Archive for the month “Φεβρουαρίου, 2014”

Latest airline perk: Safe distance from the masses

By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ (AP)
On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a Mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug «Grande Cuvee» Brut Champagne.
Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.
The idea is to provide an exclusive experience – inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.
Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check-in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.
When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep coach passengers separate from those in business and first class. The top floor of the building is a lounge for premium passengers with direct boarding to the upstairs of Emirates’ fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level of the plane.
London’s Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who’s willing to pay an extra $2,500.
«First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jet-like experience,» says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines «will do everything but sing a lullaby.»
The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But in recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers’ desire for new levels of privacy.
There’s a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 percent of revenue comes from the top 20 percent of its customers.
The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discrete corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Boarding passes in hand, travelers exit through hidden doors leading to the front of security lines.
Some foreign airlines have gone further.Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt.
There’s a restaurant, cigar lounge and dedicated immigration officers. For those who choose to shower or take a bath, the private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky – an exclusive plastic souvenir for the international jet set. When it’s time to board, passengers are driven across the tarmac to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.
«That sort of exclusivity plays to the ego of people who are in a position to spend that much money on airline flight,» says Tim Winship, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com.
At Heathrow’s private suites, designed for up to six people, fliers pass swiftly and privately through their own immigration and security screening.
While they’re waiting, hors d’oeuvres and Champagne are provided. Steak, sushi or other meals can be delivered from airport restaurants. When it comes time to actually fly, passengers are driven to their plane in a BMW 7 Series sedan and escorted to their seat.U.S. airlines have copied a bit of that touch.
United started in July and Delta Air Lines in 2011 driving their top customers who have tight connections at major airports from one gate to another in luxury cars. No need to enter the terminal, let alone fight the crowd on the moving walkway.
Want to board first? No problem. Want to be the last one seated, moments before the door closes? Sure. Airlines will even save room for your bags in the overhead bin.
International first class has long been distinguished by gourmet meals, wide seats and giant TVs preloaded with hundreds of movies and TV shows. But in recent years, airlines also upgraded their international business class sections, ripping apart cabins to install chairs that convert into lay-flat beds.
That left very little to differentiate first class from business class.
So some airlines scrapped the ultra-premium cabin. Others have cut the number of first-class seats in half, thereby creating a more intimate experience that commands the higher price. For instance, a roundtrip flight in July between New York and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific costs $1,600 in coach, $7,600 in business class and $19,000 in first class. Other airlines charge similar price differences among their passenger classes.
Besides privacy, that extra cash provides an outsize seat, attentive service and superior wines and liquors. Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among the carriers to staff planes with their own first-class chefs. Instead of having flight attendants reheating meals cooked on the ground, these chefs prepare the meals at 35,000 feet.
Sometimes, that smell wafts back to the rest of the plane.
«You know they’ve got something good up in front of the curtain, and you know you don’t have anything close to it,» Harteveldt says. «When you fly coach, you are reminded of the fact that you are unimportant as a traveler.»
In the ultimate show of indulgence, Emirates has offered an onboard shower for first class passengers on its A380s since the plane joined the fleet in 2008.
Once back on the ground, that luxury treatment continues. At airports in Paris, London, Istanbul, Bangkok, Sydney and elsewhere, airlines offer their top passengers fast-track cards allowing them to speed past immigration lines.
And then, while other passengers wait in lines for buses, taxis or shuttles, chauffeurs in suits meet these fliers ready to – once again – whisk them out of the chaos.

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USDA spending $3M to feed honeybees in Midwest

By M.L. JOHNSON (AP)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on February 25 that it will spend millions of dollars to help farmers and ranchers improve pastures in five Midwestern states to provide food for the nation’s struggling honeybees.
Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of produce each year. Many beekeepers bring hives to the Upper Midwest in the summer for bees to gather nectar and pollen for food, then truck them in the spring to California and other states to pollinate everything from almonds to apples to avocadoes.
But agricultural production has been threatened by a more than decade-long decline in commercial honeybees and their wild cousins due to habitat loss and pesticide use. Colony collapse disorder, in which honeybees suddenly disappear or die, has made the problem worse, boosting losses over the winter to as much as 30 percent per year.
The USDA hopes to stem those losses by providing more areas for bees to build up food stores and strength for winter. The new program will be «a real shot in the arm» for improving bees’ habitat and food supply, said Jason Weller, chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas can qualify for about $3 million to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants appealing to both bees and livestock. Farmers also can get help building fences, installing water tanks and making other changes that better enable them to move their animals from pasture to pasture so the vegetation doesn’t become worn down.
The goal is to provide higher quality food for insects and animals.
«It’s a win for the livestock guys, and it’s a win for the managed honeybee population,» Weller said. «And it’s a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you’re going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops.»
The USDA is focusing on those five states because 65 percent of the nation’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers bring hives there for at least part of the year. With limited funds, Weller said, the goal is to get the biggest payoff for the investment.
Corn, soybean and other farmers can qualify for money to plant cover crops, which typically go in after the regular harvest and help improve soil health, or to grow bee-friendly forage in borders and on the edges of fields.
The program is just the latest in a series of USDA efforts to reduce honeybee deaths. The agency has partnered with universities to study bee diseases, nutrition and other factors threatening colonies. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also recently created a working group on bees to coordinate efforts across the department.
The work is already paying off with changes to once-common beekeeping practices, such as supplementing bees’ diet with high-fructose corn syrup, said David Epstein, a senior entomologist with the USDA. He noted that the quality of bees’ food is as important as the quantity.
«You can think of it in terms of yourself,» Epstein said. «If you are studying for exams in college, and you’re not eating properly and you’re existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease and you get sick».
Tim Tucker, who has between 400 and 500 hives at sites in Kansas and Texas, said he may take some of his bees to South Dakota this year because the fields around his farm near Niotaze, Kan., no longer provide much food for them.
«There used to be a lot of small farms in our area that had clover and a variety of crops, whereas in the last 20 years it’s really been corn, soybean and cotton and a little bit of canola,» Tucker said. «But those crops don’t provide a lot of good nectar and pollen for bees.»
Tucker, who is president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said the last «really good» year he had was 1999, when he got more than 100 pounds of honey per hive. Last year, he averaged about 42 pounds per hive.
He hopes dairy farmers, beef cattle ranchers and others will sign up for the new USDA program by the March 21 deadline.It’s not a «cure all,» Tucker said, but «anything we do to help provide habitat for honeybees and for native bees and pollinators is a step.»

Hosts’ real Olympic challenge: after the games

For athletes and spectators at Sochi, it’s time to pack up. But for the host cities, the real challenge begins with the end of the Olympics. How do they continue to use the expensive stadiums after the party’s over? What happens to the athletes’ villages? What is the legacy of the games?
Here’s a look at what some past Summer and Winter Games sites around the world look like post-Olympics.

LONDON, 2012
London continues to bask in the success of the most recent Summer Games, but the Olympic legacy is difficult to determine.
The flagship venue, renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is being converted into a massive park as big as London’s famous Hyde Park, complete with wildlife habitats, woods and sports facilities. The first part of the ambitious project will fully open to the public in April.
The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium at the center of the park has been troubled by controversy since even before the games, and its post-games use was the subject of months of legal wrangling.
The stadium is now being converted into a soccer venue and the home of the West Ham soccer club, with an expected price tag of $323 million.
Many argue taxpayers should not have to fund a Premier League club, though officials insist that the stadium will continue to host other major sporting events, including the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
The athletes’ village is still being transformed into the East Village. At nearby East Wick and Sweetwater, based at the west edge of the park, there are already signs that the process will yield less housing than originally pledged. Other promises, like the Olympic Museum due to open this year, have simply been quietly dropped.
There’s no doubt that the Olympics improved public transport in the city’s East End, historically a deprived, industrial area poorly served by commuter links.

VANCOUVER, 2010
All games venues in Vancouver remain in use, with local authorities funding a $110 million trust to make sure that they don’t fall into disrepair.
The most successful venue appears to be the Richmond Olympic speed skating Oval, a widely used community sports and events facility that attracts more than 550,000 visitors a year.
Dozens of sports groups run regular programs at the Oval, which now houses two international-size rinks for hockey or speed skating, basketball and squash courts, an indoor track and a rowing tank. The venue, which has hosted numerous provincial, national and international championships in a variety of summer and winter sports, is cited as a positive legacy of the games.
Federal and provincial governments pay some of the Oval’s operating costs, as well as for the Whistler Sliding Center, used by athletes as a training facility, and the Whistler Olympic Park.
But the athletes’ village has not fared so well. The City of Vancouver had to take over financing for the 1,100-unit village after the developer stopped payment on its construction loan due to cost overruns and the 2008 financial crisis.
The city has sold most, if not all, of the units, but it expects to lose nearly $300 million.

BEIJING, 2008
Beijing, which spent more than $2 billion to build 31 venues for the 2008 Summer Games, is reaping some income and tourism benefits from two flagship venues, though many sites need government subsidies to meet hefty operation and maintenance costs.
The National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of its lattice design, has become a key Beijing landmark and a favored backdrop for visitors’ snapshots. But few tourists are willing to pay more than $8 to tour the facility as enthusiasm for the 2008 Games fades, and the venue has struggled to fill its space with events.
The Water Cube – where U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps made history by winning eight gold medals – has been transformed into a water park popular among local families. Its operators even peddle purified glacier water under the Water Cube brand for additional income.
But other venues have withered in neglect. A rowing park in the city’s suburbs that cost $55 million has fallen into disuse, and visitors to this paid facility are few and far between. The cycling race tracks in another outlying district are covered in weeds, and the sand volleyball courts have been largely closed off to the public.

ATHENS, 2004
The legacy of Athens’ Olympics has stirred vigorous debate, and Greek authorities have been widely criticized for not having a post-Games plan for the infrastructure. While some of the venues built specifically for the games have been converted for other uses, many are underused or abandoned, and very few provide the state with any revenue.
Some critics even say that the multibillion-dollar cost of the games played a modest role in the nation’s economic meltdown, which started in late 2009.
The main Olympic stadium – built decades before the 2004 games but revamped for the 2004 Olympics – is still used for major soccer matches, and most of the surrounding facilities and stadiums are also used for sporting events and concerts. One of the most successful conversions of Olympic facilities is the old badminton venue, now a theater.
The athletes’ village was turned into housing for workers, but the communal areas were neglected, with frogs and debris taking over the old training pool in the village.

SYDNEY, 2000
Before the 2000 summer Olympics, the site west of Sydney where the 1,580-acre Sydney Olympic Park was built was a grungy, desolate wasteland of slaughterhouses, garbage dumps and factories.
Since the games, it has slowly developed into its own suburb with hotels, offices, restaurants and parklands. The park now hosts thousands of events each year, from music festivals to sports to business conferences, drawing more than 12 million annual visitors.
It’s also the home of the wildly popular Sydney Royal Easter Show, an agricultural fair that attracts more than 800,000 people each year.
The Athletes’ Village was converted into a suburb called Newington, featuring eco-friendly residential apartments, with solar power and a recycled water supply. Most of the sporting facilities still get quite a bit of use: the aquatics center hosts swimming competitions, and is also open to the public for recreational activities, with a water slide, spa and fitness center. The 690 million Australian dollar main stadium still hosts major sporting events, including cricket and rugby, despite its capacity being scaled down from 110,000 to 83,000.

NAGANO, 1998
In Nagano, five large structures were built for the 1998 Winter Games. They remain in use, though many complain that the venues are too big and costly to maintain for a town of less than 400,000 people.
The Olympic Stadium has been converted into a baseball stadium. Nagano doesn’t have a professional team, though other teams play there on occasion.
The Aqua Wing Arena has been converted into an aquatics center, and the Big Hat is still used for ice hockey, as well as figure skating. The M-Wave hosted the World Sprint speed-skating championships last month, and the White Ring is used for professional basketball, volleyball and other events.Nagano wasn’t free from controversy, though. The bidding process for the games was clouded by bribery allegations.

ATLANTA, 1996
In Atlanta, the main stadium for the 1996 summer Olympics is headed for demolition.
After the 1996 games, the stadium was converted into Turner Field, the baseball stadium that’s been home to the Atlanta Braves for the past several years. But in November, the team announced plans to build a new stadium in the city’s northwest suburbs and leave Turner Field in 2017. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that Turner Field would be demolished after their departure.
Less than two miles north of the stadium, in the city’s downtown area, Centennial Olympic Park was used for some of the ceremonies during the Atlanta games. The park remains a popular destination for residents and tourists, particularly in the warmer months. Every summer, children still splash in a large fountain that incorporates the Olympic rings in its design.Other venues from the 1996 games have seen creative uses – including one of the first «running of the bulls» events in the U.S., inspired by the famed festival tradition in Pamplona, Spain.

BARCELONA, 1992
The 1992 Olympic Games launched Barcelona as a major tourist attraction, converting it into what it is today – a must-see destination in Spain attracting millions of visitors a year.
The city benefited greatly from the smash-hit song «Barcelona,» Freddy Mercury’s collaboration with Barcelona-born soprano Montserrat Caballe.
The games left Barcelona an important architectural legacy, much of which is still in use, including Palau Sant Jordi, which today is a large-scale music venue, and the Olympic Stadium, which was used for years by soccer team Espanyol and still hosts sports competitions.
The 1992 Games cost some 6.7 million euros and generated a profit of about 12 million euros, and completely changed Barcelona’s appearance by opening new vistas to the seafront and creating ring roads that have greatly benefited the city.
The Olympic Village, which hosted athletes from around the world, today is home to city dwellers who still recall what they refer to as «that magical 1992.»

SARAJEVO, 1984
Wartime destruction and negligence have turned most of Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympic venues into painful reminders of the city’s golden times.
The world came together in the former Yugoslavia in 1984 after the West had boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and Russia boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Just eight years later, the bobsleigh and luge track on Mount Trbevic was turned into an artillery position from which Bosnian Serbs pounded the city for almost four years.
Today, the abandoned concrete construction looks like a skeleton littered with graffiti. The elderly avoid it to keep it in their memories as it was – gloriously illuminated and visible from downtown.
Other Olympic mountains around Sarajevo had turned into battlegrounds during the 1992-95 Bosnian war that took 100,000 lives. Afterward, most of them were left dotted with land mines.
The two ski jumping hills on Mount Igman were never used again and became a surreal backdrop during the war when United Nations armored vehicles rolled pass them.
The hall where British ice dancing duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean gave a legendary Bolero performance that won the first, and so far only, perfect 6s in Olympic history, now lies next to a sea of white tombstones.

AP

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