Sunday, January 30, 2011

More Snow and Ice Loom. And No, This Is Not a Drill

Oh come on now, you can't be serious, Weather Channel. Another big snow storm?

This has to be hype, Weather Channel. You cannot seriously be using words like "destructive" and "severe" and "historic," in forecasting a massive winter storm this week predicted to stretch form the Rockies to the New England coast. Weather Channel. Surely, this has to be a ratings ploy. Or the Onion News Network has accidentally jumped a channel.

Uh, oh. Evidently they are serious. Stand by for heavy rolls, as they say in the Navy.

I gave up counting the number of flight cancellations this month at about 40,000.


Americans Advised to Leave Cairo; Security Forces Shut Down Al Jazeera Bureau

The U.S. State Department says it's planning to offer airlift service tomorrow for the estimated 75,000 Americans now living and working in Egypt, most of them in Cairo.

The State Department statement said, "The U.S. embassy in Cairo informs U.S. citizens in Egypt who wish to depart that the Department of State is making arrangements to provide transportation to safe haven locations in Europe. Flights to evacuation points will begin departing Egypt on Monday, Jan. 31."

However, the State Department did not provide any specifics on how this extraordinary involuntary evacuation would be arranged -- in a city under siege, with foreigners stuck in their hotels or homes without reliable access to cell-phone or Internet service. So we shall see tomorrow how that goes. (See photo above, Saigon being evacuated in 1975.)

So the unanswered question is, how you gonna do this? Chris Wallace, who interviewed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Fox News this morning, didn't ask the very obvious follow-up question ("How, exactly?") when she said this (italics mine):

"Well, we are following the conditions for American citizens extremely closely. This is one of my highest responsibilities, Chris. And we have authorized voluntary departure, which means that we will assist American citizens to leave Egypt. We have warned that there should not be any nonessential travel to Egypt. Thankfully, right now, there are no reports of Americans killed or injured. Again, I thank the Egyptian army for the support and security that they have provided. But we are watching it closely and we are assisting Americans who wish to leave."

The State Department, which was slow on the uptake to issue a travel alert for Egypt, has now issued a higher-level travel warning, which has the usual boilerplate blather, while advising Americans to avoid travel to Egypt.

As to travel from Egypt, eh, stand by for instructions ... ... (There are reports today that the police and the hated uniformed security forces will return to the streets tomorrow, after having abandoned them for the weekend. This would only add to the chaos.)

At Cairo International Airport, commercial flights are severely limited. Delta, the only U.S. airline with direct service between the U.S. and Cairo, has suspended its Cairo flights indefinitely.

But Delta is of little value for anyone needing usable information while under actual siege. Its Web site and Twitter feeds say, with that no-shit-Sherlock casualness (italics mine): "Advisory: Civil Unrest in Cairo... Civil unrest may impact travel to, from, or through Cairo, Egypt. Check flight status frequently for up-to-the-minute info about your flight plans, or get updates sent directly to your wireless device or email with Delta Messenger."

[UPDATE: The UK Foreign Office is advising British citizens to leave Cairo, Alexandria and Suez if they deem that it is safe to do so. But the UK warning also sensibly notes that Cairo International Airport, besieged by people trying to find flights out and understaffed because many Egyptian workers can't get to their jobs there, is not operating in an "orderly" manner.]

Meanwhile, what's left of the Egyptian government has desperately moved against Al Jazeera, the well-respected Qatar-based Arab news service that has been all over this story, including with live blog updates. Security forces entered the Al Jazeera offices in the capital and shut it down, but the news service continues struggle to operate throughout Cairo and the rest of Egypt.

From the Al Jazeera English-language live blog earlier today:

"The Al Jazeera Network strongly denounces and condemns the closure of its bureau in Cairo by the Egyptian government. The Network received notification from the Egyptian authorities this morning.

Al Jazeera has received widespread global acclaim for their coverage on the ground across the length and breadth of Egypt.

An Al Jazeera spokesman said that they would continue their strong coverage regardless:

'Al Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists. In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard; the closing of our bureau by the Egyptian government is aimed at censoring and silencing the voices of the Egyptian people.

'Al Jazeera assures its audiences in Egypt and across the world that it will continue its in-depth and comprehensive reporting on the events unfolding in Egypt. Al Jazeera journalists have brought unparalleled reporting from the ground from across Egypt in the face of great danger and extraordinary circumstances. Al Jazeera Network is appalled at this latest attack by the Egyptian regime to strike at its freedom to report independently on the unprecedented events in Egypt.'"

[UPDATE: Media blogger Jeff Jarvis at writes that U.S. cable companies should begin carrying Al Jazeera English:

"What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV. ...

"It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one -- not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media -- can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can."

Jarvis added, "Yes, we can watch AJE on the internet. But as much of an internet triumphalist as I am, internet-streaming is not going to have the same impact -- political and education impact -- that putting AJE on the cable dial would have. I can watch AJE in the Zurich hotel room where I am now; I want to be able to watch it on my couch at home."]


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Looting in Cairo?

There are only sketchy reports of looting in Cairo, including some saying that street protesters have formed a guard outside the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, home of the world's greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities, including most of the artifacts found in the King Tut tomb. The museum is also known as the National Museum and the Cairo Museum.

According to this report by Agence France-Presse, a "human chain" has been set up at the museum to protect it during the growing street unrest. According to AFP, watch groups to protect museums and other sites have been set up by the Muslim Brotherhood ...(uh-oh).

[UPDATE: There was in fact some looting and/or serious vandalism at the museum earlier in the day.]

Homes in some neighborhoods are also being threatened by what some people on the streets say are thugs who appear to be out-of-uniform members of the security police.

But surely such a place as the Cairo museum, which is at Tahrir Square, the site of the major protest gatherings this week, cannot be in any real peril from looters. The police and hated security forces have basically skedaddled from Cairo (along, reportedly, with two of Mubarak's sons, including heir-apparent Gamal, who were reported to have fled to London, though the Egyptian government is denying this). But given the strength and professionalism of the Egyptian army, and the general goodwill the Egyptian people have toward that army (so far), it appears very unlikely that looters could do in Egypt what they did to the antiquities in Baghdad.

The official Cairo museum Web site is off-line as Internet service in the capital remains severely hampered. Here's one from the UK that has the background on the museum.

[UPDATE: From the BBC live update, just before 11 p.m. Cairo time: "Vigilante groups in the capital Cairo have set up checkpoints amid reports of widespread looting. Police have almost completely disappeared from the streets, to be replaced by young men armed with metal bars and knives. The army is guarding key locations, and shooting has been reported around government buildings as protesters continue to defy a night-time curfew. ..."]


TSA: No Additional Rent-a-Cop Screeners

[Left: Rep. John Mica; right: TSA chief John Pistole]

The TSA head, John Pistole, has put an end to expansion of the program that allows airports to hire private screeners, rather than use the federal employees of the TSA.

I have always regarded that privatization program as a hare-brained scheme to return to the bad old days of local airport administrators awarding security contracts to rent-a-cop companies. The private companies were still technically required to perform under TSA standards, but we know how that works with for-profit security outfits hiring the cheapest employees they can find, as cheaply as possible.

The privatization scheme -- which operates under the telling title "Screening Partnership Program (SPP) -- was always a way for anti-federal-government, anti-union senators and representatives to weaken federal control at airports and reward anti-union businesses, which often were often campaign contributors. TSA federal employees aren't unionized like most federal employees, but they do get decent pay and federally supervised training, as well as some protections under arbitration rules.

Because of pressure from those politicians, airports have been able to choose to use SPP to opt out of using federal screeners since the TSA went into being in 2003. Only a tiny number of airports chose to do so, but the move was accelerating lately.

In a memo to TSA employees, Pistole said: "To preserve TSA as an effective, federal counterterrorism security network, SPP will not be expanded beyond the current 16 airports, unless a clear and substantial advantage to do so emerges in the future."

The American Federation of Government Employees, which would like to represent the approximately 50,000 TSA screeners, welcomed that as a way to ensure "a cohesive federalized screening system and workforce."

There was immediate negative reaction from John Mica, the Florida Republican who is the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica is not highly regarded in the aviation industry as someone with a wide breadth of knowledge about aviation, incidentally, but at work here, in my opinion, is politics, not security.

"It’s unimaginable that TSA would suspend the most successfully performing passenger screening program we’ve had over the last decade," Mica said. "The agency should concentrate on cutting some of the more than 3,700 administrative personnel in Washington who concocted this decision, and reduce the army of TSA employees that has ballooned to more than 62,000."

He added, "Nearly every positive security innovation since the beginning of TSA has come from the contractor screening program. I intend to launch a full investigation and review of the matter."

It seems to me that statement portends a showdown in a committee room between Mica and Pistole. Should be an interesting hearing.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Meanwhile, Back in Arizona ...

[PHOTO: Gabrielle Giffords and Trent Humphries, the Tea Party guy who says she asked for it]

TUCSON -- While everybody was hollering on the news out of Egypt today, I decided to pay a visit to a street protest by a Tea Party group in Tucson this afternoon, in which the Tea Partiers demanded that the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, resign.

Alas, for the local TV news crews out in the sunny warmth with the crowd along Benson Highway in front of the sheriff's department, everybody was reasonable, and even the signs they toted were low-key. "Dupnik Out!" was a favorite. The most unfriendly one was merely a play on a famous movie line from The Treasure of Sierra Madre. "Dupnik? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Dupnik," it said.

There were maybe 100 Tea Partiers demonstrating to oust the sheriff. Next to them, separated only by a highway cone and a few feet of gravel, was a bigger group of maybe 150 counter-demonstrators, who held signs saying how much they admired Dupnik, who has been the sheriff of Pima County since 1980.

"We support Sheriff Dupnik--Tea Party Thugs Are Not Welcome in Tucson," said the most harsh of the lot.

Yup, I thought. All politics is local once again in Tucson, less than three weeks after that crazy gunman shot 19 people, killing six, in front of a supermarket here during an assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the brain and is now in a Houston rehabilitation center.

I spoke with people in both groups, and nobody sounded nasty or angry. This was generally considered to be an indication that "out of towners" -- a reference both to the national media from the Tea Party side, and to Tea Partiers from outside of Arizona on the support-the-sheriff's side -- had finally gone home.

The sheriff, widely liked in Pima County, got a lot of right-wingers' red-white-and-blue-striped knickers in a twist when he said publicly right after the shootings that he saw a link between the horrible event and the very nasty, sometimes violent Tea Party and other right-wing denunciations of incumbent Democrat Gabby Giffords during the congressional campaign last Fall in the vast 9,000-square-mile 8th Congressional District, which includes Tucson as well as a good stretch of the Arizona border with Mexico.

Giffords, remember, had herself expressed serious concern about the violent speech and messages directed against her, not least of which was the infamous map of the U.S. with the gun cross-hair targets over the districts of members of Congress, Giffords among them, whom the national Tea Party's biggest loudmouths had decided to eliminate. Sarah Palin, of course, associated herself with that map.

Also during the campaign, while angry weekly Tea Party protests were held outside Giffords' district office in central Tucson, a glass door in that office was smashed at night.

Here is what Sheriff Dupnik said on the day of the shooting:

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Now, within a day after the shooting, a great media Piety Chorale was chanting the message, as pushed by the Tea Party, that, of course there was no proof whatsoever of any possible connection between the lunatic who killed six and wounded 19 while trying to assassinate Giffords, and the violent rhetoric that had pumped relentlessly at her for a half a year by political opponents, prominently people like Palin and various elements of the various Tea Party branches.

Uh, never mind that, as it now transpires, Jared Loughner, the killer, had been researching Web sites on political assassins shortly before his rampage. Can't possibly be a link. After all, the boy's crazy!

Anyway, Sheriff Dupnik was instantly vilified by the national right-wing media for asserting that connection. Calls arose, and persist, to cast him out of office.

In a dim portend for that particular initiative, as I said, the Tea Party demonstration here today to demand his ouster drew fewer people to the sheriff's headquarters on Benson Highway today than the counter-demonstration held in support of the sheriff.

As the opposing groups stood assembled along the roadside, a guy in tan slacks and a dress shirt and tie scurried around taking to cops and to organizers. I figured by his outfit and demeanor that he was a deputy police chief or assistant to the mayor or something, but it turns out he was a star of one of the local news stations that had their satellite trucks parked nearby.

The pomaded hair should have been the give-away to me.

By 3.30, a half hour after the protests had begun, the local TV man looked a bit desperate. "I have to do the first stand-up at 5.30," he told one organizer, who nodded thoughtfully and said he'd see what he could do.

A few people driving by toted their horns politely in support of one group of signs or the other. But generally, these protesters could have just as easily been waiting for a bus.

Back during the campaign, people told me after the shootings, the truly violent and hateful signs and shouts during the regular Saturday demonstrations outside Giffords' office all seemed to come from out-of-towners -- "like people from ... Utah," as one Giffords volunteer told me darkly, putting both the ellipses and the italics into the comment by herself.

Today, the only out-of-towners I could find were from Phoenix, which hardly counts. They were a middle-aged couple who came to demand the ouster of the sheriff, not for any overt ideological reasons, but for reasons of real estate.

"What he said made Arizona look terrible," the man said. "It's affected our property values," said his wife.

Meanwhile, another woman, who had helped organize the oust-the-sheriff rally, made sure that I wrote down the name of her local Tea Party contingent correctly.

"We're the Pima County Tea Party Patriots," she said, handing me a card that said "Silent No More!" She was concerned that I not describe the rally as being organized by a rival Tea Party group, the Tucson Tea Party -- the co-founder of which, Trent Humphries, had recently got himself some swell global fame by telling a reporter in town from the Guardian newspaper of London that Gabby Giffords essentially got what she asked for.

After all, Humphries had said, the congresswoman shouldn't have attended an event "in full view of the public" if she had such serious security concerns about being shot. And just in case you think I am overstating the breathtaking inanity of his comments, here is the full story in the Guardian.

Humphries -- who graduated from college in ... Utah -- also said that the Tea Party is a victim of the shootings, just like the dead and the wounded were victims.

The Pima County Tea Party Patriots woman at the rally today looked straight at my notebook as I wrote down the correct name: "Pima County Tea Party Patriots."

Not, Tucson Tea Party. (And certainly not the Peoples Front of Judea, but that's another movie).

Anyway, I bailed out before 4 p.m., well before the evidently locally famous TV-channel guy needed to do his 5.30 stand-up.

He seemed like a nice enough man, and I hoped enough protesters would remain on the scene to give him some good sign-wagging visuals for the evening news. Far too often, I have noticed here, the intrepid local TV people are left standing at empty corners, bereft of visuals, wanly describing to a gravely nodding news anchor back at the studio that not more than an hour ago, there had been a protest rally of one sort or another on this spot.

I got in my car and headed home. On the radio, the NPR news was full of shouting and gunfire from Cairo. Then the local public-radio announcer came on, on the terrific Tucson public radio station KUAZ, which is based at the University of Arizona.

The lead story was that some excitable Republicans in the State Legislature were passing a bill that will henceforth require all presidential candidates to prove that they were born in the U.S.A. before they could be appear on any presidential ballot in this state. This work has evidently occupied them for most of the week in Phoenix.

Ah, I thought with some relief. Life is returning to normal in Arizona. The gentlemen and ladies from the Valley of the Sun are back in the saddle.


Traveling to Egypt, Elsewhere in Middle East? Great Caution Needed

Who knows how more vociferous these violent street protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East might become? Given the impetus from social media, the old playbook in travel-danger assessment no longer has validity. And what used to take weeks to develop now takes hours.

Friday is the usual day off in the region, which might partly account for the astonishing volume of street protests today in Egypt. Will they continue at this level? Will they grow? Will more regimes topple? Will you have to watch yourself that you aren't trampled at an airport by fleeing dictators and their entourages with the bags of cash?

One thing for sure: In Cairo, heads are being cracked in the streets. Violence is growing. At least for today, it's bad.

And getting worse. The embattled Egyptian government has turned the army into the streets and put an overnight curfew into effect in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. The government has also succeeded in largely shutting down Internet and cell-phone service.

By evening in Cairo, the curfew seems not to be working to keep people off the streets. Al Jazeera seemed to be able to move its crews around Cairo more easily than Western broadcast organizations. Here's the Al Jazeera live English feed. Here is their live blog. And here are the Al Jazeera updates on Twitter.

According to an alert on Egypt today by the heads-up global travel intelligence company iJET Intelligent Risk Systems: "Internet, mobile phone SMS text messaging, and Blackberry Messaging service are down across much of Egypt as severe civil unrest continues. Blackberry Internet service is also largely unavailable. Internet service is still available at some hotels that cater to international travelers."

The State Department, which was so quick on the draw last year to issue that way-over-the-top travel alert for all of Europe, is so far mute on the current travel outlook for Egypt, where State Department interests are, shall we say, delicate.

[Update 2 p.m. EST: News accounts in Europe are now saying that the State Department has gotten off the stick and issued a travel alert for Egypt, saying Americans should "defer non-essential travel" there. The State Department is notorious slow in issuing anything to the public, including a passport, so why am I not surprised that while European mainstream news organizations received the travel alert, at this writing the State Department Web site on Egypt, for the American public, has not been updated for nine days?]

[UPDATE: Ah, finally, the new State Department alert is available to the traveling public.

Lots of savvy travelers embark in the winter for places like Cairo because off-season fares are low and the tourist crush is far less than in the summer.

Me, I wouldn't go. Not this week, not next, and maybe not for a long while. In the UK, tour operators are reassessing their advice earlier this month to consider Egypt as an alternative to Tunisia.

The trouble continues in Tunisia, of course, and Yemen, is, as usual, a place to be very careful in. But let's also look even at any developing situations in Jordan. And I'd be keeping at least a casual eye on Morocco, though so far there have been no similar problems.

Saudi Arabia? Hardly a tourist mecca if you're not bound for Mecca, where most of us are not allowed to visit anyway. Trouble there with the regime? Not a sign of it so far -- not that there haven't been warnings from analysts. But don't even think about what that would do to the AAA's usual summer-travel gasoline price forecasts.

Meanwhile, the Web site of the Egyptian airline EgyptAir (which has 180 departures daily from Cairo) is off-line, as is that of Cairo International Airport. EgyptAir is one of the 27 member airlines of Star Alliance.

In the U.S., Delta Air Lines, which became in 2008 the only U.S. carrier to offer direct daily flights between Kennedy airport and Cairo, is still blissfully selling tickets to Cairo on its Web site, where the service is called "A trip fit for a king ... or a Pharaoh."

Delta provides no current travel-advisory information for non-pharaohs who might be rethinking that Cairo trip, or more to the point, desperately trying to get out of Cairo.

Helloooo, Delta: Can you spell social-networking as well as you can spell pharaoh?


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Today's Flight Cancellations: Who's Counting?

Ok, well I guess I'm counting, because the rest of the media keep telling you that "hundreds" of flights were canceled today because of the big snowstorm in the Northeast, and especially in New York City, where 19 inches fell. Baffles me why they can't just look up the actual numbers on

More than 1,600 departures and arrivals were canceled today at the three New York City area airports. The hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, as usual, had the worst record, accounting for more than 600 canceled flights. Kennedy had more than 500, and La Guardia had about the same.

had 387; Boston 357; Reagan 237, et cetera, et cetera. Even Chicago racked up a lot, with O'Hare having 178 scrubbed flights.

Delays continue to be excessive in the Northeast, and heavy at a lot of other hub airports on the eastern half of the U.S.

By the way, here in warm and sunny southern Arizona, I saw two weeks ago a roadside poster announcing on the start of Little League practice.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Here We Go: More Snow!

[Airport delays at 7.35 p.m. EST tonight. Tomorrow will be worse. Map via].

Oh, you know. More snow. Hundreds of flight cancellations in the Northeast. Worse tomorrow.

Et cetera.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Armed in Tucson

[Photo: A javelina]

TUCSON -- My favorite New York Times columnist is Tim Egan, and his column about guns and Tucson is the best I have read on that subject since that lunatic went on his shooting rampage Jan. 8.

The Egan column today, which is online, is headlined "Myth of the Hero Gunslinger." Egan describes himself as a third-generation Westerner who grew up among guns and "Second Amendment enthusiasts who wore camouflage nine months out of the year," as he writes, adding: "Generally, I don’t have a problem with any of that."

As an adoptive Westerner who has had a home in Tucson for more than five years and has lived here full time for over a year, I've been interested in the general media take on guns because it's axiomatic that many law-abiding citizens here are armed, even if they aren't packing -- that is, carrying a concealed weapon.

I was amused by the outside-media take on the Crossroads of the West Gun Show that was held on the county fairgrounds last weekend, a week after the shootings. I went to the gun show just to get a sense of it. Coming out, I was amazed by the number of out-of-town reporters (the TV types are the ones who you can identify, of course) who were so obviously looking for irony, and so clearly failing to get it.

That is, it was apparent to me that they were looking for wild-eyed gun nuts having themselves a wallow in the ammo a week after the massacre. A woman with a camera crew who said she was from ABC waylaid me on my way out. She was the only one there who looked wild-eyed, by the way.

"What'd you get?" she said, eyeing my plastic bag, which I could tell she assumed contained 31-shot magazines and maybe a new Glock.

I told her I was a reporter and moved along. Actually in the bag was a new $12 wallet, purchased from a guy inside who also sold ladies' purses designed to hold pistols. Oh, and also a $6 container of pepper-spray, bought on impulse and for the reason that my property in Tucson often plays unwilling host to a wandering herd of javelina.

Pepper spray, I had thought, would be a good backup to have in case one of the nasty, wild-pig-like javelinas charged me as I tried to shoo them off -- as has happened.

My wife did not agree. "Get that stuff out of the house. You'll blind somebody," she told me when I got back.

Actually, javelinas, though dangerous when in a panic, are stupid and very nearsighted. The one time a javelina charged me out back, just a month ago, he ran straight into a wood lawn chair and it knocked him over. Snorting, he cantered off in frightened bewilderment. Pepper spray would have been beside the point.

As to the matter of guns and potential assaults, people here are pretty sensible (aside from the violent paranoid schizophrenics, who everyone agrees should not be allowed to own a gun). I know that many of my neighbors out here in horse country on the East Side of town are armed.

Before we moved here full time in late 2009, I had been coming out to the house regularly from our home in New Jersey, sometimes for a month or more to work on a book. In my absence, one neighbor -- whose house we can barely see from ours -- kept an eye on our place.

I think I won his trust when I told him one night before leaving, "You see anything that needs shootin' over here, go ahead and shoot it."

That was a joke, which you could make before that awful shooting on Jan. 8.

And by the way, while many neighbors out this way seem to be armed, any one of them that I have ever had a conversation with about guns (I myself don't own one) has stressed 1. The absolute necessity of getting good gun-safety and gun-procedures training before you acquire a firearm and 2. The reality that any time you use or even display a gun in a situation you consider to be hostile or threatening, you will at least be having a subsequent conversation with a police officer or, worse, with a lawyer defending you in court.

Not long ago, we had a workman come in to refinish our polished concrete floors. The second day on the job he arrived four hours late. He looked pale and shaken. A legal Mexican immigrant who lives in the crime-troubled neighborhood of South Tucson, he explained that in the middle of the previous night, three armed intruders had broken into his house, evidently having mistaken the address for one occupied by drug dealers nearby. He, his wife and their two young children had been rousted out of bed and held at gunpoint for over an hour, while the intruders ransacked the house.

"Did you have a gun?" I asked him. No, he said. "If I had a gun, my wife and my children would now be dead, and me too," he said.

After the Tucson shooting, a lot of the usual national right-wing clowns bellowed and brayed about how the rampage could have been halted by a bystander with a gun.

Now, Tucson having a culture that is not all that far removed from the actual Old West, it was a given that a certain number of bystanders would be armed when Jared Loughner put a bullet in the head of Congresswoman Giffords, and then began picking off the other victims, one by one, rapid-fire, till 19 in all had been shot, six shot dead.

"When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim," said Arizona state representative Jack Harper," as quoted in the Egan column.

As anybody who has carried a gun in actively dangerous situation knows (and I carried one for a year in Vietnam), this is a foolish statement. Gunfire often breaks out without the slightest warning and in great, great fury and confusion. Bullets, as they say, fly.

Naturally, some law-abiding people at the scene of the shooting were carrying guns. Egan and others have pointed to one bystander, Joseph Zamudio, who was legally carrying a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. With his gun, he rushed toward the shooting commotion -- and almost shot an innocent man who he initially thought was the assailant.

Zamudio held his fire because people were yelling that he was about to shot the wrong man. The shooter himself was actually knocked down by a man using a folding chair as he tried to reload, and then pounced on and subdued by other citizens who wrestled the pistol and a spare magazine from him.

Anyway, let me give you my notes, my less-than-scintillating report on the gun show in Tucson last week that failed to deliver the delicious irony that some of the media I encountered there were so obviously expecting:

--About 1,500 people had entered by 10 a.m. (doors opened at 9). Crossroads of the West Gun show at sprawling Pima County fairgrounds in Southeast Tuscon. This is a traveling gun show.

--All was contained in a big exhibition hall, where vendors had set up many rows of tables, and crowds wandered by. All kinds of guns and ammo, including some automatic weapons - but also things like survival gear, knives, high-performance hunting gear like flashlights and binoculars and scopes, bulletproof vests, leather goods (including womens purses made to hold concealed weapons).

--Some people brought little kids, including some babies. Mostly men, but some women too.

--Typical Tucson: friendly, cordial atmosphere. No belligerence apparent anywhere, "please and thank you and excuse me" all around. Even the bumper stickers and other signs were low-key, mostly in support of gun rights, military, etc. NRA presence obvious of course.

--One guy was wearing a tee-shirt that said: "I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy."

--Quote: "People here are all pretty nice. There are very few buttheads," Tom Colaric, a dealer in leather products at a display table where I bought my $12 wallet.

--One woman had a big big display of very fine, expensive Czech crystal: expensive cut-glass wine and whiskey glasses and decanters, and even glass Christmas ornaments. Her name: Jarmila Kovary, of Phoenix. She said she does a good business at gun shows because "more women have been coming to these things and people here come with money to spend."

One guy walking by said, "Nice wine glasses." And a guy with an NRA hat who was standing nearby said, "--for target practice." Jarmila Kovary seemed horrified at that.

--Outside the entrance to the hall, where a long line of people had queued to buy tickets by 10 a.m., there was a plexiglass hopper with this sign on front: "Tragedy in Tucson Victims Fund" It had what I guessed was about $50 in it, in dollar bills and some fives.

A guy standing beside it had just purchased a revolver and was spinning the chamber appreciatively in the sunlight. Then he snapped it shut and dropped a dollar into the donation box.

As the man at the leather goods display said, "Very few buttheads."


Monday, January 17, 2011

Crazy in Tucson

How inconvenient for the pious revisionists wagging their fingers and tongues at those who see an obvious link between violent political rhetoric and the attempted assassination last week of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. How inconvenient that Ms. Giffords herself drew that link between hate-agitation and potential violence.

All week, sentinels of Approved Wisdom have been at it, trying to crank the mighty narrative machine to the safe position that the Tucson shootings were solely the work of a lunatic, nothing more. After all, goes the claim, there is no direct evidence that this Jared Loughner, who everybody agrees is crazy, acted in any way that indicated political motivation.

Uh, except that with premeditation, he shot in the head a United States congresswoman who has long been the target of nasty, vile hate directed at her by national, and less often local, elements of this amorphous Tea Party movement.

But again, how inconvenient to this argument that Gabby Giffords, who happens to be my congresswoman, herself had expressed grave concern about the barely disguised violent threats being made against Democratic congressional candidates, not just herself but many others, during the last election campaign.

I'm referring partly to the infamous online political ads backed by the invincibly awful Sarah Palin, a woman who imbues the old-fashioned word "grifter" with new vitality. The most notorious of these ads appeared last March and depicted a map of the United States with bulls-eyes imposed over those congressional districts that the most rabid elements of the Tea Party had deemed, with Palin acquiescence, to be metaphorical targets. Accompanying this particular Palin abomination was her battle-cry "Reload!"

Now, no one has ever accused Gabby Giffords of being a sissy. No one has ever accused her of being a gun-hater, either.

In fact, Giffords owns and knows how to use a Glock semiautomatic pistol, just like the one Jared Loughner used on his Tucson rampage to shoot her in the head, kill six people and wound a dozen others. Giffords is a well-known supporter of gun-ownership rights. But she was also sufficiently motivated by the vile Palin ad, in an atmosphere of very nasty vitriol, to express her concern in an interview with MSNBC during the campaign.

The Palin ad, Giffords noted, put "the crosshairs of a gun-sight over our district." Those who do things like this, or who talk like the awful Sharron Angle, the Nevada senate candidate who referred merrily to seeking "Second Amendment remedies" when civil politics fail, "they've got to realize there's consequences to that action," Giffords said.

Yes, yes, there were. As we saw in Tucson.

Around the same time Gabby Giffords was discussing the gun-sights on her, someone shattered a window in her campaign headquarters in the dead of night.

It is of course clear to everyone that the young man who shot Gabby Giffords and those 18 other people in Tucson is crazy. The act was, by its very definition, crazy. I do not require the consensus of a blue-ribbon panel of learned psychiatrists to confirm for me that this Loughner is an obvious, violent paranoid schizophrenic. After all, we have been this way before.

Crazy people by definition do crazy things. But when a lunatic, acting out on a premeditated plan that is rational by definition, tries to assassinate a political candidate in an intense atmosphere of reckless political hate-rhetoric directed against that candidate -- that connection, to me, is not disputable.

Take Lee Harvey Oswald. To this day, there is no direct evidence that Oswald acted out politically when he decided to assassinate President Kennedy. Yet he did act (and conspiracy theorists aside, we know for a fact that Oswald had that rifle, that he took that rifle to the Texas Book Depository, that he hid on the 6th floor of that building, that he fired that rifle at the presidential motorcade passing below) in an atmosphere in Dallas of virulent, violent anti-Kennedy hatred. That hatred was assiduously fanned by right-wing nut jobs, the most prominent of whom was the crackpot oil billionaire H.L. Hunt. So nasty was the atmosphere in Dallas back then that Kennedy was warned, including by people like Adlai Stevenson, not to go there that day.

Yet he did, and he was shot to death.

When I heard of the shootings in Tuscon, I rushed over to the Giffords campaign office on the busy corner of Pima and Swan in central (not downtown) Tucson. This is the office where the window-smashing (or shooting, the police aren't sure) vandalism had occurred during the heat of the campaign last March.

Within an hour after the shootings, about 50 Giffords supporters, many of whom knew her personally and had volunteered in her campaigns, were gathered quietly on the corner in front of the office. Out back in the parking lot, some listened tearfully to conflicting reports blaring from NPR on a car radio about whether Giffords was dead or not.

During the campaign and even afterward, they told me, noisy political-opposition demonstrations were regular occurrences there on Saturdays. The Giffords district office is about a block south of the modest condominium complex where Giffords lives when she is in town, which was nearly every weekend. Typically, I was told, hundreds of Tea Party anti-Giffords demonstrators gathered on Saturdays on three of the four corners of the intersection of Pima and Swan, and a much smaller group of supporters usually gathered on the fourth corner.

This being Tucson, a city of enormous civility, the Tea Party demonstrations were usually lower-key than some Tea Party mob scenes elsewhere. But some ugly signs with clearly violent messages were often on display, and ugly chants were common. (Local Tea Party people, who also tend to be civil, lay this bad behavior to out-of-towners, incidentally, and I don't doubt them on that).

One recurring theme was the depiction of Giffords, an indomitably cheerful, pretty young woman who was widely liked in her district even by people who wouldn't vote for her, as a witch flying away on a broomstick. One sign that especially bothered the Giffords supporters showed a silhouette of a witch with the message: "Gabby: One Way Or Another, You're Gone."

This was the crazy atmosphere in which a crazy person began the descent that would lead him to act, with clear intent, to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords.

Surely, mental-health spending must be increased. But not so fast. Let's give that one some rational thought about just where that spending is going, because it sure as hell hasn't been going into protecting society from the likes of Loughner.

At the vigil outside the Giffords office on the day of the shooting I noticed one more thing. Within hours of the shooting, a small contingent of Red Cross mental-health crisis workers arrived. They were there, one of them told me, "to assist the emotionally wounded."

Now, I spoke with most of the people on the corner that Saturday and the next day as well, and while all of them were shocked and horrified and sad, none of them described themselves as being in need of mental-health intervention.

And there's a rub.

In 1994, a book of mine was published by St. Martin's Press, "Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering and Fraud in a Mental Health System Gone Crazy." The book has long been out of print.

Bedlam was written at a time when for-profit corporations had been rapaciously pillaging the mental-health insurance system, because a large amount of insurance money had become available for the treatment of "mental disorders," as defined by the growing psychiatric and addiction industries. Despite its myriad deficiencies, Bedlam did trenchantly describe how this system worked.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, hugely expensive state hospital mental asylums were closed, and their patients released onto the streets, in a phenomenon called deinstitutionalization.

In exchange for closing down the tax-draining state hospitals, the plan was that an efficient network of community mental-health centers (including crisis centers) would be developed all over the country to treat serious mental illness, rather than merely confining the seriously mentally ill to those dreadful state institutions.

Lots of insurance money poured into mental-health services, partly as a result of lobbying by various interest groups.

But the promise of community mental-health networks for the seriously ill was broken. Instead, the money was diverted into insurance coverage for a rapidly growing industry dominated by for-profit hospitals and paid-for psychiatrists who were hired to essentially bid-rig diagnoses. The purpose was to channel new patients into the system, where their insurance coverage could be profitably and thoroughly milked, even if it meant "diagnosis-flipping" -- that is, certifying a new diagnosis code when the insurance-reimbursement allocation for the old one ran out. Essential to that scheme was a vast increase in the number of behaviors that could be classified and coded, for insurance-reimbursement purposes, as mental illnesses.

Our mental-health system became fully medicalized. And one scandalous upshot of that phenomenon was that the really seriously mentally ill got left out of the equation. After all, treating the seriously crazy is frustrating and not profitable. Instead, starting in the 1970s, we started seeing people who really needed psychiatric intervention on the street, and we were conditioned to think of them instead as being among the "homeless."

The central fact about our mental-health system (and the caution to be exercised amid calls to fund more mental-health services) is this: It is not designed to treat serious mental illness in any serious manner.

Oh, how I wish I could ask Jared Loughner's mother and father: How did you try to get appropriate mental-health treatment for this sick boy (because I am pretty sure that you did)? What were you told when they turned you away? How deep was the frustration and misery suffered by you and the other families of seriously mentally ill people who have nowhere to turn?

There is no money to be made from the chronic paranoid schizophrenic, the violent psychotic. The truly crazy have no constituency besides their families, assuming they have families. While decent counseling is often available for those facing debilitating life crises (who have insurance, that is), most mental-health resources flow into treatment of what has long been known among honest psychiatrists and psychologists as the "worried well." As Willie Sutton said, that's where the money is.

I heard some woman on NPR last week whining about how she was seeking mental-health counseling because she was so emotionally distressed by the Tucson shootings -- which she had not even witnessed or been directly affected by. She was treated with gentle reverence on the radio. Yes, precious mental-health resources will flow her way.

Our mental-health system is broken. And it's a lot more systematically corrupt than our political system.

Serious, severe mental illness like that exhibited for a long time by Jared Loughner goes untreated, or more to the point unsupervised, because the system is designed mainly to make money.

We need to understand that better, in a society where even the crazy people are armed.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Air Travel Advice in East: Stay Home

Another fine mess in the Northeast this morning as a snowstorm arrived.

The by-now-usual grim tales unfold, including very large numbers of cancellations. As of 9 a.m. EST, according to

At the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, 300 departures and 244 arrivals have been canceled so far. At La Guardia: 365 and 313. JFK: 325-255. Boston: 379-325. Philadelphia: 130-128. Reagan: 109-104. BWI: 57-55. Dulles: 46-52.

That adds up to about 5,400 canceled flights at those airports alone(some of the departures and arrivals are overlaps but not all that many in this geographical area.)

Meanwhile, Atlanta Hartsfield is still struggling after that city got whacked by ice and snow days ago, causing more than 5,000 flight cancellations: This morning at Atlanta, another 190 departures and 255 arrivals have been scrubbed. Chicago O'Hare and other major airports are also racking up big cancellation numbers.

And delays, forget about it. At Newark, the flights that remain scheduled are averaging 4 hour departure delays. At La Guardia, it's 3 hours and 45 minutes. Boston and JFK also are reporting delays in excess of 3 hours and 30 minutes.

Florida is the only state in the country that doesn't have any snow right now, the National Weather Service says. (Yeah, I know, you're thinking, What about Hawaii? But remember, there's snow on Mauna Kea as well as Mauna Loa.)

Alone in its snowless condition, Florida still feels the ripple effects, with all of the major airports reporting big delays. Orlando is also seeing flight cancellations: 43 departures and 61 arrivals canceled so far this morning in a ripple effect from the Northeast weather.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Near Gridlock in Air Travel


This is what the airports looked like a little before midnight today. And it's going to be a lot worse tomorrow morning.


Tarmac Delays in November: Zero. Again.

Again in November there were no tarmac delays of over three hours on domestic flights, the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports this morning.

In the chart above, you can see how these so-called tarmac strandings have dropped since April, when the Transportation Department imposed a policy that can fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for stranding planes on tarmacs.


Airlines Preemptively Canceling Flights in New York Area

Under threat of snow, airlines are preemptively canceling flights at the three New York-area airports for both today and tomorrow.

To me, this looks like a test of the assertion that airlines would cancel a larger than normal number of flights with bad weather merely forecast, rather than raging, to underscore their opposition to the Transportation Department rule that imposes severe fines on carriers for stranding passengers on tarmacs for over three hours. The rule has effectively ended so-called tarmac strandings for domestic carriers (international carriers are not covered by the rule, and have been responsible for several egregiously lengthy strandings in recent snowstorms).

On the other hand, airlines do routinely cancel some flights preparation for seriously bad weather so that x-number of airplanes and crews are not frozen in place if bad weather does hit.

As of 9 a.m. EST today at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, 216 flights have been canceled -- and 145 flights scheduled for tomorrow have also been scrubbed. At Kennedy, it's 101 today and 97 tomorrow. La Guardia: 172 today and 114 tomorrow.

Data as usual from


Monday, January 10, 2011

Nearly All Flights in Atlanta Canceled; Cancellations Also Mounting for Tuesday As Big Storm Heads Toward New York

Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, the busiest airport in the country in terms of flights handled, is virtually shut today as ice and snow hit the city. As of 6 p.m. EST, 2,211 of today's 2,570 flights have been canceled.

And tomorrow is also grim: Already, about 900 departures and arrivals have been canceled at Atlanta.

Cancellations are also hitting other airports. At Charlotte, 527 flights had been scrubbed by late afternoon. (Data from

The storm is expected to hit the New York area starting early Tuesday night, with snow accumulations of 10 or more inches possible. Right now, the New York airports are operating with delays, partly as a result of the Atlanta mess, but only the hilariously named Newark Liberty International airport is reporting cancellations, in this case about 70.

AirTran canceled all of its Atlanta flights. The airlines canceling the most flights in Atlanta are Delta, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which operates Delta Connection flights, and AirTran, which Southwest is in the process of acquiring.

Because of the large number of regional connecting flights it handles as a hub in the Southeast, Atlanta is the busiest airport in the country. (In fact, it's the busiest airport in the world in terms of the number of flights it handles).

In Atlanta, even MARTA has shut down, canceling all bus service today and maybe tomorrow too.

Meanwhile, the Loews hotel chain has said that it is offering a special rate of $139 a night at its new Loews Atlanta hotel through Wednesday. Passengers stranded in Atlanta might want to take note.


Atlanta Cancellations As of 9 A.M: 2,550

There have been 2,550 flights canceled in Atlanta as of 9 a.m.

[Newspapers used to pad out columns of type inside the paper that were a few lines short with trivial fillers of information. One I remember in particular from the defunct Philadelphia Bulletin when I worked there in the late 70s had the headline: No Blood in Ants over a story that consisted entirely of this sentence: Ants have no blood.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Heads-Up: Cancellations Mount in Atlanta

Snowy weather equals massive flight cancellations these days, and Atlanta is racking them up: 350 today and, hang on, 1,650 flights canceled already for tomorrow.


Saturday, January 08, 2011

Democratic Congresswoman Shot in Tucson

Gabrielle Giffords, the liberal Democratic congresswoman from Tucson, has just been shot in Tucson. Details developing.


Friday, January 07, 2011

Row 44 WiFi in Another Advance for Service on International Flights

The aggressively expanding inflight WiFi provider Row 44 said today that it received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to offer its satellite-based broadband service in flights over the Atlantic.

The FCC issued Row 44 a license for the T11N North Atlantic Oceanic Coverage satellite. This makes Row 44 the only provider allowed to operate and charge for inflight broadband connectivity on transatlantic flights.

In the U.S., Aircell's Gogo system -- which is based on land antennas and can't operate over oceans -- is the leading inflight Internet provider, with service operating on more than 1,044 mainline domestic planes of seven U.S. various airlines, Delta being the leading one, and on Air Canada.

Row 44 is now installing its system on Southwest's entire fleet of 737s, and has been in trials with other airlines.

The next expansion is international, obviously, though there is already robust competition from foreign companies on airplanes operating in Europe and elsewhere.

"This license creates complete seamlessness for Row 44’s broadband across the Atlantic," said Howard Lefkowitz, Row 44’s chief commercial officer. "Row 44 is now the only company in the world whose airline customers can charge for in-flight broadband on, say, a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York."

On Wednesday, Row 44, had said it received a so-called Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the European Aviation Safety Agency to install its system on commercial aircraft in Europe. The certificate cleared a big hurdle for the company in its plans to sell its service to European airlines.

Row 44 says it is authorized for operation in over 100 countries, on four continents. The company’s current network coverage includes service over the US, Mexico and Canada, with transatlantic coverage linking North America and Europe expected this year.


A Hint of Snow, and Hundreds of Flights Canceled in New York

Hey, it's winter. It snows sometimes in New York, so let's not get all hysterical about it, airlines and government and, of course, media.

Anyway, it was snowing in New York -- the forecast was for maybe four inches, tops. [UPDATE -- Mid-afternoon, only a trace of snow had been seen in the Big Apple, and by the end of the day the total accumulation was less than 2 inches!]

Emergency! Emergency!
As of mid-morning today, before a snowflake fell, airlines had preemptively canceled more than 400 flights at the three New York airports, with most of the cancellations (110 departures and 113 arrivals) at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport. (The numbers come from

This will probably present a better opportunity than the Christmas blizzard to assess to what degree airlines are willy-nilly and preemptively canceling flights to head off the slightest possibility of being slapped with those new fines for excessive tarmac passenger tarmac strandings that the Transportation Department set last spring.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Southwest Revamps Rapid Rewards: No Blackout Dates for Seat Awards; Points Awarded for All Spending; New Elite Level

Southwest Airlines is making big changes to its Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program in a bold move to further differentiate its product brand and to lure more business travelers away from other major airlines.

The new Web site with details of the program has just gone up (at 5.30 a.m. Eastern) at Also, the head of the program, Ryan Green, has a blog post on the announcement at

Starting March 1, under a new system in which points are assigned based on how much is spent, members will be able to redeem points for every seat, every day, on every flight, with no blackout dates or seat restrictions. Also, points won’t expire over a 24-month time period in which there has been any activity in the account.

Points will be awarded based on the fare. The same is true for redeeming points.

Southwest is also adding a new elite-status level to its program -- A-List Preferred. And all members will be able to purchase points, in blocks of 1,000.

Southwest, which kept the announcement very hush-hush until 5:30 a.m. Eastern time today, said that members with existing credits and awards in the current program will retain their value until they are used or expire. Members’ accounts will automatically be transferred to the new program on March 1. There is no need to re-enroll.


--No blackout dates.

--Every Southwest Airlines seat is a reward seat (no seat restrictions or capacity controls).

--Points don’t expire as long as members earn by flying or using a partner once every 24 months.

--Points are based on the purchased fare and fare product.

When the new program launches in March, members who have a Rapid Rewards credit card will also be able to redeem points for flights to more than 800 international destinations, plus hotels around the world.

This aspect of the program, however, is a lot less fluid, it seems to me. Southwest isn't actually partnering with international airlines. Instead, award tickets on international flights will be purchased by Southwest, essentially through a travel agency, at going rates, with points charged based on available fare.

Benefits for A-List Preferred, the new level of elite status open to A-List and Companion Pass members, include double points on fares purchased.

Southwest expects the program to generate "hundreds of millions in incremental revenue annually for Southwest, net of any associated program costs, to be fully realized over the next several years." Southwest said in an embargoed Webinar yesterday that it spent $100 million developing the new program.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Today's Mean Chuckle: City Tourism Promo Parodies

[Photo: Duckboating in Boston, a.k.a. "Hub of the Universe"]

From the very interesting news and features Web site Good, some "hastily-made videos" in the growing genre of the "Cleveland" classic. New ones target the always self-referential Boston, St. Paul, Detroit, North Korea and elsewhere.

Interesting thing is they all actually look and sound like the real stuff churned out by dreadful PR agencies in various cities that don't actually get the joke.


Row 44 Moves Closer to WiFi Installations on Planes in Europe

Row 44, the inflight WiFi company that's currently installing its system on Southwest Airlines' entire fleet, is moving closer to European operations.

Row 44, based in California, says it has received a so-called Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to install its satellite-based system on commercial aircraft in Europe.

“EASA approval marks another major milestone for Row 44, clearing the final hurdle for us to offer our in-flight broadband connectivity platform on another continent,” said Row 44 chief commercial officer Howard Lefkowitz. "Planes equipped with it will soon be flying all across Europe with a full menu of in-flight broadband services – internet, video, e-commerce, games and more. We will be pioneering a whole new flying experience for passengers throughout Europe," said Lefkowitz, who formerly was the president of, an big online concierge service in Las Vegas.

Row 44’s EASA STC covers Boeing 737-700, 800 and 900 series airframes.

Competitor Aircell, whose Gogo system has been favored by other U.S. airlines, depends on land-based antennas. Gogo is currently operating on 1,044 mainline airplanes flown by Delta, United, US Airways, Virgin America, American, Alaska, Air Canada and AirTran. While the Gogo system is available only on some aircraft of most of the airlines that have signed on, the entire Delta mainline fleet is equipped. And Delta said in November that it plans to expand Gogo to its fleet of 223 larger regional jets, the ones with two-class cabins. When that expansion is completed later this year, 80 percent of Delta's domestic fleet will have Gogo service.

Meanwhile, United Airlines is also rumored to be testing Row 44 on at least one of its 757s, concurrent with trial runs of the Gogo system on other planes in its fleet.

Last September, JetBlue and another satellite WiFi system provider, ViaSat, announced a preliminary agreement for ViaSat to install its system on JetBlue's fleet of about 160 planes by next year.

Sabre vs. American Airlines As Fare-Channel Battle Intensifies

The fare-distribution brawl got hotter today as the global distribution system Sabre busted down American Airlines on its very important fare-distribution network.

Here's Bloomberg on the news.

American started the fight last month when, in an attempt to drive more bookings to its own Web site, it pulled fares from Then on New Year's Day, threw American off its site.

With Sabre's move, we'll see whether American blinks first in this fight. Sabre, not coincidentally, owns, the third of the major online consumer booking sites.

American's move against outside distribution channels is seen as audacious by many in the travel-management business.

"American acts as if it's the country's biggest airline, when it's really number four and falling," said Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

He added, "American is making a reckless rodeo bet that it can rope its best customers like calves and then push and pull and kick them toward and Direct Connect. Online consumers may not even know American's flights are missing. The ones who will gain the most here are American's competitors United, Southwest and others."

Obviously, eliminating fare information from third-party sites makes it far more (corrected) difficult for customers to easily comparison-shop on fares. On the other hand, to the extent that it increases traffic on, American seems to think that it stands to gain somewhat.

The airline system, rapidly constricting and consolidating, is ripe for review under antitrust concerns, some people think. But with this new Congress, that doesn't seem to be much in the cards.

Sabre and American go way back, of course.

Meanwhile, travel groups are warning that the battle over the distribution systems could lead to bad news for business travelers.

"Today’s news from Sabre represents a serious escalation of the growing conflict around airline-mandated 'direct connects'," said Mike McCormick, executive director of the National Business Travel Association, referring to bookings made directly on an airline Web site. "Business travel buyers will ultimately foot the bill for marketplace fragmentation caused by airline initiatives that push the travel distribution marketplace in the wrong direction – away from transparency and competitiveness and toward confusion and higher costs.”

The business travel trade group said that bypassing outside distribution systems will result in a significant increase in travel costs, especially as travel management companies and agencies will need to build new systems to capture these so-called direct-connect fares on behalf of their business travel clients.

Also, the NBTA said, "Businesses that rely on clear and transparent fare information to negotiate for and maintain airline discount programs will find it far more difficult to track volume and enforce travel policies in a fragmented market."


Monday, January 03, 2011

More than 29,000 Flights Were Canceled in December

Airlines canceled 29,391 flights in December (3.54 percent of total flights scheduled), up sharply from 21,954 canceled flights (2.7 percent of total) in December 2009, according to

Flightstats didn't break down cancellations by date in December, but the overall number, combined with other factors such as month-to-month weather comparisons, fits with data showing that about 10,000 flights were canceled at domestic airports during the five days starting on Christmas, when East Coast airports, especially those in the New York area, were hammered by a blizzard. The effects of the snowstorm, including those reflecting impossible airport conditions and those reflecting preemptive cancellations made by airlines to head off potential fines for tarmac strandings, rippled through the whole air-travel system.

On-time arrivals were at just 67.9 percent, meaning that almost a third of flights that fly arrived late -- and 11.43 percent of those arrived more than 44 minutes late, Flightstats said.

Of the top 10 North American airlines, JetBlue had by far the worst record on cancellations. In December, JetBlue scrubbed 8.16 percent of its scheduled flights.


Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year! Fly Better in 2011

[Photo: Continental Airlines Business/First class service]

Here's what we all need to aspire to in 2011: Comfortable air travel!

Best Irony of the Year (So Far): Brazil Refuses to Extradite Terrorist Murderer to Italy

On his last day in office, Brazilian president Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva, known here on previous occasions as Lucky Lula, said he would not extradite to Italy a terrorist murderer named Cesare Battisti, who was convicted in absentia of murdering four people in Italy in the 1970s. Here's a news clip from the Washington Post.

Italy, furious at Lula's action, recalled its ambassador to Brazil in protest.

Battisti has been a fugitive since 1981 when he escaped from an Italian jail. He turned up in Brazil in 2004. Barristi, who has requested political asylum in Brazil, was a member of the terrorist Armed Proletarians for Communism in Italy.

In Brazil there once was something of a tradition of people harboring international criminal fugitives, including the genocidal Nazi criminal Josef Mengele. Hundreds of Nazi war criminals fled to South America starting in 1945, not just to Brazil but to Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and elsewhere. Brazil has tried to live down the reputation, with some success now that almost all of the Nazi fugitives are presumed dead.

I note this here by way of irony. For four years, some Brazilian authorities and some people in Brazil have been demanding the extradition to Brazil of two American aviators, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, who were pilots of an American business jet that was involved in a horrific mid-air collision at 37,000 feet over the central Amazon on Sept. 29, 2006. The seven people on the American plane survived (I was one of them), while the 154 on the Brazilian airliner that collided with it died in a horrible crash into the jungle.

The crash was accompanied by an atmosphere of xenophobia and hysterical anti-Americanism in Brazil, which coincided with a presidential election in which Lula managed to eek out a second term. (Hence the "Lucky".) The Brazilian authorities rushed to scapegoat the American pilots for the accident, which is where I got involved in a protracted long-distance tangle with Brazil.

In its detailed report on the accident, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (N.T.S.B.) concluded that (as I had argued) egregious systemic and operational errors by the military-run Brazilan air traffic control system were the probable cause of the disaster.

The N.T.S.B. (which participated in the investigation because a U.S.-owned plane was involved) concluded this (italics mine): "The evidence collected during this investigation strongly supports the conclusion that this accident was caused by N600XL [the U.S. business jet] and GLO1907 [the Brazilian 737 airliner] following ATC [air traffic control] clearances which directed them to operate in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude resulting in a midair collision.

"The loss of effective air traffic control was not the result of a single error, but of a combination of numerous individual and institutional ATC factors, which reflected systemic shortcomings in emphasis on positive air traffic control concepts."

However, that cut no ice with Brazilian prosecutors determined to blame the Americans. The two American pilots remain on criminal trial, in absentia, on those trumped-up charges in Brazil. Most Brazilians now realize that official butt-covering and media-fanned hysteria created great errors in the Brazilian reaction to the disaster -- not least of which was the unwise move to rush to criminalize an aviation accident.

The charges against the two Americans carry prison sentences, but under existing U.S.-Brazilian treaties and practices, they do not rise to the level requiring extradition to Brazil. However, some Brazilian officials and prosecutors have demanded that the Americans be extradited.

As I said, just noting the irony.