 400,000 Delta customers on more than 3,400 flights daily experience in-flight connectivity on the world's largest fleet of Wi-Fi enabled aircraft. Delta will install Wi-Fi on all of its international wide body fleet by the end of 2015."

"US Airways is installing the Gogo's new ATG-4 technology on our fleet of Airbus A319, A320 and A321 aircraft. We are excited to improve the inflight Wi-Fi experience for our customers with the upgraded ATG-4 technology. Once the installation is complete, US Airways customers traveling on our Airbus A320 family aircraft will see enhanced Wi-Fi capacity aboard the plane as well as increased data speeds for a more consistent browsing experience," says US Airways spokesperson, Davien Anderson.

At the moment, Gogo's statistics show an average of one to seven passengers connecting in flight with the highest usage on cross-country flights.  Virgin America's statistics are higher. In a survey the airline conducted, they found that between 30-40% of its passengers regularly use in-flight Wi-Fi.

All photographs by Terry Gardner, except the two noted which Virgin America contributed.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

American Airlines, apology accepted

American's logo on one of its hangars at DFW

After I blogged about my experience being delayed at the Miami airport for more than five hours on May 20, American Airlines customer service and social media representatives reached out to me within  24 hours.

On May 22, American Airlines sent out an e-mail to all the passengers on Flight 231 apologizing for the delay and awarding each passenger a few thousand bonus Aadvantage miles.

Having an American representative listen to what I thought were the miscommunications during my flight delay helped defuse any remaining anger.  I was also happy to learn that American does take social media seriously and usually responds more effectively.

Annette Hernandez with American's Social Customer Service team called me, and said that they primarily receive positive comments for their responses via Twitter and Facebook.  "When customers tweet about situations as you described on Sunday, our usual practice is to immediately contact personnel at the airport.  Unfortunately, my team wasn’t responsive to your latter tweets to us and I’m truly sorry. The customer experience is very important to us and our goal is to respond to and help each customer who reaches out to us via Social. We’ve used your feedback to bring guidance to our team to ensure this doesn’t happen again," wrote Hernandez to me in a follow-up e-mail.  

How could I not give American another chance after that response?

Later when I checked out American's pages on Twitter and Facebook, the feedback did seem positive.  And today, when I checked American's Twitter page prior to posting this, I noticed that the tweetbacks during a couple of flight delays seemed far more responsive than the tweets I received in May.

Hernandez told me that the night my flight was delayed, Sunday, May 20, was the first Sunday that American had monitored social media. Prior to May 20, American only monitored social media Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

American Airlines now monitors social media from 6 a.m. to midnight daily.  Its Twitter handle is @AmericanAir and the airline's Facebook page can be found at:

Poor communication happens because we are all human after all.  I do hope, however, that the next time there is a delay, communication will be straight forward with the passengers from the outset rather than giving us a line over and over again about "cleaning the plane."  I told American that I had begun to think they were retrofitting the plane with shag carpeting or installing a jacuzzi.

After I was over my pique with American, I was once again eager to embrace any mileage earning opportunity.  And last week I learned how to score 100 bonus miles simply by visiting American's  "More Miles, More Smiles" campaign on Facebook.  By entering you earn miles and help the American Airlines Kids in NeedSM program, which benefits many children's organizations including Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Each entry leads to a mileage donation from the airline to Kids in Need. More details are on American's Facebook page including the Summer Miles Sweepstakes in which Aadvantage members can win up to 100,000 miles.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Flight 231 MIA to LAX - Is American trying to lose customers?

The initial delay of Flight 231 seemed reasonable

If a guidebook exists on how to gracefully handle flight delays, American Airlines desperately needs a copy at its gates at Miami International Airport.  Last night, the playbook used seemed designed to make passengers either give up on air travel entirely or never fly again or never again book a flight on American.

At our initial 5:35 p.m. boarding time for Flight 231, the gate agent at Gate D3 announced: "Your plane is here, but needs to be cleaned.  We'll be boarding a few minutes later than scheduled."  

Fifteen minutes or more passed with no additional announcement.  Then my iPhone received a text, followed by a voice call from American Airlines' automated system advising that our flight was delayed and would now be departing from Gate D25.  Five or ten minutes thereafter, the gate agent confirmed this info but offered no reason for the move or delay. No equipment problems were mentioned.

All the passengers agreeably made this initial schlep to a gate at least a six-minute walk away.  But when we arrived at Gate D25, a new gate agent told us: "We are waiting on your flight to arrive from Los Angeles."  At that point, we all wondered "what about the first plane?"  

After first gate change passengers wait patiently at Gate D25 for AA Flight 231

At this point, if American Airlines had told us there was an equipment problem with our first plane rather than acting as if we never had a first plane, a lot of frustration, anxiety and the need for airport police could have been avoided.

I began tweeting about our flight delay in the hope that social media would help.  When I tweeted @AmericanAir that my flight was delayed, @AmericanAir responded: "Have a nice flight." (What?!) When my next tweet was a complaint, I received an apology but no information.  So unlike JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, apparently American Airlines doesn't actually address customer service issues via Twitter.

When the second plane arrived, we were told it would be cleaned and then we'd be leaving.  At that point, our flight was due to leave sometime after 8 p.m.  As more than 15 minutes passed, I began wondering if the plane was receiving its spring cleaning or getting a facelift.  While we sat wondering what was happening, passengers who had deplaned began telling other passengers that their plane left LAX two hours later than scheduled due to a problem with the plane's air conditioning.  Thereafter, the gate agent advised that they were no longer "cleaning the plane," maintenance was actually trying to repair something.

At least 20 more minutes passed before the gate agent announced that we would be getting another aircraft, and we would probably be boarding it at Gate E9.  He asked us to standby until he confirmed the info.  At that point, I believe passengers remained calm, apparently grateful to receive any information - even if the news was bad and meant a gate change to another terminal.

Numerous times throughout our five-plus hour delay, I heard passengers express their desire for safety.  Even though passengers had begun missing connections, everyone wanted to fly in a safe aircraft.

People began photographing this board as our delay grew longer and longer

By the time we arrived at our third gate, nerves were beginning to fray.  Our flight seemed an international mix of Americans, Asians, Latin Americans, Australians and others with the international passengers appearing to be the most agitated.

Although the American Airlines agents at Gate E9 were the most communicative all night, many passengers seemed to have run out of patience, even though the gate agents seemed to be diligently rerouting people.

Unfortunately, the Gate E9 agents told us twice that our plane was being cleaned before finally telling us that there was an equipment issue with yet another 767. I honestly believe the gate agents imparted info as they received it, so I was grateful for at least receiving reliable information.

As passengers began surrounding the gate desk after it was announced that maintenance was working on something, I became worried about the safety of the two female gate agents.

Passengers begin surrounding the gate counter, and I began worrying
about the safety of the gate agents.  

An Asian man in a white cap (center of the above picture) began pounding on the counter and other passengers were raising their voices. Since I saw no security personnel in sight, I called 911 and asked for the non-emergency department.  I explained my concern for the safety of the two female gate agents and requested security come to Gate E9 right away.

When no one came within five minutes, and the situation continued to escalate, I used my phone's browser to find a number for the Miami International Airport Police.  I was told help was on the way.

The two Airport Police Officers initially on the scene were Officer Julio Nolasco and Officer Montrial (whose last name I didn't get because he was quite agitated).  Julio seemed very calming, but Montrial demanded immediate obedience.  He asked the man in the white cap three times to go sit down, but the man refused to budge.  So Montrial began pushing him from the gate podium into a seat in the passenger area.

Montrial is to the left towering over the man (unseen).
Two passengers seem to be videotaping the incident.  
As Montrial demanded the man calm down, at least four other passengers seemed to start using their cell phones to videotape the police officers and the man in the white cap. (Video may surface on YouTube.)

Many passengers became protective of the man in the white cap as if the officer was too
aggressive in removing the man from the gate podium. 
When I asked Montrial for his name and badge number, he asked me for my name and said that the FAA gave him the authority to arrest anyone at the podium, who didn't immediately sit down.  I gave him my card and sat down.  I had already told both officers that I was the passenger who had called them.

A supervisor with American Airlines (Luz) appeared after more police officers arrived, and she offered passengers $12 meal vouchers to go get something to eat.  We would have to go back to Terminal D and needed to be back in approximately 20 minutes, so very few passengers accepted the voucher.  It would have been more sensible to give us vouchers to use for food on the plane, but that didn't occur to anyone.

When Flight 231 finally left at approximately 11:45 p.m. last night, the flight crew seemed embarrassed. The pilot apologized for the delay and said he would dim the lights and not make many announcements in the hope that we could get some sleep.  If our wait could have been as pleasant as our flight, American wouldn't have lost customers last night.  When our flight landed, our pilot thanked us for flying with him and said he hoped that someday we'd give American Airlines another chance.  In Miami, many passengers were saying they would never fly American again.

As a frequent flyer with American Airlines, I hoped the airline would redeem itself when we landed at LAX.  But instead of several gate agents to greet all the passengers with missed connections who would need a hotel for the night, there was one lone gate agent when our flight landed after 1:30 a.m., who was directing all passengers needing rerouting to the Customer Relations office next to Gate 42A.

One lone gate agent when Flight 231 landed at LAX

When a flight has a weather or equipment issue, passengers want to be kept informed and told the truth, preferably every 15 or 20 minutes so that they can determine if they have time to grab food or go to the bathroom.  If a gate agent doesn't have an update, announcing "no news" is better than feeling trapped at the gate, dependent on an automated text or voicemail for a flight update.

SuperShuttle then leaves passengers stranded

Nothing is worse than repeatedly that a plane is being cleaned, when that is not the fact or the issue -- except relying on SuperShuttle.  When it became clear our flight would land after midnight, I couldn't take the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus home as planned, so I used my SuperShuttle app to book transportation home.  I attempted to email SuperShuttle about the additional two-hour delay from Miami because I held for eight minutes without getting a human to answer the phone.

I checked in with SuperShuttle at 2:00 a.m., the girl clocked me in and said my shuttle to Santa Monica would arrive in ten minutes.  When my shuttle didn't come, she told me to go sit down, that it was coming. Then she told three of us our shuttle numbers and said she was leaving for another terminal.  My shuttle was number 820.  It never came.  At 3:00 a.m., a kind American Airlines employee named Carlos in American's baggage claim office wrote up the scenario in my flight record to help me get reimbursed by American for a taxi.  At that point, SuperShuttle even had told me to take a taxi.

At 3:15 a.m., I caught a taxi home.  I called and a Yellow Cab actually arrived within minutes.  Maybe if Yellow Cab bought out American, we'd all arrive on time and in a good mood.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Airlines & DFW welcome the Boeing Dreamliner Test Plane

Boeing 787 Dreamliner test plane heads to American Airlines'
Hangar 15 for the May 11 press conference.

Last Friday, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner test plane landed at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) to “Wow” a group of journalists and American Airlines employees.

American Airlines is reinvigorating its brand with new, more fuel efficient airplanes including Boeing 777-300ERs, 737-800s along with the 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft as it reorganizes and streamlines its business in Bankruptcy Court. American’s fleet renewal includes retrofitting some of its Boeing 738-800s and its 757s.  The airline says that over the next five years this fleet renewal will give American Airlines the youngest fleet of any major U.S. carrier. 

In 2008, American Airlines ordered 42 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.  The first 787-9 Dreamliner is due at the end of 2014.  The Boeing Dreamliner is a long haul aircraft (routes haven't been determined yet). This year and next American will take delivery of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs, and it continues to receive the fuel-efficient 737-800 airplanes that will replace American’s MD-80 fleet.

In May 2011, American began receiving new 737-800s with the Boeing Sky Interior that adds LED lighting and a roomier interior with larger overhead bins for carry-on luggage.  I was a bit disappointed to see that the coach seats looked the same as on current 737-800s, and there is no back of seat entertainment.

A new 737-800 landed on Friday too.  Although this plane features LED lighting,
it wasn't turned on when I checked out the plane. Notice the additional head room.

In 2013, American expects to begin receiving 130 current generation Airbus 319 and 321 aircraft.  In 2017, American is set to begin receiving Airbus planes with the  “Neo” next- generation engine technology.

Highlights of the press conference and Dreamliner tour

American Airlines CEO, Tom Horton welcomed employees and media to the press conference saying: “This good looking airplane is going to look a lot better in silver.”  Welcoming the Dreamliner to DFW was aimed at showing what “the new American looks like.”

American Airlines CEO, Tom Horton

During a tour of the test plane, 787 Brand Manager, Katherine Overby said that the plane has state of the art engine technology and reduced maintenance features.  Last December, the Dreamliner set the speed and distance record by flying around the World in 42 hours (22 hours from Seattle to Dhaka, Bangladash and 20 hours from Dhaka back to Seattle). 

Although the test Dreamliner that visited DFW had a Rolls Royce engine, Vice President of Sales for Boeing North America, John Wojick, says that the Dreamliners American has ordered will have General Electric engines.  All the 787 engines are tested to withstand bird strikes.  I asked how airplane engines are tested to “ingest birds” and he said that frozen chickens are used.

John Wojick, V.P. Sales for Boeing North America in the Dreamliner's economy cabin

Wojick says that ANA and Japan Airlines currently have the 11 Boeing Dreamliners currently in service.  Since Continental was the first U.S. carrier to order a Dreamliner back in 2007, I asked when United (which completed its merger with Continental earlier this year) should get its first 787, and Wojick anticipates it will be delivered sometime this Fall.

Business class seats on the test plane.  Six different vendors
supply seats for the Dreamliner, so American's may look a bit different.

American employees (L to R) Jim Lorentsen and Rick Briggs
check out Biz class.  The test plane didn't display First Class,
but both Business and First will have seats that fully recline.

Brooke and Paige (L to R), whose Dad works for
American Airlines, appear very comfy in Biz class     

Wojick loves the 787’s sleek wing and raked wing tip. Overby loves the fact the airplane improves passenger comfort and that the windows are up higher to allow passengers to see the horizon.  

Sleek wing of the Dreamliner

Overby highlighted some of the window features for me in this  video tour.

My favorite features were the LED lighting, the window tint adjustments and the large screens on the back of seat entertainment modules on all the coach seats.  

Signs of Eco-Friendliness – quieter and more fuel efficient

The Dreamliner burns approximately 20% less fuel than similarly sized aircraft due to its new engines, increased use of lightweight composite materials, more-efficient systems applications and modern aerodynamics.  Reducing fuel consumption lowers the aircraft’s carbon emissions and the engines of the Dreamliner have been designed to also emit less nitrogen oxide (NOx), which further reduces the plane’s environmental impact.  And Boeing reports that the noise footprint of the 787 Dreamliner is 60% smaller than similarly sized planes currently flying our environmentally challenged skies.

Captain Randy Neville showed off the cockpit of the Boeing Test Dreamliner.

On my flight home from Dallas, I flew on an older American 737.  We were packed in the plane like sardines and the shade for my window was cracked and difficult to raise or lower.  The sooner  American Airlines gets new planes, the better flying should be for passengers.  And the Boeing Dreamliner with its fuel efficiency and smaller carbon footprint is this eco-nut's dream airplane.

This was the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner to land at DFW

Monday, May 14, 2012

Woman plus baby equals miserable flight

Mother and baby that create seat turbulence

No flight is pleasant when babies are crying.  The same can be said about being kicked in the back for almost three hours between Dallas and Los Angeles.  This woman looks nice and attractive, but she is the mother to avoid on a plane.

I should have tried to switch seats with her when she arrived at the end of my row, looked at a man by the window and announced: "I think you want to switch seats with me - unless you want to babysit my daughter."  I was pinned against the window.  The passenger next to me (in the middle seat) had already commandeered both armrests.  As I pondered whether a packed flight can cause claustrophobia, the man in the window seat in row 17, moved up to our row, and the mother sat in his seat, directly behind me.

At times it seemed like her toddler was grabbing my seat, but most discomfort was caused by the baby.  I repositioned my seat without any recline to see if that would help, but I still felt like my back was being constantly kicked.  I attempted to sit without my back against the seat, but that didn't help.  I kept praying that I would slip into a three hour coma.  No luck.

After at least 30 minutes of continuous kicking, I looked back at the mother and even asked twice that she please do something so my seat wasn't being constantly kicked.  She shrugged her shoulders.  (I can't remember if she denied being about to do anything, but that's how I read her look.)   It felt like she, her baby and her toddler kicked my seat nonstop for two hours and 50 minutes - mainly because the Mom kept putting her baby on the tray table where the creature wiggled and kicked nonstop.  (Had the baby been seated elsewhere, I would have thought she was precious rather than a creature from the Kung Fu Lagoon.)   After I asked the Mother twice to please make the constant kicking stop, I realized that I should have insisted or asked a flight attendant to insist that she hold the dang baby on her lap.

If you have ever been tortured by a Mom and a baby or a toddler on a plane, please comment and let me know if you had a better result.  Flight attendants don't seem to ever intercede so I didn't ask for help on this flight.  If any flight attendants read this and have a suggestion, please comment.  I want to create self-defense tips for passengers who have been tortured by children and/or neglectful parents on a plane.  On trips to Hawaii, I have regretted being in First Class, when the kids were positioned to kick my seat while their parents sat across the aisle, ignoring their children.  In the future, I believe I will request parents change seats with me so that their kids can kick them in the back for five hours.

Below is a second photo.  This woman was so inconsiderate, and yet I didn't have the guts to boldly snap her photo and announce I planned to post it online -- as a warning to other passengers.  Instead both pictures were snapped discreetly over my head as we deplaned at LAX.

The toddler's arm is in front of the baby (directly behind the second seat).
If you see this Mama sitting down behind you, BEG TO SWITCH SEATS!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dino Bones visit Santa Monica to whet appetites for Alberta

Royal Tyrell Museum creates a dinosaur dig just off Santa Monica Pier on April 25
"In Alberta, there's a location called Dinosaur Provincial Park, about two and a half hours east of Calgary, it's one of the richest places in the world.   When you go on guided hikes, in places, it's impossible to take a step without crushing dinosaur bones under your feet," says Palaeontologist, Franciois Therrien, of the Royal Tyrrell Museum.  He says the bones are actually in bedrock, and you walk around them in a guided area, so the bones are protected. Dr. Therrien and a group from Travel Alberta visited Santa Monica on April 25 to highlight the Canadian Badlands in eastern Alberta along with the Alberta's outdoor adventures ranging from the Calgary Stampede to hiking in Banff.

The Royal Tyrell has three T. Rex on display along with Albertosaurus, a 27 foot (nose to tail) replica of which was planted on the beach at the Santa Monica Pier in April to whet the appetite of locals for dino bones.  Dr. Therrien says that visitors to Drumheller, Alberta, where the museum is located, get to see a treasure trove of dinosaur bones, and  kids (including those over 18 sometimes posing as adults) can spend 90 minutes in a Dino Dig for $15 during the summer. 

Palaeontologist Francois Thierren of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in
Alberta, Canada shows off a dinosaur bone replica (the real bone is in Canada ).

I told Therrien I loved seeing Sue the Dinosaur on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. He said that Sue is the largest, most complete T. Rex ever discovered.  But he pointed out  that Alberta's Badlands are chock full of dino bones.   The closest thing to a dinosaur I might find on Chicago's Lakeshore Drive would be an overweight, trudging pedestrian.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is Canada's only museum dedicated to Palaeontology.  With more than 130,000 specimens, the museum's galleries and exhibitions cover 3.9 billion years of life on earth from the dinosaurs to the Ice Age and the Age of Mammals.   The cost for one-day admission at the Royal Tyrrell is $11 for adults (18+); $8 for seniors and $6 for kids (7-17) or $30 for a family (limit of 8).  Two-day admission costs $16.50 for adults with discounts for seniors and kids.

Students from a school in West Hollywood took a field trip to learn about dinosaurs 

Dr. Therrien studies and excavates real dinosaur fossils in Alberta and says: “Alberta is home to some of the world’s richest fossil beds and draws tourists from around the world to experience authentic dinosaur adventures." has put together several summer experience packages that include horseback riding (from $175 per night in Jasper National Park), a Calgary Stampede Thrill Package (from $150 per night during the Centennial Stampede from ) and several dinosaur experiences, including:
Dinotour 2012 (June 29-July 2) – from $325 per night—A four day tour of the Canadian Badlands to dinosaur excavation sites and museums, guided by leading Canadian palaeontologists.  

Rockies, Edmonton and the Badlands - from $160 per night includes admission to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, a Seven Wonders of the Badlands walk in Drumheller and overnight accommodations in Banff, Jasper, Edmonton and Calgary.
Info: Travel Alberta;  1-800-Alberta

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Roseanne Cash writes USA a theme song (International Pow Wow 12 Report)

Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association introduces the Vote Travel bus

International Pow Wow is a travel trade show where destinations across the USA get to promote themselves to international journalists, with a few domestic travel writers, like myself, thrown into the mix.

America gets a brand name, a theme song and a new tourism website

On Monday, Brand USA, unveiled (its new website) and "Land of Dreams," a theme song written by Roseanne Cash designed to evoke a feeling about what America represents.  A free download of the song is available on the website's home page.  (Brand USA was created by Congress in 2010 to promote travel to the United States, which had declined after September 11, 2001.)

It's likely that not only will attract foreign tourists but will also help Americans discover new destinations both across the country and in their own backyard.  Visitors can "Explore" by clicking on pictures, searching by States, Territories or major cities as well as using filters (including Beaches, History, Natural Wonders, Shopping and Great Drives) to sort possibilities.  For those that prefer to daydream by reading travel journals, there are reports of road trips made by three international visitors.  (Hopefully, at some point some female travelers will be able to contribute and perhaps an American or two.)

By providing an email address to the site, users can save info into a "suitcase."  I found several items on the website that I wanted to save into a suitcase but couldn't.  I wanted to find out more about the Indianapolis Zoo and save that to my suitcase, but I could only save info about the Indianapolis 500.  (Although Los Angeles, Honolulu, New York, Dallas and Las Vegas are listed under major cities, Indianapolis and Houston aren't.)

The good news is that it's easy to click through to the website of a state such as Indiana. When I reached the Indiana website, however, I had to hunt for a page with a link to the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association website.

President Obama addresses International Pow Wow attendees 

Good news for Chinese and Brazilian Visitors

President Barack Obama addressed the International Pow Wow delegates by videotape, stressing the importance of international tourism to America and the efforts we are making to expedite the Visa process while protecting our borders.  Wait times for Visas for Chinese and Brazilian visitors that once took weeks is now often accomplished in days.  And visitors from 36 countries, including Britain, France, Switzerland, Spain, New Zealand and Australia, aren't required to have a Visa.

Next year, International Pow Wow is set for Las Vegas.  Presentations from Las Vegas made delegates eager to blow on some dice long before June 2013.

Two showgirl ambassadors for Las Vegas

Elvis was alive and well and inspiring "Viva Las Vegas"
Performers from Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere"
dazzle at a luncheon

Friday, April 20, 2012

Celebrate the Earth with Music and Yoga in Santa Monica

Molly demonstrate crab position using two Three Minute Eggs at
Tadasana International Yoga & Music Festival

When I stopped by the Tadasana International Yoga & Music Festival this afternoon, I expected to snap a few pictures and then take off.  But I wound up spending a few hours there wandering through the eco marketplace and peering in various yoga classes. I foolishly arrived without my yoga mat, plus I learned that you are actually supposed to schedule your classes.  Here are a few scenes from the first day of the festival.

If you can make it to the festival on Saturday or Sunday, it will be well worth your time.  I'd recommend spending the entire day because the admission is $99 per day.  But there are slews of activities and a variety of vendors are there with interesting products.  The Yoga Beauty Bar  had several paraben free body products on display including COOLA (a great locally made sunscreen) and Olie Biologique (which uses argan oil, rose hips and other natural ingredients to heal and moisturize skin).  Founder, Linda Alixe Thompson, says that Olie Biologique facial products are used by both men and women.

yoga beauty bar is a pop up store that carries organic body products

Additional vendors include: Three Minute Egg (oval yoga props [rather than blocks]), Hard Tail (with 20-50% savings off their amazing yoga wear), Jade Yoga (yoga mats), Mamma Chia Vitality Beverages, EOS Earth Friendly Products (dish, laundry and hand soaps), Kevita, Whole Foods, Eco Vessel, Yoga Hitch (an innovative strap to carry your mat that can double as a yoga strap or towel) and Simply Straws (lose the plastic straws and carry your own sipper).  Simply Straws has a promotion where you can earn a free straw by taking their pledge against plastic straws (and sharing it via Facebook or Twitter).  Beyond O2 Alkaline Water was supplying free water in several areas.

And for travelers looking for budget accommodations within the yoga community, OmStays is making its debut at TadasanaFest.  People can join as a yoga student or yoga teacher, and OmStays helps connect you with a yogi where you're heading.  Although men are welcome too, one of OmStay's goals is to help women travel on a shoestring.  At a glance, it struck me as a cross between Airbnb (which acts as an intermediary) and couch surfing with a yoga component.  Cost to stay at OmStay pad is $15 plus gratitude.

Founder of Simply Straws, Cyndi Sladics
A simply straw can help you sip at the San Diego Wild Animal Park
where plastic straws are forbidden (dangerous to animals)

Steve offers samples of Mamma Chia's vitality drink.
Guests could buy bottles or a case for a discounted price.

Alycia Monet Denham created Yoga Hitch to carry her own mat while she's also managing her toddler .
Like its inventor, Yoga Hitch can multi-task by serving as a towel or a yoga strap when you're in class.

When:  Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22 from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Cost: $99 (minimum age 14)

Where:  2600 Barnard Way in Santa Monica

Tadasana is even offering a free 30 song download of the Music of Tadasana through YogiTunes (provided you give YogiTunes your name, email address and zipcode).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shell, Condoms break. Prove you can clean up a spill

All photos courtesy of NRDC

That title may be unfair to condoms, because a broken condom can lead to new life whereas an oil spill leads to death and destruction for wildlife and people.  If there's a problem when Shell drills in the Arctic Wildlife Reserve in Alaska, the Inuit Eskimos will suffer if Bowhead whales perish (because these whales are a food source for the Inuits).

In 2000, the State of Alaska sponsored a test to see if a spill could be cleaned up in the Arctic.  As you can see from Oceana's YouTube video clip below, the test was a total failure.

The 2000 North Slope Broken Ice Trials proved that booms and skimmers do not work in ice.  Booms and skimmers are among the tools Shell plans to deploy in the event of a spill.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil explosion occurred off the coast of Louisiana causing the  BP oil spill in the much warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  In Feb. 2011, a Norwegian tanker spilled oil in the icy fjords off Oslo, Norway.  So why isn't the U.S. government isn't telling Shell "You can only drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas if you prove you can clean up a spill."  

Chuck Clusen, Director of Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) described for me the risks and  ramifications for both humans and wildlife if Shell has a mishap in the Arctic.

Although Shell has invested in equipment that can be immediately deployed if there's a spill, there is a very limited window of time to clean up a spill in the chilly Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, environments that are already showing stress from climate change (with incidents of polar bears drowning trying to swim from ice pack to shore and small young male Pacific Walruses being smothered by older male walruses due to the receding icepack and limited room on the beach.

But the major problem with any spill is that the water is so cold and winds can be so powerful that there is a Response gap where you can't effectively clean up oil due to ice in the water or winds that cause waves to be too high.

"Between July 1 and Oct. 31 (the other eight months, the seas are frozen over), the so-called response gap is three to five days of each week. So at best you have four and on average as little as two days.  Oil does break down to a degree fairly quickly when you can no longer skim or burn it.  You can't skim oil a week or more after a spill.  World Wildlife Fund did some calculations: it's impossible during those four summer months between 44-84% of the time.  In Beaufort  drilling, they can drill up to end of Oct. - if there's a blow out at end of work period - there's insufficient time to drill a cap relief well.  Then oil freezes into/under the ice - ice moves hundreds of miles all around the arctic -Ice could drag liquid oil underneath it too-- could still be oozing," says Clusen.  If oil is carried long distances in the ice, then next summer, when when the ice cap melts, oil is all over the place.

If there is a spill, we better hope it happens in the Chukchi rather than the Beaufort.

Clusen says that Shell must stop drilling 38 days before the Chukchi Sea freezes (where between 5500 and 25,000 barrels a day could spill).  But there's no such limit in Beaufort where the risk in a spill is 5500 to 16,000 barrels.  The Capping stack, Shell's principal strategy of controlling a leaking well is being built in Seattle, but Clusen says it won't be tested with real oil.  "The real question is whether a capping stack can work as well in the Arctic.  The drill rig in Gulf of Mexico had motors on all sides --no mooring lines with anchors.  Two drill rigs that Shell would use in the Arctic would be moored," says Clusen, adding that trying to get around and through mooring lines without getting tangled up is pretty challenging because there's not a lot of room to maneuver.

"There's so much we don't understand about it how the ecosystem works, the niches for each animal, etc." says Clusen, adding that we also don't know how the noise from drilling and the vessels will affect the whales and other wildlife.

In the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, "a lot of oil stayed in the water column, which means that cleaning up the surface (even if possible) does not prevent potential ecological damage," says Clusen.  The Bowhead whales are a special concern because they feed in the shallow waters where Shell will be drilling.  In the event of a spill, if there's oil in the water column it will gum up the baleen filters in the mouths of Bowhead whales.  Even if there's no spill, if the drilling drives the Bowheads further out to sea, the Inuit Eskimos may lose a principle food and culture source.

Shell's oil exploration will occur in a known denning area for female polar bears and within the migration route of the Bowhead whale. (Belugas and grays also pass through the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas).  "A spill in this area could be deadly and oil the coastline of the Arctic Refuge Barrier Islands.  This is key habitat for polar bears as well.  The Arctic Refuge Coast is the highest density denning area for female polar bears on shore in the American Arctic.   In Beaufort and Chukchi Sea - in fall they tend to come from Eastern Beaufort  Sea in Canada - come in Camden Bay along the shore of the Artic national wildlife refuge - then they loop further out in north and west around the Chukchi lease area where Shell plans to drill four exploration wells in the next couple of years.  Again, a spill as the result of this exploration could be deadly to Bowhead whales," says Clusen.

So whether you are rooting for polar bears, whales, us or the earth, what's the harm in the U.S. government demanded that Shell prove it can clean up a spill?   If there's a problem, any spill will make the Exxon Valdez or BP oil spills look like minor mishaps.  The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico spill released 200 million gallons of oil. This means that every 5 days, an oil spill the size of Exxon Valdez was released into the Gulf of Mexico, and this spill is over 18 times the size of predecessor.

Following the BP oil disaster, reported that 21 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, Alaskan waters are still recovering, and many beaches and coastal areas are still contaminated with oil. Many species (including sea otters, killer whales, clams, mussels) are still recovering, and some haven’t recovered at all (the Pacific herring and pigeon guillemot) (See: Exxon Valdez and Long-term Recovery after a Spill).

To urge the government to take action or to learn more, visit the NRDC website (and watch a video message from Robert Redford about the wildlife imperiled by Shell's plans).

Thursday, February 9, 2012

San Francisco loves dogs!

Two visitors from Sacramento. (All photos by Terry Gardner)
Last December I visited San Francisco because I had heard it may be the most dog-friendly city in America.  I met a woman from Sacramento who was walking her dog along Market Street.  She and her husband visit San Francisco every four weeks to get their hair cut, and their dog always comes along.  She said most shops are dog-friendly, especially Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.

Since I was dog-less in San Francisco, a friend from Oakland brought her pitbull Bob into town so we could all visit Chrissy Field together.

For my story on the best dog parks in San Francisco, please visit: is a new website that launched last October.  It's devoted to both helping dog lovers  find dog-welcoming destinations and helping them snag deals on airfare, hotels and vacation packages.  One reason I write for DogWonderful is that 10% of the commissions and fees earned through travel bookings on the site are donated to two non-profits that help dogs, NEADS and Red Rover.

This border collie mix also enjoys Chrissy Field.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pre-Grammy Slack Key Guitar Concert can add Aloha to your weekend

George Kahumoku, Jr. (photo: Shane Tegardent)

If hearing a ukelele or a slack key guitar strummed rekindles memories of Hawaii, on Sat. Feb. 11, you may find yourself transported to your favorite Hawaiian island. 

From 1:30-3:30 p.m. in Manhattan Beach, 2012 Grammy® Award nominees George Kahumoku Jr. and Daniel Ho will present a special pre-Grammy Slack Key concert.

The performance will be preceded by a morning guitar, ukele or social media workshop followed by lunch with the artists.  Special musical guests will be Tia Carrere (who won a Grammy in 2011 with Ho for Best Hawaiian Music Album), Keoki Kahumoku and Kimo West (Weird Al's guitarist who contributed to Apocalypse, Weird Al's 2012 nominated CD).

George Kahumoku Jr.’s Wao Akua - Forest of the Gods (Regional Roots Nominee) and Daniel Ho’s E Kahe Mālie (Pop- Instrumental Nominee) are the 2012 nominated CDs.

Three pre-concert workshops will be offered:
  • Guitar instruction with George & Kimo
  • Ukulele instruction with Daniel & Keoki; and
  • Internet marketing 101 with  George's social network specialist, Elliot Prestwich (because some musicians may need more tips on tweeting than strumming).

Daniel Ho and Tia Carrere (photo: Shane Sato)

When:  Saturday, Feb 11, 2012

Where:    Manhattan Beach Community Church
Address:  303 South Peck Ave, Manhattan Beach CA 90266

Option 1: Ukelele, Guitar or Social Networking Workshops: 10:30-11:45 + Lunch with the artists noon-1pm + Concert Package ($47 adv/$55 door)

Option 2: Concert only 1:30-3:30 matinee ($22 adv/$25 door)

Tickets:  or 800-838-3006 ext 1 (Brown Paper Tickets)