It's the New Year and it seems only appropriate that some of the more deserving countries, companies and individuals, as well as some of the great moments in travel during the past year, be recognized.
So without further fanfare, my nominations for some special travel awards:
The "And You Thought U.S. Customs Was Tough" award: the Soviet Union.
Recently, the body of a British tourist who died while touring the Soviet Union was sent to the British Embassy in Moscow, minus the gold fillings in the man's teeth. The Soviets explained that since the man had not claimed the gold he was "carrying" when he entered the Soviet Union, he could not be allowed to leave with it.
The "And You Call This a Tip?" award: the cab drivers of Paris.
Cabbies there are installing something called the "blazing seat," an electric passenger cushion attached to a battery. Designed to protect drivers from muggers and thieves, the cushion delivers a powerful 52,000 volts.
Good as Gold
The "Who Ordered the Kosher Meal?" award: Donna Walker, president of Houston-based International Documents Service.
The company sells authentic-looking "Republic of Ceylon" passports to travelers worried about hostage-taking incidents in which American citizens are frequently targeted. Only thing is, Ceylon is now called Sri Lanka.
The "Decline of Western Civilization" award: Duncan Industries.
The company announced that its main product--parking meters--has been sold to more than 800 cities in 45 nations on six continents, including Australia.
The "Have a G'Day" award: Surfers' Paradise, near Brisbane, Australia.
For the last 22 years the local chamber of commerce has hired special meter maids whose only job is to put coins into expired meters so that visiting motorists are spared parking tickets.
Running for Daylight
The "Most Expensive Way to Beat Jet Lag" award: Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abulaziz Alsaud.
When the prince, along with his wife, two children and a 17-person entourage arrived for an eight-day vacation in South Carolina, he decreed he didn't want to be affected by jet lag. He had the Hilton Hotel install $4,000 worth of lights and a volleyball court so that he and his family could maintain their natural body clocks and still be on local Riyadh time. Not only was there a lot of midnight volleyball and swimming, but lunch was served daily at 2 a.m.
The "I've Heard of Penalty Fares but This Is Ridiculous" award: British Airways.
The airline ordered thousands of pairs of plastic handcuffs to be kept on all of its airplanes for use on unruly passengers.
The "If It Is Broken, Please Fix It" award: Sudan Airways. The airline announced in October that it had suspended all flights for 10 days to allow for "a major overhaul" of its entire fleet (five aging 707s and two 737s).
The "Worst Exercise of the Territorial Imperative by an Individual" award: taxi dispatcher No. 222 at New York's La Guardia Airport.
Despite the fact that it was early on a Sunday morning, there was no traffic and there were dozens of waiting cabs, he insisted on making a passenger heavily laden with luggage struggle an additional 75 feet before allowing him into a waiting cab. Even the other cabbies couldn't believe it.
The "Worst Exercise of the Territorial Imperative by a Group" award: the Miami police department.
When Eastern Airlines canceled a widebody flight to New York with 317 passengers last September, the replacement jet for the flight, a 727, could only accommodate 149 passengers. When angry passengers crowded the ticket counter, police were summoned. They told passengers and bystanders that they were trespassing, and that's when things got ugly. Five people were arrested, including a 14-year-old passenger who was charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.
The "Most Improved Customs" award: the Cairo airport.
Not only is the system more streamlined, but inspectors no longer require incoming passengers to buy Egyptian currency on entering the country. (The Egyptian pound now floats, and the black market for U.S. dollars has all but disappeared.)
The "Hottest Security Check" award: Indian Airlines. At its check-in counter in Srinagar, Kashmir, a sign reads that it is illegal to carry "scissors, knives, guns, weapons, or red chili peppers."
The "Worst Airline Breakfast" award: the omelet served on many USAir flights. It's chewy, tough and dry. Rumor has it that scientists have discovered the omelet can also be used as a flotation device in the event of a landing on water.
The "Fastest In-Flight Service" award: Aloha Airlines lead flight attendant Lisa Fontes.
She somehow managed to serve drinks--and even refills--to more than 100 passengers on each of her inter-island flights around Hawaii, despite the fact that none of Aloha's flights lasts more than 20 minutes.
Love on Cloud 9
The "Even Faster In-Flight Service" award: Mitchell and Cindy Martina, a newlywed couple from Huntington Beach.
They apparently couldn't wait to get back to Los Angeles to start their honeymoon. Shortly after their plane left Tampa, Fla., the couple performed their own takeoff ritual, in full view of fellow passengers. The Continental plane made an unscheduled stop in Houston, and the couple were fined $1,000 apiece and sentenced to two years probation for assault and lewd conduct. They spent their first night of wedded bliss in the Harris County jail . . . in separate cells.
And, finally, the "Blind Faith" award: the passengers on board a recent CAAC flight.
The passengers had waited more than two hours after the scheduled departure time to board the airline's intra-China flight. The plane for that flight had been on the ground for quite some time, but no departure announcement had been made. Finally, a CAAC agent attempted to explain the delay: "The plane scheduled for this flight is very sick," she said over the public address system. "So we cannot take it."
Passengers were then told that a replacement plane was on the way. Another two hours passed, and the replacement plane arrived. But then, as passengers queued to board it, another announcement was made. "The new plane has arrived," said the CAAC agent, "but it is more sick than the first plane. So we will take the first plane."
And, without any apparent emotion, the passengers dutifully boarded the ailing jet.