New York Times Travel


viernes, 14 de septiembre de 2012

Increased comfort in the sky

By Sean O'Neill

LAN Airlines' soon-to-be-released 787s
LAN Airlines is outfitting its soon-to-be-released 787s with a high, dome-shaped roof along the centre aisle of its aircraft. (LAN Airlines)

Whoever said that travel is about the journey and not the destination hasn't sat in a cramped aeroplane seat lately.
As anyone who has flown in the last few years knows, air travel lost its glamour when airlines began to penny-pinch by cutting frills. But in recent months a number of international airlines have started taking baby steps in the other direction, using improvements in aircraft construction to install plusher seats and cosier interiors in some of their newer planes.
Worldwide, airlines have been slowly but steadily putting into operation two next-generation aircraft -- Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 -- both of which have shells made heavily of composite materials, such as carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, instead of aluminium. The composite materials are much lighter than traditional metal (though equally as sturdy), enabling planes to be a little larger and thus more spacious while still consuming the same amount of fuel. Engineering innovations have also given designers more options when crafting the interiors, thanks to greater structural flexibility in the placement of walls and barriers inside the cabins.
In Boeing’s 787, improved ventilation systems have raised humidity levels about 10% compared to the aircraft of yesterday, freeing passengers from dry eyes and mouths. The air pressure is also now closer to what is normal in Denver, Colorado -- the mile-high city at 5,280ft -- than the traditionally higher, and more mountaintop-like standard of 8,000ft above sea level, sparing fliers from the mild altitude sickness that can be experienced when flying a long distance. The Airbus A350 will offer similar improvements in humidity and air pressure.
Both models of aircraft have other benefits, too. They  were built to be quieter, and seats can theoretically be a little wider and provide more legroom due to the extra space. Of course, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s free. Airlines will likely charge extra for any seats with those added features. 
Putting innovative theories into practice
In October 2011, All Nippon Airways (ANA) became the first airline to put a Boeing 787 into service, and its fleet features the largest windows of any commercial jet currently in the sky. In another improvement, its LED lights cast a softer range of coloured cabin lights than traditional fluorescent bulbs do. ANA's 787s also don't have shades on their windows – they’re tinted electronically to block the varying levels of sunlight. By March 2013, ANA will have 20 Dreamliners in service on domestic and international flights, making it the largest fleet of 787s in the sky.

787 Design Highlights

LAN Airlines is outfitting its soon-to-be-released 787s with a high, dome-shaped roof along the centre aisle of its aircraft, which helps alleviate the cramped feeling of older planes. Overhead bins are also 30% more spacious than those on the airline's older planes, allowing more room for bags.
Each 787 economy class seat has a power socket, a USB port and a headphone jack that doesn’t require the purchase of a special headset. Seats come with two cup holders, with one accessible even when the tray table is up. Passengers also receive pillows and blankets printed in bright, solid colours – little details, yes, but they add up to greater overall comfort.
Airbus expects to deliver its first A350s to ANA, Japan Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines by the end of 2012.
Bolder designs in business class
You don’t need a next-generation aeroplane to redefine your aircraft interior, of course, and a few airlines are updating their existing business class cabins with touches reminiscent of a boutique hotel.

In May, Virgin Atlantic updated its business class section, called Upper Class Suite, for its new Airbus A330-200s, an aircraft with about 20% composite material. The top section of the double-decker aircraft has a bar, described as the longest bar in the sky, embedded with 1,000 Swarovski crystals. It’s located in a separate area from the passenger seats to allow about 15 people to sit on stools or stand while mingling.
Seats in the Upper Class Suite can be extended fully flat into beds, with the longest transatlantic business class seat in the sky – at 87 inches long. Plus, partitions between the seats are curved semi-translucent plastic, which gets rid of the “coffin class” feel that some airlines have and allows for more elbow room than is customary for international business class sections.
In March, Hong Kong Airlines drew back the curtains on its new Airbus A330-200s, which fly an all-business class service between London and Hong Kong. In the 82-seat aircraft, seatbacks recline 155 to 180 degrees, depending on the price point.
Flights also have not one but two bars serving Champagne, canapés and mixed drinks; cabins come with mood lighting, with the colours changing in a way that helps reduce jetlag; and free wi-fi and power ports are standard amenities at each seat.
Looking ahead to 2050
Future decades may bring even more enhancements to the flight experience.

Last week in London, Airbus unveiled some of its latest concepts, including “a new approach to touching down”, where technology would optimise landing positions with pinpoint accuracy and allow planes to glide onto runways with their engines running in idle, leading to less noise and less circling.
Previous ideas for Airbus concept planes dealt directly with passenger comfort. Separate classes of first, business and economy could be replaced by seats that would be individually customised based on its price, with some passengers preferring seats with high-tech game consoles and others looking for multi-seat areas to conduct business meetings. The walls of the planes could be engineered to allow panoramic, see-through views.
Perhaps most fanciful of all is Airbus’s dream of the perfect aeroplane seat, which would “adapt for the perfect fit, offering massage, drinks or vitamins as required; a gentle sea breeze or the soft aroma of a pine forest wash over you; sound showers will ease you into the perfect sleep, snug in the warm embrace of holographic shades, while the heat given out from your body is unobtrusively collected to power the cabin facilities”.
With luck, experimental improvements in the in-flight experience might -- someday -- become industry standards, taking passenger contentment to a higher plane.
Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel. 

lunes, 3 de septiembre de 2012

Medieval France town is under siege 

by tourists

Saint-Cirq Lapopie, recently voted France's favorite village, expects 600,000 visitors this year. Some fear the invasion will spoil its beauty.

By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times

The favorite village of the French
The village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie sits on a bluff above the Lot River in southwestern France. (Remy Gabalda / AFP/Getty Images / July 23, 2011)

SAINT-CIRQ LAPOPIE, France — The valley of the Lot River as it wends its way through southwestern France is known for its exceptional natural beauty, picturesque villages and historic chateaux.
Saint-Cirq Lapopie, however, stands out in every sense of the term.
Rising majestically from atop an almost sheer rock bluff, more than 300 feet above the river, the medieval settlement has a commanding view for miles in every direction.
It also stands out in the hearts of the French, who, despite a very wide choice of picture-postcard sites, voted Saint-Cirq Lapopie their favorite village in a nationwide television poll in May.
Having seen off marauding armies and rival fiefs for hundreds of years, Saint-Cirq Lapopie today faces an invasion of a different kind: tourists, drawn by a newfound celebrity that could prove as much of a double-edged sword as those wielded by ancient assailants.
This year the village of slightly more than 200 inhabitants expects about 600,000 visitors and has been forced to draw up a battle plan over how to welcome them, and the income they bring, without losing the ethereal charm that made it popular in the first place.
Mayor Gilles Hardeveld sees nothing but good in the modern-day assault on his village.
"You cannot please everyone, and there will always be those who complain about too many visitors, but we are very lucky to have this heritage. There are villages around us that have nothing, no visitors, even in summer," he said. "Our challenge is to manage the tourists without losing our authenticity."
Even with the benefit of 21st century transportation, Saint-Cirq Lapopie is not easy to reach. The narrow route winds through a bucolic landscape that has barely changed in centuries. Only the tourist buses weaving their way slowly up the road hacked out of the rock belie the era.
The stone buildings of Saint-Cirq Lapopie, 13 of them classified as historic, are built in a cluster on a grid of narrow cobbled streets, barely wide enough for a car and so steep that in places the sharply pointed roof of one cottage is at the same level as the garden fence of the neighboring property. The houses cling precariously to the rocky outcrop as if in danger of sliding down into the river below.
There is little evidence of the trimmings of modern life; no telephone cables, satellite dishes, electricity wires, most of which have been buried alongside the ancient foundations or hidden in roof spaces, under eaves or under the roads.
The village's beauty has long made it a favorite with artistic visitors. After World War II, it became a haunt of French Surrealists when Andre Breton, the writer credited with founding the movement, bought a house there.
"Saint-Cirq Lapopie has cast a single enchantment over me. One that has fixed me forever. I no longer wish to be anywhere else," Breton wrote.
Before the latest wave of tourists, Saint-Cirq Lapopie was famous not just for its fortifications but also its wood-turners. Once it had more than 100 of them producing wooden taps for wine and liquor barrels. Today, there is just Patrick Vinel, 56, who learned his trade from his father, who learned it from his father, and so on back five generations of Vinels.
Sitting at his workbench near an old belt-and-pedal lathe, Vinel describes himself as a "Saint-Cirquois de souche" (born and bred). He now turns out gifts for the tourists: miniature chess sets, wooden spinning tops, bowls.
"I've no reason to complain. Why would I? I make my living thanks to the tourists," Vinel said.
On one of his shelves are photographs of the village in winter. The streets and the characteristic flat brown roof tiles of the houses are covered with several inches of snow.
Vinel says the tourists mostly come in July and August.
"In winter, I replenish my stock," he said, waving an arm around the shop. "Where do you think this stuff comes from? It isn't made in Taiwan, you know."
On a scorching hot summer day, the village is packed with tourists, and the restaurants, shops and tourist office overrun. It is still possible to find a corner of tranquillity off the main streets where, away from the crowds, it is like stepping back in time.
Nobody wants to openly voice discontent with the tourist crowds, but there are a lot of anonymous huffing and puffing and oblique allusion to them. "There are people who say enough is enough," said one local woman who did not want to be named.
Virginie Seguin, director of the tourist office, said it normally assists about 800 visitors a day in July and August. This year, after the poll, the number has doubled, sometimes tripled.
"It's been pretty dense, but even with the tourists you can still have a calm walk and lose yourself in the old roads," Seguin said.
"Of course, the locals are attached to their village and there are those who complain there are too many tourists. I respect this, but it's the classic paradox. There are shops and services in the village thanks to the tourists. If there are no tourists, there is no boulangerie to buy bread or restaurants to eat in.
"We are surfing a wave of publicity and notoriety, but the notoriety will fade. It won't be like this every year. The economic situation in France is difficult and we are very lucky."
Mayor Hardeveld says he wants to encourage people to come not only during the summer but insists that the village won't be compromised.
"Besides," he said, "at the end of the day the tourists have gone and we all sleep very peacefully."
Willsher is a special correspondent.