Friday, June 29, 2007

Northwest: Pilots, Weather in Plot to Ruin Summer

As we all know, Northwest Airlines has canceled over 1,000 flights in the last week. At first, Northwest blamed the weather. But when that didn't fly (no other airline was being affected severely enough by the weather to be canceling 10 percent and more of its flights each day until American's schedule started falling apart a couple of days ago), Northwest allowed as how pilot staffing problems were also a big part of the problem. The pilots are responding that Northwest management is covering up for the fact that it has laid off so many pilots that it cannot maintain its regular schedule.

Northwest issued a statement today that, while blaming the pilots for calling in sick, also indicated that it would be further reducing its domestic schedule this summer. Meaning, if you're planning on flying Northwest, buyer beware.

Here's Northwest's statement (followed by the Northwest pilots' union statement):

EAGAN, Minn.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--June 29, 2007--Northwest Airlines today issued the following statement regarding its recent flight cancellations and its plan to address the issue:

During June, Northwest Airlines' mainline schedule has been negatively impacted by several factors, the most important of which are: summertime thunderstorms on the east coast and at several Northwest hubs, air traffic control congestion, and pilot absenteeism -- which was 80 percent higher in June 2007 versus June 2006. The cumulative impact of these factors caused the airline to pre-cancel hundreds of flight during the past week.

Over the past week (June 22 to June 28) the average percentage of canceled flights on a system-wide basis, including all NWA mainline and Airlink flights, was 7.6. For the same period, the average percentage of cancelled mainline flights was approximately 11.9.

[My note: Joe Brancatelli of says that the average percentage of cancellations a typical major airline has is 1 to 2 percent a day]

Northwest is working to remedy the situation and expects to operate a normal summertime schedule by this weekend.

Northwest is continuing to take the necessary steps to address the situation including:

-- Canceling its second Detroit-Frankfurt frequency, effective July 18, to free up 757 pilots to fly other routes. [That's what they wrote. I don't think they meant to say that a total of 757 pilots would be loosed, but rather that the pilots who fly their 757 aircraft would be.]

-- In August, the airline will take further actions to reduce its schedule by 90 flying hours per day (a three percent domestic mainline capacity reduction) to increase its "reserve" of
pilot flying hours. [My note: Hey, wait a minute. Didn't they just say three paragraphs higher that they expect to operate their "normal summertime schedule?"]

-- The airline continues to retrain its furloughed pilots so that They can return to active flying. Northwest wants all remaining furloughed pilots to return to work as soon as ossible and it will initiate new pilot hiring, if necessary.

-- Recognizing that summer thunderstorms and air traffic control congestion are inevitable, starting in August, Northwest will modify the way that its pilots' trips are scheduled, especially to and from large East Coast cities. This will minimize the impact to the airline's flying schedule when bad weather and ATC delays do occur. ...

And the pilots reply:

LOOMINGTON, Minn. Leaders of the Northwest Airlines unit of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) today said that NWA management's decision to cancel hundreds of flights this past week was due to management's operational decisions that created inadequate pilot staffing for the summer months.

NWA management has recently attempted to place the blame for flight cancellations on pilot sick calls. This reason does not adequately explain the over 10 percent rate of flight cancellations that the company has experienced during the past week. The reason for flight cancellations is that Northwest Airlines is understaffed.

"Northwest's flight cancellations this past week are due to insufficient staffing," NWA ALPA Spokesman Capt. Monty Montgomery said. "Pilots are not responsible for management's lack of foresight as it pertains to staffing the airline."

Representatives of the pilots' union forecasted the pilot shortage and advised management months in advance. Unfortunately for all NWA shareholders, this forecast was correct resulting in unnecessary hardships being placed on all NWA employees and customers.

NWA management could have prevented the staffing shortage by expeditiously recalling the 400 furloughed pilots not yet back to work. Instead, management decided to run the airline beyond redline during the summer months resulting in the current flight cancellations.

"First, management blames the weather and that didn't work, so now they are trying to blame the pilots," Capt. Montgomery said. "It is unfortunate management continues to seek a confrontational relationship with Northwest employees."

ALPA said it is available to work with management concerning the staffing problem. Currently, NWA's operation contains no slack in the system, thus increasing the possibility that the operation will continue to break down. In addition, Northwest pilots have been flying at their personal and contractual maximums since last year, increasing stress and fatigue.

"We are the ultimate investors in Northwest Airlines. Our careers and the futures of our families are tied to the success of this airline," Capt. Montgomery said. "Northwest pilots will continue to focus on safety and work hard for the success of our airline."

Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilot union, representing 60,000 pilots at 41 airlines in the United States and Canada. ALPA represents approximately 5,300 active and furloughed NWA pilots. Please visit the NWA ALPA website at


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Flight Delays and Cancellations (Continued)

Above is the merry scene of would-be travelers hoping to depart during the Fall of Saigon.

An update, since only Brancatelli and I appear to be monitoring this story that has created travel hell for millions of Americans this week, as the worst summer of air travel in history dawns.

As of 2 p.m., the lull in scheduling for the day:

--Delays were averaging 105 minutes at Newark; 56 minutes at Washington-Dulles; 45 minutes at Houston; 106 minutes at Kennedy; and 79 minutes at LaGuardia.

--Having already canceled 900+ flights from Friday through yesterday, Northwest has canceled another 117 as of 2 p.m. today.

--American Airlines has also entered in the cancellation jackpot. American has canceled 148 flights so far today out of its 2,233 total scheduled flights -- 704 of which have departed.

And a brief update at 7.30 p.m. -- US Airways leads the pack by at least 10 lengths in the dismal-performance race today. As of 7.30, US Air was operating atb a 21 percent ontime rate for the day, and 255 of the 757 flights that had departed were at least 45 minutes late, according to

Still. I hear thunderstorms moving into the New York area, so it ain't over yet. (Update, as of 10. p.m.,, delays were running at 2 to 3 hours at airports in the New York area. The official reason: Weather. What I see out my own window, drizzles. I haven't heard a thunderclap).

Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that, when traveling to London, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports are too inconvenient compared with Heathrow, have a look at this mess in Heathrow (over last Christmastime), via YouTube.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Morning News: Surveys I Stopped Reading ...

... after the headline and the first item.

From Maritz Research, a market research company, comes this press release today, headlined: "Airline Travelers Call for Segregated Family Section ..."

Here's the key finding in what the company described as a survey of "randomly selected adults throughout the United States about airline brands and customer experience-related service":

"Fliers Vote for a Segregated Family Section -- Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) believe that there should be a family section on airplanes."

Now let's see ... Northwest has canceled nearly 900 flights since Friday; every seat on every cramped plane on every airline in the sky is filled; passengers are being routinely stranded for six to 10 hours on planes parked near gates; you have to connect through Milwaukee to get from Miami to Dallas; delays are at an all-time high ... toilets are overflowing in airplane aisles ... passengers are ready to revolt -- and three quarters of people surveyed by this outfit say there should be a special family section on planes?

Where'd they interview these people, at state mental institutions?

By the way, since they're asking, I want a cigar lounge, a sauna and a flight attendant with the looks and grace of Queen Rania of Jordan for my $400 fare to Los Angeles. And no big fat guy in the middle seat next to me.

Meanwhile, try not to get hurt up there.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

'Weather' Targets Northwest Airlines Specifically

"Due to weirdness in climate change, the weather is specifically targeting Northwest Airlines flights, accounting for the stunning build-up of Northwest flight cancellations in the last five days. ... Yeah ... that's the ticket."

I realize I'm wearing out the joke -- once again, that's actor Jon Lovitz on the right, whose memorable character on Saturday Night Live, Tommy Flanagan (pronounced "Flan-AY-gan") was known for his consistent inability to tell the truth.

The meltdown at Northwest Airlines continues. As of 9 p.m. tonight, Northwest Airlines had canceled 198 of today's total of 1,422 flights. As it has been for days, that cancellation rate if way above the typical industry cancellation rate of one or two percent of flights. (Data are from the Web site that every business traveler ought to be aware of,

The 9 p.m. rate brings the total of canceled flights from last Friday to more than 700 Northwest flights. Since each flight was probably (and statistically) totally booked, you don't have to do much math to see that Northwest has tossed a tremendous number of passengers into that special new circle on the exurban outskirts of rapidly-expanding Hell: Summer air travel 2007.

Joe Brancatelli, who knows more about the airlines than anyone I know, has also been hammering on this topic for days on his subscription business-travel Web site, -- the reason being that this appears to be a fairly important travel story.

But I I have done the quick math on the number of travel writers who are following it: Two. Brancatelli and me. Three, if you count Mike Boyd, the airline consultant whose weekly essay at is a must-read, and often a counter balance to Conventional Wisdom.

I shall say no more about the rest of my colleagues in the media. Perhaps some are in attendance at the annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention in this week Philadelphia. Hey, you got that many newspaper columnists assembled, don't light a match in that room!.

In Philadelphia, incidentally, worthies from every dip-shit paper in the country that still tosses 700 words of space to a "columnist" actually invited Bill O'Reilly to give a speech -- and they sat there politely listening to some weasel whose resume on the subject of war includes being a Vietnam draft-dodger.

Oops, I just used a curse word. Shit! Two. Which is why I am about to re-announce, any day now, the long-delayed appointment of an independent ombudsman to oversee standards at Joe Sharkey At Large.

But I digress.

In an internal memo earlier last week, Northwest Airlines told key staff to stand by for heavy rolls, as they say in the Navy when the seas get rough. The reason: Northwest had already spotted a looming shortage of available pilots, flight attendants and other employees available to fly as the end of the month loomed. I have been hearing from flight attendants and pilots all day confirming this fact.

Did Northwest, which manifestly was aware of the approaching problem, give a heads-up to its customers before the latest meltdown started on Friday? It did not.

Now that the schedules have basically collapsed, though, Northwest has put a "Statement Regarding Flight Cancellations" up on its Web site.

It begins: "In recent weeks, severe weather has disrupted air service across the East Coast and
Midwest for a number of airlines, including Northwest. As a result, the weather and related air-traffic control restrictions have disrupted Northwest's scheduled operations, causing increased crew duty time and the inability to consistently reposition aircraft and crews as needed."

An update: By 2.45 p.m. today, Northwest had canceled 141 flights. And let's have a look at "a number of airlines," which oddly seem to have been spared the Northwest weather curse.

As of 2.45 p.m., Southwest had canceled two of its 3,352 scheduled flights for the day. Continental had canceled five of 1,229 flights. US Airways had canceled 18 of 987. American had canceled 25 of 2,206. And United had canceled 26 of 1,513.

Yet Northwest is blaming the "recent severe weather events" and not its own ineptness in reducing employment to the point where they can't run an airline if a butterfly flaps its wings and farts in Shanghai.

Yeah ... that's the ticket.

Update: Northwest has canceled 198 flights today as of 9 p.m. Since Friday, Northwest has canceled more than 800 flights.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Morning News: Sometimes the Bear Gets You; Sometimes You Get the Bear

My wife and I are not campers. We don't do rustic. Oh, we'll get on a horse and ride all day through the drizzly bogs and hills of Connemara, or into the dusty hills and washes of the Arizona desert, but come dinnertime, we want the convivial bar, the merry restaurant with great food and company, the Jacuzzi in the bathroom and that nice comfy bed with the 400-thread-count sheets.

So I'm not real sure about bears in the woods. Or the protocol toward them.

Yes, I know you're supposed to keep food secured at night so one of the beasts doesn't stroll into your campsite or cozy up in your tent. But I didn't know you could get a ticket for whacking a bear that was about to eat your son.

According to a report by D. Aileen Dodd in The State, a newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Chris Everhart, an ex-Marine, was camping with his three young sons at the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia when a 275 pound black bear wandered into their campsite while the four were toasting marshmallows around 9.30 p.m.

The bear grabbed a food cooler. Impulsively, six-year-old Logan grabbed a shovel and chased the bear. The bear dropped the cooler and lunged for the child.

Whereupon Mr. Everhart grabbed a log of firewood and chucked it at the bear, beaning the charging beast.

Bada-bing, bada-bang, the bear went down like a ten-dollar palooka.

Father and sons rushed into their Jeep to take cover, figuring they now had a very pissed off bear with a thumping headache on their hands. But nope, ol' Smoky was more than down for the count. The bear was -- well, it was bleedin' demised. It had shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. It was an ex-Smoky, to paraphrase the Monty Python dead-parrot sketch.

Later, some hump with a badge from the Forest Service showed up and gave Mr. Everhart a $75 ticket for failing to secure his food properly. It is, of course, a matter of debate whether the late bear, at the moment of resolution, was defining food as the picnic cooler -- or as the six-year-old.

Yes, I know you're supposed to make sure food is out of range of bears in the woods at night or when you leave your campsite, sometimes by tying something like a cooler high on a tree branch.

But who'd have thought the Forest Kops would expect you to hoist your six-year-old up on a tree till the marshmallows got toasted?


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Note: New, Separate Blog for Brazil

Yes, I know I have announced my retirement more often than Barbra Streisand, as regards the Brazil posts here, on what had started out as a merry little travel blog. Well, things have nutted up enough in Brazil to force me out of retirement (what was it, 3 weeks?) on the subject. To separate Brazil from the (usually) somewhat more sane world of general travel, I created a new sibling blog, "Joe Sharkey: Brazil." It's at

As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll link to both blogs from the basic and put all the Brazil archives on the new blog.

Thanks -- JS

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Air Travel Summer 2007: "We're Sick of This Crap!" ... Also, Meltdown at United

Photos from Continental Flight 1970
By Collin Brock, via KING5 News

Oh, this is going to be a honey of a summer in air travel.

I know this will be of little consolation to those of you currently stuck in airports or on planes after the meltdown of United Airlines worldwide schedules today, or those who have been stuck on parked planes for eight and nine hours in recent months as the air-traffic system itself slowly melts down, but it could actually be worse.

Later on this post, there's more on United schedule collapse today. United all day has been claiming that its system is recovering. The real-time statistics I've been looking at say that is not true -- two thirds of United's flights were delayed today, many of them for three hours and more. Read on, but first lookit this report on the literal shit-storm on Continental last week.

Here is a look at this report on a real stinko of a flight last week -- Continental Flight 1970, a 767 with about 200 passengers from Amsterdam to Newark -- on which sewage overflowed from toilets and down the aisle while passengers gagged. The story is from KING5 News in Seattle:

Sewage flows down aisles of trans-Atlantic flight


"I was more nervous than I had ever been on a flight," said passenger Collin Brock.

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash.– Passengers on a Continental Airlines flight had to hold their noses for hours as sewage overflowed from toilets while they were high over the Atlantic.

"To be blatantly honest, I was more nervous than I had ever been on a flight," said Collin Brock. The University Place man was on board Continental Airlines flight 1970 from Amsterdam to Newark, New Jersey last week when things went bad.

"I've never felt so offended in all my life. I felt like I had been physically abused and neglected. I was forced to sit next to human excrement for seven hours," said Brock.

That's after lavatories - in the middle of a flight filled with passengers - started spewing sewage.

"Sickening. It's a nauseating smell. It's very uncomfortable," said Brock.

It was last Wednesday afternoon when his flight left Amsterdam, but roughly two hours into it, the passengers were told the lavatories were out of commission. An unplanned landing in Shannon, Ireland was made to fix the problem.

A pit stop became an overnight stay. The next day, the same plane headed for its original destination of Newark, New Jersey, but just after takeoff, the sewage overflow began. This time, there was no turning around.

"I don't know how you can say a plane needs to be grounded one day for a problem that's not as major as a problem the next day, and it doesn't qualify for being grounded," said Brock.

He says was there was one half-working restroom on the plane for the more than 200 people onboard.

He also says the flight attendants - who were serving meal service in a stinky, unappetizing cabin - told everyone to not eat or drink too much.

"To be told that we were supposed to monitor what comes out the other end of us was insulting," said Brock. "Shame on continental. It was the worst flight experience I have ever had."

Continental gave Collin a $500 voucher for a future flight for the inconvenience. He says he's not sure he'll ever use it.

[Anyone who was on that flight or any other horrible flight in the last week or two and wants to vent, please contact me at]


Returning to the United Airlines meltdown today, United's Web site as of mid-afternoon had a short notice with the headline "Operations Recovering" as if that was some triumphant feat. The usual stenographers in the daily media were obediently parroting this statement, treating the incident as a two-hour glitch and reporting that things were returning to normal.

But when I checked United's real-time performance as of 5 p.m. EDT today on the invaluable, it did not appear that a recovery was underway. Here was the picture:

--Overall on-time departure rate for United, 37 percent -- and the vast majority of late flights were leaving 45 minutes or more behind schedule. Some "recovery."

--At Chicago O'Hare as of 5 p.m., 31 percent of flights had departed on time. The figure was 12 percent at Denver; 29 percent at San Francisco and 30 percent at Los Angeles International. (The vast majority of late flights at those hubs departed more than 45 minutes late).

These figures were worse than the previous statistics I had checked at 3 p.m and worse than 4 p.m. -- meaning the situation was not improving as the day wore on.

At 10 p.m., the overall United on-time rate was 31 percent. More than three-quarters of the 1,671 scheduled flights that were late were at least 45 minutes (and in many cases many hours) late.

So be wary of travel on United for a day or two because the airline has a lot of equipment and crew sorting-out to do.

Here's a note worth reading. The travel guru Joe Brancatelli sent it late this morning to members of his Web site

"Dear JoeSentMe member:

I am writing with urgent travel information for United Airlines passengers.

An as-yet unexplained glitch in United's computers essentially grounded the airline this morning. The grounding lasted for at least two hours throughout the entire system. Although United now claims that its computers have been restarted, several hours worth of flights have simply not left the gate, have been or will be canceled or are stranded on runways at airports.

My advice to you, frankly, is to cancel any travel you may have planned today on United. Planes are now out of position throughout the country and possibly throughout the world. I would also be extremely circumspect about flying United in the next day or two. As we have learned, even a small disruption in aircraft movements can affect schedules for days. This is clearly a large disruption and is certain have a ripple effect on United's schedule throughout the week.

I will contact you if I have further relevant details. I urge you to proceed with extreme caution and disregard most of what United may be publicly saying. Check instead with {} for more accurate and unbiased information."


Monday, June 11, 2007

The Mafia: The End. Please.

I thought the only television reviewer who really got the final episode of "The Sopranos" last night was Heather Havrilesky in Salon.

"In what may go down as the most heart-stopping final scene of a drama series in the history of television, Tony walked into a restaurant, sat down at a booth, ate a few dozen onion rings and ... that was it. Roll credits," she wrote. "As the screen went blank in the middle of a line from the song "Don't Stop Believing," by Journey, it was hard not to wonder: Is [writer-creator David] Chase brilliant for so thoroughly subverting our expectations or ... is he just an asshole?"

People complained about a lack of resolution. To me, the characters were resolved and it -- like the long-faded Mafia water-slide that "The Sopranos" took the long last giddy ride on -- was over.

There were two characters in this show that I wanted to whack myself: Dr. Melfi, the smug psychiatrist who spoke like Rosie O'Donnell on Quaaludes (honestly, I thought she had to have been given two pages of script for everyone else's 10). And A.J., the supremely annoying teenager who distressingly failed in a cinderblock-tied-to-the-neck backyard swimming pool suicide attempt a few episodes back.

Meadow had already shown she was hopeless, as deluded as her mother. We knew where she was headed, chiseling out of med school and opting instead for "the law" because, she told Tony earnestly, she had seen how authorities oppressed people like himself. After all, she had seen him dragged away on several occasions by the FBI. Italians, immigrants, the poor and oppressed were routinely crushed by "the state," she said.

"New Jersey?" he asked, bewildered.

Besides, he had to be thinking, "This girl seems not to acknowledge to herself that I am the head of a violent criminal organization? I thought she, at least, unlike her mother and brother, had some brains."

A.J., meanwhile, prattled on about joining the Army -- we knew this phony creep would do no such thing -- after informing his family: "You people are fucked. You're living in a fucking dream!"

That is an apt description of every mob family and Family since "The Godfather" first came out. I mean the novel. Did you know that its author, Mario Puzo, never met an actual Mafioso until after the book was published? All of that ritual and steeped-in-misty-Sicilian lore, he picked up in a library or from relatives.

Francis Ford Coppola brightly illuminated the myth with the first two "Godfather" films which, in effect, showed the various organized mob gangs how to play their roles. In a very real way, the Mafia in its cultural heyday of the 1970s through 1995 was playing a part -- from the overriding narrative to the physical tics like flashing those cuffs -- that it had learned at the movies. (Though, of course, the blood and bullets were real).

"Goodfellas," the greatest Mafia movie ever made, was the one that successfully blended both the mythology and the reality. As a newspaper columnist who wrote some true-crime books, I got to know a fair number of actual mob figures in both New York and Philadelphia. The two Godfather movies they said, taught them how to act "the life," as they referred to it. ("Godfather III" they always dismissed as asinine, and they cheered as other movie audiences did when Sofia Coppola -- a horrible actress who later redeemed herself as a director -- was shot to death on the church steps, in what was supposed to be a tear-wrenching finale).

But "Goodfellas" showed them the life as it was, at least for a while.

That life was almost entirely history by the mid 90s, after all of the New York mob families, and the vicious Philadelphia mob, had been decimated. One of the things that amazed me most about "The Sopranos" was that it managed to seem contemporary, in a world in which the Mafia simply no longer existed, except in the imaginations of retired mobsters and prosecutors and young reporters eager to get in on the game. To this day, I chuckle when I read of some poor gavone in Newark or Elizabeth or Brooklyn being arrested and referred to as a "capo" in some Mafia family that hasn't actually existed in 12 years.

In the final Sopranos scene last night, as Tony, Carmella and A.J. sat in a booth at a Holsten's, an actual ice cream parlor/candy store/luncheonette in Bloomfield, the curtain slowly came down. Carmella opened the menu and asked, deluded airhead to the end: "So, what looks good tonight?"

Meadow is outside, having a hard time parallel-parking her car (lucky for her, we can only assume in a few minutes). Inside Holsten's, a sinister stranger disappears into the men's room, and another sinister figure on a stool at the soda fountain furtively watches Tony at his booth. I though it was brilliant that Chase left it at that. The screen went dark. At first, we thought out cable had suddenly gone out. Then, roll credits.

As I said before, people who live in the Montclair, N.J., Bloomfield area -- lots of them transplants from Manhattan --know Holsten's for its terrific home-made ice cream and its wonderful candy counter. The food? Not so hot. Certainly not up the standards of a "diner," which several clueless reviewers called it today.

A neighbor of mine, a Manhattan transplant, said she'd taken her young son there once for lunch "and they couldn't even make a decent grilled cheese."

So what's good?

Leave the grilled cheese. Take the butter creams.

And goodbye, at long, long last, to the Mafia, the whole damn lot of yez. It's been a blast but please, enough already.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Morning News: Silvio on Jersey

Quote of the Day:

Steven Van Zandt plays Silvio Dante in "The Sopranos" and was a member of Bruce Springsteen's legendary E Street Band. Along with 10 other key members of the cast of "The Sopranos," he was profiled and quoted in the New York Times in a walk-up to the finale tomorrow night. The best line: "I am having the experience two times in my life of doing something that makes New Jersey fashionable. What are the odds on that?"

--Incidentally, lots of travelers have been shocked over the years to visit Asbury Park, based on the memorable 1973 Springsteen album cover that used a vintage postcard, and find that it is rundown, with a forlorn boardwalk. But gentrification is gaining speed, led by a vibrant gay community that's mostly migrated down from New York City, 60 miles away. (I interviewed Madam Marie once, and she was a total old grouch).

The great Jersey boardwalk towns are, of course, Wildwood, near the southern tip of the Jersey shore, and Seaside Heights, roughly mid-coast. As to Atlantic City, where the boardwalk was invented, the Boardwalk is now mostly a seven-mile-long promenade in front of a wall of casinos. It's still worth a stroll if you've never been, but it's kind of sad to see how almost all of the landmarks and history have been obliterated. If you do take that stroll, stop by the Atlantic City Historical Museum on the old Garden Pier, toward the northern end of the Boardwalk, for a look at some artifacts and photos of the Boardwalk past.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Monuments on Parade: A Cranky Travel Guide

Just asking, but what in the world is this obsession with monuments to the dead all about?

Just today, I read two stories about a monument to the 40 innocent people on board the famed Flight 93 of Sept. 11, 2001, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., evidently as the hijackers aboard were trying to turn it toward Washington, D.C., where the target presumably was the Capitol building.

We know that some very courageous passengers and flight attendants violently resisted the religious psychopaths who'd commandeered the plane, and we're pretty sure that resistance led the hijackers to fold and just crash the aircraft in the rural area. Mission unaccomplished.

(Not to get off the subject here, but I wonder how those 72 virgins the hijackers each believed they were be issued as martyrs in Paradise are working out? Certainly, I cannot be the only person who thinks that residing for eternity in the company of 72 virgins, no matter how beautiful, could possibly be uninterrupted bliss. Can you imagine how many doors would be slamming in those celestial manses every single day?)

But I digress. This is an essay about what seems to be a growing, and I think a little nutty, obsession with monuments, and this gigantic monstrosity being planned by the increasingly embarrassing National Park Service in godforsaken Shankesville, Pa. is a case in point. I can't figure out either of the two stories I read today -- maybe all the editors were at the annual picnic. Evidently there is a dispute about money, which is no surprise. The monument is partly to be built on some guy's land. Nobody seems to have thought to ask the reporters to explain: What the hell are they doing?

What gets me is the size and cost of the of the thing -- 1,300 acres and $58 million. I'm told by both stories that 4,000 people a year visit the site, leaving those dreadful bundles of supermarket bouquets that helped make the commotion over Princess Diana's death so ... well, creepy.

Of course, the planned monument at the World Trade Center site is way more expensive, but it's only a few acres and, besides a 1,776-foot-tall skyscraper, it will contain memorial gardens, a theater and a practical, useful-to-the-living rail and subway station. And the image of those buildings coming down -- terror theater from hell -- will remain in our collective consciousness for centuries.

(An aside: Anyone in New York, if they didn't actually see the horror with their own eyes, knows lots of people who did. For years, I have asked those who actually witnessed the planes hit or the buildings collapse what the first words out of their mouths were. "Holy shit," uttered slowly and with disbelief, wins by a huge margin. Ask around and you'll see I'm right.)

Anyway, what is it with this National Park boondoggle in Shankesville? A hundred acres wouldn't be big enough?

Speaking of monuments, until a few years ago, I'd never been to the old Book Depository Building on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where Lee Harvey Oswald lurked at a sixth-floor window to take at least a couple of the shots that hit President Kennedy.

(I'm back and forth on the conspiracy theories. Gerald Posner's book arguing the lone-assassin theory had me persuaded for years, but now I'm wavering. David Talbot's wonderful new book "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years" goes into a great trove of historical detail about who might have had the means and opportunity, and most certainly the motives, to conspire to assassinate JFK.)

Anyway, the event was of course a central moment in memory from my high school years, so a couple of years ago, on a business trip in Dallas, I went to the Sixth Floor Museum at the old Book Depository building. On the ground floor, before taking the elevator up to Oswald's dark lair, they had installed an airport-like security checkpoint. You had to put anything metal on a conveyor belt and pass through a magnetometer. I just couldn't see the point.

"Now you're checking for weapons?" I asked the security guards, who were not amused.

Nevertheless, the sixth-floor displays are interesting. It is especially fascinating to stand where the odious Oswald stood and see what an easy, easy shot it was.

Nobody asked me, but you know the monument I hate most in this country (though whatever the National Park Service is up to in Shankesville may well edge into first place)? That surly monstrosity, Mount Rushmore.

Nothing against Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson, but when you actually go there to South Dakota, it becomes absolutely clear -- at least to me -- that this monument, staring smugly as it does into the Black Hills and the holy grounds of the Lakota Sioux nation, is making an imperialist statement! Bugger off, it seems to be saying to the indigenous ghosts. The fact that tourists speak in reverential whispers and act as if they're in church while there gave me the willies.

Monuments I like because they convey dignity and grace:

The battleship Arizona. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; the Iwo Jima statue; Arlington Cemetery; Benjamin Franklin's grave in Philadelphia. FDR's modest mansion and grave beside the Hudson in Hyde Park. Lyndon Johnson's tombstone in the little family graveyard at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, and only because it's typically LBJ: It towers over the those of rest of the clan, looking like it's apt to grab one of the others' lapels at any moment.

I like the feeling inside the John Paul Jones memorial at Annapolis. Even if he was a ballsy wastrel, the boy got things done. I even kind of like Grant's Tomb in the Bronx, though that's partly because it was the answer to the booby-prize question on Groucho Marx's television quiz show: "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb," and also, nobody goes there anymore.

{Correction appended later: Grant's Tomb, as several readers pointed out, is in Manhattan, not the Bronx.]

Meanwhile, there is the other subject of fake monuments -- places that become tourist attractions simply because they're seen in movies or on television.

Everybody in the Montclair, N.J. area -- the town to which half of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and three quarters of the media crowd, seems to relocate to once they have a kid or two -- knows about a wonderful little ice cream parlor/luncheonette/candy store called Holsten's in Bloomfield. Walk in, and you really do feel like you're back in 1964.

On the left is a soda fountain with stools, behind which young men and women work to churn out sundaes, fizzes and other sodas. They are invariably pleasant and friendly. On the right is a big candy counter where you can guy a couple of macaroons or a two-pound box of chocolates -- all delicious and all made, like the ice cream, on the premises. In the rear is a little luncheonette with booths, where you can order BLTs, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, French fries, sundaes -- whatever. Whole families gatherer here for Saturday lunch or for things like birthday parties.

We love the place. There simply aren't many like it anymore.

But lately, it's been a little difficult to get in on some days. See, Holsten's was where they shot the final scene of Sunday night's final episode of "The Sopranos." People are already standing outside taking pictures. Strangers are wandering in.

If Tony gets whacked Sunday night, and my money says he does, Holsten's is the place where the whacking gets done.

All sorts of locations in North Jersey are regularly seen on "The Sopranos," and tour buses do a steady business dragging gawkers to monumentss like the Bada Bing, a strip club on Route 17 in Lodi actually called Satin Dolls; Pizzaland in North Arlington; Satriale's, a fictional pork store (actually a former auto parts shop in Kearny), and even the house used for the exteriors of the Soprano family home in Caldwell.

And now, alas, dear Holsten's. Soon to be the most famous of them all.

Bada-bing, bada-bang, bada-boom -- there goes the sofa fountain where you could always get a seat.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

That's All Folks

..And thanks for the use of the hall, as they used to say. I finally turn in my wings on the Brazil crash story.

For eight months, I've tried, with what I would say is notable success, to report the developing story of the Sept. 29 air crash in detail and with accuracy. Yes, I have been harsh when I thought it necessary. And yes, I have resorted to unseemly ridicule when I thought ridicule was necessary.

But the toll of personal advocacy journalism has finally reached the point where I can't pay it anymore.

I did this all independently, as a freelance writer, and at a pretty high price.

I owed nothing to no one, except perhaps the honorable Richard Pedicini, an American in Brazil who, on his own, contacted me in November to offer his services translating Portuguese reports and, as time went on, even doing his own reporting on court proceedings and the like.

I've known many fine and honest journalists in my life. Mr. Pedicini, whose background is in banking, not journalism, ranks among the finest because his motives were pure and basic: to report what happened, t0 drive at the truth, and to keep at it day in and day out.

Mr. Pedicini, whom I always jocularly referred to here as "our Sao Paulo bureau chief," was in fact just that. His agenda was and is pure: to get it straight. And he was getting it from Brazil.

I have been called an apologist for ExcelAire and for the accused pilots. That was never, ever true. I just reported the facts as I knew them. Aside from a strictly social occasion, when I was invited to be at the homecoming in Long Island when the pilots were released from Brazil in December, I have not met the pilots since we parted company after the crash in Brazil, and I have never been able to interview them back in the U.S. about the crash itself.

I make no excuses for manifest failings in this blog, including failings of tone. There have been no failings in accuracy that I know of.

"You sound too obsessed," someone said.

I had my reasons.

This has been my show from day one; my own way of dealing with what happened to me, to the rest of us who survived and, most importantly, with the 154 who died. I felt from the beginning that those tragic deaths were cynically exploited by the Brazilian authorities in what I will always regard as an odious attempt to shift blame away from the real problem -- an infamously unsafe and badly maintained air-traffic control system -- and onto the Americans as scapegoats.

If I had to employ images of the Keystone Kops and Three Stooges to underscore my point, so be it. So they were rude. They also were funny. Ridicule has its purposes.

There was never profit or benefit here for me. Far from it. I grossly neglected doing paying work to do this, and for the most part it was misery -- which I suppose is a form of therapy.

I'm want no medals. They gave me a one in Vietnam. That and $2.99 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

But my Brazil posts on this eccentric blog do hold up, and they'll stand up years from now, as accurate and honest journalism that was done at a time, on the run, when no one in the mainstream press was interested in getting involved. For those of you who might be interested, I'm going to put all of the Brazil stuff in a separate archive linked to from this blog.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, we're back to nonsense. The aerial maneuvers! Have I singlehandedly revived Whac-a-Mole as a metaphor? It goes on and on.

But I cannot.

Thanks again to Richard. Thanks to dozens of other sources, including investigators and Brazilian officials who could not be named. And thanks to the dozens of international pilots who tuned in, and got it, and turned me in the right direction when I my heading was off.

And thanks and lifelong affection to the other six of the Amazon Seven. That was one hell of a trip, guys. We probably shoulda gone to Atlantic City instead.

The rest is up to the mainstream press, which can afford to pay the price if it wants to invest the effort. Because this story is very far from over.

But for me, it's over and out.

Joe Sharkey At Large now becomes a general travel blog, as it was originally meant to be before Sept. 29, 2006.


Brazil: Disorder in the Court II

There are something like five official investigations still underway in Brazil, even though the American pilots were indicted on May 25, and a judge last Friday ordered the criminal pre-trial proceedings to commence. You know, first we hang 'em, then we ask questions.

Later this week, I'll catch up on some of the latest shenanigans, and explore more fully the fact that the asinine "aerial stunt maneuvers" charge has arisen zombie-like from the Graveyard of Crazed Delusions.

Today, a top official of Embraer was heard from at one of the hearings, this one in congress. According to news accounts, he had some amazing things to say, as you'll see.

Embraer is the manufacturer of the brand new $24.7 million Legacy 600 business jet that was put into a horrific mid-air collision with a commercial Gol 737 after a series of technical and personnel breakdowns in Brazil's military-run and notoriously faulty air-traffic control system.

Till recently, Embraer has been conspicuously unheard from, perhaps because Embraer has not been named as a defendant in various civil lawsuits seeking many millions of dollars in damages from the two American pilots, their employer ExcelAire Service, and Honeywell Aerospace, which manufactured the Legacy's transponder unit.

Those of you (may the peace and blessings of God be upon you) who have carefully followed these long blogs on this subject over the last 8-plus months know that in April, ExcelAire filed with the Federal Police a very detailed report (here's the link again) that showed how air-traffic control breakdowns caused the accident and also raised very serious questions about the manufacture, installation and history of the transponder equipment in the new Legacy.

ExcelAire said it was not informed of previous trouble with the transponder equipment installed in the Legacy before taking delivery of it. The facts in that report have not been disputed. And to my knowledge, Embraer has not disputed, or even addressed, the assertions about the equipment installed in the Legacy 600 ExcelAire took delivery of on Sept. 29, hours before the crash. Here's a summary from the section in the ExcelAire report that covers the equipment:

Embraer had problems with the Legacy’s Radio Management Unit (RMU), Communication Unit (RCZ) and the Flight Management System (FMS) computer before Legacy was delivered to ExcelAire.

The RMU had failed in two other aircraft before being installed in N600XL.

The RCZ, which includes the transponder module, was rejected in another aircraft before being installed in N600XL.

The FMS failed twice during production flights due to defective connectors, which were encountered only two days before the accident.

The examination of selected avionics found installation errors and unexpected flaws, which required additional tests.

Now, remember, until the Keystone Kops recently opened a new circus with the indictment of the pilots and of four controllers, and the Three Stooges classic "Disorder in the Court" flashed to mind, two major points of agreement had been reached down here on earth, which includes in Brazil:

-- That a series of technological and human errors in Brazilian air traffic control had placed the two oncoming aircraft on a collision course at 37,000 feet, and that air traffic controllers at the center in whose space the crash occurred were aware of the lack of reception of a signal from the Legacy for 55 minutes before the collision, and had done nothing about it. The Legacy pilots, in turn, expressed no awareness of a transponder problem before the crash.

-- That the American pilots, whatever their share, if any, in the blame, did not deliberately turn off the transponder on the Legacy -- an act that would have been certifiably insane in air-space that was well known (and ultimately the Brazilian authorities finally admitted this, too) for having dangerous radio and radar blind spots and dead zones.

The Federal Police indictment, in fact, specifically acknowledges the blind zones, and charges the pilots with a crime that was "unintentional. It also charges three air-traffic controllers with unintentional crimes and a fourth -- the one who was at the screen supposedly monitoring the Legacy -- with an intentional crime.

Hate to keep walking you down Memory Lane, but you might recall that early on in this matter, knuckleheads like the Brazilian Defense Minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires, had spoken openly of their belief that the American pilots deliberately disabled the transponder. The reason for this wild act? To hide from air-traffic controllers the fact that they were doing aerial stunts over the Amazon -- loop d loops and the like -- to show off the new plane.

It has been intimated, furthermore, that one of the reasons for putting the beautiful new plane through these wild stunts over the mighty Amazon would have been to show it off to me, a working-stiff reporter, hitchhiking a ride on board, who often writes about business jets.

Now, as I have said, if the pilots -- whom I had only met two days earlier in San Jose dos Campos -- had been doing illegal stunt maneuvers or otherwise flying recklessly when we collided with an airliner that went down with 154 aboard, that would have been one hell of a story for me:

Business-Jet Pilots Flew Aerial Stunts,
And 154 Plunged to Death in Amazon

An Eyewitness Account

Yet I conspicuously failed to mention that in my actual front-page story on the crash, and in a subsequent 4,000-word magazine article -- in two of the most influential newspapers in the world. ... What could explain even the dimmest reporter overlooking that shocking fact? ... Oh, I forgot: I had to have been in on the fix. I thought that lunatic charge had been belly-laughed off Planet Earth six months ago, but the game of Whac-a-Mole never ends in official Brazil. Months after it was pounded down into its hole, that maniacal critter has popped up again from another hole.

More on this later this week. But it has recently been reported again in Brazil that the seven of us who survived the crash conspired to concoct a cover story. The proof of that is that in interrogations by the Air Force at the jungle air base where we spent 24 hours, and during a subsequent all-night series of interrogations at a Federal Police headquarters in Cuiaba, we all told exactly the same story about what happened!

Apparently, it seems we began concocting our story immediately after our plane fell out of the sky and skidded, tires and brakes shrieking and smoking, to a crash-landing on an obscure jungle military air strip, with a broken-off wing, a busted tail stabilizer, and a disabled hydraulics system.

Now, it's well established that air-traffic control had long since lost track of us, and the Cachimbo air base's sleepy control tower only lumbered to life as we were falling out of the sky onto them. So one might think that the Brazilian air force would have (quite reasonably) considered this a somewhat alarming and rude intrusion, and responded accordingly. (Which they actually did, immediately surrounding the plane with armed military personnel).

But, according to a recent story in one dark corner of the Brazilian media -- you know, that place where the people who don't take their meds have to sit -- we seven brazen Americans refused to get off the plane for 50 minutes, despite being surrounded by very put-out troops with guns. For 50 minutes, we supposedly sat there inventing our cover story, while awaiting an American jet from Brasilia that would deliver a U.S. consul to the scene to protect us. Only then, supposedly, did we get off the plane.

If this were true, I would concede without hesitation that the Brazilian air force would have had very good reason to shoot the lot of us, Consul included.

Employing the logic favored by the Brazilian authorities, then, I would argue that the fact that they did not shoot us for defying them for 50 minutes in an airplane that had just crashed on their base is proof that the story is, of course, a lie.

Actually, as you can well imagine, the minute that plane stopped as we held our breath wondering if it was going to blow up, we rushed off the plane onto that fetid jungle base and practically embraced the astonished troops, who looked at us like we were outer space aliens.

I mean, they knew even less than we did. And all we knew was that we'd been in a collision with something, obviously, but we didn't know what it was until about three hours after our emergency landing.

And we didn't see a U.S. consulate representative until well over 24 hours later, when we were transferred to the police headquarters in Cuiaba. And a fat lot of good he did.

From today, as translated by our Sao Paulo bureau chief, Richard Pedicini, a report on Embraer's long-awaited entrance into the ... uh .. deliberations. (The "CPI" refers to one of two congressional investigative committees looking into the crash, along with other agencies): click here

Embraer indirectly accused Legacy pilots

In deposition to the House Aviation Blackout CPI, the president of Embraer, Frederico Fleury Curado, indirectly blamed the Legacy pilots, Joe Lepore and Jean Paul Paladino, for the accident which killed 154 passengers of the Gol Boeing 1907 in September of last year.

Curado affirmed that, in accordance with the top civil aviation regulatory body in the United States, certainly the transponder of the Embraer-made jet was turned off at the moment of the accident, but there was no failure of the equipment.

Questioned by the CPI's report referee, congressman Marco Maia (PT-RS), about the possibility of the pilots having bumped into some button and turned off the transponder by accident, Frederico Curado said that this is improbable.

"The possibility exists, but I would say that it's improbably because to turn it off it's necessary to push two buttons, which is not something that can happen by chance", he explained.

He added, further, that the Embraer functionary [My note: there actually were two Embraer employees on the flight as a routine matter. One was going to return to Sao Jose after our planned one-night stopover at the Amazon River port city of Manaus. The other lives in southern Florida, where we were to have made entry into the U.S. for refueling and for Customs, and continued on to Long Island where ExcelAire is based) who was present on the flight could not have instructed the pilots to turn off the equipment to "test" the plane because "he doesn't have knowledge or experience to do that". Thus, the only remaining possibility would be that Lepore and Paladino voluntarily turned off the transponder.

And here's another report:

"Congressman contests information from president of Embraer

Congressman Vic Pires Franco (DEM-Pará) refuted information given by the president of Embraer, Frederico Fleury Curado, that the two employees of the company present on the Legacy at the moment of the collision were exercising only commercial functions. The congressman presented an informally obtained copy of the transcription of the dialogs registered on the Legacy's black box that demonstrated that the Embraer employee called Henry Yanble (sic), who lives in the United States, had active participation in the piloting of the jet, including, suggesting the turning off of equipment which the congressman inferred to be the transponder.

(My note: What he "inferred" to be the transponder? In fact, the cockpit voice recorder transcript clearly shows the pilots were casually discussing -- during a routine section of the flight -- some confusion about how to turn on a cabin in-flight entertainment device called "Airshow," which shows a video image of the airplane's position, route and estimated time of arrival to the folks in the cabin. Airshow, as I have said, has about as much to do with the flying of an airplane as the in-flight magazine.)


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Brazil: Disorder in the Court

One day after a federal court in forlorn Sinop in Mato Grosso state rubber-stamped the Federal Police May 25 indictment of the American pilots, while ruling that the pilots could not be permitted to give their testimony in the United States, Brazil's Supreme Court ruled that the Americans cannot be compelled to testify in Brazil before congressional committees investigating the Sept. 29 disaster and the subsequent systemwide work protests by air-traffic controllers.

Note that the bizarre game of Whac-a-Mole continues. Up again pops the long-since-dispensed-with nonsense about not following a filed flight plan that
everybody involved long ago conceded was overruled by air traffic control, as flight plans routinely are overruled by air traffic control based on real-time conditions.

Also, note the reiteration of an asinine charge -- that the cockpit voice-recorder tape shows that the pilots "did not know how to operate some equipment in the plane" -- the implication being that they did not know how to operate the transponder.

In fact, it is NOT IN DISPUTE that the cockpit voice-recorder segment in which pilots Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino discussed confusion about operating "some equipment" illustrates merely a brief discussion in which the two pilots were casually trying to figure out how to turn on "Airshow." Airshow is an in-flight cabin entertainment system that depicts a map showing the plane's real-time location and other information such as airspeed and estimated on-time arrival on video screens in the passenger cabin.

Airshow, as anyone with intelligence of a turnip knows, has as much to do with flying an aircraft as an in-flight magazine does.

By now, I'm convinced that this constant re-raising of issues that have long-since been explained or dismissed as absurd has to be part of a coordinated, multi-agency plan to scapegoat the pilots -- evidence and common sense be damned. As I said from day one, the fix is in.

And as Charles DeGaulle once supposedly said, "Brazil is not a serious country."

Anyway, from today's

"Ellen Gracie Northfleet, the chief of the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF), told the president and the reporter of the Air Blackout Congressional Inquiry, House representatives Marcelo Castro and Marco Maia, that Brazil's Justice has no means to compel Americans Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, the pilots of the Legacy executive jet, which collided with the Boeing 737 last September, to travel to Brazil to testify before the congressional committee.

The collision led to Brazil's worst air accident ever, which caused the death of the 154 passengers and crew aboard the plane when the Boeing fell in the Amazon jungle. The two pilots and the five passengers aboard the little jet were spared and were able to land safely in a Brazilian Air Force base airport.

The congressional inquiry is probing not only the Boeing tragedy but also the whole Brazilian air transportation system, which went into a state of chaos in several occasions since the plane accident over the Amazon.

According to Northfleet, who is the grand-daughter of an American confederate soldier who went to Brazil after the US Civil War, the cooperation agreement on penal matters between Brazil and the United States doesn't give the congressional committee the right to summon Americans to testify in Brazil.

"This is our main problem at the moment," complained representative Maia. "From a juridical point of view and from the agreements signed by Brazil with other countries, we have no guarantee that we can indeed hear the pilots."

The Supreme Chief suggested that the congressmen appeal to the Foreign Ministry of the Brazilian embassy in Washington to convince Lepore and Paladino to travel to Brazil. If everything fails the inquiry committee will try to fly to the US to get the American pilots testimony. Still another option would be to grill them via videoconferencing.

Just last Friday, Brazilian federal judge Murilo Mendes, from Mato Grosso, the state where the Boeing fell down, indicted the two Americans for involuntary manslaughter. Four Brazilian air controllers, all of them Air Force sergeants and all working at Brasília's air control center, known as Cindacta 1, were also indicted by the same judge.

While three of the flight controllers are being charged with involuntary manslaughter, one of them is being accused of intentional manslaughter.

Judge Mendes determined that the pilots would be interrogated on August 27 and made it clear that they would have to travel to Brazil for that "not being allowed that the act occur at their native country - the United States."

In the court filing, prosecutor Thiago Lemos de Andrade stated that the negligence of the six men caused the collision between the Legacy and the Boeing. According to the charge, air controller Felipe Santos dos Reis gave wrong instructions to the American pilots, not telling them about the Legacy's altitude changes.

Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, another air-controller indicted. was responsible for monitoring the area in which the Legacy jet was flying, about one thousand feet above the altitude it should be. Santos is accused of not alerting the US pilots about their wrong altitude.

More than that, the prosecutor says, Santos informed "consciously and willfully" the controller who took over from him that the jet was at 36 thousand feet of altitude feet, when actually it was at 37 thousand feet. Therefore, on the wrong way, since the odd altitude is reserved for planes coming to Brasília and not going from Brasília as it was the case.

Lucivando Tibúrcio de Alencar, the air controller who replaced Santos, was charged for taking too long to attempt a contact with the Legacy - about ten minutes after starting his shift - even though he was aware that the jet's transponder wasn't working properly. The last air controller charged was Leandro José Santos de Barros, Alencar's assistant.

Lepore and Paladino are being charged mainly for their use of the transponder and for not following the written flight plan. The prosecution says that both didn't know how to use the plane's equipment and that they ended up turning the transponder off unintentionally.

As the prosecution put it, "For not knowing how to operate some items in the plane, they ended up deactivating by mistake the transponder. To this momentary active ineptitude followed a long omissive negligence."

The penalty for involuntary manslaughter is from one to three years in jail, but aggravating factors might lead to up to six years in prison. As for willful manslaughter, as one air controller is charged, the penalty can vary from 8 to 24 years of detention."

My note: The Comments, below, follow the above-referenced post on today's

In the past, the readers' "Comments" on about this incident used to include a fair amount of anti-American vitriol, as well as wild denunciations of anything that appeared to conflict with the Official View that the American pilots caused this disaster. It's probably not good news for Brazilian authorities who are still trying to frame the Americans that, with almost all of the evidence no longer in any dispute, public sentiment in Brazil may have shifted significantly against the authorities transparent lies that the Americans did it. I haven't fixed punctuation or spelling in the Comments.

(And no, I did not post the first comment, though it reflects my views exactly).


Charging the americans...
written by bo, 2007-06-03 11:58:35

for not following the written flight plan? I'm no pilot and just brainstorming here, but wouldn't the ATC's instructions override any previously written flight plan?

It's pretty plain to see what happened here, as I've said since the beginning, the ATC's and the very system that existed(exists?) in brazil are the main culprits here.

written by Jay Glenn, 2007-06-03 12:22:33

I am a pilot and any change by ATC is manditory.
I seldom file a flight plan that is not changed by ATC some times before take off.
In North America both Planes would have to have a Device Called TCAD. It comunicates with nearby aircraft, warnes off
aproaching aircraft. Instructs each aircraft how to avoid each other. Not reguired in Brazil!!
Also they would not have been flying in a "black hole" yes they do exsist in Brazil!

written by João da Silva, 2007-06-03 14:51:30

In North America both Planes would have to have a Device Called TCAD.

[My note: the writer refers to what we call TCAS, the collision avoidance alert that works in tandem with the transponder. Here's the Wikipedia entry on the TCAS].

It comunicates with nearby aircraft, warnes off aproaching aircraft. Instructs each aircraft how to avoid each other. Not reguired in Brazil!!

Jay, both the planes were fitted with TCAD, but they failed to alert the pilots to avoid the collission. Remember the Boeing was less than 2 months old and Legacy was brand new and I would imagine that the devices were brand new and well tested. In spite of it they failed to operate. This question intrigues me and so far there has not been any explanation.

So where's this going really?
written by Simpleton, 2007-06-03 15:26:52
J Glenn, your TCAD is comprised of the transponder (which the American pilot's are being accused of willfully turning off and the Brazilian controllers only now of being well aware that the one on the Legacy was not working properly) and a computer that calculates trajectory intersection potentials and avoidance guidance data (climb, dive or maintain altitude - presented via your VSI) using the altitude and speed data of ones own aircraft, the altitude data of the other aircraft transmitted by that other aircraft's transponder along with bearing and rate of closure computations made from the two transponders automatic interactions with each other. This TCAD (or TCAS or ACAS) is intended to augment the situational awareness of the crew, directions and monitoring by the ATC controller's, etc., etc., to avoid just what happened here - in any case, one should never become too reliant / entirely reliant on the machinery as it too may have its failings.

It is a fact that you as pilots are mandatorily required to follow the directions of the ATC controllers (unless what you see out your windscreen or is advised by your TCAD guidance dictates otherwise). It is a fact that those in the government of Brazil and prosecutors do not wish for the general populace of Brazil to ever learn about / fully understand. Regardless of how weakly plausible it is that the crew f'd up and turned their transponder off has to be made into a criminal conviction. Without this there would be no way to pursue the civil suits against the American crew, the company they were under contract to and the insurance companies of same for renumerations. When all is done and said, there's basically no hope to get any money out of the seargents, FAB, government of Brazil.

The crew was last directed to the altitude they were at by the ATC. The crew was not advised by the ATC that their transponder which the ATC is required to monitor was apparently malfunctioning or inoperative. The crew was not regularly poled via voice communications from the ATC to report their status and intentions. If in fact the crew did do something incredibly stupid (out of ignorance or any other cause) to contribute to this, there is no proof. All prior contributions are proven and rest solely upon the shoulders of the ATC and their infrastructure. Jury dismissed.



Saturday, June 02, 2007

Brazil: Family Feuds Down the Rabbit Hole

If you find amusement in the Bancroft family's tap-dance routine to demonstrate that refusing to sell Dow Jones is all about journalistic principle at $60 a share, but honorably do-able at $65, you might be interested in the next chapter unfolding down the rabbit hole in Brazil.

Dueling representatives of groups of relatives of the 154 people who died when the 737 crashed into the Amazon on Sept. 29 are creating turmoil in the various congressional panels looking into the crash itself, and also investigating the subsequent work protests in which air traffic controllers -- citing bad equipment, unsafe work conditions and poor pay and training, and the fear they were going to get blamed for the disaster -- virtually shut down Brazil's air system for days at a time during the months after the Sept. 29 crash.

I mean no disrespect to those who died. When those two planes collided at 37,000 feet over the Amazon, on a collision course they had been put at by a system of errors and breakdowns by air traffic control, 154 children, women and men plunged to horrible, terrifying deaths. I was in a seat over the left wing on the Legacy jet, 10 feet from the point where the planes collided with a horrible bang. Since Sept. 30, there has not been a morning I've woken up without that scene in my head, or the thought of those 154 who died when I and six other Americans inexplicably lived.

The Brazilian government, to date, has done virtually nothing to alleviate the suffering of those victims' relatives, except to say, essentially: Get the Americans!

Thus some of the representatives of the victims' families share one goal: Easy money. In this case, the way to easy money is pin blame on the Americans, hope to get them convicted of something in Brazil's criminal courts, and then try the civil lawsuits in the United States. Because, trust me, the Brazilian Defense Department, which employs the military controllers and runs the broken-down air-traffic control system that caused this horrible disaster, isn't about to voluntarily accept responsibility, let alone cough up cash. Why, that would be an insult to Brazil's honor!

A report on the family squabbles follows.

But first some housekeeping, as the American news media have rushed half-baked into this story again today under a false alarm.

1. The American pilots were not indicted "yesterday." As I wrote previously, they were indicted on May 25 (see post from that day) by a Federal Prosecutor in Mato Grosso on a charge of involuntarily exposing an aircraft to danger. There was no grand jury involved, as there would have been in the United States. Rather, the Federal Prosecutor based his indictment on a hastily assembled report by the Federal Police, who have been on occasion referred to in this space as the Keystone Kops.

2. What did happen yesterday was that a federal judge, sitting in a little city called Sinop in Mato Grosso state, rubber-stamped the indictment and, saying he had "no choice," sent it into the pre-trial system. Sinop was chosen for this action, I am told, because it is a backwater Amazon burg with the geographical distinction of being both a few hundred miles south of the crash site, while being as far away as possible from potentially nettlesome news media in Sao Paulo and Rio.

3. The judge did not "rule" that the pilots are guilty of anything. The judge certified that the collision and deaths occurred, and said that "circumstantial evidence" presented in the Federal Police indictment was "sufficient" to indicate "in theory" that a crime might have occurred, thereby allowing the pre-trial proceedings to commence.

4. Nor did the judge rule that the pilots must come to Brazil -- by extradition if necessary -- to answer charges. Rather, he ruled that it would not be acceptable for them to answer charges in the United States. This point will become very important as the trial preparations proceed, and the opinion of a single judge in a forlorn city in Mato Grosso is not writ in stone. But presuming extradition does not apply -- and the pilots' lawyers insist the charge of involuntarily exposing an aircraft to danger is not extraditable under treaties between the United States and Brazil -- the pilots have the option of simply not going to Brazil to answer charges.

Honestly, folks, I have been doing my level best to keep you informed on the admittedly complex nuances of this story since early October.

But it's like that Boardwalk/arcade game "Whac-a-Mole," in which you use a mallet to knock a critter back down its hole, but up it pops from another hole, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (Here is a video-game version called Whack-a-Mole.) I mean, we're even back to some nitwits down there repeating that that the American pilots were performing illegal "aerial stunts" when the crash occurred.

Anyway, onto the Family Feuds. The CPIs are the various investigative panels in congress. And don't ask why the Gol cereal snack bars have suddenly become a part of the case. Some questions simply do not have answers.

Translation, per usual, by our Sao Paulo bureau chief, Richard Pedicini:


Families split in CPI

Relatives of Flight 1907 passengers argue in House CPI and testimony is suspended.
Congressman asks Gol to change cereal bars

Solano Nascimento
Correio staff

The Chamber of Deputies Aviation Blackout CPI was the stage yesterday of loud arguments, embarrassment, and wasted time. The witness invited to speak in the name of the victims of the accident with the Gol plane in September of last year have his representativity questioned by some of the passengers' relatives, and the CPI session wound up being interrupted.

Jorge André Cavalcanti, president of the Association of Families and Friends of Victims of Gol Flight 1907, was invited to testify at 1:00 PM. The night before, the first sign of alert: the CPI's report referee, Marco Maia (PT-RS), received a document with more than 100 signatures affirming that Cavalcanti did not speak in the name of the victims.

Yesterday, at the start of his deposition, Maia made reference to the questionings and asked how many families the association represented. Cavalcanti responded that the entity had 35 relatives of victims as members. Maia continued with the questioning - since not only on the petition but in the association's documents as well there are more than one relative of the same victim - , and then Cavalcanti recognized that the entity represented about 18 families. As the accident left 154 dead, there was no need for a calculator so know that Cavalcanti did not speak in the name of the majority of the relatives of passengers.

While these questionings were going on, Eulália Machado de Carvalho, who lost her husband in the accident and was listening to the session, yelled that she was leaving. "He doesn't represent anyone", she said. "I am not going to stay in this circus, no, I'm going to leave".

With such much controversy, a little more than an hour after the testimony began and before the majority of the CPI members asked questions, congressman Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ) suggested the suspension of the session for in order to arrange, on some other day, a public audience with the presence of several victims' relatives. In the deposition which he gave in the morning, Constantino de Oliveira Júnior, president of Gol, affirmed that the company did not negotiate with the association of relatives of passengers who died. "Contact is made directly with the relatives of the victims."

At the end of the afternoon, another frustration for the CPI. Members of the commission met with the chief justice, Ellen Gracie, to see if the Supreme Court could oblige the pilots of the Legacy which collided with the Gol plane to testify. She explained that the Court could not intervene, and suggested that the Congressmen try other paths through the ministries of Justice and Foreign Relations.

During the morning, part of the time of Constantino Júnior's testimony was spent by legislators defining how to refer to last September's accident and to discuss the possibility of the company changing the cereal bars it supplies on flights. Vic Pires Franco (DEM-Pará), after telling a long story about the difficulty he had trying to find a cheap ticket for his daughter's boyfriend, questioned the president of Gol about the snacks served by the company: "It's just cereal bars? Can it be that you cannot change your philosophy?"

Without hiding a certain discomfort, Constantino responded: "We haven't found another product that is good and non-perishable". Vic Pires suggested then that Gol adopt bars of cupuaçu — a typical fruit of his state. Despite dealing with a tragic event, the other member of the the CPI did not share the businessman's discomfort, and laughed at their colleague's jokes.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Brazil: Indictments of Pilots Proceed; U.S. Attorney: "The Pilots Are Innocent"

American pilots
Joe Lepore (l) and
Jan Paladino

From our Sao Paulo bureau chief Richard Pedicini

Mato Grosso court accepts indictment against Legacy pilots and air traffic controllers in Gol accident

01/06 - 18:15 - Newsroom

The single court in Sinop (Mato Grosso) accepted the indictment returned by the Federal Prosecutors' Office (MPF) referring to the tragedy of Gol Flight 1907. On May 26, the two pilots of the Legacy jet and four air traffic controllers were indicted by the MPF. All should respond in Federal Court for exposing an aircraft to danger, a crime foreseen in Article 261 of the Criminal Code.On September 29, 2006, the Gol Airlines plane was making flight 1907, from Manaus (AM) to Brasília (DF). At the same time the Legacy jet was coming from São José dos Campos (SP) toward Manaus, where it would land to, the next day, leave for overseas.At 37,000 feet, in the northern region of Mato Grosso, near the town of Peixoto de Azevedo, the tip of the jet's left wing collided with the Gol Boeing provoking damages which caused the destabilization and crash of the plane. The 154 people aboard the Boeing died..

According to the Federal Court in Mato Grosso, Legacy jet pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino and air traffic controllers Lucivando Tibúrcio de Alencar, Leandro José Santos de Barros and Felipe Santos Reis should be tried by the court for unintentional crimes. The fourth accused, Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, should be tried for intentional crime. All the air traffic controllers are Air Force sergeants serving at Cindacta 1, in Brasilia.

According to the indictment, Jomarcelo practiced conduct characterized as intentional for being conscious that the Legacy aircraft was at an incompatible flight level for the route that it was undertaking.

Over the indictment against the flight controllers, the prosecutor explained that he understood it to be in the MPF's jurisdiction to offer an indictment because there were no crimes with these characteristics foreseen in the Military Criminal Code.

Response from Joel R. Weiss, attorney for the American pilots in Long Island:

"The Judge’s decision today has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, but relates solely to whether the allegations of the Complaint by the Prosecutor justify this case being heard by the court. In fact, the allegations against the pilots are inaccurate, and the pilots are innocent.

"The pilots' conduct was completely competent throughout the flight and cannot be fairly characterized as criminal. Sadly, a hastily constructed criminal charge was put ahead of an impartial air safety investigation. The fact is that air-traffic control placed and approved these two aircraft on a collision course, on the same airway, and altitude traveling toward each other. That is the overwhelming, obvious root cause of this accident. We will vigorously defend the pilots against these charges, and they will be vindicated."


Around the World in a Bad Mood

One of the problems with the transparency inherent in maintaining a blog is that your spouse can check in during the day -- she works in New York, I work at home when I'm not traveling -- and see that you're screwing around online. Blogging, while amusing and occasionally enlightening, does not actually pay cash money, you see.

And so I have to rush this one in and get back to work, having just received the expected phone call about the evidence already on hand for today.

"Don't you have a book proposal to complete by this weekend?" she said.

I do. I do.

But I forgot about promoting the musical revue by Rene Foss, a flight attendant who's become a friend of mine over the years. Rene and company have been doing the revue, "Around the World in a Bad Mood," for years, much to the delight of flight attendants and others who understand the madness of air travel. (She also wrote a book with the same title about the fun and foibles of flight-attending) Here's her Web site.

That's her, in the calendar cover above, fifth from the left. The gag calendar features flight attendants of all ages in cheesecake (not nude) poses. She's Miss January. It's published by flight attendants who use it to underscore the fact, while airlines regain profitability, flight crews have been subject to years of salary cuts and pension hits. You can see more of the calendar and order one here.

Meanwhile, Ms. Foss is taking a few weeks off this month to bring the revue -- which plays cabarets and theater fringe festivals all over the country -- back to Manhattan.

For the New York performances, in June, here's the schedule and information

Also, the revue is running Sept. 7, 14 and 24, same place, but at 7 p.m.


The Morning News: Back in 24 Seconds

Below: Parody from the Onion

Among my many complaints about the fatuous gasbags who can be found everywhere these days ruminating on The Media is that -- most of them never having actually worked in a newsroom -- they increasingly pontificate on the idea that all news must be delivered immediately. One lamentable result is you get half-baked stories rushed online and onto the airways even by respectable news organizations because reporters are expected to be "immediate," which means wasting valuable reporting time in a desperate rush to get something online that could maybe benefit from a little more legwork and thought.

One particularly god-awful Gannett newspaper (yeah, I know that's an oxymoron), the News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla., even has its reporters carrying around video cameras, so they can pull off the road and rush that breathless report on the new Target opening to a waiting public. The poor devils also have to carry WiFi laptops so they can send stories right from their cars, thus instantly satisfying ostensibly insatiable demand for what the editor calls "really local news."

The paper also has a cadre of what it calls "volunteer citizen journalists" (in Gannett happy talk, of course, that means "We don't have to pay them"). Of course they have a cute name for them as well: "Team Watchdog." Whoooooo.

Please don't get me started on "local" news. All right, I'm started.

Nearly 30 years ago, I worked for a newspaper, the once-mighty and now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, that listened to some crackpot media consultant in the late 1970s and broke the paper up into multiple "zoned" suburban editions in which international, national and even regional news was demoted in favor of "really local" news.

As circulation plunged, the same geniuses who'd squeezed important news out of the paper decided to create a special New Jersey edition, in which Philadelphia news -- you know, the real news from the nearby big city with the crazy mayor and all the cultural institutions -- was practically banned, and in which the front page consisted almost entirely of stories from suburban New Jersey communities.

My father, who then lived in New Jersey and had been a Bulletin subscriber since the 1940s, promptly canceled his subscription. "What the hell do I care about Haddonfield?" he said.

The Bulletin died in 1982, and the gasbags called it a victim of fierce competition. I called it a suicide.

You know what "really local" news is on the block where my wife and I live?

Well, the guy across the street, a good soul whom I call Jingle Bells because of his extravagant front-lawn Christmas decorations, puts his lavish Easter display up a week earlier than usual. Talk ensues. What could this portend -- the festive July 4 decorations going up on Memorial Day?

You know what the top story in the 23 years we've lived here was?

About 15 years ago, a big sycamore tree across the street just fell down all by itself. No lightening strike, no collision with a car. The damn thing just up and toppled into the street without as much as a fare thee well.

Oh yes, this just in: A very nice man named Jose is painting our house and doing a very good job at it, too. There's talk about his pace, though, because Jose works slowly and meticulously. This morning, someone asked me when "Speedy Gonzalez" would be finished, which I think qualified as a possible hate crime. Hang on 24 seconds while I phone that in to the local paper.

Anyway, I'm glad I'm long gone from being a daily news reporter. Used to be, you'd go out on a story, spend the time to sort it out and get it right, and then come back to the office to write it and then be tortured by editors. But by 6 a.m. the next morning, readers usually had a pretty solid report.

Trust me, news moguls of America: On most stories (truly breaking major news aside), I as a consumer can wait till the next morning to get myself informed -- after reporting, editing and evaluation for placement are done.

Which is why this satire from the Onion strikes home.

Incidentally, I assume the quote from the worthy professor at the Rutgers University Center for Media Studies is a faux one. But imagine: there actually is something called the Rutgers University center for "media studies." Rutgers! Warning: Don't light a match in that joint!

But I digress. There's actual paid work to be done. And it can't be done in 24 seconds, not at these rates.