Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Airlines in Defensive Crouch Over Blizzard Flight Chaos

Airlines assumed their familiar defensive crouch over massive flight cancellations and excessive delays that still are buckling airports in New York.

Though part of the blame was aimed accurately at the severity of the blizzard and its high winds, not to mention the incompetence and outright laziness of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which runs the airports), the airlines are now also in the public-opinion cross-hairs.

The reasons:

1. Failure to ensure even a modicum of customer service and responsiveness, as over 1 million passengers got stranded by cancellations, and even more by delays. There was an obvious initiative to preemptively cancel flights, even before the weather conditions deteriorated to the point where flying was impossible. Customers are livid about not being able to get through to airlines as the chaos built.

2. As airlines shank capacity and parked planes to shave operating costs in the last 18 months, and as airline mergers further constricted the system, there is no slack to handle even minor disruptions. Especially in a peak holiday travel season, all the planes were already full, so there was no way (especially because backup equipment and crews are pretty much a thing of the past) to handle the extra demand from passengers who were bumped off those 8,000-plus canceled flights.

Flights continue to be canceled today at the New York airports, though in far fewer numbers than recent days. Excessive delays (45 minutes and up) are also occurring. At the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, 121 flights have been scrubbed as of mid-morning. At Kennedy, the number is 142. At La Guardia, it's 51.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Nearly 1,500 Flights Canceled Today in New York, As Some Airlines Warn Passengers That Conditions in the Big Apple Still Blow

[UPDATED, 7 p.m. EST]
One might assume that long after the snowstorm has ended, the airlines at least would no longer be canceling flights in large numbers at the New York airports.

Ah, but one would assume wrongly.

This "one" -- that is, me, -- I assumed that all is vastly improved in New York, now that the frozen debris (which is how I now regard snow: debris) has all accumulated and is, presumably, under control. This is easy for me to assume, from my perch across the country in the sunny southern Arizona desert.

But no: Almost 1,500 flights were canceled today in New York, which remains pretty snowbound if not snowy. The frigid gusts of winds still blow, I am informed by my pal Joe Brancatelli in New York. "This was a classic blizzard, man, and it doesn't go away in a day and a half," he says. Public fury is rising in New York as many streets remain impassable, and reports come in about failures of city services like 911 systems. New York's sarcastic billionaire mayor isn't, evidently, helping matters much.

Major flight cancellations continue (along with severe delays). Across the river from Manhattan, at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, so far today there were 718 departures and arrivals canceled as of 7 p.m. EST. At Kennedy, the number was 577 canceled flights for today. At La Guardia, it's 202. Also, they're even already canceling some flights for tomorrow at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia. [Departures and arrivals count equally in these data because no flight that leaves any of the New York airports arrives at another New York airport]

As usual, the flight-operations data are from the absolutely invaluable FlightStats.com

The Web site of Continental Airlines right now sounds like this ain't no fooling around: The hilarious named Newark Liberty International Airport has "limited operations," the Continental notice said at 7 p.m. Of flights that were even departing, the average delay at 7 p.m. was 4 hours and 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, some dopes in the media are credulously reporting airline assurances that passengers stranded by the cancellations that started Saturday will be easily accommodated within days. Trust me, this is not so. There are x-number of seats and airplanes available, and especially in a holiday travel period, these were almost all already booked before the blizzard hit. Then a total of more than 8,000 flights got canceled nationwide, from Saturday through today.

Maybe grandma could fit 20 pounds of stuffing into a 15-pound turkey, but the physics doesn't work out that way in air travel.

But here is a good summary today of the airline capacity-and-demand equation from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog on NYTimes.com.

Meanwhile, do not -- repeat not -- use the totally worthless F.A.A. Web site link for flight delays and cancellations. It's utterly unreliable, although some of the national media (yeah, I'm talking to you, CNN) still bafflingly refer to it.

Incidentally, from this perch in the sunny Arizona desert, you know what I do not miss even a tiny little bit? Waking up early in the morning after a storm and hearing that horrifying scraape, scraape noise from some invincibly perky neighbor's snow-shovel.

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Timing! Airlines Impose Across-the-Board Fare Hike



OK, now that the air-travel system looks like the Fall of Saigon, what do the airlines do? Yes, they impose an across-the-board baseline fare increase of $20 round-trip!

Timing!

This just in from the folks who run the invaluable Web site Farecompare.com, where Rick Seaney meticulously follows airline fare-change activity:

"In the midst of one of the worst travel disruptions of the year that saw thousands of passengers stranded at airports along the Eastern seaboard due to blizzard conditions, airfare prices are on the rise.

... United Airlines and Continental Airlines added a new $10 one-way "peak travel day" surcharge for the majority of their domestic routes ($20 roundtrip). These surcharges have been added to all future travel dates.

A couple of hours later, American Airlines launched a $20 roundtrip airfare hike for the bulk of its domestic route system, a hike that was soon matched by Delta Air Lines.

It's worth noting that these increases come on a day in which oil prices soared to a 26-month high, which impacts the airlines' jet fuel costs."


So far, says Farecompare's Graeme Wallace, filling in for the vacationing Seaney, Southwest has resisted joining-in in the fare hike.

With flight cancellations now exceeding 6,000 since Saturday, with New York airports barely struggling back to life as stranded passengers sleep on the floors, some geniuses at the airlines are obviously thinking: Hey, how many great chances like this do we get to totally alienate the public?

And oh, by the way, the airlines always say they are not acting in collusion on fixing prices when these fare increases get adopted all at the same time by supposedly competing carriers. No way! That would be, like, wrong -- right?

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Flight Cancellations Mount, Big Mess Ahead


[Battlefield, Gone With the Wind. "Tomorrow is another day"?]

How many flights were canceled over the weekend and today?

The media are all over the board on this one, but there's a very easy place to do the math: FlightStats.com, which is always right on top of these things.

According to FlightStats data on individual airports, there were more than 2,500 departures canceled today at the New York airports, plus Philly, Boston, Atlanta, BWI, Reagan, Dulles, O'Hare and Detroit. I didn't do the math for other airports, but it's safe to say that hundreds of additional departure cancellations were logged. Let's call it an even 3,000 departures that were canceled.

I'm not including figures for arrival cancellations, because some of the departure cancellations at any given airport also can turn up as arrival cancellations at another. Some, but not even close to most. But anyway, in all yesterday, there were more than 2,200 arrivals canceled at those airports.

On Sunday, there were just over 1,900 departures scrubbed at the same airports, with almost the same number of canceled departures. And on Saturday, Atlanta had more than 1,000 departure and arrival cancellations.

Rough guess is well over 5,000 flights that were scheduled from Saturday to Monday did not leave. Nearly each one was booked at or close to capacity, as are most of the existing flights on the schedule for this week and into the busy travel weekend.

It all adds up to one big fat serious disruption for air travel in the coming week, because there is no slack in the system to accommodate passengers who got canceled out.

Today some airports, with stranded passengers and crews camped out in despair, look like the battlefield-aftermath scene in "Gone With the Wind."

Tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hare, I mean O'Hara, famously vowed, is another day. But frankly, Scarlett, it will just be another damn mess.

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New York Airports Closed, Will Not Resume Flights Till Tonight

Kennedy, Newark and La Guardia airports are closed, and it isn't yet clear when flights will resume into and out of New York City and Newark. Airlines are guessing around 4 p.m. -- but that's a guess.

We haven't even begun to see the tales of woe that will be coming out of the air-travel system from the disruptions of the weekend, today and (undoubtedly) tomorrow. With flight cancellations exceeding 5,000 since Saturday, in a domestic system that has no slack built into schedules, it will take literally the rest of this year, at least, for air travel to get sorted out.

There were, for example, about 1,600 departures scheduled for today at Kennedy, Newark and La Guardia. (Plus more than 1,400 arrivals).

Most of those will be scrubbed from schedules, and displaced would-be passengers will have to scramble to find seats on other flights later in the week. This will occur as the final wave of 2010 holiday travel builds.

Meanwhile, I personally will lead a brigade of citizens with pitchforks to tar and feather the next reporter, photographer or editor who even thinks of commissioning a lighthearted ode, whether in words or pictures, by whatever media known or unknown, to a winter's day's snow.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Big Air-Travel Mess Today, and a Bigger One Tomorrow; JFK and Newark Shut As Blizzard Causes Cancellations and Delays

Flight cancellations piled up as a blizzard moved along the eastern seaboard and into New York City this afternoon and tonight. Kennedy and Newark airports shut shortly after 8 p.m. EST tonight, with plans to reopen early tomorrow.

As expected, airlines canceled large numbers of flights at East Coast airports today, one day after more than 1,000 flights were canceled at Atlanta, merely on the possibility of a snowstorm.

As of 6 p.m. EST, nearly 3,000 arrivals and departures had been canceled at airports in the New York City and Washington areas, and in Philadelphia and Boston.

And airlines have begun preemptively canceling flights for Monday. At the three New York airports alone, nearly 700 departures and arrivals scheduled for tomorrow had already been scrubbed by 9 p.m. tonight.

On flights that remained scheduled today, some delays of well over three hours were being reported at airports.

Meanwhile, severe delays rippled through the air-traffic system far away from the storm, from Miami, where delays continued into the night, and Los Angeles, where things finally eased up early in the evening.

Overall, air travel today was, in short, a huge mess -- and it will be a huge mess (and possibly a worse one) tomorrow.

If you are flying, it is very important to check before leaving for the airport to ensure that your flight is even still on the board, let alone on time. Most affected airlines have put weather-related policies into effect, meaning that, assuming you're not already stuck in the mess, you can opt out -- cancel your plans and choose another travel date, within their guidelines, without paying the dread change-penalty fee
.

Hey, it's the least airlines can do, considering that they've been whacking away at their operations, and obviously canceling many flights preemptively, for fear of having airplanes stuck on tarmacs and triggering big federal fines that took effect in April to discourage tarmac strandings.

From FlightStats.com, here as of 6 p.m. EST today are the major cancellations (of course, some will count twice, since a canceled departure at one airport can sometimes also be a canceled arrival at another on this list):

Reagan National -- Canceled: 148 departures, 132 arrivals -- of 759 total arrivals/departures scheduled.

Baltimore-Washington -- 146 departures and 161 arrivals (total 687 flights scheduled)

Dulles --69 departures, 62 arrivals (849 total)

Philadelphia -- 304 departures; 241 arrivals (of 1,265 flights scheduled)

Newark -- 292 departures, 349 arrivals (of 1,002 total)

JFK -- 282 departures, 296 arrivals (of 1,193 total)

La Guardia -- 256 departures, 283 arrivals (of 869 total)

Boston: 148 arrivals, 196 departures (857 total).

Meanwhile, these airports were reporting significant delays Sunday night: Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Detroit. Also, excessive delays are being reported at Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa -- obviously as a result of the commotion rippling through the system from delays and cancellations (including those preemptive Atlanta ones) elsewhere.

And Palm Beach is also reporting excessive delays. That airport, by the way, handles a lot of private jets (NetJets accounted for most of the takeoffs and arrivals there today) -- and the swells were evidently trying to make it home before the blizzard.

This is a very big travel mess that won't go away for days.

Courage, as the man used to say.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Half of Atlanta Flights Canceled Today; Cancellations May Spread to East Coast Airports As Snowstorm Looms

Well I guess we now have a clear answer on whether airlines will preemptively cancel large numbers of flights to avoid new penalties for stranding passengers on planes awaiting takeoff as the weather forecast turns bad.

You betcha they will. Look at what's happened in Atlanta.

At the Atlanta airport today, half of the 2,100 scheduled departures and arrivals have been canceled. Ignore current media reports saying that "hundreds" of flights have been canceled at Atlanta. The number is over 1,000.

And the weather isn't even expected to turn bad there till tonight. After sunset, it will be icy, but not very snowy, according to this update in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this morning: "Snow accumulations up to an inch may stick in Atlanta ..." [As of Saturday mid-afternoon, incidentally, the same Atlanta Journal-Constitution is evidently unaware of the rather alarming number of preemptive cancellations at the local airport, and instead dishes up a figure from yesterday. What, you want local reporting on a holiday?]

Incidentally, Delta Air Lines accounts for the vast majority of the cancellations today in Atlanta, its main hub. Delta itself scrubbed about 650 of its flights (including 328 of its 495 scheduled departures), and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the regional carrier that operates most of the Delta Connection flights out of Atlanta, canceled 252 departures and arrivals. [My information comes from the always-invaluable Web site FlightStats.com.]

In April, new federal rules took effect to address the problem of airlines stranding passengers for long periods of time on idled planes on runways and aprons waiting to take off (or diverted from elsewhere) in bad weather. The rules set a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger for airlines that strand passengers without a very defensible reason for over three hours.

Problem solved. Tarmac delays exceeding three hours, which once numbered in the hundreds per month, have now just about disappeared. Problem introduced: Airlines have hair-triggers on the cancellation gun when even the threat of bad weather appears.

Meanwhile, a big storm is in fact looming for the East Coast. Some media weather reporters are dizzy with the usual hysteria, tossing out words like "monster storm" and "nightmare." (That's usin' them action words, AccuWeather!) But yep, it sure does look like it's gonna snow and blow on the eastern seaboard tomorrow. Here's a CNN report.

If you're flying, check ahead and be prepared for flight cancellations from Philly to Boston. Right now, flight cancellations are minimal at the airports on the Washington-to-Boston seaboard, but that could change in a hurry later today. We'll see if the Delta-Atlanta precedent is followed elsewhere.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Story From Arizona



I live in Tucson, in southern Arizona. Tucson is the anti-Phoenix in many ways -- not that there is anything especially bad about Phoenix except the state politicians and the developers. Tucson has its rapacious developers, but they don't always get their way. Tucson is good on things like water use (it isn't covered with golf courses and a lot of people resist the impulse to plaster the Sonoran desert with grass). Tucson keeps the streetlamps and other outdoor lights down low at night so you can see the stars in the sky.

Tucson still has an Old West feel to it, and retains the best of an old Mexican culture. Basically, people in Tucson are laid-back, friendly, overtly courteous. Men here hold doors in stores ... even for other men. Strangers speak nicely to one another. Except when the snowbirds arrive, drivers are kind. In general, it's the kind of culture where someone might shoot you, but only assuming you actually need shootin'; otherwise, people here generally give others a lot of slack and the benefit of the doubt. Civility is a civic virtue here.

That said, here's the story. Having grown up in a big city (Philadelphia) and having worked for 25 years in another (New York), I remain a little wary of lunatics you might encounter on the street. But you seldom see them in Tucson.

Yesterday, I drove to the library out here in my end of town by the Rincon Mountains. As I was turning off my ignition, I noticed striding across the parking lot a tall man wearing a flowing white gown that came down to his ankles, sandals, and a long white turban. He was carrying a big walking stick and (red-alert for lunatic-sightings), a shopping bag. He was walking with great purpose toward the library building.

This oughta be good, I thought. I waited till he passed before getting out of my car so I could keep my eye on him. I stayed about 30 feet behind him. As I said, you don't see a lot of street-nuts here, but street-nuts are usually harmless. This guy seemed a lot more focused in his stride than your typical street schizophrenic.

It was a warm day here in the desert, so the gown and turban seemed especially excessive. I'm not someone who over-reacts to perceived threats, but I do have an old street-reporter's cop-like sense of potential trouble. This character and his shopping bag seemed to warrant at least some observation.

He passed into the shaded plaza by the library, where there are two drop-bins to return library materials. I came up next to him and as I was sliding my books into the return chute I noticed that he was putting things that were not books into the adjacent bin.

So I turned and gave him a very good look-over that would be considered rude in most places. What he was sliding into the chute were childrens' DVDs. One, I saw, was "Shrek."

The man caught my eye, smiled, and said, "How are ya?"

"Good, how are you?" I replied. Oops, I could now see that he was a perfectly pleasant and decent fellow.

But why the get-up and the big walking stick? He obviously read my mind.

"Oh," he said, "I play one of the three kings every year at the Living Nativity Scene over at the Baptist church. It's my lunch hour and I thought I'd run over to the library and return my kids' movies."

Assumptions dashed, privately chastised, I wished the man a very Merry Christmas. And I say the same to you.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Heathrow Operations Curtailed Into Wednesday; Backups and Delays Will Continue Through Christmas

There's mounting outrage in Britain over the way passengers have been treated while stranded at airports during the severe winter weather that has disrupted air travel in Western Europe. Heathrow Airport, with massive route connections that span the world, was basically shut all weekend and still has not been able to resume anything close to normal operations.

The media are starting to catch up with the story of the misery passengers are encountering and the anger that's building as airports like Heathrow struggle, evidently not very successfully, to accommodate stranded people. Here's a report in the Telegraph newspaper today in London.

And here's a timely and comprehensive report datelined Paris in the New York Times. Also, showing its growing online savvy, the Times has this Internet roundup of reports and videos being posted by air travelers.

The Guardian newspaper in London, meanwhile, is doing a great job live-blogging the crisis.

And here is the latest update from Heathrow as snow and freezing temperatures continue in Europe:

"We have agreed a reduced flying schedule until 0600 on Wednesday 22nd December. A maximum one-third of flights are likely to operate during this period, and passengers should anticipate further delays and cancellations in the following days and potentially beyond Christmas Day.

Passengers should not travel to Heathrow without a confirmed booking. If passengers can travel at another time then they should do so.

This limited schedule provides airlines and passengers with more clarity in order to plan which flights are taking off and which are canceled. We aim to provide passengers with better and more timely information. Airlines are currently updating which flights have been canceled and the flight information board below shows the latest available flight information. If the flight status shows 'contact airline', the flight will not be operating today. Passengers must not travel to the airport unless they have confirmed that their flight is leaving today – airline contact numbers are available here.

The government has decided to permit extra flights throughout the night at Heathrow. The northern runway at Heathrow is open and handling a limited number of arrivals and departures. Earlier in the day, we prioritized aircraft that had previously been diverted, in order to bring passengers to Heathrow and get airline crews and aircraft in the right place.

Heathrow Airport was closed over the weekend following a 5-inch snowfall in around one hour on Saturday. There have been subsequent swings in temperature, to the extent that ice built up around the aircraft parked on the ground. Heathrow is currently using every available member of staff and several hundred additional contractors have been brought in to clear the situation. BAA has also deployed additional staff ..."


Meanwhile, other major European airports are also being hard hit, with delays accumulating. Few have been as responsive as Heathrow in at least addressing the situation on their Web sites. In Paris, De Gaulle Airport (of course) is pretending that nothing amiss has occurred, with its Web page full of smiling faces. Frankfurt, at least, has a notice that the weather is causing delays, along with a real-time posting of arrivals and departures.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Latest From Heathrow As Europe Air Mess Continues

Heathrow expects to have limited service restored tomorrow. Other airports in Europe have been operating all weekend, but are also severely hampered by snow and ice that has created huge delays and a lot of cancellations.

Here is the latest notice from Heathrow as of Sunday evening:

"Heathrow Airport will be open and operating a limited schedule of arrivals and departures from 0600 on Monday morning, but we expect further cancellations and delays in the coming days, as airlines move diverted aircraft and crew back to their normal positions and we continue to manage the impacts of the poor weather over the weekend and in the days ahead.

Passengers should not come to the airport without a confirmed booking and, if in any doubt, must consult their airlines before traveling."


And here's a BBC report on airport conditions throughout the UK.

By the way, I'd try to link to useful reports on current air-travel conditions in the rest of Europe, but the U.S. media have become so malfeasant in covering this kind of news that nothing timely or useful is available that I can find online. (CNN chooses to cover the story as a Christmas feature on some guy in Europe who's struck and wishes to be home for the holidays.) Hey, editors: We don't need your stinkin' fables. We need accurate travel-weather information, in detail, by airport, by country. This stuff is getable.

Increasingly, frustrated by the infantile trivialization of the mainstream news, many of us rely on a kind of post-modern samizdat to get relevant news. Here in the Sonoran desert, where I spent the day at a rodeo in the sun, I heard from friends -- who do in fact have a world view, with a worldwide social network -- that Geneva is a mess; the Paris airports are open but flights are badly delayed; Frankfurt is struggling back. It would be nice if the media caught onto the story, too. I mean, the roping event in Casa Grande, Arizona, is where I got at least some timely news on European travel problems this afternoon.

[UPDATE: Oh, here's a somewhat more comprehensive Reuters report from the IHT Web site, though it was posted nine hours ago.]

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Snow and Ice Create Travel Chaos in Europe; Heathrow Shut Today to Arrivals

The air-train-road travel mess continues this weekend in Britain and the rest of western and northern Europe, which has been whacked by snow and freezing temperatures. Airports are a mess, and getting an alternate flight out this week is going to be a challenge if you've had a flight canceled.

Heathrow Airport, which was shut yesterday, said it will not accept arriving flights today. Backups are spreading throughout the air-travel system. There are reports that many aircraft are stranded on tarmacs at some regional airports.

Here's the report in the Guardian newspaper on conditions in Britain.

My Sunday newspapers seemed to be full of airy-fairy warmth-of-the-season holiday stories, limp features that have been sitting in some editor's drawer for months, and the usual incremental process news, and had nothing substantive on this remarkable crisis in Europe.

CNN did have a report, which began:

"On Saturday, frigid temperatures and extreme conditions pummeled Europe. From Northern Ireland to Bulgaria, blizzard conditions left airports with heavy delays or shut them entirely. Snow, ice and fog have caused travel chaos ahead of a busy holiday travel week. And severe weather could continue on Monday as another series of weather systems move in, said Met Office special forecaster Tony Burgess."

On Monday, more snow is expected in England, including some more possible accumulation in London. Below-normal temperatures are expected to continue in northern Europe.

Meanwhile, here is the statement in full from Heathrow:

"Heathrow Airport will not be accepting arrivals on Sunday, and will only manage a handful of departures as our airfield team continues to deal with the impacts of yesterday's bad weather.

No flights will operate from Terminals 1 or 4 and a limited number of departures will leave from Terminals 3 and 5. We are extremely sorry for the disruption this will cause to passengers and airlines and we stress that passengers must check with their airlines before traveling to the airport. We will provide regular updates and you can contact your airline here.

This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow's northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.

We have 200 aircraft parking stands and have a team of several hundred people working to treat these airside areas and to keep passengers in the terminal as warm and as comfortable as possible while we do everything we can to get Heathrow moving.

We are removing 30 tons of snow from each stand, but the temperature remains firmly below zero and Heathrow's capacity is limited to the extent that all parking stands are occupied by aircraft, making the job of clearing and treating them more difficult.

Safety is our first priority and we hope this course of action will allow us to offer a fuller service to passengers and airlines using Heathrow tomorrow."

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Pious of Penzance

Mile for mile, Britain probably has more truly crappy hotels with bad attitudes (outside of London) than any country in the developed world, but this one stands out for audacity. (And remember, there was a reason that Fawlty Towers was a TV hit).

A gay couple is suing a hotel near Penzance in Cornwall because said hotel, whose owners claim to be devout Christians, refused to allow them to stay.

One of the owners of the hotel, called the Chymorvah, a Mrs. Bull, said: "We accept that the Bible is the holy living word of God and we endeavor to follow that." Luckily, Mrs. Bull and the mister did not stone the sinners.

By the way, the reader-generated reviews of this joint on the always useful Tripadvisor.com site are telling.
"Sad, outdated, unfriendly," says the headline on one. Another complains about "the religious fanatics who run the place."

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Friday, December 10, 2010

International Growth Leads Air Travel Rebound; Load-Factors Were Highest Ever For September

Air travel has definitely rebounded as the economy improves. U.S. airlines carried 57.3 million domestic and international passengers in September, up 4.9 percent over Sept. 2009, according to the latest data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

The September jump was the largest monthly year-over-year increase since September 2007. The September 2010 passenger total was also 5.7 percent above that of two years ago in September 2008 -- but still remained 3.2 percent below the pre-recession level of September 2007, the BTS said.

The breakdown: U.S. airlines carried 4.3 percent more domestic passengers in September 2010 than in September 2009. International passengers on U.S. carriers in September 2010 increased 9.4 percent. The September 2010 load factors, 81.0 percent systemwide (79.9 percent domestic and 83.5 percent international) were the highest recorded for any September.

The top airlines in terms of traffic were Delta, which carried more domestic and international passengers than any other U.S. airline. But Southwest Airlines carried the most domestic passengers.

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Choice Hotels to Offer Wall Street Journal

In another bit of bad news for USA Today, which was once ubiquitous outside hotel-room doorways, Choice Hotels says it's chosen the Wall Street Journal as the "preferred newspaper" to offer at its 3,700 properties in North America. Choice's brands include Clarion, Cambria Suites, Comfort, Quality Inn, MainStay Suites, and Sleep Inn.

According to a statement from Dow Jones, the Journal will be delivered free to Choice Hotels guests starting New Year's Day. There was no mention of the financial arrangements or any barter deals Dow Jones might have made with Choice to get the newspapers into that pipeline, but Dow Jones has been expanding distribution of the Journal at domestic hotels over the last two years.

For decades, USA Today has been the standard free newspaper at hotels. But slippage became apparent in April 2009, when Marriott decided to stop distributing USA Today (almost always offered for free) at 2,600 Marriott-brand hotels in North America. This came after Marriott's chairman, Bill Marriott, decided that way too many of the brightly colored newspapers were being left untouched outside room doors, littering the corridors.

USA Today's parent company, Gannett, responded by claiming that only a small percentage of its circulation would be affected, like 1 percent. The media of course swallowed that.

By the way, I have nothing against Gannett's golden child USA Today, though I do still feel a slight residual pain from way back, when I was the editor in charge of investigative reporting at what was at the time a very aggressive Gannett newspaper. Aggressive, that is, until the then-fledgling USA Today began draining resources from all of the local Gannett newspapers, which were ordered to pay up and shut up.

I presciently resigned from that job after one glorious year (a few days, in fact, after Gannett had swopped down one night and fired the executive editor and the publisher, for spending too much money covering news).

OK, so a little professional residual resentment about USA Today, though I will concede that the paper aggressively covers travel-industry and travel consumer news, as well as sports. Anyway, I've always had some knowledge and a lot of interest in what I regard as the wild circulation claims that have always been made by USA Today. For one thing, I know no one who actually buys the paper, which claims to have a circulation of about 1.9 million on the five days a week on which it is published. I have always got it for free, usually from a hotel.

The gaudy founder of USA Today is a media buccaneer named Al Neuharth, who molded the Gannett company into a model of cost-efficiency, while at the same time ruining the journalistic reputations of more than a few regionally important local newspapers that had the misfortune of being acquired by Gannett. Neuharth is also the godfather of the much-hyped "Newseum" in Washington, which is positioned as a museum of journalism but which actually strikes me as a very pretty, essentially vacuous space near the Capitol, one noticable function of which seems to be serving as a venue for fancy cocktail parties tossed by media panjandra who rent the joint for regular celebrations of one another.

Neuharth, by the way, was also the cunning genius who got the whole newspaper industry to go along with his scheme to allow newspapers that are not sold at or near the cover price to be counted as paid circulation. As a result, even newspapers whose circulation claims are bolstered by a vast number of so-called bulk-sales copies that are essentially given away free (or as part of promotional barter deals with hotels and airlines) can make inflated claims about their circulation, which claims are always swallowed whole by media writers. (In the case of the Journal, which also counts a lot of bulk sales but with nowhere the egregiousness of USA Today, the rules also allow paid online subscribers to be counted as circulation.)

Since the days of Hearst and Pulitzer's battles, there have been, of course, many creative ways to hype circulation claims, by the way. For example, my local newspaper in Tucson amazes me each morning by proclaiming, on the top of its front page, that it has "238,700 readers weekdays." It escapes my comprehension how that remarkably precise number is arrived at, especially since the newspaper actually sells a mere 70,000 or so copies a day, and does not, to my knowledge, have any free circulation in the few hotels in town. I suspect this weird kind of arithmetic is still another legacy of Al Neuharth.

But I digress. The interesting news, to repeat, is that Choice Hotels has affirmed a commitment to a print newspaper, and chosen the Wall Street Journal to do so.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Tourist Alert NYC: King Tut Exhibit Ain't What You Probably Think It Is, for $27.50 a Ticket



The famed King Tut's tomb relics got a lot of exposure when they toured the world in 1972 through 1979 in an acclaimed museum exhibit called Treasures of Tutankhamun. More than 8 million visitors saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City alone from 1976 through 1979.

Heads-up for tourists coming to New York this holiday season. The King Tut exhibit that's now on display in Times Square (there's a clue for you right there) is a commercial show, heavy on reproductions and glitz and light on actual Tut artifacts, that's not at all what the museum exhibit was.

In fact, despite credulous media reviews, the show is generating some blow-back from disappointed people who pay $27.50 expecting to see a spectacular array of treasures from Tut's tomb, which was discovered in 1922.

As one unhappy visitor put it on Fodor's.com: "This exhibit is completely different from the original back in the 1970s. That one was magnificient, this one is made up of a bunch of essentially cast-offs and minor artifacts, few having anything to do with Tut. I was wondering if it was anything like the original. I saw it at the Met back then. It really was magnificent."

The exhibit has also generated a lot of publicity recently on Stephen Colbert's Colbert Nation show, in a joke segment called "Mysteries of the Unknown: Pursuit of the Pharaoh's Phallus," that's based on reports that Tut's penis disappeared from his mummified remains in recent years. Colbert visits the exhibit and interviews its director in a straight-faced manner that's very funny. That segment also makes it clear that the exhibit is commercial and the "mummy" on display is a replica. (The mummy was never a part of the museum exhibit.)

Anyway, as I said, heads-up. You may want to visit the show in New York, but you probably would like to know first actually what you'll be paying that $27.50 to see.

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Good News: Free Inflight WiFi for Holiday; Bad News: Service Sucks

As I reported here Nov. 8, Delta, Virgin America and AirTran are offering free in-flight WiFi on the Aircell Gogo system, in a promotion with Google Chrome that runs through Jan 2.

Oops, according to this piece in Gizmodo, adding a lot of extra passengers per flight onto the system seems to have exposed its bandwidth weaknesses.

Not a good marketing initiative, if you want to build a base of loyal customers. The jury is still out on whether this is a viable business, given chronically low "take rates" by passengers who have actually paid full price for the service on the various airlines that offer it.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Airlines Slowly Adding Capacity; Wall Street Doesn't Like This

Airlines are slowly adding seat capacity. Delta, for example, said today that its systemwide capacity was up 7.5 percent in November compared with Nov. 2009. Traffic was also up 7.5 percent, Delta said.

That suggests that supply and demand, which airlines have massaged in the last year to a formula that enables them to be profitable, is still under control, even if supply is rising.

Wall Street, which understands nothing but the primal scream of fast money, does not approve. In the last month, on worries that airlines might be adding capacity to serve growing demand, Delta's stock has been driven down 4.72 percent.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Storm Snarls Air Travel in Northeast


[Above: Airport delays as of just before 5 p.m. Eastern time, via FlightView.com]

Wind and rain are creating an air-travel mess in the Northeast this afternoon, especially in the New York area, where almost 1,000 departures and arrivals had been canceled by late afternoon at La Guardia, Newark and JFK, according to FlightStats.com

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'We're Going Through a Little Turbulence, Folks ... Yaiiii!'

Not to worry about who's in charge in the secured cockpit of the next Air India Express 737 flight you're on. Why, it's a 25-year-old, reportedly inadequately trained co-pilot, panicking the jet into a spectacular 7,000 foot dive while the passengers were eating their dinner and the pilot was outside the cockpit on a bathroom break, reports CNN, which adds:

"The aviation agency report [in India] concluded that the 25-year-old co-pilot had not been trained in the specific scenario the jet encountered and 'probably had no clue to tackle this kind of emergency.'"

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TSA Now Manages Watch-List Checking; Airlines Delighted to Be Rid of It


[Photo above: Jack Anderson at age 7 and his Mom, Christine. Little Jack is no longer automatically assumed to be a terrorist suspect, thanks to the completion of the TSA's Secure Flight program]

Assuming all goes according to plan (famous last words there), the administration of the infamous and widely misunderstood terrorist watch lists is now entirely in the hands of the TSA, in a program called Secure Flight designed to greatly reduce the scandalous number of false-positives that drive some travelers nuts at the checkpoints.

You know, like that little kid named Jack Anderson whose Mom was frantic every time they went to the airport because a Jack Anderson happened to be on the unholy mess that is the selectee portion of the watch list?

Well, the reason that kid always got the time-consuming third degree, along with thousands of others who share a name that matches or even resembles a real name on the selectee list, was that the process used to be in the hands of the airlines. Because of privacy concerns, the airlines had only the name of a passenger, and when someone booked a ticket and arrived at the airport, that name was helter-skelter checked against the secret watch lists that the FBI manages and shares with the TSA. I have spoken with Jack Anderson's Mom on several occasions over the years about this weirdness.

Bingo, Jack Anderson, starting at age 3, routinely got stopped and questioned. As did David Nelson, elderly son of Ozzie & Harriet, and untold numbers of others, many of whom I have heard from over the years.

Now, in a new program called Secure Flight (which the TSA said today has finally been completed), airlines collect names but also birthdates, gender and other personal information at time of booking, and dispatch this information to the TSA. Armed with more detail than just a name, the TSA then is able to check readily note that the child Jack Anderson is not the same person as the actual Jack Anderson on the watch-list. So the child Jack Anderson no longer rings an alarm when his Mom takes him to the airport.

Why an adult Jack Anderson is on the watch-list to begin with is strictly a matter of conjecture here. I'd bet my horse that Jack Anderson, the famous muckraking columnist, ended up on the list because his name was prominent on the infamous Nixon White House enemies list. Jack Anderson the columnist died some years ago, incidentally.

The watch lists comprise two sections. The smallest list is a "no-fly" list that has on it several thousand names and identifying information of actual suspected terrorists. Anyone on that list does not get on a plane, and if that person should show up at the checkpoint, the cops are called.

The other portion of the list, the selectee list, has about 400,000 identities on it, but it's a bureaucratic law-enforcement hodgepodge, a legacy data-dump from all of the myriad law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies, including state and local cops. There are not actually 400,000 people on that list, which is riddled with errors, repeat identities, aliases, and names that are only there because they were in some agency's file.

The FBI, to its credit, has tried to keep the list current and relevant, but it's been a daunting task. The TSA has also struggled with the issue, in face of protests about privacy.

Meanwhile, we have had years of routine hassling of totally innocent, and always baffled, people at the airport -- many of whom are under the mistaken impression that they are on a terrorist watch list, when in fact, they only have a name that approximates a name, or a friend of a name, ad infinitum ...

Airlines absolutely hated being caught in the middle in this mess. Now they're off the hook.

The TSA is now vetting 100 percent of passengers on flights within or bound for U.S. against watchlists. That was announced today -- a month ahead of schedule.

Ignore the absolutely typical media proof today of Bill Moyers axiom that journalists are paid to explain things they don't understand. Because actually, and as is well known by anyone paying attention, the TSA reached 100 percent watch list matching for all domestic airlines in June. All that's new is the early completion and adding the international flights.

From the TSA press release today:

"Under Secure Flight, [the TSA] prescreens passenger name, date of birth and gender against terrorist watchlists before passengers receive their boarding passes. In addition to facilitating secure travel for all passengers, the program helps prevent the misidentification of passengers who have names similar to individuals on government watchlists. Prior to Secure Flight, airlines held responsibility for checking passengers against watchlists."

(Removing the typical PR blather here from Janet Napolitano et al)

For months, as the program was moved into place, passengers have been required to provide their full name as it appears on the government ID they plan to use when traveling, date of birth and gender. The TSA says it will adhere to "strict protocols" to protect privacy, now that the airlines are giving it all of that infrmation about Americans' travel plans.

Which does bring up one small matter. Used to be that the airlines acquired only your name when you bought a ticket. (Members of frequent flier programs of course willingly provided more). Now they acquire personal information from everyone who buys a ticket. That information has value, obviously.

Just sayin'

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Delta Expanding In-Flight WiFi to 223 Regional Jets

In the strongest indication yet that the in-flight WiFi phenomenon isn't just a flash in the pan, Delta Air Lines said today that it will add WiFi service to 223 regional jets -- those with two-class cabins -- operated by its Delta Connection carriers. This will expand by 40 percent the number of Delta aircraft with Gogo Internet service.

Delta said it finished installing WiFi on all 549 mainline domestic aircraft earlier this month.

"Adding Wi-Fi capabilities to our two-class regional jets marks another milestone in our efforts to invest more than $2 billion to enhance our airport facilities, aircraft fleet and onboard services for customers through 2013," Tim Mapes, Delta's senior vice president for marketing, says in a press release.

WiFi installations on Delta Connection jets will begin in January and will be complete by the end of 2011. Then all Delta domestic flights with first-class cabins will have WiFi access, including every Delta Shuttle flight between New York-LaGuardia and Boston, Chicago-O'Hare and Washington, D.C.

Delta began installing WiFi on domestic mainline aircraft in 2008. With the 549 mainline aircraft and the addition of 223 regional jets to the Wi-Fi program, more than 80 percent of Delta's domestic fleet will have Internet access.

Delta Connection aircraft with first-class cabins include Embraer 175, Bombardier CRJ700 and Bombardier CRJ900 models. Those planes have between nine and 12 seats in first class and between 56 and 64 seats in coach.

Delta says it has taken a number of steps to fully align service on Delta Connection and mainline flights, including adding first-class cabins to 66 additional CRJ700 jets; introducing meal service in first class on regional jets; and installing more jet bridges at Delta hubs to reduce ground-level boarding of regional jets.

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I Hate to Say It, But Drudge Is Right ...

For over a year now, that pitiful scoundrel Drudge had been watching his once-remarkable influence wane on his Web site, which is nothing more than a collection of links to other people's work. But those links are carefully chosen -- curated, you might say, to present a picture of the world from the right-wing reactionary, faux-populism perspective.

I've always thought that Drudge was basically a very smart wire editor who could have worked for some crazed modern online manifestation of the old New York Mirror. That is said with some admiration.

Anyway, Drudge came back big-time this month, as he drove the furor on the TSA with deftly chosen links and the usual attention-getting headlines.

And he's right today, highlighting reactions to the amazingly quick cave by the media, which has abruptly changed narrative on this story because one element of it, the much-hyped "National Opt-Out Day" protest, failed to materialize at the airports on the day before Thanksgiving. (Politico's Ben Smith also makes the point about the Drudge effect on what Smith calls, I think correctly, as the "weekend collapse" of the TSA's new screening policies.

Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind, to allude to the classic 1936 New Yorker parody of the old Time Magazine by Wolcott Gibbs.

Unseen in the current media rewrite of the narrative (ahem) is the fact that Thanksgiving air travel was down to the extent that the TSA itself said it closed checkpoint lanes at airports. The TSA didn't say this, but anecdotal reports from travelers all over the country say that in many airports, the body-scanner lanes were the ones closed.

Other anecdotal reports say that TSA screeners over the Thanksgiving holiday travel period were friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful and helpful, manifesting at least some elements of the Boy Scout Code, and most of the important ones at that. The great TSA patdown grope-fest that had horrified travelers in the weeks before Thanksgiving seemed to be in recess, as well.

One strong indication to me showing how this narrative was deliberately changed over the weekend is the way media reports dismissing the TSA furor now routinely mention old polls showing majority acceptance of the new TSA procedures, while ignoring new polls in the middle of last week that showed exactly the opposite.

We'll see how this plays out. The new Accepted Narrative includes a theme that says this reaction has been solely driven by right-wing media, which is nuts, and I could show you a couple of thousand e-mails to prove it.

But maybe there is a new environment at the checkpoints. The inappropriate patdowns, far more than the body-scan machines themselves, drove the fury. And I do give great credit to a brilliant PR campaign by the TSA (and again, this is said with some admiration).

And hey, whatever works.

[Meanwhile, the always compelling Mike Boyd has some hard-nosed things to say in his weekly essay today about the media and the sorry record of the TSA. Airport security, he says, "has been a pirate's chest of heavy gelt" for many who make dough off it.]

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Did the TSA Idle Body Scanners to Thwart Protests?

As I reported here yesterday, the TSA does admit that some "screening lanes" were closed at various airports yesterday, but says this was because airport lines were running so smoothly.

On its blog crowing about how there were no protests yesterday, the TSA (oddly, it seemed to me) felt the need to also say: "Though volume was around expected levels, our preparations for today kept wait times at such a minimum that some airports are closing screening lanes due to a lack of passenger throughput." The TSA does not address which kind of "screening lanes" were closed.

But anecdotal reports, which first surfaced on Gizmodo yesterday are accumulating to support suspicions that the TSA might have roped off body-scanners, at least at some airports, perhaps in preparations for an "opt-out" protest that in fact failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, here's a video of a female passenger being patted down yesterday at the Houston airport. This is what to expect, for those who haven't yet had the new grope.

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Thanksgiving at the Airports 2010






Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Only Minor Delays At Airports; TSA Says Checkpoints Moved Swiftly


[The TSA posted this photo {above} on its blog today, showing appreciative children at the Cincinnati airport this morning]

[Map via FlightView.com, airports as of 6:45 p.m. EST]

There are only minor delays are being reported at airports as of 6.45 p.m. eastern time, and the rumored "opt out" protest fizzled.

On its blog, the TSA is merrily reporting that lines moved swiftly at most airports. The TSA posted a photo (above) that it said was taken this morning at the Cincinnati airport, showing children holding up a sign thanking the agency for keeping travelers safe. The TSA blog early this evening began this way: "What some protesters threatened as an opt out day has turned into a TSA appreciation day."

Meanwhile, there are anecdotal reports that the TSA took at least some of the hated body-scan machines off-line today. The TSA says this is not so -- or at least, not for the reason assumed. "Though volume was around expected levels, our preparations for today kept wait times at such a minimum that some airports are closing screening lanes due to a lack of passenger throughput," the TSA says on its blog today.

It isn't clear yet how many people decided not to fly today because of the enhanced security procedures and/or worries about congestion. But so far, so good.

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By the Way, What Exactly Are We So Afraid Of?



It's hard to recognize this as the nation that won the Battle of Midway, especially now, with millions of Americans being frisked like prison perps at airports by representatives of a federal bureaucracy that thrives on its ability to constantly ratchet up the level of fear.

What, precisely, are we all supposed to be so afraid of, that we will submit to this level of indignity and invasion of fundamental privacy? How have we become such a bunch of passive patsies? Patsies not just to the rapacious gropocracy, but to the ragtag international clown brigade that profits so well from the fear-induced notion that it's a terrorist monolith.

This is the same nation that bravely pinned back the ears of the mighty Empire of Japan in its greatest stronghold, the Pacific, a mere six months after we lost our fleet and got knocked on our kiesters at Pearl Harbor?

By all stated accounts from the gropocracy, the rationale for this current toss of the public is the need to guard against the likes of the Christmas Day underpants bomber. What are we afraid of? We're afraid of some clown on a crowded airplane with some explosive powder in his shorts, is what. Remember, the last clown who tried that ended up with little more than a scorched scrotum and a thrashing by fellow-passengers.

Here's a piece that I recommend in Politico today by Jim Harper. It begins: "Today, the busiest travel day of the year, the Transportation Security Administration will introduce many Americans to a new indignity and offense to privacy. ..."

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Stop Annoying the Gropers?

Kind of amazing, how some folks are busily promulgating the idea that it's the TSA workforce that's being put-upon these days.

OK, I agree with the idea that we need to cut the screeners a little slack, given the awful situation the current policies from Washington have put them in.

But come on. Here's a piece in today's Wall Street Journal that, I think, puts this into context. And here's a piece by Glenn Greenwald in Salon today that takes on the notion, most prominently conveyed by this asinine, fact-free hatchet-job in the Nation magazine, that the grassroots protests against the checkpoint groping are somehow being driven by insidious "astroturf" operators like the Koch brothers.

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Flight Attendants Also Get Exemption from Intense TSA Searches

Last Friday, pilots were happy to learn that the TSA had backed off a ridiculous policy of subjecting them to intense security searches. Ridiculous, of course, because a pilot flying an airplane doesn't need a corkscrew to take control and crash it.

At first, indications were that pilots would get a free pass -- but at least in the initial rollout of more sensible security rules for pilots who have verified IDs, it seems that the change is merely that pilots aren't routinely subject to the new, invasive body patdowns associated with the much-hated body-scan machines. Instead, it seems, they only need to go through metal detectors.

Trying to make sense of this is daunting. Suffice to say, there appears to be a process in motion to designate flight crews as so-called trusted travelers who are not automatically assumed to be potential terrorists, but who are nevertheless subject to basic checkpoint search.

Given that, then, there is no compelling reason not to include on-duty flight attendants in exemptions, given that a flight attendant with verified ID is certainly presumed not to present an imminent danger. Though, as I said the other day, a pilot can crash a plane. All a flight attendant can do is crash the drinks cart.

Nevertheless, any glimmer of common sense is welcome. The TSA, which seems to change its story by the day, has now also included flight attendants in the new rules. Flight attendants and pilots will be treated the same at the checkpoints. Both groups must show ID (which will supposedly be matched against operations data supplied by the airlines), and go through a metal detector. If that sets off an alarm, they may still get a pat-down in some cases. The rules apply to pilots and flight attendants who are in uniform and working.

In development is a more comprehensive system for flight-crew security called CrewPASS, a trusted-traveler-type system being developed for the TSA by a private company. It's now being tested for use by pilots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbia, S.C.

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TSA Body-Scanners: Follow the Money


The story about Michael Chertoff's financial interests in working as a consultant for a major manufacturer during the $2.4 billion initial phase of awarding contracts for airport body-scanner machines has been around since the Washington Post first timidly wrote it, and then quickly backed off early this year. The Post news story, interestingly, was published the same say that the same newspaper published an op-ed piece by Chertoff arguing the case for the machines. A disclosure notice about Chertoff's financial interests was added to the online version later. The Post story and the op-ed piece both ran on New Year's Day, when nobody reads a newspaper.

Till recently, the media haven't paid a lot of attention to the fact that, while he was Homeland Security secretary and afterward, when he was making money from it, Chertoff energetically promoted these machines, which cost over $100,000 apiece. The TSA now has 400 deployed at 70 airports, and another 600 due on line in the next year.

Generating fear is famously and historically profitable on many levels. As always, following the money is an excellent tip for figuring out the evidently unfathomable. Here's a good summary of the Chertoff scandal in the Huffington Post today.

And here is a nice wrap-up USA Today did the other day on the whole sordid money-generating framework around this issue, including the lobbying spending by the manufacturers of these machines.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Travelers Looking to Avoid Flying; Almost Two-Thirds Oppose New TSA Measures, Zogby Poll Finds

Reacting against the current program of body-imaging scans and aggressive body pat-downs at airports, 48 percent of Americans, and 42 percent of frequent fliers, say they will choose an alternative to air travel whenever possible, according to a new poll by Zogby International.

Overall, 61 percent of 2,032 likely voters polled from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22 oppose the use of full body scans and the current form of TSA pat downs. Republicans (69 percent) and Independents (65 percent) oppose in greater numbers than Democrats (50 percent).

Of those polled, 52 percent believe the new, so-called enhanced security measures will not prevent terrorist activity; almost half (48 percent) say they are a violation of privacy rights; 33 percent say they should not have to go through enhanced security methods to get on an airplane, and 32 percent believe the full body scans and TSA pat downs to be sexual harassment. This is in line with frequent fliers (fly more than once every 3 months), as 53 percent say the enhanced measures will not prevent terrorist activity, 48 percent believe it's a violation of their privacy rights, 41 percent say they should not have to go through it to get on an airplane, and 35 percent believe it is sexual harassment.

While roughly the same amount believe the full body scans and TSA pat downs are necessary to keep the country safe and prevent terrorist activities on airplanes (34 percent of frequent fliers vs. 29 percent overall), frequent fliers are more likely to feel that the enhanced methods are not needed because metal detectors and bag screenings are working fine (33 percent to 26 percent). Just 16 percent of frequent fliers say no one has an absolute right to fly and if people don't like the security measures, then just don't fly compared to 20 percent of everyone polled.

The Zogby poll also found that when given a choice, likely voters will choose full body scan over the TSA pat downs (48 percent to 7 percent), but 42 percent would rather have neither. Frequent fliers feel about the same.

Said pollster John Zogby: "It's clear the majority of Americans are not happy with TSA and the enhanced security measures recently enacted. The airlines should not be happy with 42 percent of frequent fliers seeking a different mode of transportation due to these enhancements. It seems the airlines and TSA need to come together to find a solution before the American flying public abandons both."

Meanwhile, the busiest travel peak of the year starts tomorrow -- and as if we don't already have enough hassle in air travel, the weather is turning very bad in big sections of the country.


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TSA Bumper Stickers




Currently circulating online ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA Public Service Announcement:: HOW Many Ounces?

The TSA administrator, John Pistole, stars in this new public service announcement in which, among other things, he reminds the traveling public about the rule regarding carry-on "liquids and gels less than 3 ounces."

Uh, that's 3.4 ounces, actually, for anyone who might be confused and think that there is still another new policy. Any containers of 3.4 ounces or less each of liquids or gels, which containers all fit within a zipper-type one-quart plastic bag. The TSA changed the liquids limit over a year ago to conform with the European and other standard of 100 milliliters, about 3.4 ounces.

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Shakedown By Bag-Handlers At Miami Airport -- Cops: Security Risk? On-Site TSA: Hey, No Prob

While the traveling public was being groped and scanned and often humiliated around the country, 18 baggage handlers at Miami International Airport were being charged with taking bribes to let people secretly check extra or overweight baggage, the AP says here, "and authorities are investigating whether some of those bags made it onto planes without going through security."

Miami-Dade County police said they are also investigating whether American Airlines ticket agents and others may have been involved in the scheme. The baggage handlers work for a private company under contract with the Miami airport, a major international gateway.

The TSA director in Miami, Mark Hatfield, said that there was no "nexus to security" in the case. "But police spokesman Detective Roy Rutland said investigators think some of the luggage checked by the skycaps could have gone onto planes without passing through security" or being otherwise checked by the TSA, the AP says.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Should Flight Attendants Get a Free Pass At TSA Security? No.

Pilots, as I reported here yesterday and indicated in a newspaper column a week ago, are getting a special screening exemption at the airport checkpoints.

This new move by the TSA addresses an absurdity: Till now, on-duty pilots who are going through the checkpoints to take control of an airliner have been subjected to asinine inspections of their persons and possessions. As pilot after pilot has said ad infinitum for 10 years, Yo, I don't need a steak knife to commandeer an airplane and crash it into the Empire State Building.

The pilots new ability to bypass TSA checkpoints is predicated on verified identification -- a biometric system that proves the pilot is who he or she claims to be, and a secondary system, linked to airline operations, that says he or she is about to fly a plane.

But once again illustrating Bill Moyers' joke that reporters are paid to explain things they don't understand, we have today some reports wondering why flight attendants aren't being given the same security bypass as pilots.

Because they don't have control of the airplane, is why.

Patricia A. Friend, the head of the big flight attendants' union, the Association of Flight Attendants, has been pressing for the same security exemption for flight attendants that pilots are getting. "There is no reasonable explanation why this highly vetted group of aviation employees continues to be exposed to lengthy airport security lines which may affect their ability to report to the aircraft on time," Friend said in a press release. She likes to make announcements on paper, but is hard to come by when you're looking for an actual answer to a question.

But yes, there is a reasonable explanation why this highly vetted group doesn't get the same exemption as pilots. We'll take it slowly for the slow among the media: A pilot can crash the plane at will. Flight attendants cannot crash anything but the drinks cart.

Flight attendants already get special treatment at security, in that they usually have access to special priority crew lanes. Meanwhile, I am well aware of the complaints of many flight attendants that they seem to be singled out for an extra degree of security hassle by some of the checkpoint humps.

That needs to stop.

Nevertheless, flight attendants, it seems to me, are the best possible argument for a new program based on the "trusted traveler" concept, limply mandated by Congress years ago and basically laughed at by the TSA over the years.

A trusted traveler program, based on verified ID and a reliable background check for members, would solve many of the chronic and ridiculous security-hassle problems at the checkpoints for frequent fliers who enroll, and who would be given special lanes with expedited security. The idea is that not every traveler is a terrorist.

It's a part of this risk management that the TSA talks about. Risk management, rather than pawing through everybody's carry-on looking for butter-knives. But so far, intelligent risk management is just talk at the TSA.

We even had the outlines of a trusted traveler program once. It was called Clear, and the TSA killed it dead.

(Yes, I know a Clear program has been weakly revived. It, too, is so far essentially nothing more than a Disney World-type front-of-the-line ticket.)

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Pilots Getting a Pass On Checkpoint Security

The TSA administrator, John Pistole, told me last Monday morning that the agency was about to announce new policies that would address the absurdity of requiring on-duty pilots to submit to TSA checkpoint inspections of their persons and possessions, and the agency has now done that.

The agency says that a nationwide sterile area access system for pilots is being phased in, and pilots traveling in uniform on airline business will see immediate modifications to their checkpoint screening process "due to their trusted status." Eligible pilots must work for a U.S. carrier, be traveling in uniform, and on airline business. Pilots will enter the secure area after presenting their airline-issued identification and another form of identification. TSA officers then will check credentials against a secure, real-time airline flight deck crewmember database, which includes a picture and other information to verify the individual’s employment status.

Flight deck crewmembers who utilize this program will also be subject to random screening and other layers of security, the agency said.

"Pilots are trusted partners who ensure the safety of millions of passengers flying every day," Pistole said. "Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources."

Airline pilots unions hailed the move.

"Establishing a secure system to positively identify and verify the employment status of uniformed pilots is a common sense, risk-based approach that allows TSA to dedicate more resources to unknown threats," said Capt. Paul Onorato, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

"The U.S. Airline Pilots Association appreciates the TSA’s willingness to work with us to find a solution that recognizes what an important asset pilots are to the security process,” staid the president of that union, Mike Cleary.

The Allied Pilots Association called it "a very welcome policy change."

The TSA said it is working closely with pilots to expedite their security screening by verifying their identity and employment at the checkpoint at airports nationwide, modeled after a successful pilot program that is currently operational at three airports.

In conjunction with the Air Line Pilots Association International, TSA tested a sterile area access system called CrewPASS in 2008 and 2009. In June 2009, TSA announced Crew Personnel Advanced Screening System (CrewPASS) would continue to operate at the test sites: Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International, Pittsburgh International, and Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan airports.

The move addresses an obvious absurdity that has long vexed pilots. A pilot doesn't need a "prohibited item" to cause a plane to crash. So searching pilots makes no sense. The new move is, of course, predicated on having an utterly reliable identification system in place, and that obviously will include biometric data.

This is definitely a victory for common sense, and John Pistole deserves credit for doing it.

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Breast-Cancer Survivors and the TSA's Gropes

I've been telling people this for months, and now I see it's finally becoming an issue. Women who are breast cancer survivors and who wear prosthetic bras are suddenly vulnerable to TSA sexual groping because of these new body-scan machines.

This is another problem that I am astonished the TSA did not anticipate. The body-scan machines detect mass of any sort on the body -- including in a prosthetic bra. (The old metal-detector machines don't show that, of course).

This means that women wearing prosthetic bras -- women who have been through the ordeal of breast cancer -- are now subject to intense physical groping. That occurs even when they've taken the normal precautions not to trigger an alarm at the checkpoint, whether in the metal detector or a body-scanner.

The media are generally clueless on this subject, because they're simply not paying attention. And the ones who are trying to pay attention don't get it. To quote Bill Moyers again, reporters are paid to explain things they don't understand.

A local TV station in Charlotte, N.C., does get part of it, at least. WBTV has this report on a flight attendant and cancer survivor who was forced to show her prosthetic breast so that a couple of humps from the TSA could examine it. And this was in August, before the current regime of even more hysterical use of body-scanners and gropes.

Here's the WBTV report. By the way, the text of the report links to what is described as TSA procedures for prosthetic devices. It's inaccurate. These actually are old procedures designed for those with metallic prosthetic devices and implants that routinely trigger the old metal detectors. The TSA has not yet been required to address its thinking on non-metallic prostheses such as prosthetic bras, and whether women who wear them can expect to be forced to strip down and show them to screeners, after they've been spotted on a strip-search machine.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Today in Dumb: Hiring Rent-a-Cops To Spite the TSA

[Corrected from original version: Not Orlando International Airport, but Orlando Sanford International Airport]

Every dumb idea eventually has its day, and here's today's: The idea for airports to "opt out" of the TSA running checkpoints in favor of what the shills call "private enterprise" and the rest of us recognize as rent-a-cops.

Orlando Sanford International Airport, an institution that inhabits the epicenter of Mickey Mouse thinking, has decided to do just such a thing -- to spite the TSA. Mind you, current TSA procedures like the invasive patdowns would still have to be used. But now they'd be hiring who knows what to staff the checkpoints, rather than federal employees.

By the way, this also means that the local authorities who run airports, and award contracts, would receive even more patronage bounty to dispense.

Remember: Nothing changes, except the federal employees would be replaced by private security guards hired by local pols at any airport that exercises the option, which is written into the TSA governing rules, to go private in its checkpoint hiring.

And remember how well that worked out in past years, before the federal government took over. You think you got a problem with the TSA running the checkpoints? Wait till you see what happens when Skeeter's Security and Storm Door Co. (a division of Halliburton Inc) brings in those ex-cons and other unemployables to grope the women and paw through wallets when you aren't looking.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TSA Checkpoint: The Country Western Album

A radio producer in San Francisco and I were discussing the current checkpoint fury this afternoon and decided there was definitely a country-western album in the making.

Some titles:

1. Just a Sad Country Girl Sittin' in Newark Bein' Felt Up By All the Wrong People

2. Don't Touch My Junk

3. Groin Check!

4. How 'Bout I Punch You in the Face Instead, Hoss?

5. I'd Rather be Goosed Than Radiated (--from reader David Tallman)


OK, I'll knock it off.

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'Nobody Likes Violating the 4th Amendment,' But Tough

I'm always vastly amused by the way some of the media, especially the television media, blithely appropriate other people's (ahem) reporting, and pretend they discovered these things all by themselves, but hey, onward and upward.

Meanwhile, check out this astonishing statement in a TV interview on Fox with Mo McGowan, a former head of security operations at the TSA. Says McGowan of the intrusive body-groping that has everyone so anxious: "Nobody likes having the 4th Amendment violated going through a security line, but the fact of the matter is, we're going to have to do it."

[It's at about 4.30 on the video].

Yo, Mo: You know who reeeeeeallly might not "like" having the 4th Amendment violated? A federal court is who. And the lawsuits are already flying, you should excuse the term.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hands Down Your Pants? Hoo Boy, Here We Go

Let me say something first. I've been covering the TSA since the day it began. In this blog and elsewhere, I've been fair, but also very tough on the agency when I thought it was appropiate, which was frequently.

But whenever I write a post or a column that blasts or ridicules the TSA, I always do so with the anxiety that, God forbid, I might go online or pick up the paper tomorrow and see a blaring heradline: Terrorists Crash 747 Into Rhode Island Orphanage -- while at the same time there's my little blog or column pissing and moaning about some checkpoint hassles.

That said, I repeat here that the current public fury about the checkpoints, which admittedly is being fanned by conservative and libertarian media, with the MSM huffing along behind, is just about out of control.

It must be addressed, head-on, by Washington.

For example, look at the latest sensation, via the Drudge Report, of charges that patdowns can include hands down your pants. The report is anecdotal and perhaps reflects an anomaly, rather than a policy -- but it is going viral.

This level of emotion and fury cannot be shrugged off much longer.

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TSA: Dumb and Now Dumber at San Diego?



I'm old enough to know that Satan does not exist, but stupidity roams shrieking over the landscape with evident impunity. As Ron White says, "You can't fix stupid," I might add, nor can you exorcise it.

That said, my jaw still dropped seeing a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper this morning that the TSA official who runs the TSA's operations at San Diego International Airport has "opened an investigation" into John Tyner, the software engineer who declined to submit to a full body-patdown (including what some screener called a "groin check") and ran into a major hassle when he decided instead to chuck the flight and leave the airport last Saturday morning.

Now, I often wonder why some (most, I would say) airports have TSA staffs that are professional, courteous and well-trained, while others seem to go out of their way to employ humps. The TSA chief at any individual airport -- who reports to Washington -- is the one responsible for the performance of the TSA employees on his watch. Michael J. Aguilar, chief of the TSA office at San Diego, is such a person.

Now, anyone who listens to the full recording of Mr. Tyner's 30-minute Kafkaesque encounter knows that Tyner, while he was certainly considered a pain in the ass by the screeners who were trying to get him to accept the patdown, behaved calmly and in a civil manner. Faced with the patdown, he decided instead to cancel his trip and leave the airport.

Here's what should have been said:

TSA Agent: "OK, sir, that's your choice. Have a nice day." (sotto voce: "And don't let the door hit you in the butt on your way out of the terminal."

Instead, like the worst sort of small town cops, the TSA at San Diego kept hassling him as he tried to leave. Tyner recorded the whole thing. In the terminal, where he was escorted after the checkpoint standoff, Tyner made it clear that he had given the screeners all of his personal information, which he had, and that he did not understand why the officer now detaining him insisted on having him repeat the same information, as the officer said, "for your benefit."

Tyner: "For my benefit? I think we're done. My benefit has been achieved."

Officer: "Actually, sir, we're not, no sir. I'm trying to give you some mitigating factors in your favor."

Tyner: "Mitigating? Meaning what? ... I would like to leave --"

Officer: "I understand that--"

Tyner: "Can I leave?"

Officer: "What I'm asking you to do is cooperate with me ... You want to be non-cooperative with me as well."

Tyner: "You're preventing me from leaving the airport."

At this point, the officer informed Tyner that he was subject to a civil lawsuit, with an $11,000 fine, for ... well, for whatever.

As we all know, the Tyner story went viral online. People are flat-out furious about it, along with the other fury being directed at the TSA>

At this point, the TSA -- already being beaten like a rented mule in public opinion -- had one smart move. Address the issue: Why was Tyner detained and questioned long after he departed the checkpoint? Why was he threatened?

Instead, the TSA at San Diego doubled down on a very, very bad bet. The San Diego TSA chief, Aguilar, actually called a press conference to announce further harassment of Tyner.

Certainly, one would think, this was a matter of Aguilar cowboying it on his own.

He certainly did not clear that bone-headed move with Washington.

Did he?

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Travel Industry, Pilots Meeting With Homeland Security Over TSA Checkpoint Furor



The rising furor over aggressive airport-security patdowns and the use of and procedures for those new body-imaging machines has prompted a meeting today between top Homeland Security officials and travel industry representatives.

Representatives of the industry, including airline pilots who increasingly are vowing to "opt out" of body-scans, are meeting today with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and with John Pistole, the former deputy FBI director who became the T.S.A. chief in July.

Napolitano, Pistole and others in Homeland Security and the T.S.A. were evidently caught flat-footed by the public outcry that followed a new program of more aggressive patdowns that started on Nov. 1 -- at a time when airline passengers increasingly were being confronted with the body-scan machines.

[Some conservative and libertarian media are engaged in a relentless campaign denouncing the T.S.A. and the intrusive patdowns. See this for an example.]

There are also increasing calls -- especially by groups like the pilots -- for an independent assessment of the real radiation risks associated with the backscatter form of the machines. The T.S.A. has cited studies showing that the radiation effects are "minuscule," but pilots and others are expressing concerns about the backscatter machines and about cumulative effects of repeated doses. See also here.

The former Homeland Security boss, Michael Chertoff, runs a consulting firm that represents the manufacturer of those machines, which the T.S.A. is buying along with another version of imagers that use less controversial millimeter wave technology. Here's some background on Chertoff's business interests, and the business interests of other well-connected officials, in the body-scan industry.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel industry, which accounts for over $700 billion in direct spending in the U.S. annually, has expressed concerns that the security-checkpoint furor will crimp the ongoing rebound in travel, as people simply decide a trip isn't worth the hassle of the related trip through the T.S.A. paddle-wheel at the airports.

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Air Traffic Increasing; Airplanes More Full Than Ever; Airlines Adding Capacity

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that passenger traffic on U.S. airlines was up 1.8 percent in August (compared with August 2009), to a total of 66.2 million enplanements on domestic and international flights.

Showing that all those reports about drastic airline constriction are wrong, overall available seating capacity rose 2.4 percent. And airplanes are, as anyone who flies regularly knows well, more crowded than ever. In August, airplanes were on the average 85 percent full, a record. On most flights, as we all know well, there isn't a single open seat (and hasn't been for well over a year).

However, the August 2010 passenger total was 2.4 percent below that of two years ago in August 2008.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is an agency of the Transportation Department.

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