October 27, 2011

United is not how Continental stands

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health, Women at 6:04 am by dinaheng

Airline mergers are no fun. The employees grumble as practices change, and the customers complain as confusion reigns over shifting policies. Perhaps the only people who are happy are the executives who get the biggest salaries and retirement perks.

No wonder Occupy Wall Street is hitting such a sympathetic chord across the country.

Take the current merger of Continental and United Airlines, which announced that it would join hands to become the world’s largest airline last May in a deal worth $3.2 billion.

From a consumer standpoint, all I see is a bumpy ride that’s going to get worse for the paying customers. I fly both United and Continental, and am a silver elite flyer with Continental. Because of my frequent flyer status, I’m usually able to get “premium” reserved seating on flights and checked luggage without paying extra fees.

A few weeks ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, I was seated on a Continental plane in an emergency row exit aisle seat. Because the plane wasn’t full, the fellow in the window seat in my row got upgraded to first class, leaving me with two empty seats next to me.

A fellow sitting a few rows ahead immediately jumped into the newly vacated seat in my row. I didn’t mind because there was plenty of room. However, a United pilot who was seated in the exit row seat across from me did.

She gestured to a flight attendant who was a colleague from United and pointed to the seat jumper. When the flight attendant asked the man to return to his assigned seat, the passenger complained, saying that he was a Continental frequent flyer and should have the right to sit there since the seat was vacant.

The flight attendant said no, United’s policy is that premium row seats are reserved for flyers who pay extra for the extra legroom, and the grumbling passenger returned to his original seat. The United pilot nodded approvingly, saying, “That lost revenue comes out of my paycheck.”

I didn’t want to get into an argument with her, but it should be pointed out that she didn’t pay anything extra to sit in the premium exit row seat, and as an elite Continental frequent flyer, neither did I. Clearly, the United pilot saw sitting in a premium seat as a privilege reserved for airline personnel, and as a revenue generator that was more important than customer service and common sense.

Whenever I fly, I make it a point to get up often to stretch and walk around to keep the blood circulating in the body. Whenever I end up standing in the galley waiting for the restroom, I take the opportunity to chat to the flight attendants about how the merger’s going.

Invariably, I hear grumbling from both United and Continental personnel. It’s like listening to siblings in a blended family who know they will eventually have to fly together, but while things are shaking out, all they can do is see the worst in each other.

The Continental folks complain about United personnel who resist learning how to use technology in place at Continental that’s more updated than what United had, and union rules that would not be cost-effective for any company.

Interestingly enough, the United folks complain about lack of Continental leadership at the top, wondering why CEO Jeff Smisek hasn’t cleaned house and gotten rid of the United executives who helped to get the airline into a financial mess in the first place. They seem well aware that their own union has enacted rules that protect jobs, but place passengers at risk.

For example, one rule everyone points to (United and Continental personnel alike), is a union rule that doesn’t specify a retirement age for flight attendants.

“We have attendants in their 80s who don’t fly anymore, but they keep getting benefits as long as they can get someone else to fly for them,” said one United flight attendant. “So in essence, they’re not working anymore, and still drawing benefits. Who wouldn’t want a job like that?”

Oh, and since flight attendants don’t have to meet weight specifications, there are some who can barely fit, walking down the aisle, or are unable to bend down to reach the bottom of the beverage cart to get a can of soda.

Since both Continental and United charge overweight customers who can’t lower both armrests and fasten seat belts with one extender for a second seat, why don’t they enact some kind of penalty for flight attendants in the same condition, who are supposed to be on board for the safety of passengers?

Clearly, air travel today generates a lot of complaints — on all sides. As a passenger, I just wish it wasn’t the customer who always ends up paying another fee for management’s greed and mistakes.


October 14, 2011

Online vision care products change market

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health, Women at 11:25 pm by dinaheng

My sister Linda wears both contact lenses and eyeglasses, and the prescription for her contacts seem to change every six months. She loves her optometrist, and always bought her vision care products from him until this year.

“When he charged me $100 for a three-month supply of disposable contacts, I decided to look online,” Linda says. “I discovered 1800Contacts.com, and the price was much cheaper. With a discount offer, I was able to get a three-month supply for $66.98. My optometrist didn’t say anything when I switched, but I’m sure he realizes there’s much better pricing online.”

Being a comparison shopper, Linda also tried ordering from Coastal.com, which offers contact lenses and eyeglass frames at discounted prices, and in some cases, gives the frames away for free through various promotions.

The cost for a three-month supply of contacts was slightly higher with Coastal.com, which charges a handling and insurance fee that 1800Contacts.com does not. Still, Linda was happy with the quality of the contacts and service she received.

Customer service, convenience, and lower prices are causing more and more shoppers to go online rather than to the nearest brick-and-mortar outlet, with eye care products being among the latest offerings.

Roger Hardy, CEO of Coastal.com, was working for a contact lens company when he noticed the large pricing disparity between what optometry shops paid for lenses and what they charged consumers.

“We would sell a box of contacts to an optometry shop for $12.50, and consumers were paying $80 a box,” Hardy says. “So my sister, Michaela Hardy, who’s a chemical engineering graduate with an MBA, and I built our website with a one-room shop, a phone, and contact lenses. It started out bare bones, and today, the business has really grown. We will make about $185 million this year.”

Hardy says suppliers were initially resistant to selling to Coastal.com, a Canadian company, because it was disruptive to the eye care industry, but as the entrepreneur notes, any industry that’s not already been dramatically transformed by the Web soon will be.

“You need to serve customers in the way they want to be served,” Hardy says. “Getting contacts from your optometrist is a difficult process because rarely does anyone have all the lenses in stock. We work with four contact lens manufacturers and 20 suppliers of eyeglass frames, so we have it all.”

Coastal.com, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, invested $15 million in building a state of the art laboratory so that it can custom-make eyeglass lenses, while selling branded frames and its own designer brand of frame.

Its typical customers are women, 20 to 30 years old, who are busy with careers and have little time to shop. Most have children at home, and cost savings is a priority.

“This whole category of vision care products is being driven by women buyers,” Hardy says. “A family that’s been paying $400 to $500 for glasses can get it for $100 with us. We’re buying $20 million worth of product, and can build up to 10,000 eyeglasses a day, where the average optometry shop sells four to five eyeglasses a day. We source products from around the world, so there’s no middleman cost for us.”

The company also has no brick-and-mortar real estate costs, instead operating out of two distribution centers while doing its own manufacturing in-house.

“We now sell 20 percent of the contact lenses sold in Canada, and our European subsidiary, Lensway, has 30 percent market share of the contact lens category in Sweden, Norway and Finland,” Hardy says. “We’ve been more of a global player, and are now focusing on the United States market.”

Coastal.com donates a pair of eyeglasses to someone in need for every pair of in-house designer glasses that a consumer buys, partnering with organizations that distribute the donated glasses to users in Third World countries.

“The online category’s doubling every year, so customers are voting with their feet and wallets,” Hardy says. “Smart optometry shops are trying to figure out how to work with suppliers like us.”

As my sister Linda noted, it’s nice to have the convenience of placing an order online, rather than driving to the store to buy something.

“As long as things are undamaged and cheaper online, I’ll buy them that way,” she says.   “Getting my contacts online saves a lot, but the key is being able to return them if they’re defective. It doesn’t happen often, but if a contact is defective, I want to be able to get credit for it.”

In other words, whether you’re buying something online or in a store, look carefully at everything before you buy. Price alone doesn’t always determine the best deal.

Dinah Eng is a freelance columnist in Los Angeles, and can be reached at betweenustwo@earthlink.net.

October 6, 2011

‘Real Steel’ proves comebacks are possible

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies at 10:49 pm by dinaheng

The punches sound painful and the premise of a washed-up boxer reconnecting with his 11-year-old son sound cliché, but DreamWorks Pictures’ “Real Steel” is an amazing blend of action, spectacle, and heart in a film that will please more than just teenage boys.

In a not-too-distant future, human boxers have been replaced by fighting robots, and  Charlie Kenton, played by Hugh Jackman, must  scramble to make a living by piecing together low-end fights for his “bots.” 

The one-time promising boxer, who seems to lose every bet he makes, is desperately looking for a break when his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) comes back into his life, along with Atom, a sparring bot that’s been tossed into a graveyard of metal trash.

The film, in theaters on Friday, Oct. 7, depicts a world where people want more violence and carnage in the sport of boxing, so have turned to technology to create machines that can kill each other in the ring. In that world, Kenton’s friend and boxing promoter Finn (Anthony Mackie) is always on the fringes, looking to set up the next low-end fight, or take wagers on a high-end event.

“Finn was always the kid going to the fights,” explains Mackie, who appeared in “Hurt Locker” and “Notorious,” as well as various Broadway theatrical performances. “He and Charlie came up together. When people wanted robot fights, Finn created this underground world of The Crash Palace, and selects the fighters who fight in his world. Everybody who wants to fight the mega fights has to go through him.”

Mackie says he modeled aspects of his character after boxing promoter Don King, who helped to turn the sport into a billion dollar business. Being an African-American actor, he says there aren’t many significant acting roles available for minorities.

“Diversity in Hollywood will continue to change and evolve, but we were in a much better position 15 years ago,” Mackie notes. “Back then, you had shows on TV like ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ Today, you just have reality TV.”

The New Orleans native says he grew up in a rough neighborhood and didn’t do well in school, until a fourth grade teacher saw the intelligence behind his restless behavior and recommended that he audition for a gifted and talented program in the arts.

After discovering a talent for entertaining, Mackie went on to attend The Juilliard School in New York, where he and some friends produced the play “Up Against the Wind” at the New York Theatre Workshop, where Mackie starred in the role of Tupac Shakur.

Since then, his film career has taken off to include credits in “Million Dollar Baby,” “Eagle Eye” and “The Adjustment Bureau.” He was approached by “Real Steel” director Shawn Levy to play Finn after Levy saw Mackie’s performance in “Hurt Locker.”

“There’s this aspect of my personality that I’ve never been able to get at, so it was great to play this trash-talking showman,” Mackie says. “I was captivated by Shawn and the world he was trying to create. Ever since ‘The Matrix,’ everyone wanted to create the post-apocalyptic world. But ‘Real Steel’ is different, and it was a lot of fun hanging out with eight foot robots.”

Levy, director of such hits as “Night at the Museum” and “Date Night,” was intrigued with the idea of doing an exciting father/son sports movie with boxing robots, but make no mistake, it’s the relationship between the main characters and the robot who fights for them that Levy has made the heart of the film.

“People go in expecting to see robots smashing each other, but it’s about this underlying redemption tale,” Levy says. “My trinity of redemption is father, son and machine, three beings who have been forgotten, cast off and left behind. They get a chance at a return to grace by having found each other.”

The juxtaposition of man vs. machine has long been a theme in science fiction. In this film — set in the near future — man controls the machines, but the evolution of both are intertwined. In today’s world of smartphones, tablets and cookies on every computer, we see the same.

“I think we clearly are witnessing the incredible primacy of technology in our lives, and I’m a committed humanist,” Levy notes. “I see Facebook and Twitter as a part of our fundamental need to connect. I wanted a future that didn’t feel far-fetched or nihilistic, but one that’s still very recognizable.”

The film was shot primarily in Detroit, a city that has beautiful, old, decrepit spaces, as well as soaring, contemporary architecture.  No sets had to be built as the city’s old car factories and existing arenas were easily adapted to gave the movie a feeling of past and future.

One of the most charming aspects of the film is the relationship between Max, a tough kid who never had a dad in his corner, and Atom, an early generation robot that seems to understand more than his programming.

“Atom has something to him that feels beyond his parts and code, something resembling a soul and a consciousness,” Levy says. “If the movie has a magic to it, it’s in the wondering about that. Neither I, nor the movie, can confirm or deny it.”

While the estrangement between father and son in the film is something many will relate to, Levy makes it clear that such distances can be bridged. In his own life, the Canadian director’s parents divorced when he was three years old.

At the Canadian premiere of “Real Steel,” Levy was sitting next to his father, and recalls watching  a poignant scene in the movie where Jackman’s character asks his son what he wants from him. The boy replies, “I want you to fight for me.”

“I turned to my dad and said, ‘’You always did that for me. No matter what issues there were, you were always in my corner,’ “ Levy says. “The message I’d like audiences to get out of this is to lead with your heart. So many movies are cynical and ironic.

“This movie says it’s never, never entirely too late. We get second chances — in our relationships, with ourselves, and in what we can yet accomplish. Comebacks are possible, if you believe in them.”

Listen hard, and you’ll hear the roar of the crowd. “Real Steel” delivers a knockout punch that will make you want to stand up and cheer.


October 5, 2011

Arthritis needn’t be a pain

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health, Women at 6:43 pm by dinaheng

Soft music plays as I lie on the massage table, eyes closed as Heidi, the massage therapist, works on muscles that need stretching. Pushing down on my shoulders, she says, “These are riding high. You’ve been working a lot lately.”

When you sit at a desk day in and day out, it’s easy to forget to get up and move frequently, so having an expert eye look at your posture and remind you to stop tensing up those muscles is invaluable.

This weekend, taking advantage of a massage was a no-brainer. When it comes to relaxation, there’s nothing like pampering yourself with a great massage. Not only is it a pleasure to have a trained masseuse work out the kinks in your body, massage is also good for your health.

As Heidi reminded me, “You’ve got to keep your body healthy if you do repetitive tasks. I work on everyone from doctors and lawyers to people who do a lot of physical work.”

Next week, Massage Envy clinics are partnering with the Arthritis Foundation to host “Healing Hands for Arthritis,” a one-day national event to build awareness and raise funds to fight arthritis.

On World Arthritis Day, October 12, Massage Envy will donate $10 from every one-hour massage and facial to the Arthritis Foundation, which advocates education and research to control and cure arthritis and related diseases. Prices range from $39 to $69 for facials and massages, depending on the location.

I always thought arthritis was just something you got as you age, but that’s not necessarily the case.

“Arthritis is inflammation in a joint, and the next question should be, what type of arthritis do you have?” explains Dr. Patience White, vice president for public health for the Arthritis Foundation and a pediatric and adult rheumatologist. “There are 100 different types of arthritis, and the treatment varies for each.”

White says the most common forms of arthritis include osteoarthritis, which affects 27 million Americans; gout, which affects 8.1 million and rheumatoid arthritis, which hurts 1.3 million. An estimated 300,000 children have juvenile arthritis, and 300,000 adults have Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.

Arthritis is caused by a mixture of genetics and environmental causes, or health behaviors. In other words, your genes may predispose you to getting arthritis, but there’s a lot you can do to prevent it.

“Osteoarthritis is the most common, and most of its causes are related to weight, physical activity and a past history of injury to a joint, along with your genes,” White says. “Arthritis is the number one cause of disability, and can happen at any age. It affects everybody, all races and ethnicities.”

She says controlling weight is important, for with every pound you gain, it’s akin to the equivalent of each knee having to carry four lbs. With two-thirds of Americans being overweight, the likelihood of feeling arthritic pain increases.

“If you don’t keep physically active, keeping the muscles strong, you’ll be predisposed to arthritis,” White says. “Regular exercise, just a half hour five times a week beyond work, and keeping your weight down will help with heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions, as well. If you lose 5 to 10 lbs., studies show you can cut the pain in your knees by 50 percent.”

White says getting a massage can offer great pain relief to those who suffer from arthritis.

“When you have arthritis, with inflammation in the joints, the pain causes your muscles to tense up and you may have decreased range of motion,” White says. “Massage is fantastic for the muscles. It can relax the muscles, helping people to feel better and move more.”

Studies have shown that massage therapy can decrease stress levels, as well as help to reduce recovery time for many medical conditions, including arthritis.

Massage Envy, a national franchise that provides therapeutic massage and spa services at more affordable prices than spa resorts, is a national sponsor of the Arthritis Foundation’s Arthritis Walk® events.

So if you’re in the mood to relax and get a little pampering, consider booking a one-hour massage at a Massage Envy near you on October 12. You’ll be contributing to a good cause, and helping yourself at the same time.

Just be warned… once you lie down on that massage table, you just may not want to get up.

To find a Massage Envy clinic near you, visit MassageEnvy.com.  For more information on arthritis, check out www.arthritis.org.