Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New York Cops: Another Sex Attack on Hotel Maid, This One at the Pierre, by Foreign Business, Banking Hot-Shot

An Egyptian businessman and former banker was arrested in New York on charges of sexual abuse of a hotel maid, police said.

Here's the report in the New York Daily News. Once you get past the atrociously written lead paragraph, it says that "Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, 74, former head of the Bank of Alexandria and now chairman of a leading Middle Eastern salt company, is accused of locking the 44-year-old hotel employee inside his $900-a-night room at the Pierre on E. 61st St. off Fifth Ave. on Sunday." Sexual assault charges were filed.

Two weeks ago, the French presidential candidate and former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a maid in another swanky Manhattan hotel, the Sofitel.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Upset the King of Siam and You Could End Up in the Slam

When in Thailand, as lots more foreigners are these days, be aware that comments deemed insulting to the king are prosecuted.

According to this Reuters piece, almost 400 criminal cases of alleged offensive comments about the king were filed in criminal court between 2006 and 2009, a huge increase from the previous 15 years, when cases averaged four or five a year.

The king's name is Bhumibiol.

Stop saying "bummy-boil" immediately! What is this, seventh grade? You can be charged, you know. I mean in Thailand, though I once got sued for defaming the whole country of Brazil, in Brazil, for reporting, accurately, in America, that their air traffic system had big problems that became tragically manifest in two horrific air-crash disasters in 2006 and 2007.

In England, where the royal family have sometimes been dismissed by rude republicans as "those horse-faced Hanovarians," causing perceived offense to the sovereign is perhaps a social issue, but not a criminal one. (Not yet, anyway, but let the High Court finish its work.) Nor is ridiculing the Hanovers (I mean Windsors, like the castle, of course) an offense, for that matter, in actual Hanover -- which has always had a sense of humor about royalty, having once served as a key elector in the royal panjandrium that Voltaire ridiculed as being "neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire."

And by the way, I just got off a three-hour trail ride in Saguaro National Park on a terrific quarterhorse, while my wife was on her thoroughbred. I like horse faces.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Abolish the TSA?

We're hearing more suggestions, from people who have given this matter some thought, that the Transportation Security Administration has been a mess, a financial sinkhole and an object of public scorn almost since the day it was founded nearly a decade ago.

Is it time for serious consideration of finding a new way to achieve airport security and shutting down this $8 billion a year spectacle in security theater?

A piece suggesting just that in Forbes is getting some traction, based on the most recent egregious incidents involving groping of women and children at airport checkpoints, along with moves in some state legislatures to try to impose criminal laws against perceived TSA abuses in physical patdowns.

Of course, there's little new in the opposition to the way the TSA has operated in terms of what security experts deride as security theater. Patdowns of babies, for example. Or, as in the photo above, a passenger can site religious reasons for not showing her face at security -- and the TSA complies, though obviously the person has not been identified by the photo ID procedures required of those of us who dont claim religious exemptions to be able to hide our faces.

Here's the link to the full Forbes piece on the notion of abolishing the agency.

Here's an excerpt: "The evidence against the TSA's competence is overwhelming, to put it mildly. For starters, no employee of the TSA has ever caught a single terrorist anywhere, at any time. In fact, just the opposite: screeners overlooked 16 passengers suspected of ties to terrorism at least 23 times from 2004 to 2008. .."


Sunday, May 22, 2011

For Rudy Maxa Show Listeners: My Original Brazil Story

[Photo: The damaged Legacy business jet where it landed in the Amazon]

Rudy Maxa, the well-known broadcast travel journalist, has been interviewing me this weekend on his national radio program about the horrific Brazil mid-air collision that I was among seven survivors of on Sept. 29, 2006. (154 others died].

Listeners have been wondering how to find the original story I wrote about the disaster on the front page of the New York Times after the crash.

Here's the link to it

Please note that subsequently, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the probable cause of the accident was serious mistakes by Brazilian air traffic control. Also, the original Times story has a number for the dead, 155, that the Brazilians later revised to 154.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Brazil Judge: It's 'Excessively Clear' That Brazil Air-Traffic Control Ordered 37,000-Feet Altitude, Made 'Gross Error'

More on Brazil federal judge Murilo Mendes's amazing verdict from its voluminous 86 pages shows just how far the judge went in exonerating the American pilots on the most serious charges, while convicting them on a single lesser count.

[Translation from Richard Pedicini in Sao Paolo]

The judge leaves no doubt that the pilots were correct in their assertion that they were at the altitude assigned to them by Brazilian air traffic control:

He wrote: "The information was excessively clear. The expression 'permission for Eduardo Gomes' leaves no doubt that the control tower was ordering the pilots to fly at level 370 [that's 37,000 feet, my note] to Manaus. It's a very categorical piece of information.

"If the flight level came unequivocally, but without an indication of the final destination, it would be comprehensible to demand that the pilots question the authorization, that they seek additional clarification, that they ask if the level were to be used only to Manaus or if it serves for the whole route. But no. Mister João Batista [a controller] made the affirmation stripped of any ambiguity. Mister João Batista, furthermore, responsible for this tremendously gross error, decisive for the outcome that was seen, was not even indicted by the Federal Prosecutors' Office.

"Given the lack of an accusation against him at the trial level, I sent the case to the Prosecutor-General. And the Prosecutors' Office understood that João Batista is not guilty of anything. The Prosecutors' Office is one and indivisible. The word of the Prosecutors' Office is one only. It is not divided in as many opinions as it has members. If the Prosecutors' Office did not, at its highest level, wish to indict the controller responsible for the scandalously false information on the flight level, is it legitimate to want to blame the pilots, when the power "to confuse" of the message passed by the tower is evident? He who says "permission to Eduardo Gomes" and adds, immediately, the flight level, is saying to the pilot that he should fly to Manaus at that level.

"Is there any doubt about this? For me, no. [...] it would be at the very least unjust to not punish the one directly responsible for false information, the one with active conduct (who committed it), and to condemn the one who received the incorrect message, with evident potential to mislead the addressee (who practiced omissive conduct)? This is, after all, what wound up happening."

The judge sentenced the two Americans to four years and four months of prison, which was commuted to four years and four months of community service in a Brazilian office within the United States. The judge also directed that the pilots' flying licenses be revoked.

That sentence is, naturally, unenforceable in the United States, where a Brazilian court has utterly no jurisdiction. Dopey U.S. media accounts like that by the A.P. have reported the community service in the U.S. assertion without noting the absurdity of a Brazilian judge from some Amazon backwater city presuming he has any standing whatsoever within the United States.

To which I now add, court is adjourned.


Brazil Judge Says Pilots' Prison Sentence Can Be Served With 'Community Service'

The Brazilian federal judge who convicted the two American pilots in the 2006 midair collision that killed 154 said they could serve their four-year sentences with 'community service' in the U.S.

Federal judge Murilo Mendes commuted a sentence of four years and four months into the community service to be performed in the U.S., with suspension of the pilots’ flying licenses. The pilots were convicted on a single count, basically a failure to observe that an anti-collision system on the airplane had gone offline before the crash.

A Brazilian judge, of course, has no jurisdiction in the United States, and there is no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Brazil on the charge the pilots were convicted of.

Credit where due here: People I have talked with about the verdict speculate that it was the least-severe sentence the judge could impose, on the least degree of criminal conviction -- in an atmosphere in Brazil in which public sentiment has been whipped up against the Americans since day one.

As such, the judge, Murilo Mendes of the federal court in Sinop, an Amazon city, seems to have acted with even-handedness in a very intensely difficult political situation.

The pilots were acquitted of five of the six charges against them, including the most serious ones -- failing to follow the flight plan and allegedly turning off the transponder. These really were the basis of the criminal case against the pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino.

The pilots had said, with undisputed supporting evidence, that they were following Brazilian air traffic control instructions to maintain altitude at 37,000 feet when the collision occurred.

And despite hysterical Brazilian media and official allegations that the pilots unaccountably had turned off the transponder, which triggers the anti-collision system, not a shred of evidence ever was presented to show that to have been the case.

The transponder was not operative at the time of the crash. It is not known why.

Another base of the charges against the pilots rested on obvious mistranslations and misinterpretations by prosecutors and media in Brazil of comments the pilots were heard to make on the cockpit voice recorder during flight, including a casual discussion of how to operate a certain in-flight entertainment device (the Airshow screen) for use in the cabin. Prosecutors and media presented that as proof that the pilots were not qualified to operate the Legacy 600 aircraft.

There also was confusion about whether a pilot said "on" or "off" when discussing the transponder after the crash. The word is simply not clear in the recording.

The pilots, convicted on the single count of a failure to observe that the collision warning system was not on, were acquitted of five of the six charges against them.

The pilots have maintained their innocence of all charges.

They will appeal. An appeals court in Brazil has the option of disregarding factual evidence in the original court proceedings, unlike in the U.S., where an appeal can only be judged on errors of judicial proceedings.

Joel Weiss, an attorney for the two pilots in Long Island, told me this in a conversation this morning:

"It important to note that the judge acquitted on five out of the six charge counts. As to the sixth count, the single count of conviction, we will certainly appeal. Our position is that he misunderstood the evidence on this issue, and particularly misunderstood a colloquy between the pilots which was largely in an American idiom that does not translate accurately into Portuguese.

"Although we disagree with the conviction, if one accepts it initially as a given, his commuting the sentence to community service is an enlightened decision on his part," Weiss said.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Breaking News: Brazil Convicts U.S. Pilots in '06 Amazon Mid-Air Collision That Killed 154; Each Gets 4-Year Prison Sentence

From my intrepid correspondent Richard Pedicini in Sao Paolo, news that the Brazilian court has convicted the two American pilots in the Sept. 29, 2006 mid-air collision that killed 154 over the Amazon. (I was one of the survivors on the business jet that collided at 37,000 feet with the Brazilian airliner, in an accident that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said was caused primarily by grave errors by Brazilian air traffic control)

SÃO PAULO -- American pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, who flew the new Legacy 600 business jet that collided with a Gol 737-800 airliner at 37,000 feet over the Amazon on Sept. 29, 2006, were convicted Monday and sentenced to four years and four months of prison. 154 people died when the 737 crashed into the Amazon.

The charge against the Americans was "putting aviation safety at risk."

The decision was issued by federal judge Murilo Mendes, of the Amazon-regional court of Sinop in the state of Mato Grosso, where the Brazilian airliner crashed in dense jungle after the two planes collided. The badly damaged American business jet, on its maiden flight, managed a landing at a jungle airstrip at Cachimbo, in southern Para, 25 minutes after the collision.

Lepore continues to fly for the charter company ExcelAire, which had just purchased the $26 million Legacy at the Embraer manufacturing plant in San Jose dos Campos, near Sao Paulo on the day of the crash. Paladino now works for American Airlines.


The following are my notes:

Here is the key finding of the investigation of the accident by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which was involved because one of the aircraft was U.S.-owned, and which attributed the probable cause of the disaster to faults by Brazilian air traffic control (ATC):

"The evidence collected during this investigation strongly supports the conclusion that this accident was caused by N600XL [the Legacy] and GOL1907 [the 737] following ATC clearances which directed them to operate in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude resulting in a midair collision."

Immediately after the crash, in an atmosphere of intense anti-Americanism that coincided with a presidential election, the Brazilian authorities rushed to criminalize the accident, which is considered unwise by aviation investigators. From day one, Brazilian authorities blamed the Americans and ignored protests from the international aviation community that Brazilian air-traffic control, especially in the vast and mostly empty Amazon skies, was beset by serious operational and systemic problems.

A notoriously flawed Brazilian investigation backpedaled the Brazilian air traffic control issues and instead blamed the U.S. pilots for not following a flight plan that would have put the Legacy 1,000 feet below the Brazilian airliner. The Americans said -- and every international aviation authority agrees with them -- that they were following instructions by Brazilian air traffic control to maintain altitude at 37,000 feet.

The Brazilian military (which runs that country's air traffic control system) and federal police charged that the American pilots failed to follow the flight plan, and operated the Legacy after turning off the aircraft's transponder, an avionics device that also triggers an anti-collision warning system. There has been no evidence produced showing that the Americans turned off the transponder or had any reason to even consider doing so.

It is unclear why the transponder failed over the Amazon, where the Legacy was largely out of radio contact for much of the 50 minutes before the collision. International pilots told me repeatedly after the accident that Amazon skies are famous for dead-zones in communications and that Brazilian air traffic control was long considered to be poorly operated, with inadequately trained controllers who were often unable to communicate in English, the international language of aviation.

In his 86-page verdict today, the judge does acknowledge errors by Brazilian air traffic control and said that a controller made a "gross error" in giving the wrong flight level to the Americans, but the prosecutor's office unfathomably chose not to accuse him of that.

Last year, a military court did convict one air traffic controller, sentencing him to 14 months for failing to take action when he saw that the Legacy's anti-collision system was not on. Four other controllers were acquitted.

The Legacy business jet was bound from San Jose dos Campos to Manaus when the collision occurred late in the afternoon of Sept. 29, 2006, in clear, sunny skies.

Right after the accident, when I stated in media interviews that international pilots had misgivings about Brazilian air traffic control, the Brazilian defense minister, Waldir Pires, denounced me and claimed, ridiculously, that the Legacy had been performing aerial maneuvers and stunts over the Amazon at the time the two planes collided. He was later fired, and a Brazilian court subsequently tossed out a defamation suit filed against me for allegedly causing "dishonor" to Brazil in my reporting and commentary on what I have always maintained was an attempt by Brazil to scapegoat the Americans. The plaintiff in that suit is appealing to have it reinstated, and also seeking a criminal charge against me for causing insult to the entire nation of Brazil by my reporting and commentary.

The existing treaty between the United States and Brazil does not provide for extradition on the charge the pilots are convicted of. However, it is not clear whether the Americans might vulnerable to extradition if they should travel to countries, especially in South America, with different treaties with Brazil.


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

More People Saying No to Summer Travel

To what extent is rising dissatisfaction with the airline and TSA security experiences, combined with rising air fares, putting the skids on summer travel plans.

We're going on anecdotal information here.

But according to a recent online survey conducted by LowFares.com among its subscribers, potential travelers are giving up and not going on vacation. Some 63% said they were cancelling plans altogether because of rising airfares and non-stop hike in the price of gas. More than 15,000 people responded to the online survey from among LowFares.com 1.5 million subscribers -- who were also asked about summer driving plans.

According to the responses:

--Nearly three-quarters said fuel and airfare increases have impacted their travel plans.

--Nearly two-thirds said they cancelled their trips.

--Just over a third said they changed destinations, or shortened itineraries.