Notes on the State of California (and other American places)

Last night I returned to Shanghai after my longest sojourn away from China in six years (for reasons professional and personal). I haven’t had a look around town yet, but if fresh eyes see anything worthwhile, I’ll post the news. In the meantime, a couple of random observations gleaned during my extended visit to the US.

  • Outside of major international tourist attractions (say, LA’s Getty Museum), the most ethnically diverse places (that I visited) in America are discount volume retailers like Cosco and Sam’s Club – particularly on weekend afternoons. Over the course of my stay, I had reason to be in a number of suburban Sam’s Club and Cosco locations, and I was floored by the range of languages that I heard while I roamed the aisles. Over-represented, by leaps and bounds, were young Indian and Chinese couples, many wearing university sweatshirts. What to make of the fact that educated immigrants shop for volume discounts way out of proportion to their percentage in the US population? See: Financial Crisis – US edition, Low Savings Rate.
  • Related: by leaps and bounds, Whole Foods may very well attract the least diverse, ie, whitest, clientele in American retail. Indeed, despite selling a wide range of over-priced “ethnic” foods, Whole Foods has no ethnic customers (trust me: they’re all shopping at Sam’s Club). For another time: organic food as the distinctive ethnic cuisine of an over-educated American bourgeoisie.


  • Based upon several long drives in cars without CD players, it is clear that Peter Frampton, Eddie Money, and Heart are the most popular recording artists in America today. For another time: are these legacy artists generating more airplay royalties today, rather than during their respective artistic heydays? I’d like to know. Continue reading

The Hammer Finally Falls: Northwest Reduces WorldPerks Benefits

After this post, I’m going to try and swear off any further blogging about Northwest Airlines. But for those of you who’ve had enough already, I suggest waiting until later in the day for a different post to read¬† … Continue reading

The masks are back?

Compared to the last bird flu scare, China seems to be taking the current, unsettling spate of bird flu fatalities with unlikely aplomb. Consider: in January, there were five Chinese deaths from the feared pathogen; for the whole of 2008, there were only three. Perhaps the relative ambivalence is related to the fact that the pathogen is emerging during Spring Festival, when attentions are elsewhere.

But if China is taking the emergence in stride, others may not be. On Wednesday I spent two hours at Tokyo Narita Airport, a major air hub and transfer point for flights throughout Asia. And, while there, I saw something that I hadn’t seen since the 2003 SARS outbreak: passengers, and air industry employees, wearing surgical masks in hope of warding off airborne pathogens. A couple of notable cases: a Northwest Airlines boarding agent was wearing a mask while scanning the tickets of boarding passengers (what a way to greet them); on my flights in and out of Narita, a handful of passengers were wearing masks.


To be fair, I have absolutely no idea if the masks were related to bird flu, specifically, or were just a protective measure (and not a particularly effective one) to protect against winter colds. Also, the number of people wearing masks on Wednesday – maybe one in fifty – doesn’t come close to the numbers in 2003, when half had them. But I’ve been flying in and out of Narita a few times per year, for years, and I can’t recall another instance of mask wearing since SARS.

[Professional Note: In November 2002, two months before the international media found the SARS story, I visited Guangzhou for the first time, and was struck by the large number of people walking around the city in surgical masks. When I asked the person I was visiting, a source, for the reason, he told me that “Guangzhou has a particularly bad flu this year.” I had no reason to think otherwise, and let it go. But ever since, I’ve been sensitive to mass mask wearing.]

[UPDATE: A friend writes to point out that “[S]urgical masks are just as effective as magic amulaets at stopping viral particles. That’s why Northwest should prohibit its employees from wearing both and scaring the passengers.” An excellent point. And since we’re on the topic of Northwest Airlines, I should probably mention that Wednesday’s edition of Flight 1451 was delayed for just over two hours because the airline couldn’t find a flight crew to pilot it. That, according to the flight attendants who kept the stranded passengers informed during the delay.]

Northwest Airlines breaks promise, bludgeons consumers.

As long-time readers know, Shanghai Scrap has been, a) offline for almost a month, and b) a rant-free zone for most of its life (ie, a reported blog). But once in a while, really, I can’t help myself. Especially when the topic is Northwest Airlines.

So let’s get right to it.

On December 29, the AP reported the following:

The subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. said in a filing earlier this month with the Department of Transportation that it was seeking to delay proposed daily Seattle-Beijing service by a year from March 2009 to March 2010 and delay startup of Detroit-Shanghai nonstop service by more than two months from March 25, 2009, to June 3, 2009.

Now, this might sound eminently reasonable in light of the current economic crisis. After all, the US airlines – including Northwest – have been cutting back on domestic US routes for months. Why wouldn’t they cut back on Asia routes, too?

But sharp observers might notice something wrong with this picture. As it happens, US airlines don’t need DOT permission to cut back on domestic US routes. So why on Earth should they have to ask for permission to cut back on US-China routes? Continue reading

Northwest Airlines: A First Class Security Hole

Northwest Airlines operates one flight, daily, from Shanghai’s Pudong Airport: Flight 26, to Tokyo Narita.

On Tuesday morning I arrived at the airport two hours before flight 26’s scheduled departure and took my place in the very long check-in cue that snakes in front of the Northwest counters. Ahead of me, I could see that all passenger luggage was being hand-searched by airport staff before passengers were allowed to check it. This is nothing new: it’s been going on – off and on – for several years now, and likely has to do with the fact that NW 26 continues to Detroit after a Tokyo layover.

On Tuesday I stood in the coach check-in lane until recalling that I have Northwest “elite” status, which – among its handful of benefits – allows me to check-in via the shorter line designated for first class passengers. So, I slipped beneath the stanchions and took my place behind a mere two passengers (rather than the dozens lined up in coach).

And, from there, I noticed another, very important reason why the first class line was moving more quickly than the coach line: Passengers in the coach line were required to subject their checked-luggage to a hand-search; passengers in the first class line were NOT. Below, a photo of the first class line on Tuesday. Note the screened area to the immediate left of the first class passengers: it’s one of several bag hand-check areas stationed to the right of each coach line, and to which coach passengers were subjected before checking their bags. The first class passengers were able to proceed directly to the counter.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but this struck me – and strikes me – as a giant security hole. Put it this way: if you’re flying Northwest from Shanghai to Tokyo, and you don’t want to subject your bags to a hand-check (for whatever reason), simply buy or upgrade to a First Class ticket. You’ll be hand-check free (at least, you would have been last Tuesday). Continue reading

Shanghai Pudong: Same as it ever was!

I was out of China when, two weeks ago, the Shanghai Airport Authority announced that it was immediately implementing new, Olympics-related security procedures at the city’s two airports. Nothing in the reported accounts of these procedures indicated that they were directed at incoming passengers. But, keeping in mind that these regulations come in the wake of recent bombings in Kunming and Shanghai, the reported arrest of a Shanghai terror cell, and having experienced, first-hand, airport security in the aftermath of actual and (reportedly) imminent terror strikes in India (2006 train bombings) and the United States (9/11), I fully expected to witness/experience some kind of immigration hassle or customs kerfuffle last night.

So. Arrived at Shanghai Pudong (PVG) on Northwest #25 from Tokyo at 9:30 PM (30 minutes late). On our way to the gate, a flight attendant reminded us that China was following tightened security restrictions during the Olympic games. Per that, passengers were to keep in mind that their luggage was subject to search upon arrival. Passengers were also reminded that they should arrive extra early for their return flights out of China due to new, extra layers of security implemented at the entrances of China’s airports. Finally, and most notably (in my mind), the Northwest attendant reminded all incoming passengers to carry travel documents at all times in China, and be mindful of the fact that the Chinese authorities will be carrying out random passport checks. The last point was a new one. Continue reading

Northwest Airlines: Flight Risk

Northwest Flight 1652, scheduled to depart Washington National for Minneapolis at 6:36 AM this morning, left the gate on-time. But just as it turned toward the runway, a loud, hacking sound – kind of like a handsaw cutting through sheet metal – began vibrating through the cabin. From my seat – 14D -it felt like it was emanating from the right wing, and it continued for a solid five minutes before the captain announced that we would be returning to the gate so that a maintenance crew could cool off an overheating hydraulic pump.

Which we did, resulting in a roughly twenty minute delay.

Problem (presumably) fixed, the plane once again departed for the runway. And, once again, that loud, hacking sound coursed through the plane, lasting for roughly five minutes until the captain announced that the hydraulics were overheating again – possibly because they had been overfilled – and we were once again returning to the gate. Continue reading