Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is There Any Justification Left for 'Registered Traveler'?

Congress, which so thoroughly screwed up the so-called Registered Traveler program to begin with, is now toying with the idea of dragging this dead horse back to the street.

As originally, though vaguely, conceived, Registered Traveler was to be a program in which frequent travelers would submit to a government security clearance that would enable them to be "registered" as airline passengers who were deemed more trustworthy than the average citizen who had not been cleared.

Once registered, that traveler would then be eligible for special handling at airport security. The program never quite got its act together enough to specify just how this would work as a practical matter.

Pretty soon, Congress, along with officials from Homeland Security and representatives from industries looking to make a buck off Registered Traveler came up with the bright idea to make this a public-private initiative. (The TSA, while gamely particpating, made it clear that it was not enamoured of the idea from the start).

So investors came in. By far, the major player in the game was Steve Brill's Verified Identity Pass Inc., which installed the first "expedited security" lanes under its brand name "Clear," and which ultimately built special lanes at 18 airports before the company shut down abruptly in June.

In various partnerships with technology companies, Verified Identity spent a small fortune developing high-tech equipment -- most importantly a GE-designed "shoe-scanner" that was supposed to provide members with a major benefit by allowing them to pass through security without having to remove their shoes.

Here the TSA, under its most recent director Kip Hawley, really dug in its heels. While maintaining that it supported the idea (as Congress insisted it must), the TSA kept giving failing grades to Brill's shoe scanner, saying that while the machine was promising, it didn't adequately meet security standards.

So there was no shoe scanner. Nor were any of the other promised security benefits ever delivered.

Two years ago, the TSA -- in an act of what I regarded as contempt for the private element of Registered Traveler -- even removed itself from its cursory participation in the enrollment process. Till then, the federal "security clearance" part of the operation had consisted of the TSA merely checking the names of prospective members of Clear against the standard FBI terrorist watch list. Hawley stopped this entirely, leaving Clear as a totally private operation that had spent a lot of money to build enrollment centers and intake lanes at 18 airports.

Clear -- which cost about $130 a year -- was built around the idea that members, once "cleared," were issued biometric ID cards on which a member's irises and fingerprints had been electronically embedded.

Without doubt, that ID was far superior in any security sense to the easily counterfeitable photo-IDs required by the TSA. Still, the TSA refused to accept the biometric IDs, insisting that Clear members show their government-issue photo IDs just like everyone else.

The main reason for the TSA's refusal to accept the biometric IDs was that there was an insecure physical space built into the process, as members wandered from the Clear station to the actual TSA security checkpoint. The TSA considered it out of the question to install Clear biometric readers at the checkpoints themselves.

But Hawley wasn't just being an obstructionist in his resistance to allowing Clear and similar programs started by two tiny competitors into the security apparatus. Rather, he was resisting the idea of outsourcing any element of security -- which was, after all, at the heart of Congress's Registered Traveler initiative.

While Clear struggled, meanwhile, the TSA managed to improve its own customer-service operations. All across the country, TSA security lines became manageable and much of the unpredictability was eliminated or greatly reduced. (The few airports in which security-line waits were still a big problem -- Orlando, especially -- were precisely those airports that had the highest number of Clear members.)

Ultimately, Clear was nothing more than a greatly overstaffed, limited front-of-line pass. Members entered Clear’s distinctive blue lanes with their ID cards, and were subject to a scan of their irises and fingerprints. If your eyeballs and fingerprints matched those on your card, you were cleared. But for what? Actually, the procedure did nothing more than verify the identity (and enrollment status) of the member presenting the card. There was absolutely no element of security involved in it.

Once their Clear membership checked out, members were sent on their way to the regular TSA security station where they went through the exact same procedures as everyone else.

Given that Clear had about 160,000 members (most of them with cards paid for by their companies), there was obviously some time-saving value seen in it.

About two years ago, my wife and I impetuously enrolled in Clear at the Newark airport. about two years ago. After a year, I had used my card once, and considered the Clear station an delaying irritant. She never used hers. Obviously, we didn't re-up.

There's a hearing in Congress this afternoon on the issue of reviving the Registered Traveler program.

We'll see what they come up with.

But this is a Congress that, like its predecessor ... well, never mind. Just mark me down as voting skeptical.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Global Journalist Group Issues Alert on Brazil Defamation Lawsuit

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a worldwide alert today on the defamation lawsuit filed against me for reporting on the 2006 Amazon mid-air collision in Brazil.

Here's the alert.


Brazil Mid-Air Collision, Three Years Later

[Photo: Damaged Legacy 600 after emergency landing in Amazon]

{Updated, with hyperlink to complaint filed against me in Brazil}:

Today is the third anniversary of the horrific mid-air collision at 37,000 feet over the Amazon between a Brazilian Gol 737 commercial airliner and a U.S.-owned large-cabin Legacy 600 business jet, in which 154 people died when the 737, a third of its wing shorn off, plunged into the jungle.

I was one of seven people on the business jet who survived.

I thought I had said all I needed to say -- and I have certainly said all I want to say -- about this horrible incident that so tragically ended the lives of 154 innocent people, while seven others unaccountably survived.

My separate blog on the crash and its aftermath went inactive a long time ago, early in January of 2007.

But as the anniversary arrives, an update is necessary. I hope to do it without adding any more comment than is necessary. I am also posting links here to various key documents in the case.

The American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, remain on criminal trial, in absentia, in Brazil.

They are being criminally prosecuted (on charges carrying prison sentences) despite conclusive evidence that the collision was put in place as a result of systemic errors and operational mistakes in Brazilian air traffic control that had the planes on a collision course, when controllers on duty failed to notice that the business jet was out of communications over the Amazon for over 50 minutes.

Here is the investigative report on the crash last year by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which was part of the investigation because one of the planes was American-owned. The NTSB is the world's most respected aviation safety agency -- one that never pulls punches and certainly has never been accused of favoritism toward U.S. aviation.

The NTSB's conclusion is that evidence "strongly suggests that this accident was caused by N600XL [the Legacy] and Gol 1907 [the Brazilian airliner] following ATC [air traffic control] clearance which directed them to operate in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude, resulting in a midair collision."

As in most aviation disasters, a series of other events transpired. Chief among them was the apparent malfunction of the Legacy's transponder, a piece of avionics equipment that has an alarm called ACAS (for airborne collision avoidance system), the purpose of which is to shriek a last-minute alert about an impending collision.

The malfunctioning transponder issue is the lever that the Brazilian air force and the federal police used to indict the American pilots on criminal charges.

Anyone interested in this subject should carefully read the NTSB report, and then compare it with this voluminous report issued by Cenipa, the investigative body of the Brazilian military (which is responsible for air traffic control in that country, and therefore was investigating itself). The Cenipa report goes to great lengths to interpret the evidence in a way that lays most of the blame on the American pilots.

Other than as a passenger on an ill-fated trip, my own role in this horrible mess began the day after I got back from Brazil, when my straightforward account of the crash ran on the front page of the New York Times.

To my astonishment, that account unleashed a fury of anti-American vitriol in the Brazilian media, and among some of the public, where I was accused of insulting the honor of Brazil and trying to make "heroes" out of the American pilots. I was flabbergasted by these charges.

At the same time, I was being interviewed on most major TV and radio news outlets, and on several occasions I mentioned that I had been talking to international pilots who all said that Amazon air space is notorious for having radio and radar "dead zones."

Again, all hell broke loose in Brazil, where imperialist conspiracy theories started making the rounds in the media. (One said that the Legacy was ferrying drugs for the CIA and flying recklessly to avoid detection.)

The Brazilian defense minister, Waldir Pires, in charge of air-traffic control, even publicly stated that the Legacy had been performing reckless "aerial maneuvers" over the Amazon to impress the "American journalist," (me), when it hit the Gol 737. And that my comments were part of an attempt to cover this up. Pires was later fired.

As the story died out in the U.S., it was just getting started in Brazil. So I began writing a separate blog ( to deal with the fury in Brazil, and to argue that it was a terrible mistake for the Brazilians to rush to criminalize an aviation accident before any evidence had been established as to its cause. Criminalizing an accident, as all aviation safety experts know, creates huge impediments to investigating it, because those involved go silent.

As it became more clear to everyone that the conspiracy theories were crazy and that air-traffic control blunders and systems failures did in fact play the major role in the accident, Brazil's everyday air-traffic system suddenly descended into chaos. Air traffic controllers -- mostly underpaid, overworked military personnel -- staged nationwide protests as a warning that they were not going to accept blame for the accident.

Ultimately, a handful of air traffic controllers were also indicted months after the crash. And just last week, the Brazilian military prosecutor charged 89 air traffic controllers with "mutiny" for taking part in the protests.

At any rate, the goal of my blog was to argue forcefully (and, yes, sometimes provocatively) that aviation safety is profoundly imperiled by the hysterics of blame. I took on the defense minister, some of the outrageous police prosecutors and other Brazilian authorities for not focusing on obvious flaws in air-traffic safety in Brazilian skies, while trying to scapegoat the American pilots in an atmosphere of intense anti-Americanism.

[On July 17, 2007, a few months after the air-traffic controllers protests, there was another horrific accident in Brazil when a TAM airlines A320 crashed at Congonhas-Sao Paulo International Airport, killing 200.]

In startling proof that no good deed goes unpunished, ten days ago, a process server hired by a New York law firm retained by the Brazilians showed up at my front door in New Jersey to present me with a lawsuit against me for allegedly defaming the honor of Brazil in my blog.

That suit, full of patently and demonstrably false charges, false charges, seeks about $250,000 in damages and demands apologies in every news outlet I wrote for or spoke with. Here is the link to the .pdf copy of the English translation of the complaint so you can read it for yourself.

And here is my personal account of that lawsuit, which was posted last week by the news-business magazine Editor & Publisher.

Note, incidentally, that the complaint makes the argument (unknown in first-world jurisprudence) that in causing alleged insult to the "dignity" of Brazil, I caused injury to every single citizen of that country, including the plaintiff, a person I had never heard of till the lawsuit came up, and certainly never wrote or spoke a word about.

Today, the prosecutors and lawyers for relatives of the victims are holding a congressional hearing and press conference on this awful situation in Brasilia. They are expected to demand that criminal proceedings against the American pilots be expedited.

And the lies continue unabated. In a sure indication of the expected tenor of that event, I note that news accounts in Brazil today report that I "attempted to evade" service of the suit at my home by the "U.S. Courts."

Absolutely untrue. Actually, the process server, a delivery boy hired by the New York law firm working for the Brazilians, first showed up unannounced at my house when I was out of town in late August or early September. Later, a lawyer from the New York law firm -- Grant, Herrmann, Schwartz & Klinger -- phoned me and I told him I was home and available to receive their papers. Days later, I had a call from a man who claimed that he was an officer of the "New Jersey State Constable Office." There is no such entity. He was actually just a delivery boy with a really crummy job, and I invited him to come right over and give me the papers, which he did. He looked so miserable delivering that pile of crap that I had to resist the urge to tip him.

Anyway, I don't expect that you'll be hearing much about aviation safety from Brazil today, and that's a damn shame. Because the victims of that horrible crash, the relatives and friends of those victims, deserve more than recriminations against the American pilots and me.

In honor of the dead, the relatives deserve to know when serious measures will be put in place in Brazilian aviation to ensure that this will never happen again.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

British Airways All-Business-Class Service from London City Airport to JFK Starts Tuesday

Challenging all conventional wisdom, British Airways is starting all-business-class service between London City Airport and Kennedy on Tuesday.

B.A. is using Airbus A318 aircraft on the route. The cabins have a mere eight rows, with 32 full-flat-bed Club World business class seats. Food and other services are top-shelf.

Because London City airport has a short runway and various weight restrictions, the A318 will take off light on fuel on the westbound trip, and stop at Shannon airport in Ireland to gas up. That should take about 45 minutes, says B.A.

Passengers will clear U.S. Customs and Immigration at Shannon, which should make for a low-hassle arrival at Kennedy.

The New York-London City trip is nonstop.

British Airways has insisted that there is enough demand for a top-priced business class product (about $9,800 round-trip according to the B.A. Web site) on this route, given the convenience London City Airport offers to Canary Wharf (15 minutes away) and the financial district.

Do the numbers -- only 32 high-yield passengers each way -- and the move doesn't seem too far-fetched. The long-haul business-jet market is in a severe slump, and this arguably is a niche with appeal to the G5 bereft.

We'll see. At any rate, it's nice to see someone doing something optimistic in the airline business. B.A. has even taken the grand old Concorde flight code out of retirement and slapped it on the London City service: BA001.


Friday, September 25, 2009

US Helicopter Halts Flying

Never mind on that wonderful $63 Continental offer to fly US Helicopter's 8-minute service between New York City and the ridiculously named Newark Liberty International Airport.

US Helicopter suspended its service today. The company says it's only a temporary measure, and maybe so. But I have to tell you, I could never understand how the numbers worked on those flights.

Thanks to for the heads-up.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Global Airline Capacity Up Slightly in September

Global airline capacity for September shows positive growth for the second consecutive month, according to OAG, the leading aviation data business.

Airlines scheduled 296.9 million seats, a rise of 1.4% (4,130,744 more seats) over September 2008 levels, OAG says.

Says David Beckerman, vice president of OAG Market Intelligence: "As the summer season winds down, the steady upward trend we have seen since May is continuing. After 11 straight months of capacity cutbacks, these figures indicate a growing confidence within the industry that demand for air travel is starting to pick up."

[My comment: Fare sales have something to do with that, but there is no doubt that more people are feeling the urge or need to travel again. There has been a definite uptick in business travel demand.]

OAG says that airlines scheduled 2.4 million flights, down 0.6% (14,321 fewer flights) compared with Sept. 2008. Last month, total flights were down 2% and capacity was up 0.2%.

The month-by-month trend since the start of the economic downturn can be seen here.


Newark to NYC By Helicopter: $63 With Continental Booking

Getting from the ludicrously named Newark Liberty International Airport into Manhattan is relatively easy by a train connection from the airport to Penn Station, but it can take a while. Another option is taxi or car service, and that's going to set you back at least $100 -- and also could take well an hour (sometimes two), depending on traffic.

US Helicopter flies between Newark and Manhattan in only 8 minutes, and Continental is offering the trip for $63 one way, with no round-trip purchase necessary. That's a big discount off the usual $169 price US Helicopter charges. The discount is available on bookings with Continental made through Oct. 30, for travel through Jan. 15.

I've flown US Helicopter from Manhattan to JFK, by the way, and that's not only amazingly quick, but it's also a spectacular sightseeing ride. And even at regular prices, it's competitive with a car service, which of course can take an hour or two, depending on traffic. Manhattan to JFK also takes only eight minutes.

Here, via Continental, are the codes to use for online booking of US Helicopter through this promotional offer:

For travel to and from Downtown Manhattan Heliport, enter code "JRB."

For travel to and from East 34th Street Heliport, code "TSS."

US Helicopter also offers complimentary helicopter service between Manhattan and Newark Liberty to BusinessFirst customers booked in J, D or Z classes of service.

US Helicopter flights operate hourly, Monday through Friday from 1:15 p.m. to 7:40 p.m. Flights connect to and from gate C-71 at Newark.


Monday, September 21, 2009

24-Hour Flash Fare-Sale On Virgin America

A heads-up on Virgin America today:

"Virgin America's 24-hour "Let's Get Down to Business" fare sale starts today. Tickets must be purchased by 7 am PT on Sept. 22, 2009. [Coach] fares start as low as $29 from SFO to LAX and SFO to SEA. Long-haul [Coach] fares start as low as $89 from BOS to LAX, BOS to SFO, JFK to LAS and IAD to LAX.

"Main Cabin Select Instant Upgrade fares are available for as low as $199 from JFK to LAX, JFK to SFO, BOS to SFO, BOS to LAX, IAD to LAX and IAD to SFO. Tickets are on sale today on Virgin America's website ... All travel must occur occur between September 22 and September 30...

Details here, after the palaver about the magazine award.


Double Elite Qualifying Miles Through Dec. 15 on Continental

Continental Airlines joined competitors in making it easier for its mileage-program members to attain or enhance elite status for next year.

Continental is offering double elite qualifying miles on all fares except government fares for flights through Dec. 15. Details here.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

D.O.T. Nails Spirit Airlines for Violating Passenger-Bumping Rules

[Updated, with comment from Spirit]

The U.S. Department of Transportation said today that it fined Spirit Airlines $375,000 for violations of rules on bumping passengers as part of a crackdown on “unfair and deceptive practices.”

On his blog, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, “This civil penalty is a record for these kinds of violations. The message should be clear. We will continue to take enforcement action when airlines violate our rules.”

Spirit, said LaHood “bumped passengers from oversold flights but did not provide compensation or a written notice of passengers’ rights to compensation–as required by DOT rules protecting consumers.”

He added:

“Spirit also failed to resolve baggage claims within a reasonable time. In one case, they took 14 months to provide traveler compensation. The airline provided compensation only for baggage on the outbound leg of round-trip flights. And, the airline refused to accept responsibility for missing laptops and other items Spirit had accepted as baggage.

“Spirit also violated DOT rules requiring airfare ads to state the full price to be paid. The fares advertised omitted fees Spirit tacked onto base fares.

“Spirit violated several other DOT consumer-protection rules, all-in-all leading to Enforcement Office review of complaints filed by consumers, inspections at airports, and a review of Spirit’s records. The Office will follow-up its investigation in the coming year.

“This kind of treatment of America’s airline customers is not just a violation of rules; it’s unacceptable. This DOT says passengers deserve better, and they will receive better.”

Hmmm, strong words.

On its Web site, Spirit says the following:

“Obviously we are proud to have broken the rules and created arguably the best airline in the Americas. But don’t take our word for it; book Spirit for your next trip so you can see first hand what everyone is raving about. …”

Nah, I’m kidding. that isn’t Spirit’s comment on being fined for actually breaking the rules. It’s just the boilerplate it runs on its Web site every day.

Spirit’s comment on the DOT fine:

"Our new ultra low cost carrier model is the most consumer friendly airline model in the world. … We have addressed all the core issues that caused customer experience challenges a few years ago including upgrading our computer systems and utilizing a new reservations partner. Additionally, once the TSA relocated their machines in FLL, the airport experience improved significantly. …"


Some International Premium Traffic Returning, But at Much, Much Lower Fares

"Early signs of an upturn in the number of passengers traveling in premium seats" on international flights are reported by the International Air Transport Association.

But not at those previous five-digit fares. Looking at July data, IATA said that average premium fares are down almost 25 percent over last July, and overall airline revenue from premium is down up to 40 percent over July 2008.

There, in a nutshell, is the dilemma for major airlines that made such big bets on continued robust growth in international business-class service in recent years, and who were accustomed to posting rack rates of $10,000 and up for refundable business-class fares on routes like New York-London. Those days are gone, and no one in the industry expects them to return.

IATA hopefully says that the number of premium-class international travelers (which it has forecast will be down 20 percent for 2009 overall) was down 14.1 percent in July, an improvement over the 21.3 percent decline in June. July, of course, is a very light business-travel month.

"Demand is still very weak compared to the recent past, and there remains much excess capacity, producing intense competition," IATA says.

Bad news for the airlines.

Good news for business travelers who want to fly business-class internationally. Fares are way, way down, and everybody's making deals.

That should prevail for the short-term at least, until the airlines manage -- through more capacity cuts, a new wave of consolidation on code-share partnerships, and even some reconfigurations in long-haul cabins -- to pull down capacity to meet demand. Even then, there is no sign at all that the premium fare-bubble will ever be seen again.


American Adding First-Class Cabins on CRJ-700s

American Airlines said today that its subsidiary American Eagle plans to add a first-class compartment on its fleet of 25 CRJ-700 regional jets and that it plans to order another 22 of the 70-seat regional jets from Bombardier, with delivery starting in mid-2010.

Here's some background on the CRJ-700 airplane.

The move is part of a shift by American to concentrate more on feeding business-travel traffic to and from hubs in Dallas, Chicago, Miami and New York and to "eliminate unprofitable flying," as American put it, by reducing service in other markets, including St. Louis and Raleigh-Durham.

In a conference call this morning with stock-market analysts, American executives also said that the company had raised nearly $3 billion in new liquidity. The money was raised partly by hocking airplanes, including:

--A sale-leaseback arrangement with GE Capital Aviation for previously ordered Boeing 737s ($1.6 billion). American also agreed to buy GE engines for its on-order new Boeing 787s.

--A loan from GE Capital Aviation for $280 million secured by certain aircraft owned by American ($280 million)

The rest of the money ($1 billion) comes from a new deal for the advance sale of AAdvantage miles to American's Citibank affinity-card partner, which in turn uses the miles to promote the credit card.

In the call, Gerard Arpey, the CEO, said that American's focus on bolstering the hubs with 70-seat regional jets newly outfitted with first-class cabins (he did not specify what the exact configuration would be between coach and first)is "the cornerstone of our network going forward".


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What To Do About the Flu?

As summer ends, we're going to start thinking a lot more about flu while traveling on business. Whatever degree of severity lies ahead, the swine flu will soon be returning as a thing to be really concerned about while on the road. And not just swine flu, but everyday seasonal flu as well.

There's a story in USA Today about the availability of seasonal flu shots at various airport clinics in the U.S., with a chart listing locations.

Meanwhile, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives is proposing an idea that shaking hands is a custom that might be put on the bench for a while.

The organization sent a recommendation to its global membership suggesting the temporary suspension in business travel of that venerable tradition, the handshake, until the H1N1 influenza virus threat has been reduced to the status of the common cold.

The group's executive director, Susan Gurley, said sidelining the handshake may go a long way in reducing the person-to-person contact that spreads this variety of influenza.

Medical consensus says "told that the best way to impede the spread of the H1N1 flu virus is to repeatedly wash our hands, especially after touching our faces, or coming into contact with someone else’s face or hand," Gurley said. Dropping the handshake for a while thus makes sense, she said.

A statement by the association said:

"Projections regarding the impact of the H1N1 swine influenza are all over the board, with experts citing 30,000 to 90,000 fatalities, and the potential of 1.8 million patients overwhelming hospitals within a six week period -- in the U.S. alone. Published reports indicate that the H1N1 flu virus could easily infect 30 to 50 percent of the US population, causing massive disruptions in schools, business, and travel, as most companies will urge employees with flu-like symptoms to stay at home."


Obviously, cutting back on handshakes also would have an effect on the spread of seasonal flu and other problems like the common cold.

Dunno, it might well be time in general to re-eevaluate the handshake and its annoying grandchild, that awkward kissy-cheek huggy-greet between sexes.

Some of the alternatives being bandied about, like the elbow bump, are just a bit ... mannered for my taste.

I've always kind of liked the Japapese bow. Just a slight motion of the head and a slighter one of the shoulders, connoting acknowledgment and cordiality. But we'd have to lose the hierarchical element. Both parties bow at the same time. No cheating and waiting for the other party to go first.

The mutual greeting could be that old Philadelphia favorite, a word that always says so much: "Yo."

Hey, it could happen.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

'Airline Situation Getting Worse,' Global Airlines Now Seen Losing $11 billion This Year

The International Air Transport Association today sharply revised its previous forecast for the amount of losses in the global airline business, saying total losses should be about $11 billion for 2009. The trade group's previous estimate was $9 billion.

Giovanni Bisignani, the director of the group, issued a dire new forecast in a Web conference this morning. "Yields have fallen dramatically," he said, adding that IATA had "never seen anything similar" in its 65-year history representing the interests of worldwide airlines.

Some key factors contributing to those mounting losses, according to IATA:

--A 20 percent decline in premium traffic, compared with a 5 percent decline in economy-class travel

--Overall revenues off $80 billion compared with 2008, when revenues were about $535 billion.

IATA's new forecast sees North American airlines losing $2.6 billion this year, while Asia-Pacific airlines stand to lose $3.6 billiom and those in Europe 3.8 billion. Losses in other regionals add up to the total $11 billion.

"The situation you see with the yields going down could be a long-term disaster," said Bisignani, who noted that in previous crises, yields took many years to begin growing again. Instead, he said, the current dire revenue picture could portend "a long-lasting structural change" in air travel.

Bisignani said that the total industry losses in 2008 and 2009 would amount to $27.8 billion.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Easing Into 'Secure Flight' Compliance, American Airlines Requiring Exact Name-Match on Reservation, ID

American Airlines is initiating tomorrow the next phase of the new Secure Flight program, a federal initiative to start untangling the monstrous tangle of the various airline lists that are kept to be matched against the monstrous tangle of the federal terrorist watch list.

Supposedly, Secure Flight will greatly reduce the number of so-called false positives, that is, innocent passengers with names similar or identical to the name of someone on the actual watch list, a detailed and secret database that is maintained by the FBI.

Key to this, says the TSA, is eventually ensuring that each passenger uses the same exact name on their personal ID and their airline ticket. Another element of the program is that passengers will need to provide more personal information when booking a ticket -- including date of birth and gender -- than in the past.

Once everything is in place, the watch-list matching will be done by the TSA, before a ticket-holder gets to the airport.

All airlines eventually will be making the booking-process changes that American is putting in place for customers making reservations starting tomorrow. The reservations will require:

-- Full name exactly as it appears on the government-issue ID card you use at the airport.

-- Birthdate and gender

-- Those who routinely have routinely been flagged over the years by the current watch-list mess at airports also can provide their "redress number," which is the number assigned by the TSA in the past to passengers who are mistakenly matched to the terrorist list.

Another thing: For American and all airlines' customers, it's important to make sure that your name on airline personal accounts -- including your frequent flier account -- is listed under the exact same name as your ID and itinerary.

That is, if you're Kim Smith on your frequent flier account, but Kimberly B. Smith on your driver's license that you use as airport ID, you will need to be listed as Kimberly B. Smith on your reservation and you SHOULD change the name on your frequent flier account to the same, to avoid complications.

American customers can adjust their frequent flier profiles, if necessary, by going to "My Account" on and then clicking on the "Contact Information and Password" tab.

Other airlines have the same kind of process.

No need to panic, by the way. Secure Flight, including the provision that you can't fly if your ID and boarding pass don't match precisely, won't be fully implemented till early next year.

It's just a good idea to plan ahead.

I have no idea what to do, by the way, if, say, the name on your driver's license ("Kimberly B. Smith") is not exactly the same as the name on, say, your passport ("Kimberly Beth Smith.") That's the case with me, in which my passport spells out my full middle name, but my driver's license has just the initial.

The only easy solution I can think of there is you'll need to book flights under the passport name and then use your passport as your everyday ID on domestic flights -- an unsavory prospect -- unless you want to go to the trouble of changing your driver's license.

And that means a trip to the state motor vehicles department -- which in some states like New Jersey is a day-pass into a far circle of hell, near Exit 666.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Credulous Media: Bailed Out Companies 'Tighten' Travel Expense Rules?

How easy is it to hornswoggle some reporters these days? Piece of cake.

I'm amazed at current stories credulously reporting that the bailed-out Chrysler company has tightened travel expense account policies, under new federal rules designed to eliminate "excessive" or "luxury" expenditures by companies that got billions in federal bailout dough.

Rather, it says, Chrysler now mandates that employees traveling on business must fly in coach if the flight is less than four hours.

Now, wait a gol' durn minute here, as Mr. Gabby Hayes used to say in the cowboy movies.

Shouldn't that read: After taxpayer bailout, Chrysler employees still allowed to fly first class on coast-to-coast flights? Transcontinental flights, of course, take about five hours.

The stories also inform us that Chrysler business travelers can't charge the $4 or $5 price of an in-flight movie to the company.

Who could?

The only noteworthy restriction is one that affects airport baggage handlers, a group of low-paid workers who are struggling to make ends meet. You can only tip them a miserly $2 per bag. Sure, let's stiff the porters!

Here's the reality. Aside from investment banks and other pillagers of the economy, most companies banned first-class travel on domestic flights many years ago. And many companies (I would venture to guess most) don't even allow business-class travel on most international flights.

The late Walter Cronkite, famously, was not allowed to charge the company to fly first class, back in the days after CBS went from being the "Tiffany" network to "just another company with dirty rugs," as Andy Rooney once wrote. Cronkite either paid for first class himself or depended on the largess of airlines for a free upgrade. I mean, what airline wanted its other customers to see Walter Cronkite wedged into a middle seat in coach?

For ages, most business travelers have been made uncomfortable and inconvenienced (at personal time cost) by drastic corporate cost-cutting on travel expenses. Most business travelers would consider it a huge perk (and a boon to elite-status accounts) to be able to expense a first-class ticket from, say, Boston to Los Angeles.

Chrysler also says traveling employees can only spring for "mid-sized" automobiles when renting a car on the road. Oh, the sacrifice!

Actually, if they didn't have to worry about potential liability costs should you be murdered by a psycho, some companies might well mandate that you hitchhike rather than renting a car at all.

All of the usual suspects in the bailout league -- including AIG, Citigroup, Bank of Americas and GM -- are also required to post their new spending policies, most of them by Monday.

I'd like to hear from readers who have tales of being skin-flinted and squeezed by company travel-spend cutbacks.

When's the last time you were allowed to fly first class?


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Continental: Good Reviews on New Awards Program; Mixed Reviews on 2 Recent Trips

I see that Continental is already getting rave reviews for its new OnePass elite-status benefits, which start with the entrance of Continental into Star Alliance on Oct. 27. [See previous post.]

Continental has always been my preferred domestic airline. That’s partly because I most often fly out of the two big Continental hubs, the ridiculously named Newark Liberty International Airport (seriously, what local genius slapped that “Liberty” in there?) and the hilariously named George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport, which many pilots call “Houston Intergalectic.”

But another reason is that even in the worst of times, Continental has been easy to deal with, and its flight attendants, in my opinion, are the most cheerful and courteous of any of the major airlines.

Now to two reviews from recent trips.

First, the bad: In July, I flew Continental roundtrip Newark-Liberia, Costa Rica, in business/first — on a full-fare ticket, not an upgrade. Usually, Continental’s business/first gets pretty good reviews for international travel, and I agree it deserves them. But folks, that Costa Rica route was simply not up to Continental standards.

On the outbound trip, the 737 was dirty. There was no in-flight entertainment. The flight attendants were indifferent.

On the homebound trip, also on a dingy 737, the flight attendants were quite different. This time they were overtly rude.

First the plane out of Liberia had to make an unscheduled stop — in nearby Nicaragua — for fuel. The Continental agent at the open-air Liberia airport said it was because the country was out of fuel temporarily, and even as I listened to this explanation I watched a fuel truck loading up a big fat Delta 767 on the apron.

On board, my seat had been changed to 5-B, a non-reclining seat in the last row in the front cabin. Just before departure, I noticed an empty row two spots forward and said to the flight attendant that I would like to take 3-B.

“That seat is going to be occupied by one of our pilots,” she said in a huff. Sure enough, a man and a woman, non-revenue passengers, got on and settled into the row.

A dinner menu was handed out. After our Nicaragua stop, the flight attendant came by to take orders. The choices for the main courses were mixed grill, seafood risotto and tortellini. I ordered the risotto.

When the food started coming, it transpired that no one to the starboard side of Row 3 and aft got what they had ordered.

A woman in front of me — that would be Row 4 port side, complained about this.

“That’s because there isn’t enough space in the galley,” the flight attendant told her.

Across the aisle, a man told the flight attendant not to bother, he had a package of Cup O Soup in his carry-on and only needed hot water. He had to fetch that himself.

When she got to me, she said the risotto wasn’t available.

“I’ll have the mixed grill, then,” I said.

“We don’t have that,” she said.

“How about the tortellini?”

“We’re out of that.”

I said, “So the menu you gave me is fictional?”

“The menu is correct. We just don’t have your choice.”

“What about that non-rev pilot sitting up a couple of rows. Did he get dinner?”

She glowered. “The pilots are in the cockpit,” she said with a hint of menace. “Why would you say the pilots are anywhere else?”

My sometimes-reliable self-protection alarm told me to shut up now. I did not wish to generate a headline, “Passenger Arrested For Claiming Pilots Not in Cockpit.”

The flight attendant next turned to the people in the row across from me and said, “The only food option is what they have in the back,” meaning in coach.

The very nice passenger in row 4 starboard raised his steaming Cup O Soup and said to those of us behind him, “You want some? I got four of these left.”

So I think Continental has some work to do on that route, especially as more people are traveling to Costa Rica.


On the other hand, I flew back yesterday from the sensibly named Tucson International Airport to the ridiculously named Newark Liberty International Airport, with a connection through the hilariously named George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport — you know, the airport where that lady on the loudspeaker keeps repeating the announcement that you’ll be arrested for making “inappropriate jokes or comments about security” and that you better not “allow strangers to persuade you” to take something onto a plane.

Grandiose airport names and crazed announcements aside, the flight could not have gone better. I was in an aisle seat near the front and, thanks to lowly silver-elite status, had priority boarding on both legs, meaning I had no problem stowing my carry-on in an overhead bin.

A nice snack — cheese and salami with some crackers and a candy bar — was served in coach on the Tucson-Houston leg. On the Houston-Newark leg, they served a chicken and cheese burrito with a salad and a candy bar and some fruit snacks. They had enough for everybody in the fully packed 737, too.

And that chicken burrito is a keeper, by the way. Continental, alone among the major airlines, continues to serve free meals in coach.

What a relief, too, to find myself facing the usual courteous Continental flight attendants.

In Newark, my bag — marked “priority handling” because of my lowly silver-elite status — was trundling onto the conveyor the minute I got to baggage claim. Record time!

That’s the Continental I know and admire — and have made a real effort every year to maintain at least some level of elite-status on.


New Continental OnePass Benefits With Star Alliance

Continental announced changes to its OnePass program that bring some extra benefits in conjunction with the airline's joining of Star Alliance Oct. 27.

Continental's Platinum and Gold level elite-status members will automatically become Gold members with Star Alliance. Among other perks, that means they get access to more than 800 worldwide lounges with flying internationally with any Star Alliance member, even on coach tickets.

Trying to understand all of this stuff makes my head hurt, but I know many of you will read the details as easily as I read the Mets score. I'm a little curious about the imminent change in mileage requirements. Guidance solicited there.

Here are excerpts from the Continental announcement:


"HOUSTON, Sept. 10 – Continental Airlines today announced changes to its OnePass frequent flyer program, adding new benefits for its customers. Some of the changes will occur in conjunction with the airline joining Star Alliance on Oct. 27, 2009.

Continental’s OnePass members will enjoy reciprocal mileage earning and redemption opportunities with Star Alliance’s 24 member airlines and will be able to connect to more than 950 cities all over the world.

When Continental joins Star Alliance, OnePass Platinum and Gold Elite members will become Star Alliance Gold members, gaining recognition and rewards across all member airlines in addition to OnePass benefits. Platinum and Gold Elite members will have access to more than 800 worldwide lounges when traveling on an international itinerary with any Star Alliance member airline, regardless of class of travel.

Additionally, Platinum and Gold Elite members will receive an extra baggage allowance of up to three bags or 44 additional pounds (20 kg) on both Continental and Star Alliance member airlines and will receive priority services including priority airport check-in, boarding and baggage handling across the network.

...Upcoming changes to the OnePass program [also] include fewer fees for Platinum Elite members, no more Saturday-night stay required for reward travel and 100 percent elite qualification miles and points earnings on any ticket regardless of where it was bought or issued. ...

Summary of Continental’s New OnePass Policies, Effective on Oct. 27, 2009:

---With Continental’s entry into Star Alliance, mileage requirements for reward travel will change, effective for travel booked on or after Oct. 27, 2009. View Travel and Upgrade Reward Charts.

---Saturday-night stay no longer required for OnePass reward travel.

---100 percent Elite Qualification Miles and Elite Qualification Points can be earned on discounted fares regardless of where the ticket is purchased or issued.

---BusinessFirst $100 upgrade co-pay no longer required of members using miles to upgrade from B-fare class.

---Elite bonuses will be based on the minimum mileage earned instead of the actual flight miles flown.

Effective on Dec. 15, 2009:

---New reward travel fees will apply for redeposits, reservation changes and flight bookings within 21 days of departure for rewards redeemed on or after Dec. 15, 2009. There will be no fee for Platinum Elite members. The Gold Elite fee will be $25, the Silver Elite fee will be $50 and for all other members the fee will be $75. These fees will apply per customer instead of per reservation. OnePass travel reward changes outside of 21 days of travel will remain free if there is no change to the origin and destination.

Effective on Jan. 1, 2010:

---All members worldwide will earn 125 percent base miles on F, C, J and D fare classes.

---All members worldwide will earn 1.5 elite qualification points when they purchase and fly in fare classes F, C, J, D, Z, Y and B on flights operated by Continental."


Thursday, September 03, 2009

More Elite-Status Bloat

Both American Airlines and United are now offering double elite-qualifying miles through Dec. 15, and I wish I were a little less ambivalent about that trend.

While it's great for those of us who aspire each year to one of the various elite-status levels on one or more airlines, the promotions also obviously make the pool bigger -- even as the benefits, especially upgrades, are shrinking overall.

That's the gourmand Mr. Cresote again,above, from the sketch in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life." You remember what happened to him. He got too fat and exploded.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bloated Elite-Status Programs

The main reason I maintain elite status on Continental, the airline I fly most often domestically because I frequently fly out of Newark, is that I (and dozens of others at the boarding gate) get priority on two things: seat selection and early boarding.

Seat selection is important to me. I'd rather take a baseball bat upside the head than sit in a middle seat. In fact, for the life of me I cannot understand why the Wall Street Journal persists in calling its business-travel column "The Middle Seat," as all seasoned business travelers pride themselves on knowing how to "avoid" getting stuck in the middle seat.

(At least till recently, as airlines now slash schedules willy-nilly and change equipment without prior notice. My wife and I -- both with longstanding elite status on Continental; both careful to book our seats well in advance -- were recently slapped into middle seats on a Continental flight because they changed equipment and couldn't be bothered to accommodate the elite-status customers on boarding).

Anyway, even elite-status priority boarding is losing its allure because, thanks to the ridiculous inflation of frequent-flier status eligibility by desperate airlines this year, too many people now have status, not having earned it the old-fashioned way. Sometimes it seems at the boarding gate that the elite-status fliers outnumber the others. However, it still does get you on board earlier, meaning you have a good crack at stowing your carry-on in a bin reasonably near your seat.

I have to laugh when I read how airliners are making great efforts to sweeten their elite-status programs. What? Actually, the airlines are making great efforts to create bloat in their elite-status programs. Delta, as I reported some time ago, has added a whole new layer on top of its elite-status hierarchy, and acted as if that was some benefit to anyone except those people who fly 125,000 miles a year on Delta. All 29 of them. To others in the Delta elite-status program, it merely knocks them down further in the benefit pecking order.

Anyway, to get to the point here, Southwest Airlines has started a new program called "early-bird check-in." You pay ten bucks and you get priority boarding.

Says Southwest: "EarlyBird Check-in, which gives Customers [** my note: PLEASE, Southwest, stop capitalizing those common nouns like "customers" -- you're really creeping Me out **] the option to score an early boarding position by adding an additional $10 to the price of a one-way fare. The low-cost service automatically reserves a boarding position for Customers prior to general check-in, allowing EarlyBird Customers to begin boarding the plane after Southwest's Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List Customers. EarlyBird Check-in is available for purchase beginning today, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009, for travel beginning Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009."

Southwest goes on, "An early boarding position provides Customers with the opportunity for a better seat selection and earlier access to overhead bin space, giving Customers the option to enhance their travel experience while creating incremental revenue opportunities for Southwest. Early boarding privileges are already included in the purchase of a Business Select fare and are a benefit of being on the Rapid Rewards A-List. All Customers are required to print their boarding pass prior to their scheduled departure."

Hmmmm. Now, Southwest's existing elite program works well. It's simple. Fly x number of trips, get one free. I like it.

On the other hand, the other major airlines are letting their elite-status programs swell up like that great big fat gourmand, Mr. Creosote, in the French restaurant in the Monty Python skit who the waiters keep feeding food to ("Just one thin wafer!") -- till he literally explodes.

More often these days, I fly US Airways, on which I have no elite status. But more often than not, I have the opportunity to pay a few extra bucks for a priority seat, and every so often, I have the opportunity to pay a little more, like maybe $100, to upgrade to first class. On AirTran, I've upgraded to first class at check-in for as low as 40. Without any elite status.

We all watch our budgets, but travel writers are full of baloney (need I say?) when they insist that the flying market consists only of people who want the rock-bottom fare, period.

Frankly, I'm willing to pony up ten bucks for a little more comfort and convenience. Southwest, ya got a deal. I mean, Deal.