No Baggage vindicated again

I flew two international sectors today from Brazil to Miami to Toronto My first flight left almost three hours late getting in 91 minutes before my second flight was due to leave. My long layover has vanished. 

Even though I was transiting from Brazil to Toronto, the US requires transit passengers to clear immigration and customs and then  come through security again.  I have blogged about not checking luggage in. Today's experience vindicated my decision!


  • 1859h: Plane touches down at Miami International airport (right)
  • 1907h:  Plane reaches gate- I am off quickly with no shoving
  • 1911h:  Four minutes run/walk from gate to people mover to immigration hall. I arrive at the stop as it pulls in. The MIA people mover runs at 3 to 15 minute intervals. The guy next to me told me that he waited for 20 minutes once
  • 1916h:  Passport control hall is handling multiple arriving flights. I join shortest line
  • 1921h:  People behind me are also on an 830pm fight and are also nervous
  • 1923h:  Realise reason for my short line is that I have chosen slowest immigration agent.  Switch lines to one moving twice the speed
  • 1927:  I ask the three people in front of me in this new line, who're from Spain if they have  a connecting flight (which they don't). They allow me to go in front of them so I'm  2nd in line. The woman in front of me makes it clear she won't support queue jumping 
  • 1928h: the agent in the line I was is really slow. He still  has 3 more people to process before the spot I was in
  • The young woman in front of me goes forward. Oh no! She has a complicated immigration issue. Letters are produced from an envelope, visas are scrutinised and the clock keeps ticking
  • 1933h: Agent finally deals with the woman after flirting with her too
  • 1934:  As I am in transit, the agent immediately does my fingerprints and photograph but cannot tell me the fastest way to the new gate. He points to the exit.
  • 1935: exit is blocked by an Italian group that are choosing this area to gather together.  Oblivious to the stressed looks of other passengers (including mine) they saunter chatting away down the narrow corridor to baggage collection and customs.
  • 1938: the customs hall is bedlam. Indeed multiple flights have arrived simultaneously and there are lines everywhere cutting into and over each other to collect bags and get through customs. Bags are piling up. Its madness with no order in its chaos.  Tempers are becoming frayed and Happy vacation moods evaporating everywhere. I follow a determined couple who push through the crowds
  • 1949h: I am thankful that I have no baggage to check as I cruise past a 120 strong person line waiting to check in bags for onward flights.


I firmly believe that the US customs department should hand over custom s control to Disney. They would make waiting fun and work to develop innovative queuing systems.  Cartoon characters could entertain the people whilst giving friendly and fun warnings and messages about smuggling and smoking!

    Departure Gates
    • 1954h: In the disaster that is Miami Airport,  clear signage for  the escalators up to departures was  invisible. I found a  lift (elevator) with only an elderly man waiting. When the lift arrived, however,  two families  and a nun also arrived and piled in! 
    • I was at the back of the lift and had to wait for people to get off it and into another corridor full of slow people
    • The line for security screening was very long so I asked the  guard if there was a priority line. She directed me to go on a 2 minut e walk which got me to a gate with almost no one there
    • 1956h: Of the eight people in line, five were a group traveling together. Having ascertained their flight was at 2145h (945pm), they gave permission to go in front of them
    • 1959h:The agent checking my passport in the way out sad"how did you like the USA Mr Cowling" I saudí "I was only here for five minutes!"
    • I zapped through security: belt off, shoes off, computer out, toiletries out. The woman  -in front of me said "you myst know what you are doing to go through security so quickly. - 90 flghts a year madam! 
    • 2001H Another People mover ride. This involves a 33 second wait and a 45 second ride.  I am ten gates away. Of course it is at the far end of the concourse!
    • 2004: As I pass the Shops, I wondered if i had time to buy a drink. Guess not, In retrospect I wish I had got a drink because I felt very thirsty on the pla
    • 2006: I arrive at Gate 21 just as they announce boarding, l Am the fifth on the plane  and wheel my own luggage on board
    • 1832h Doors close 
    • 2039h we are delayed
    • 2051h take off
    I made the flight. If i had had to collect and then check in a bag, I would not have made it.

    Vive travelling with hand luggage only!  

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    I did it! My 747th flight- in a 747!

    Leaving SYD airspace
    The flaps on the mighty beast were fully extended. Moving onto the runway, the familiar roar of the four 747 General Electric engines came to life. Rolling down the runway, we accelerated slowly, leisurely using a huge amount of runway, before climbing smoothly and steadily out of Melbourne (Tullamarine) Airport. The climb was gentle and we turned almost casually over the farmlands north of the airport before executing a neat turn to head toward Sydney, the Australian coastline, the Pacific Ocean and Los angeles International airport (LAX)

    I say "familiar" because this was my 93rd take off in a 747. Collectively in 747s I have travelled about 19 times around the earth or the same distance almost to the moon and back. I bet the astronauts would have liked something that big to fly to the moon in but they may not have wanted to share it with 400 other people for that trip!

    This flight was different though because it was my 747th flight of my life. I was very excited to organise my 747th on a 747 with Qantas!  I had managed to get my 737th flight on a 737 with the all 737 airline Southwest.
    For me choosing Qantas for my 747th flight was significant as they are the airline who for six years were the world's only all 747 airline.

    My 747 flights between 1971 and 2011

    My first 747 flight was in 1971 when I flew from Hong Kong to Sydney with Pan American on my 7th birthday.  Forty years later, on my 747th flight on an actual 747.

    I have travelled with Qantas 234 times (41 of them in jumbos) to five continents.  Today's flight was back to the USA but marked the beginning of a journey which would end in Brasilia, Brazil, South America thus adding a sixth continent to my travel collection.

    Check in, customs clearance and security at Melbourne airport took less than 20 minutes. There was a queue of older people in wheelchairs being pushed through the express immigration line which slowed things a little.

    The Qantas First lounge staff welcomed me with interest and congratulated me on this goal. They asked me how I came to know all of my flights and I explained about my Flightmemory (watch for future blog).

    Boarding was relatively calm with quite a light load- I would say the plane was less than 2/3 full. Seeing the flight the day before was full, that was a surprise.  I was in the bulkhead in the very front row of Economy (row 52) in a window seat with an empty middle seat. The arm rests in this aisle cannot be raised (a fact that the check in staff did not know until I told them and they checked). This limits any ability to stretch out into that empty seat -still its good for storage and the leg room in that row is always appreciated.

    Our plane was VH-OEH (named Hervey Bay but not displayed on the plane).

    Marika on board (pictured right) extended the congratulations with a welcome aboard champagne. Thank you! The service was the good old style Qantas service with a very experienced crew efficiently discharging their duties in a friendly fashion. Lunch was served as we flew over Sydney's Botany Bay.  I chose Portuguese chicken for the main course.

    After lunch, came an ice cream and then the little snack bag that tides passengers through the night. Quelle Horror! Qantas has reduced the contents of the bag! I could not work out which item has been removed but there was a lot more empty bag!

    I really appreciated the extra service and attention I got because of this being flight 747. I ended up getting three Boarding passes for my souvenir collection including one with a highlighted Happy 747th!  One of the Boarding passes was signed by the Captain who I met upon our Los Angeles arrival.

    Takeoff was delayed by paperwork issues but we had a fast crossing because of strong tail winds which means we touched down into LAX ahead of schedule. I was moved to business for the very smooth landing where I sat next to new Australian Dancing with the Stars Judge Josh.

    On Q, the on board entertainment system worked well although after V Australia's system, it feels a little more clunky. Still it is way better than the non existent system, United has on this sector.

    I am glad I did this flight. For a plane geek and a traveller who flies about 100 times a year (about 8 times a month), to celebrate my 747th on a 747 was indeed an early birthday present. Thanks to Captain Thoroughgood, and his pilots, John, Marika and the on board cabin crew and First Class lounge staff for making it such a memorable flight.

    Getting onto the 747 for my 747th proved to be more problematic than  I had expected. I originally booked QF 25 Auckland to Los Angeles, not realising that Qantas had changed the plane on that sector from a 747 to an A330, a timetable change that I had missed. That was not going to work! I contacted Qantas Customer Service to see if they could shift my flight onto a SYD or MEL-LAX 747. "No can do"- Qantas Customer Service didn't share my “enthusiasm for my aircrafts” and told me to call the usual call centre. My bad but I thought the flying Kangaroo might have tried to accomodate my unusual request. The staff at the Qantas call centre who were very friendly and determinedly helpful,  found that making that change would cost more than a new flight. So I moved QF 25 to another date and made a completely new booking for this auspicious 747 occasion. Thank goodness I fly a lot.

    I then had to change that new booking to a different date so incurred some change fees. The booking agent who made the change assured me that I was on a 747. Imagine my horror to learn that the actual equipment was an A380. Don't get me wrong, I love the A380 but that defeated the point of 747 on a 747. More change fees! Slightly annoyed because I felt these change fees were unjustified due to being given wrong advice. My final trip date was shifted because of a family emergency but we got there!
    Our Pilot Capt Robert Thoroughgood

    Rating for this flight? 94%- slightly higher than my average Qantas rating! Even customs at LAX was good!

    In ten flights time, will be flight 757 – and you guessed it, I am booked on a Boeing 757. The trip is a domestic USA one. Four US domestic airlines have 757s: American, Delta, United and USAir. Guess which airline I am flying with?


    On Sunday, I will fly my 747th flight in my life. After my 737th flight on a Boeing 737, I managed to to score this flight on a Qantas Boeing 747!

    Looking forward to Sunday in terms of the flight!

    United Flight 93

    United is reinstating a United 93 as a flight starting 21 May 2011.

    The flight used to be  operated by United from Newark to San Francisco using a Boeing 757 until September 11, 2001. On that date, approximately 46 minutes into the flight, hijackers diverted the plane towards Washington, D.C. The asumption is the target was the US Capitol or White House.

    The passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from the hijackers  causing the plane to crash into fields in Pennsylvania, about 240 km  from  D.C. killing everybody.

     A movie was made about the hijacking.

    United removed Flight 93 after the September 11 hijackings.

    The new flight number is a codeshare flight from Houston to San Jose CA and is actually Continental flight CO489. However UA 93 will appear in terminals. It is a 737.

    I am not sure I feel okay about using this flight number.


    Auckland to Wellington on Jetstar yesterday was my 745th flight...2 to go and I have my 747th! On a Qantas 747!

    United's Oil Consumption

    According to Airways Magazine for June 2011, one out of every 350 barrels of oil produced in the world is used by the combined United-Continental airlines to fuel their 1262 planes!

    Every increase in oil has gotta hurt.
    Whats their long term plan for oil one wonders?
    If peak oil theory is correct then they face a very expensive future as oil becomes even pricier.

    Hotels and Power Outlets

    I just want to plug in my computer and charge it! Why is that so difficult? So many hotel rooms have no outlets. Others have a couple but the radio and lamps fill them. I have had to move furniture,  work in the bathroom, squat on the bedroom floor all to get electricity!

    Anyone else have this issue?

    Virgin Blues

    Tonight I fly from Los Angeles to Sydney. I desperately hope this flight departs on time. 

    Last flight from Australia to Los Angeles, left 11 hours late.

    I had flown in from Auckland to connect onto the LA flight and was met at the gate by a V Australia rep. As a result of an engine explosion on a flight out of LA 
    all of the V Australia services had been delayed in a roll on effect.

    I was very impressed with the way V looked after its transit passengers. They bussed us to a hotel, gave us a $50 spend at the hotel (which I didn't spend). 

    I got a gym workout , a run, some shopping and a lunch with a friend before I flew out.

    All in all a nice delay! Thank goodness I made it to my destination in time though.

    Amazing A380 Cotrail

    A huge contrail from an Airbus A380 filmed from cockpit of a KLM Boeing B747 above the South China Sea. You may need to watch it twice. 

    Virgin Blue bites the dust

    Virgin Blue is no more. After 11 years affixing the sides of planes across Australia, Virgin Blue. Pacific Blue and Polynesian Blue are all becoming Virgin Australia in the worst kept rebranding "secret" (was it meant to be a secret?).  I love the new TV ad:

    First some history. For many years, Australia had a very cozy duopoly between two domestic airlines: Trans Australian Airlines (TAA) and Ansett. TAA became Australian Airlines and then merged with international airline Qantas.  Ansett was bought out by Air New Zealand who started with a small shareholding and grew that holding.

    But there still remained just two major airlines across Australia with some independent regionals and an occasional brave smaller  competitor (East West, Compass, Impulse). These two airlines copied each other. When one started a frequent flyer program, the other copied it. One opened business lounges and the other copied it. All the time they wrestled each other for control of the lucrative business market.

    In 2000, Richard Branson launched an attack on this cozy duopoly with Virgin Blue as it blazed into the market with discounted fares. The ensuing fare war between Ansett, Impulse, Virgin Blue and Qantas plus September 11 and a myriad of other issues led to the takeover of Impulse by Qantas and the collapse of Ansett. Australia lost its second carrier. Virgin nabbed the liesure market taking passengers from trains and buses and Qantas got the lions share of the business traffic.

    Virgin last year gained former Qantas senior executive John Borghetti as CEO and he has begun a rapid transformation of Virgin.

    Fast forward back to May, 2011 then.  There still remain just  two major airlines across Australia with some independent regionals and a smaller competitor: Tiger. These two airlines are now copying and trying to trump each other eg  frequent flyer programs, business lounges etc,  wrestling each other for control of the lucrative business market.

    In the battle ahead,  am curious about fhree things:

    1. Are Virgin Australia gambling too much?  Virgin Australia are having to spend to make themselves more visible.  New logo (which I think is underwhelming), new uniforms (which I love), new ads (see above), new A330 planes, new Business and new Premium economy. Their Lounges are shifting from a trendy hang out to a serious business environment.  Thats all costing money. They need to generate return soon. As well as a major change process and the new battle with Qantas , there is the escalating fuel price environment. The airline has already warned of a loss this year of $30 to $80m million.  Shareholders have marked the airline down by about a third this year.

    2. Why Virgin Australia and not Virgin Pacific?

    3. What will Virgin do alliance-wise? Qantas belongs to One World. Ansett were the Star Alliance partner in Australia. Now Star along with Skyteam have a big gaps in Australia.  In the meantime, Virgin Australia have formed their own major relationships with:

    • Delta who are in Skyteam
    • Air New Zealand who are in Star Alliance
    • Etihad with no alliance
    No doubt all three would want to keep on wooing Virgin Australia. Delta and a middle eastern airline (Emirates? Etihad?) are both rumored to be interested in Singapore air's 49 per cent holding in Branson's flagship airline: Virgin Atlantic (he owns the rest). If one of those lines got that stake, then that might influence which alliance Virgin moves closer to.

    In the meantime, I am looking forward to my Virgin Australia premium economy flight from LAX to SYD Saturday (flight #742 in my life)

    Dear Nut - Please Go away

    I sent this through to Qantas this week. (OK I know I am geek but let me geeky about something)

    Dear Qantas
    This is a very, very unusual request.
    I am a Qantas Platinum customer (QF 1657665). I am also a plane geek.
    This week I flew my 737th flight in my life. I flew my 737th flight on a Boeing 737. (see my blog post about it: The flight was in the USA with Southwest airlines.

    My flight memory where I record all my fights is here: 

    Now to my request:
    I am booked to fly MEL-AKL-WLG-AKL-LAX in June
    The AKL-LAX leg will be my 747th flight. I thought that the segment would be flown by a 747 (it used to be).  It seems it is a A330 instead.
    My request is this: Is it possible to change the booking so that I can fly WLG-MEL or SYD then MEL or SYD -LAX so I can do my 747th flight on a 747 without paying change fees and rebooking fees or higher fares? The significances are:
    • 747th flight on a 747
    •  of my 92  flights on a 747:  40 have been with Qantas. 
    • Qantas used to be an all 747 airline. 
    • Of the 737 flights, I have flown Qantas Airways for 232 of them. Jetstar for 6, Eastern Australia, TAA etc for an additional number.
    This is a highly unusual request and not something I would pester you with but for a plane geek it would be amazing.

    I do hope to hear a favourable reply. Thank you

    Yours Sincerely

    Martin J Cowling
    CEO, People First-Total Solutions

    I got the following reply:

    Dear Mr Cowling,
    Thank you for your e-mail.
    Whilst we appreciate your enthusiasm for your aircrafts, enquiries relating to fare quotes, reservations, booking changes and cancellations cannot be answered via email.  
    We suggest you contact Qantas Telephone Sales for assistance as they are able to examine all possible variables to meet your requests.
    Please contact Qantas Telephone Sales Australia (24 hour service), or if outside Australia, please refer to the link below for your local Qantas office. 
    We wish you all the best for the future.
    [Name withheld]
    QANTAS Airways
    In other words: "you are a nut, go away."
    The very, very helpful Qantas Telephone Sales told me after 40 mins 29 secs of trying that they could change it so I could fly on that 747 routing but to do so would cost me $200 change fee plus a $80 service fee plus a whole new fare upgrade for $1700. Total cost $1980. 
    It is actually cheaper to move the date of my existing reservation to later in the year and book a whole new round trip ticket allowing me to fly on a 747 with Air NZ out of Auckland, or with Qantas or United out of SYD. Guess who I am least likely to choose to fly with...again.
    Why is Qantas customer service so disappointing?  I know it was a long shot but I thought Qantas might have come to the party on this. Would it have cost them that much to change my ticket or at least send me a more affirming customer service reply? eg
    Dear Mr Cowling
    Thank you for your on going commitment and loyalty to Qantas. Congratulations too on achieving 747 flights and we are proud/pleased that Qantas has been part of that milestone 232 times. We really appreciate your interest.....

    A330 Black Box

    From Time:

    Investigators have located and recovered the memory unit of the flight data recorder of a 2009 Air France flight — a remarkable deep-sea discovery they hope will explain why the aircraft went down in a remote area of the mid-Atlantic, killing all 228 people on board.

    This incident and the  7 October 2008, Qantas 72 incident where their A330 suffered a rapid loss of altitude mean I am very very keen for them to sort out the issue

    737 @ 737 Flight Report

    Woke up Saturday morning feeling some excitement.

    My flight from Portland, Oregon to Spokane, Washington was essentially a fairly routine one. While I have never flown that sector before, I have been to both airports and both cities a few times now.

    Yet Southwest Airlines flight 3218 was no ordinary flight for me. It was the 737th flight in my life. Yup, I have left the ground 737 times -and returned 737 times. I have fastened my seatbelt 737 times. 

    Thanks to Southwest airlines being an airline who (currently) only fly Boeing 737s, my 737th flight would be on a Boeing 737. For a plane geek, thats the ultimate in geekiness!

    I checked in online and was assigned position B5. Southwest do not assign seats. Instead you get allocated a position in the boarding line based on essentially the time you check in. You then  board in 3 groups of 60: Group A, Group B and Group C. My position meant I would board as the fifth person in the second group. Once on board, you are then free to choose your own seat. The earlier you board, the better your chances of bagging a good seat. In my case, there would be at least 65 people ahead of me.

    N744 SW at Spokane airport
    Our plane was N744SW. This 737-700 first flew for Southwest on 26th March, 1999 and has  137 economy seats. I was surprised to easily get 11D, an aisle seat in the emergency exit row. While it does not have much more leg room, the seats in row 10 do not recline and there are only 2 people in the row.

    Friendly welcome from the on board Southwest team (as always). Contrast that to the usual grumpiness at United, the surliness of American and the cool aloofness at Virgin America). 

    While it was a full flight, the luggage compartments did not end up being full. Southwest do not charge for checked in luggage which makes boarding  less stressful compared to United, for example where people try to carry on board small mountains of luggage and fight over every inch of luggage space.

    We took off right on time and landed right on time. It was  a very smooth flight with some light turbulence as we descended into Spokane airport. 

    Thanks crew
    I shared with the crew 3/4 through the flight about how my "hobby" of recording my flights started. Just before his death,  my friend Tony Chapman set up a Flight memory account into which he painstakingly entered 100s of my flights from my junior jet club book and frequent flyer statements).

    As soon as I told the crew that it was my 737th flight, they understood the significance and connection with this aircraft. 

    On the ground, I was invited into the cockpit, met the captain and recorded these happy snaps.
    Captain= good sport

    Co Pilot
    Thanks Southwest for a memorable 737th flight - six stars today! Below is a table summarising of all of my flights- 3.2 months inside planes with 76 airlines to five continents- one million miles of flying (and because I offset my carbon emissions many, many trees). More at my Flightmemory. Of all my flights, 193 (just over a quarter)have been in 737s.

    Map of all my Southwest airlines flights (below)

    Table of my 27 Southwest flights (below)


    Being in Beirut

    Bombed building from civil war

    Whats the first thing you think of when you think Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon?

    Chances are: "war zone", "Destroyed", "unsafe", "terrorist". A website called Lebanon News: Under the Rug Swept features the Looks Like Beirut Certificate which notes  the times "people compare Beirut to destruction". For the world forgets that the Lebanese Civil War ended. It was a horrific war which claimed too many lives and did indeed destroy swathes of Beirut. But the war stopped over 20 years ago.

    Today, Beirut is becoming the place to visit. Lonely Planet and the New York Times added the city to their "must visit" lists, I got my chance last month when I attended a volunteerism conference at the UNESCO centre in Beirut.

    Landing in Beirut is jaw dropping. The planes make their approach from the water and the images of sparkling Mediterranean, snow capped mountains and residential towers fill your eyes. The rock formations above and below are known as La Roche (The Rock).

    Visually, Beirut is stunning both naturally and architecturally. One of my favourite activities was running along the waterfront known as "The Corniche" (left) Filled with walkers, runners and pushcart vendors, moving through the area was always beautiful. I always had amazing views of snow capped Mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean as I ran.

    Beirut has a vibrant, crazy mix of new and old buildings, some bombed remnants and archaeological digs of showing the many layers of settlement (see below). Beirut has been settled for 5000 years and controlled  by Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader and Ottoman empires.

    Roman Ruins in Beirut

    There is a revitalized downtown with office buildings, churches, mosques, souks (markets) and restaurants (left) most of which has been  rebuilt since the war.

    Infrastructure across the city varies. Some of the poorer suburbs lack footpaths. Traffic signals are distributed unevenly. Driving follows a unique set of unwritten rules.

    Beirut's public transit system is very underdeveloped.  Buses ply mysterious routes and taxis hound pitilessly anyone the drivers suspects of being a tourist. See previous blog "Never Never Trust a Beirut Taxi Driver". I suspect if there had not been a civil war, Beirut might have financed a light rail or metro line across the city with a station at the airport. Petrol was very expensive sitting around $3.00 a litre ($10 a gallon).

    I loved the Hamra street area, seen by many as the heart of Beirut connecting downtown Beirut with inner Western suburbs of Beirut. Its very close to the American University of Beirut.  Before the war, Hamra was viewed locally as the "Champs Elysées" of Beirut with tourists and intellectuals making it their home.

    Today its been renovated and is home to great and reasonably priced high street shops (such as H & M where I stocked up on clothes) and stand alone retailers, coffee shops full of university students, restaurants with locals and tourists, and Lebanese young men driving up and down in their  cars with windows down and music up (they do this in Australia too!). The atmosphere was very vibrant.

    The food in Beirut was of amazingly high standard with very good service. The food always seemed fresh and flavoursome. There are foods from all over the world but I only ate Lebanese foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner including:

    • Kibbeh (meaning ball in Arabic). Made of  crushed wheat or rice and chopped meat,  it is seen as  Lebanon's  national dish.
    • Ackawi  a salty white cheese salty or not depending on choice .
    • Fattoush salad ( toasted pita bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, mint and hummus -blended chickpeas dip)
    • Falafel - small deep-fried patties made of highly-spiced ground chick-peas
    • Fried cauliflower
    • Kunafi shoelace pastry dessert stuffed with sweet white cheese and a sickly sweet syrup
    • chicken skewers  marinated in olive oil and lemon

    I found people were super friendly (even the taxi drivers after you had negotiated price). Greeting people in Arabic and then switching to English and or French worked well. The exceptions to the friendliness were some of the many security guards and army soldiers one saw. Some were welcoming and some were forbidding. The presence of so much military hardware and personnel while there to protect did, however,  feel oppressive sometimes. Taking photos at times was frustrating because so much photography seems forbidden. You of course cannot take pictures of soldiers  check points, tanks, barriers, guns and military signs. This makes almost any picture downtown tricky because the downtown was full of these things.  One soldier appeared from nowhere and stopped me taking  a photo of a fountain downtown (oops here it is).

    While everyone hoped for it, in many of the conversations, Peace still seems very fleeting and fragile. No one felt confident it was ever coming to Lebanon. When people talked openly about the war, they all blamed someone else for it.  In the meantime  Beirut parties hard! Enjoy! I cant wait to come back.