Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bush League in Tucson

[Tucson Electric Park at the end of spring training. Photo by Chris Sharkey]

After 63 years, major league baseball spring training comes to an end today in Tucson, Arizona. Its death was caused by the greed of Major League Baseball, the corporate giant, and by the gullibility of local officials who think that building expensive stadiums for the benefit of sports teams is a prudent use of taxpayer money.

The next-to-last game was played yesterday between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Texas Rangers at the $38 million Tucson Electric Park, built by Pima County at taxpayer expense and opened in 1998 as the spring-training home for the brand-new Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago White Sox. Both teams signed 15-year contracts to play at the new ballpark.

The White Sox blew town at the end of spring training last year. The Diamondbacks skulked out of the stadium yesterday at the end of the final game, which they lost 4-2 to the Rangers.

The last spring training game in Tucson will be played today, between the Colorado Rockies and the Diamondbacks, at Rockies' spring home, the venerable 1937 Hi Corbett Field, a little gem of a stadium that was originally the spring training home of the Cleveland Indians, who played there from 1947 through 1992, after which the Rockies moved in.

At the end of the game today at Hi Corbett (a report will follow), both the Rockies and the Diamondbacks will be gone. Next spring, the teams will play at a new $100 million stadium and training facility (built by taxpayer money, natch) near Scottsdale in the Phoenix suburbs -- 110 miles up the Interstate from Tucson.

Ha-ha, loyal Tucson has been told: No baseball for you!

The issue here is not so much the Rockies' departure from good old Hi Corbett Field, though that's a crying shame. The issue is the cheesy way the Diamondbacks are leaving town, having enjoyed taxpayer largess at Tucson Electric Park, which many consider to be the finest spring-training stadium in major league baseball.

Yesterday's final game at TEP, as it is known, was played under glorious sunny skies with the temperature in the 80s. Conspicuously lacking was any overt acknowledgment by the local apparatchiks that the team they had built the new stadium for was leaving the premises for good after the 9th inning, leaving county taxpayers with $22.7 million to pay off in debt from the stadium.

Shhh, the apparatchiks seemed to believe. Don't let's embarrass the Major League Baseball panjandrums down there counting the money under the stands before they skip out on the rent.

Instead, the loudspeaker boomed: "The Pima County Board of Supervisors welcomes you to today's game!" and then the announcer gamely described some other local attractions to be seen by visitors, including the abandoned Titan II nuclear missile site, now a museum, 20 miles down the Interstate.

In the local paper, one county supervisor, Ramon Valadez, was quoted as saying that the Diamondbacks' leaving before the contract expired was "an abuse of the public."

But at the ballpark, the only real acknowledgment came from a well-known stadium beer vendor who calls himself Scooter the Beerguy. At the end of the 7th inning, Scooter the Beerguy set down his box at the foot of the stands near the dugout on the first-base side and wailed to the fans: "We've had 13 great years here, and they can't take that from us!" He took a big bow in a rousing ovation.

Uh, I have some news for you Scooter. They can take it away and they did.

[Scooter, by the way, declines to give his real name. Instead, he hands you his business card, which lists his Web site.]

The only other real acknowledgment that the deal had gone sour and the end was imminent came from the stadium organist. Between innings in the 9th, a bouncy rendition of "Camelot" in a 2-4 beat issued from the loudspeakers.

When the game ended, I expected at least some overt acknowledgment from the Diamondbacks team itself that it was leaving town. Maybe the team would take to the field for a final wave. You know, say goodbye and many thanks to the fans who built the ballpark for them.

Nope. The Texas Rangers team took to the field, its management apparently aware that a certain moment had occurred and a certain respect might be due to the fans. The Texas Rangers have some manners.

Behaving like the bush-leaguers that they are, the Arizona Diamondbacks turned their backs and disappeared into the dugout, then into the bowels of the stadium where the money is counted. They were a no-class outfit to the end.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Air Travel Fell 5.3 Percent in 2009, DOT Says

The U.S. Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says today that the number of scheduled domestic and international passengers on U.S. airlines and on flights to and from the United States on foreign airlines declined in 2009 by 5.3 percent from 2008, dropping to 769.6 million.

The declines were biggest in the first half of last year. Traffic picked up markedly through the second half of the year, though.

The report says that:

--U.S. airlines carried 5.2 percent fewer domestic passengers in 2009 and 6.3 percent fewer international passengers than in 2008. Passengers to and from the United States on foreign carriers decreased 4.8 percent compared with 2008.

--Total passengers on U.S. airlines and on foreign airlines to and from the United States declined from the same month in 2008 in 10 of the 12 months. The largest decline, 12.4 percent, took place in February. During the first six months of 2009, the number of passengers declined 9 percent from the same period in 2008. During the last six months, the decline was 1.4 percent.

--Southwest Airlines carried more total system passengers in 2009 than any other U.S. airline for the third consecutive year. American Airlines carried more international passengers to and from the United States in 2009 than any other U.S. or foreign carrier for the 20th consecutive year.

--More total system passengers boarded planes in 2009 at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International than at any other U.S. airport, and more international passengers boarded planes at New York John F. Kennedy than at any other U.S. airport.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

'Fly Girls' and Some Myths About 'Stewardesses'

Photos: The 2003 revised edition of "Coffee, Tea." Donald Bain and his oeuvre. Fantasy image of stewardesses in the so-called golden era.

Any time someone evokes the so-called golden era of airline flying and focuses on stewardesses -- as does this TV reality show that I that haven't seen -- you can be sure you'll be hearing about a famous 1967 book, "Coffee, Tea or Me?" that is widely believed to have been written by two saucy, sexy stewardesses. The book, a spectacular best-seller, created the template for the image of the racy, jet-setting airline stewardess as globe-trotting party girl in endless pursuit of rich men and good times.

However, the memoir (along with three "Coffee, Tea" sequels) was actually written by an American Airlines PR guy in New York City named Donald Bain. After the initial success of "Coffee, Tea," he became a prolific author, not only of fictional sexy "memoirs" of career girls like stewardesses, nurses and schoolteachers, but also of mystery thrillers such as the "Murder She Wrote" series. That series was, famously, adapted for TV.

Naturally, the "Murder She Wrote" books were published with the "author" identified as "Jessica Fletcher," who was, of course, the fictional character in the books, and the character played in the TV series by Angela Lansbury.

Don Bain wrote 'em all himself.

Over the years, I've spoken and corresponded with Don a number of times, including right after he came came forward in 2003 as the actual author of "Coffee, Tea or Me," which was first published in 1967 under the names of the two stewardesses, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, neither of whom actually existed. Instead, two Eastern Airline stewardesses who had been merely talking about writing a book about their experiences were hired by the publisher to tour the country promoting "their" authorship of "Coffee, Tea" in print and, especially, on television.

The stewardess book was a sensation, as I've said, even though it was actually pretty tame -- suggestive rather than salacious. Back in 1967, the late and seldom-lamented Look Magazine said breathlessly that the book "Gives the lowdown on stewardesses; reads like a footnote to 'Human Sexual Response."

It did nothing of the sort. It was more like a romp and a caper.

The "revised" edition published by Penguin in 2003 still carried the names of Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones on the cover as the authors, but this time Don Bain finally took credit. "--with Donald Bain," it said on the cover under the two fictitious stewardess names.

Don, a real gentleman, spilled the Bains, or beans, in his 2002 autobiography "Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume."

He told me back then that the "Coffee, Tea" project got started when he was a young PR guy (with the standard literary aspirations) at American Airlines in New York. He was already a fairly regular business traveler.

An editor at a publishing house introduced him to two Eastern Airlines stewardesses who thought they together might be able to write a book about their escapades. The editor thought Don might want to be the ghostwriter for the two women. But when Don sat down with them, they didn't have much to offer besides a few anecdotes.

"I realized they didn't have enough to sustain a book, and I was going to have to use an awful lot of my own imagination," he told me then. Nevertheless, he was inspired by the idea. So he created a "memoir" out of whole cloth.

The book shot onto the best-seller list, and the two stewardesses were delighted to go on the road to publicize it as the authors -- even though their real names were not on the cover. Bedazzled by fame, "one of them legally changed her real name to the one I had given her on the book," Bain told me.

Don had the fictional stewardesses dedicate "their" book to himself in in the first edition. He also dedicated the three "Coffee, Tea" sequels "to Donald Bain, without whom this book wouldn't have been possible." As his writing career took off in the ghostwritten faux-memoir genre, each successive book, including the ones about racy nurses, was oddly dedicated to "Donald Bain."

"I always wondered if somebody was going to look at them all and say, 'Who is this guy who all these young women are dedicating books to?'" he said.

Back then, Don greatly admired flight attendants (at the time they were almost all female and young) for their grit, their poise under stress and their determination to succeed in male-dominated environment, in an era when newspaper held-wanted adds still were segregated under separate headings for "Male Help Wanted" and "Female Help Wanted."

When "Coffee, Tea" was re-released in 2003, this time with his name on the cover under the fictional authors', he wrote this in honor of flight attendants:

"Thanks for being on the front line of air-travel security. You have my undying gratitude for the tough job you do so admirably, and for allowing me to have had fun writing about an earlier era in air travel and your role in it."

I've written about Don several times over the years. Now that those purported golden days are being evoked again, even by real modern-day flight attendants in a reality show on television, it's not a bad idea to keep the record straight.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Again, a Bush Shows How Not to Behave in a Foreign Country

Proving you can take the frat boy out of the White House but you ... uh, you still got a frat boy around, George W. Bush shook some Haitian people's hands on a road trip with Bill Clinton -- and then like a great big slob wiped his hand on Clinton's shirt.

The look on Clinton's face is priceless in the annals of ex-presidents on parade. Here's the video and text link.

Bush, the self-styled cowboy who was actually afraid of horses and couldn't ride, is famous for being obsessively concerned about germs. Which of course is not actually a cowboy characteristic.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Virgin America Fare Sale

Virgin America introduced a major fare sale last night with, for example, round-trip fares between New York and Los Angeles for just over $300 when you add in the fees. But hurry, hurry, hurry (as the carny barkers used to say), because these fares come with lots of availability and other restrictions.

Details from the Virgin America announcement:

Book by March 29. Fly with 14-day advance purchase April 6 through June 20 and August 24 through November 17. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
San Francisco Las Vegas $59*
San Francisco Los Angeles $59*
San Francisco San Diego $59*
Seattle San Francisco $79*
Seattle Los Angeles $99*
Boston San Francisco $129*
Boston Los Angeles $129*
Washington, D.C. (Dulles) San Francisco $129*
Washington, D.C. (Dulles) Los Angeles $129*
Fort Lauderdale San Francisco $129*
Fort Lauderdale Los Angeles $129*
New York (JFK) Los Angeles $139*
New York (JFK) San Francisco $139*

Book by March 29. Fly with 14-day advance purchase August 19 through November 17. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
San Francisco Orlando $199*
Los Angeles Orlando $149*
Seattle Orlando $199*
San Diego Orlando $199*

And here's the fine print:

* All coach fares are one-way and require a 14-day advance purchase. Tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. Tickets must be purchased by 11:59 pm PDT 03.29.10. For service to and from Orlando, travel must occur between 08.19.10 and 11.17.10. For all other service travel must occur between 04.06.10 and 06.20.10 or 08.24.10 and 11.17.10. Blackout dates are 05.28.10, 05.31.10, 09.03.10, and 09.06.10. Higher sale fares in effect on Fridays, and Sundays. Seats are limited, subject to availability, and may not be available on all flights. Flight may not operate daily during off-peak periods. Changes or cancellations can be made for a $75 fee if changes are made on Virgin America’s website ( or a $100 fee through all other channels, including the call center and at the airport, plus any increase in fare, if applicable. Passengers who "no-show" without a change or cancel prior to the scheduled departure time will forfeit the amount of the fare. In addition, any future flights booked in the same reservation will also be canceled and the fare will be forfeited. Tickets purchased from Virgin America through the reservation call center will cost an additional $15 per passenger per itinerary. Any added cost associated with purchasing tickets from Virgin America through our reservation call center will be non-refundable. Fares do not include passenger facility charges of up to $9 each way, September 11th security fees of up to $5 each way and a federal segment tax of $3.70 per domestic segment. ... Fares will not be honored retroactively or in exchange for any wholly or partially used ticket. Fares, routes, fees and schedules are subject to change without notice. Virgin America will accept one piece of checked baggage up to 70 pounds for $25 for each ticketed passenger. The fee per passenger for each additional checked bag up to 50 pounds from the second (2) to the tenth (10) is $25. Additional fees apply to baggage exceeding these weight limitations, and other baggage restrictions may apply.

Whew, sounds like one of those TV ads where the announcer races through the fine print at 300 words a minute.


Good for Ann Coulter, Who Challenges Canada on Free Speech

UPDATE -- As a crowd of angry protesters gathered, Coulter's speech Tuesday night at the University of Ottawa was canceled for security reasons. Link.

Yay for Ann Coulter, who rushed the net and slammed the ball right into the prissy noggin of a Canadian university apparatchik who had pompously warned her about Canada's limited free-speech protections, in advance of several speeches she had planned at Canadian universities.

Speech that offends anyone is a hate crime, Francois Houle, the provost of the University of Ottawa, informed Coulter in a hilariously misguided e-mail to her (text also below). And, he warned grandly, "promoting hatred against any identifiable group" (Say what? This includes the Nazis? The Khmer Rouge? The Chamber of Commerce?) is an offense that "could lead to criminal charges."

Coulter's response, in effect: Yo, I got your hate crime right here, pal.

Brilliantly, I thought, Coulter said she will be filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, arbiter of offense, in which she will allege that she herself is a victim of hate speech by the Canadian bureaucrat. Besides doing what she is best known for, which is right-wiung insult-comedy shtick, Coulter is also a pretty smart lawyer.

Francois Houle, by the way, describes himself as having research specialties in (gwak! as my parrot would say) "multiculturalism and citizenship" on his university bio.

A columnist for the terribly correct Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail ("Jane Taber and the Globe's Parliamentary Bureau Set the Agenda," the column hed proclaims) appeared to miss the point about freedom of speech because of her disdain for the likes of Coulter. As to Provost Houle's e-mail warning to watch what you say, "the letter was leaked to National Post, which is considered friendly to the hard-right conservative cause," the Globe and Mail's setter of parliamentary agendas sniffed portentously.

Those of us on all points of the ideological spectrum (and some of us occupying multiple points, depending) who have been subject to legal action in foreign countries for speech that is utterly and without doubt protected by the U.S. Constitution welcome the irrepressible Coulter to the club. For years, certain countries -- most especially Britain, but including others -- have allowed foreign plaintiffs to win libel and defamation suits against Americans in foreign courts, for speech published or made by those Americans in the U.S. that in no way would be considered libelous in any U.S. court.

The Coulter case is a bit different. Houle's warning concerned speech that he presumed would be uttered in Canada, not the United States. But it underscores the growing threat not only to Americans' presumption of free speech in democratic nations, but also our guarantees of free speech in the U.S.

{The National Post newspaper in Canada reported that Coulter's filing of a complaint there could be more than a good joke. "Even though Coulter is not a Canadian citizen, Levant [a Canadian human rights legal expert] said it would not be “outlandish” for Coulter to file a complaint against the University of Ottawa, especially in light of [a 1985 case that is] considered a leading constitutional decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, [which] said that foreign nationals are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."}

Meanwhile, there is another prominent case in Canada in which a U.S. author, Paul Williams, was sued for defamation by another Canadian university for reporting he published in the U.S. about a Jihadist terrorist cell's activities within that university. No one has said Williams' reporting was wrong. Just that he was insensitive to a Canadian institution. Needless to say, a libel suit saying someone is "insensitive" to some university would be laughed out of any U.S. court.

But being sued in a foreign country has its costs. The last time I talked with Williams, he told me he and his wife had spent over $100,000 on legal fees in his defense.

The most famous foreign libel-abuse case involves Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York author and scholar who lost a libel suit in a British court, filed by a Saudi billionaire who was mentioned in her book on the financing of terrorism, "Funding Evil." Again, no one except the aggrieved plaintiff, a known terrorism financier, has disputed the accuracy of Ehrenfeld's well-researched account. And what she wrote would never have been considered libelous in a U.S. court.

Here's a recent op-ed piece by Dr. Ehrenfeld in the Guardian newspaper in Britain, along with related links on the Web site of the American Center for Democracy.

And here's a smart piece in the Huffington Post on the wider implications (including my case) by Judy Platt of the Association of American Publishers.

Here is some background on my case, from via the International Free Press Society.

And here's an opinion piece about libel tourism in Germany, though the article lacks scope and nuance and seems to credit Britain with an honest reform movement that no one I know seems to recognize.

The Ehrenfeld verdict turned on an asinine notion, promulgated by the notorious Justice Eady of the infamous British High Court, that something published in the U.S. (a mere 23 copies of the Ehrenfeld book found their way to Britain) can constitute actionable injury under the detestable British libel laws (which are tailor-made for plaintiffs, in that their complaints are judged valid unless the defendant conclusively proves otherwise in the British court)-- mainly because said book's assertions are readily available in Britain on the Internet. Not only that, but the tort is as perpetual and eternal as the Internet itself, the British court held.

Dr. Ehrenfeld is the leader in the fight against this kind of offense to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. Her case prompted New York State to adopt a so-called Free Speech Protection Act, which prohibits any enforcement in New York of a foreign libel judgment involving speech by an American citizen that is fully protected under the First Amendment.

About a dozen states have passed or are in the process of passing similar laws. An important federal bill, the Free Speech Protection Act, with similar provisions, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I watched the Judiciary Committee hearing on that bill last month and was somewhat dismayed, by the way. The committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, gave lip service to the bill, but several committee members, such as Sen. Al Franken, who is supposedly a smart fellow, seemed to miss the point of the threat entirely.

The only committee member who seemed to get it fully was Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who zeroed in on the overriding issues with great alacrity. [Hey, Sen. Kyl: I'm an Arizonan and my case in Brazil is a real gem. Why haven't you responded to my letter and e-mails?]

Incidentally, the two friendly witnesses at the hearing made a tactical mistake in allowing the focus to remain exclusively on the UK, where British politicians dismayed by recent bad publicity in the London Times and elsewhere have said (said) they will support reforms of Britain's inexcusable libel laws. That was months ago. Nothing has happened.

The threat is wider than just in Britain, and it is not just directed at writers, journalists, bloggers and provocateurs on the speakers' circuits. As this precedent spreads, any foreign country can reach into the U.S. to intimidate and try to silence any American who says or writes anything that is not liked by that foreign government, or one of its citizens, or someone just visiting that country, such as the Saudi citizen who sued Rachel Ehrenfeld in the UK.

Such legal actions can be brought (and have been) against academic researchers, including medical scholars writing in respected journals. Travel reviewers are also at risk. As are online kibitzers and even casual users of social-networking sites. North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen .. any country in the world could theoretically try to stifle free speech within the United States or, as in the Coulter case, prevent Americans from expressing their own opinions when abroad.

I hope the federal bill on foreign libel judgments can be shaken loose from committee and voted into law. And I trust that the Arizona bill, which passed the Arizona house by a vote of 30 to 0 recently, can be moved more expeditiously through the Arizona House, where momentum seems to have been lost. There are at least three Arizona residents who are affected by spurious foreign libel threats, and there are likely to be more as this threat spreads internatonally.

Meanwhile, those of us fighting this fight welcome Coulter into the tent. In the Coulter case, Americans need to become aware of the threat posed by friendly foreign governments with laws that allow any aggrieved person, or prim bureaucrat, to smother free speech when it causes offense to anyone who claims to be offended, including an institution (or, in my case, an entire country). In the foreign libel cases, much more attention needs to be paid to a serious and pernicious threat to free speech in the United States.


Here is the full text of the letter from the University of Ottawa bureaucrat to Ann Coulter, published yesterday in the National Post newspaper of Canada:

"Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.

There is a strong tradition in Canada, including at this university, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.


Francois Houle,

Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa"


[UPDATE: Note comment below that anyone who says "good for Ann Coulter needs to see a therapist ASAP." I'm sure it was made lightly, but those who would shut down free speech, always on the ground that the offending speech "goes too far" or is "insensitive" or "angry," often fall back on the facile language of commercial therapy. The fact is, the only remedy for free speech that you don't like is more free speech. Your "crazy" might be my satiric relief. Within the well-defined bounds of libel and defamation in the United States, I'm an absolutist on the issue of freedom of speech. I wish more of my media colleagues were as well.]



Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fire Kills Exotic Birds at Gilcrease Sanctuary in Vegas

I know, the world is full of human tragedy. ... Still, the Gilcrease nature sanctuary in Las Vegas did a splendid job and provided a good home for exotic birds and other poor critters who had been abandoned or given up on. It was a refuge in Las Vegas in many senses of the word.

A bad fire killed about 200 of the birds and some other creatures there on Friday. Here's a report on the fire, and some background on Gilcrease.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Who Do You Trust? Not Precious Travel Writers

I've been writing a lot lately about the crowd-sourcing virtues of travel sites like those operated by Expedia's My point being that 1. everyone I know uses them at least for some part of travel-planning, especially to check for hotel reviews and 2. Traditional travel reviewing is lurching on its way to the tar pits, doomed by formulaic, precious writing (who reads that stuff about the dewey mists on the Cotswolds!) and by that old devil, irrelevance.

Now a new study (see chart above) by Menlo Consulting Group finds that Americans are significantly more trusting of information posted online by other travelers, than that by travel tourism professionals including mainstream travel writers, agents, and (duh) government tourism organizations.

"Americans have long relied on their friends and word-of-mouth for advice when researching and booking travel," said Heather Hardwick of Menlo Consulting. "What’s interesting is that they value the opinions of complete strangers above those of travel professionals—even journalists who presumably do not have a commercial agenda."

Quick, Maude, get the smellin' salts! Nobody gives a flying fig about that unbearably boring, humorless story by some hack about that divine bread-and-breakfast in New Hampshire where Amanda, the chamber-maid, cheerfully shows up with fresh towels and a pot of steamy coffee in the morning.

(And by the way, the usual suspects among the preternaturally precious would insist that the first word of the headline on this post must be "Whom.")

The Bastille of travel writing has been stormed. Just watch out for Robespierre lurking in the shadows, is all I'm saying.


This Morning's Comix

From Prickly City, the comic strip by Scott Stantis...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shipload of Trouble

As I have said, you couldn't get me on a cruise ship with a gun to my head.
Here's one of the reasons.

Monday, March 15, 2010

At Continental This Fall, There Will No Longer Be Any Such Thing As a Free Lunch (Or Breakfast or Dinner) in Coach

No soup for you!

Continental Airlines, long the only U.S. carrier offering free meals (such as they were) in coach, plans to drop that amenity this fall and sell food on board instead.

In a press release today, Continental makes weird twists and turns to divert you from the obvious, that the free meal service in coach is about to end, by announcing it is "introducing a variety of high quality, healthy food choices for purchase in economy class on many U.S./Canada and certain Latin American routes."

Sez Continental: "The airline will continue to offer complimentary food in the economy cabin on all intercontinental and certain other international routes, and on long-haul domestic routes over six hours."

OK, you may be asking, what exactly is a long-haul domestic route "over six hours?"

Anyway, Jim Compton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said: "Our traditional free-food model has served us well for many years, but we need to change to reflect today's market and customer preferences."

[UPDATE March 16 -- Re comment below on 6+ hour domestic flights, I overlooked Hawaii and Alaska (and, arguably, Puerto Rico). Also, I might add that I actually prefer being able to buy a decent sandwich or salad, rather than the god-awful little "pizza" Continental often served free (though it did always come with a salad, and the chicken sandwich Continental sometimes served was not bad). I've tried US Airways' deli sandwiches, which as I recall cost around $8, and I thought they were very good.]


Citing Demand, JetBlue to Double NY-LA Nonstops

Citing growing demand, JetBlue said today it will double its number of daily nonstops, from two to four, between JFK and LAX starting July 1.

As of July 1, here is JetBlue's schedule on that route, which is flown with A320 aircraft:

New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) to
Los Angeles (LAX) New York (JFK)
----------------- --------------------
Depart – Arrive Depart – Arrive
----------------- --------------------
7:05 a.m. – 10:03 a.m. 7:30 a.m. – 3:57 p.m.
11:00 a.m. – 1:51 p.m. 10:55 a.m. – 7:25 p.m.
4:59 p.m. – 8:05 p.m. 2:45 p.m. – 11:12 p.m.
7:55 p.m. – 11:02 p.m. 9:25 p.m. – 5:51 a.m. (next day)


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spring Break in Mexico? Not a Good Idea

Avoid all of the Mexican border towns, and I'd also think twice before planning any trips to Acapulco or other popular Spring Break spots.

The tourism smiley-faces like to assure Americans that reports of the the drug-war mayhem are overblown. Baloney. Bloody shootouts and murders are routine occurrences.
Like this report today. And, oh,this one.

The State Department issued a travel warning today on Mexico. It issued advice to depart Mexico to families of U.S. consulate employees in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros, through April 12.

The State Department said, "While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border daily for study, tourism or business and nearly one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico), violence in the country has increased. It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks in Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if victimized. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable."

It added, "Mexican drug cartels are engaged in violent conflict - both among themselves and with Mexican security services - for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. ... Some recent confrontations between Mexican authorities and drug cartel members have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales, Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area. ..."


Thursday, March 11, 2010

World Airlines Faring Better as Travel Demand Picks Up

Airlines will lose only a total of about $2.8 billion this year, rather than the previously forecast $5.5 billion, as travel demand picks up more forcefully than anticipated, the International Air Transport Association said today.

The recovery in demand became more robust around the end of last year and "continued into the first months of 2010," the trade group said. "Relatively flat capacity translated into some yield improvement and stronger revenues," it said.

However, first-class and business-class travel continues to lag, and it is not expected that it will return to the boom days any time soon, if at all.

"Premium yields, which are 20 percent below peak, may be suffering a structural shift," IATA said.

IATA announced a revised estimate for losses in 2009, which have not been fully tabulated yet. The new estimate is that airlines lost $9.4 billion overall in 2009, rather than the previously forecast $9.4 billion. Of that, $1.8 billion in losses is represented by U.S. carriers.

"Improvements are driven by economic recovery in the emerging markets of Asia-Pacific and Latin America, whose carriers posted international passenger demand gains of 6.5 percent and 11 percent respectively in January. North America and Europe are lagging with international passenger demand gains of 2.1 percent and 3.1 percent respectively for the same month," the IATA statement says, adding:

“We are seeing a definite two-speed industry. Asia and Latin America are driving the recovery. The weakest international markets are North Atlantic and intra-Europe which have continuously contracted since mid-2008,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

"Forecast highlights include:

Improving Demand: Passenger demand (which fell by 2.9 percent in 2009) is expected to grow by 5.6 percent in 2010. This is an improvement on the previous forecast in December of 4.5 percent growth. Cargo demand (which fell by 11.1% in 2009) is expected to grow by 12 percent in 2010. This is significantly better than the previously forecast 7 percent growth.

Load Factors: Airlines kept capacity relatively in line with demand throughout 2009. A strong year-end recovery pushed load factors to record levels when adjusted for seasonality. By January the international passenger load factor was 75.9 percent. .

Yields: Tighter supply and demand conditions are expected to see yields improve—2.0% for passenger and 3.1% for cargo. This is a considerable improvement from the precipitous 14% fall experienced by both in 2009.

Premium Travel: Premium travel, while slower to recover than economy travel, now appears to be following a cyclical recovery in volume terms. But it is still 17 percent below the early 2008 peak.

Fuel: With improved economic conditions, the price of fuel is rising. [MY NOTE: Oil closed at $82 yesterday] IATA raised its expected average oil price to $79 per barrel from the previously forecast $75. That is an increase of $17 per barrel on the $62 average price for 2009. The combined impact of increased capacity and a higher fuel price will add $19 billion to the industry fuel bill, bringing it to an expected $132 billion in 2010. As a percentage of operating costs, this represents 26%, up from 24% in 2009.

Revenues: Revenues will rise to $522 billion. That is $44 billion more than previously forecast and a $43 billion improvement on 2009.

“Revenues are half-way to recovery—US$42 billion below the 2008 peak and US$43 billion above the 2009 trough. Important fundamentals are moving in the right direction. Demand is improving. The industry has been wise in managing capacity. Prices are beginning to align with the costs—premium travel aside. We can be optimistic but with due caution. Important risks remain. Oil is a wild-card, over-capacity is still a danger, and costs must be kept under control—throughout the value chain and with labor,” said Bisignani.

Regional differences in airlines prospects are sharp:

* Asia-Pacific carriers will see the $2.7 billion 2009 loss turn to $900 million in profits on the back of a rapid economic recovery being driven by China. Cargo markets are particularly strong with long-haul cargo capacity for shipments originating in Asia experiencing a capacity shortage. Demand is expected to grow by 12 percent in 2010.
* Latin American carriers will post an $800 million profit for the second consecutive year. The region’s economies are less debt-burdened than the US or Europe. Economic ties to Asia helped isolate the region from the worst of the financial crisis. Carriers in parts of the region have benefited from liberalized markets which have facilitated some cross-border consolidation, giving greater flexibility to deal with changing economic conditions. Demand is expected to grow by 12.2 percent in 2010.
* European carriers will post a $2.2 billion loss — the largest among the regions. This reflects the slow pace of economic recovery and faltering consumer confidence. Demand is expected to grow by 4.2 percent in 2010. Intra-European premium travel is expected to recover more slowly. In December it remained 9.7 percent below previous year levels.
* North American carriers will post the second largest losses at $1.8 billion. The jobless economic recovery continues to burden consumer confidence. Demand is expected to improve by 6.2 percent in 2010. But with intra-North America premium travel still down 13.3 percent as of December, the region remains in the red.
* Middle East carriers are expected to experience demand growth of 15.2 percent in 2010, but will see losses of $400 million. Low yields in long-haul markets connected over Middle East hubs is a burden on profitability.
* African carriers are likely to post a $100 million loss for 2010, halving 2009 losses. Demand is expected to improve by 7.4 percent. But this will not be sufficient for profitability as they continue to face strong competition for market share.

Structural Adjustments

"The stark contrast between profitability among Asian and Latin American carriers while losses continue to plague the rest of the industry clearly demonstrates the fact that airlines have not been able to develop into global businesses. The restrictions of the bilateral system prevent the kind of cross border consolidation that we have seen in industries such as pharmaceuticals or telecoms. Airlines are battling the challenges of the financial crisis without the benefit of this important tool. It’s time for change,” said Bisignani."


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Airline Work Force

Airlines employed 527,797 workers full-time and part-time in January 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported today.

That compares with 583,947 in January 2009 -- and 728,947 in January of 2000.


Continental: Faced With Fines for Tarmac Strandings, We Will Cancel Flights

Photo: Continental CEO Jeff Smisek

As reported here last week, the number of flights canceled by domestic airlines during bad weather last month was 38,000, according to

As those cancellations were going down at airports in the Northeast, I remarked several times that most of them looked to be preemptive -- that is, airlines were whacking literally thousands of flights in the New York and Washington areas and in Philly before the various snowstorms actually arrived.

I said then that it appeared that airlines were throwing a kind of tantrum, scrubbing all of those flights in advance to make a political point in opposition to the move by the Transportation Department to impose draconian fines ($27,500 a passenger, which would in fact impress Dracula) on airlines that had planes stuck idled on tarmacs for three hours or more.

People in the industry told me that wasn't so, especially since the fines and sanctions provide an exception for bad weather. No, they said, that extraordinary glut of cancellations was caused by prudent crisis planning. Airline operations are stretched as thin as they ever have been, and it made sense from the corporate perspective to keep planes and crews in place as bad weather approached, rather than giving it the old college try and operating as best as possible in horrible weather, with planes and crews strung out all through the system.

Okay, I bought that explanation -- and I still do. On the other hand, as I have also noted here recently, 38,000 canceled flights meant 38,000 planeloads of people who had to scramble to re-book their trips in a system that has no slack even on normal days.

Anyone who's traveled in the last three weeks knows what this wrought as travelers lined up three- and four-deep at ticket counters trying to make alternate arrangements. The air-travel-system python is still digesting that bulk.

But now comes Jeff Smisek, the CEO of Continental Airlines, publicly stating that airlines will in fact cancel flights expressly to thwart the DOT penalties. Smisek, who's a lot more blunt than the amiable Larry Kellner, whom he replaced as CEO when Kellner retired in January, spoke at an investor's conference in New York yesterday.

Among his statements: "...having a rule that requires us to cancel flights at three hours or suffer a fine of $27,500 per passenger is inane. And so what we do in the face of a fine like that is we’re going to cancel a lot of flights. ... the government, by God, says, 'We're going to fine you $27,500.' Here's what we're going to do: We're going to cancel the flight."

After the DOT plan to fine airlines for tarmac strandings was announced in December, the Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, also warned that extra cancellations could ensue.

"We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences - more cancelled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible. Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one," said the trade group's president, James C. May.

Well, that's where we stand. And remember, the snows of yesterday may melt, but summer thunderstorm season lies ahead.

Granted, the air-traffic control infrastructure is an obsolete mess, and ongoing mega-billion spending to fix it with an impossibly delayed so-called NextGen rehab is a questionable initiative at best, and possibly a stunningly expensive boondoggle at worst.

But Smisek also made another noteworthy assertion, suggesting he seems to believe that the airline industry is a free market that operates without government help. Given the staggering sums of money spent by federal, state and local governments on airports, air-traffic control, aviation infrastructure and safety and other massive subsidies to the commercial airline industry, I was impressed by this statement from Mr. Smisek:

"The day that I rely on government to help this industry you should make sure that I get fired."

Say what?

Meanwhile, airlines are trying other ways to head off the potential DOT penalties for keeping passengers stuck on planes idled on tarmacs for three hours and more. No need to repeat the horror stories, or to note again that excessive tarmac delays are statistically minimal. When they happen, they're news.

Kate Hanni, the much-maligned grassroots founder of the movement that has pushed for so-called passengers rights in the matter of tarmac strandings (and whose activity was one of the impulses prompting the DOT to issue the tarmac-delay fine rule), has now taken on the attempt by several airlines to get temporary exemptions from the DOT rule at Kennedy airport, where a major runway is under construction and delays are expected to increase in the summer.

"Rather than forcing consumers to change their plans by imposing multi-hour delays on them due to some construction at JFK, the commercial airlines should change their operations and scheduling to adjust to temporarily lessened airport capacity," said Hanni. [My question: Does she mean they should cancel flights?]

She added, "The fact that the airlines are already working actively to find loopholes and excuses to avoid compliance with new consumer protections before the regulations even go into effect demonstrates their continued hostility to consumers and new laws and policies designed to protect them. Thee fact that these airlines are focusing their energy and resources on manipulating the regulatory process to avoid the new requirements rather than abide by them should motivate Congress to make the 3 Hour Rule permanent with the full force of law."

"Granting the airlines request for an exemption at JFK due to construction would create a precedent for waiving consumer protections at any airport" where an airline can point to construction of any other factor that might affect ontime departures, she said.

Anyway, summer is coming. Air travel is picking up. Passengers are furious and airlines -- if Jeff Smisek is any indication -- are pushing back.

We're in for another bumpy ride.


Correction. Flight 253 Was, Of Course, an A330, Not a 747

I sloppily passed along (with full credit, of course) a British news account the other day, without doubling back to check every known fact, and got justifiably duck-snapped by readers.

This time the Keystone Kop is me.

Of course it was an Airbus A330 on which the Underpants Bomber sought to set off an explosion on Christmas Day. I've certainly written enough about that sorry incident and should have noticed that the BBC documentary referred to here on Saturday used a 747 to replicate the Christmas Day bomb attempt, and that the actual incident occurred on an A330.

Dang, the British news media are sloppy, but that's no excuse for me to be as well.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

BBC on Christmas Day Underpants Bomber: Plane Probably Would Have Survived Explosion

[MARCH 10--Correction. Duh, of course: The plane in the Christmas Day incident was an A330, not a 747.]

The subsequent TSA hysteria aside, the Christmas Day underpants bomber likely would have failed to bring down that 747 approaching Detroit even if his bomb had successfully exploded, the BBC found in an explosives test conducted for a TV documentary.

In the test, which replicated the incident on Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, the controlled blast did not rupture the plane's fuselage. The casualties probably would have been limited to the bomber and the passenger next to him, the BBC said.


New Title, Same Blog

Please note new title for this blog, which formerly was called "High Anxiety." I'm changing it because I plan to write more about all aspects of travel, including hotels and destinations, rather than mostly air travel.




Friday, March 05, 2010

Allegiant Air Buying 757s for Hawaii Routes Linked With Leisure-Travel Package Deals

One of the more interesting leisure air-travel stories recently has been the growth of Allegiant Air, the Las Vegas based airline that carves out underserved leisure routes and flies them a little like a commercial carrier and a little like a charter that specializes in package deals with hotels and other services.

Allegiant said today is plans to buy six 757-200s to expand its leisure travel strategy into Hawaii, starting in the fourth quarter of this year with two deliveries.

Another 757-200 will be delivered in November, and a fourth one next January, Allegiant said. The remaining two will be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Allegient said it is buying the 757s specifically to fly to and from Hawaii, which it can not now serve with its existing fleet of 46 MD-80s.

The company CEO Maurice J. Gallagher Jr. suggested that Allegient's model will be to package land promotions, like hotel deals, with air travel in the languishing Hawaii market, which has lost significanty air service in recent years because it's a stubbornlyu low-fare market that's expensive to serve.

In a statement, Gallagher said: "Hawaii is the most prominent U.S. leisure destination currently un-served by Allegiant, and our small-city customers have been requesting this service. We are very optimistic about our ability to exploit the large third-party ancillary revenue opportunity we believe exists in Hawaii. We expect the sale of hotels, rental cars, and many attraction and activities popular with Hawaii visitors will provide a very meaningful contribution to the success of the service."

He added, "This transaction will enable Allegiant to extend to Hawaii its strategy of serving large leisure destinations from smaller cities [that have] no existing nonstop service."

Allegiant's successful strategy has been to travelers in small cities with diminishing major-carrier service to big, traditionally low-fare leisure destinations such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg, and Fort Lauderdale.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Final Tally on February Flight Cancellations


That's how many flights were canceled by U.S. airlines in February, according to, the most reliable source for real-time flight operations.

That means that U.S. airlines canceled 5.2 percent of all flights scheduled for Febuary.

The reason was snowstorms that raked the Northeast and Southeast states. Hardest hit were airports in the New York and Washington D.C. areas and in Philadelphia.

The top five airlines in February flight cancellations, according to

--Southwest (3,687)

--Delta (3,370)

--American Eagle (2,779)

--American (2,509)

--USAirways (2,195)

Note: American Eagle is the regional-airline subsidiary of American's parent company AMR. So the real number of flights canceled by American in February was 5,288. Though keep in mind that the other major airlines (Southwest excepted) depend heavily on regional jet flights contracted through independent regional "airlines," so it actually makes sense to tote up the American-American Eagle flights separately.



Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Where's the Legroom, Continental -- And Who Gets It? Let's Look At the Fine Print

[UPDATED March 5 with Continental response]

Continental's announcement earlier today that it would begin selling seats with at least seven inches of extra legroom to anyone who wants to buy one is creating a lot of concern among the airline's elite status customers. [Disclosure: I have the lowest elite status on Continental, silver. My wife has the highest, platinum.]

The announcement (see post earlier today) created a lot of confusion. Just where are these seats? And what does selling them mean for elite-status customers, whose major perk (in my opinion, from the lowest rung) is the ability to select a good seat at booking.

Along with its "for the media" press release, Continental sent a special "Hi Everyone" notice today to members of, the online frequent-flier group. Here's some pertinent language (the italics are mine):

"Our Elite members will still have complimentary access to these [extra legroom] seats on a first-come first-served basis at check-in. Additionally, if you're a Platinum or Gold Elite member, you'll be able to pre-assign exit-row seats as you do today at no charge. ..."

Oops, isn't that saying that Continental Silver status members will not be able to "pre assign" seats when they book?

[UPDATE: A Continental spokeswoman says that has always been the case. Silver elite members are and will continue to be able to book exit row seats at check-in, not when they make the booking.]

Continental also has provided scant information on how much they plan to charge for these seats, which seem to be the exit rows. The price will vary, Continental says.


"Flight 7845 to Little Jimmy in the Tower ... Clearance for Takeoff?'

[UPDATE, March 5 -- See below, with comments and reply]

Gawd almighty, I do not know which is worse in terms of regularly making idiots of themselves -- the TSA or the FAA.

Today the FAA pulls out front, with reports that the grade-school-age son of an air traffic controller was allowed to issue five separate tower-to-cockpit verbal transmissions to pilots preparing to take off at Kennedy airport.

Here is a link to the audio.

[UPDATE: And oh, man, note in that link that a second child has now turned up playing air-traffic controller in the JFK tower.]

Hey, some fun we're havin!

The FAA calls the incident a "lapse in judgment" and has suspended the controller and a supervisor.

Some controllers are unhappy, believing that an innocuous situation has been blown out of proportion, and that the kid was not creating a safety hazard because he was merely repeating what his father told him to say. But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said, a little weakly if you ask me: "It is not indicative of the highest professional standards that controllers set for themselves and exceed each and everyday in the advancement of aviation safety."

Why is this worth noting? Well, just consider: If this were pilots screwing around on the cockpit radio during departure it would be literally a federal case. And I know a little something personally about the profound consequences of laxity and poor supervision in air traffic control -- though thankfully not in the U.S., where our air traffic control system is the finest in the world.

One aviation buff quoted in the MSNBC story insisted, "It was a controlled situation."

Nyuk, nyuk!


UPDATE, March 5 -- To the comments below, from sensible and courteous readers who seem to be knowledgable about air-traffic control, I will say only this:

I am obviously especially sensitive to laxity in air-traffic control because I (barely) survived a mid-air collision over the Amazon in 2006 that was caused (as the National Transportation Safety Board found) by laxity, poor supervision and systemic problems in Brazilian air-traffic control. The other plane involved in that disaster crashed in the jungle, with 154 killed. Other factors may have contributed to the accident, but the central role of air-traffic control was crucial, and the laxity in training and supervision is not in dispute. Ask any pilot who flies the Amazon skies -- though by many accounts Brazilian air traffic control has improved steadily since the disaster.

American air-traffic control is the world's best. But there are problems in the towers. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers, and their replacements are now at or near retirement age. Staffing in towers is at critical levels. In some towers, as many as half of the controllers on duty are trainees.

This is no time to be screwing around, letting kids play with the active tower-to-cockpit communications. Kids should not be in the towers in the first place.

It's a matter of professionalism. And as I said, if pilots were screwing around with communications during departure operations, it would be literally -- literally -- a federal case.


Continental to Charge for 'Extra Legroom' in Coach

The process of "unbundling" various airline services and amenities continues.

Continental Airlines says today that beginning March 17 customers will be able to buy, at check-in, premium seat assignments in coach that feature extra legroom.

Continental was quick to add that its elite-status frequent flyer members and their traveling companions "will be able to continue to assign themselves seats with extra legroom in economy class without charge."

In general, elite-status passengers, any airline's most loyal customers, are wary when an airline decides to sell a perk, like priority seating in exit rows with extra space, that elite fliers supposedly have first dibs on.

In Continental's announcement, Jim Compton, the airline's chief marketing officer, was quoted as saying: "Seats with additional legroom are higher-value seats, and we want to offer them to customers who recognize that value."

Depending on the type of aircraft and row, seats with extra legroom provide customers with "a minimum of seven additional inches of leg space," Continental said.

[NOTE: I have questions in to Continental on exactly what that means, where those 7-inch-extra room seats are, and whether selling priority seats will reduce the overall number of such seats available to elite-status customers. I'll update when I hear back from them.]


UPDATE 2 -- No response at end of day. Again tomorrow:

--Where precisely are those extra 7 inches (or more) of legroom? I am not aware of an existing Continental configuration that fits that description.

--How does this affect elite-status customers and their dibs on the better seats in coach?


Continental said that its customers will be able to purchase these seats at or at the airport kiosk during the usual check-in period beginning at 24 hours prior to departure of the first flight in an itinerary. Pricing for the premium seats will vary depending on the length of the flight and market.