Friday, March 27, 2015

Germanwings; airlines, technology and people

From West Africa to Canada’s Arctic, the conclusion of a two-month wander, a week in the office and now in France for a further two months while GermanWings planes hurtle into mountain sides and disruption on a major scale is caused to Amsterdam airport by a “technical fault in a transformer”.

Yes, a great deal has happened in the two weeks since I last put fingers to typewriter, and while sometimes it gets to a point that I simply block and don’t write a single thought. Not, however, this time.

Let us start with the tragic crash of the GermanWings plane; on March 24th, I suggested in a Facebook posting that we were looking at pilot suicide simply because there appeared to be no other possible explanation for the event short of the most improbable series of independent failures. Now I appear to have been correct, and this is not the first such incident, and sadly, nor will it be the last.

How an airline pilot can be so deeply disturbed that he feels driven to fly his aircraft into a mountain taking 149 innocent lives with him is completely beyond my capacity to contemplate; how a company as technically astute as Lufthansa can have such a person work up within their ranks with no inkling of this ambition is also astonishing, but perhaps indicates more strongly than ever that mental illness is indeed and illness, and its recognition and treatment are extremely difficult.

From the few such suicides reported, and the victims of the Malaysia crash are not included, although they perhaps should be, some 500 people have been slaughtered in this manner. How many could have been prevented had cockpit doors not been made impregnable we will never know, but II fear that more had died because of this security requirement than have been saved.

Flying is, of course, an extremely safe way to travel, and none of these aberrations will change that fact; rogue elements within any industry will cause headlines be they corrupt Japanese nuclear-plant officials or self-centered developers condemning our national institutions to decades of financial struggle.

Accidents happen, and we see today that Schiphol airport, Amsterdam’s global hub, has been affected by  a “technical fault” at a substation. While not yet causing direct danger, this mishap will lead to tens of thousands of passengers being stranded, business meetings being delayed, weddings interrupted, concerts cancelled and days of putting life back together again.

It is very easy, particularly in the glow of spending weeks in Sao Tome and Cabo Verde to wonder about technology, its speed and application, our control of its development and whether or not, if we project forward to the period that Artificial Intelligence rules the world and its airwaves, we will be safe.

Or will some malignant hacker inject a malevolent sequence into our daily lives and start to create havoc on a level that we have yet to contemplate.

On a happier note, after three days, I did get my baggage back from The System’s evil maw.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cabo Verde / São Tomé e Príncipe; The Unusual Islands

There are an awful lot of places in the world to explore, and I am sure that these Portuguese islands dropped apparently randomly into the Atlantic Ocean are not high on many travellers’ bucket lists. But they should be; São Tomé e Príncipe and Cabo Verde offer travellers and tourists alike a remarkable experience, and one that would be difficult to duplicate.

The Portuguese were amazing explorers; talk about itchy feet, they headed out into the ocean in the fifteenth century, and possibly long before, in search of “something”. I still reel at the audacity of a small boat with about twenty overdressed folks wearing pretty funny hats rocking up to a jungly shore and declaring the “Whole Land” for a distant crown. They usually didn’t even know how big it was, or if a bunch of Spaniards or Vikings had landed ten miles away with the same idiotic proclamation.

Singularly Overdressed Explorers

However, as improbable as it was, this sort of approach to nation-building seemed to work, for a while at least. And so it was that before the fifteenth century turned to the sixteenth, the islands of Cabo Verde and São Tomé became part of the Portuguese kingdom. That was a long, long time ago, and possession of these islands seemed to be good business, and a powerful determinant in the Iberian nation’s conquest of all sorts of places, and dominance of many exotic trades.

Let's go and catch some fish
And so we fast forward through centuries of power, economic fortunes, appalling human rights, dictatorships, wars, dreadful weather and the economic pillaging of the European power to today. The legacies of all of these misfortunes are apparent; dilapidated Portuguese architecture (which I have to confess I find extremely attractive), imbalanced economies, poor education and medical facilities and economies that are spluttering to life.

We also find, however, lands of powerful beauty, people with extraordinary personality, destinations that offer visitors an authentic and comfortable experience and people with a passion for their country’s future and smiles the size of a planet. In short, Cabo Verde and São Tomé offer visitors an experience unlike any other that it has been my privilege to experience.

Sao Antao, Cabo Verde
Accommodations ranges from the world-class facilities operated by the Portuguese Pestana Group to small guesthouses; food covers the same compass and local guides are equally variable. Beaches are fewer than one might imagine, with the exception of Sal and Boa Vista in Cabo Verde, and some pleasant but mainly isolated beaches in São Tomé but it is for the culture and life of these islands that visitors should come.

Access is pretty straightforward; Cabo Verde has direct flights from Europe, the USA and Brazil, and São Tomé from Lisbon and a number of African gateways. Flights between the islands (a five-hour hop) are offered by the Angolan airline TAAG twice weekly, and I can personally endorse their offering. While reliability can be a problem (see my TACV rant), they are the only way to really make a visit here work; the answer is, of course, to build sufficient time into an itinerary to compensate for delays; and purchase suitable travel insurance to cover any additional costs.

Travel in the islands is certainly bound by different time scales. I do not think that there is a word in the local vernaculars that conveys the sense of urgency that is implied by “manhana”.  Time is one’s friend and one’s nemesis, but all will be revealed by both lands with sufficient patience and care. They are islands after all, and islands are by nature and definition insular; change comes slowly and with reservations; the lands are old and bruised, the future unfolds carefully.

A nice Fixer-Upper

Portugal has left a remarkable legacy and these remote islands (“Small, but perfectly proportioned”, as my cousin Jude remarks) offer visitors a remarkable experience. Balancing the powerful beauty of São Antão, the haunting musical heritage of São Vicente, the raw power of the island of Santiago in Cabo Verde with time in the tropical beauty of São Tomé will reward those who try.  The balance of nature, culture and sheer interest is overwhelming; accommodation is available to suit all tastes, with the obvious exception of those who seek the solace of sneeze-shield-protected-buffets in Caribbean all-inclusive (and good for them if that’s what they like), and itineraries can be designed to suit folks of any inclination or interest.

Those seeking hiking, music, beaches, language, history, art and even those who are interested in economic development and remote social systems will be delighted with the opportunities offered by these unheralded islands. Visitors will be rewarded in so many ways; from the bright smiles and giggles of the school children headed off to class to the wonderful fresh seafood, from verdant hills to the stunning seascapes the islands offer a great deal to their visitors.

And did I mention finding a remarkable restaurant located in an eighteenth-century Portuguese manor house? The chef is an internationally trained wonder, and serves a two-hour, eight-course lunch for the princely sum of €25 per person.

Roca S Joao do Angolares

Or Macumbli, the resort on the west coast as close to perfection as I can imagine?

Tiggers like Cabo Verde and São Tomé

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: Mucumbli - a perfect resort

"The setting sun extinguished itself in the sparkilg ocean ....."

One can read this sort of drivel in endless pieces about endless resorts, and completely lose sight of where a particular property lies, or how it can possibly be distinguished from another. In general, I like some resorts and dislike others, and even after forty years of wandering find it difficult to explain where the border line lies.

Mucumbli, however, not only lies firmly in the “like” column, I would go so far as to say that it is the most perfect resort that it has been my good fortune to visit.

It is, improbably, in Sao Tome, a small and rarely pondered nation in the Atlantic Ocean, some 300 miles from the coast of Africa. The resort lies on the western coast, nestled one hundred metres above the sea in a rich and verdant forest. A mile, perhaps two, from shore a dozen fishermen are out in their boats, behind us lie acres of trees; flowers are beginning to show, and the cacao fruit hangs in a multiplicity of colours. The sun shines.

The resort is both simple and luxurious; not the effervescent luxury of a Global Brand Resort, but the complete feeling of well-being that engulfs one when each detail has been addressed. There are five bungalows, with a total capacity of fourteen guests; interestingly, there are thirty-seven chairs on the terrace where one takes meals, and simply gazes at the horizon.

And what marvellous meals they are too; once again, not the finest haute cuisine of a five-star restaurant, but fresh and imaginatively prepared food made from the freshest of local produce; fine soups, wonderful fish, fresh salads, and an ample wine list.

Breakfast, included in the daily rate, is of fresh fruit, homemade yogurt, breads and cold meat with the finest Sao Tomean coffee.

Above all, the property exudes peace; the staff are friendly and efficient,

The daily rate of approximately €65 for a double room with breakfast is most eminently affordable.

Sao Tome is not terribly easy to get to but neither is it overly difficult. From North America one would fly to Lisbon, and then south on one of Air Portugal’s three weekly flights; from Europe there are straightforward connections through the Portuguese capital, and combined with some day tours or a car rental, a week or ten days spent in this magical place will recharge the most depleted of batteries.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: the distant islands

Sao Tome, and its sister island Principe for one of the world’s smallest, poorest and most ignored nations. Few have heard of Sao Tome, fewer still have thought about the country and very, very few have visited. Which is a pity because tourists or travellers visiting São Tomé e Príncipe

Let me set the scene. The country lives in the Gulf of Guinea some three hundred miles from the coast of Gabon. It lies some 240 miles from the intellectually interesting but practically pointless location of 0°0’0”N and 0°0’0”E. Historically it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1470, and appear to all who have studied the matter to have previously been unoccupied and colonised pretty well consistently until independence was granted in 1975.

Central Sao Tome 

The intervening 405 years tell a tale rich in exploitation, hardship, transported peoples and the assorted horrors that accompanied this genre of history. It has to be said, however, that the land left behind is richer in culture and identity than many, probably a legacy of its isolation and lack of a desirable and sustainable export.

It has lived, economically on the export of cocoa; up to 35,000 tons of the stuff, and by all accounts some of the world’s finest, was grown and shipped away at its zenith, a crop that has now diminished to some 3,000 tons; coffee too, originally imported from Brazil in 1840 has fallen into small but first-class production and is a shadow of its former self. As one drives through this improbably beautiful island, covered in thick forest, one sees palms, coconut trees, some wild cocoa and fruit trees of every imaginable type just waiting to be nurtured and picked.

Heavy afternoon traffic
The capital, eponymously named Sao Tome, is a sleepy port town spread along several kilometres of sleepy beaches, empty roads and fine colonial buildings that are rather comfortably going to seed. It is of pastel colours and slow of temperament; the little traffic there is moves slowly and predictably, with the exception of the roads around the central market. Here cars jostle quickly, their engines heady with the fumes of fruit, salt fish and the hundreds of people buying and selling.

The Central Market rush
The market lives at a different pace; here trestles are piled high with t-shirts from “Western Australia” and shorts with German sports logos; well used dresses and the odd discarded cardigan from a mid-western closet. Here the thousands of tons of clothes, cheerfully donated to schools, churches and food-banks wash up on shore adding complete confusion to the local clothing cycles. Gone are the days of repairing clothes, carefully using shredded garments in the construction of new, now for a few pennies, discarded western-wear is available to all.

Where your t-shirts end up!

Move back from the market and the pace slows; the streets are cleaned consistently if a touch ineffectively, women walk purposefully around with baskets of goods piled high on their heads, and men lounge at street corners playing backgammon; school children, sharp in their cream and blue uniforms mill together and jostle for their peer’s attention as they head to or from their next
classes. The city has its rhythm, and its laughter.

Central Sao Tome City !

The long-haul boats, with a day-dreaming son
Two miles along the shore lies the timeless fishing village of Pantufo. Wooden boats, some with outriggers that will sail some 200 miles away in search of the right catch, lie on the shore waiting for their call to action; women sell a few fish; kids play and lie on the boats, the waves lap the shoreline and the sun beats down on small knots of villagers chatting about fish, football and the government.

Pantufo - the village fleet
It too, is a village in slow motion, but here in São Tomé e Príncipe, it is right on time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

TACV: An airline of spectacular indifference

I should first admit that airlines are a passion of mine, and their operations in remote and tricky locations of particular interest.  I should also point out, in the interest of fairness, that my own international flight (Fortaleza to Praia) with onward connections to Mindelo via Praia worked like a charm; my second attempt at inter-island travel, however, did not, and a one-hour journey became a twelve-hour slog.

Sadly, however, for reliability, TACV (Transportes Aereos de Cabo Verde) is, however, in a league of its own.

When it comes to scheduling, adherence to these timetables, indifference to their passengers, and let’s be honest, sheer thoughtless incompetence, TACV are the gold standard. In comparison, carriers that service Canada’s Arctic, the Scottish or Greek islands, the remote South Pacific are paragons of virtue, but let me expound.

The Cape Verdean islands are a group of ten islands, eight of which have airports; of these, three are serviceable by large jet aircraft, and the others by ATR turbo-prop equipment. The three major points are Sal (the holiday island), Mindelo (the cultural capital) and Praia (the country’s capital city). Traffic between these three islands is heavy due to the lack of alternative ferry options, and flights are regularly full; flights to the smaller islands are heavily used as well, but not to the same degree as the main line points.

The inter-island flights are used, of course, for a multitude of reasons. Straightforward inter-island travel, of course, but also the thorny issue of connections, and it is this latter usage that is the most concerning.

When an airline publishes a schedule that indicates that a flight will operate between Point A and Point B at (say) noon, given the vagaries of the weather and destination, wiggle room of an hour or so is reasonable, and connections or other arrangements can be made accordingly. What is entirely unreasonable is to then confirm 72 passengers on a 42-seat aircraft, with no further flights that day. Further, when the previous day’s overbooking is taken into consideration, there could well be a further 40 passengers on a “waitlist”, also hoping to travel.

Logic would determine that in instances like these, the cream of the TACV fleet, one of their Boeing 737 aircraft with 160+ seats, be pulled in to operate an extra section and clear the backlog; bearing in mind that the stage-lengths are only about 150 miles, and a complete rotation from Praia to Praia could be achieved in about 90 minutes (if, one must add, there was a degree of order in the boarding process) and passengers would be generally happy.

Alternatively, their ageing ATR42 aircraft should be traded in for a more suitable ATR72 plane, offering thirty more seats.

But no; neither their leased, Slovakian aircraft, complete with friendly, competent staff, slightly bewildered by the African Way, or their Cabo Verdean-crewed Boeing 737-800, complete with flashy winglets that seem altogether too advanced for these islands, would be brought to service.

Passengers are simply left to rot. Their onward connective issues are met with industrially-sympathetic smiles, and in the most egregious case some Significant Tutting, but to no avail. Even trying to get a letter from TACV indicating that the passengers were stranded through no fault of their own, a document that insurance companies require and TACV should be printing by the tens of thousands is impossible.

Surely it should not be too difficult to anticipate traffic loads and schedule the appropriate aircraft; surely it should not be too difficult, given the indifference displayed, to prioritise those passengers with connections to services that only operate on a weekly basis; surely TACV should by now, with decades of experience, be able to streamline the process of denied boarding and compensation.

There is no competition. TACV is government-owned, and vastly over-staffed, spreading through the “benefits” accruing to their staff and their extended families a patriarchal comfort. Revenue passengers’ needs take second place, it seems, to the needs of the staff, their families, and (should one be so cynical?), their votes. Competitors come and go, but competing with a government agency with deep pockets has, for years, been a problem with the global aviation industry.

There are extremely valid reasons for governments to have a significant role to play in the provision of aviation in regions and countries that are completely dependent on such service. There are, however, even better reasons for excercising this control through regulation rather than ownership.

These reasons, however valid, in no way obviate the requirement to operate in a professional and reliable manner.