Friday, May 29, 2009

Jetset: "To Drink or Not to Drink"

When a summer breeze blows over Beijing, it’s easy to lose count of your drinks, whether you’re sipping cocktails on a terrace or chugging 5-kuai beers in a back alley. But what if you have an early morning flight to catch?

A random survey amongst local frequent fliers found that, although some never let a flight get in the way of a rambunctious time, most prefer to board their plane sober – and stay that way while flying. Some said they might have one or two cocktails to unwind, but others cited unpleasant experiences for why they remain dry in the air.

“Once my friend and I drank so much wine on a flight from London that the flight attendants eventually refused to serve us any more – and it took me a week to recover from the hangover,” confessed one British journalist.

Medical experts are unsurprised. “Alcohol is dehydrating and so is flying,” explains Dr. Martin Springer, chairman of emergency medicine at Beijing United Family Hospital. “People who drink alcohol while flying have more pronounced hangovers due to the combined effect of dehydration and high altitude. Alcohol also interferes with your circadian rhythm and worsens jet lag.”

So the in-flight doctor-endorsed beverage is: water! Plenty of it – especially during long-haul flights. Easier for those stuck in the back of the plane these days, as airlines begin charging economy class for alcohol. Even if you’re up at the pointy end, remember that altitude and cabin pressure tend to numb your taste buds. If you can’t tell the difference between a Great Wall White and a Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – why bother?

Meanwhile fliers and carriers are concerned about the H1N1 virus, aka swine flu. China has applied some of the strictest measures to passengers arriving from countries with confirmed cases, including onboard body temperature checks and a mandatory weeklong quarantine for anyone who has traveled to Mexico or had any contact with an H1N1 patient.

Doctors say people contract this virus like any other flu – by surface contact or proximity to a patient. While several US airlines have removed pillows and blankets from their aircraft and some passengers have begun wearing masks onboard, experts are skeptical about such steps.

“The risks of flying are the same as being in a crowded environment, as sick passengers may sneeze, walk down the aisle or touch things,” said Dr. Springer. “I agree with removing pillows and blankets, but what about headrests? As for masks, unless you’re wearing one along with a full-body suit, you may still catch droplets elsewhere on the body and come into contact with them.”

So the best medical advice for preventing H1N1? Wash your hands often and use alcohol gel – just like your mom used to say. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the June 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jetset: "The Joy of Double Miles"

I didn’t need to go to Boston. And even if I did, the quickest way would be flying through Chicago or Washington. So why did I fork out 875 bucks for a last-minute roundtrip ticket from Beijing to Boston via San Francisco? Three magic letters: EQM – or elite-qualifying miles.

In the convoluted world of frequent flier programs, all miles are not created equal. Most casual fliers focus on accumulating redeemable miles (RDM) because they deliver free tickets or other awards; you can earn them by staying at partner hotels or shopping with an affinity credit card.

Hardcore mileage addicts, however, focus on EQM, which bring special status and sundry perks, and can only be earned by actually flying. Most airlines offer three elite tiers – for customers who fly 25,000 miles (silver), 50,000 miles (gold) and 100,000 miles (platinum) within a calendar year.

Having maintained at least gold status with United Airlines for almost a decade, I have come to count on the “extras” – double RDM for every UA flight (enough for a free domestic US ticket after just one transpacific trip), pre-booking a coveted exit-row seat (more legroom than in domestic first class), and bypassing crowds at check-in counters and boarding gates (more time relaxing in lounges and guaranteed space for carry-ons). These all provide some solace in the increasingly less-friendly skies.

For China-based travelers, it takes three to four transpacific roundtrips to achieve gold status – ordinarily not a problem for road warriors flying on corporate dimes. But as businesses cut travel budgets, airlines are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Trade group IATA predicts the global airline industry will lose a combined USD 5 billion this year.

So how do airlines lure back their most loyal passengers? More EQM! Pioneered by American Airlines and quickly matched by other major US carriers, double EQM promotions are now all the rage. Until June 15, you can rake in twice as many EQM on all American, United, Continental and Delta (along with its Northwest subsidiary) flights. Translation: After just two transpacific roundtrips, you’re set for gold status on your favorite US airline for the rest of 2009 and the whole of 2010. (Each carrier has slightly different fine print – see their websites.) Non-US-based carriers, however, are less generous; so far none have followed suit.

For my Boston hop, I chose to connect through San Francisco because it offered some 2,500 more miles than the Chicago or DC routing. For a 17,236-mile Beijing-Boston roundtrip, USD 875 was already an appealing fare. Throwing in double EQM (the promotion) and double RDM (my status), I was sold. After a hearty lobster meal in Chinatown and a boisterous dorm party at Harvard, even jet lag felt like a small price to pay. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the May 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.