In Washington, DC this past week for an annual transit legislative conference—my third trip to our nation’s capital in the past 12 months—I flew again to Washington Reagan Airport via American Airlines.  It’s just a 45-minute hop of about 300 miles from RDU to DCA, and AA has the most frequencies at the cheapest fares.  The flights up and back should be quick and painless, right?  Getting there wasn’t too bad on Sunday, but AA did its best—for the third time in a row—to make the return flight as ugly an experience as could be imagined.  The airline seems determined to prove once again that it has no pride and no shame.

Since the big nor’easter snowstorm (dubbed “Stella” by The Weather Channel) was forecast to blow through Washington on Tuesday, I changed my return to RDU from Tuesday afternoon—smack in the middle of the storm’s fury—to a Monday evening 7:29 PM departure (AA4378) to ensure not being stuck in DC for several days.   Fearing transportation and transit options would begin to shut down before the storm hit at eight o’clock, with all-too-predictable slowdowns, I left the hotel at 4:00 PM by cab and arrived at the airport before 4:30, three hours before the flight.  The notifications I’d set up at AA.com chirped at me continuously on my smartphone with assurances that AA4378 was on time.

The text messages also told me that my flight, an Embraer EMB-145 commuter jet, was departing from Gate 35X. That gave me pause, since my two previous flights on AA back to RDU from Reagan had also been from 35X and both miserable experiences (see this post from June, 2016) After the security screen ordeal, I had plenty of time to grab some Chinese food before wandering back to the claustrophobic chaos that characterizes AA operations at Gates 35 and 35X even on a good day.

Gate 35 is at the concourse level, while 35X is a basement area directly beneath 35.  Both are always crowded with passengers waiting to be called to the sub-level to board shuttle bus transfers to their respective airplanes, which are parked remotely on the ramp.  Typically, neither area contains sufficient seating for the hundreds of customers, and the number of people standing makes it impossible to move quickly through the throng to get to the buses when the garbled announcements are made.

Luckily I don’t have to travel to Washington, DC very often, because there is no “least worst” way to make the journey from Raleigh.  If I drive, it’s on the nightmarish I-95 corridor, with chronic creeping congestion north of Richmond that makes me want to shoot myself.  If I take Amtrak, it’s great when it works, but trains are often delayed for hours, or even canceled, due to never-ending CSX track congestion south of DC.  If I fly, I have to endure the protracted delays and cancellations of services into Washington Reagan Airport, not to mention the extremely disagreeable experience of flying out of DCA’s gate 35X. No option is ideal, but I most often fly because, when things run smoothly, it’s faster than by rail or car.

Misery at 35X is well-known.  Here’s what the local business journal had to say in June, 2015 when it announced improvements were on the way:

“A timetable has not been announced, but one of the first contracts as part of a $1 billion construction program at Reagan National Airport has been awarded that will, among other things, address the airport’s unpleasant Gate 35X.

“That’s the Terminal B gate where passengers are herded down escalators and onto shuttle busses that take them to small commuter planes parked outside several hundred yards away.

“DCA’s Gate 35X will go away as part of a major construction project.

“Architectural and engineering firm AIR Alliance, a joint venture between AECOM and PGAL, has been awarded a contract worth up to $75 million for design and program management of a new pier that will replace the 14 outdoor boarding positions with indoor gate access.

“More than 5,000 passengers a day go through Gate 35X.”

Almost two years on, there is no discernable progress being made to achieve those promises.

The happy chirps kept coming from AA on my phone reassuring an on-time departure of AA4378, but it was all a lie.  I watched the board for news of our flight, and I asked several AA working the gates when we would board.  They all said 30 minutes ahead and confirmed the plane was on time.

But at 7:15 when no call had come, I knew the flight was not leaving at 7:29.  I again asked a staffer, and this time discovered from a passing supervisor that the inbound aircraft was coming from CVG and was still circling.  Armed with the inbound flight number, I was able to track its status on FlightAware.com.  It was agonizing to watch the updates come in, especially when the plane had to circle for 15 minutes before being given the okay to land.

More time passed, and the board, defectively showing parts of two screens on the left screen and the remainder on the right screen, continued to show the flight on time.  So did AA.com.  I again asked a staff person whether we’d be boarding soon.  She did not know, but referred me to the same supervisor I’d spoken to once before, who said the aircraft was waiting for a parking spot on the ramp.

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Even DCA Gate 35X departure boards are messed up.  Also note that the board is showing AA4378 to RDU as leaving at 7:47 PM, but the time is 7:50 PM, and we have not yet boarded.

Until I spoke to the supervisor, not a single AA employee at gates 35/35X had a clue where AA4378’s airplane was, whether there was a crew to RDU, why the flight was late, or when the flight might leave. I had by then asked at least seven different staff people on duty (not counting the supervisor), and not one had the slightest idea about our flight.

Perhaps, I mused, this is all emblematic of the disintegration of DC and the loss of pride in efficiency in American business in general. Meantime, it had begun to snow at 8:00 PM, just as predicted.  I began to worry that the flight would be canceled or the field closed.

Finally AA posted a new flight departure time: 7:47 PM.  By then I had been waiting in the Third World dysfunctional madness of American Airlines’ DCA gates 35/35X for three hours.  I stared at the insanity of the busted departure board which showed AA4378 leaving at 7:29, no, then at 7:47, no, wait, it was 7:50 on the clock when I took the photo.  Yet the board showed the plane leaving three minutes earlier and never updated again.

Suddenly at 8:18 we were called to board a shuttle bus: no explanation why, and no apologies offered.  At 8:25 the bus reached the plane, and by then it was snowing hard, a fact which would require the aircraft to deice—always a lengthy delay.  Everyone scampered quickly on board, and people were settled in and ready to go by 8:34, now over an hour late.  Outside, the slow was flying furiously.

Unfortunately, AA did not share our sense of urgency, and we sat, and sat, and sat.  I was in seat 1A by the door and nearest to the cockpit, so I saw and heard everything being communicated therein.  The captain finally announced that, due to the snow and required deicing, he wanted to “top off” the fuel, just in case we needed it.  No argument there from anyone on board; we certainly did not care to run out of fuel.  He also mentioned that the left engine required “several quarts of oil” and that a certified AA mechanic had been called to fill up with lubricant.  “Won’t take long,” he cheerfully promised.

But he lied.  At 8:50 we were still waiting on maintenance to bring us oil for the left engine that the captain had first requested when he landed more than an hour previous. The snow was worsening by the second, and I fretted that the flight might be canceled when the field closed while we continued waiting for incompetent AA staff with a few cans of oil.  Meantime, I was seated directly by the open door, shivering as snow blew in on my feet.

Another flying nightmare, I thought, and no drink in sight when I needed one, not even a bottle of water.  I watched the flight attendant go into the cockpit and begin laughing with the pilots. They don’t give a damn about us paying passengers, I thought.

At some point near half past nine, the maintenance guy finally showed up and filled the left engine’s oil reserves, after which the door was secured (it had snowed on me for an hour), and we began a long taxi to the deicing station near the takeoff point.  We held there in a queue before finally getting a double dose of deicing chemicals.

AA4378 was at last in the air out of DCA at 9:56, two and a half hours late.  It was a rough climb-out in the huge snowstorm. The plane touched down at RDU at 10:49.  As we taxied in, I thought it a miracle that we had finally arrived, no thanks to AA’s shoddy, indifferent operation at Reagan. What a bunch of clueless clowns.

Reflecting on three nearly identical rotten experiences in the past year on AA out of DCA Gate 35X, it’s easy to believe that the carrier has calculated exactly how crummy, spiritually depleting, and inefficient their operations at places like DCA can become before losing many customers forced to ride their planes to and from Washington  It sure feels like AA won’t invest a nickel in making things better above that minimalist line in the sand.  Maybe AA’s motto should be, “Okay, we are BAD, but, hey, at least we’re not UNITED AIRLINES!”

The truth is probably simpler:  American Airlines (which is actually the disreputable America West hiding under the dysfunctional husk of US Airways now hiding under the AA cloak of half-ass respectability–an unsubtle Russian doll of deception) just doesn’t care.

When I was consulting and on the road 48-50 weeks a year, the need to depressurize when time off rolled around was imperative for my sanity.  I strove to choose wisely when planning in order to minimize stress and maximize enjoyment.  I may not be traveling these days like I did for decades, but those principles still apply to vacation choices.

Sometimes I choose my trips poorly, and when I do, I try to learn from my mistakes. I certainly erred last year (early 2016) when on an initial safari to Tanzania, and I blogged about my blunder (see here).

Determined to have the East African experience I always dreamed of, I signed on to an alternative type of safari to Tanzania in February, 2016.  This post chronicles the contrast between last year’s disappointing trip and this year’s near-perfect one.

To recap, the safari in 2016 was a jarring mix of awe and disappointment, the downer part because of the nature of the trip I had booked. I discovered quickly that being tethered each night to immovable luxury lodges had the unintended effect of putting human comforts over animal viewing.  The daily game drives that started and ended at a stationary lodge were perforce limited to a certain geographic radius anchored to the property which didn’t always jive with where the animals happened to be congregating during the annual migration out on the great plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.  On the bright side, I took careful note of things I didn’t like while there last year and achieved pretty good in-country research to get smart about alternative types of safaris more suited to my temperament and tastes.

In early 2017, therefore, I returned to Tanzania for two weeks, sleeping each night not in lodges, but in what are called “mobile tented camps.”  In truth, the tented camps are not mobile in a nimble sense.  They are put up with the intent of remaining in one place for at least a few weeks, and sometimes up to three months.

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A Blue Monkey dabbles in the water at the Ngare Sero Lodge, Arusha (Tanzania), where we stayed the first and last nights of our two week safari.

Just the same, the emphasis on “mobile” refers to the ability of the tented camps to move to choice locations close to, or not far from, the great herds of two million Wildebeest and Zebra that constitute the bulk of the annual migration.  Thus sleeping in mobile tented camps rather than in permanent lodges almost guarantees a rich daily panoply of African wildlife.

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Our tented camp on the Ngorongoro ridge above the caldera.  At about 7,000 ft, nighttime temps often plummeted below freezing here, just two degrees south of the Equator. 

There are several hundred Tanzanian safari companies, large and small, almost all based in the growing town of Arusha.  The Arusha region is nearest to the big nature parks of NE Tanzania (Tarangire, Arusha/Mount Meru, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro caldera, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti, and Kilimanjaro) and is 45 minutes from Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO), which hosts daily international flights (e.g., KLM, Turkish Air, Ethiopian Air, Qatar).  Through a friend who grew up in Tanzania and who organized this trip, I was fortunate to have made contact with the best of Arusha safari companies, Dorobo (see here).

Dorobo is owned by the Peterson family, and we spent an evening with Thad Peterson when I arrived back in Tanzania. His company provided the most spectacular safari I’ve ever experienced in 26 years of travels to Africa.

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A rare Jackson’s Chameleon walks on my hand at around 7,200 ft on Mt. Meru. Dorobo Safari co-owner Thad Peterson identified this unicorn-horned lizard after our Mt. Meru ascent.

I was privileged to be in the company of ten other adventurers, all but me from Virginian and Maryland. It turned out to be a most congenial group.  Amiability is a critical success factor in groups seeking to experience Tanzanian wildlife on a tented camping safari. Our assemblage agreed in advance to leave politics at home, and we nurtured and maintained good-natured spirit for two weeks living in close proximity.  We traveled in two Toyota Land Cruisers with open tops to stand up in and view wildlife, the SOP of East African safaris.  We were led by two highly expert Dorobo guides, Kisana Mollel and Killerai Munka, both Maasai tribesmen from Arusha.

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Our expert Dorobo guides, Kisana and Killerai, with trip organizer Robin Bendenbaugh, who lived his first 16 years in Tanzania. Robin describes being there as the ultimate boy’s life!

I am familiar with very skilled wildlife guides and trackers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.  None compare to the natural world knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.  It was impossible to stump either one.  Whether fur or feather, Kisana and Killerai could instantly and correctly identify the specie.

This talent is particularly impressive with birds on the wing.  Tanzania boasts 1005 species of birds. Dorobo co-owner Thad Peterson challenged our group to come back with a list of 250 bird species we had seen by the end of the trip. Sounds like an impossible task, and yet on our second full day we had already seen 78 species (there were serious birders among us, Robin included).  By the end of the trip 212 or better bird species (lists differed) had been spotted.  Much of the credit for racking up so many was due to the eagle eyes and deep knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.

Continuing with details about the trip itself: The tents are not the rustic, do-it-yourself, Boy Scout kind of thing, mind you.  Tents are in place upon arrival and quite impressive in size and accoutrements.  They are set up by experienced camp staff who also cook, clean, and provide every chore one can imagine.

 

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Closeup of our tent overlooking Ngorongoro caldera.

The canvas contraptions should be properly called—and sometimes are—”luxury” tents because the usual setup is very spacious with plenty of headroom and furnished with two single beds, solar-powered lamps and lights, various bed stands, shelves, and luggage racks.  Typically the tents have en suite ablution facilities behind the sleeping area consisting of a sun shower (using solar-heated hot water), a toilet, and a wash basin.  More solar-powered electric fixtures illuminate the back area, which is separated by canvas and mesh doors (flaps) from the sleeping area.  Tent front entry includes a deep canvas sunshade and two comfortable lounge chairs from which patrons can sip a Hendricks G&T in serene contemplation of the African veldt.

 

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Inside a “luxury” tent, with a view of the washbasin in the rear.  On either side is a toilet and a shower.

Have I painted a picture of ease and tranquility?  I hope so, because my intent is to demonstrate that such accommodation, while not as cushy, classy, or comfy as a fancy safari lodge, gives the sense (and reality) of being literally cheek-by-jowl close to nature at little expense to security or comfort.

Luxury tents have lots of mesh windows for ventilation and big mesh screen flaps secured by zippers for ingress and egress.  Heavy canvas flaps can also be zippered shut tightly for extra refuge from things that go bump in the night, as things are wont to do in the Tanzanian outdoors.

Okay, security can be an issue, since even luxury tents are staked smack in the Serengeti wilderness, but the only worry is outside the tent, not in.  Lots of Cape Buffalo, Wildebeest, Zebra, antelope, and other creatures of the African plain wander through, especially at night.  So do the predators that feed on the grass-eaters.  Lions and hyenas are regular visitors to tented camps, but the beasts are normally in search of the usual species on their menus, which do not include humans.

Well, not unless you leave the tent at night, which is strictly forbidden.  Even if wandering about after dark was allowed, I don’t recommend it unless you want to bequeath to your family a dramatic close-up photo of a lion pouncing, massive jaw agape and razor-sharp claws extended in anticipatory embrace of an exotic meal.

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Our less luxe but very comfortable tent in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where we lived for two days among the Maasai.

Even the East African safari genre described as mobile tented camps, however, can have considerable variability, as I found.  None were crude or primitive, but each tented camp had its own special character.  The least luxe but most mobile was the Dorobo tented camp in the southwest highlands of the Nogorongoro Conservation Area.  There we lived for two days and nights among the Maasai.  They slaughtered and roasted a goat in our honor in the ritual Maasai manner.

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William, the Maasai elder who was our host when camping in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

 

Tents there were smaller in comparison to other tented camps, but still spacious enough to stand up in, and the beds were sturdy cots with foam mattresses rather than fancy beds with real mattresses.  However, I was very comfortable and slept especially soundly in those Dorobo tents among the Maasai.  In retrospect, the 48 hours we spent in that area is a favorite memory.

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Our Maasai hosts in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area slaughtered a goat in the traditional manner.  The boys collected and drank the blood and ate the raw kidneys, their portion rewards for skinning and butchering the goat to prep for roasting.

Many of the best niche tented safari operators based in Arusha cooperate with each other, and thus Dorobo handed us off to Matembezi Safaris (see here) at our next encampment, located on the gentle western slope of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.  The Matembezi tented camp was my favorite of the entire trip, in part because of the particularly gracious and efficient staff, in part because of the huge, comfortable tents, and in part because of the gorgeous location overlooking the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti.  Big herds of Wildebeest and Zebra moved back and forth across the horizon while we sipped late afternoon South African wine or a single malt Scotch after our game drive and a quick hot shower to shed the dust.  It was a real pleasant moment, one I looked forward to every day.

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The glorious Matembezi encampment on the slopes of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.

The usual routine at camps was to arrive late afternoon from a game drive and disappear into our tents (usually two persons per) for a sun shower.  The staff would have lots of solar-heated water ready, mixed with cold water to get it to a non-scalding temp.  The water was plentiful for every person in our group of eleven.  We would then don fresh clothes and hand over the dirty laundry to the staff, who would wash and fold everything by the following afternoon.

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The comfortable interior of our Matembezi tent. Behind me are the ablutions in the rear section (toilet, shower, wash basin). 

The cocktail hour then followed, usually with a good choice of beer, wine, and liquor.  I was quite surprised that Matembezi’s liquor stock included Hendricks gin and a decent single malt whisky.

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Pretty elegant booze choices at Matembezi Camp in the middle of the Serengeti.

Only Dorobo and Matembezi included alcohol and laundry in their service offering at no extra cost; other tented camps charged us separately for booze, beer, soft drinks, and laundry, albeit not exorbitant prices.

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Trip organizer and Tanzanian wildlife and bird expert Robin Bedenbaugh enjoying a sundowner at Matembezi Camp on Naabi Hill overlooking the Serengeti shortgrass plains.

Darkness comes fast near the Equator, and we were just two degrees south.  Even with daytime temps in the nineties, the Serengeti cools off after the sun sets, and we welcomed the nightly fire of deadwood as we downed our drinks.  Dinner followed, always a convivial affair with lots of variety in soups, salads, entrees, vegetables, and desserts.  Meals were always good, sometimes outstanding.

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Matembezi meal tent set for dinner.

Nobody went hungry, and the evening repast was usually at an end by eight o’clock, after which we all turned in.  The relentless African sun left us knackered by early evening, and we slept most every night to the sounds of hyenas calling, lions roaring, and antelopes browsing not far from our tents. To me, the entire trip was heaven on earth every day and night, despite a serious bout of ileus which I’ll talk about in the next post.  Before signing off, though, I want to discuss picture-taking on safari.

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Three teen Maasai girls on their way to market in the Ngorongoro highlands. Maasai girls often shave their heads because water is scarce for bathing.

Most folks in our group brought several serious digital cameras and long lenses, all stowed into heavy camera and photographic accessory bags.  I did the same for twenty years of trips to Africa before realizing that I cared more about framing, color, and composition than I did about capturing the fuzzy image of a leopard’s tail wagging on a distant tree limb.

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A lone cheetah patrols the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti. All photos were taken with my Samsung S7 Edge camera.

So, instead of a big Nikon, I now use only my Samsung S7 Edge mobile phone for a camera.  The photos posted here were all taken on the S7.  I’ve been practicing with the Samsung phone cameras for several years as they have gradually improved to compete with iPhone cameras.  With the current top camera on the Samsung S7 Edge, they have surpassed iPhone camera quality.

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A male lion rests in the midday shadows on the Serengeti near Serondela.

I first noticed that pictures taken on the Samsung S5 were as good or better than those on my Nikon SLR, the primary difference being that the Nikon boasted several long telephoto lenses that could bring the animals closer.  However, doing so often compromised picture quality, and the light had to be excellent to get fine detail in hi-res telephoto shots.  I came to realize that I was better off taking photos of animals and birds near enough that I didn’t require a telephoto.  I then sold my Nikon and all my equipment.  I was pleased to be rid of bulk, weight, and worry about taking all that stuff with me overseas.

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Hippo pool in the Ngorongoro caldera.

When I upgraded my phone to a Samsung S6 Edge, I was flabbergasted that the camera quality had jumped several levels over the S5, which I considered so good that it had led me to ditch my big cameras. Just before I left on this trip, I upgraded again to the Samsung S7 Edge, and its camera is the pinnacle of perfection to date.

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A cheetah on the lookout from a copse in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The S7 camera has a lot of built-in options, too, including to shoot RAW photos, but I do not (takes up too much memory).  I stick with a high resolution 16:9 (9.1M) 4032×2268 setting, but there is a 4:3 (12M) 4032×3024 higher resolution before getting to RAW.  There are many modes to choose from, including Auto and Pro.  Pro gives the most control over individual pictures, but I have found that I can more quickly manipulate the focus and light onscreen using the Auto setting than using the Pro setting, so I generally leave it on Auto.  However, it takes only a second to change modes, so if I have the time to compose a picture, I will change to the Pro setting.  I also like the easy-to-use panoramic setting, though it is sometimes a challenge to keep the camera steady when capturing a panoramic image.

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Some the two million Wildebeest and Zebra migration on the tallgrass Serengeti plains near Serondela “where the grass eats the sky.”

All the pictures posted here were shot using the Auto setting, albeit with a good deal of fast onscreen manipulation to get the light and focus the way I wanted (when I had time).  Getting that Cheetah walking (above) was difficult.  I took several pictures I wasn’t happy with until getting the one I posted.  All the photos were taken in about 8-15 seconds because that’s all the time I had before, for example, the Cheetah was not in the frame I wanted.

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Baobab sunrise in the Tarangire National Park.

A general shortcoming of all camera phones is the digital zoom.  Ruins resolution.  So far there is no way to overcome that, but I look forward to technological advances that will improve the picture eventually.  Meantime, I don’t care, because I can get such great pictures with what I have using no zoom whatsoever.

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Market day in Makuyuni, Tanzania, as we drove from Tarangire to Ngorongoro.

Next week I will post part two, which will include the day-by-day itinerary camping in Tanzania.

When I flew Qatar Airways in business class from Philadelphia to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) in January, 2016, I didn’t imagine that I’d be repeating the exact itinerary 13 months later.  Doing so in February, 2017 gave me an opportunity to compare the end-to-end experience year over year.  The two journeys were remarkably consistent in some ways—a credit to Qatar—marred only by hiccups connecting through Hamad International Airport in Doha (Qatar), the enormous, gleaming, modern hub airport for Qatar Airways.

Whereas everyone seems to know that rival airline Emirates Airways flies through Dubai, Qatar the airline and Qatar the country are not as famous.  Here’s how one Internet source describes the small nation:

“Qatar is a peninsular Arab country whose terrain comprises arid desert and a long Persian (Arab) Gulf shoreline of beaches and dunes. Also on the coast is the capital, Doha, known for its futuristic skyscrapers and other ultramodern architecture inspired by ancient Islamic design, such as the limestone Museum of Islamic Art. The museum sits on the city’s Corniche waterfront promenade.”

I wrote about Qatar Airways last year in this post when comparing its business class to business class on Cathay. However, I described only the long-haul flights between PHL and Doha, about 13 hours going east and 14 hours returning. Reflecting now on the 2016 flights compared to the Qatar flights in 2017, lavish praise both years is well-deserved.

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I always carry soft-sided luggage on overseas trips and never check them. The contents of these bags were sufficient for two weeks camping in the Serengeti (Tanzania), including two pairs of Nikon binoculars, maps, and guide books.

My trip actually began in Raleigh (RDU) on an American Airlines ERJ-190.  The small first class compartment was comfortable and the overhead compartments adequate for my two large but soft-sided bags.

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My two soft bags conform easily to overhead compartments, even on this ERJ-190.

I never check my luggage, not even when embarking for two weeks of camping in the Serengeti as I was on this adventure.  I settled sleepily into my seat and happily sipped a Bloody Mary. After all, I was on vacation. The flight was uneventful, and I dozed all the way to PHL.

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The Bloody Mary put me to sleep even though this page-turner is J. K. Rowling’s best book so far.

Carrying one’s own bags, especially soft cases with no wheels, has its challenges.  Philly is a huge airport, and it was a long walk from my inbound gate to Terminal A-West where the international flights are parked.  My shoulders were sagging when I finally saw the Qatar lounge sign.

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Qatar Airways uses the BA Lounge for its premium cabin customers at Philadelphia.

Qatar patrons enjoy the use of the modest but satisfactory British Airways Lounge at Philadelphia.  I remember thinking last year that the BA club was too small and the services inadequate, but this year I came away with a better impression.  Perhaps it was because I had a longer layover and spent more time poking around the lounge.  The breakfast items were fresh and tasty, and I could have enjoyed Champagne had I wanted.  It was quiet and clean, just the sort of oasis I needed between flights.

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The nicely appointed BA Lounge at PHL, far nicer than the much larger BA Lounge at JFK.

Qatar boarded a good 40 minutes ahead of departure, a short walk from the BA Lounge, and I made my way to seat 2K (right side window) to settle in.

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About to board the Qatar A350 PHL/DOH.

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I prefer a window seat (2K on this flight) on Qatar A350 aircraft.

The A350, brand new a year ago on my initial trip, showed no signs of age.  Everything was shiny, shipshape, functional, and comfortable.

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Qatar flight QR728, an A350, at PHL gate A16. 

The large business class cabin crew began its hovering to take care of my every need.  I was shocked when perusing the wine list to find that they were serving a 2006 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs, a top Champagne. When they offered a glass, I eagerly accepted and sipped it through the boarding process: a delicious way to start a 13 hour flight.

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One of the finest Champagnes made was served on boarding and throughout the flight.

Just as last year, the flight pushed back on time, but was followed by a long taxi before becoming airborne.  Nonetheless, the captain said we would arrive 15 minutes ahead of schedule.  I settled in to read and watch a movie, eschewing the first food offering, as I’d enjoyed a bagel in the BA Lounge.

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Aaah! I could finally relax with a glass of Taittinger and dig in for 13 hours in the air.

Qatar Airways allows business class customers to order any food on the menu at any time during the flight.  I dozed off for a few hours, making up for my short night’s sleep, and enjoyed several appetizer portions of smoked salmon without an entrée when I awoke.

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Seat 2K is a window seat on Qatar A350 airplanes and is slightly angled in for privacy.

I always travel internationally with my own Bose over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, but I had forgotten that Qatar provides its own noise-canceling headphones, also over-the-ear.  The Qatar phones have a nonstandard three-prong plug unique to their planes, so I was forced to use them.  Turns out they were very good and quite comfortable.  I need not have taken my own Bose phones.

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Looking forward at the business class section from the second left door mid-cabin area. There are more, but fewer, rows of business class seats in the section behind me.

Even when lucky enough to ride up front in business, I long ago developed a routine for surviving very long legs by air (see here), and I was up standing in the mid-cabin area stretching many times during the flight. Several movies and a several naps later, we were descending into Doha.  The on-board service was near-perfect for me, almost a carbon copy of the same flight experience a year previous.

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The digital map showing progress from PHL to Doha.

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Intermittent safety messages played between map updates.

However, things started going awry once we hit the tarmac at beautiful Hamad International Airport in Doha.  First, there were no free gates for the big A350 after a 13-hour flight.  Last year we pulled directly into a gate.  This year we parked remotely from the terminal and waited for buses to cart us to the terminal.

The buses did not come for 20 minutes, a long wait.  Good thing we were 15 minutes early, I thought, but I desperately wanted to get to the humongous business class lounge that I enjoyed last year and take a shower.  I had a two hour connection window, closing fast as we waited.

Finally the ramp buses arrived, and Qatar allowed business class off ahead of coach.  Turned out the buses were tricked out with luxurious big fat first class seats, obviously shuttles used exclusively for Qatar’s premium customers.  Once full, the buses trundled off across the heavily-congested tarmac, dodging other airplanes, jockeying with other shuttle buses and baggage trolleys and sundry service vehicles.  For twelve minutes we were taken on a tour of the terminal ground areas, going this way and that and back again, finally reaching a door and deposited.

There we joined the hordes trying to traverse the airport, just another peon among the masses.  Doha requires all inbound passengers to endure a full TSA-style rescreening process, and even though I eventually located the premium customer line, it was a long wait to reach the machines.  Everything had to be removed: belts, shoes, watches, etc., just like the TSA non-PRE lines.

Once I was put back together and certain I had everything, I shouldered my luggage and took the long escalator down to the main floor.  After being jostled by the SRO crowds, I was able to locate a Qatar Airways rep who pointed me to the business lounge.  As I made my way to the lounge through the human congestion, it occurred to me that the airport seemed much more packed than the previous year.

The same was true at the business lounge.  As I reported last year, the Qatar Airways business lounge is enormous, bigger than some airports, yet it felt over-crowded this year compared to last year.  I had lost a lot of time between the plane and bus and security and walking, and now I had only an hour before my connecting flight.  I quickly found one set of showers (there are two sets of showers in the lounge) and was told there was a 45-60 minute wait.  Unacceptable, I said.  My complaint was met with an indifferent shrug.

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One view of the gigantic Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha.

I hurried instead to the second, more distant, set of showers at the far end of the business lounge and was told the wait there was at least half an hour.  Long story short, I discreetly bribed the attendant with $5 and was taking a shower within a few minutes, but I didn’t like having to cut the queue.

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Another view of the capacious Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha. Big as it was, demand for showers exceeded supply.

I barely had time to grab a Diet Coke as I departed, presaging a longish walk to my departure gate—a real gate, at least.  My connecting flight was a modest A320 that would wing its way for five more hours to the Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) in Tanzania, the gateway to Arusha, which is the city Serengeti safaris begin from.  Boarding began almost as soon as I entered the gate area, and I was soon in my tired-looking business class seat on the narrow body aircraft bound for JRO.

The on-board service en route to Kilimanjaro was excellent, just as good as on the very long widebody flight from Philly.  Same good selection of food and drink, and this time I ate heartily, as my marathon through the Doha airport had left no time for relaxation or dining.  I even napped a little more, glad to have left the frenetic connection behind.  What, I wondered, had changed in a year at the Doha airport?  Last year the connection was easy; this year it was like making a 35-minute connection in Atlanta between the T and F concourses: I had to hustle. Stress is not what one expects from an expensive international business class experience.

As I was thus musing while watching Doha disappear behind us in the clouds, one of the flight attendants offered me a local English-language newspaper, The Peninsula, which carried an article relevant to my question.  The headline read: “Record 37.3 million passengers pass through Hamad International Airport (Doha) last year.”  The article’s key point was a 20.5% increase in passengers over the previous year.  No wonder there were no gates, a shortage of buses, no room for the buses to maneuver on the tarmac, long lines at inbound security screens, hordes of humanity milling about in the main terminal, densely-packed business class lounge, and one hour waits for a shower. The big increase in passengers had not been accompanied by any additional airport capacity.

The flight into Kilimanjaro was easy and relaxing.  I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a Riyadh-based Saudi going from a two week private tiger-watching safari in India to another two week private safari on the Serengeti in Tanzania.  He asked me about our new president, saying the Saudis were concerned about Trump’s stability.  I was no help assuaging his concern.

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The seat controls for the business class seats on Qatar A320 airplanes.

I played with the weird seat controls, trying to get the leg-rest into a position that didn’t conflict with the back of the seat in front of me (and finally succeeded).  I accepted an iPad and noise-canceling headphones from the cabin crew to watch movies, and we arrived early.

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Kilimanjaro Airport check-in area was undergoing serious reconstruction in February, 2017.

Heading back home two weeks later, I checked in at Kilimanjaro Airport and found it a major construction zone.  Dodging ladders and wires dangling from the ceiling, I was given a pass into the small all-airline business lounge.  The less said about that impoverished facility, the better: No air-conditioning in ninety degree heat, outside security doors open to the terrace above the runway, a clueless staff absent much of the time, beverage coolers unplugged and not working, and a few dreary cold cuts, potato chips, and peanuts set out for nibbles.

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My Qatar Airways A320 flight to Doha arrives at Kilimanjaro Airport.

The Qatar A320 was on time leaving JRO and made a stop at Zanzibar before heading back to Doha.  There we picked up a planeload of Swedes and Danes who had spent a week escaping the Northern European winter, collecting rays on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar.  Once they discovered that I was an American, they asked about our new president and how we could have elected him, giving me an opportunity to practice my diplomatic skills.  I failed to mitigate their worries.

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Business class seats on the Qatar A320 aircraft used between Doha and Kilimanjaro.

The flight was dead on time into Doha.  However, as before, gates were scarce, and our plane had to park on the ramp again. Then a 17-minute wait for buses. They allowed us in business class to get off first again, apparently standard practice. We again boarded special luxury buses solely for premium passengers, but then took another slow 14-minute tour of the ramp before finally being let off. That foreshadowed another long queue at inbound security even though it was a dedicated premium cabin security line.

This was all a good long walk from the business class lounge, where I again had to slip the Filipino shower attendant a fiver not to have to wait 30 minutes for a shower. Good thing I did, because I barely had time to choke down another Diet Coke before making a mad dash to C4 (a real gate!) for my Philly flight. There another full-blown TSA take-everything-off security screen and bag searches, followed by a real hard scrutiny of each individual and passports. It took 4 minutes to clear the man ahead of me traveling on a Mideast passport. The boarding area was SRO, even in the area designated for business class flyers. Qatar didn’t board until 26 minutes prior to flight time. On a less important note the boarding Champagne was not chilled, merely a little bit cool.  Okay, this is a small nit, but luxury cuvee Champagne should be served respectfully and properly, that is, fully chilled.

Flying Doha to Philly was a mirror image of the outbound flight, which is to say, near-perfect.  Great cabin crew, great service, spotless airplane, good food and drink, quiet environment, and the plane was 15 minutes early at PHL.

I was not the first off the plane, but I nonetheless blazed through customs and immigration using my Global Entry credentials and was able to make a much earlier connection home to RDU.  Here are my notes for this amazing speed from international arrival to domestic departure:

“Landed 730am (15 mins early), off plane at 740am, through Customs & Immigration at 744am thx to Global Entry kiosks, by 750am had a boarding pass for an illegal connection at 845am to RDU and had passed thru TSA security, ran from international gate to C31 at Philly, a long distance, by 812am, and we boarded for RDU at 815am. Arrived home 2.5 hrs earlier than scheduled.  To stand by for the flight, I was downgraded to coach and seated in the last row at 26D. But even boarding with group #4 there was plenty of overhead space for my 2 bulging bags full of gifts brought back from Tanzania. Soon after, though, when the hordes arrived, the overhead space disappeared quickly.”

The business class service overall on Qatar Airways this year was world-class except for the frenzied connections in both directions at Doha. That stress was absent from last year’s flights. Coming home, it was the same great in-flight service on both legs, just like 2016.  For the long 14-hour leg to the USA, I enjoyed the Qatar angled-in business seats at the windows both years. They feel private and real comfortable, and the position is conducive to sleeping. I hope I have another opportunity to use Qatar in business, but if I do, I will be careful to schedule longer layovers between flights in Doha to account for the over-crowding there.

We are all immigrants. That is the essential truth of America, a core value—perhaps the core value.  Throughout American history we have made that idea work, albeit not without the occasional indigestion.

Despite the usual hiccups and challenges of generational assimilation of new immigrants, Americans can proudly point to an unbroken 200+ year tradition of tolerance of newcomers.  We welcome them, as the plaque on the Statue of Liberty proclaims:

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Emma Lazarus’ stirring words to define America: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Open borders and the freedom to travel give those words meaning. What President Trump did last week (see here) damages that universal creed that distinguishes Americans and makes us unique.

Outside our borders, America enjoys a reputation for tolerance, though it’s hard for other cultures to quite understand who we are.  America’s openness and tolerance are admired, but often viewed as an enigma.  When I travel overseas, I am constantly asked: What is America?

I always give the same answer:  America is not one culture.  America is an idea, and the ideal has many intertwined parts.  It is a universal respect for individual initiative; it is the freedom to express one’s thoughts; and it is the right to live one’s life and to pursue one’s goals, sheltered by law without prejudice and unimpeded by race, color, creed, or cultural background.

It doesn’t matter, I have said to the world, where you are from.  It only matters, if you come here, that you adopt the idea that you can be anything if you work hard, treat others fairly, obey the law, and adopt our tolerance and sensitivity to other people.  We used to call America a melting pot, I have said.  It is no less so now than ever it was.

Nor does it matter when you come.  My family has been here for nearly 400 years—since Jamestown. That longevity, however, doesn’t make me more of an American than the 1500 people from over 100 different countries who took the oath to become American citizens in Minnesota in September, 2012 (see here).

We are all immigrants, no matter when we came.  Come be an American, I have always said.  We welcome you, and our gates are always open.

Seeking to understand one another goes both ways.  Of the 197 countries on the planet I am ashamed to say that I have only been to 61 or so—not even a third. Nonetheless, visiting sixty-odd countries is enough for me to affirm that travel is enriching and broadening. Being there in person, up close, to breath in other cultures and ways of life, is humbling. Travel cannot help but foster tolerance for others’ beliefs, customs and cuisines, while at the same time witnessing firsthand common human values that bind us all together, no matter how different we may appear superficially to one another.

Observing those common traits of goodness and kindness in people everywhere has convinced me that any person from any country can become an American. Travel exposure to other cultures has also made me a better American, a better citizen of the world, and a better person.

However, what President Trump began last week with the Muslim ban threatens both our opportunities to travel freely and the opportunities for those yearning to become Americans to reach our shores and to fulfill their dreams.

How long before the unintended consequences of the travel ban set in?  I embark next week on a trip to Tanzania flying Qatar Airways via Doha, Qatar, an Islamic airline of an Islamic nation. When will Qatar and the other Islamic countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including the United Arab Emirates, home to Emirates Airways, retaliate against the Muslim travel ban by curtailing service to the USA?

My past stops in Doha on Qatar, in Dubai on Emirates, in Cairo on Egypt Air, in Indonesia and Malaysia on Malaysian Air, and in Istanbul on Turkish Airlines have expanded my understanding of their cultures, stretching my acceptance of Islamic life and customs.  The feeling was reciprocated among nationals I met in those countries.

Understanding engenders trust, and trust engenders collaboration and peace.  Without the freedom to travel, how can the people of other nations understand and learn to trust us?  How can we understand and trust them?

Now I wonder:  Are our gates closing, with travel barred for a thesis unsupported by facts?  If America is no longer to be open, welcoming and tolerant, then the American Dream is in jeopardy, along with opportunities for Americans to gain understanding and compassion for other peoples and cultures through travel.  That would be a terrible setback for America and for peace in the world.

Here is a sampling of the Muslim travel ban coverage and commentary from around the globe and from close at home:

New York Times

“[The decision to institute the travel ban has picked] needless fights around the world, damaged the country’s image, and taken a series of actions that undercut not just American values but American interests too.”

Randy Woodson, NCSU Chancellor, Raleigh, NC

“[NCSU is] strengthened by the talent, insight and culture that international students, faculty and staff bring to our campuses.”

Drew Faust, Harvard University President (see here)

“In times of unsettling change, we look toward our deepest values and ideals. Among them is the recognition that drawing people together from across the nation and around the world is a paramount source of our University’s strength. Thousands of students and scholars and visitors come to Harvard each year from all over the globe—to study, to teach, to propel our research enterprise, to join in conferences and colloquia, to share insights and abilities that transcend nationality. Thousands more leave Harvard each year to travel abroad, learning from experiences they could not replicate here, gaining insight into cultures and perspectives different from their own, visiting colleagues and family and friends, forming and sustaining the human bonds essential to mutual understanding. …

“Ours is a nation founded and built on the bedrock of religious pluralism and religious freedom. Our University embraces that commitment, in the spirit not of mere tolerance but of genuine inclusion. We must not and will not conflate people of a venerable faith with people predisposed to acts of terrorism and violence. …

“In these times of change, I hope and trust that all of us committed to the strength of American higher education can pursue these efforts together. Let us do so—to borrow the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, one of Harvard’s most beloved visitors from other shores—with our gates unbarred.”

The Economist (see here)

“In the past 40 years there has been not a single fatal terrorist attack in America carried out by anyone belonging to the seven nationalities targeted by the order. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, whose Egyptian, Emirati, Lebanese and Saudi Arabian executioners would not have been covered by Mr Trump’s ban, America has suffered hardly any terrorism perpetrated by immigrants. According to a study by Alex Nowrasteh for the [right-wing conservative] Cato Institute, the risk of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee in a given year is one in 3.6bn.

“That reflects the fact that America’s security screening of refugees, which can take over two years to complete, is thorough. It also reflects the fact that, given the opportunity of moving to America, almost every refugee would rather work hard and get on than blow people up. According to David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees, in the past decade refugees have started at least 38 new businesses merely in and around Cleveland, Ohio, creating 175 jobs and a $12m boost to the local economy.

“Americans are vastly more likely to find employment with a Muslim refugee than to be killed by one. They are in fact much likelier to be killed by cows, fireworks and malfunctioning elevators than an immigrant terrorist. As a means of keeping Americans safe, Mr Trump’s order is almost worthless. 

“The reputational damage done to America by Mr Trump’s action will be dangerous, as well as large. The attributes that make America attractive to migrants—its openness, fairness and opportunity—are also among its most effective security mechanisms. They help explain why America is at once the most desirable destination for migrants and less prone to jihadist violence than almost any other country with a large Muslim population. By singling out Muslims for discrimination—including a group currently detained at John F. Kennedy airport in New York who had risked their lives working with Americans in Iraq—Mr Trump’s order is a repudiation of these American strengths.”

TechCrunch (see here)

Google: “We’re concerned about the impact of this [Muslim travel ban] order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.”

On January 31, Google staged a company-wide protest.

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Google mass protest January 31, 2017

WRAL TV-5, Raleigh, NC (see here)

“The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority issued a permit last Sunday for the planned protest, establishing a designated area for the event. The permit was for 150 people, but more than 1,000 came to protest.  The crowd got so heavy at one point that the airport had to close the upper level of Terminal 2.”

Madeleine Albright, Former Secretary of State

“This is a cruel measure that represents a stark departure from America’s core values. We have a proud tradition of sheltering those fleeing violence and persecution, and have always been the world leader in refugee resettlement. As a refugee myself who fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, I personally benefited from this country’s generosity and its tradition of openness. This order would end that tradition, and discriminate against those fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria.

“There is no data to support the idea that refugees pose a threat. This policy is based on fear, not facts. The refugee vetting process is robust and thorough. It already consists of over 20 steps, ensuring that refugees are vetted more intensively than any other category of traveler.”

Fox News

“Trump said the new measure was intended ‘to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.’

“‘We don’t want them here,’ Trump said.

“The executive order also suspends visa entry into the U.S. from seven countries that have predominately Muslim populations: Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.”

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The seven banned Muslim countries

Change comes faster than the now-defunct Corncorde sometimes, a fact that I was reminded of this week reading of the quite rational fear by professional drivers of autonomous vehicles (see New York transportation group seeks 50-year ban on driverless cars).  I spent the better part of four decades helping large organizations manage change, and it can be gut-wrenching, or it can be almost painless.

In the end, though, all change is inevitable, and it’s better to be part of the solution.  Resistance to change such as an arbitrary ban is futile, and in the driver case, Quixotic,  but I understand the fear. No one has yet figured out how to bridge drivers into the brave new world of driverless cars and trucks.  On the very next day after reading this article, however, I learned of a different way to work through radical change impacting one’s profession.

It happened unexpectedly when a 25 year old AT&T technician spent four hours at our house installing AT&T’s “Gigabit” fiber optic service.  His managers, he told me calmly, had frankly informed his entire AT&T team of installers and tech staff that their jobs would likely be eliminated within 3-7 years because AT&T will by then be entirely wireless, even for highest speed Internet service. AT&T expects their wired network to soon become obsolete, first the copper network, which they intend to sell to a third party like Frontier, and then a few years later the fiber optic network would also be sold off.

The entire cadre of highly-skilled technicians are already planning for other jobs, even other professions.  They have been told what the future looks like, and it doesn’t include maintaining and servicing a complex hard-wired grid of copper and fiber lines.  My tech was not at all alarmed.  Instead, he was glad to see the runway he had, and he was already planning to go back to school to learn new skills in a new field.  He said the majority of other team members were doing the same.

I thought that was smart and civilized on AT&T’s part to give them 3-7 years notice that their jobs will go the way of Uber, taxi, and truck drivers: obsolete.  Neither the AT&T tech team nor the company is planning to resist the change.  Instead, they are adapting now to be ready for the inevitable future.  That’s what professional drivers should be doing.

After all, it’s happened many times before.  Livery stable owners, blacksmiths, and buggy whip manufacturers all found new ways to earn money during the great change from organic horse to metallic horse between 1900 and 1910.  Steam locomotives entirely gave way to diesels in railroading between the late 30s and 1960, gutting tens of thousands of highly specialized pressure vessel and machine parts jobs.  The advent of safe and reliable air transport killed the transatlantic steamship business and all its employees and shipbuilders (for a fascinating read, I highly recommend “The Only Way To Cross: The Golden Age of great Atlantic express liners” by John Maxtone-Graham).

And on and on.  The state of AI legal research and interpretation may soon make many legal jobs redundant.  Ditto for programming itself: AI systems will do much of the work, and the tech sector is planning for the elimination of many programmers (e.g., and just one of scores of similar articles, see here).

A footnote to the AT&T story is that Google Fiber, which has been until recently furiously laying its own private fiber network here in Raleigh, stopped all at once. It now plans to offer Google Fiber service in Raleigh only where it already has cable in the ground because Google has begun to adapt, as AT&T has, to the new reality of an entirely wireless ISP future.

What’s going to replace wired ISP networks?  Apparently, an entirely new technology (see this article).  New means for distributing Internet without wires are already being piloted in some locales, such as in the greater DC area. Comcast-Xfinity-AT&T are working on it there.  At this point it is not speed as much as it is about geographic coverage.  Xfinity recently replaced free of charge whole Arlington (VA) neighborhoods of Comcast-Xfinity-AT&T in-residence modems/routers.  Turns out that the new devices serve not only as private modems/routers, but they also transmit, though (I am told) on a different channel/frequency.  Thus the new devices act as a WiFi hub to customers within its geographic reach.

Once customers within the area download the appropriate Xfinity app, it sets up a security regimen that separates individual Xfinity accounts from the public Xfinity account.  This feature is currently available only for Xfinity-AT&T customers. Bottom line is that customers in that catchment area are beginning to have pretty seamless WiFi service in Arlington and downtown DC.  As mentioned at the outset, speed is not the issue at this point; broad WiFi coverage is. Speed is supposed to come incrementally via wireless transmission later and be incorporated into the already networked area.

All these fast Internet speeds and how we get it now bubbling into our lives made me wonder: What impact will these changes have on business travel?  Too early to tell, but as fiber optic speeds (gigabit and better), regardless of means of transmission, become normalized widely across the country, will video-conferencing and virtual meetings become more effective, accepted practice, and routine than they have been?  If so, will we travel less on business?  Business travel—airfares, hotel stays, rental cars—has become horribly expensive, and the cost of such ultra-high speed Internet service is dropping like a stone.  The travel industry doesn’t seem to be paying much attention yet, though, even as costs skyrocket.

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s worth pondering pretty seriously.  Something’s got to give, probably sooner than later.

Some fun history in closing as we contemplate the widespread, often unexpected, change that results from a more and more wireless world:  Why are the poles in your neighborhood that carry wires for power and communication called telephone poles?   It is because Alexander Graham Bell got to market with the telephone before Thomas Alva Edison and other electric transmission pioneers were ready to distribute and sell electricity.  The Bell System phone company already had poles in place by then, and Edison and others rented space on existing telephone poles to carry the first electric transmission lines. For a deeper dive into the dark doings of Edison in the late 19th century that led to our AC standard of electricity, I recommend this page-turner for your next flight delay.

I managed to get to some interesting places across the water in 2016, racking up tens of thousands of flight miles from Hong Kong and Singapore to the Maldives and the Netherlands to Tanzania and the UAE. And I flew to at least 16 domestic destination, too. Didn’t suffer any real serious disruptions, either, especially compared to previous years.

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Dawn over the Oakland Bay Bridge from my Hyatt Regency Embarcadero window.

Still and all, it is the least I have traveled in any one year in decades, I think.  We promised our son, now 18, that we wouldn’t go anywhere during his senior year in high school (though I did have to make a second trip to the Bay Area in October).  Hence, we won’t travel again much until June of 2017.

Thinking back over my travel experiences of early 2016 evoked these memories:

A few days before I took off to Tanzania in February, my in-laws visited us in Raleigh. When they flew home to Fargo, North Dakota, connecting through the Twin Cities, a winter weather event that had occurred two days before impacted their flights, causing many hours of delays and eventually an overnight stay in Minneapolis (which the airline picked up).  As they are in their mid-eighties, we were especially concerned, but they are tough and flexible and got through it fine.

Just the same, their two domestic flights took 22 hours RDU/FAR, a distance of 1,454 miles.  Google maps says Raleigh to Fargo can be driven in 22 hours.  Yet my three flights Raleigh to Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) in Tanzania took just 25 hours total, covering a distance of 9,392 miles (point-to-point = 7,784 miles), even counting a long layover in Doha, Qatar.

The daylight train up the Malaysian peninsula from Johor Bahru was thrilling, and I particularly loved this guy smoking in the vestibule between cars. He just seemed to be enjoying life!

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Note typical Asian squat toilet in the lav.

I’ve visited Malaysia off and on since the 1980s, and it’s never looked more prosperous than now.  It was heartening to witness and reaffirmed my strong belief that jobs and low unemployment = prosperity = peace and harmony.

Another train trip, this one in Thailand, overnight in a second class sleeper from Hat Yai, a richly multicultural and thriving city way down the peninsula, north to Bangkok, put me in touch with everyday people and made me feel, if fleetingly, like a Thai.  I didn’t want to leave the train.

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Meeting fellow travelers in the overnight Thai train from Hat Yai to Bangkok.

An intimate study of the overland safari industry in Tanzania revealed how it is almost completely controlled by ex-pat, very wealthy Indian families based in the U.K.  Few native Tanzanians, black or white, enjoy a share in the riches to be had charging $500 to $2000 per day for trips into their famous game parks like the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti.  While poverty pervades the overwhelming majority of citizens, the very rich of the world are ensconced in over-the-top luxury lodges scattered throughout the wilderness areas.  I was amused to observe that the one-percenters were nonetheless forced to endure and become mired in Tanzania’s world-class mud roads in the Serengeti just like us peons.  Turns out deep mud is a great social leveler.

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Serengeti mud: Not even a billion dollars can keep from getting stuck.

Getting to and from Tanzania via Qatar Airways in business class gave me access to the glittering airport at Doha and to Qatar’s astonishing business class lounge there.  Bigger than many good-sized airport concourses, the business lounge has every amenity one could imagine and is spotlessly clean.  I also had a glimpse of the nearby Qatar first class lounge, which takes luxe to an even loftier plane.

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One view of Qatar’s enormous business class lounge in Doha.

On a different trip using Emirates through Dubai, but this time in coach, I was treated like a king despite my dirt-cheap economy ticket.  Emirates gave me food vouchers because the wait between flights was a little longer than the airline deemed appropriate, a simple gesture that I have not forgotten, nor will I.

I was deeply touched by a young man of 25 in the Mpumalanga area of South Africa who, for five bucks (his asking price), thoroughly washed my very dusty car inside and out.  He claimed to be the bastard son of a local Gazankulu chief and was proud of his Shangaan Tsonga heritage.  The young man begged me to adopt him and take him home to America where, he said, he could earn money to send home to his dad and other family in South Africa.  He was serious, and he didn’t ask or insinuate that I should give him money beyond our agreed price (I gave him the equivalent of ten dollars anyway).

What do you say to such a request?  I stopped a Londolozi ranger the next day on the road and recommended that the famous (and wealthy) game lodge hire the young man and told the game ranger where to find him.

Fiddling around all year with various travel portals, I was sad to see that Kayak’s access to consistently good fares has become hit or miss, and I was glad to discover that Hotels.com and Travelocity now have great hotel inventories and prices. In past years I viewed both sites dismissively, and now I check them routinely.

In little Columbus, Montana I lucked upon a thrift and knickknacks store selling an old bundle of railroad maps for a song.  Among the items was a large format 1929 railroad wall map of Nebraska.  The document had not been stored properly; it was brittle and beginning to fall apart.

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May sound ho-hum to most folks, but that original map in four colors is a priceless historical treasure.  I bought it and had it digitally scanned and then professionally laminated.  I subsequently donated the artifact to the Nebraska Department of Roads in return for a tax write-off which will cover my costs.  The Cornhusker state eschews mobility options other than rubber-tired vehicles on asphalt or concrete and thus doesn’t have a rail division, but since the state was built on the railroads, the good folks at NDOR were happy to put the map in their permanent archive.  Another little bit of rail history saved, amen!

A lesson learned well this year is to avoid the hope, much less the expectation, that I will ever again be upgraded on American Airlines while traveling on a cheap coach fare.  Despite being Lifetime Gold and having accumulated 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades in my account, demand is so high for F seats domestically that those who sit there have almost always paid for the privilege.  Few Executive Platinums even get upgraded routinely any more.  And now AA has parsed its elite levels to create a Double Secret elite level far above EP, with a Super-Sized EP sandwiched in-between.  Goodbye, sharp end!

I am still pondering the year in travel and may have more recollections by next week, the end of December.  One 2016 blessing unlikely to persist was mostly dodging the bullet on weather and air traffic delays and cancellations.  The worst events were a couple of canceled flights that kept me at DCA and PHL for an extra two to three hours.  Compared to previous nightmare flights, those interruptions were trivial.

However you celebrate the holidays, I wish you and your loved ones well.  May 2017 bring you health, prosperity, and happiness!

I love nature shows, and so I am a huge fan of the BBC Planet Earth series.  A second set of programs is upon us (BBC One’s Planet Earth II).  Recently I saw this four minute teaser video on YouTube of the African grasslands at night used to advertise the show. Here is the accompanying BBC description:

“Programme website: http://bbc.in/2gDYHU7. Take your chances in the savannah at night, surrounded by some of the largest and most fearsome animals in Africa. This video has 360 spatial sound, so put your headphones on, turn up the volume, and try to keep track of the creatures around you!”

Watching the short video was thrilling.  Memories burst forth in me of the sheer terror I felt every time I camped in the African wilderness of Botswana, something I used to do with regularity for about ten years, starting in 1991.  At the time I was living and working periodically in Johannesburg, South Africa, flying home occasionally where I maintained a residence in Raleigh (NC).  I spent virtually every weekend traveling around in what’s called the ”Southern Cone” of Africa (Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa).

I steered clear of Angola and Mozambique because shooting wars were still underway then in those Portuguese-speaking countries, and I never did make it to little Malawi, a bit too far north for me to reach.  But I became quite familiar with parts of “Zim” and “Zam” (Zimbabwe and Zambia, formerly Southern and Northern Rhodesia), with Namibia (where in naïve ignorance of the risks, I drove all over the country, including across the trackless Namib Desert from Windhoek, the capital, to the German coastal town of Swakopmund), with South Africa, and with my favorite country in that part of the world, Botswana.

There, in Botswana, I did a lot of wilderness camping.  About 45% of the land area of Botswana is protected, and because of that, it is one of the last remaining true and very large refuges for African wildlife.  The numbers and the diversity of its wildlife rivals that found on the plains of East Africa in Tanzania and Kenya.

Just hearing the name “Botswana” now evokes vivid images of many hundreds of elephants along the Chobe River in the north, and of vast, seemingly endless herds of Cape Buffalo in the shallow water reeds of the Okavango swamp, and of thousands of zebras migrating from the Savuti Channel to better water in the west as the dry season approached.

I saw those and many other animals in Botswana in the company of very small groups of campers (10-12).  In those places I slept every night in a modest outside-frame tent on the ground.  We helped to collect firewood and to cook our meals.  The designated “campgrounds” were merely cleared spots in the grasslands or the Kalahari with crude ablutions and no fences to shield us from the wilderness.  Often the makeshift campground toilets and showers were busted up by elephant herds looking for water.

During the day, we had to keep everything locked up and zipped up tight to avoid predation by marauding baboons, monkeys, and families of mongoose.  Mongoose love eggs, for instance; baboons and monkeys like to destroy and try to eat everything they can get their hands on.

Birds, too, would steal any morsel they could, such as Red-billed hornbills swooping down silently from watchful perches in acacia bushes to take food I was eating right out of my hand.  Goodbye, lunch! Tents had to be kept tightly zipped shut to keep out snakes like Black Mambas and crustaceans like big scorpions and spiders seeking shelter from the sun as well as food.  Elephants liked to walk through the camp as if they owned it (well, they did, actually).  We always gave them a wide berth, and the pachyderms daintily picked their way among the tents, never so much as snagging a rope.

It was a constant, if exciting, battle to live amongst the local fauna during the day.

Nighttime, however, was a different experience altogether. The BBC video made me remember the primeval fear that gripped us all at dusk.  The video was spot on; it was no exaggeration of the deep-seated dread humans feel in the African grasslands in the dark of night. Suddenly, we realize that we are just another prey animal like Wildebeest and Impala.

One never sleeps soundly when camping in the African bush, not even in the relative safety of a “luxury camping safari” surrounded by guides with rifles. I never felt entirely safe in the African wilderness. It’s totally different from camping anywhere else on earth. I’ve slept peacefully camping in the bear country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana because the chances of a big animal encounter are low.

Not so in Botswana.  Every night—no exceptions—brought predators through the camp, looking for their next meal.

It’s not elephants, or even leopards, one worried about. My experience is that those two species just don’t care about people and generally ignored us at night unless provoked. In order of potential danger to humans, it’s hyenas first (highly opportunistic, unfussy eaters, incredibly strong, range widely each night in well-coordinated packs, and clever), and lions second (not usually man-eaters, but tend to kill anything that gets too close anyway–and whether or not they then consume your carcass, dead is, after all, dead, a condition to be avoided).  There are many, many hyena and lion families in the Botswana wilderness, all hungry for protein.

I am doing it one last time this coming February in Tanzania: a camping safari. I will always go back to Africa as long as my health and my money hold out, but on lodge safaris, like to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is surrounded by the safety of an enclosure to keep out the indiscriminate predators. After the trip in February, I doubt I’ll go on another African wilderness camping safari. Being savagely consumed while still alive, starting with one’s bloody entrails being ripped out of the abdomen, by a fellow carnivore in the dark of night isn’t a welcome image for me.

But camping on the African savanna always renewed my spirit, always gave it a unique jolt, like no other experience. Afterwards, I have never felt more alive. I highly recommend it.