Sunday, May 06, 2012

Fountain Hills

I am now on another social networking site called Travel Buddy. Although I joined recently, it has been an eye opener for me in reading so many travel blogs from travellers around the World and also to see their photographs, videos and information about each place. First hand accounts are always fun to read and coming from non commercial sources such as you and me, they are far more grounded in reality and the perspective is from the ground level.

I blogged about my visit to Fountain Hills, Arizona..soon after my visit to Sun N Fun in Florida that I blogged about just before this one. LINK here to read previous blog. Now, instead of uploading photos and videos all over again to this blog, I will give a link to my Blog on TravelBuddy and that has all information including links to the Hotel I stayed at. There are options to review everything based on personal experience and that, along with other easy features makes it much easier to write and post than this Blogger here. Here is the LINK to the article (with photos and video) about the small but pretty town of Fountain Hills, Arizona, USA where you will find the World's tallest fountain, in the middle of a desert community!

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Sun N Fun Florida!

At the outset, the title alludes to an aviation event by the same name, that is held in Florida each year. For those who love aviation and for those who like seeing pictures of the Airplanes, you can visit the blog full of pictures by clicking HERE. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


This is a Blog about our experiences flying the Lake 250 Amphibious Aircraft. The videos are fun to watch although an amateur attempt using the phone! The Blog shows water landings and take offs from lakes and canals, some high speed on water movements and landing at airport too. This is the LINK to the Blog and videos. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 01, 2012


The earlier blog was published in 2006 and available on this link HEREThis is an updated version of the same.

Airlines make news for all kinds of reasons and lately it is all for all the wrong reasons. Airlines Worldwide are having problems compounded by rising fuel prices. Airlines in India, however, face a multitude of problems starting from the promoters own fault of improper business plans and setting out in a business that has generally a very low tolerance for mistakes of any kind to a regulator who believes in reacting to situations than action to prevent something from happening and the problem carries on to poor planning, high cost of fuel, irrational pricing and as one can see, it starts becoming one long endless list of woes.

Now, coming to the story in India, people who made claims that their Airline will make profits from the first year of starting operations, face heavy losses, if one cares to remember flamboyant Liquor Baron Vijay Mallya’s statements when they first launched their Airline. It’s not good times for them or their competition, even though the Indian market has grown tremendously and is set to grow at a rapid pace further.

I don’t claim that I was the only one who saw it coming when I made those predictions in 2005/06 (and got a lot of flak for it back then), about losses in aviation and the need to merge, consolidate and all that, there were a few others, but industry captains at that time were quite smug in their attitude. Not too many of the so-called experts whose sound bites get recorded from time to time in India predicted a bloodbath in terms of red ink. I did, but got ink thrown at me for being overly negative in outlook. Now fast forward from 2005/06 to 2012 and I am clearly vindicated. I never wished something bad to happen, only saw that the learning curve that the Airlines in India were starting on was something we had all gone through and seen in the West. Now who listens to free advice?

One of these Aviation expert organizations even gave away awards for Airlines as being the best in terms of glitz, glamour, quality of service and so on. Of course surveys were conducted using passenger’s feedback and that too in the era before IndiGo came around and offered on time reliable service. Pamper a guy and he'll love you. Ask him about management of the Airline, ground operations chaos, technical deficiencies and he'll give you a blank look. No wonder die hard Kingfisher fans feel let down by their favourite Airline’s dismal performance. Pampering your customer is good but how about running a profitable company? How about getting an award for being the most profitable or even barely viable Airline of the year? First prize goes to so and so Airline for making ends meet. That would be good. I had said in that 2006 Blog that there would be no Airline in India that can claim this prize at the moment. That was before IndiGo started and now quietly going about their business for expanding their fleet and network across India and a few International sectors.

The Captains of the industry only saw roses or fooled the public into thinking that way and made money out of them. Case in point Jet Airways Initial Public Offering priced at Indian Rupees 1250 (was it) and the share value is now down to less than half the IPO amount. This is what I wrote back in 2006. JetAir stock price today in Feb 2012 is approximately Rs.306!  Even less than I had thought it would sink to from its lofty IPO offering that was lapped up by investors. I was one of the few holding a red flag and no one bothered.

Here is a paragraph I wrote in 206 that still holds good, mostly, even now: “Sure there are genuine problems of tarmac space; congestion in the skies, antiquated air traffic equipment and systems, ill-trained foreign (chaps who can't speak English well enough to be understood by ATC) and Indian pilots (who can't land in Delhi in fog because they are not suitably trained), add the lack of quality middle and upper management and the masala becomes a dangerous mix. Add to this broth, the offering of free seats, deeply discounted cheap tickets, free gifts, low cut blouses and short skirts and you’ve got the public salivating and traveling in larger numbers than ever before. Good for the common man and he should make the most of it while the party lasts”. Cut to 2012 and apparently the party is over for many players! Air Deccan is long gone and so is Air Sahara. The party animal, King of Good times Kingfisher, moves from the edge of the precipice being held back  by a single strand of hair.

I wrote this in 2006: That’s when mergers and consolidations become a necessity, and I still predict some large scale bankruptcies that will leave a lot of employees and others high and dry. People who you see on TV sporting large smiles and making outlandish predictions will get out of the business, surely they are packaging the business to sell- cut to 2012- I said this of Kingfisher Airlines who is now banking on foreign Airlines to come in an pump in fresh equity.

I said in 2005/06: “Airlines in India have already consolidated in one way. They have formed a lobby of sorts. Long term scenario? Let’s see now. I'l close my eyes, pretend I am a soothsayer and predict that a couple of Airlines are going to go down (as in closing down, don’t want to scare the reader), a couple of them being sold off and a few mergers happening. Result will be that the fare paying passenger is going to have to pay more money, that’s for sure. In any case, running an Airline below cost (or any other business for that matter) is not viable. Don't need to be an expert to say this”.

Also in 2006, I wrote: “There’s another curious activity going on these days that’s also making news. Financial companies, investment firms and other corporate types are buying up small equity shares in some of the Airlines. I don’t know why and some seem keen on picking up larger equity. I don’t know who is advising these guys and I’ll bet there is an army of CA’s and MBA’s in ties involved. Oh, I did hear some sound bites from the “experts” about this and they were saying: “these are very positive a signs indeed, signs of maturity, such an investment lends credibility etc etc” and all that hogwash these guys come up with. And they get paid a mint, mind you, to say all this rubbish”. Remember the late 90’s when over a hundred chaps in ties converged on Damania Airways and the Airline was taken over by NEPC Airlines in what was then termed as the “fastest Airline take over in the history of aviation”. Remember that? What the business magazines, newspapers and TV’s forgot to mention later was, that this was also perhaps the “fastest Airline to go down the tubes after the takeover in history”. Leave the suits and ties chaps who came out Biz schools out of this, they don’t understand aviation. You don’t wear a suit and sit in an office and learn about aviation”.

I come back to the present day and can’t help feeling despondent about what I wrote back then 5-6 years ago. I am not happy at being proven right. Anyway, moving forward, here are things that I see currently happening. Indian Government, after a long stupor has decided to favour some players and permit foreign Airlines FDI in Indian aviation. They have also decided to let go of their Oil companies monopoly to help Airlines import fuel directly and avoid paying taxes. Are these moves going to help? I am left wondering about it too. While these are factors that may help bottomlines, I still don’t see anything but an erosion of values in the Industry.

One can throw freebies and incentives one after another to help the sector but fundamental changes need to take places, starting immediately by professionalizing the DGCA into a Civil Aviation Authority. The Airlines have to go back to the drawing board and put a practical business plan together, one that will help them grow and consolidate steadily instead of a mad ego driven rush to topple so and so from the top of the leader board. Pragmatism must set in. A fundamental shift in the sector must take place. Innovation must be a driver in this endeavour. I see some of them doing this, like IndiGo. Rest of them, including state owned Air India is sleep walking as I see it. Unless they re-invent themselves, Airlines like Kingfisher and others will keep afloat only by kicking the can further down the road. And that is never a solution for an Industry with wafer thin margins. Let us hope that the aviation sector in India and elsewhere have Happy Landings in the future, in the near future. We can only hope. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Blue Whales of Sri Lanka

January started off well and a trip overseas to Sri Lanka happened. I've been to this beautiful island Nation many times in the past but now that the internal conflict is over and peace reigns, its a greater pleasure to visit and do business or go on a holiday. 

Before I start off on my Whale of a Tale, let me update some important information on travel to Sri Lanka. As of January 2012, all visitors to Sri Lanka need to apply and obtain an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) before embarking on their trip. The one-arrival visa has been scrapped for all Nationalities except Singapore and Maldives, both of whom have given visa free entry to Sri Lankans and hence the reciprocal benefits. An ETA is  Visa that you apply, pay and receive approval entirely online. It is a very simple process, just visit this website and follow easy instructions: It took me 10 minutes to complete, cost me $10 for a double entry visit visa and authorization came by email very soon after. For a limited time, the SL Authorities will still allow foreigners to come without the Authorization, go to an ETA desk at the airport, fill up forms, get Authorization and then go for immigration clearance. This will cost you more and waste so much time and the service may not be available in a couple of months time, so its better to do it online like I did. 

(whale watching boat)

Mirissa is a fishing port about 40 kilometres due East from Galle in Southern Sri Lanka. No one visited the place during conflict years because there was nothing going on except fishing. With the onset of peace and information moving freely, it soon came to light that a few Kms into the sea off Dhondra Point was a pod of "resident"Blue Whales. The best whale watching season in this area is between December and March. All of a sudden, with the news of the whales spreading, the sleepy village of Mirissa became a hotbed of activity with new hotels coming up and new boat operators taking to the Whale watching business. The Sri Lankan Navy pioneered the whale watching trips and still operate on certain days. 

(Look for the fine mist when the whale exhale)

What are these Blue Whales, you may ask. To put it simply, they are the largest animal on the entire planet. There is nothing living on Earth that comes even close in size to these magnificent leviathans of the Deep. Nothing. More info on these beautiful mammals of the Deep is available on another blog mentioned below. Whale watching trips leave very early in the morning and hotel pick ups start around 0600Hrs. There are around a dozen or more boats of various sizes and configuration, that are privately owned and operated. The charges can range from LKR 5,000 to LKR 9,000 (1 US$ = 113 LKR) per person. Once everyone's settled in the boat and life jackets put on, the Coast Guard comes along and takes down the names, passport number and signature of the passengers and makes sure that no boat is carrying more than 25 people. While this is good practise, there is no order or method to the operation of these Whale boats and their methods of chasing down whales leaves much to be desired among us Cetacean lovers who know a thing or two about Dolphins and Whales.

(This is close and they chose to surface nearby as we had no clue and were looking around for them)

So, after the headcount and paperwork got over, we left the fishing harbor of Mirissa and chugged into the open  Indian Ocean. Bread and cheese was served followed by bananas and bottles of water. It so happened, in a season known for flat water, a regional storm had affected the waves and it turned out to a jolly old nightmare. Jolly for me because I enjoyed the Wild heaving of the boat and thanks to my sea-legs, the Boat crew and I were left standing and nightmare for the remaining passengers, mostly foreigners who were constantly throwing up. For those who are naturally seasick or don't know if they are, maybe you should take some seasickness/motion sickness pills before the voyage.

(lone dolphin torpedoing on fish)

A brief glimpse of two Bottle nose Dolphins got our interest going and the anticipation of finding the big Blue Whales soon started to build up, an hour out at sea, heading into deeper waters. Two hours later and seeing plastics floating around in the Ocean thanks to humans all over the World dumping them everywhere, we finally managed to sight a spouting, a fine mist of air and water that is thrown up like a fountain when a Whale surfaces to exhale. Soon, the boats that had all spread over the Ocean started to chug to this point at full speed. After chasing more whale spouts here and there, we were finally lucky to get close to three of them just as they broke the surface and dived underwater. On a day of flat seas, one would have been able to take good photographs but on heaving seas, only a brief respite in the roughness coinciding with the whales surfacing, made it happen for our group. 

(pod of dolphins)
After 3 hours, the boat decided to leave the poor Whales to their feeding undisturbed and made way back to the harbor. On the return, we were treated to a delightful pod of Dolphins that were corralling fish together into a ball and tearing through them to feed. That was the highlight of the trip.

(video of the dolphin pod)

I made it to Galle for the evening and settled down near the sea shore at a chalet. It was back to Colombo the next day. While this trip was a week of good times and meeting people, there are more trips to Sri Lanka this year in the offing. There will be opportunities for me to visit more places and re-visit all the places that I have been to, in the past. More blogs may follow those visits. 

For those who want to read more about Blue Whales of Sri Lanka, this wonderful researcher friend Asha De Vos, a Sri Lankan doing her PhD in Australia, writes her blogs and posts her pictures and gives details about them, their feeding, their habitat and so on. Visit her blog here. Asha is also featured in this Aussie Video program about Blue Whales in Sri Lanka, just discount the title of the video because the size of the whale pods are not known and the title claims that this is the biggest colony in the World. Never mind that, watch the video above. There are other whales that visit these waters such as Sperm whales, we didn't see any but I'm hoping that someday in future, I'd be able to say hello to one.

Sri Lanka has everything going for it now. The friendly people, the beautiful tea gardens and of it's high mountain lakes and streams, the fabulously spicy food, the culture of thousands of years, UNESCO World Heritage sites, the land of Elephants and the famed Leopards of Yala and now, the magnificent Blue Whales. It's not like you needed one more reason to visit but it is there now. Enjoy responsibly, as green as possible (and I don't mean from being seasick!), visit and leave nothing behind except footprints and take away nothing except memories. Leave the environment as pristine as you found it.