Thursday, December 31, 2009

TSA Drops Subpoenas Against 2 Bloggers



The TSA has now dropped subpoenas against two bloggers who were among many who published the infamous security directive the agency issued right after the Christmas Day terrorist bombing attempt on a Delta/Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

The agency had sent its agents to the homes of two travel bloggers, Steve Frischling and Chris Elliott, to serve them with subpoenas demanding they tell the TSA where they got copies of the directive the agency sent out widely to airlines and others on Christmas Day after the dimwitted Underpants Bomber failed in his attempt to blow up the flight as it was about to land in Detroit.

Sending agents to these two guys' homes was yet another recent remarkable act by the agency, which had been deeply embarrassed by the hostile public reaction to the rules outlined in the directive. You know, the ones that said that on international flights into the U.S., everybody had to stay seated for the last hour of the flight, with no personal possessions of any kind in hand or on lap.

The Underpants Bomber had scarcely stopped smoldering before the ridicule over that directive was reverberating all over the Internet. The directive was promptly revised.

The agency, as I noted last week, before the media finally woke up to this amazing fact, is still being run by Bush appointees, some of whom, like Gale Rossides, the acting director, have been with TSA since the very beginning. President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano dilly-dallied and took till August to come up with a nominee to head the agency, Erroll Southers. Southers is a former FBI agent and Santa Monica cop, a well-known scholar in terrorist risk-management, and the head of terrorism intelligence and Homeland Security liaison at Los Angeles International Airport. The Southers nomination finally went to Congress in September.

At which point one of those Republican super-patriots, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, put a "hold" on the Southern nomination that has kept it in limbo ever since. DeMint, who comes to his current expertise in international counter-terrorism from his distinguished life experience as a corporate market researcher, believes that Southers might be insufficiently hostile to the idea that the TSA work-force might become unionized. And labor unions, in a state like South Carolina, are evidently seen as a grave danger (despite the fact that most law-enforcement agencies, including the best in the world, the New York Police Department, are heavily unionized).

Anyway, here we are. Our air-travel security remains in the hands of an agency still run by Bush appointees, almost a year after the new administration took office. An agency whose management seems to be flailing, at a very dangerous time. An agency that has now insulted the First Amendment by sending its agents to the homes of journalists to intimidate them in front of their families.

And don't forget: That knee-jerk security directive of Dec. 25 was not exactly the Pentagon Papers. It was readily available online and via e-mail to anyone who looked for it, and to many who did not. Within hours after it was evidently rashly issued to airlines, it was rocketing around online faster than a Nigerian (hmmmmm) lottery scam.

In backing off the ill-advised subpoenas today, the TSA issued a strange "never mind" statement that, my guess is, does not end this matter. After all, someone at the agency thought it was a good idea to send its cops to these guys' houses and even seize one of their laptops. The question now is, who made that call?

Here's the TSA statement:

"TSA takes any breach in security very seriously. In light of the posting of sensitive security information on the web, TSA sought to identify where the information came from. The investigation is nearing a successful conclusion and the subpoenas are no longer in effect."

My follow-up question, which I have conveyed to the TSA, is this: "Who specifically at the TSA decided to send the agents to these two bloggers' homes, and in one case seize a laptop, and was that decision approved by Acting Director Rossides?"


UPDATE, Jan. 7, 2010 -- Hmmm. Still no response from the TSA on the question of whose idea it was to send two agents to the homes of those two bloggers. I'd say the TSA would just as soon we all forget about that particular dumb stunt.

###

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let the New Security Bumbling Begin ... Meanwhile, Why Has the TSA Been Without a Director Since January?




More than 30 years ago, while working on a book, I spent almost a year on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. There was very little crime in Malta, owing partially to the good character of its inhabitants, but also to its geography. The island is about 23 miles at its longest and about eight miles at its widest. A criminal, especially one who commits a crime in public, is quickly seized.

While I was there, a spectacular armed bank robbery occurred that kept people talking for months. Not that the robbers got away with much, it was just that they did the deed in public, sticking up the little bank and then running out to the getaway car, which was parked right out front.

As I recall, they got about four miles away before a flock of sheep slowed their escape, and the police arrived and grabbed them. And as I recall the two robbers were sent to jail for a bit, and then committed for a spell to the lunatic asylum, and that's exactly what they called it on Malta.

As I said, this was quite a sensation, and there were demands in the papers (both of them) that Action Be Taken to address the evident crime spree. And Action was taken. The government quickly decreed that henceforth, it would be illegal to park a car in front of a bank.

Much hilarity ensued, the Maltese being famously cynical. It would be correct to say that bank robberies ceased, though no one could remember there being a previous one to the incident in question. There was evidently just the one.

This all comes back to me today as I read the accounts of that scary incident on the Delta/Northwest flight yesterday from Amsterdam to Detroit, where on final approach a moron would-be terrorist from Nigeria named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "set off a device, while resulted in a fire and what appears to have been an explosion," according to the federal arrest warrant.

The perpetrator "was subdued and restrained by passengers and flight crew," the warrant says.

There is no need here to summarize this incident further, as it is all over the media, of course. This barking idiot Umar Farouk Akdulmatallab, whether trying to make a name for himself or whether acting with encouragement from other aspirational terrorists, tried and failed to create serious damage on an airplane.

But let's now look at the immediate response, because it seems that hysteria once again has been reaction No. 1.

Assuming major press reports are correct, security has been "heightened" all over. O.K., that's sensible enough. One can assume aspirational copy-cats.

But reports also say (though they seem to be thinly sourced) that the T.S.A. plans to impose very strict limits on "passenger behavior," including requiring all passengers to remain seated for the final hour of any flight, and prohibiting passengers from having "personal belongings or other items on their laps" during that final hour.

Let's see, some half-wits rob a bank and drive away in their car, and the government responds by making it illegal to park in front of a bank. Oh, wait, no: That was Malta, a long time ago.

Why am I reminded of it today?

While the security knee-jerkers carry on, making things up as they go along as usual, let's note what seems to me to be a salient point here.

Who is in charge of security?

Congressman Pete King, the ranking Republican on the House homeland security committee, has all over the news today, demanding Action.

Yet has no one asked Mr. King or his colleagues rushing to the microphones the following question: Why have congressional Republicans been blocking President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration -- which has been without a permanent director for nearly a year? (A Bush appointee has been running the agency on a temporary basis since Kip Hawley, the last director, left office when the new administration took over in January).

Hawley had his critics, but by most accounts (including mine) he was a serious professional who understood risk management as opposed to mere security theater (though he was forced, by Congress and the media, to keep the security-theater show firmly on the boards).

One of the initiatives Hawley was intently engaged in was working with foreign air-travel security authorities to try to impose international standards not only in things like airport screening (which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab evidently sailed through with incendiary material on his person in Amsterdam), but also in vital efforts such as intelligence gathering and sharing. Hawley had the respect and the attention of international security agencies. Serious progress was being made.

But Hawley left in January, and the T.S.A. has been without a director since.

According to some reports today, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a known security threat, in that his name and identity evidently appeared in some intelligence data-banks, meaning he should have been on the "selectee" section of the famous "terrorist watch lists." That means, he should have got a thorough secondary going-over and questioning before he boarded that flight to the United States.

Yet, a terrorist -- aspirational or not -- slipped through cracks in the system and managed to create that incident on an airplane in U.S. airspace.

Hawley was working to seal those cracks, and the man President Omaba named to replace Hawley, Erroll Southers, has been cooling his heels, waiting for Republicans in Congress to get out of the way so the nomination can be approved.

Evidently, there is some concern among some Republicans that Mr. Southers might be insufficiently hostile toward unions. And so the T.S.A. goes without a leader.

Mr. Southers is the assistant chief of police at Los Angeles International Airport, in charge of intelligence and Homeland Security. He is a well-respected scholarly authority in risk-analysis as a component of intelligence and security. He is a former FBI agent, and a former cop. That evidently isn't good enough for right-wing Repuiblican Sen. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, who has been blocking the Southers appointment. DeMint is a former market researcher.

So before we let the T.S.A. run around reacting wildly to the Delta/Northwest incident, let's ask why that agency has been without a director since last January?

You know, the same agency that managed to accidentally post online its entire security procedures manual recently? That keeps changing signals about deploying new body-imaging technology?

"If there ever was a question about clearing the way for the appointment of a permanent administrator for this beleaguered agency, it has certainly been answered by this most recent misstep," according to a statement earlier this month in support of the Southers nomination by the American Federation of Government Employees.

That's a union.

The statement criticized Sen. DeMint for placing a Senate "hold" on the Southers nomination. DeMint, of course, is the South Carolina far-right-wing activist and super-patriot. A single senator, even one in the minority, can block a presidential appointment these days, pretty much indefinitely.

This is what DeMint has to say grandly today on his Senate Web site:

"Sen. Jim DeMint believes terrorism is the greatest threat posed to America and that the United States must remain committed to the long war on global terror. We can not afford to stand by while networks of terror assemble, plan and act against free and open societies. America must pursue terrorists and any one who supports their murderous plans."

Back in October, on the same Senate Web site, DeMint explained his blocking of President Obama's nominee to run the T.S.A. this way:

"Today, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), ranking member of the Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee, sent a letter to Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), asking for a clear answer about whether he will unionize the TSA’s security screeners if confirmed.

'The safety and security of the American people are far too important to be controlled by union bosses,' said Senator DeMint. 'It’s time for Mr. Southers to give an unequivocal answer: Will he give union bosses control over the safety of Americans at our airports, yes or no?'

'Unionizing TSA would be a homeland security disaster. TSA needs to be nimble in responding to ever-changing threats. Having to wait and check with the union bosses before reacting to urgent aviation security threats reduces our ability to keep Americans safe. TSA must quickly move personnel to protect the traveling public, and allowing union bosses to control these decisions is a dangerous and unacceptable security risk.'"

Yep, the T.S.A. has been drifting along without a director for a year because a right-wing Republican from South Carolina has surveyed the situation and identified the real terrorist threat to America:

Unions.

###

Friday, December 25, 2009

Who Else Gets Up At 4 a.m.?

Up at 4 a.m. -- 3.55 a.m. actually, duck out into the chilly black night for a quick bracing view of the starry Arizona desert sky, then back iknside for a fast browse of the online news.

Ugh, a crazy person has lept over a pew and jumped the Pope at Christmas Mass -- right in St. Peter's. (He evidently was not hurt).

What the hell kind of security do they have in Rome? I mean for Pete's sake (so to speak), Derek Jeter gets better protection at Yankee Stadium.

And the video. Did you see how those people were dressed, in St. Peter's, with the Pope, on Christmas Eve? Down jackets and cheap scarves and jeans? They looked like the mid-morning crowd at Wal-Mart. Come on, folks: At least put on a tie or a skirt for Christmas Mass at St. Peter's with the Pope in attendance. Dress well. He does.

Anyway, back to reality here. Who gets up at 4 a.m. unless it's for a tragedy, an illness, a boot-camp whistle, a psychotic episode or ...oh yeah, an airplane trip, which come to think of it shares something in common with all of those things. The airlines have conditioned us to getting up at 4 a.m. Hit the deck!

The online air-travel maps are all blinking green. (After all, it isn't dawn yet in half of the country). The media weather hysterics seem to have settled in for a long winter's nap. Hey, it's snowing in Minneapolis. Hey, it's winter! It's Minneapolis!

The air travel system is still tangled from the thousands of cancellations last weekend on the East Coast. Airplanes are not all where they should be. Crews are out of place, and work schedules are messed-up, with the end of the month approaching. Who knows what adventure lies ahead for me today between Arizona and Newark?

Once more into the breach! My cross-country flight is on time, and so is the connection through the uproariously named George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where I brace myself for that all-consuming announcement from the shrill lady on the loudspeaker constantly threatening to "`rist" anyone for making inappropriate jokes or comments about security.

The bag is packed, the coffee mug washed.

A quick duck outside for a lungful of cold desert air and a look at that black starry sky, where a meteor streaks into the horizon over the mountains.

And so away, and Merry Christmas to all.

###

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Travel Mess Looms As a New Blizzard Is Forecast -- This One for the Plains, Parts of Midwest

Airlines are all putting out announcements that you can change your Christmas travel plans without penalty if you're flying through "affected airports." Here's a look at the ones identified so far by Continental. All other airlines have are posting online bulletins.

Watch this one closely because a great big mess can grow in the Plains and Midwest and radiate throughout the air-travel system. And that system has not yet fully recovered from last week's East Coast blizzard disruptions. Another big weather disruption will affect the system through New Year's, as stranded passengers rush to get re-accommodated.

By the way, Chicago O'Hare has already had about 250 flight cancellations (arrivals and departures) as of 6 p.m. Central time.

Keeping in mind that media hysterics have a financial interest in hyping storms, here's a weather report. It's looking ugly. Dear media: Let us please keep those jolly "white Christmas" references to a minimum?

###

Winter Storm Watch Dropped in Chicago

It's not really a "never mind" kind of situation. Weather forecasters have dropped the winter snowstorm warnings for some of the Midwest, including Chicago.

On the other hand, there will be freezing rain and wind-gusts up to 35 mph. Icing and wind always affect takeoffs and landings.

And delays are being marked as "excessive" at O'Hare already today. As of 10.30 Central time, about 100 arrivals and departures had been canceled at O'Hare -- nearly all of them by American Eagle or American Airlines, according to Flightstats.com


And in Minneapolis, they're still expecting that winter storm, including heavy snow.

So as always, check ahead before going to the airport. There is no slack in the system. None.

###

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Storm Bound for Midwest Will Cause More Flight Cancellations

Right now, I'm looking at (and listening to) a windstorm blowing through the sunny desert of southern Arizona, a phenomenon that I have come to recognize as weather on a great big hurry to get somewhere else.

So git, I say.

But sorry, Midwest, here it comes, over the mountains and up the prairies, where it appears likely to develop into a nasty winter storm tomorrow just in time for one of the biggest Christmas air-travel days.

It may be just freezing rain and ice tomorrow, but there will be wind. And wind is a great disrupter of takeoff and landings.

Alas, one of the potential results is that a larger-than-normal number of flights could be preemptively canceled by airlines worried about the draconian new DOT rules on tarmac delays. The Air Transport Association has said that one of the unintended consequences of that action, which was taken to address problems the airlines and the FAA failed to address adequately, will be more flight cancellations.

So we'll see. If O'Hare or other Midwest airports are in your travel plans tomorrow or Thursday, remember that this week began with more than 3,000 flight cancellations during the East Coast blizzard. The air-travel system, which has no slack built in even in normal times, still hasn't fully digested that lump of displaced passengers and dislocated aircraft and crews. It is not yet fully functional from that disruption.

So plan for delays but most importantly, be prepared for a flight cancellation.

###

Global Airline Capacity Up in December as Demand Starts to Recover



There are 4 percent more airline seats available globally this December than there were in December, 2008, which is an indication that a slow recovery in air travel demand might be underway. There is no similar indication that airline revenues may be improving.

Here's the detailed report from OAG, the world’s leading aviation data supplier, which issues a monthly report on trends in the supply of airline flights and seats. There are 294.8 million seats available this month, a rise of 4% over December 2008 levels. Global frequencies are up 1% compared to December 2008, with a total of 2.4 million flights scheduled for December 2009, despite an average North American frequency decline of 2%. Worldwide, frequencies and capacity in the low cost sector are both up by 10% compared to a year ago, accounting for 444,539 flights (18%) and 65.6 million seats (22%).


John Weber, senior vice president OAG Aviation, said, “Global capacity continues to rise, boosted by worldwide increases in both frequency and capacity in the low cost sector, which would tend to show us that travelers are choosing to fly airlines that offer more economical choices. This increase in December 2009 capacity recovers the global pull-down of minus 10 million scheduled seats in 2008 ..."

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Eurostar Service Returns With Big Backlogs; Icy Weather Hitting London, Heavy Snow to the North

Travel in western Europe has been a challenge for weeks, with unusual cold and snow.

The good news: Eurostar, the fast train under the English Channel, returned to service after a breakdown stranded thousands in the 31-mile-long "Chunnel." But passenger backlogs are expected all week.

Bad news: More ice for the south of England, snow to the north.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Justice David Eady and the Threat to Free Speech in the U.S.



PHOTO: Lord Eady, One Real Threat to U.S. Free Speech From Abroad

The utterly disgraceful trend continues toward foreign courts in some countries allowing and approving libel suits against Americans who have been writing or speaking in the U.S., and whose speech would be otherwise fully protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Recently, there has been media attention toward the British High Court, famous for allowing any joker with a grievance and a lawyer to come to the UK and file a libel suit (and usually win) against some American citizen for exercising what would be free speech in the United States. The British High Court, and that splendidly kitted fellow above, one Justice David Eady, shown above in his panto Father Christmas/Pope Julius outfit, have been the main perpetrators lately, as this international disgrace to free democratic speech evolves.

I've personally been caught up in this, and as those who have followed it know, I will not accept these affronts to the United States Constitution and its First Amendment.

So let me say this about the splendidly outfitted British Mister Justice Eady, on a blog written in the U.S. and directed toward American readers: I believe him to be a stooge for wicked people and a direct threat to free speech in the United States.

Recently there has been talk in Britain -- underscore "talk" -- about reforming laws that allow judges like Eady to make the UK a center for libel tourism. The talk -- underscore "talk -- has followed recent articles, in the Times of London and in the New York Times, highly critical of libel tourism in Britain and its international reach to thwart free speech in the U.S.

Eady tut-tuts at all that. He sees no possibility for reforming the British laws, and he may well be right.

Meanwhile, very much on the subject, this, today from Kevin Mitchell, the intrepid director of the Business Travel Coalition:

***

"Business Travel Coalition (BTC) writes to urge the scheduling of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January and swift action in passing the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 (S.449). As a Wall Street Journal Opinion Piece today points out, now is the time to act to protect free speech.

Americans are increasingly being sued for libel in foreign countries whose laws are inconsistent with the freedom of speech granted by the U.S. Constitution. In addition to journalists and bloggers, flight crews, university researchers, analysts, Members of Congress, business travelers and organizations that issue travel warnings, including corporate travel departments, are at growing risk.

The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 (S.449), which enjoys broad bipartisan support, was introduced in the U.S. Senate in February 2009 in response to cases like the one involving Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, an academic who writes on terrorism and lectures all over the world. Her 2003 book, Funding Evil, triggered a lawsuit in the UK by a wealthy Saudi businessman who claimed he was libeled in the book. The differences in American and British libel laws are substantial. For example, UK defendants have to prove allegations are true; in contrast, in the U.S. plaintiffs must prove allegations are false. The Saudi won a judgment of $250,000 against Ehrenfeld; sales of her book were banned in the UK; and she can no longer travel there.

The Ehrenfeld suit has been just the most prominent of cases known under the general rubric "libel tourism" in which foreign nationals, claiming to be offended by something written in the U.S. by journalists, researchers or scientists, travel to pliant courts in third countries and obtain libel judgments against American defendants, even though the allegedly offensive speech would be fully protected under the U.S. Constitution. These suits can have a chilling and negative effect on research and publishing, and on U.S. national and global security. The objective of S.449 is to ensure that libel judgments issued by foreign courts cannot be enforced in the U.S. unless our legal standards for libel are met.

A Threatening New Twist

U.S. business-travel contributor for The New York Times Joe Sharkey covered a plane crash in Brazil. On September 29, 2006 there was a midair collision at 37,000 feet between a Brazilian Boeing 737 and a business jet, on which Sharkey was a passenger. All 154 on the 737 died; the seven crew and passengers on the business jet made an emergency landing in the jungle. Sharkey wrote about it once he returned home in the Times and conducted interviews in which he was critical of Brazil’s air traffic control system. He defended the American business-jet pilots who Brazil quickly charged with criminal negligence.

This September Sharkey was served with a complaint seeking $279,850 in damages. The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Brazilian Rosane Gutjhar who asserts that Sharkey offended her country’s dignity in his writings and interviews. Sharkey did not know her, or mention her name at any time. The plaintiff doesn't have to claim she was personally libeled, only that her country was insulted. The suit is based on a Brazilian law that any citizen can claim damages for any alleged insult to the honor of Brazil in any case involving a crime -- the pilots, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino remain on criminal trial in Brazil, in absentia.

Gutjhar’s suit is based on Sharkey’s forceful reporting in the U.S. about Brazil's alleged cover-up of the causes of the crash. The accuracy of Sharkey’s commentary has never been challenged. Sharkey claims that nothing he said or was alleged to have said would constitute libel in the U.S., or even come close. S.449 would address libel judgments in foreign countries where the alleged offense would not meet U.S. standards for libel. With Sharkey’s case, it's clear the scope of what constitutes libel has been broadened to include insulting the dignity of a foreign country.

The near-perfect reach of the Internet has placed Americans, their free speech and financial resources in harm’s way. At risk are travel managers issuing country-specific travel warnings, business travelers posting unfavorable trip reviews on social media sites, flight crews commenting on industry bulletin boards, university researchers publishing negative reports or Members of Congress authoring unflattering Opinion pieces about a particular country or leader. The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 needs to be passed into law as soon as possible."

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U.S. Tells Airlines: 3 Hours of Tarmac Delay and Yer Out



The Transportation Department unilaterally imposed rules that would require airlines with airplanes stuck on a tarmac for more than three hours to give passengers the option of getting off the plane.

The action addresses a situation that began festering in late 2006, when thousands of passengers sat stranded, amid deteriorating cabin ventilation and sanitary conditions, and without food, for eight hours or more on hundreds of planes idled on tarmacs by bad weather in and around Texas. Following that came literally years of similar strandings.

Kate Hanni, a San Francisco-area real estate agent, was with her husband and sons on one of those stranded planes in late 2006. Following that event, and entirely on her own, she organized a grassroots movement to push Congress to pass a so-called Passengers Bill of Rights. A key provision of that push was the three-hour rule. Airlines and their amen-chorus in the media first ridiculed the movement, and then as it gained momentum sought to block it at every turn.

The bill -- still pending in Congress as part of the long-delayed legislation to re-authorize FAA funding -- also would require airlines to ensure adequate health and safety provisions on stranded flights, among them working toilets.

Others have sought to ridicule and then co-opt Hanni's movement and push her out of the picture as reforms loomed. I have known Kate Hanni since she first quit her job and rented a cheap hotel room in Washington in the cold winter of 2007 to begin her long push for passengers' rights. Today's reforms by the Transportation Department would not have happened without Hanni's efforts. The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, by the way, still is part of the pending FAA reauthorization bill, which Congress is expected to take up again early next year.

So Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is known to have been incensed by airlines' failure to firmly address the problem on their own, has lowered the boom even before Congress might act. Here's the Transportation Department statement today:

***

"WASHINGTON -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced a new rule that significantly strengthens protections afforded to consumers by, among other things, establishing a hard time-limit after which U.S. airlines must allow passengers to deplane from domestic flights.

“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Secretary LaHood said.

The new rule prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same exceptions applicable.

Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.

This rule was adopted in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and also in response to the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems. In one of the most recent tarmac delay incidents, the Department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour ground delay at Rochester, MN.

The rule also:

--Prohibits airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights, subjecting those who do to DOT enforcement action for unfair and deceptive practices;

--Requires airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints;

--Requires airlines to display on their website flight delay information for each domestic flight they operate;

--Requires airlines to adopt customer service plans and audit their own compliance with their plans; and

--Prohibits airlines from retroactively applying material changes to their contracts of carriage that could have a negative impact on consumers who already have purchased tickets.

Today’s final rule was adopted following a review of public comments on a proposal issued in November 2008. The Department also plans to begin another rulemaking designed to further strengthen protections for air travelers. Among the areas under consideration are: a requirement that airlines submit to the Department for review and approval their contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays; reporting of additional tarmac delay data; disclosure of baggage fees; and strengthening requirements that airline ads disclose the full fare consumers must pay for tickets.

The rule goes into effect 120 days after date of publication in the Federal Register. The rule may be obtained on the Internet at www.regulations.gov, docket DOT-OST-2007-0022."

***


The airlines' main trade group, the Air Transport Association, issued a statement saying that it believes the new rule "will lead to unintended consequences – more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible."

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

In Europe, 'Eurostar' Chunnel Train Service Breaks Down



They're going to have a bad travel week in western Europe as well. Service on the highly praised Eurostar train under the English Channel has been suspended after a series of breakdowns that left several thousand passengers stranded in darkness under the channel for up to 16 hours.

The Eurostar gets you between London and Paris or Brussels in about two hours using the 31-mile so-called Chunnel under the English Channel -- or is supposed to. No indication at all tonight on when the train might get back on track.

Here's a report in the Guardian newspaper.

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Major Flight Cancellations Continue; Rough Air-Travel Week Ahead

[UPDATED 4 p.m. Eastern Time]

Airlines continued to cancel large numbers of flights today at airports in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Yesterday, as the blizzard moved up the East Coast, more than 3,000 departures and arrivals were scrubbed at the three New York airports, at Philadelphia and at Dulles, Washington Reagan and Baltimore-Washington. As of 4 p.m. Eastern time today, more than 2,500 additional departures and arrivals had been canceled at those airports, now including Boston.

That's a whole lot of flights (a minority of them were routed between affected airports and are thus counted twice, as both departures and arrivals) -- each one presumably booked full with passengers, that did not occur in a two-day period. At the start of the Christmas travel season, most of those passengers who didn't fly today and yesterday are now trying to re-book seats into a system that is already fully booked, because airplanes have been flying almost full for well over a year as airlines have shrunk capacity.

How do the airlines work out of this fix? My guess is, they don't. There are x-number of airplanes and x-number of seats (mostly already sold before the storm). At the airports this week, it's not going to be a very pretty sight.

The media weather hysterics have now settled down about the amount of the "white stuff," as so many of them quaintly refer to it, and taken to their beds in exhaustion of all of their cliches.

Meanwhile, as the Northeast "digs out," which is another cliche they love, it's time to pay attention to the airports. The Newark newspaper was reporting gamely last night that "more than 100" flights had been canceled at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport. Well, I guess that would be correct, since 412 flights were canceled there yesterday. You could look it up, and if you're a reporter, you should have.

According to data from Flightstats.com, here are today's cancellation numbers at the New York, Philly and Washington airports, and at Boston as of 4 p.m.

Newark -- 286 flights canceled.

JFK -- 475

LaGuardia -- 366

Philadelphia -- 486

Dulles -- 170

Reagan -- 212

Baltimore-Washington -- 135

Boston -- 312

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Massive Flight Cancellations in Northeast, and Making Some Tough Calls at Airline Headquarters



PHOTO: What are you smiling about, pal?


Flights were scrubbed from the boards in huge numbers at airports in the Mid-Atlantic states as a severe snowstorm moved up the East Coast.

By all current indications, air travel in the Northeast could be impacted for days, and the ripple effect will be felt on connections throughout the country. Airlines will be scrambling to get idled or displaced airplanes and crews rescheduled and repositioned -- and to re-accommodate passengers in a system that, even under normal conditions, has no slack built in.

So forget what I said the other day about there being no Christmas travel crunch. With tangles from today's snarls stretching into the early part of the week, there now will be a Christmas travel crunch. Tens of thousands of passengers are already looking to make new travel arrangements.

As of 7 p.m. Eastern time today, here were some of the numbers of cancellations, according to Flightstats.com:


--Reagan National: 463 arrivals and departures canceled of a total 531 scheduled for the day. Reagan is essentially shut to commercial traffic till tomorrow morning.

--Dulles: 493 canceled of 834 total scheduled.

--Baltimore-Washington: 450 out of 574.

--Philadelphia: 595 of 1,042.

--Newark: 412 out of 1,132.

--LaGuardia: 263 of 640.

--JFK: 407 of 1,170.

The storm was expected to hit the New York area tonight, but as of 7 p.m. Eastern time, less than an inch of snow had fallen, with temperatures around 25 degrees. So it's apparent that airlines were preemptively canceling flights at the New York airports well before any serious snow accumulation in the area.

[UPDATE: At 10 p.m. Eastern time, the National Weather Service was still predicting a significant amount of snow in blizzard conditions for the New York area overnight.]

On the now evidently small chance that that storm, after clobbering Washington and Philadelphia, peels off into the Atlantic tonight without clobbering Newark, Kennedy or LaGuardia, airlines are going to have some explaining to do about why they canceled so many flights into and out of the New York airports today.

On the other hand, the airlines can defend preemptive cancellations by saying, accurately, that we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. The last thing the airlines want right now is publicity, in the nation's media capital, about passengers sitting stranded on tarmacs for hours on end, with pictures of little Susie desperately asleep on her Teddy Bear in a darkened idled cabin. If New York gets hit hard by a blizzard, and you're an airline, your smart play is maybe to keep as many of your planes out of New York as possible, on the bet that the weather reports are accurate. Then you sort it out as best as you can on Sunday and Monday.)

I do wish the airlines the best of luck in sorting this incipient mess out. At airlines' headquarters right now, some of the best logistical transportation managers in the world are working all night -- and all day tomorrow -- to get the trains, so to speak, running. I see them now. To me, it sounds like the unexplainabe thrill of running a big newspaper city-desk on a really big breaking story -- and then having to argue a day later with some male or female grammar schoolmarm on a news desk who insists that there is no such word as unexplainable, that it's inexplicable --- which is not really the same thing, is it, and I find the idea uneatable. not inedible.

One of these days I need to spend some time reporting on what these men and women at airline headquarters really do, with increasingly limited options, in a weather crisis like this. You and I get to quarterback their results in a couple of days, but they are making the tough calls at this moment.

Meanwhile, delays remain high at Atlanta and the ripple effect is hitting Chicago and other big hubs. Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are also reporting major delays because of heavy rain.

Most airlines have now put emergency change policies into effect, meaning you can change a flight in affected areas without paying the usual penalty fee. My advice: If you can stay out of the air for the next several days, do it.

By the way, the FAA's worthless (but supposedly real-time) flight-delays status page at this moment is showing no delays -- let alone cancellations -- at any of the nation's airports, even as chaos mounts. What planet is the FAA monitoring? Your tax dollars at work!

###

USA Loves Dumb Storm Headlines!

With a nasty, dangerous snowstorm lashing the East Coast, only USA Today could come up with a headline this utterly clueless:

Top News

winter:
Storm slows holiday shoppers

###

No Christmas Travel Crunch, Per Se -- But Oops, Here Comes a 'Snow' Crunch


I don't need to inform anyone on the East Coast today that air travel is a mess because of a big storm that's expected to dump a ton of snow on the Northeast. It's only raining in Atlanta, and delays and cancellations are piling up. Orlando also is reporting mounting delays. The big Northeast airports, from Philly through New York and up to Boston, are experiencing mounting weather delays.

Our air-travel system has absolutely no slack in it. That means a plane sidelined by bad weather represents a planeload of passengers who will struggle to find seats on another flight, because all the planes are full and have been for a year -- and because the airlines have slashed capacity.

So a ripple effect occurs, and it will now be felt right into the start of the Christmas travel peak.

So please: Do plan ahead. Make sure that flight is on, and that you still have a seat. Arrive at the airports two hours early. If you have to park a car, check ahead to make sure there's a space.

I spend most of my time these days in southern Arizona, where it's always sunny and where I am learning to forget the misery of a snowstorm.

In the 2007 movie "You Kill Me," the opening scene shows Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic busted-valise of a Buffalo hit-man. Snow-shovel in hand, he stands at his front stoop contemplating the miserable chore of shoveling a path through thigh-high show. He gets a bottle of vodka and tosses it into the snow about five feet ahead, and then gamely shovels to that point, takes a swig, and tosses the bottle another five feet down the path, incentivizing himself, as it were.

Nothing better illustrates my own attitude toward heavy snow.

Safe travels. And hire a kid to shovel that snow.

###

Friday, December 18, 2009

There Was No Thanksgiving Travel 'Crush,' and There Won't Be One For Christmas



Attention credulous air-travel reporters who churn out the same formula stories on holiday travel, year after year after year.

As I pointed out before and after Thanksgiving, there was no travel crush in the air, despite all that media knee-jerking. During the Thanksgiving travel period, planes were full. Just as they were in the spring, summer and into the fall. That's because airlines are busy reducing seats flown -- off about 6 percent in November over the previous November. During the Thanksgiving period, travel delays were below average.

Want the actual numbers for November?

The Air Transport Association says today that 1 percent fewer passengers boarded domestic airlines in November compared with November of 2008, even though fares (which the ATA measures as the average price to fly one mile) dropped 6.4 percent.

Fewer passengers despite lower fares. There's your Thanksgiving travel "crunch?"

The worst news for domestic airlines is the steady drop in overall passenger revenue -- despite the sharp rise in revenues from things like checked bags and cancellation fees. The ATA estimates that average revenue was off 7 percent in November -- the 13th consecutive month in which revenue has dropped compared with the year-earlier month. The biggest declines in revenue on domestic carriers were on their trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes (and the collapse in demand for, or sharp fare reductions for, international premium-class seats business-class has a lot to do with that).

Still, there is nothing more stubborn than a canard. I'm already seeing travel stories warning about the Christmas crunch. Planes will be full! Plan ahead! Emergency, emergency!

Yeah, yeah. You could look it up. Planes have been full for well over a year, month in and month out. And fewer and fewer people are getting on them.

###

UK Court Blocks British Airways Strike

About a million passengers who already had bought tickets, and many others who had planned to fly British Airways over the Christmas and New Year holidays, evidently have a reprieve.

A British court, agreeing with British Airways that the strike vote by the union representing more than 13,000 BA flight attendants had "irregularities," issued an injunction barring the strike, which was set to begin next Tuesday and continue through Jan. 2. The union, obviously, is not happy with having the court step in.

Meanwhile, Gatwick, Luton and other airports in Britain are a mess today (and Heathrow operations are slowed). It snowed a little overnight.


###

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Senator Schumer and the Flight Attendant

The usual media scolds and right-wing operatives are going all postal on Sen. Chuck Schumer, who seems to have riled a flight attendant on US Airways by not snapping off his cell-phone immediately upon orders, questioning her about it, and then muttering a not-nice word as she walked off. The word being "bitch."

Schumer has apologized for saying this word, which he did not say to the flight attendant.

By all accounts, Schumer uttered the word quietly to a Senate colleague in the next seat, and not to the aggrieved flight attendant. Bad on him for being rude, but it's notable that a Republican operative seated nearby ratted him out. The flight attendant never heard the word.

There are unanswered questions. It does not seem to be in dispute that the order to snap-shut the phone was given to Schumer before the cabin door closed. The flight attendant apparently insisted to the senator that no matter what the actual procedures were, flight crew orders were law and were to be followed without question. Period. This, evidently, is what Schumer was (unwisely, as it turns out) questioning.

We're all justifiably annoyed by cell-phone idiots on tarmac-parked planes who disregard the rules and continue on with their braying even after the cabin door has been closed, which we all understand to be the cut-off time. But it seems as if that is not what Schumer did.

I myself have noticed lately -- and so have many readers -- that some flight attendants have become cranky and bossy, and some seem to be making up rules as they go along. Yeah, they have tough jobs, which are getting tougher. But rudeness toward passengers has become a new air-travel problem.

I have always expressed deep sympathy for flight attendants, but really, some of them are out of control these days. Among the offenders, passive-aggressive males seem to be the worst, but more and more the occasional -- bad word uttered here, sotto voce! -- comes down the aisle, behaving rudely toward the paying customers for one supposed infraction or another. It has really become noticeable.

If Schumer broke the actual rules, he's deserves to be hammered in the media for being a jerk, If he did not, and was merely being pushed around by some cranked-up flight attendant on a power jag, I would say his quiet observation, directed not at the flight attendant but shared quietly with a colleague, impolite as it might have been, was accurate.

Airlines need to have a come-to-Jesus talk with some raging flight attendants and tell them this: If you can't stand your job and if you hate the passengers, when that cabin door is open, why not just go ahead and deplane?

Buh-bye.

###

Continental Latest Airline to Opt For In-Flight Wi-Fi

Continental Airlines, the laggard among major domestic airlines in deciding whether to install Internet Wi-Fi connectivity, said today that it chose Aircell's widely-used Gogo system. Starting in the second quarter of next year, Continental said it will offer Gogo service on its fleet of 21 Boeing 757-300 aircraft that primarily serve domestic routes.

The Gogo system runs off land-based towers and doesn't work on overseas flights. Competing systems like the one offered by Aircell's much-smaller competitor Row44 work off satellites, and thus can be used over oceans. Oddly, Row44's major domestic customer so far is mostly landlocked Southwest Airlines, which plans to roll out the system on its fleet of 737s. (Row44 claims it has superior connectivity and reliability; Gogo disputes that).

More than 600 aircraft flown by domestic airlines are now wired with Gogo. Delta Air Lines has been the leader, but American Airlines hasn't been far behind. AirTran and Virgin America now have their entire fleets wired. United, US Airways and Alaska Airlines and Air Canada are either slowly rolling out Gogo or plan to do so soon.

The costs for a connection vary, and many promotions are under way. Gogo service can cost up to $12.95 on some long-haul domestic flights, but the price is lower for shorter flights and for those using hand-held Wi-Fi devices, rather than laptops.

Continental said that it plans to offer the service from "$4.95 and up, based on length of flight." It didn't specify what "up" means. I'll get back to you on that.

Nor did Continental say whether the Gogo system will be rolled out to the rest of its mainline domestic fleet, or when.

Aircell has told me that it costs about $100,000 per plane to install the Gogo equipment. However, it is not clear how much of that cost has been paid by individual airlines, or whether some of the installation costs have been paid by Aircell itself -- a company financed by venture capital betting heavily on the not-sure-bet proposition that enough people will pay for the service to make it profitable.

To date, the "take rate," which is the term for the percentage of passengers who opt to pay, has been in the 5-7 percent range on average on most flights, I am told. That is below break-even levels, but supporters of in-flight Wi-Fi firmly believe that there is a growing market, driven mostly by the sharp increase in the number of hand-held wireless Wi-Fi devices being carried by fliers -- that will soon be solid enough to build a profitable industry for in-flight connectivity and for promotion of ancillary products such as in-flight marketing, including retail sales.

###

British Airways, Union in Talks to Avert Christmas Strike

British Airways and the union for its more than 13,000 flight attendants are negotiating today in an attempt to revolve issues that led to an overwhelming vote for a 12-day strike scheduled to start Dec. 22.

Here's an update from the Guardian newspaper.

###

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Delta, Predicting $1.1B Loss for '09, Sees Recent Uptick in Business Travel Demand, Talks of Need For More Industry 'Consolidation'

Delta Air Lines today said it expected to lose $1.1 billion for this year, partly because of bad bets on fuel hedges earlier in the year.

Executives at Delta, which is now the world's largest airline, told an investors conference today that trends are improving. For example, the "volume" of tickets sold to corporate clients rose 15 percent in recent weeks, Delta said, according to this Reuters report. (That does not mean that revenue from those tickets rose similarly, however.)

And again, we're hearing the "consolidation" mantra, and this from the airline that swallowed Northwest. Consolidation will be the airline story of 2010.

Delta's CEO, Richard Anderson said "over time, more consolidation will help this business model evolve to a return on capital."

It will also raise fares and reduce choices, of course.

###

British Airways Trying to Head Off Christmas Strike

British Airways is in court today in what it calls "an attempt to protect
customers from the massive stress and disruption threatened by Unite’s
decision to call a 12-day strike from December 22." Unite is the union representing more than 13,000 flight attendants and other employees.

BA is seeking an injunction to block the strike, set for Dec. 22. The airline is challenging the strike vote, claiming "irregularities" in balloting.

"As a backup to the legal action, British Airways managers have been
establishing which cabin crew might wish to work normally during the strike
period," a statement by the airline said.

A strike would cost BA about $49 million a day.

Here's an update on the situation from the Times of London today.

###

With Another Bad Financial Year Ahead, World Airlines Look to More Consolidation

The indicators are clearing up for next year it's apparent now that world airlines are going to lose more money in 2010 than had been anticipated.

The International Air Transport Association today said world airlines are likely to lose about $5.6 billion in 2010, a figure considerably higher that the previous early forecast of $3.8 billion. IATA maintains its forecast of a $11 billion loss for 2009.

“We are ending an annus horribilis that brings to a close the 10 challenging years of an aviation decennis horribilis. Between 2000 and 2009, airlines lost $49.1 billion," said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general, tossing around both the Latin and the numerus horribilis.

“The worst is likely behind us," he said. Demand is improving and airlines are cutting non-fuel costs, he said.

On the other hand, I would note, airline employees are pushing back on cost-cuts, as demonstrated by the looming Christmas holiday strike by flight attendants at British Airways, which stands to take a financial clobbering not factored into current forecasts.

Plus, oil prices are edging up again, though airline cost-cutting is mitigating the full impact. IATA is forecasting an average price of $75 a barrel next year, up from the average of about $62 that is expected for this year. And the Air Transport Association in the U.S. is sounding a warning about speculation in the oil market.

Meanwhile, airlines are still unable to boost prices to offset costs. While a total of 2.28 billion passengers are expected to fly in 2010, bringing demand back in line with the peak recorded in 2007, though with $30 billion less in revenue, as fares continue to remain low by comparison with 2007. Passenger revenue, which fell 12% this year, is not expected to grow much next year, when previous aircraft orders will add 2.8 percent to total capacity.

"On top of this, corporate travel buyers have adjusted their budgets to reflect lower premium fare levels," IATA said.

The days of those $11,000 business class fares between New York and London are over.

"Tough times continue," said Bisignani.

And as I have been saying all year, something's gotta give.

"The industry is structurally out of balance," Bisignani said. He called it "hyper fragmentyed."

And that is another indication that the industry intends to consolidate further, mostly through the kinds of route and alliance collaborations that are really quasi-mergers.

“Consolidation is the great hope for the industry. The round of consolidation experienced since this horrible decade began is a step in the right direction. But it has been confined within political borders as a result of ownership restrictions in the archaic bilateral system. The industry cannot afford the mounting losses of the status quo. The next decade must facilitate consolidation,” Bisignani said.

###

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Strike Likely At British Airways [Updated]

British Airways flight attendants voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike starting Dec. 22.

According to this account in tomorrow's Times of London, travel bookers are saying some customers making holiday plans are exhibiting the "Abba affect" -- that is, "Anything But British Airways.'

###

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Number of Americans With Passports Is Surging, There Are A380s With 840 Seats On the Way, and Other Travel Tidbits ...

I always look forward to the chatty eight-times-a-year trans-Atlantic travel reports by Donald N. Martin & Co., the travel promotion company. The current one, forwarded by Hans C. Friis-Jacobsen and Neil S. Martin, the managing partners of the firm, is as usual full of interesting factoids, comments and even detailed charts for us serious travel geeks.

I hope they don't mind me sharing the whole report.

Among the highlights:

--Overall trans-Atlantic traffic fell in November for the 13th consecutive month. But seat capacity was down an average 6.1 percent, twice the percentage of decline for passenger traffic.

--The number of Americans holding passports continues to rise, with a record one third of the U.S. population now having a passport. "Since 2003, the number of passport-holding Americans has surged by more than 35 million -- an extraordinary 60 percent -- to 94.5 million (not counting passport cards)," says the report. (This gives lie to the canard, frequently repeated in European media, that a shockingly small number of Americans hold passports.)

--Overall U.S. domestic capacity is down 6.9 percent for 2009, the largest annual percent reduction since a 12-percent cut in 1942, the report says, quoting the Air Transport Association. OAG, the airline schedule publisher, has previously said that overall U.S. domestic capacity has been reduced by over 20 percent since 2000. (That's the equivalent of losing an entire major airline's capacity.)

--And this one was inevitable: While airlines currently flying new super-jumbo A380 double-deckers configure them in the 450-550-seat range in multiple classes (Air France's new A380 has 538 seats, for example), the giant Airbus airplane is actually certified to hold 855 passengers in an-all coach configuration. Sure enough, one airline, Air Austral, based in the French overseas region of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, has ordered two A380 configured in all-coach settings with 840 seats each. Delivery is scheduled for 2014. And just wait till one of those suckers gets diverted to, say, Mayotte or Lyon.

Zut alors.

###

'Libel Tourism' Is Not Just a Problem in the UK ...

The New York Times today has a story out of London that summarizes a hard-hitting series of recent stories in the Times of London about Britain's disgraceful libel courts.

The story describes the issue in the UK in good detail, and reports that political movement is under way in Britain to reform libel laws that encourage aggrieved foreigners to come to England to sue Americans for libel, on charges that never would stand up in a U.S. court.

But there's a new wrinkle being inadvertently introduced by any notion that the problem is now being tackled. That's because these libel cases against Americans for things said or written in the U.S. are turning up elsewhere in the world, and not just in the UK (which has, however, led the way).

Largely in response to the UK "libel tourism" disgrace, Sen. Arlen Spector introduced a bill, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, that would prohibit enforcement in the U.S. of libel judgments obtained against Americans in other countries, in cases that would be inimical to the U.S. First Amendment. Spector's bill prominently cited a libel case lost in Britain by Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York scholar who had been sued by a Saudi billionaire she mentioned in a book she wrote on how money is funneled into terrorism, "Funding Evil."

Spector's bill, S.449, co-sponsored by Sens. Schumer, Lieberman and Wyden, has been stalled in the Judiciary Committee all year. But only last week, some staffers of Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy finally joined efforts by Specter's legal staff to get behind the the languishing bill and possibly move it out of committee.

Now, some wind is going out of those sails -- because of the idea now spreading that the "libel tourism" problem, a phenomenon in Britain, is likely to be addressed and fixed by the British Parliament.

For example, here, rolling up its sleeves, comes the esteemed Scripps Howard News Service to muck the stalls today.

"England finally seems to have wearied over being the favored destination of libel tourists and, according to The New York Times, is considering overhauling its laughably outdated and one-sided libel and defamation laws," says an editorial sent out today by the Scripps Howard News Service. The sages at Scripps Howard do approve of the Free Speech Protection Act, in principle -- but they also note primly that "it would be best if England made it unnecessary for the Senate to act."

Stop the presses! What's "laughably outdated" is the notion that this is just a problem in Britain.

It so happens that "libel tourism" cases against American citizens are occurring in other countries besides Britain, including Ireland and in Canada (where Paul Williams, an American author, is being sued by a Canadian college for some things he wrote in the U.S. about a terrorist cell, on allegations that would never stand up in a U.S. court. The last time I spoke with Paul, he said he and his wife had spent over $100,000 so far on his defense in Canada.)

And, let's see, where else?

Oh, right: Brazil! I, of course, am being sued in Brazil for allegedly libeling the entire nation by my critical (and wholly accurate) reporting and commentary on the way Brazilian authorities botched the investigation of the horrific 2006 mid-air collision that killed 154 over the Amazon (I was one of seven survivors) -- and scapegoated the two American pilots on criminal charges that still stand, even after impartial investigations concluded that errors by Brazilian air-traffic control were the probable cause of the accident.

The Brazil suit against me was filed by a relative of one of those killed, a woman I never even heard of until the suit was announced, and certainly never wrote a word about. She claims she "feels discriminated against" by my reporting on Brazil authorities' xenophobic behavior after the crash, and on the shaky condition of air safety over the remote Amazon.

The lawsuit is based on the assertion that an insult to the "honor" of Brazil constitutes an actionable injury to each and every citizen of Brazil. It claims, in a series of jaw-dropping falsehoods, that I insulted those killed in the accident by questioning Brazilian air safety, and that I called the nation of Brazil bad names such as "most idiot of all idiots."

The Brazilians retained the New York law firm of Grant, Herrmann, Schwartz & Klinger to serve me with the papers at my home in New Jersey, and to try to enforce the Brazilian judgment against me -- which seeks about $300,000 in damages from me and demands an apology in the New York Times and numerous other news organizations, as well as in a separate blog I started right after the crash (and discontinued in Jan. 2008) to report on the aftermath.

If these kinds of cases stand in Brazil or Canada (or North Korea or Iran or Somalia or Switzerland or any other country that feels its "honor" has been impugned by something written or said in the U.S.) -- and if American citizens are subject to foreign libel or criminal judgments in such cases -- the free speech protections of the First Amendment cease to exist.

And the threat is to anyone who says or writes anything -- not just authors and journalists, but bloggers, scientists publishing papers, travel reviewers, comedians, sports writers, even casual users of social networking sites.

So it's good news that England, which is a dependably sensible country, looks as if it might address the problem that has made it an international legal disgrace.

But Congress still needs to act, because these cases are spreading and evolving. The libel tourism devil is busy all over the world, and in places where sense often flies out the window when emotion and politics barge through the door with writs in hand.

###

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Continental Is Latest Airline to Diss Lower-Level Elite Status Members

I’m just worn out by the drivel that comes every day from airlines, which keep watering down perks for lower and middle-level elite-status loyalty members. And do so with patently baloney-ridden announcements like the one we Continental elite status members found in our e-mail in-boxes tonight. Who in the world do they think they’re kidding as they alienate their loyalty base in these lunges for the always small, now shrinking, tip-top of the market?

(Obviously, they will reply, and with some degree of accuracy, that’s where the dough is, and any dope can look at the numbers and see that we need the dough. OK, I then counter, stop telling me that silver or gold elite status matters. Or, more logically, probably I should stop worrying about elite status loyalty altogether.)

Also, I should add, part of the rationale for the Continental move is that it needs to match up status levels to mesh with its new best friend alliance partner United. So it’s complicated.

Anyway, read it and weep unless you’re at the top:

***

FROM CONTINENTAL:

"We are pleased to announce these upcoming OnePass Elite benefits effective for earning Jan. 1, 2010:

System-wide Upgrades

Platinum Elite members who earn at least 100,000 Elite Qualification Miles (EQMs) or 120 Elite Qualification Points (EQPs) will earn four, one-way electronic System-wide Upgrade certificates. These certificates can be used in conjunction with any published fare on Continental, Continental Micronesia or Copa Airlines flights and are not subject to additional fees.

Learn more about System-wide Upgrades.

New Elite level — OnePass Presidential Platinum Elite

Presidential Platinum is a new invitation-only Elite tier designed to reward Continental’s top Platinum Elite members with some exciting new benefits. Members who achieve this level will be given all the benefits of a Platinum Elite member, plus top priority in Elite Upgrade recognition and flight standby, a dedicated VIP phone line and an annual fee waiver on the Continental Airlines Presidential PlusSM World MasterCard card subject to credit approval. The Presidential Plus card is available to members residing in the mainland U.S. and Alaska.

Learn more about Presidential Platinum Elite status.

We look forward to rewarding our Elite members with these new benefits, which will be available for redemption and fulfillment mid-year 2010.

Sincerely,

Mark Bergsrud
Sr. Vice President, Marketing Programs and Distribution

*$30,000 is the inaugural spend threshold for 2010. In subsequent years, this threshold may change in order to preserve the exclusivity of this program."

###

Snow and Wind: A Bad Day Ahead for Air Travel

I'm in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and the other night a hellacious windstorm roared through, the front of some very bad weather in a very big hurry to get somewhere else.

Which it obviously has done. In Chicago today, they're expecting wind gusts of 25 miles an hour, and up to 35 mph tonight, along with rain, snow and ice. Same thing tomorrow.

Those little red dots are popping up on the FlightStats.com airport map. Flights are being canceled. At O'Hare at 9 a.m. Central, more than 200 flights had already been scrubbed (out of a total 2300 scheduled arrivals and departures). At Minneapolis, about 100 cancellations were already on the board. Milwaukee and Toronto were also reporting big delays and mounting cancellations. At the same time, high winds are affecting operations at Newark and LaGuardia.

Given the ripple effect and the dire weather forecast, especially for the Midwest, this shapes up as a real good day to find a way to stay out of the airports.

###

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Person You Love .. At Airport Security.

I never brag. I'm just an aging newspaperman in a busted-valise industry.

My business-travel column in the New York Times has run weekly for almost 11 years -- but I am awfully proud of the first four or five paragraphs in my column in tomorrow's paper (which is difficult, as usual, to find on the newspaper's Web site.)

I teared up seeing this, writing it and, tonight, even reading it. This, I thought, is the nation that won the Battle of Midway six months after Pearl Harbor. And here were two once-young lovers, after all of these years, unable to protect each other's simple dignity in some crummy joint with this asinine name,Newark "Liberty" International Airport, where an old man and an old woman felt so powerless to even communicate with one another.

###

Just in case the link doesn't work, here's a paste-up of my column. As I said, it's the first couple of paragraphs that matter:
***

By JOE SHARKEY
Published: December 7, 2009

The man looked old enough to have gone ashore on D-Day, and that thought haunted me. He was ordered to stand behind a security partition while a security screener worked over a frail woman bent in a wheelchair.

“Your wife?” I asked.

He nodded but did not take his eyes off her. As the screener ran the wand up her legs, the elderly woman glanced anxiously at her husband, and you thought how many years — 50 or more? — they had spent looking after each other. Transportation Security Administration agents stood around idly in their crisp blue shirts at security gates at the airport in Newark, but the screener worked energetically, poking and prodding and patting every inch of the body of the woman in the wheelchair, as if she were a suspect just dragged out of a cave in Afghanistan.

The screener roughly turned the woman’s palm upward and swabbed it with a chemical to check for explosives. Beside me the man stiffened. “I suppose they have to be careful,” he said. Finally, his wife was wheeled out to join him.

As yet another busy travel season approaches, how many times will we all witness sad scenes like this, which make you question the common sense of many security procedures. Watching screeners confiscate Christmas snow globes, bags of frozen tomato sauce, nearly spent toothpaste tubes, how many of us will have this thought: Are they making this stuff up as they go along? Once they X-rayed and intimately patted that woman in the wheelchair, what was the point of swabbing her for explosives?

Readers often write about perceived security absurdities. One women said her pumpkin pie was confiscated, on the ground that pumpkin pie contained gel-like material. Caitlin Chaffee, concerned about “inconsistencies,” wrote that at one security checkpoint, “I even had an orange confiscated, because they said it was a liquid of more than three ounces.”

The Homeland Security Department recently reminded travelers that liquids and gels could be carried on only in “three-ounce containers” that all fit in a quart-size zipper bag. But even that was slightly incorrect. For some time now, the maximum container size has actually been 3.4 ounces, in a nod to the European Union’s insistence that the standard should conform to the metric system (3.4 ounces equals 100 milliliters).

The T.S.A. says the limits on liquids and gels are based on chemistry, because such small volumes make it virtually impossible to assemble explosives on a plane. On the other hand, a separate T.S.A. regulation says that “travelers with disabilities and medical conditions” are “not limited in the amount of volume” of liquids or gels they may carry, including “items used to augment the body for medical or cosmetic reasons,” including “bras or shells containing gels, saline solution or other liquids.”

This is not to say that people with medical needs should have to fly without vital liquids or gels, but rather to underscore the inconsistencies, sometimes understandable, often infuriating, that we all face at the airport. A better effort is needed — and perhaps we should start here, with readers’ suggestions — to require airlines and security personnel to get the rules straight and to use more common sense in their application.

That includes some strange rules enforced in flight in the name of “safety.” As I have mentioned in several columns, some airlines had been instructing passengers that, based on Federal Aviation Administration safety rules, nothing could be placed in seat pockets — not even eyeglasses. In the commotion that ensued, the F.A.A. issued a notice on Nov. 12 to “clarify” that, saying small items not exceeding three pounds could be placed in the pockets.

SkyWest Airlines, which had been enforcing a total ban, immediately changed its policy to comply. But on Southwest Airlines, where the ban was sometimes enforced and sometimes not, evidently not all flight attendants got the word.

“I had two flights on Southwest this week,” Stephen Meltzer wrote the other day, and the flight attendants “on both flights making the safety announcements were very stern in telling us that nothing could be placed in the pockets.”

Southwest has now also clarified that. The F.A.A. “asks the airlines to take a common sense approach to items in the seat-back pocket,” said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Southwest. “Personal items are allowed in the seat-back pocket, but the heaviest items must be secured.”

Let’s hear it for common sense.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Heads Up: It's Snowing in Houston

Operations at the grandly named George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport are being affected today by snow, which is expected to accumulate to about an inch.

[UPDATE 6.30 pm Central time: Ice is setting in and IAH is a mess. A third of today's 1,554 arrivals and departures have been canceled, according to FlightStats.com


That means operations won't return to normal for a day or more.]

Expressjet accounted for more than half of the cancellations, by the way.


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'Whatever You Do, Don't Dis Brazil'

Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major airline and the "Ask the Pilot" columnist for Salon, is always a sensible and informative voice on issues related to air travel and aviation in general.

He is also a stand-up guy, as evidenced by his column today on the libel suit against me on the ridiculous charge that I offended the "honor" of Brazil by my reporting and commentary, in the mainstream media and on my personal blog, about air safety and justice in Brazil after the horrific 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon.

(That blog, www.sharkeyonbrazil.blogspot.com, went inactive in January 2008 because I said all I thought I needed to say about lax air safety over the Amazon and the terrible way the Brazilian authorities handled an investigation into a crash that killed 154 people. I was one of seven survivors.)

I've been somewhat dismayed in recent months by the utter lack of interest in this weird but important case shown by self-styled U.S. media watchdogs such as the Poynter Institute's Romenesko media site, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Columbia Journalism Review -- whose editors did not even deign to reply to my e-mails or phone calls. To me, it's been a lesson in the dangers of "kept" journalism, where subsidized watchdogs behave more like poodles, yapping at the mailman, cowering at the burglar.

On the other hand, the Brazil case has been taken up by major First Amendment attorneys and by staffers in the offices of Sens. Arlen Specter, Charles Schumer and, lately, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That's important because the Judiciary Committee is where a key piece of legislation, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, is currently stalled.

The Free Speech Protection Act (S.449) would prohibit enforcement of foreign libel judgments in cases that would never hold water in the United States. That is, the law would protect journalists and others (see next paragraph) from being silenced and recklessly intimidated by some foreign government, or person in a foreign country, taking offense at something written or said in the United States that is fully protected speech under the U.S. Constitution.

When I say it would protect "others" besides journalists, I am being quite serious. In Britain, where libel courts have become a national disgrace, U.S. scientists have been sued for debunking fraud in articles written in the U.S. Rachel Ehrenfeld, an author and professor, lost a libel case to a rich Saudi terrorism financier who took exception to a few mentions of himself in a book she wrote about financial sources for al Qaeda.

In Canada, an American author, Paul Williams, is being sued by a university for reporting -- in the United States -- on a terrorist cell based at that university. Paul has spent $100,000 of his own money so far to defend himself.

In Brazil, as Patrick Smith notes in his column, numerous Brazilian journalists and others have been backed down by frivolous lawsuits. Brazil's young and shaky tradition of free speech is in serious question.

Journalists, bloggers, authors, travel writers, food critics, sports writers, policy-makers, corporate travel managers issuing country alerts, scientists, even casual users of social networking sites -- all stand vulnerable because these foreign judgments are invariably based on the argument that anything that appears on the Internet, no matter where it originated, is fair game for a libel suit.

In my case, the Brazilians have gone even further -- maintaining that my reporting on the way Brazilian authorities botched the investigation into the crash and rushed to scapegoat the two American pilots constituted an injury to each and every citizen of Brazil. The plaintiff in the case is a person I never heard of -- and certainly never wrote or spoke a word about -- till the lawsuit was filed. In the suit, she claims she "feels discriminated against" by my reporting on air safety in Brazil -- which reporting has been shown to be absolutely accurate, incidentally.

And as I noted earlier this week, there's now an attempt underway to add a criminal charge to the case against me, on the asinine ground that I impeded justice by writing favorably about the two American pilots.

If such legal precedents stand internationally (and remember, a foreign judgment against someone, even if it is ridiculous, still stands as a judgment and can impede international travel), free speech in the United States is in peril. Any nation that feels treated with insufficient reverence by someone in the U.S. could reach across international borders and effectively nullify the First Amendment.

The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 would at least mitigate some of that threat. Besides Sens. Specter and Schumer, its co-sponsors are Sens. Lieberman and Wyden. But Sen. Leahy is the key figure, because he's the one who can get the bill out of committee.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Criminalizing My Reporting On Brazil?

Having already been sued in Brazil for libel for allegedly insulting the “dignity” of that nation with my reporting and commentary in the United States following the horrible Sept. 29, 2006 mid-air collision that killed 154 over the Amazon, I see now that an attempt is being made to drag me into the trumped-up criminal case against the two American pilots.

None of the allegations in the libel suit against me is true. In fact, we’ve been able to trace all of the allegedly offensive statements about Brazil (Brazil is “idiot of all idiots”) to comments posted by Brazilians on blogs that linked to my Brazil blog, which has been inactive since January 2007, or to Brazilian blogs or news accounts.

Even if I had actually insulted the country of Brazil as viciously as it is insulted on “The Simpsons” (as a response to an earlier attempt in Brazil to punish the Simpson’s producers), this would not by any stretch constitute libel in the United States or in other democratic nations, where the idea of libeling a country is considered ridiculous legally. (Imagine the implications for travel writers, comedians, critics, users of social networking sites, if any country in the world that felt insufficiently honored by something said in America could reach across international borders and enforce judgment against the ugly American!).

As to my using my “great influence” in the U.S. to “impede the return” of the two American pilots to Brazil for their ongoing criminal trial, that’s made up out of thin air.

As to the charge that I employed “sarcasm” in my commentary on Brazil’s handling of the mid-air collision investigation, I am not sure how that word translates into Portuguese. What I did employ was sharp criticism of the hamfisted attempt by Brazilian authorities to cover up obvious and well-known problems in that country’s air-traffic control system, while scapegoating the American pilots (and me).

The civil complaint in Brazil takes offense to my use of a funny photo from the silent film era of a befuddled group of Keystone Kops — but I’ve used the same photo on blogs critical of, say, the United States FAA. That ain’t sarcasm, it’s ridicule — a time-honored tradition of dissent in countries where a citizen’s right to free speech is a pillar of a civilized democracy.

And throughout in my newspaper accounts following the crash, in numerous TV and other media interviews and in the blog, I consistently expressed the deepest sympathy for the relatives and grief for the 154 dead — who were, after all, the primary victims of Brazil’s faulty air-traffic control system on that horrible late afternoon of Sept. 29, 2006, over the skies of the Amazon.

The nominal plaintiff in the Brazilian lawsuit is a widow of one of those killed in the collision, a woman I never heard of till the suit was filed — and certainly never spoke or wrote a word about.

In the complaint, she claims she “feels discriminated against” by my reporting and commentary on the botched Brazilian investigation of the tragedy. My reporting and commentary, which often employed links to Brazilian and other international news and professional aviation sites, was focused on the clumsy attempt to criminalize the accident in a hotly anti-American, xenophobic atmosphere, an ond the Brazilian authorities’ ill-advised determination to criminally prosecute the two American pilots of the business jet on which I was one of seven survivors.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board late last year concluded that mistakes by Brazilian air-traffic control were the probable cause of the accident at 37,000 feet over the Amazon.

Now it appears as if an attempt is under way to drag me — the only one of the survivors who has been free to discuss the accident in the three years since it occurred — into the criminal case.

Here’s a report today in the Brazilian newspaper Porta Imprensa, translation by Richard Pedicini:

***

Portal Imprensa » Latest News

Published on: 30/11/2009 18:55

Widow of victim of Gol accident begins court notification against journalist in US

Newsroom Portal IMPRENSA

“Lawyer Dante D’Aquino, representative of Rosane Gutjhar, widow of Rolf Ferdinando Gutjhar - one of the victims of the accident involving the Gol Boeing and the Legacy jet, on September 29, 2006 - began a criminal notification against North American journalist Joseph M. Sharkey.

A passenger on the jet, the journalist is said to have used his great influence in the media to launch a campaign in his blogs, High Anxiety and Joe Sharkey in Brazil, in favor of Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, the Legacy’s pilots, and to impede the return of the two to Brazil, and to have offended the honor of Brazilians.

The court notification was determined by the judge of the police court of Curitiba, at the lawyer’s request. In accordance with Article 144, established in the Criminal Code, this is a phase of explanation for the accused to make needful declarations and clarifications, before the penal action being able to, inclusively, avoid it.

“In this case, what we seek is clarifications from the journalist about the phrases and affirmations offensive to the honor of Brazilians and, consequently, to the widow Rosane Gutjahr, who lost her husband in the Flight 1907 accident and who, besides having to carry this pain, has to live with the journalist’s sarcasm and his declarations about the accident”, the lawyer explained.

For D’Aquino, “It’s easy to understand that the widow has felt personally offended with the injuries and defamations published by the blogger against all Brazilians, principally, to see a person treat the tragedy that killed her husband with sarcasm and irony”.

In the lawyer’s request, already accepted by Judge Pedro Luis Sanson Corat, of the Court of Police Investigations in Curitiba, and registered under nÂș 1590-2/2, is the determination to cite the North American journalist to provide clarification and explain the motive for which he made the affirmations that are offensive to Brazilians.

The next pass now, with the judge’s order already given, is to send a rogatory letter to the journalist for him to provide explanations to the criminal court. “After Joe Sharkey is cited, in the United States, we will evaluate his clarifications and, in case he does not answer, a criminal action can be brought by the family member against the journalist for calumny, defamation, and injury”, the lawyer emphasized.”

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Air-Travel 'Crunch?' ... Green Skies, Nothin' But Green Skies, All Holiday Long

At 5 p.m. EST today, the FAA flight delays real-time map showed a continent of green dots -- green marking the airports where no flight delays are being reported.

The media hysterics will need to find a new holiday crisis to wail about, as the much-ballyhood "Thanksgiving air-travel crunch" turned out to be a nice, slow period with virtually no delays in a system that operated smoothly. Air travel, as predicted by people who actually look at the data, was off significantly from last year.

As of 5 p.m., the only commercial airport reporting even minor delays was Kennedy, on international departures. The only other airport reporting any delays was Teterboro in New Jersey -- a big private-aviation airport. So the way I read it, the only crunch of any significance was in ... corporate jets and other private jets bringing the swells back from their holidays.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Dear Hampton Inns: No Wi-Fi? No Excuse

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. -- At 7 a.m., my wife raised the window blinds in the Hilton Hampton Inn here. Outside in the cold dim gray drizzle of upstate New York was a parking lot and beyond that muddy hills with bare trees and a highway where traffic poked along sullenly, bound for stores opening early for what has become known, inelegantly, as Black Friday. Everything out there seemed to be dripping. I wondered, is this what Purgatory looks like?

"Please close the blinds," I asked her.

Outside was grim, but the room in the Hampton Inn looked OK. On the bureau was a big new flat-screen television, and someone had spent some money refurbishing the room with nice hardwood fittings. Though the bottom sheet keep slipping off the bed to expose bare mattress during the night, the coffee-maker worked in the morning, thank God.

But I don't ever turn on the television in a hotel room. Ever. What I do is check my e-mail and go online to get some work done first thing every morning. Always. It is an absolute requirement to me that a hotel have a working high-speed Internet connection -- and nearly all of them do these days, even if you have to pay for it, which I will if absoluely necessary. It is my firm assumption that any hotel I choose to check into has it.

But my wife couldn't get her iPhone to work. And when I tried to go online with my laptop, I got ... well, you know. "No wireless connection available." Twenty minutes went by, fiddling with that, even though you knew it was futile.

The front desk swore the Wi Fi was up, but quickly provided a phone number to call at some unnamed Internet service provider, at some call center, somewhere in the world. The single phone in the room was situated on a nightstand 15 feet from the desk, by the way.

My wife, far more patient and infinitely more gracious than I, generously spent 15 minutes on the phone in the usual Kabuki tech-support theater, in which the person on the other end pretends to believe and insists that the Wi Fi service is available, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Obviously, it was the laptop that was at fault -- even though this same laptop has performed instantly in recent years to fetch a Wi Fi connection at home near New York, out in the Sonoran desert, all over the U.S., in Europe and in India, in South America -- and even on airplanes at 35,000 feet.

Finally, after much to-and-fro, a tentative solution. A "wireless bridge" must be required. Where to find such a thing? Well, the front desk -- which had insisted the wireless connection was up and running, and never mentioned any need for this wireless bridge -- had just such a device on hand! Down I went to sign for this miracle of half-assed patchwork technology.

Voila, a shaky Internet connection was finally established. And it took only an hour and a quarter of a busy Friday!

Dear Hampton Inns management: As you well know, a reliable Internet connection is crucial to many guests, especially your business-traveler clientele. As I well know, it is a brand standard for Hampton, which both my wife and I regard generally as the best mid-priced hotel brand in the country.

Having to spend an hour and a quarter to get online because a hotel owner hasn't put out the money to ensure that the Wi-Fi works throughout the building is not acceptable.

So Hampton Inns, please note. If you cannot guarantee me a reliable, easily accessible Wi-Fi connection, everywhere in your system, please tell your franchisee to advise me before check-in, and I will go somewhere else.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

More Debunking of Holiday-Travel Hooey


I've been ridiculing all of those media knee-jerk stories about the "Thanksgiving crush" in air travel, noting that the total number of flights are down (by over 5 percent this year compared with last year's Thanksgiving holiday; by more than 20 percent compared with 2000). Not only that, but flights have been averaging 83-84 percent full loads for months -- and over 80 percent for more than a year. At those load factors, nearly every flight is packed full and has been for a long time.

So in the air, the Thanksgiving travel period is overblown as a story. The main difference is that the ratio of business travelers to leisure travelers changes. More leisure travelers hit the system while business travel routinely declines. But the same thing also occurs during the peak summer periods. Also, keep in mind that all business travelers are also leisure travelers at times.

Now comes Carl Bialik, who writes an excellent column called "The Numbers Guy" in the Wall Street Journal. The column uses actual numbers and real data (eeeek!) to evaluate various airy claims -- like the Thanksgiving air-travel hype.

Writes Bialik: "In fact, no day last November figured in the top 220 out of the 366 days in 2008, based on the number of flights reported by airlines to the Department of Transportation. ... November hasn't had a day in the top 35 most-traveled in years, according to DOT figures, which track the daily number of flights, not passengers. Instead, most of the busiest days for U.S. airports hit during the summer, when school is out."

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