Sunday, 18 March 2007
The Amazing Race 11 (All-Star Edition), Episode 5
Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) - Ushuaia (Argentina) - Maputo (Mozambique)
I'm tempted to reminisce about my experiences in the markets of Maputo, Mozambique, the scene of The Amazing Race this week.
But I'll leave that for next week. First, I have to talk about this week's airline routing challenge: getting from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Maputo.
The most direct and fastest connections, on the days when the best flights operate, involve at least three flights, two changes of planes in Buenos Aires and Johannesburg, and a transfer between the domestic and international airports in Buenos Aires. Probably because of the day of the week, the racers all ended up on the same four flights, with an additional change of planes in São Paulo. The racers left Ushuaia on day 1, and arrived in Maputo on day 3. That's the most complicated airline itinerary, and one of the longest total journey times, in any season of the race to date.
The lack of direct flights across the South Atlantic surprises many people who assume that airline route networks are equally dense, and schedules equally frequent, everywhere in the (populated) world. But because airline routes follow trade routes and money, and there is little trade between Latin America and Africa, there are only a handful of direct flights between the Mercosur countries (the "Southern Cone") and Southern Africa.
I'll never forget the inquiry I got in 1997, at the travel agency where I was then working, from someone who wanted me to give him prices for tickets on a route around the world, with each flight on an inflexible date in the year 2000 that had already been fixed (before it was even known if there would be any flights on that day), including leaving San Carlos de Bariloche (another provincial Argentine city, north of Ushuaia) and arriving in Capetown the same day. In a single day. With 250 people. All of them with bicycles, to be transported with them on the same plane(s).
The query came from a man named Tim Kneeland, who I learned was organizing a bicycle tour around the world called "Odyssey 2000". What I only later learned was that he had never organized an international event or one involving air travel, and that he had already fixed his "budget" and price before he made any attempt to find out what the air tickets (and air cargo and/or excess baggage charges for the bicycles) would cost, and without having any contracts with local tour operators or firm prices for accommodations or other services in any of the countries on his planned route.
I tried to point out some of the problems in his plan, as epitomized by the "Bariloche to Capetown in a day" line on the proposed itinerary: There are no direct intercontinental flights from Ushuaia. The most direct connections would take at least an additional day, maybe two. The only plane that could carry 250 people, their luggage, and 250 bicycles is a Boeing 747. There is no scheduled 747 service to Ushuaia, and unless they chartered a plane (at substantial additional cost, including the cost of flying it empty to Ushuaia to pick them up), no airline would be likely to let them take over the entire flight to accommodate such a large group. As I later testified,
Mr. Kneeland's fax listed travel from Bariloche to Capetown as occurring in a single day. I pointed out that there were (and are) no scheduled intercontinental flights from Bariloche, so that the group would need to travel via Buenos Aries; that even from Buenos Aires there aren't flights to Capetown every day; that it might not be possible to accommodate the whole group on one flight even on a widebody; and that the scheduled flights from Buenos Aires to Capetown are overnight flights that arrive the following day. So I recommended that he allot at least three travel days in the schedule for this leg of the journey: I recommended he make sure that everyone had assembled at the end of the ride in Bariloche by the evening of day zero, so that you could fly to Buenos Aires on travel day one (probably distributed over several flights), so as to be able to board the flight from Buenos Aires on travel day two, to arrive in Capetown on travel day three, and to be ready to resume riding from Capetown on day four.
I made some other suggestions, such as that he cut down the number of flights in the year-long itinerary, have a second set of bicycles (so that one set could be sent ahead separately by slower, cheaper means), and allow several days for each air transfer, so that the group could be distributed between several scheduled flights and avoid the necessity for expensive one-way wide-body charter flights.
I also offered to investigate prices of charter flights, if Mr. Kneeland was really insistent on his proposed itinerary (he was) and was prepared to start putting down nonrefundable deposits with airlines (he wasn't, even though I later learned that he was already accepting nonrefundable deposits from prospective Odyssey 2000 riders).
It's not unusual to contact a travel agent early in the planning process, and with plans that turn out to be unrealistic for reasons an inexperienced world traveller wouldn't realize. But what really set Mr. Kneeland apart from the crowd was his refusal to listen to what I, or anyone else he consulted, tried to tell him.
When Mr. Kneeland decided not to utilize my services, I assumed that would be the last I'd ever hear of him or "Odyssey 2000". No such luck. The saga of Odyssey 2000 would haunt me -- and, even more, the participants -- for years.
As an expert on around-the-world travel, I was interviewed about the plans for Odyseey 2000 for a preview of the tour on pages 16-19 of the November/December 1998 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. (Sorry -- the article itself is not online.) I talked about some of my concerns about whether the tour operator ("Tim Kneeland and Associates") had enough experience with group airfares or international operations (their previous tours were all land tours in the USA) to take on such a large, such a complex, and above all such an international undertaking.
Once the story appeared in print, I began hearing from prospective riders who were already beginning to have doubts about whether they would get what they had paid for -- in spite of continuing to be excited (as I would be) at the thought of bicycling around the world.
Once the ride began. the news just kept getting worse, with tragic inevitability. With no local operators under contract, and a grossly inadequate advance staff ahead of the ride's arrival, logistics often broke down or the riders arrived to find that there were no reservations for them. The schedule had to be modified to accommodate spreading the group out between multiple flights, since they and their bicycles wouldn't all fit on any one plane smaller than a 747 -- even a Lockheed L-1011 widebody .
As I expected, the leg from provincial Argentina to South Africa proved among the most problematic. According to records I eventually reviewed as an expert witness in an arbitration, Mr. Kneeland ended up paying US$500,000 to charter a 747 to carry the group and their bikes from Bariloche to Capetown. Odyssey 2000 riders said they were told it was the first 747 ever seen at Bariloche airport, and it still had to stop in Buenos Aires to refuel. At that, the price was a bargain: the 747 was chartered on a one-way basis from a sheikh who had piloted it himself as his private plane to go falconing in Patagonia, and was happy to get partial payment toward flying it (and himself, and his falcons, and the Odyssey 2000 riders, and their bicycles) back towards his home in Qatar by way of South Africa.
But Odyssey 2000 started out around the world with neither airline tickets nor contractual commitments for prices of air transportation. Even with luck like meeting the sheikh, one-way charter flights proved, as I had predicted, hugely more expensive per person than airfare on scheduled airlines.
Tim Kneeland and Associates ran out of money part way through the year, and those riders who didn't want to be sent home two months early from Singapore had to pay an extra US$3,000 in (entirely foreseeable) airfare charges to complete the originally advertised itinerary. The bicycles didn't make it to some of the places on the route, even for those who paid the extra airfare. The "riders" were taken by bus from campsite to campsite in Japan, along the originally intended ride route. For more of the tragicomic (yet, for many riders, inspiring, and empowering) details, see these follow-up stories in Outside and Adventure Cyclist magazines, and this collection of rider comments and other documents assembled by Matt Newcomb, who took a year off from his regular job in Antarctica to go on the tour (and who "wants his $36,000 back").
After the riders got home, several of them took their claims against Tim Kneeland and associates to arbitration, and I was called as both a material and an expert witness. (See the declarations here and here ).
Eventually, Tim Kneeland and Associates went bankrupt, and all of its assets including its business names and trademarks were awarded to the claimant in one of the arbitrations. He didn't expect to get any money for them, but hoped that this would keep Mr. Kneeland and his company out of the business of operating tours.
No such luck: As typically happens when tour operators and other travel companies go bust, Mr. Kneeland is back in business under a new name. He refers to "closing Tim Kneeland and Associates", not mentioning that it was liquidated by order of the bankruptcy court. And he still lists the Odyssey 2000 fiasco proudly on his resume .
Many of the riders are glad they took part in Odyssey 200, and many give credit to Tim Kneeland for inspring and empowering them to do it. Whether or not they would do it again, they are entitled to be proud of themselves and the community which they formed for themselves (no thanks to the "organizers").
The lesson, perhaps, is, "Do it -- but caveat emptor".Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 18 March 2007, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)