In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Couchsurfer rhymes a “gift rap” to his host

Hello.

Couchsurfer Matthew Bloomfield really appreciated his stay at host Elmar Bierbaum’s apartment in Lima, Peru. If fact, he felt so grateful that he composed a rap as a tribute to Bierbaum (and he stayed within the 1,000-word limit for a CouchSurfing reference).

Bloomfield calls himself “The Rapping Professor”, as he not only writes rhymes for those you give him a couch to sleep on, but also for his day job. An event entertainer, the rapper has been able to break into an unusual niche and has been very successful, even performing at corporate parties in Asia.

Check out the Rapping Professor’s talents for yourself in the clip above.

Cockpit Chronicles: There’s more behind the Air France 447 crash than pilot error

Recently a couple of pilots found themselves in a situation that was foreign and perplexing to them; a scenario the designers of the airplane hadn’t fully expected. They fought their way for 3 minutes and 30 seconds while trying to understand what was happening after a failure of one of the pitot static systems on their Airbus A330. At times the flying pilot’s inputs exacerbated the problem when he assumed they were flying too fast rather than too slow.

Because they hadn’t seen anything like this in the simulator, and the airplane was giving conflicting information, the recovery would have been all the more difficult.

Pilots are taught that an erroneous airspeed indicator can be countered by paying close attention to their pitch and power. It sounds so simple that many pilots wonder aloud, just how anyone in the situation could mess it up.

In the early morning hours of June 1st, 2009, the pilots of Air France flight 447 were working their way around thunderstorms while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in the widebody Airbus A330.

A faulty pitot tube created a situation where any changes in pressure resulted in fluctuations in the airspeed indicator. To understand how difficult it is to recognize this problem and then correct for it, let me use the following analogy:

Imagine you’re driving a car at night. You come down a hill and you feel the cruise control back off on the gas to prevent the car from going too fast. Just as you look down at your speed noticing that it is, in fact increasing, a siren and lights go off behind you. A police car has woken you up from your late night drive.

Instinctively you kick off the cruise control and apply the brakes. The speedometer indicates you’re still accelerating, so you press harder on the brakes. Your car has now decided that because you’re trying to slow so quickly, it will shut off the anti-skid braking system and allow you to use manual brakes. You then skid off the road and into a ditch.

Based on the released information about one of the most mysterious accidents in recent history, it appears the pilots of Air France 447 faced a set of circumstances similar to our driving example.When flying in turbulence, it’s important to watch your airspeed. Flying too fast will result in a situation called mach tuck, where the nose can slowly pitch over and the controls lose their effectiveness.

Flying too slow can result in a stall. Not an engine ‘stall’ as might be incorrectly reported by the press, but an aerodynamic stall where the wings aren’t developing enough lift, and an immediate increase in the airspeed is needed to recover. Here’s a tip for reporters. In aviation, the term ‘stall’ will never be used to describe engines that fail. Ever.

Up at altitude, the difference between flying too slow and too fast can be as little as 20 knots. It’s called the ‘coffin corner,’ a morbid term used to describe narrow band of airspeed that we need to maintain.

In this 767 example above, the airplane has a very safe margin between
too slow and too fast, as shown on the airspeed indicator on the left.

While working their way around clusters of cumulonimbus clouds in the inter-tropical convergence zone that night, our two first officers (the captain was in the back on his planned rest break) did their best to stay away from the weather.

A side note: whoever takes the second break is usually the pilot who made the takeoff and who will also make the landing. So the relief pilot (who’s a type-rated copilot) took over the flying related duties while the captain slept.

Back to the flight: During turbulence, maintaining that speed can be more difficult, much in the way it’s tough to hold the speed in a car going over hills. You may look down after studying the weather only to notice that the auto throttles aren’t holding the .80 mach speed you have selected and the airplane is now at mach .83 and accelerating. In a moment, the clacker goes off, indicating you’re now exceeding the normal cruise speed of the airplane, which certainly gets your attention, much like the sirens of the police car in our example.

In the case of Air France 447, the autopilot kicked off in response to the overspeed, and was followed by a warning Airbus calls a ‘cavalry charge’ sound which is designed to get your attention quickly. About 30 seconds later the auto throttles were turned off manually and the throttles were pulled back, but it takes an eternity to slow down such a slippery airplane, and it may have seemed to the flying pilot that he was still accelerating anyway. So he pulled the nose up, an effective way to slow down in a critical situation like this. (See last week’s post on the eight ways to slow a jet.)

Amazingly, as the airplane climbed from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet the airspeed continued to increase, at least that’s what it looked like on the flying pilot’s side of the airplane. He must have been surprised then to hear the stall warning activate moments later, indicating that they were flying too slow.

The other pilot likely noticed the airspeed on his side was decreasing, and perhaps because he saw the difference between both airspeed indicators, he’s heard to say on the recording that “we’ve lost the speeds.”

They had slowed from 275 knots indicated to 60 knots, at which point the airplane went into a mode called ‘alternate law’ which meant the automatic protections that kept the airplane from stalling were removed.

To make matters worse, the stabilizer trim moved from 3 degrees to 13 degrees nose up, which meant the airplane may have needed almost full nose down inputs on the stick just to fly level.

And to further confuse and confound the pilots, it’s recently been reported that as the airplane slowed further, the stall warning stopped. When max power was applied and the nose was lowered at one point, the stall warning came back. This is opposite of what the pilots were looking for in a recovery.

The airplane ‘mushed’ in a 15 degree nose up attitude all the way to the water, at a rate of 11,000 feet per minute.

We occasionally train for unreliable airspeed indications, but it isn’t covered during every recurrent training period. Stall training is often limited to the low altitude variety, which is far less critical than one occurring at 35,000 feet. I’m certain training departments all over the world will soon be required to train for high altitude stall recoveries.

Since this will take some time to become a requirement, on a recent simulator session, I asked my instructor to give me a loss of airspeed scenario at altitude. I told him I’d prefer to have the failure at any random point during our four hours of simulator time that day.

When he eventually failed it, causing the airspeed to slowly increase, I immediately pulled the throttles back and raised the nose a bit. The non-flying pilot simply said ‘airspeed’ which I thought was obvious, as it appeared to me that the airplane was accelerating rapidly and I was doing my best to get it back under control.

But on his side, the airspeed was dropping rapidly. When he said “airspeed” he actually meant that the airspeed was slowing and that I needed to do something about it. I finally looked over at his side, and saw that his speed was actually decreasing while mine increased. This all occurred within ten to twenty seconds.

I immediately lowered the nose and told him that I suspected my airspeed indicator had malfunctioned. Since my indicator was useless, I offered the airplane to him.

It’s easy for pilots to harp that “pitch and power equals performance” but it’s not easy to ignore the instruments you’ve trusted for thousands of hours. For the pilots of Air France 447, the incorrect airspeed indications and confusing stall warning sounds that were caused by a failure of the pitot static system proved to be too much to handle.

Furthermore, the Airbus design reinforced ideas that counter everything a pilot is taught, Specifically, these pilots learned that pulling the stick full aft would not result in a stall when the airplane was operating under a condition known as “normal law.” Much of their careers had been flown in airplanes with this feature. That night, after the initial climb, they were operating under “alternate law” which allowed far greater changes to the flight envelope, and removed that protection.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes.

Much of the focus of the accident in the press has been to blame the pilots for clearly stalling the plane. One strange headline read “Baby pilot at the controls of AF 447.

The ‘baby pilot’ was actually 32 years-old and had previously flown an A320 for 4 years and the A330/340 for just over a year. He had 2,936 hours of flight time with 807 hours in the A330/340.

The other copilot, at age 37 had 6,547 hours with 4,479 of them in the A330/340. Sadly, his wife was also on board the aircraft as a passenger.

And the 58 year-old captain, who came to the cockpit from his break halfway through the event had 11,000 hours of which 1,747 were in the A330/340.

I’ve said it before; in the eyes of the media, pilots are either heroes or villains depending on the outcome of the flight. These pilots faced challenges few of us have ever come across. Given the mechanical failures that started the chain of events, there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. Events like these have a profound impact on our training and help prevent future accidents. And at least that is something we can be thankful for.

In case you’re interested in even more details, AvHerald has an excellent summary of the BEA preliminary Air France 447 accident report.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Fortnighter launches, providing customized expert travel advice

travel adviceEver wish you could have a travel magazine or guidebook written just for you, catering to your specific interests and full of up-to-date travel advice? The new travel website Fortnighter offers just that–customized itineraries written by professional travel writers.

How does it work?
Start with a destination, specify who you’re traveling with (solo, as a couple, or with friends), and the number of days (currently 3, 5, or 7). You’ll be quoted a fee of $100 – $200 depending on the number of days and given a questionnaire to fill out with your interests and specifications. One week later, Fortnighter will send back a PDF with a detailed run-down of what to do and where to eat and stay (check out a sample itinerary here).

How can I trust the travel advice on Fortnighter?
The contributors have written for all the big travel outlets, from the New York Times to Condé Nast Traveler to Fodor’s guidebooks, travel frequently both for a living and because it’s what they love. All itineraries come without writer bylines, to ensure that their advice comes without bias or influence from hotels or restaurants. Plus, we can personally vouch for the site – it was founded by writer Alexander Basek, a friend and colleague to many of Gadling’s contributors.

Why should I pay for travel advice?
If you’ve ever spent time on Trip Advisor or other user-generated websites, you’ll know that sometimes you want expert advice from people who travel extensively, not just people who want to complain about the airplane movie or that their towel wasn’t folded into the right animal. Just because Joe Blow loves a restaurant featured in all the guidebooks doesn’t mean a single local would eat there, and you might miss out on a great small hotel if they don’t have a fancy website optimized to come to the top of your Google search. Fortnighter writers are selected based on their personal expertise and experience, and are often located in the destinations they write about to provide local recommendations. It’s a fraction of the cost of a customized tour, and you can do it independently and at your own pace.

Sound good to you? Check it out at www.fortnighter.com and share your experiences with us.

Where are all the travel guide apps for Android?

travel guide apps for AndroidNearly two years ago, I bought my first smartphone: the T-Mobile Android MyTouch*. I’m only occasionally jealous of my iPhone-carrying friends, as I find few travel guide apps for Android. Even after a move to Istanbul, I still use and rely upon it daily; Android‘s interface is fast and easy-to-use, and seamless use of Google applications like Gmail and Google Maps is part of the reason I bought it in the first place. Living in a foreign country means English-language books and magazines are expensive and hard-to-find, and like many travelers, I don’t want to carry bulky books around when I’m on the road. This leaves a perfect opportunity for mobile developers to provide real travel guide content and not just travel-booking apps, especially apps produced by reliable media sources with professional editorial. These days, every guidebook and travel magazine publisher is coming out with apps for the iPhone and now iPad, supplying users with content and directions on the go, but there are hardly any for Android.

So what’s available for mobile travelers from the top travel book and print sources? Better hope you’re running Apple OS…Guidebooks:

  • Fodor’s: Happy 75th Birthday Mr. Fodor, but we wish you had more than just five city guides for purchase (in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco) and only for Apple.
  • Frommer’s: iPhone guides are available for ten major cities in the US, Europe and Asia, but nada for Android.
  • Lonely Planet: iPhone users are spoiled for choice: dozens of city guides, language phrasebooks, audio walking tours, and eBooks optimized for the iPad. Android users in 32 countries including the US are in luck: there’s a free Trippy app to organize itinerary items, as well as 25 “augmented reality” Compass city guides and 14 phrasebooks. NOTE: This article originally mentioned that the Compass guides were unavailable in the Android Market store, but they should work for most US users. I happen to be in a country where paid apps are not available and not shown in the Market.
  • LUXE City Guides: 20 cheeky city guides work for a variety of mobile phones, including iPhone and Blackberry, but none are compatible with my Android. Bonus: the apps come with free regular updates and maps that the paper guides don’t have.
  • Rick Steves: If you are headed to Europe, you can get audio guides for many big attractions and historic walks for iPhone, plus maps for the iPad. You can also download the audio files free for your computer, and props to Rick for mentioning that Android apps are at least in development.
  • Rough Guides: Here’s a new one: the Rough Guides app works for many phones but NOT the iPhone OR Android! It’s not as slick as some of the other guides (it’s a Java app) and you will use data to use it on the road, but it provides lots of info for many cities in Europe. You can also find a Rough Guides photo app on iTunes to view pictures from around the world with Google Maps and captions from Rough Guides.
  • Time Out: City travelers and residents might want to look at the apps from Time Out for 5 European cities and Buenos Aires, with Manchester and New York on the way. More cities are available for free on iTunes, search for Time Out on iTunes to see what’s available. iPhone only.
  • Wallpaper* City Guides: 10 of the design mag’s 80 city guides are for sale for iPhone for Europe, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.

Print media:

  • Conde Nast Traveler: It makes sense for magazines to embrace the iPad, and CNT has free Apple apps specifically for Italy, cruises, and their annual Gold List of hotels and resorts. Blackberry users can download an etiquette guide, but Android users are snubbed.
  • National Geographic: As befitting any explorer, Nat Geo has a world atlas, national parks maps, and games featuring their amazing photography, all for iPhone. A special interactive edition of National Geographic Traveler is for sale on the iPad; you can also read it on your computer. Androids can download a quiz game and various wallpapers; and all mobile users can access a mobile-friendly version of their website at natgeomobile.com.
  • Outside: Adventure travelers can purchase and read full issues on the iPad, but no subscription option yet.
  • Travel + Leisure: The other big travel glossy also has an iPad app for special issues. Four issues have been released so far with one available now on iTunes (romantic getaways) but future editions will follow to be read on the app. Just in time for spring break and summer, they’ve also released a Travel + Leisure Family app with advice and articles specifically geared towards travel and families. The apps are both free but you’ll need an iPad – these are designed for tablets, not phones. You can also read full issues of T+L and their foodie cousin Food & Wine on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color ereader; you can save per issue if you subscribe to the e-reader version.
  • USA Today Travel: Most major newspapers have mobile readers for all types of phones, but USA Today is the only one with their own travel-specific app. AutoPilot combines an array of cool travel booking capabilities and information with articles and blog post from the newspaper. Only iPhone users can enjoy free.

Two of our favorite magazines, Budget Travel and Afar, have no mobile apps yet but great online communities to tap into their extensive knowledge.

All in all, other than Lonely Planet’s Compass guides, a pretty weak showing for Android travelers. While iPhone has been around longer as a mobile platform that Android, they’ve lost the market share of users to the little green robot. As Android is available on a variety of phone manufacturers and providers, expect that number to continue to grow, along with the variety and depth of content for mobile and tablet users. Will the developers ever catch up or will travelers have to choose?

*Android has not endorsed this or paid me anything to write about them. But to show I’m not biased – Apple, feel free to send me a sample phone and I’ll test out the apps!

Photo courtesy Flickr user closari. Special thanks to Sean O’Neill, who blogs on Budget Travel and the new BBC Travel blog.