Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brazil Midair Collision Testimony Update

I thought this article in today's New York Times deftly and accurately captured the nuances of the moment as two American pilots, on trial in absentia in Brazil for the 2006 Amazon midair collision that killed 154, began testifying via videoconference from Long Island.

Alas, the judge on the other end of the shaky audio-video system in Brazil has now pronounced himself unhappy with the American reporting. From the estimable Globo news organization in Sao Paulo comes this report today:

CUIABÁ - North American pilot Joseph Lepore is testifying at this moment, by videoconference, in the trial which investigates responsibilities in the accident between the Legacy jet and the Flight 1907 Gol Boeing, which resulted in the deaths of 154 people in September of 2006. Lepore, who is in New York, responded to questions put by federal judge Murilo Mendes, of the Regional Federal Tribunal (TRF) of Brasília, and denied that any of the Legacy's equipment had been manually turned off during the flight. As was the case with copilot Jan Paul Paladino, heard this Wednesday, also by videoconference, this is the first time the pilot speaks to representatives of the Brazilian courts.

... During the [session], the magistrate showed himself to be very irritated with an article published by the American newspaper "The New York Times" about Jan Paul Paladino's testimony [yesterday].

Mendes considered the material to be "full of irony." The [article] cited the videoconference connection problems, saying that it was impossible to understand the Portuguese at some moments. The material also said that the case is treated as an obsession with anti-American sentiment. The judge, in today's videoconference, sent a message to the journalist for "The New York Times" saying that he "would not find work in a reputable newspaper in Brazil."

Well then.

Anyway, now that both pilots have testified, the judge's verdict is expected in April. The American pilots face up to five years in prison if convicted, but they cannot be extradited to Brazil under existing treaties. A conviction could, however, cause them grave difficulties in some international flying.

Nothing new came from the testimony yesterday and today, though the Brazilian media continue to quibble over the words "on" or "off," as heard once in the 290-page transcript of the cockpit recording on the Legacy. I've heard the muddy recording, and it's unclear to my English-language ears whether the word uttered is "on" or "off" -- but I also can't for the life of me see that this constitutes evidence of misfeasance or malfeasance either way.

The cockpit voice recorder, as has been known for two years, clearly confirms that Brazilian air traffic controllers instructed the American pilots to fly at 37,000 feet (where the collision occurred) -- routinely overruling a flight plan filed before the plane took off on its planned route from near Sao Paulo to Manaus. The flight plan routinely had the altitude at 36,000 feet at the point route where the two planes collided over the Mato Grosso in the Amazon. All pilots everywhere are required to follow air traffic control directions, which always take precedence over a pre-filed flight plan.

It is also not at all clear why the Legacy's transponder failed to send an anti-collision alert as the two aircraft approached each other at 37,000 feet -- but no evidence has been produced to indicate that the American pilots were at fault, let alone criminally culpable, in the matter of the evidently malfunctioning transponder. The charges that they were are based on conjecture.

Globo also reports today that American pilot Paladino "confirmed" that he had never flown a Legacy jet "before the accident that resulted in the deaths of 154 people who were aboard a Boeing Brazilian airline..." That's obviously not an accurate report, because Paladino and Lepore flew the same brand-new Legacy aircraft on a long test-flight from Embraer headquarters at San Jose Dos Campos on Sept. 28, the day before the crash. I know because I was on both flights.

Meanwhile, it is not in dispute by any serious aviation authority that both pilots were fully qualified to fly the Legacy type of aircraft, and had more than adequate experience to qualify on that type of plane.

On another matter, prosecutors and the Brazilian media have made much of a portion of the cockpit recordings that shows Lepore and Paladino speaking with some confusion about how to operate an unspecified piece of equipment during the flight. Actually, as all investigators are aware, that "equipment" they couldn't figure out how to work was the in-flight cabin-videoscreen system called Air Show. That's an entertainment device for the passengers and it had nothing to do with the operation of the aircraft.

I am also quite taken by Brazilian media choosing to continually make a point of the fact that the American pilots "do not speak Portuguese," and hence could have been culpable in not understanding unspecified verbal communications from Brazilian air traffic control.

One of the many serious criticisms made of Brazilian air traffic control, which is run by the military, has been that controllers there are not adequately trained and supervised, that equipment is outdated -- and that many controllers lack basic skills in communicating in English.

English, as the aviation world knows and universally agrees, is the required language of international aviation. Air traffic controllers and pilots the world over are required by international law to communicate clearly in English.

The reason for having a standard language in the world's skies is quite simple: Aviation safety, which was the critically important issue that got short shrift in Brazil four years ago, in the emotionally overwrought rush to scapegoat the Americans.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2 American Pilots Testifying At Criminal Trial in 2006 Brazil Mid-Air Collision That Killed 154 Over the Amazon

The two U.S. pilots who flew the Legacy 600 business jet that collided with a Brazilian 737 commercial airliner over the Amazon in 2006 are testifying in their own defense today and tomorrow in a criminal trial being held in Brazil.

An investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the probable cause of the horrific accident was operational errors by Brazilian air traffic control, which put the two airplanes on a collision course at 37,000 feet. But the Brazilians nevertheless charged the American pilots with criminal offenses.

The American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, are being tried in absentia in Brazil. Their testimony is being heard at a federal courthouse in Long Island, N.Y., via teleconference with the criminal court in Brazil.

The Brazilian prosecutors had initially demanded that the pilots testify at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, but finally agreed to take testimony instead on U.S. territory, at a federal courthouse.

After the collision on Sept. 29, 2006, the seriously damaged Legacy jet managed an emergency landing at a remote Amazon airstrip, about 25 minutes after the 737 plunged into the jungle with 154 on board. I was one of the seven survivors on the business jet.

In a politically charged atmosphere at the time, the Brazilian military (which runs air-traffic control) and the federal police rushed to criminalize the accident, against the judgment of the international aviation community. A Brazilian investigation found some fault with air traffic control, but laid most of the blame on the Americans. The NTSB, which concluded otherwise, had the authority to conduct its own investigation in Brazil because an American-owned plane was involved.

Basically, the charges against Lepore and Paladino center on allegations, for which there has been no evidence produced, that the Americans turned off a critical piece of cockpit equipment called the transponder. The transponder triggers the aircraft anti-collision warning system that would have been the last possible chance to avoid the collision.

Catastrophic aviation accidents usually occur as a result of a chain of errors which typically come to light during an objective and lengthy investigation. Criminalizing an aviation accident is considered to be a mistake because it obviously impedes a thorough investigation, with key witnesses on the defensive.

There is no dispute that the Legacy's transponder was not operational for almost an hour before the crash, perhaps because of a malfunction. During that time, the aircraft was also mostly out of radio and radar contact, partly because of well-known communications "dead zones" over the central Amazon where the collision occurred. Aviation experts have said that a transponder like the one in the Legacy that goes off-line gives no obvious signal to the pilots that it isn't functioning.

Brazilian prosecutors are trying to prove their case that, for some reason, the American pilots turned off the transponder, causing the disaster. The pilots deny that they turned the device off, or were otherwise negligent in operating the airplane.

In testimony today, Paladino reiterated that, and said that he and Lepore followed Brazilian air traffic control instructions to maintain altitude at 37,000 feet during the flight from takeoff near Sao Paulo, diagonally across the Amazon to the planned destination, Manaus. The collision occurred about midway, over the Amazon state of Mato Grosso.

The Brazilians have charged that the American pilots ignored their flight plan, which called for routinely descending to 36,000 feet on the portion of the flight where the collision occurred. The American pilots have maintained that they were at the assigned altitude, and that under aviation protocols, air traffic control instructions automatically take precedence over a flight plan that is routinely filed well before takeoff.

Testifying today, Paladino noted that air traffic controllers commonly overrule flight plans. In the cockpit, "I rely on air traffic control," he said.

Lepore is scheduled to testify tomorrow.

After the crash, the pilots were held for two months in Brazil, and released only following an international furor about Brazil's handling of the incident. They, and several low-ranking air traffic controllers, were then charged with criminal offenses, which carry prison terms on conviction.

[Here's my initial report on the crash as it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. I later wrote a lengthier report in the Sunday magazine of the Times of London.]

Lepore, 46, is still a pilot with Excelaire, the Long Island charter company that had just purchased the $25 million Legacy jet in Brazil on the day of the crash. Paladino, 38, is now employed by American Airlines.

In a much smaller matter, I was sued for defamation in Brazil because of my own reporting and commentary on the crash. That reporting and commentary occurred in mainstream print, in television and radio interviews immediately after the accident, and subsequently on blog posts in which I argued forcefully against the Brazilian rush to judgment. During the two months after the crash, I also pressed for the release of the pilots from Brazil and severely criticized Brazilian authorities for what I asserted was a rush to scapegoat the Americans and cover up poor operational systems in Brazilian air traffic control.

Till Paladino's testimony today, I was the only one of the seven survivors who was able to speak publicly about the disaster.

The complaint against me falsely claimed that I had referred to Brazil as "most idiot of all idiots," among other demonstrably untrue allegations. The complaint, filed by the widow of one of those killed in the crash, rested on the assertion that an alleged insult to the honor of Brazil constituted an actionable injury against every citizen of Brazil. Till the lawsuit was filed, I had never heard of the plaintiff.

A judge threw out the suit last year, but the plaintiff's attorneys have appealed, and are also seeking criminal charges against me for alleged defamation of the nation. Last year, mostly because of libel-suit abuses in England but partially because of the strange Brazil libel case against me, Congress unanimously passed, and the president signed, a federal law that prohibits enforcement in the U.S. of foreign libel judgments that are considered to be an affront to the U.S. First Amendment.

I'll file an update tomorrow on the pilots' testimony. If convicted, the Americans are not subject to extradition to Brazil under U.S. law. But a conviction in Brazil would carry grave implications for a pilot who flies internationally.


Want to Buy An Airline? Show Me the Money

There are a few half-baked reports around today saying that some investment company has "made an offer" or "a bid" to buy American Airlines (rather, its parent company AMR, to be precise). For an alleged $3.25 billion -- for a company that is worth $2.2 billion in market capitalization, as of the close of trading on Wall Street yesterday.

Actually, not many people seem to have heard of the investment firm, Sterling Global Holdings. And the "bid," so far at least, seems to be nothing more than talk and media speculation. Heck, you or I could send a letter claiming we plan to buy Google, right? All we need is the dough.

In this report, Terry Maxon at the Dallas News talked to Allen Weintraub, the general manager of Sterling Global Holdings, and Maxon asked the key question right off the bat:

Q. Do you have $3.25 billion?
A. Oh, we have more than that.

O.K. -- and sure, Donald Trump says he's running for president, too. Easy to say, since we're not at the point yet in the presidential primaries where a candidate needs to put up or shut up. It's all cheap publicity right now -- though some business reporters are starting to look into the alleged would-be AMR buyers a little more assiduously than most political reporters are looking into Trump's presidential "bid."

And it's easy to get the publicity machinery going over airline takeover bids that never quite materialize, as the media genius Trump himself knows.

Back in 1989, Trump got himself a lot of publicity by saying he had made a bid of $7.5 billion for AMR, though he also conceded that he had no commitments from banks to finance the "offer," which never came to fruition.

So show us the money.

P.S. -- and see this from a M&A law professors blog.


Airline Capacity Growth Curtailed by Oil Prices

I'm just catching up to this important report in Business Travel News that airlines are planning to curtail their (modest) capacity-growth plans for the rest of this year.

According to the BTN report, American, United-Continental and Frontier this month "revised downward their 2011 capacity growth plans as crude oil traded above $100 per barrel." That follows Delta, which in February was the first major U.S. airline to cut back on 2011 growth plans.

[Here's the report on American's capacity plans, via Dow Jones.]

Unless air-travel demand falls off significantly, and there is no sign of that, capacity cuts mean that flights will be more full than ever. Meanwhile, service in many markets will be further reduced. That trend is exacerbated by the move to retire fuel-inefficient 50-seat regional jets, which are the mainstays of air travel in many medium-size and smaller (but even some major) markets.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

At the Gun Show in 'Baja Arizona'

Went to a gun show in Tucson yesterday, and here's the first thing we saw when we came in the door [photo, above]. Yikes! Nazi flags.

I went to the show with a young friend, a businesswoman who is a foreign-born Tucson resident. She was interested in purchasing a handgun for personal protection. She also happens to be Jewish. Guns and ammo are one thing. Nazi-era paraphernalia -- the real stuff, not replica material, incidentally -- is quite another.

On the other hand, to apply Andre Gide's maxim to Tucson, "please do not understand me too quickly." This being Tucson and not Phoenix, nothing is quite as pat as it might seem on first glance.

For example, at the same stall that had the Nazi flags on display, there was a cornucopia of military memorabilia, including scores of trays of insignia from U.S. troops in World War II, war medals from all over the world, and even a selection of antique postcards ... from places like Ocean City, N.J.

They also had used books, including one assessing the explosion of Nazi terror that followed the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933. So I was quite willing to regard the Nazi flags as nothing more than weird memorabilia -- though they did focus the attention right off the bat.

In fact, unlike at some gun shows elsewhere in the country, none of the books being sold at various tables seemed to be works of crazy right-wing extremism like the "Turner Diaries" copies often peddled at such events. One used book on display at one counter at the Tucson show: Tom Friedman's "The World Is Flat."

There also was a big display by volunteers who provide foster care for pets that U.S. military personnel need to leave behind for a year or so. (Tucson has a big Air Force base that deploys troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.). Here is the Web site for that group, which is called Operation Noble Foster.

There were tables upon tables piled up with surplus military gear, including camouflage jackets and boots. It occurred to me that we have not been at war for so long that surplus GI equipment is flooding the market, much as it did in the 1950s, when massive quantities of World War II gear was sold at retail shops called Army-Navy stores.

Naturally, there were thousands of weapons of all kinds for sale at the gun show. My friend got very informative, sensible advice from reasonable gun experts on what to look for in a personal handgun, and how to assess things like recoil.

All of the gun dealers we spoke to, by the way, said they required a background check and paperwork for any sale.

Outside in the parking lot were only a handful of cars, pickups and SUVs with blatantly extremist bumper stickers. There also were a few with "Proud To Be a Tucson Democrat" stickers. One SUV had Fraternal Order of Police sticker and National Rifle Association stickers on the front bumper, and stickers that said "Keep Your Theology Out of My Biology" and "Obama '08" on the rear bumper.

Most of the people at this weekend's gun show (they occur throughout the year), sponsored by a company called Roadrunner, seemed like normal citizens. On the other hand, there was a couple circulating the exhibition pushing a baby carriage with an infant in it, and propped beside that infant, literally tucked into the swaddling clothes, was a rifle with its barrel sticking up. The mother told me the baby was two weeks old.

But rather than crazed and dangerous extremists, the hapless couple just struck me and my friend as amiable chowderheads, proud of their tiny, red-faced infant -- who was, we agreed, adorable, despite having to share his baby blanket with Daddy's brand new rifle.

So as always, and especially in a place like Tucson, impressions made in a flash, or through easy stereotypes, are usually not accurate impressions. At least here in what the locals have begun to call "Baja Arizona," to distinguish it from the nut-farm territories up north in Phoenix.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Continental Adding WiFi Next Year on 737s and 757s

Continental Airlines finally has committed to inflight WiFi, saying today that
it's going to to install the service on 200-plus 737s and 757s on domestic routes starting next year.

As I noted many months ago in assessing Continental's plans, the provider is LiveTV, offering WiFi via Ka-band on aircraft with DIRECTV, which also has 95 channels of live television programming. Ka-band will use ViaSat’s ViaSat-1, which will be the world’s highest-capacity satellite after it is launched later this year.

"Ka-band will be able to offer higher transmission speeds for more extensive onboard connection capabilities, including browsing of content-rich websites, sending and receiving e-mails and downloading files," says United Continental Holdings, the somewhat clumsily named corporation that now owns the merging United Airlines and Continental Airlines. (Well, thank God they didn't name it "Uncontinental," at least).

United Airlines currently offers inflight Internet service on 14 aircraft, including on its so-called p.s. premium service flights between Kennedy with Los Angeles and San Francisco.

On those flights, United uses Aircell's industry-leading Gogo WiFi service, which is installed on almost 1,100 mainstream domestic aircraft.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Airlines, Please Spare Me the Song and Dance

Listen, no good comes of having anyone "perform" or otherwise behave on an airplane like those New York street people who used to wait till the subway train left the station and then stand and loudly demand your attention on behalf of one cause or another.

We're captive audiences here, airlines. I know civility is at a minimum in air travel, but please, let's put a stop to this trend of staging creative "entertainment" in the aisle, instead of calling attention to the standard, boring and very important recitation of the flight safety procedures.

Up there is John Travolta, intruding in a supposedly entertaining video on Qantas flights, for example. [UPDATE: The embedded link to the video has mysteriously disappeared, and I have replaced with a screen grab]

Now, I know that Travolta is a skilled private pilot himself, but what if I don't want to have to be forced to attend a Travolta performance on an airplane?

I see this guy and the first thing I consider is that he believes that we are engaged in a battle with Xenu, the ruler of a galactic confederacy 75 million years ago, who is in league with vile psychiatrists and has devised an evil plot to ... oh, screw it, the man is a prominent Scientologist. Instead of listening to safety information that could save my life, I'm going to be fixed on how anyone as smart as this guy seems to be can buy such crap. What if he tries to sell me a book when I am supposed to be learning where the floatation device is located?

Qantas flight crews are said to be unhappy with the Travolta video in lieu of the actual safety demonstration by flight attendants, and I don't blame them.

Where I do blame flight attendants is on airlines that encourage them to sing and/or dance the safety demonstration. Or to in any other way engage in performing live entertainment for a captive audience.

Yes, this seems to be a trend.

Capital Airlines now does it, following Cebu Pacific's allowing flight attendants to sing and dance the safety demonstration to a loud Lady Gaga song.

You know what? If Lady Gaga did it herself on a plane, I (and I suspect many others) would tell her to sit down and shut the hell up.

Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, has encouraged some flight attendants to do the safety demonstration as a rap song.

At this time, please listen up, flight attendants and pretend airline captains. Most of us don't care to be forced to watch a performance, and a cringe-worthy one at that. Lots of us, believe it or not, have never even seen reality TV, and have no desire to see a version of it on an airplane.

Kindly save the song and dance routine for karaoke night at Olive Garden, on your own time, please. Meanwhile, where are those exits again?


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Perils of Travel Magazine Journalism...

You've got to feel for editors of those slick monthly travel magazines, commissioning all those twee, relentlessly positive stories on places all over the world -- and then having local conditions abruptly go to hell in one, while the magazine is already at the printer's or merrily on its way to subscribers' mailboxes and newsstands.

Consider Conde Nast Traveler, which had a rah-rah story in its February issue, "Egypt: Secret Pleasures of the Nile." Alas, notes editor-in-chief Klara Glowczewska in her "Editor's Letter" at the front of the April issue, the February issue was arriving on the newsstands "right around January 25" -- just as revolution was breaking out on the streets of Cairo.

But you also gotta hand it to travel magazine editors for looking on the bright side of life, as is their wont. The Egypt story "all seemed like spectacularly bad timing," Glowczeweska writes in the April issue, as "elements of the old regime were ready to sacrifice Egypt's vital tourism industry to stay in power, allowing the Internet to show mobs (government-sponsored thugs, we now know) attacking foreigners and riding horses and camels through Tahrir [Square] ..."

But yet, look on the bright side! The editor's note quotes the author of the earlier Egypt story, now brightly suggesting that, post-revolt, Egypt offers "an opportunity to witness history being made..."

To which the editor exults: "Indeed. Good morning Cairo!"

As I said, this all is contained in the April issue of Conde Nast Traveler -- the one with a story titled "The 15 Best Places to See Right Now."

And place No. 10 on that list is (wait for it) ... Libya.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

State Department: Avoid Travel to Japan

As the post-tsunami conditions worsen in places, as the nuclear-plants crisis continues, and with reliable emergency information difficult to come by, U.S. citizens should avoid travel to Japan at this time, the State Department said in a travel alert issued today.

Here is the full text of the State Department travel alert for Japan, issued today.


"The Department of State requests all non-emergency official U.S. government personnel defer travel to Japan and urges U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Japan at this time. Temporary shortages of water and food supplies may occur in affected areas of Japan due to power and transportation disruptions. Telephone services have also been disrupted in affected areas; where possible, you may be able to contact family members using text message or social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

Flights have resumed at all airports that were closed by the earthquake, except Sendai, Sado, Iwate-Hanamaki, and Misawa Airports. In Tokyo, most public transportation including trains and subways are operating. Many roads have been damaged in the Tokyo area and in northern Japan, particularly in the Miyagi prefecture where government checkpoints have been established on damaged roadways. In Iwate Prefecture, toll road highways are restricted to emergency vehicles only. ..."


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Explosion at Japanese Nuke Plant: Are We Getting the Straight Story From Japanese Authorities?

This explosion today at a Japanese nuclear plant about 130 miles from Tokyo cannot be good.

Here is report from CNN. Click on the video interview accompanying this report. The CNN reporter, alas, keeps interrupting her subject with stupid questions, obviously annoyed by the expertise she is hearing. "Boooring!" you can see her thinking. "Give us some tips on how to prevent this!" you can see her thinking. "We know what the problem is; we talked about that," she finally says dismissively. Let's lose this guy and cut to the Charlie Sheen update!

Sheesh, it's hopeless.

Anyway, here's something I worry about besides stupidity in the TV media, which is, nevertheless, plenty to worry about:

Japan, as we are constantly being informed today in the media, has excellent earthquake engineering, and has long drilled its populace -- from grade school on to the neighborhood and home and factory and office -- in emergency earthquake response.

But are we getting the straight story on these nuclear plants damaged in the earthquake? Earthquake preparedness is an engineering issue, yes -- but response can also include cultural issues. Like a propensity for face-saving and butt-covering. It's worth evaluating. It sure looks like adequate information is not forthcoming on the damage to this particular nuclear plant.

The authorities in Japan are saying there is no risk of a core meltdown -- but that is patently not true. There already has obviously been a partial core meltdown. Of course there is a risk of a meltdown. Also, authorities have evacuated people from within a 12-mile radius of the damaged plant. That indicated that the problem is very, very serious.

[UPDATE: From the New York Times: "...Government officials and executives of Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the plant, gave confusing accounts of the causes of the explosion and the damage it caused ..."

From the Wall Street Journal: "Some analysts say the government may be downplaying the real risk of a major disaster, and that the latest accident could be comparable to that of Three Mile Island in the U.S. ..."

From the BBC: "A former nuclear power plant designer has said Japan is facing an extremely grave crisis and called on the government to release more information, which he said was being suppressed. Masashi Goto told a news conference in Tokyo that one of the reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was 'highly unstable,' and that if there was a meltdown the 'consequences would be tremendous.'"]

By the way, I am not one of those anti-nuke alarmists. I covered the Three-Mile Island incident as a young reporter -- and my late father was one of the people who supervised, and trained young engineers for, the nuclear-power program for the old Philadelphia Electric Co.


Friday, March 11, 2011

International SOS Travel Advisory for Japan

Here's the current travel advisory for Japan from International SOS, the big global medical-evacuation and security services firm.

Special Advisory - Japan: Disruption continues following major earthquake as tsunami warning remains in place; authorities evacuate vicinity of nuclear plant (Revised 18.52 GMT)

A tsunami warning issued on 11 March by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) remains in place after high waves struck the coast of Miyagi prefecture (Tohoku region, Honshu island). The tsunami was produced by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake that at 14.46 (local time) struck 81 miles (130km) east of Sendai, the capital of Miyagi. At least 40 strong aftershocks measuring between 7.1 and 6.3 have been reported in the area. The JMA's tsunami warning applies to several prefectures, including Iwate, Miyagi, Hokkaido, Fukushima and Wakayama, where the authorities have evacuated more than 20,000 people. The authorities have stated that at least 350 people have been killed, around 500 are missing and more than 500 others have been injured. The authorities have deployed army personnel for rescue and relief operations.

The authorities have ordered the evacuation of local residents within a two-mile (3km) radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and residents within a two- to six-mile (3 to 10km) radius have been told to remain indoors. The International Atomic Energy Agency's Incident and Emergency Centre had earlier received a directive from Japan's Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency stating that a heightened state of alert had been declared at the power plant.

The capital Tokyo

Compared to the damage in the north-east of the country, local sources confirm that Tokyo is relatively unscathed. However, the tremor shook buildings and prompted the suspension of airport, overland and metro train services in the city, after a four-metre (13 foot) tsunami struck its coast. Train and underground metro services have since partially resumed, as have some bus services. In addition, significant traffic disruption continues on major roads, and authorities have closed several highways. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano urged commuters in the capital to spend the night in their offices to avoid further congestion. Despite this, local reports suggest that the city is choked with pedestrians making their way home from the city centre.


Fires have been reported in Sendai, which is believed to be the worst-hit area, while power supply has been disrupted in all parts of Miyagi, Iwate, and Akita prefectures, most of Yamagata prefecture, and part of Fujushima prefecture. Meanwhile, around 3.4m homes are without power in Kanto region (Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa prefectures). Fires have also been reported in Iwate, Ibaraki, Miyagi, Akita, Fukushima, Tochigi, Chiba, Tokyo and Kanagawa, while landslides have destroyed homes in Miyagi, where all expressways have been closed to traffic. A passenger train is missing in Miyagi, while a dam burst in Fukushima, washing away several residences.


The country's three main mobile telephone operators have reported disruption to their services in many areas, and landlines have also been affected; however, local sources indicate that internet services are normal.


Some outbound flights have reportedly resumed at Tokyo's Narita International Airport (NRT), while the city's Haneda Airport (HND) is accepting only arrivals. Operations have also been disrupted at Hanamaki Airport ( HNA) in Iwate, while Sendai Airport (SDJ) is closed due to inundation; airports serving Yamagata (GAJ) and Aomori (AOJ) prefecture are closed. Most international arrivals are being diverted to other airports; All Nippon Airways has cancelled more than 130 flights and diverted 24 others, while UK carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have cancelled their flights to Tokyo for the day. The US-based United, Delta and American Airlines have announced that they will waive rebooking fees for their Japan services for at least one week.

Comment and Analysis

A clearer picture of the damage and disruption caused by the disaster will take several hours to emerge. However, air and overland travel, as well as essential services, such as telecommunications and electricity, are likely to remain subject to considerable disruption in the affected areas, as the authorities first undertake rescue work before directing resources towards repairing damaged infrastructure. In addition, further aftershocks are likely, and these have the potential to cause additional damage, thereby exacerbating the situation. Waves generated by further strong tremors could potentially spread and strike other islands in the region, inundating low-lying coastal areas and posing a serious threat to life and property. The move by the authorities to evacuate the area around the Fukushima Daiichi plant is a precautionary measure after the facility's power supply was cut, causing concern over its ability to cool its nuclear material.

Japan is prone to earthquakes and is situated on one of the world's most seismically active areas; nearly 20% of the world's temblors with a magnitude of six or above occur in the country. The JMA on 9 March issued brief tsunami advisories for Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in the north-east of Honshu after an offshore earthquake measuring 7.2 on the moment magnitude scale occurred at around 11.45 on the same day in eastern Honshu and around 105 miles (169km) east of Sendai. This was followed by a 6.3-magnitude aftershock; though no casualties were reported, minor disruption to rail services was experienced in the four prefectures after the authorities temporarily halted trains as a precautionary measure. A 23-inch (60cm) tsunami on the day was reported in the port town of Ofunato (Iwate), while tremors shook buildings in Tokyo.

Travel Advice

* Account for all personnel.
* Avoid low-lying and coastal areas until the situation becomes clear and the tsunami warning is rescinded.
* Be aware that aftershocks may prompt further warnings and alerts and could pose a risk to life and property.
* Anticipate disruption to travel and essential services in earthquake-affected areas.
* Personnel scheduled to travel to, from or within the country are advised to contact their airline to reconfirm the status of flights before setting out.
* Monitor the local media and our website for further updates.
* Members can contact the International SOS Alarm Centre for additional health information.
* See the International SOS Medical Alerts for health related information.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Another Fare Hike Coming Our Way

Late last night American Airlines initiated what looks like the start of the seventh successive fare-hike of the year when it filed a $10 increase on roundtrip domestic airfares, according to Rick Seaney of

"Eerily, 2011 is tracking in lockstep with the first nine weeks in 2008," he said, pointing out:
* 9-Mar-2008 - Oil $105/barrel, Today $104/barrel
* 7-Mar-2008 - 7 domestic airfare hike attempts (5 successful), Today 7 domestic airfare hike attempts (previous 6 successful)

"If history repeats itself we should see weekly hike attempts of at least $10 roundtrip through the end of April as we did in 2008 where oil closed at $115/barrel that month," he said, adding:

"I expect legacy airlines to continue probing weekly, matching as a tightknit group (save US Airways' rare resistance) as they watch intently for their low-cost brethren to hop on board. When/if they don’t join, legacies have no choice but to roll back or tiptoe around those routes to maintain competitive equilibrium.

"Taking into account summer travel surcharges, our internal index of average cheapest domestic roundtrip prices between the top 50 U.S. cities is nearly at the same levels we saw peak in June of 2008.

"The $10,000,000 question is when will consumers begin to push back, if at all?"


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

'Tarmac Rule' a Failure? Nonsense! Do the Math!

Today's Prayer:
O Merciful God, please spare us from Newspaper Editorial Writers who think they know something about air travel when the only time they get on an airplane is once a year to take a very cheap flight from Atlantic City to Florida on Spirit Airlines, which is not to be confused, God help us, with Thy Holy Spirit.

Here we have an editorial in the hometown newspaper of the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport informing us that the so-called tarmac rule "has backfired."

The tarmac rule, put in place last spring by the Transportation Department, provides fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for an airline that strands passengers on tarmacs, without extremely good reason, for more than three hours.

Since the rule went into effect, tarmac strandings -- and those awful stories of people sitting for eight and nine hours on packed, idled planes with toilets overflowing -- have almost disappeared.

Between May of last year (the first full month that the rule was in effect), and January of this year, there were 16 tarmac strandings on domestic airlines, the U.S. Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) says. There was only one this January.

That compares with 604 tarmac strandings between May of 2009 and January 2010, the BTS says.

OK, but what about the airlines' threats of massive preemptive cancellations? Granted, when the airlines first started wailing about the imminent rule last year, I bought into the idea that there would be huge numbers of preemptive cancellations at the slightest sign of bad weather arriving. What airline wants to pay that kind of a fine?

And airlines did, in fact, cancel tens of thousands of flights during extremely bad weather this winter.

Was the tarmac rule the main or even a major reason? I do not see evidence that it had a major effect on cancellations. In fact, it appears to me that airlines, screaming all the way, have actually cleaned up their act -- and the disappearance of tarmac strandings is awfully persuasive evidence of that.

Were cancellations excessive this winter, compared with last? Yes, airlines did cancel a large number of flights starting in November and continuing through January, as exceptionally bad winter weather raked much of the country east of the Continental Divide. But the numbers don't even begin to support a conclusion that the tarmac rule has "backfired."

Now, I routinely talk to pilots, and every one of them I have spoken with this winter expressed amazement at the extent of bad weather since Thanksgiving. Pilots are not shy about criticizing their employers. But every one who had a flight canceled agreed that safety-caution and/or plain common sense was why. "In one case, the option was a possible two-hour wait for de-icing, which means at least three hours really, and then that was still taking a chance on getting out before the weather turned worse -- which it did," one pilot told me.

Au contraire mon frere, the newspaper quoted above announces. "Newspaper studies, including one by the Star-Ledger, reveal a pattern: Even after allowing for bad weather, cancellations are up, way up. At Newark Liberty International Airport, more than 900 flights a month are being scratched."

That wobbly verb-tense, "are being," would seem to indicate, during this very severe winter. Which has now come to an end. And, uh, exactly how many flights a month does the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport have? Well, it shows right here on that Newark has 1,226 scheduled flights for today alone. That puts the total in the 35,000-flights-a-month range for January, the slowest travel month of the year.

In all of 2009, the Newark airport had a total of 411,607 flights, according to Airports Council International North America. During the full year in 2010, airports in the U.S. handled 9.5 million total flights, the BTS says.

In all U.S. airports, 3.87 percent of flights were canceled in January of 2011, according to the BTS. In January 2010, before the tarmac rule took effect, and at a time when national weather was a lot better than it was this January, a total of 2.46 percent of flights were canceled, the BTS says. Factor in this January's horrible weather and that difference is negligible.

The fact is, airlines (faced with the prospect of those huge fines) have figured out ways to get idled planes back to a gate while the tarmac-rule clock is ticking. Preemptive cancellations are a small factor, but so far, given the weather this winter, there is no indication, none, that a significant number of flights were canceled that otherwise would have taken off.

Back when I was a city editor at a big newspaper, I used to importune reporters: "Do the math and use your common sense."

The advice stands.


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Privacy Group Presses Challenge to TSA's Body-Imaging Machinery

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) will go to federal court on Thursday to press its substantive challenge to the TSA's rollout of whole body imagers, as the TSA used to call the machines before somebody there decided to find a less alarming euhpemism, "advanced imaging technology."

Some critics merely call the devices, which the TSA plans eventually to use as a replacement for magnetometers at all 2,000 airport checkpoints, "strip-search machines." There are now 486 machines in place at 78 airports, the TSA says.

The EPIC president, Marc Rotenberg, a lawyer, is scheduled to present arguments against the TSA body scanner program on Thursday before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The petition seeks a court order suspending the program.

EPIC calls the body-scanners "invasive, unlawful, and ineffective," and argues that the TSA's deployment of the devices for primary screening violates the U.S. Constitution and several federal statutes.

Here is the full text of the EPIC opening brief.

Here is the TSA's Web site on the machines, with links to all of the agency's arguments in favor of the technology.

EPIC asserts that the Department of Homeland Security "has initiated the most sweeping, the most invasive, and the most unaccountable suspicionless search of American travelers in history."

Besides EPIC, the petitioners are Chip Pitts, the immediate past-president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, who is a lecturer at Stanford Law School and the former chairman of Amnesty International USA; Bruce Schneier, an internationally known security technologist and author; and Nadhira Al-Khalili, legal counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Here are the main arguments in the EPIC petition:

--The full body scanner program violates the Administrative Procedure Act.

--The TSA improperly processed EPIC’s Section 553(e) petitions and the Homeland Security Department Privacy Office failed to comply with its statutory mandate to protect travelers’ privacy.

--The body scanner program violates the Fourth Amendment protection against improper searches.

--The program violates the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act.


Some excerpts from the petition:

--"Respondent agency has initiated the most sweeping, the most invasive, and
the most unaccountable suspicionless search of American travelers in history.
Respondent has subjected millions of air travelers to suspicionless searches that
target the most intimate areas of the human body. It has deployed devices, of its
own design, that have the ability to store, record, and transmit these images of the
naked human body. And it has done so in disregard of federal statutes and
Constitutional safeguards that are intended to protect the privacy and religious
rights of individuals and to ensure accountability in agency decision-making. It has
even disregarded a federal privacy law that explicitly prohibits the capture of
naked images by federal officials where there is a reasonable expectation of

--"Following respondent’s failure to act on either the First EPIC Petition or the
Second EPIC Petition, as well as the concerns expressed by members of Congress,
and anticipating the Respondent’s intent to accelerate the deployment of body
scanners in U.S. airports, petitioner filed a motion for emergency stay of the
agency’s Rule on July 2, 2010."

--"During the spring of 2009, respondent DHS made a determination that body
scanners, which were previously only deployed for secondary screening in limited
pilot projects, would in the future be deployed as the primary screening technique
in U.S. airports."

--"[The machines'] capabilities enable the capture, storage, and transfer of the images of the naked human body. The machines run an embedded version of Microsoft Windows XP (XPe) that is prone to security vulnerabilities."

--"Travelers have expressed outrage at the invasiveness of the machines, the radiation exposure created by the machines, the lack of signage regarding the machines, and the absence of a meaningful alternative to the scans."

--"Experts in radiology and security have questioned the safety of the machines, and their effectiveness (especially regarding the detection of powdered explosives)."

--"There are proposed alternatives to body scanners, including less intrusive
passive millimeter wave technology and filters that indicate potential threats on an
avatar instead of an actual passenger image. A Jan. 27, 2010, Government Accountability Office report states that TSA has ten passenger screening technologies in various phases of research, procurement, and development."

--"The TSA does not, in practice, offer air travelers an alternative to the body
scanner search. ... The petition quotes travelers on their experiences: [An] air traveler stated that 'when he requested an
alternative screening, the TSA screeners interrogated and laughed at him.') ... 'I was asked/forced into this [body scanner] at BWI airport on 6/30/09.' ... 'I am outraged and angry that what was supposed to be a ‘pilot’ for the millimeter scan machines has now become mandatory at SFO.'"

--"Instead, the TSA claims to offer passengers a pat-down alternative, but many
passengers are never informed of this option. ... 'I was not verbally notified by any TSA official that the Full Body scan was optional … I did not observe any written notice or signage that indicated the full body scan was optional … I have no reason to believe that any traveler who went through security screening at Logan Airport at that time would have been told that the full body scan was optional or that there was an alternative security screening procedure.'"

--"Passengers perceive the pat-down to represent a retaliatory measure for those who do object to the body scanners. '[I] decided to opt out [of a body scan]. My family and I were then subjected to a punitive pat-down search (they went over me three times) that would have been considered sexual assault in any other context."

--"As a matter of pattern, practice and policy, the TSA visually matches air
travelers’ photo ID cards with their boarding passes when travelers pass through
airport security checkpoints. The TSA scans air traveler’s boarding passes,
collecting air travelers’ personal information, when travelers pass through airport
security checkpoints that are equipped with paperless boarding pass scanners.
The TSA is therefore able to associate a specific body-scanner image with the full name, birth date, gender, and travel itinerary of the scanned traveler."


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Luckily, the Flight Attendant Didn't Stash the Baby in the Cargo Hold, Because That Would Have Been an Extra $25

A flight attendant on Virgin Blue Airways was fired after that (male) flight attendant stowed a female passenger's 17-month-old son in an overhead bin and shut the hatch during a flight from Fiji to Sydney. The stunt was evidently supposed to be a joke, and the woman's now-estranged husband was part of it.

Here's the report.


Friday, March 04, 2011

A Flying Myth ...

Patrick Smith's "Ask the Pilot" column in Salon is always informative and sometimes myth-busting, as is today's.

Patrick, a pilot for a major airline who flies international routes, takes on the subject of how the brakes are applied, and sometimes with a little force, on landings. It isn't what some airline cynics assume, that the pilots want to get off the runway fast so they can get home faster and grab a cold brewsky.

I like this line: "Say what you want about airlines and the indignities of flying, but if anybody in this business has the passengers' backs, it's the flight crew."


Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Rudest Cities to Visit?

A Web site and mobile platform that analyzes travel, Foursquare, is getting copious publicity with its list of the twenty "rudest" cities in the English-speaking world.

According to Foursquare, the "rudest" citizens were those who used profanity and obscenities in on-site recommendations.

Manchester, England, as you can see, tops the list, which strikes me as very shakily compiled. Ok, the list strikes me as half-assed. Sorry, Foursquare, but you did get the publicity. Also here. (On the other hand, you also did get my attention, so there's that at least).

Anyway, I do agree that New York City does not belong on any such list. Despite stereotypes, New York is among the most courteous big cities in the word, in my opinion. Only rubes who don't know New York call it rude. (For some reason, Staten Island is on the list. Who the hell visits Staten Island?]

London, meanwhile, has always struck me as a somewhat rude city. It's not on this list.

On the other hand, Miami is on the list, and I have to ask, what's the story there? I thought the list was for English-speaking cities?


Oh Come On, Boxcutters?

The easily excited New York Post newspaper has a breathless account today, flogged online by Drudge, about an innocent passenger who "managed to waltz past JFK's ramped-up security gantlet with three boxcutters in his carry-on luggage" and got on an international flight.

Oh, settle down, people. The guy probably didn't waltz. My guess is he was actually doing the dread TSA checkpoint two-step.

OK, boxcutters are among the dozens of things that cannot be carried on an airplane. It's a good idea to try to keep people from carrying them onto a crowded airplane. Evidently, boxcutters were the weapon of choice on 9/11, when terrorists overpowered flight crews and commandeered airplanes to use them as guided missiles.

Remember, catapults in warfare changed the course of history. But you probably don't need to worry too much about a catapult these days, unless that crazy neighbor you're having a dispute with over his barking dog is constructing one in his back yard.

As regards boxcutters, here's a fact: No one will ever again take over an airplane using a freaking boxcutter. I almost pity any poor misguided moron who tries it, given the vigilance of crews and passengers, and the way they'll throttle anyone who brandishes a gun or a knife, let alone something as ridiculous as a boxcutter, capable of, what? Causing grievous lacerations before the assailant is almost instantly pummeled to death by flight attendants and passengers?

Back on 9/11, before anyone ever thought terrorists would take over a plane and use it as a guided missile, a hijacking attempt was looked at far differently. Some clowns with boxcutters had a whole lot more leeway back then. Back before cockpit doors were fortified, for instance.

Here's the problem: Every time somebody in the media, abetted by some politician looking for publicity, gets into an overheated frisson over a small security breach like this, it sets back serious attempts, by the TSA and others, to sensibly address threats, including threats posed by liquid explosives. It causes a defensive reaction at the checkpoints to spend more time and effort overtly pawing through bags for things, as a part of the security theater that overblown stories like this keep in production.

And instead of more progress in security risk-management (which the TSA understands), we get more hysteria about "things" rather than threats.


2 GIs Killed in Apparent Terrorist Attack at Frankfurt Airport

Two American GIs were shot to death at the Frankfurt airport today in what appears to have been an attack by Kosovo-linked terrorists. Two others were injured in the attack.

It's terrorism, I venture, because the assailant and/or assailants yelled "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"), which is absolutely the last thing any traveler wants to hear shouted in an airport or on a plane.

Here's a news report, which identifies the victims as "airmen," which I presume means U.S. Air Force personnel, but who can tell given the sloppiness of wire-service reporting these days.

[Update: Here's an update from CNN. The GIs apparently were stationed at Lakenheath Air Force Base, the largest U.S. Air Force base in England.]