Thursday, April 30, 2009

SHOCK: Parrots Can Dance

In today's no-shit-Sherlock news, this newspaper reports on a Harvard study that finds parrots can dance and aren't faking it. (It would seem to me that faking it would be a much greater marvel, but I've learned never to quibble with a newspaper.)

Please refer to our feature Crazy-Dancing-Ray-Charles-Loving-Cockatoo, who appears here regularly. That's his photo above.

Anybody who owns or is acquainted with a parrot knows they love to dance to music. A nice 2/4 beat will usually do, but our macaw sways to a waltz like a drunk stevedore.

New flash: Parrots also talk!

Our African grey also sings the coloratura notes from the Queen of the Night aria in the Magic Flute, but very, very badly and she's faking the high F's.

Oh, and when I'm traveling, I also use Skype to videoconference with the birds and my wife. The parrots get the idea of videoconferencing.

Oh, and by the way, re the comments on that linked-to newspaper article from people who say they want a dancing parrot, too. Seriously, a parrot is a major responsibility -- they live to be over 50, and bond intensely with their humans and require a lot of attention. They're like three-year-olds who never grow up (but on the other hand, you don't have to pay college tuition). A parrot is not to be undertaken lightly. Seriously.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Airport Emergency Preparedness Guidelines

The Airports Council International, which represents the world's airports, revised its preparedness guidelines this month. They make for interesting reading. Here's a copy.

Let's hope the individual airports get the message about the importance of clear and accurate communication with the public. From the guidelines:

"Communication with affected travelers is vital to ensuring that discord is not created. Travelers should be kept informed, and staff should be available to reply to questions."

We'll see how that works out, if and when.

The guidelines begin with this summary:

"In the event of an outbreak of communicable diseases on an international level, air travel will be the focus of much attention due to the potential for aviation to increase the rate at which a disease spreads, thereby decreasing the time available for preparing interventions. Although it is probably not feasible to halt the spread of some diseases, advance preparation should make it possible to reduce the consequences."

Meanwhile, let's hope we don't see many manifestations of this:

"In the event of positive secondary screening, measures should be taken to refer the individual for appropriate diagnosis, and management, in accordance with the IHR (2005) with a view to protecting the public from potential infection i.e. by isolation or quarantine. Appropriate isolation or quarantine facilities should be identified by the public health authority and are normally only available away from the airport site."


Centers for Disease Control Evening Update

The best common-sense approach to evaluating the potential swine-flu epidemic is to stay well informed.

Here's tonight's update from the Centers for Disease Control, which lists 91 cases and one death in the United States.

In an average year, about 30,000 people, mostly old people, die from complications of everyday seasonal flu. So this may not look so serious.

But as the CDC says tonight: "More recent illnesses and the reported death suggest that a pattern of more severe illness associated with this virus may be emerging in the U.S. Most people will not have immunity to this new virus and, as it continues to spread, more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths are expected in the coming days and weeks."


Hey, IATA: Cut the Baloney

The International Air Transport Association issued this generally level-headed Q&A on swine flu and international air travel, citing the World Health Organization (WHO) as its authority.

But IATA really needs to cut the crap in seeking to assure the public that you can catch a virus anywhere, ho-ho, so not to worry about an airplane with its "very advanced air filtration systems."

WTF? The WHO doesn't say that.

If push comes to shove, an airplane packed with infected people -- let's say, people traveling from an area where the virus is at epidemic levels -- is a very dangerous place. I'm not saying avoid air travel, even from Mexico. I'm just saying exercise precaution in where you travel if this situation gets worse.

Here's the part of the IATA statement that I consider baloney:

"Normal influenza can be transmitted in many situations - at home between family members, in shopping malls, on the street or in aircraft. At this time, the WHO has not identified any specific risks from air travel. The WHO and experts are still gathering information about the particular type of Swine Influenza in question.

"Passengers should be reassured that modern aircraft have very advanced air filtration systems which ensure a high level of air quality despite the confined environment. And, as always, it is important that any passenger who is unwell consult with his or her doctor prior to undertaking any travel." [That last sentence, of course, is not baloney.]

Instead, here's an objective assessment from a travel health physician in the Times the other day.

Meanwhile, France surrenders again.


World Health Organization Raises Alert Level on Flu

In keeping with my opposition to media paraphrasing when the exact language is available, here is how the World Health Organization defines its pandemic phase levels. (See chart here.)

The WHO has now raised the phase to 5. Here are the WHO definitions for Phases 5 and 6:

"Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community-level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way."


Swine Flu: Corporate Travelers Showing Preparedness, Not Panic

I figured the swine flu story had jumped the shark this morning when the earnest National Public Radio lady told me to stay tuned for a song about preventing dying from flu by washing your hands. I couldn't stab the button fast enough to switch to the merry all-Mariachi station that comes in from Mexico, which is my annoyance-default on the radio in Tucson. I figured if the all-Mariachi station interrupted the merriment for a news bulletin, I could switch back to NPR and hope they had something in English beyond a ditty about hand-washing.

The usual hysterics in the media have failed in their desperation to hype this story, which common-sense Americans are staying well-informed about by reading sensible newspapers and following sensible online reporting.

Here is a great example of how common sense, coupled with reasonable precaution, are prevailing:

A survey by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) indicates that preparedness, not panic, is the response f the global corporate travel community to the flu outbreak.

The majority of companies report minimal or no travel cancellations (outside of Mexico). According to the group's executive director, Susan Gurley, survey results show that business travelers are focused not on avoiding travel but on the precautions that should be taken while on the road.

This indicates that "a majority of companies [are] showing confidence in their contagion and pandemic plans," said Gurley. "Actually, preparedness levels are much higher than they were at the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome -- SARS -- in 2003. At that time, companies had to gear up for a potential pandemic. They have now had six years to build upon their contagion and pandemic plans and to perfect their implementation. This is a contributing factor in the lack of panic now."

Sixty-two percent of the survey’s respondents answered “yes” to the question, “Do you currently have a pandemic emergency plan that covers the evacuation or hospitalization of infected travelers in a foreign country facing an outbreak of contagion?” That percentage jumped to 73 percent when respondents also answered yes to “Does your company’s pandemic emergency plan provide for the majority of employees to work from home or a remote location in the event of a pandemic in your country of origin?”

"There was concern that these might be the same contingency plans developed six years ago, but the survey clearly indicates that is not the case," said Gurley. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents reported that their companies have been upgrading these plans on a regular basis. Furthermore, 68 percent stated that travelers and employees are advised of the upgrades every three months. Twenty-four percent said travelers were advised or reminded of the program prior to every trip.

"This represents a substantial improvement over conditions that existed in the industry prior to SARs in 2003," said Gurley.

Slightly less than half of the poll’s respondents -- 47 percent -- have restricted business travel -- but only to Mexico.

• Three percent have restricted travel to the U.S. and Mexico, while, while 7 percent are restricting travel to any country with reported cases of H1N1 swine influenza.
• One percent reported restricting travel to the U.S. only.
• Forty-two percent are claiming no travel restrictions at all.

Summation: Excluding travel to Mexico, only 11 percent of respondents cited travel restrictions.

Those percentages undergo a substantial shift when it comes to the cancelation of meetings in which colleagues may be exposed to the H1N1 from the handshakes and sneezes of others during business meetings, however.

• Thirty-seven percent of the survey’s respondents said they were canceling meetings, or restricting travelers from attending meetings, in which they could be exposed to the H1N1 swine influenza through colleagues from countries with reported infections.

• Sixty-three percent reported no change in their meetings program.

Reporting on concern levels expressed by individual business travelers, survey respondents claimed that only 28 percent of business travelers requested a cancellation or postponement of a business trip to a country with reported cases of H1N1 swine influenza.

• Thirty-eight percent reported that traveler concern was only limited to asking about the appropriate precautions that should be taken against the swine influenza while traveling.

• Thirty-four percent cited there was no traveler concern.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stupidity In New York Skies: a Follow-Up

WCBS TV in New York has an excellent follow-up to that breathtakingly stupid stunt yesterday that scared the hell out of a large number of people in New York.

The invincibly inept FAA told the NYPD to keep mum about it, even though the FAA knew the stunt would cause panic. My jaw remains dropped.


Just In Case You Were Wondering About Government Emergency Pandemic Powers ...

Just for reference, here's the operative Department of Defense plan for handling a flu pandemic in the United States. It's a .pdf file, and it's 87 pages.

The acronym CONUS, by the way, means continental United States.

Pages 62 and 63 outline the military's emergency powers "in the event of pandemic influenza." Quote: "These powers include restriction of movement and use of containment strategies (isolation, quarantine, social distancing) as well as medical evaluation and treatment."

... Just in case you were wondering what a monstrous civil disruption would occur if a genuine flu pandemic happened.


Priceline Airfare Chart: Boston Cheap, Florida Higher

Smarter people than I can probably make some cosmic sense out of the current airfare environment. Anyway, here's the latest chart from Priceline on the week's fares to and from selected markets.

There's some indication that Florida fares are rising.

Boston fares are definitely down.

Wonder why? Hmmmm.


Flu Panic Eases

Obviously, there is still a lot of cause for concern over the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and its spread into the U.S., where 64 cases now have been diagnosed (most them them among students in New York who had recently visited Mexico)

But after a few stabs at hysteria from the usual suspects, calm and reason prevail. The travel industry, while still on high alert, has settled down, as have airline and hotel stocks. Here's a good report on airline operations from Aviation Week.

Here is an interesting chart from the World Health Organization explaining the various alert phases in defining a pandemic. Current phase is 4.


Without Portfolio ,,,

I'm very sorry to hear that Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine has folded after two years. I could never understand the animosity directed at that magazine by some members of the media. I thought the editor, Joanne Lipman, pulled off a miracle getting Portfolio up and running.

I did a couple of business-travel pieces for, and they were a class operation to work for.

I'll miss Joe Brancatelli's smart business-travel column, Seat 2B. Ultimately, it was not to be, I am sad to say. (Sorry Joe).


Flu: Centers for Disease Control Update

Rather than relying on some newspaper to paraphrase press releases ("Cover your mouth when coughing," that shiny newspaper they hand out free at hotels advises today, like somebody's mom), I'm going to post updates on what I regard as useful information, because I'm starting to see signs of that old devil media panic.

Do note that when traveling in some international airports, passengers are subject to temperature scans (typically, you walk through a thermal machine) that may cause delays.

Also, in Mexico, the police, evidently having been temporarily pulled off duty acting as bodyguards for drug lords, are supposedly monitoring passengers for signs of illness. Make of that what you will.

Here's the late morning CDC update:

ravel Health Warning
Travel Warning: Swine Influenza and Severe Cases of Respiratory Illness in Mexico — Avoid Nonessential Travel to Mexico
This information is current as of today, April 28, 2009 at 11:43 EDT

Updated: April 27, 2009
Current Situation

As of April 27, 2009, the Government of Mexico has reported 18 laboratory confirmed human cases of swine influenza A/H1N1 infection. Investigation is continuing to clarify the spread and severity of the disease in Mexico. Suspect clinical cases have been reported in 19 of the country's 32 states. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Alert and Response Network (GOARN), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have sent experts to Mexico to work with health authorities. CDC has confirmed that seven of 14 respiratory specimens sent to CDC by the Mexican National Influenza Center are positive for swine influenza virus and are similar to the swine influenza viruses recently identified in the United States.

On April 25, the WHO Director-General declared this event a Public Health Emergency of International Concern under the rules of the International Health Regulations. CDC and state public and animal health authorities are currently investigating 20 cases of swine flu in humans in California, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, and New York City. Some of the U.S. cases have been linked to travel to Mexico. At this time, only two of the 20 cases in the U.S. have been hospitalized and all have recovered, but deaths are reported to have occurred in Mexico. CDC is concerned that continued travel by U.S. travelers to Mexico presents a serious risk for further outbreaks of swine flu in the United States.
CDC Recommendations

At this time, CDC recommends that U.S. travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico. Changes to this recommendation will be posted at

Please check this site frequently for updates.
If you must travel to an area that has reported cases of swine flu:
Stay Informed

* Check updates from the:
o Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
o Secretaria de Salud,
o World Health Organization
* Monitor announcements from Mexico’s Ministry of Health and local government including information about affected areas, as not all areas are equally affected.
* Follow local public health guidelines, including any movement restrictions and prevention recommendations.
* Be aware that Mexico is checking all exiting airline passengers for signs of swine flu. Exit screening may cause significant delays at airports.

Prepare for your trip before you leave

Antiviral Medications: Travelers from the United States going to Mexico who are at high risk of severe illness from influenza (for example persons with chronic conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and the elderly, see are recommended to take antiviral medications for prevention of swine influenza during travel. The recommended antiviral drugs for swine influenza are oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (brand name Relenza®). Both are prescription drugs that fight against swine flu by keeping flu viruses from reproducing in the body. These drugs can prevent infection if taken as a preventative. Talk to your doctor about correct indications for using influenza antiviral medications. Always seek medical care if you are severely ill.

Antiviral chemoprophylaxis, or taking medicine to prevent flu viruses from reproducing in the body, (pre-exposure or post-exposure) is recommended for the following people:

* Household close contacts who are at high risk for complications of influenza (for example, persons with certain chronic medical conditions and the elderly) of a confirmed or suspected case.
* School-aged children who are at high risk for complications of influenza (for example, persons with certain chronic medical conditions) who had close contact (face-to-face) with a confirmed or suspected case.
* Travelers to Mexico who are at high risk for complications of influenza (for example, persons with certain chronic medical conditions and the elderly).
* Border workers (Mexico) who are at high risk for complications of influenza (for example, persons with certain chronic medical conditions and the elderly).
* Health care workers or public health workers who had unprotected close contact with an ill confirmed case of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection during the ill person’s infectious period.

Antiviral chemoprophylaxis can be considered for the following:

* Any health care worker who is at high risk for complications of influenza (for example, persons with certain chronic medical conditions and the elderly) who is working in an area with confirmed swine influenza A (H1N1) cases, and who is caring for patients with any acute febrile respiratory illness.
* Persons who are not at high risk but who are travelers to Mexico or first responders or border workers who are working in areas with confirmed cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection.

Further information about CDC’s recommendations for antiviral use during the swine flu outbreak can be found at the following websites:

* Healthcare professionals
* General public

For all travelers, CDC recommends the following steps to help you stay healthy:

* Be sure you are up-to-date with all your routine vaccinations, including a seasonal influenza vaccine. The seasonal vaccine is not expected to offer protection against swine flu viruses, but it can protect against seasonal influenza viruses which may still be circulating in Mexico and the Southern Hemisphere.
* Pack a travel health kit that contains basic first aid and medical supplies. See Pack Smart in Your Survival Guide to Safe and Healthy Travel for a list of what to include in your travel health kit.
* Identify the health-care resources in the area(s) you will be visiting.
* Check if your health insurance plan will cover you abroad. Consider purchasing additional insurance that covers medical evacuation in case you become sick. For more information, see Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad from the U.S. Department of State.
* Remember that U.S. embassies, consulates and military facilities do not have the legal authority, capability, and resources to evacuate or to give medications, vaccines or medical care to private U.S. citizens overseas.

During your visit to an area affected by swine flu
Monitor the local situation

* Pay attention to announcements from the local government
* Follow local public health guidelines, including any movement restrictions and prevention recommendations

Practice healthy habits to help stop the spread of swine flu

* Wash your hands often with soap and water. This removes germs from your skin and helps prevent diseases from spreading.
o Use waterless alcohol-based hand gels (containing at least 60% alcohol) when soap is not available and hands are not visibly dirty.
* Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and put your used tissue in a wastebasket.
* If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
* Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing, using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner (with at least 60% alcohol) when soap and water are not available.
* Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread that way.
* Try to avoid close contact with sick people. (Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.)
* It is important to follow the advice of local health and government authorities. You may be asked to restrict your movement and stay in your home to contain the spread of swine flu.

Seek medical care if you feel sick

* If you are ill with fever and other symptoms of swine flu such as cough and sore throat, see a doctor, especially if you think you may have had contact with someone with swine flu or severe respiratory illness in the past 7 days before becoming ill.
* If you need to find local medical care, a U.S. consular officer can help you locate medical services and will inform your family or friends in the United States of your illness. To contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate in the country where you are visiting, call the Overseas Citizens Services at:
o 1-888-407-4747 if calling from the U.S. or Canada,
o 00 1 202-501-4444 if calling from overseas, or
o Find your local US Embassy at Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions.
* Do not travel while you are sick, except to get local medical care.
* Try to limit contact with others as much as possible. By limiting your contact with other people, you can help prevent the spread of swine flu.
* For more information about what to do if you become sick while you are traveling outside the United States, visit Your Survival Guide for Safe and Healthy Travel.

After your return from an area that has reported cases of swine flu:

* Closely monitor your health for 7 days.
* If you become ill with fever and other symptoms of swine flu like cough and sore throat and possibly vomiting and diarrhea during this period, call your doctor or clinic for an appointment right away. Your doctor may test you for influenza and decide whether influenza antiviral treatment is indicated.
* When you make the appointment, tell the doctor the following:
o Your symptoms,
o Where you traveled, and
o If you have had close contact with a person infected with swine flu.
* Avoid leaving your home while sick except to get local medical care, or as instructed by your doctor. Do not go to work or school while you are ill. If you must leave your home (for example, to seek medical care) wear a surgical mask to keep from spreading your illness to others.
* Always cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away used tissues in a trash can.
* Wash your hands with soap and water often and especially after you cough or sneeze. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand gel containing at least 60% alcohol.
* Avoid close contact with other people as much as possible
* Wear a surgical mask if you are in contact with other people

Status of Entry and Exit Screening in the United States and Mexico
Mexico Exit Screening

Swine flu screening has been instituted at airports and land borders for travelers departing Mexico, according to Mexican health authorities. Passengers showing symptoms of swine influenza will be asked to submit voluntarily to physical examination and further evaluation, if needed.
United States

At this time, the United States is not conducting enhanced entry screening of passengers arriving from Mexico, nor is the United States conducting exit screening of passengers departing for Mexico.

The Department of Homeland Security will provide Travel Health Alert Notices to US travelers going to and coming from Mexico at all airports, seaports, and land border crossings. These notices provide advice to travelers on how to reduce their risk of getting sick, the symptoms of swine flu, and what to do if the traveler becomes sick.

CDC will provide all ill passengers and their contacts arriving from Mexico with Travel Health Alert Notices. These notices provide advice information regarding seeking health advice from a physician and how to prevent illness in persons who have been exposed but who are not ill.
Additional Information

If you have specific questions about the swine influenza cases see or call 1-800-232-4636, which is 1-800-CDC-INFO.

To learn more about travel health, visit

For the swine Influenza situation in Mexico, visit:

* Secretaria de Salud: Secretary of Health, Mexico [Web page in Spanish]
* World Health Organization: Influenza-Like Illness in the United States and Mexico
* Pan American Health Organization

For the swine Influenza situation in the United States, visit:

* For information on antivirals
o (for healthcare professionals)
o (for the public)
* For information on swine flu in the United States, visit

Swine flu travel health updates will be posted on as information becomes available.


World Health Organization on Flu Responses: Don't Restrict International Travel

Swine influenza

Current WHO phase of pandemic alert

International Health Regulations (IHR)

The Committee considered available data on confirmed outbreaks of A/H1N1 swine influenza in the United States of America, Mexico, and Canada. The Committee also considered reports of possible spread to additional countries.

On the advice of the Committee:

* The Director-General has raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from the current phase 3 to phase 4.

The change to a higher phase of pandemic alert indicates that the likelihood of a pandemic has increased, but not that a pandemic is inevitable.

As further information becomes available, WHO may decide to either revert to phase 3 or raise the level of alert to another phase.

This decision was based primarily on epidemiological data demonstrating human-to-human transmission and the ability of the virus to cause community-level outbreaks.

* Given the widespread presence of the virus ... containment of the outbreak is not feasible. The current focus should be on mitigation measures.

* The Director-General recommended not to close borders and not to restrict international travel. It was considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention.

* ... production of seasonal influenza vaccine should continue at this time, subject to re-evaluation as the situation evolves. WHO will facilitate the process needed to develop a vaccine effective against A(H1N1) virus.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Ya Can't Fix Stupid (Continued)

Some employees of the Defense Department, specifically the United States Air Force, and the White House, not to mention that bastion of incompetence the FAA, decided it would be a swell idea to send a great big airplane, initially described as a 747 airliner, one of the planes used as Air Force One, screaming low over Manhattan today, escorted by a military plane taking pictures.

It's not quite clear yet who pulled this stunt off.

Here's a link with a photo of the stunt today. Above, of course, is what a great many New Yorkers remember seeing one morning eight years ago.

Today's incomprehensible stunt was described as a "photo op." A secret "photo op." Surprise, horrified New Yorkers and those looking on from across the river in Jersey! Up there in the sky, that great big airplane swooping low over the skyline? It was just a photo op! A publicity stunt! Whatsa matter witcha? Get over it! Chill!

The stunt was so secret that the mayor of New York wasn't told, let alone the citizens of the city.

It just boggles the mind that anyone, let alone a group of people, thought this would be a good idea. Did none of the idiots behind this stunt even consider the fact that literally hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers personally witnessed the 9/11 attacks, and will live for the rest of their lives with the horrifying images of 9/11 in their heads?

And please remember, these were not images they saw on some television screen. These were images they saw in the skies over Manhattan with their own two eyes. They saw airliners swoop low over the city and crash into the two tallest buildings in New York. They saw and heard and in many cases felt those skyscrapers burn and tumble while thousands died.

My next-door-neighbor, who worked in the World Trade Center, was working out on the morning of 9/11 in the glass-rooftop gym at the Marriott Hotel situated between the two World Trade Center towers when the first plane hit. The Marriott collapsed along with the towers. He staggered home that night bloodied, covered in soot and dirt, his clothes ripped, his eyes hollow, to a wife and a child who thought he had died. Somehow, he got out. He has no idea how he made it home. He recalls only the strange, eerie image of an airplane swooping low, low over Manhattan -- and he'll take that image to his grave.

I was in a plane crash once, two and a half years ago, and walked away from it while 154 others did not. I still wake up many mornings with a terrible image in my head. It will never disappear.

And some people in the federal government thought it was OK to pull this stunt over New York, without letting New Yorkers know in advance that it was just that, a stunt?

I cannot get my jaw to un-drop over the invincible stupidity of this. Apologies are utterly insufficient. The people responsible for this must named, shamed and fired. Publicly fired. Slapped with a white glove. Drummed out of government employment, forever. In Times Square. High noon. Tomorrow.


Europe Travel `Ban' to U.S.? Says Who?

That old devil paraphrase is back in the news today with alarming reports (alarming to U.S. airlines, I assure you) that Europeans are being "urged" not to travel to the United States unless it's absolutely essential because of concerns about swine flu in Mexico that has evidently spread to about 20 people in the U.S.

"Urged" under what circumstances and by whom, I wonder? It is not at all clear from what I've read so far. It's pretty difficult to track down the actual "urging." Actually, the basis of the report seems to be a comment, rather than an official announcement, made by a European Union health commissioner.

There was a big scary red headline on the Huffington Post : "Europe Warned: Postpone U.S. Travel." The story seems a bit muddled about the precise nature of this warning, however. [The big red headline has since been downgraded to something less hysterical. Meanwhile, I haven't checked today to see how badly that simpleton Drudge is hyperventilating over all this, life being just too damn short.]

The origin of the "warning" seems to be this, as it appeared in the London Independent and other British papers today:

"Britons were urged to postpone non-essential travel to the United States or Mexico today as senior officials held emergency talks over the deadly outbreak of swine flu.

The European Union's health commissioner Andorra Vassiliou met EU foreign ministers on the subject and advised people to reassess their travel plans.

'They should avoid travelling to Mexico or the United States of America unless it is very urgent for them,' she said."

Again, it's not clear under what circumstances this saying got "said." My hunch is that it was a comment made off-handedly in response to press clamor, and not a statement of an official position.

In fact, the reporter for the French news agency Agence France-Presse seems to have heard a different comment from Vassiliou, whom it quotes as saying, "Personally, I would try to avoid non-essential travel to the areas which are reported to be in the center of the cluster."

Personally, I would ease up on the panic button, Mr. Vassiliou [the London paper evidently got his gender wrong and who knows what else), till I had more information. And if I were an editor, I would insist that these half-baked stories contain actual quotes and get themselves sourced credibly.

The Wall Street Journal online today clears some of the confusion up, thankfully. Evidently, this Vassiliou has been prattling on all day, and then modifying his comments as he caught hell for them.

Reports the WSJ: "But Mr. Vassiliou toned down earlier comments referring to all of North America. `I meant a travel advisory, not a travel ban, for travel to Mexico City and those states in the United States where we have outbreaks' of swine flu, he said."

The European Union officially advising against travel to the U.S. would be a very big story. But this just isn't the case.

On the other hand, U.S. airlines that bet so heavily on international routes in recent years have to be sweating this one out. There are few better ways to spread a virus than in the confined space of a crowded airplane on a long flight.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Swine Flu and Travel

The swine flu outbreak has evidently spread from Mexico, where more than 80 deaths have now been attributed to a severe respiratory illness, to the United States, where at least 20 people are known to have contacted swine flu. The United States declared a public health emergency today.

As if Mexico hasn't had enough problems with travel.

[UPDATE: This is now starting to sound potentially dire for world travel. Look at this link to an AP story, via Yahoo, which mentions (alas, without any elaboration) that some countries are considering issuing travel warnings for the United States and Mexico. If this gains any traction, it will be disastrous news for airlines already staggering under the sharp drop-off in international travel that clobbered them during the first quarter.)

(By the way, don't go to the Aeromexico Web site for any unpleasant news. Not a word about this as of late afternoon Sunday. Nada.) U.S. airlines, on the other hand, are prominently advising Mexico bound passengers that they can change plans without penalty. Here's the American Airline advisory, for example.

The American Airlines policy, by the way, allows someone who cancels a Mexico trip to reuse the ticket without penalty to anywhere for the length of the validity of the ticket (a year after purchase for most nonrefundable seats.)

But have a look at the cheesy US Airways policy:

It reads: "US Airways has relaxed ticketing policies for travel to Mexico City due to an influenza outbreak. US Airways will waive the standard change fee, advance reservation and ticketing requirements for customers with travel to, from or through Mexico City on the dates above ..." [note: through April 30]

" * You can move your entire itinerary up to seven days before or after the scheduled origination date.
* You can apply the full value of your wholly unused tickets toward the purchase of a ticket to an alternate destination, although travel must originate within seven days of the scheduled origination date.

What sports, huh? Even assuming you don't want to go to Mexico during a swine flu epidemic, you have to use the ticket within SEVEN DAYS!

Here's the latest report on the situation from the Huffington Post, which appears to have lifted the story entirely from the AP.

Here's a link to the much more comprehensive New York Times story.

And here is an advisory from earlier today from the global crisis-response company International SOS. Note that the ISOS numbers of those affected are now out of date.

" ... public health authorities are investigating two unusual occurrences - the appearance of a new swine flu that has infected at least 7 people in the U.S., and 20 deaths in Mexico from a severe respiratory illness that appears to be spreading. At this stage there is no [known] evidence to link the two, and the illnesses do not appear to have extended beyond the regions discussed below.

Over one hundred and thirty cases of a severe respiratory illness have been detected in south and central Mexico, of which at least some are due to influenza. It is unclear at this stage the cause of the other cases, and whether all are in fact due to the same infection.

Public health officials in Mexico began actively looking for cases of respiratory illness upon noticing that the seasonal peak of influenza extended into April, when cases usually decline in number.

They found two outbreaks of illness - one centered around Distrito Federal (Mexico City), involving about 120 cases with 13 deaths. The other is in San Luis Potosi, with 14 cases and 4 deaths. A death in Oaxaca, in the south, and 2 in Baja California Norte, were also detected.

The majority of cases are occurring in adults, between 25 and 44 years of age. Some have occurred in health care workers. Symptoms are initially like flu, with fever, cough, headache and muscle pains. Severe cases progressed rapidly within 5 days.

In response, health officials have temporarily suspended classes for schools and universities in Mexico City and nearby locations.

Investigations are ongoing, and samples have been sent to Canada for further testing. Influenza virus was detected in at least four of the fatal cases.

Swine flu in California and Texas

The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control initially reported two confirmed cases of a swine influenza in two children in California. Since then, three others in California and two others in Texas have been found with the same illness. All have fully recovered, and one case required management in hospital. All other cases were mild. None had contact with pigs, and it is likely that there is spread from human to human.

The first two cases detected were a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, who did not have contact with each other. They live in two adjacent counties in California, and both have recovered. Neither child had exceptional symptoms or severe illness. Authorities discovered that they had swine flu as part of routine testing performed on people with flu-like symptoms - they were not singled out for testing based on their symptoms.

The boy, from San Diego county, fell ill with a fever, cough and vomiting on March 30. He recovered completely within a week. His mother and brother had flu-like illnesses before he became ill, but they weren't tested at the time.

The 9-year-old girl is from Imperial County and had visited a fair where pigs were on display a few weeks before getting sick. She developed a cough and fever on March 28, and has recovered fully. Both her brother and cousin suffered similar symptoms but were not tested for flu.

Authorities are tracking people with whom the children had contact. This effort is ongoing and extends into Texas, as the boy traveled to that state on April 3. Two teenagers who attended the same school in San Antonio have been detected with the unusual flu strain, as well as a father and daughter in California.

Public health officials are investigating whether the illness is more widespread, and how it may have arisen. They have advised residents of Texas and California to take everyday precautions to prevent illness, and if they have flu-like symptoms to contact their health care providers.

The virus found is a new strain of swine flu H1N1 which is resistant to the older antiviral medications amantadine and rimantidine. The virus is sensitive to the newer antiviral medications oseltamivir and zanamivir. It is unknown if the seasonal influenza vaccination provides any protection against this swine flu.


In both situations there is currently limited information, and no definite link between the two. The illnesses do not appear to have extended beyond the areas mentioned above.

Health authorities have not determined whether or not the swine flu has "pandemic potential" and a definitive cause for the respiratory illnesses in Mexico has not yet been found. Investigations are ongoing. For the latest information see the medical alerts on International SOS Country Guides:

USA Swine Flu
Mexico Severe Respiratory Illness

Travel to the United States and Mexico can proceed. People who have not had an annual flu vaccination should consider having one to prevent regular seasonal flu.

In addition, to prevent respiratory infections, including flu and prevent spreading illness:

* Maintain good personal hygiene. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.
* Cover coughs and sneezes with a mask or a tissue.
* Avoid obviously sick people
* Stay at home if you are unwell, and seek medical attention if you develop flu-like symptoms
* Parents should take their young children with fever or influenza-like symptoms for prompt medical attention."


By the way:

Here's a useful Q&A from the World Health Organization on swine flu.


And remember Texas Governor Rick Perry, making all that silly noise recently about Texas maybe seceding from the United States because some people were upset about taxes or something?

Comes trouble, and Perry is first in line to demand extra federal assistance.

On Saturday, Perry asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 37,430 doses of antiviral medicine from the Strategic National Stockpile after the three cases of swine flu turned up in high school students in Guadalupe County.


Meanwhile, the Air Transport Association says that U.S. airlines are monitoring the situation in Mexico. "We are in communication with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and look to their public health experts for recommendations on whether any additional measures are needed to prevent spread of the disease by air travel. In the meantime, ATA member airlines will continue to comply with long-standing requirements to report any case of communicable disease on board aircraft flying to or within the United States.

“At this time CDC is not advising U.S. citizens postpone or forgo travel to Mexico, although we understand that they will be issuing an 'outbreak notice' to inform travelers and provide reminders about standard and enhanced recommendations for the region.”


Incidentally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisory on the situation hasn't been updated since yesterday (what, nobody working there on a Sunday?)


Saturday, April 25, 2009

S.E.R.E. Sucked

{Cheney in his outfit: Real cowboys don't 'frighten easily'}

Here is a very specific request: If you know anything about S.E.R.E. training in the 1960s, please let me know at joesharkey2@comcast. net, as I am working on a magazine article about this.

My first business trips, so to speak, were as a dumb young man in the military in the second half of the 1960s. (By the way, Delta Air Lines always treated servicemen very very well in this era and I always have had a warm feeling for Delta because of that.)

But I digress. Early in 1968, as a young NCO, I had orders to report to Saigon, Vietnam — just in time, as it would turn out, for the Tet Offensive.)

But before going, I was required to report to the Naval Amphibious Base at Little Creek, Va., for a 3-week training course called Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.), which turned out to be an exercise in being subjected to torture and mind-blowing confinement in a simulated Prisoner of War camp after spending four days without food in the godforsaken Virginia or Maryland mountains (they never told us where we were) in the dead of winter, while trying to avoid capture by Navy SEALS posing and dressed as Chinese Commie soldiers.

This being winter in those miserable mountains, there was no food, nor were we supplied with any. After some days and nights of “evasion,” we poor hungry, cold, disorientated slobs all were “captured” by Navy SEALS (and who knows who else, under whatever contracts). They were dressed in war paint, but also in Red Chinese uniforms. Disoriented and hungry, we were confined for days in a simulated, very real looking POW camp (they had built it like a Hollywood set), where we were beaten and “tortured” day and night. The torture was real. I left with several broken ribs. There is an indelible image in my head of a Navy captain (a Navy captain is the same rank as an Army colonel) being humiliated for an hour in front of the rest of us, refusing to crack, and then thrown stark naked into a barbed wire fence. I see that man’s bloody body to this day, He extricated himself from the barbed wire crying, blood-soaked, utterly ruined.

Today, I read a credulous report in the paper that blithely stated that SERE was “created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture techniques used by Communists in the Korean war.”

That’s the lie created about S.E.R.E. by the military and the C.I.A. and its complicit hired psychologists and psychiatrists — hired hands who all were an integral part of the crimes we confront today.

The reason for S.E.R.E. was to see if torture worked, on whom and under what circumstances. Sleep deprivation, severe physical strain, beatings, being tossed into walls and fences, water-boarding, naked exposure to extreme cold, endless "questioning," sensory shakeups, confinement in small airless boxes that were pounded on with sticks, abject humiliation -- all were part of the S.E.R.E. "training." It's a shame Cowboy Dick didn't get to experience it first-hand, but oh, that's right: Cheney wangled five successive draft deferments at the time when other young men of his generation were being sent to a vicious, seemingly endless war, and 55,000 of them came home in coffins while Cheney tended to his "other priorities."

I’ll follow up with a personal report. Meanwhile, if you were there too, let me know at …

[Update: On Rachel Maddow tonight, Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State (and four-star combat general Colin Powell,) described the creepy former vice president, Dick Cheney, as a “man who frightens easily” and, — whoa, Wilkerson even mentioned Cheney’s successful craven attempts to obtain “five deferrals” from Vietnam military service back, when Warrior Dick insisted he had “other priorities.”)

Dick Cheney as described by Gen. Powell’s top guy: “A man who frightens easily.” Cheney, of course, was one of the main drivers behind the torture techniques used on prisoners and based, we now know, on what was learned from SERE.

Don’t you love that cowboy hat Cheney wears? You ever seen that fat-ass on a horse? My guess is that Cheney is as afraid of horses as his pal Bush famously is. He’s a man, after all, who frightens easily.


Friday, April 24, 2009

'Rapping Flight Attendant' on Southwest: Please Don't

Just when you think things on board an airplane couldn't get more annoying, here's this YouTube hit showing some offensively self-regarding Southwest male flight attendant asking for "audience participation" from the passengers so he can sing the safety instructions in rap. And some knucklehead passengers encourage this character by clapping out the beat. (The clip is evidently at least a month old, but it keeps getting rejuvenated online).

We have far too much "performing" in this culture, if you ask me. Does the pitch-challenged Susan Boyle warbling that execrable Les Mis anthem not provide enough noise bouncing around in our heads?

Coerced "audience participation" is one of the lowest forms of performance, even lower than street-mimes and that "Grandma" clown at the Big Apple circus who's going to get knocked on his smug kiester by an angry audience member one of these Christmases.

An airplane is a confined space, crammed cheek to jowl with a captive audience. It is not like the set for the nitwits on American Idol.

So I am begging you, do not let this spread. Please resist the urge, you flight attendants who want to recite doggerel, juggle, do interpretive dance, try stand-up comedy, or, God help us, force us to listen to you sing. Please just read the safety instructions, fasten seat belts, and shut the hell up. Oh, and I'd like a cranapple juice, please. "Hey yo up there acting like a goose; stop that crappy rappin', get the dude a juice."



Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are You Speaking English or Is My Hearing Going?

I think there might be some misunderstanding about Delta's decision last week to stop outsourcing reservations and other sales calls to call centers in India.

The Delta CEO, Richard Anderson, said that while it's cheaper to outsource the jobs, "the customer acceptance of call centers in foreign countries is low. Our customers are not shy about letting us have that feedback."

The dislike of foreign call centers could be interpreted as ethnic bias, but I don't think so. I hear the same thing from a lot of people, and I have had the identical impression using foreign call centers: I simply can't understand what the hell some of those people are saying.

I remember in New York City not long ago encountering a tourist who I presumed to be Middle Eastern, asking me again and again where he could find an "AH-teem." Finally, after multiple tries, I realized he was looking for an A.T.M. machine, but it took hand gestures with his bank card for him to get the idea across.

In India, meanwhile, people tend to speak impeccable English. I'd bet that the average middle-class Indian speaks better English than the average middle-class American, in fact.

But the Indian accent, two generations after the departure of the British colonialists who had bequeathed the language to the subcontinent, is sometimes impenetrable. The western ear is simply not conditioned to it.

Which reminds me of those jokes that wiseguys have been known to play at Heathrow Airport, where they hand an innocent customer-service person a paper with what appears to be a foreign name on it and ask for that person to be paged.

Thus the following "person" has been paged. (There are actual recordings of these pranks online):

"Arhev Bin Fayed Bybeiev Rhibodie."

Say it out loud and it sounds a lot like "I have been fired, bye-bye everybody."

Or: "Arheddis Varkenjaab Aywellbe Fayed."

Say that out loud, but not with children present.

In Paris a few years ago, I stayed at a hotel on Boulevard Malesherbes and got lost trying to find it after a long walk through the city. I don't speak French, but I can usually bumble my way through basic French words, names and phrases. But Malesherbes? How in the world do you say that? People kept shaking their heads ruefully as I repeatedly tried to get directions, till finally some woman had me write it down. Aha! she said, and gave me directions in English.

I spend a lot of time in southern Arizona, and when driving south of Tucson I sometimes encounter a Border Patrol roadblock checking for illegal immigrants. Sometimes the officer who pokes his head in the car is Mexican American, that is, an American citizen, and on one recent occasion the man had an accent so think that I had no idea what he was saying, even though he was speaking perfectly good English.

"Pliss estateju seeteezchip," he said.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what you said," I replied.

Now, a small minority of Arizonans and Texans resent Border Patrol questioning on a public highway, and like to bust the chops of the officers, who technically have no real authority to stop an American citizen on a road that's, say, 40 miles from the border.

But I wasn't doing that. I really had no idea what the poor man was saying.

He was courteous, but he merely repeated the question louder.

"PLISS ESTATEJU SEEZCHIP?" he asked plaintively.


Finally, after several more tries, I got it.

"U.S. citizen," I stated.

Looking stricken, he thanked me and waved me on with immense relief. I felt a little guilty because it was obvious that he believed I had been trying to humiliate him, which I had not.

By the way, I can only imagine what foreign English speakers think when they hear the way some young Americans today mangle pronounced English. I am not talking here about regional accents, but about the weirdly affected way some people now drop or conflate syllables in common words.

I call them "Crates." Because that's how they pronounce the word "create."

In this bizarre new diction, "Collect" becomes "Klek." And "collapse" becomes "Clapps." And so on.

I heard some simpering guy on NPR use the word "Madge-min" this morning. Took me a while to figure out he was saying "management."

In Australia, meanwhile, a couple of television pranksters pulled another kind of word stunt at the Sydney airport. They handed a slip of paper to a customer-service agent to page the following passengers: Al Kyder and Terry Wrist. Commotion ensued when people heard the announcement in the terminal.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite in this line of frivolity. Sometimes, reporters doing quick person-on-the-street type interviews speak to someone who agrees to give a name, and the name is oddly spelled, so the person writes it down in the reporter's notebook so that it appears correctly. And every once in a while, the following name actually appears in print: " ..., said Heywood Jabolme."

Sounds like an urban myth, but it appeared -- again -- in a story in the New York Post a few years ago.

Belongs in a kleckshun.


Monday, April 20, 2009

737 Hijacked in Jamaica by 'Mentally Challenged' Gunman

This was not supposed to happen. Ever. Again. Under. No. Circumstances.

A "mentally challenged" gunman forced his way past security and took over a charter CanJet 737 at the Montego Bay airport Sunday night. He freed the 170 or so passengers and two crew members and held six of the crew hostage, and demanded to be flown to Cuba.

Where, as it turns out, the plane was bound anyway after its Montego Bay stopover. I guess the mentally challenged gunman wanted priority boarding and exit row seating.

Here's the statement from CanJet on the situation.

CanJet also said that a "full security operation is underway."

They're a bit late out of the gate on that one, I would say.

[UPDATE: Police captured the 20-year-old hijacker this morning and the hostages were released unharmed.]

{{UPDATE 2 -- And I do not buy the baloney here and see comment below that this was not a big deal. Nor do I buy the risible assertion from one Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism, that this was a great day for Jamaican security. What does the "Minster of Tourism" have to do with security? An dangerous man got through Jamaican airport security with a gun and took control of a plane. There is absolutely no excuse for this, Jamaican government blandishments aside.]]

All of those 3-1-1 rules, all of those take-off-your-shoes rules, all of those terrorist watch list precautions and rummage-through-your-bag routines mean absolutely nothing if some lunatic with a gun can sail past security.

And a hijacked 737 in Jamaica is just as much a potential threat as a 737 hijacked in Miami in Atlanta.

Air travel security rests on the fundamental assumption that it is no longer possible for a plane to be commandeered, thanks to fortified cockpit doors and well-trained crew. It is not supposed to be possible for a terrorist or a "mentally challenged" gunman -- and God knows there are enough of both around -- to get through security with a firearm.

Inept, malfeasant airport security in Jamaica is not a local matter, mon. Air travel security is a global matter. In the United States, it is a matter of vital national interest. Now that the crew is safe, the authorities, and we travelers, need to hold Jamaica to account for an inexcusable lapse in Security 101.

A hijacked plane, no matter who took it over and how, was not supposed to happen again. Period.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

International Economy-Plus Cabins Expanding

Air New Zealand is the latest to offer expanded space and amenities in its economy-plus cabins.

The main reason for the growing popularity of economy-plus, or premium coach or whatever it's called ("business-lite" is one of the current marketing favorites) is the crackdown by corporate travel departments on the use of first-class and business-class fares.

The premium coach fares, even though they're considerably higher than coach, get around the problem because they're technically coded as coach. Where there's a will there's a way. And as I always say, companies absolutely owe it to employees to provide a degree of comfort on long-haul flights. It isn't a perk, it's a corporate responsibility.

One of the good things is that some airlines are really providing reasonably business-class-like service for premium coach passengers.

Here's the Air New Zealand announcement:

"Air New Zealand is doubling the number of Pacific Premium Economy seats available on its 777-200ER fleet, with the first of eight aircraft re-entering service ... All aircraft will be completed mid-June, with the number of seats in the cabin increasing from 18 to 36 ...

Says Air New Zealand's long-haul manager Ed Sims, "`Air New Zealand flies further [sic] than any other airline in the world. Despite the challenging economic environment, long-haul customers clearly value the experience and are happy to pay more for the superior legroom, personal space and business class-style service.`"

In the newly configured cabins, seat pitch for premium coach will increase to 41 inches from the current 38 inches, and there will be a new self-service bar area.

By contrast, coach seats have 32 inches of legroom.

It is the third Pacific Premium Economy capacity increase in two years, with Air New Zealand twice increasing the number of seats available on its Boeing 747-400 aircraft, now up to 39 Pacific Premium Economy seats. Air New Zealand introduced the 777-200ER into its fleet nearly four years ago. The aircraft operates long haul routes from Auckland including Hong Kong-London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and on selected Los Angles services.

The new 777-200ER seating configuration on Pacific routes will be: Business Premier 26, Premium Economy 36 and coach, 242 (currently 269).


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Crandall's Pogo Air-Taxi Company Folds

Robert L. Crandall has shut down Pogo, his ambitious start-up venture in the air-taxi business,according to Aviation Week magazine. (Here's the link to the story).

The plan for Pogo to launch in the first quarter of this year was obviously in big trouble when the company canceled an initial public offering in February. As envisioned by Crandall and his investors, Pogo would have started service using Eclipse 500 very-light jets on regional routes within 600 miles of New York City.

Pogo follows DayJet, another air-taxi business based on a fleet of Eclipse 500s, into oblivion after the Eclipse jet failed to live up to expectations at the same time that credit markets dried up. DayJet, which had taken delivery of 28 Eclipse 500s and was already operating in Florida and adjacent states, shut down last September after it had been unable to obtain new financing.

Crandall, who built the modern American Airlines in the years after de-regulation and led the carrier from 1980 to 1998, told Aviation Week that Pogo was "just one of those ideas that didn't work out." He blamed the sub-par performance of the plane, as well as the credit crunch, for the failure of Pogo. "The airplane failed," he told Aviation Week.

Pogo had planned to have 25 Eclipse 500s flying by the end of this year, but the manufacturer, Eclipse Aviation, halted production of the small jets last year and was liquidated in February after producing about 260 planes.

Pogo had orders to buy its Eclipse 500s for about $1.9 million each. The company planned to be flying about 100 very light jets, not necessarily all Eclipses, by the end of 2011.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Fathead Airlines Want to Make It `Us Against Us'

Before we go any further in this flap about airlines requiring that people too wide to fit into an airplane seat have to buy a second ticket for the overflow, it would be useful to get out a yardstick and have a look at how much space 17 inches is. And then remember, most coach seats are 17 inches wide (some are a half inch and in some cases a full inch wider).

United Airlines is the latest of a bunch of carriers to generate heat, and not much useful dialogue so far, in setting a policy that fatter people have to buy two seats if they can't fit into one with the armrest down. The media are all flapping around about it today after some giddy, half-baked stories yesterday implied that United was breaking new ground here. It wasn't. That's the policy at at least eight other airlines and has been for some time.

When I've written about this issue in the past (and it's been around for years), I've been surprised by some of the virulent reaction. I'm here to tell you, folks, there are a lot of fellow citizens out there who hate fat people. And I use the word "hate" precisely. The depth of the animosity is profound; it is uncivilized and foul.

If we had a decent air-travel system that respected human dignity, this would not be so much of an issue. If I may slide into the pulpit here for a minute, let me say that it is in the airlines' gross interests to pit us against us, lest it become -- as it should -- us against them. Because, pace Walt Kelly, we have seen the enemy and it is not us, it is they.

The main reason we are annoyed by our fellow passengers' physical intrusions is that the airlines don't give us enough room for normal occupation of a physical space for long periods of time. A United 747 (United runs them with a whopping 347 seats) has 172 coach seats, 10 across with two aisles, that are 17 inches wide, with 31 inches of legroom. I myself would sooner take a brick upside the head than spend seven or eight hours (or longer) wedged into that kind of space, trapped between also-suffering fellow passengers. Add some dripping water from the overhead and you have a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Incidentally, the airlines are all proudly describing their next-generation strategic plans for prosperity to stock-market analysts in the hopes that the stock-market analysts will do what stock-market analysts really and truly do, which is shill shares. The plan is simple: Shrink the air-travel system to the point where fewer planes are flying more passengers. That is, they are actively planning for a smaller, constricted system in which all of us remain packed in the tightest possible spaces on airplanes on which every cramped seat is occupied.

So this problem of personal space only gets worse, unless we decide that the airlines, and not our fellow passengers, need to be held responsible for providing basic human needs on an airplane. We literally would not allow cattle to be transported in interstate commerce with so little space between them. It's time to ask why we let the airlines carry people of any size that way.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hotel Rates Falling Worldwide

[Click to enlarge chart]

Hotel room rates dropped an average of 17.4 percent in the first quarter of this year in 30 major world cities, Ovation Travel Group said. The comparison is to the first quarter of 2008.

The travel management company looked at rates for over 92,000 room nights in three- four- and five-star hotels in those 30 cities. The only cities showing rate increases were Abu Dhabi (33.7%), Dublin (6.2%), Milan (5.1%), and Tokyo (3.2%).

Delhi, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Singapore and Toronto showed the greatest rate decreases, all over 20%.


International Premium-Travel Slump Worsens

There's more bad news for airlines, but good news for those with a lot of frequent flier miles piled up, or for those who are flexible on international travel plans. The international fare sales and award-ticket deals are probably going to continue for a while.

That's because international front-of-the-plane fare sales have not had the effect of arresting the plunge in premium overseas travel. The number of passengers traveling on first-class and business-class fares dropped 21.1 percent in February, following a 16.7 percent drop in January, according to figures out today from the International Air Transport Association.

Nor did those amazing fare sales in coach have the desired affect for airlines, at least in the winter off-season. Travel on coach tickets was down 8.3 percent in February, following a decline of 4.7 percent in January. Those numbers may even be misleading for gauging the weak leisure travel market as "there is evidence that business passengers continue to trade down to cheaper seats at the back of the aircraft," the IATA says.

(The comparisons are all to the previous month in 2008).

Pacific markets showed the biggest decline in premium travel in February, off 27.3 percent. This is not good news for Delta Air Lines, which has bet heavily on international premium traffic and which acquired a vast new network of Pacific routes when it bought Northwest Airlines last year.

Premium traffic on the North Atlantic routes was off 22.5 percent in February.

The good news for passengers, of course, is that the airlines still have to fly all of those seats they slammed onto the international routes, until they find more efficient ways to reduce capacity. So those fare sales will continue.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

United Airlines and the Obese

Thanks to Reuters, which has straightened out those half-baked stories other news outlets have bounced around all day about United Airlines's policy toward obese passengers who can't fit into a coach seat. (And let's remember, people, that a typical coach seat is only seventeen inches wide.)

Here's the sensibly reported Reuters story.

Turns out, United is merely doing the same thing that other airlines already do.

I am shameless, forgive me, but it does bring to mind the joke about someone being so fat that when they have to haul ass it takes two trips.


Every Time Suze Orman Sniffles, a Business Jet Loses Its Wings

Hooo, as if the business jet industry doesn't have enough image problems to battle, here comes Suze Orman, the self-described "internationally acclaimed personal finance expert" sounding all late-stage Versailles in an interview in this month's Business Jet Traveler magazine.

"What does flying privately do for you?" the magazine asked her.

The internationally acclaimed personal finance expert explained, reasonably, that private jets provide efficiency. But then her second reason, weirdly: "Health."

Suze sez that "the chances are very great [on an airliner] that some kid's gonna sneeze on me and then I get sick. If I am, it's millions of dollars on some level somewhere."

Note to Citizen Robespierre: Sieze this woman!

Seriously, the business aviation industry, struggling mightily to regain some footing after the image and economic disasters of the last six months, can do without this kind of defense.

Speaking of business aviation, the numbers continue on the grim march downward.

ARG/US, which measures these things, says that business-aircraft flights dropped 26.2 percent in March, compared with March of 2008. The biggest drop was in flights of large cabin jets, which were off 44 percent.


Spinning the Bad News As Era's Ending Looms in Air Travel

AMR Corp., whose principal business is operating American Airlines, reports a $375 million loss in the first quarter today, and tries to spin it positively.

"Thanks in large part to the efforts of our employees we also continued to improve our customer dependability," said the company's proud CEO, Gerard Arpey, who seems to believe that the rest of the planet understands whatever that is supposed to mean.

The loss comes even though oil prices are down sharply. "While lower fuel prices have provided a significant buffer against falling demand in 2009, the struggling economy and capital markets remain significant challenges for American and the rest of the industry," said Arpey, in the no-shit-Sherlock observation of the day (so far).

Let's look at the numbers to see the real "challenge:"

In March, American's revenue passenger miles were down about 10.8 percent over March 2008. Like its competitors, American has been frantically trying to shrink its system, and reduced capacity 8.2 percent domestically and 1.1 percent internationally. But the cuts in capacity were exceeded by a plunge in demand. In March, 9.9 percent fewer people boarded American flights. For the first three months of this year, American's revenue passenger miles were off over over 12 percent, and the number of passengners boarded was down 11.8 percent.

This occurred despite generally lower fares across the board.

Here's my own quarterly report for most major network carriers:

You are not looking at "challenges." You are looking at a verdict. The economy is obviously a huge factor, er, I mean "challenge." But you are also looking at a conclusion by a great many Americans that air travel, with the arrogance of the airlines and the indignities of the airport-security ordeals, is no longer worth the hassle, at least not to the extent that it has been for 25 years.

These desperate fare sales, and the lack of strong public response to them, are the herald of the day of reckoning. Airlines, you have made people hate you. The good times will not roll again, even when the good times roll again elsewhere.

An era is ending.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Bill Marriott Spots All Those Unclaimed USA Todays Littering His Hotel Hallways

Uh-oh, USA Today. Bill Marriott, the chairman of Marriott International and a man who pays close attention to every detail in his hotels, is onto you. Not only is business travel off, meaning you're giving away 100,000 fewer papers a day, but Bill Marriott noticed what a lot of business travelers have been noticing: Increasingly, hotel guests aren't even bothering to drag those free USA Todays into the room from the hallways in the morning. They just sit out there in the halls like little tiny forgotten room-service carts.

In a body blow to USA Today, Marriott International said that rather than dropping off all those free newspapers at guest rooms, starting June 1 it is switching to a new system to "streamline" delivery of newspapers at its 2,600 properties in the U.S. (sorry, Al: USA). This means hotels will offer -- in the lobbies, or by delivery to rooms upon request -- not just USA Today (which is far too often the only choice for those of us who want to read a print newspaper every day), but also the Wall Street Journal and whatever the local paper is.

"We want to give guests the choice of whether they want a newspaper or not," Bill Marriott said. "I visit more than 250 hotels a year, and more often than not, I’m stepping over unclaimed newspapers as I walk down the hallway. This new program is more guest-focused."

Ouch, Al Neuharth. The USA feels your pain.

Marriott projects that newspaper distribution will be reduced by about 50,000 papers daily or 18 million papers annually, thereby avoiding 10,350 tons of carbon emissions (calculated by Conservation International assuming an estimate of .5 pounds per paper). Cost-savings, if any, will vary based on consumption at individual hotels.

More than 25 years ago, in a partnership with Gannett and its flagship paper USA Today, Marriott was the first major hotel company to feature broad newspaper delivery to its hotel rooms in the U.S. (oops, sorry: "USA").

USA Today pasted one of its great big smiley faces on the dire news. "USA Today was founded on the idea that one newspaper could reflect the shared interests of Americans across the country. Our ability to connect readers with what is important to them makes us the most-read newspaper in the country and the number one choice of travelers," Susan Lavington, the marketing chief, said in a statement. "As the needs of news consumers continue to shift, USA TODAY has innovated to provide valued content in any platform consumers choose. We look forward to extending that choice to Marriott’s valued guests through print, online, mobile devices or on a GoBoard in their hotel lobby."

The Wall Street Journal also put a great big smiley face on the Marriott announcement, but it seemed to have a Cheshire-cat grin. The print Journal now has an opening that had been blocked by all those piled-up free USA Todays. "More individuals choose to buy the Wall Street Journal than any other newspaper in America. We applaud Marriott for now extending this choice to their guests." said Paul Bascobert, marketing chief at Dow Jones Consumer Media Group. Note the word "buy."


Just Sayin' ...

---Breathless headline and AP lede here says "Passenger Lands Plane After Pilot Dies." But, uh, I read the story and shouldn't that be "Pilot Lands Plane After Pilot Dies?"

---Please, Alaska. Could you all please just shut the hell up for a while? We're busy down here.

---From the scoreboard: Navy 3, Pirates 0


Friday, April 10, 2009

Cashless Cabins on United

...oh, they'll still take your money all right, but United accelerates the push toward no-cash cabins on April 20, when flight attendants will accept only credit cards or debit cards for purchases on flights in North America. No plastic, no snack for you!

United Express flights are not included.

I love the way airlines use language. United has branded this no-cash, credit-cards-only change as ... EasyPurchase. They'll be branding the toilets next.

United began accepting credit cards for onboard purchases two weeks ago. Obviously, this is welcomed by flight attendants, who don't have to go scrounging for change.

By the way, speaking of credit cards, is there any airline affinity credit card that's worse than US Airways' Dividend Miles Premier World Master Card?


Thursday, April 09, 2009

The TSA Strip Search Machines

That's what a screener sees on one version of the "whole body imaging" machines that the TSA is making plans to move front and center into airport checkpoints. The woman in the image, a TSA official posing to show how this new marvel works, was fully clothed.

Other models of the machines being tested show even more detail, I am told. Two basic technologies have been involved in the tests: Backscatter and millimeter wave.
The TSA Web site has a lot of detail on this and other new technologies in the works.

Here's an excellent summary, with links, by William Saletan in today's Slate.

One of the questions -- aside from whether people will actually put up with this (I mean, they're going to be running your kids through these things) is the quesestion of whether the images can be stored.

Yes they can.

Will they be?

No, says the TSA. The machines' image storage capability have been and be disabled, says the TSA.

We shall see. Has anybody grabbed the domain name celebritiesstrippedat yet? And all of the creepy variations?

Here's the TSA's official position on storing the images, from a "privacy impact assessment" the agency posted last fall.

"Introduction. P. 4)
While the equipment has the capability of collecting and storing an
image, the image storage functions will be disabled by the
manufacturer before the devices are placed in an airport and will
mot have the capability to be activated by operators. Images will be
maintained on the screen only for as long as it takes to resolve any
anomalies; if a TSO sees a suspicious area or prohibited item, the
image will remain on the screen until the item is cleared either by
the TSO recognizing the item on the screen, or by a physical
screening by the TSO with the individual. The image is deleted in
order to permit the next individual to be screened. The equipment
does not retain the image. In addition, TSOs will be prohibited
from bringing any device into the viewing area that has any
photographic capability, including cell phone cameras. Rules
governing the operating procedures of TSOs using this WBI equipment
are documented in standard operating procedures (SOP), and
compliance with these procedures is reviewed on a routine basis.
Due the sensitivity of the technical and operational details, the
SOP will not be publicized, however, TSOs receive extensive training
prior to operating WBI technology.

(4. Principle of Minimization . p. 7)

Principle: DHS should only collect PII that is directly relevant and
necessary to accomplish the specified purpose(s) and only retain PII
for as long as is necessary to fulfill the specified purpose(s). PII
should be disposed of in accordance with DHS records disposition
schedules as approved by the National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA).

WBI technologies identify objects on the outside of the physical
body and do not reveal implants beneath the surface of the skin. TSA
does not save the image in connection with the use of WBI
technologies. While the technology can be configured to store
images, TSA considered the privacy issues of this storage feature
and carefully evaluated all potential uses of the images for
training, investigations, or possible prosecution of persons caught
with prohibited items. Based on this evaluation, TSA decided to have
the manufacturer disable the data storage capabilities prior to
delivery to TSA. Individual operators do not have the capability to
reverse the capability to enable image retention. As a result, the
image will only be available during the time the individual is being
screened and will be deleted immediately thereafter.

(7. Principle of Security)

Principle: DHS should protect PII, including images, through
appropriate security safeguards against risks such as loss,
unauthorized access or use, destruction, modification, or unintended
or inappropriate disclosure.
WBI data is transmitted between the checkpoint and the viewer by a
landline connection and cannot be lost, modified, or disclosed.

Backscatter images are encrypted. Millimeter wave data is
transmitted in a proprietary format that cannot be deciphered
without the proprietary technology. TSA’s decision not to retain
images mitigates further data storage security issues. In addition,
the computers used to process and present the images will be locked
with both physical and software controls to prevent the insertion of
any storage media or other communication devices. Administrative
controls limit access to the remote viewing rooms to TSOs and
prohibit TSOs from bringing photographic devices, to include cell
phone cameras, into the room in which images are viewed."


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Delta's Current World View

Well, the seats are flying empty so ...

A day after reorting that its international traffic fell 15 percent in March, Delta Air Lines is scrambling to keep people flying on some of those routes by reducing the number of miles required for some award-travel seats. In recent years, Delta made very big bets on the growth of international traffic, and those bets right now are looking a little questionable.

Delta today announced an award travel sale for SkyMiles and Northwest WorldPerks members traveling between the continental U.S. (including Alaska) and Canada and international destinations.

Members who book award travel by April 20 on Delta-or Northwest-operated flights for travel between April 20 and June 15, 2009 can save up to 20 percent on coach award travel and up to 25 percent on first class, BusinessElite and business class award travel.

Delta says, "For example, members may redeem a minimum of 48,000 miles for economy class round-trip award travel between Atlanta and Barcelona, a 12,000-mile savings, and a minimum of 75,000 miles for BusinessElite round-trip award travel between New York-JFK and London-Heathrow, resulting in a savings of 25,000 miles."

Restrictions apply, blah blah blah. See the SkyMiles and WorldPerks Web sites for details.

"Our expanded, global network offers customers more flights to more destinations worldwide than any other airline," said Jeff Robertson, Delta's vice president of Loyalty Programs.

Yes it does. And as I said, more seats are flying empty on that expanded global network.

Delta, which is still expanding internationally, reported on Monday that traffic on the all-important trans-Atlantis routes was off 13.9 percent in March. On Latin American routes, traffic was off 17 percent. (Measured by RPMs). On the Pacific routes that were largely brought aboard in the acquisition of Northwest, traffic was off 16 percent.

I recall Delta's exuberance a little over a year ago, when the airline was firmly into its ambitious international expansion -- and bleeding domestic routes to augment it.

The airline's president and chief financial, Edward H. Bastian, said then that "international growth is the core, the foundation and cornerstone" of Delta's restructuring.

"Internationally, we are go to be growing at a roughly 15 percent pace in 2008 over 2007, and we expect to see close to double-digit unit revenue gains despite the fact that we have double-digit capacity gains on a year-over-year basis," Bastian said then, when Delta was tossing over 40 percent of its total capacity onto international routes and shrinking domestic flying -- especially point-to-point routes -- in tandem.


Monday, April 06, 2009

The Clueless Lecture the Shoeless

Standing there in the airport without your shoes, muttering about those long delays you face today with the lousy weather in the East, I am sure you can't wait to be told the results of the annual Airline Quality Rating issued by two professors at Wichita State University and St. Louis University.

"Airline performance improves for first time in five years," they proclaim. That means delays are down slightly, and not as many complaints are accumulating as in the last five miserable years.

The reason for this, of course, is that far fewer people are now flying. "We know the system performs better when it's less stressed by high passenger volume," says one of the authors, Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State.

Did I hear one of you shoeless people mutter "No shit, Sherlock?" People, please, no inappropriate comments or jokes (as that irritating announcement keeps warning you in Houston). Just put your possessions on the belt and move along with your boarding pass in hand.

For many years, every year around this time, the media has given a lot of attention to the annual release of this Airline Quality Rating, which evaluates airline performance using mundane data that have been available for months to anyone who cares to look at the monthly reports on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics Web site.

I totally agree with the irrepressible Mike Boyd on this one. In effect, he says, the annual report, which is issued by professors at "a couple of Midwestern universities," is "just a week-late April Fool's joke on the gullible reporters trying to fill that three-minute spot on the 6 p.m. news." Boyd adds, "It's astounding how much of the media gets hornswaggled into believing that this is new, breakthrough data, when it's essentially been out for months."

I agree. It's also data that the numbers-challenged media love to make a big deal out of -- for example, they love the most minute changes in the largely irrelevant statistics on overbooking.

I am always amused by how the authors of the report behave as if they're the Golden Globes. For their press conference, they rent a room in the National Press Club in Washington, a certified hot-air-balloon-and-other-gasbags landing site, and send out breathless press releases informing reporters of the special numbers to call to get a copy of the report. Oooooh. A special number!

It reminds me of the annual report ranking airports for their availability of "healthy" food in their terminal concessions, put out by something called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine -- which as I noted some years ago is actually an anti-meat advocacy group with affiliations with PETA. The media used to reverently approach that report annually, till I finally shamed them into largely ignoring it for the hot air that it is.


Friday, April 03, 2009

A Little Travelin' Music

On a cold and damp day in what the local TV nitwits call the Tri State Area, whatever the hell that means, with some little tiny signs that maybe the economy might be stirring a little tiny bit, here's the Ray-Charles-Loving-Crazy-Dancing Cockatoo, back by popular demand. Hey, it's also Opening Day (actually night) at the new Yankee Stadium (taxpayer subsidized at $1 billion).

Here's the link to the crazy-dancing cockatoo.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

$28 SFO-JFK on JetBlue, Must Buy Today, First Come First Served, Hurry! Hurry! Oops, Sorry, All Sold Out!

[Photo: Crazy Eddie, of the defunct appliance/electronics store chain]

Whew! Here's an example of how frantic the airline fare universe has become. It's like a veritable blue-light special at the old Kmart, but with Crazy Eddie on the loudspeaker:

For today only, JetBlue is selling seats for $14 each way on non-stop flights between San Francisco and both New York City/JFK and L.A./Long Beach through April 8.

Holy cow! But, uh, read the fine print and you'll see that the number of seats available is extremely, and I do mean extremely, limited. In fact, my guess would be that JetBlue is going to annoy more travelers than it pleases with this one.

[UPDATE 12:45 pm: Sure enough, by noon today JetBlue said the transcon flights were sold out already, which I am sure has generated some dismay among would-be passengers. I predict JetBlue is going to get some serious blowback on this stunt.]

The $14 fares to/from San Francisco are available until 11:59 p.m. MDT today, April 2, 2009, "or until availability is gone, whichever is first," JetBlue says. Travel must take place between today and April 8, 2009. Sale fares are available for one day only and "availability is limited." Fares are valid for one-way, non-stop travel between San Francisco (SFO) and New York City (JFK) and between San Francisco (SFO) and L.A./Long Beach (LGB).

Git the smellin' salts! Them prices is insaaaaaane!

Air travel is starting to sound like Crazy Eddie on those old commercials.

But here's the fine print, which you might imagine being delivered in those amazing rat-a-tat voices at 300 words a minute that TV pitchmen use:

"Taxes, Fees and Restrictions Apply. Offer ends April 2, 2009 at 11:59 PM MT or until availability is gone, whichever is first. Offer is valid only for nonstop one-way fares between San Francisco and New York and between San Francisco and Long Beach: All travel must be purchased by April 2, 2009, 11:59 PM MT. Travel must take place between April 2, 2009 and April 8, 2009. Travel must be completed by April 8, 2009. Availability at the advertised fares is limited as follows: 140 seats are available for SFO to JFK, 60 seats are available for JFK to SFO, 800 seats are available for LGB to SFO and 800 seats are available for SFO to LGB. Fares may not available on all days or on all flights during the April 2, 2009 through April 9, 2009 travel period. Fares are subject to change without notice. Travel costs $15 more per person if purchased by telephone, or at an airport or city ticket office. All fares must be purchased at time of reservation, and are one-way, nonrefundable, and nontransferable. Cancellations and changes can be made prior to scheduled departure for $100 per person at 1-800-JETBLUE or at, with applicable fare adjustment. Cancellations are for a JetBlue travel credit only, which is valid for one year. If a reservation is not changed or canceled prior to scheduled departure, all money associated with the reservation is forfeited. Fares do not include Passenger Facility Charges of up to $9 each way, September 11th Security Fees of up to $5 each way and a Federal Segment Tax of $3.60 per domestic segment. A segment is a takeoff and landing. All taxes and fees must be paid at the time of purchase. JetBlue reserves the right to deny boarding to passengers without proper documentation. A second bag fee of $20 applies. DIRECTV(r) service is not available on flights outside the continental US. Other restrictions apply."

Dude! Take a breath!