number sixty seven

I was once told by an old and wise Australian man that a rough measure of how well someone was traveled was to compare the number of countries they had visited to the number of years that they had lived on this planet; anyone who has visited more countries than the number of their years was considered to be “well traveled.”  Well, at the ripe old age of 41, I’m on my way to country number 67.  Aside from my “year off” in 2002, I have more time for this trip than I’ve had ever – a total of 6 months. And that’s paid  vacation – oh, how I love my job!

And so, at least the first two months of this holiday will be in Australia beginning in Perth.  I hope to get to Alice Springs to see Ayer’s Rock and then over to Sydney, up the coast to finish off in the north of the continent down under.  I flew with Qantas and it was my first time flying with them.  I am usually not worried about airline safety; being a pilot I know how safe it is.  Really, the most dangerous part of your journey is the drive to the airport.  But I remember a random factoid that I’d heard on the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man wherein Cruise explains to Hoffman that all airlines have crashed at one point or another to which Hoffman replies that Qantas has never crashed.  So, I suppose that I felt doubly safe.  But as it would turn out, I would be less than enthused with Qantas as the plane was quite old, didn’t have in-flight power for my computer and the staff was a bit blasé about the whole idea of customer service.  They weren’t rude and the service wasn’t bad, but – when compared to Virgin or Emirates – it was just “sub-par.”

It wasn’t until the very end of the flight that I could see land below the airplane.  The Pacific is so vast and it took nearly 13 ½ hours to cross it flying non-stop.  When I could finally see down to the southwest coast of the continent I could see that the landscape was covered with trees and was quite green in color.  Some patches were clear cut lending evidence of lumber activities and renewable forestry.

We touched down in Melbourne and worked our way through the customs process.  For whatever reason, I was singled out for “extra” security and had to go through 3 interviews.  The interviews were quite in depth and they wanted to know where I was staying, how I was financing my trip, who I knew in the country, my itinerary, what type of work I did and several dozen other questions.  Looking through my passport (it is quite full) seemed to pique their interest even more.  One of the border agents looked at me skeptically when I said six months paid leave.  As soon as I would finish talking to one agent and walk 3 meters, I would be intercepted by another and the questioning would begin anew.

After disembarking, we were sent to a screening area where a dog sniffed our luggage.  My first “mission” was to find a SIM card for my phone.  I found that I could get a pre-paid SIM card for $2 per day with unlimited calls and texts.  To add a data plan was only $3 per day.  Not bad considering that there are no contracts and sign-up fees.  Unfortunately I could not use my new iPhone; those bastards at Apple and ATT have blocked the phone so that I can only use it on their system.  Really?  They expect me to pay $2.39 per minute roaming while overseas?  I bought my prepaid service through OPTUS, an Australian carrier.  Unlike American companies, OPTUS will give you your “crack code” so that you can use your phone on any system.  I called ATT and they practically laughed me off the phone.  To be able to use my iPhone on another system I have to pay $39.95 to “jailbreak” my phone.  This is a complicated process and 12 hours later my phone would still not work with my OPTUS SIM card.

I suppose that I will write a letter to my elected representatives – this seems like an unfair and anti-competitive practice and I don’t think that it should be legal.  Can you imagine if Ford had their own gas stations and made the gas tank opening such that you could only pump gas from their gas stations?  No one would tolerate that.  Once again, the American consumer getting shafted by big business.  And we don’t even seem to mind it.  Give us our fast food and video entertainment and you can pretty much sell us any load of crap and we’ll fall for it.

I slowly watched the ground under us turn from dark green to light green to brown and then finally tan.  I could see how arid the southwest of Australia is and later I would see advertisements all over Perth extolling everyone to save water: the plan was the “60” something plan – everyone resident should strive to save 60 liters of water each day.

When I finally got off of the airplane I had a bit of nervous excitement as I began to explore a new world.  I always have a restless feeling when I travel to a new place and even though Australia is about as close to American culture as you can get, I still felt my legs full of adrenaline as I drove into Perth.


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American air carriers still suck

This post is definitely directed to my American friends; most Americans don’t travel and we don’t always see how good (or bad) other countries have it.  When it comes to airlines – we have it pretty bad.  As I travel around the world I realize just HOW BAD the American air carriers are.  I’ve recently flown Delta, American, United, Qantas and Virgin America; hands down, the best carrier in the bunch is Virgin.  I originally flew Virgin Atlantic to London from Los Angeles in 1996 for my 2nd overseas trip (first “long” backpacking trip).  I was so thoroughly impressed with Virgin back in 1996 that I promised to fly with them whenever possible.  Think back to the mid-90’s, back then in-flight entertainment consisted of a single movie screen at the front of the plane and only on long haul flights.  My Virgin Atlantic flight from 1996 had movies on demand, TV on demand, games, news and music.  The 12 hour flight felt like about 5 hours.  Most American carriers didn’t bother to improve their service because Virgin wasn’t allowed to compete in America; protectionist laws kept foreign carriers out of the domestic market.  I suppose that Virgin has gotten around this by creating an American division and it shows!  The service was night and day compared to our own companies.

At the check in counter you immediately notice a different “vibe” when you get your boarding pass.  The entire area is colorful (neon lights) with some cool and trendy music, the staff are upbeat and enthusiastic and the process was (especially compared to United, Delta and American) a PLEASANT experience.  The mood quickly crashes as I cleared the knuckleheads at the TSA and then climbed again as I boarded the airplane.  The crew was young and happy – not the frumpy 40-50 year old “burned out” United stewardesses that I’m so used to.  The stewardesses were obviously younger and better looking than the American carriers – a fringe benefit perhaps but that’s not what’s important.  What is important is attitude and service – something severely lacking with the American carriers.  The Virgin crew was attentive, happy and helpful.  What more could you ask for?  Inside the airplane there was a neat color of blue and puple UV lighting, cool space-age music and the seats were roomy and comfortable.  It was more like an “experience” than a flight.

The entire “mood” of Virgin is different than the American carriers.  I laughed out loud when the safety video announcer said, “For the .0001% of you who have never worn a seatbelt, here is how to put it on.”  What a funny way to address the FAA required announcement.  And like my flight in 1996, Virgin still has in-flight entertainment for each seat: games on demand and television.  My recent American Airlines flight from Portland to Los Angeles had no in-flight entertainment.  I would have thought that the Virgin flight would cost more – especially since I was flying an American Airlines dominated route.  I was flying from Los Angeles to Dallas-Fort Worth, the hub of American Airlines.  Surely they should have the lowest price for any flight into our out of DFW.  But no, their flight was $220 and Virgin was only $190.  And, the “excess baggage charge” for American was almost twice as much as Virgin.

I just took a flight from Los Angeles to Perth, Australia on Qantas Airlines and (can you believe it) there was no AC power plug receptacle in the seat.  A 15 hour flight and no power!  I was so disappointed as I had wanted to get some work done on my computer.  EVERY Virgin flight has in-flight power, even for the short haul flights.

Each time I buzzed the crew on the Virgin flight they arrived within a minute and brought whatever was asked.  In a recent overseas flight with United, I was blocked in my seat as there was an elderly man next to me who was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake him.  I buzzed the stewardess and asked for some water as I wanted to take some aspirin.  She told me that I should wait for the dinner service that was coming in 90 minutes.  When I insisted on some water she said that I should get up and get it myself.  When I told her that the man was sleeping and could she just bring some water she said she would return and never did.  I flagged down a male steward and asked for water and he didn’t return either.  On the 10 hour flight water was only brought around one time (aside from the two meals).  The attitude of the United crews was “screw off, I took a pay cut, I just don’t care.”

As I watch the herd of people board our domestic flights, everyone seems to just think that this type of service is normal.  Believe me, it isn’t.  Turkish Airlines coach is almost on par with Delta’s business class.  But, as most Americans don’t travel overseas, we don’t see how bad we have it, don’t complain and just take it in the shorts.  That’s too bad.  I think that if we demanded better service, we would get it.


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