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U.S. Airlines Fying High, New Hilton Flagship in China: The View from AFAR

Plus: ‘Selfie’ with a hijacker, horseback in southwest England

Between volcanic ash clouds, unexpected takeover bids, and pics with hijackers, it was a wild and wacky week in the world of travel—a fitting prelude to April Fools’ Day. As usual, we’ve summed up the best of the best for you here. If you have any questions or comments about this coverage, please Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. And please share the column with friends. 

Alaskan volcano causing travel delays

Ash spewing from a volcanic eruption in Alaska wreaked havoc on airline schedules this week and prompted the cancelation of about 70 commercial flights. The Pavlof Volcano, 625 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, erupted Sunday and sent an ash cloud 37,000 feet into the sky. That cloud hampered visibility Monday and Tuesday as it traveled northeast, forcing Alaska Airlines to cancel 41 flights Monday and 28 flights Tuesday. By Wednesday, following subsequent (smaller) eruptions, the cloud was lower in the atmosphere, so most flights were able to resume on normal schedules. (In case you’re wondering, volcanic ash is dangerous to airplanes because it’s sharp and abrasive and can cause jet engines to shut down.) Pavlof is one of Alaska’s most active volcanoes.

New Hilton flagship in China

Hilton Worldwide has a new flagship property in China: the Hampton by Hilton Guangzhou Zhujiang New Town. The 223-room hotel opened this week in the Tianhe District, which is Guangzhou’s financial center, sports complexes, and railroad station. The hotel is designed to accommodate both business and leisure travelers; the lobby has multi-functional space to accommodate work groups and families, and the hotel also offers a restaurant, a 24-hour snack bar, a meeting room, and a fitness center. Hilton is planning to expand the Hampton by Hilton brand significantly into the China market over the course of the next few years, and more than 10 new Hampton-branded hotels are scheduled to open by the end of this year alone. We’re excited to see Hampton’s mascot, a cartoon-style panda named “Little Hambpton,” at every opening from here on out.

Stat crunching

Passengers flew in record numbers on U.S. airlines in 2015—at least according to data released by the Department of Transportation this week. Nearly 900 million passengers flew on domestic and foreign airlines in the United States, a 5 percent increase over the previous all-time record set in 2014. Other interesting points in the data: 1) American Airlines carried more passengers in 2015 than any other U.S. airline. 2) American also carried more passengers on international flights to and from the U.S. in 2015 than any other domestic or foreign carrier. 3) British Airways carried more passengers to and from the U.S. than any other foreign airline. 4) Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was the busiest airport in the U.S. last year.

With all of this data, it’s no wonder that a report released this week by the World Travel & Tourism Council indicated the travel industry added 7.2 million jobs in 2015. To put this number into perspective, the travel industry now supports one in 11 jobs on the planet. The Economic Impact Report 2016 also indicated that travel and tourism’s direct contribution to GDP growth outpaced overall GDP country growth in 127 of the 184 countries covered by the research. Looking forward, the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP is forecast to grow by 3.5 percent, which could mean even more job creation by the end of the year.

FAA forecast paints steady future for U.S. airlines

Following years of tumult in the airline industry, it looks like we’re finally in for an era of sustainable growth. This is the takeaway from a new report from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which forecasted the future of U.S. aviation through 2036. The report, titled, “FAA Aerospace Forecast: Fiscal Years 2016-2036,” suggests that both supply and demand are expected to increase gradually over the next two decades without interruption. According to the report, U.S. carriers’ combined domestic and international passenger growth will average 2.2 percent per year during that time. The document also says system capacity is projected to increase by 2.6 percent in 2016, then continue to grow at an average annual rate of 2.5 percent until 2036. An article on Skift provides a good summary of the other findings in the FAA report, but the main points are that industry consolidation is over, regional carriers will thrive, and international travel will skyrocket. For the sake of travelers everywhere, let’s hope all three prognostications are correct.

Royal Caribbean reverses free WiFi plan

Officials at Royal Caribbean announced this week that they will NOT be offering free Wi-Fi on board one of their oldest ships. The move comes six months after Royal Caribbean said it would consider rolling Wi-Fi into standard fares on the Majesty of the Seas. At the time, the idea of free Wi-Fi was part of a plan celebrating Royal Caribbean’s decision not to transfer the “Majesty” to a Spanish cruise operator; instead, Royal Caribbean opted to keep the ship, put it in dry dock, renovate it, and get it back on the seas in time for this year’s summer cruising season. According to an article on Cruise Critic, the decision to nix the free Wi-Fi was due to the need to divert more resources to ship upgrades that will include an expanded pool bar and poolside movie screen, family-friendly hot tubs, and a kids-only pool area.

Merger and acquisition report

After another re-raise in the poker-style bidding war for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, it appears an investment company from China has officially abandoned its efforts, effectively ceding the acquisition to rival Marriott International. Earlier this week, the investment company, Anbang Insurance Group, upped its offer to $82.75 per share—a bid that exceeded Marriott’s previous best offer of $79.53 per share. With Marriott’s new offer of $13.6 billion, however, it is now likely that Starwood investors will vote for the takeover at a shareholder meeting in April. So what accounts for Anbang’s decision not to pursue the matter further? A Thursday release from Anbang cited “market considerations,” and some news outlets speculated that China's insurance regulator would likely have rejected a bid by Anbang to buy Starwood, since it would put the insurer's offshore assets above a 15 percent threshold for overseas investments. Regardless, an article in Forbes magazine indicated Anbang caused the price of Starwood to rise about $1.4 billion. The lesson: in high-stakes poker, pots can get big fast.

In other potential merger and acquisition news, various media outlets reported that Virgin America received takeover offers this week from JetBlue and AlaskaAir. According to an article from Bloomberg, discussions between Virgin America and the two bidders are ongoing, and a deal could be announced as early as next week. At last check, Virgin America’s market capitalization was valued at $1.3 billion. The airline last month reported 2015 adjusted earnings of $201.5 million, the most in its history. Whatever happens, we know enough never to bet against Richard Branson. Stay tuned. 

‘Selfie’ with a ‘hijacker’

No, this is not an April Fools’ joke—a passenger on the hijacked EgyptAir flight this week really did have one of his fellow hostages take a photograph of him with the hijacker. The story was ridiculous for two reasons: 1) The “hijacker” turned out to be a man with a fake suicide belt who intended no harm to anyone and apparently was showing off to a former flame, and 2) The photo-hungry passenger called the pic a “selfie,” even though he had someone else take the picture (and even though the picture depicted more than one human). The subject’s own mother was quoted in The Guardian complaining about her son’s inability to understand the true nature of a selfie. Thankfully the hijacker, the selfie-slayer, and all of the other passengers survived the experience unscathed. 

Good reads

Climbing Sherpas have some of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and Mike Chambers’ recent opinion piece for The New York Times calls for ending the exploitation of these workers by instituting better pay, better benefits, and different working conditions. The story is reported expertly, and features a gripping first-person anecdote of the author’s experience in an avalanche. As climbing season begins on Mount Everest, consider this one a must-read.

There are writers, and then there are the storytellers we could read every day. Peter Fish, formerly an editor at Sunset, is one of the latter, and in a recent feature for the San Francisco Chronicle, he waxes poetic about the colorful history of California’s Gold Country. The story is remarkable in its breadth and depth, but it also stands out for the way it weaves in history. This is one of Fish’s greatest strengths as a writer, and it’s something worth celebrating in every story.

With henges every few miles (including, of course, Stonehenge), southwest England is rife with ancient sites created by people from the Neolithic period and Bronze Age. One of the best ways to experience these historic markers: on horseback. In a recent feature for The Wall Street Journal, Sophy Roberts chronicles an experience riding and site-hopping in Dartmoor National Park. Her details, especially those about sleeping accommodations (tents) and meals, are vivid and inspiring.

 Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications includingTIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.