Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brazil Crash 5 Years Later: The Media Epilogue

[Photo: Another hot conspiracy tip is checked out by the Brazilian media]

Brazil is a country full of sensible and intelligent people who, as we Americans are also, are generally tending toward the cynical due to hard experience with official mendacity. They are citizens who often roll their eyes at the utter asininity of their own news media.

Hence it is no surprise that some Brazilian news media, behaving like the Keystone Kops of world journalism, have been ripe all week with five-year anniversary stories that repeat lies and xenophobic conspiracy theories, as if the record is still in any serious dispute about happened at 37,000 feet over the Amazon late in the afternoon of Sept. 29, 2006.

What happened is this: A Brazilian commercial airliner, a Boeing 737 with 154 aboard bound from Manaus to Brasilia, collided without warning with a Legacy 600 business jet with seven onboard at 37,000 feet over northern Mato Grosso state in the Amazon jungle. The business jet was bound for Manaus from the Embraer aircraft manufacturers headquarters near Sao Paulo, where the business jet had just been purchased by an American charter company.

All 154 on the 737 died in a horrible plunge to the jungle, where their bodies were found after days of terrifying work by rescuers who literally had to hack their way to the horrifying site battling swarms of bees and biting bullet-ants. The courage and professionalism displayed by those Brazilian rescuers, military and civilian, was stunning under those terrible conditions.

All seven on the badly damaged business jet survived, myself among them. The business jet managed an emergency landing at a jungle landing strip after 25 minutes of desperate flight.

There were three commercial planes in the Brazilian skies over the vast Amazon at the time -- and two of them hit each other. (The other was a Polar Air cargo plane, a 747 whose pilot heard the Legacy's "Mayday" call on his radio and helped the business jet pilots to locate the jungle airstrip.)

The basic cause of the crash was determined by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to have been operational and systemic errors by Brazilian air traffic control, which had mistakenly cleared both planes to fly at 37,000 feet on that leg of their opposing routes. The American pilots' original flight plan had them at 36,000 feet on that leg, which is the standard air-lane across the Amazon, but it's axiomatic that air traffic control instructions supersede a flight plan that's given before takeoff.

The NTSB was part of the investigation because an American-made plane was involved -- the Boeing, not the Legacy -- and some of the key avionics equipment was made by the American company Honeywell. The Brazilian Air Force, which runs air traffic control in that country, did its own investigation, along with the federal police. That investigation laid most of the blame on the American pilots, and some on a handful of low-ranking Brazilian air traffic controllers.

Several factors added to the conditions that led to the disaster. The most prominent was that the transponder on the brand-new Legacy was not working properly. A transponder, besides signaling position, also encompasses the traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS, pronounced "tee-kass"), an alarm system to warn both airplanes to take evasive action in an imminent collision. There were also other technical problems in radio and radar communications in the deepest part of the Amazon, but the transponder was the biggest one.

There has been a lot of speculation about why the transponder wasn't functioning. There has been no evidence introduced to show that the American pilots turned it off.

Unnoticed by the American pilots, and by Brazilian air traffic controllers, the Legacy's transponder was, however, offline for about 50 minutes before the crash, meaning that the TCAS was not operative when both planes suddenly closed in on each other at about 500 miles an hour each.

Abruptly, right after the impact of collision, the TCAS on the Legacy evidently suddenly went back online. Subsequent investigations noted that there is no adequate warning given in the cockpit about the state of this particular type of transponder.

Meanwhile, there are serious questions, many deeply embedded in litigation, about the technical functioning of the transponder that was installed in the Legacy as new equipment. This is not the place to evaluate that.

Suffice to say that it was not functioning, or not functioning properly. Yet in Brazil, there were and remain those who claim that the American pilots for some reason had chosen to turn off the transponder. Some of the Brazil media continue to lend credence to a reckless theory, that the pilots mysteriously chose to deliberately turn off the transponder, perhaps to hide their movements in the sky.

The Brazilian news media were deeply complicit in this in the earliest days, incidentally. When I got home from Brazil after the crash, I found myself (and my family) overwhelmed by international news-media attention (on two days, broadcast crews were lined up outside my home like trick-or-treaters). Amid this, the Brazilian defense minister at the time, an old politician later fired for gross incompetence named Waldir Pires, put out the crazy theory that the American pilots were doing "aerial maneuvers" to "test the equipment" -- that is, the new $25 million airplane -- in the vast, empty skies of the Amazon when the collision occurred.

(That demented conspiracy-theory was even elaborated upon by the media, with the assertion that the aerial maneuvers were being performed to "impress the North American journalist" riding along on the business jet.)

The craziness about aerial maneuvers was also stated at a widely attended news conference in Brazil by a lawyer with one of those law firms that engage in a kind of international ambulance-chasing after aviation disasters. She claimed that I myself had told Brazilian police that the plane was doing reckless maneuvers at the time of impact.

I, of course, said no such thing. During interrogations in the jungle and the next night at police headquarters during an all-night questioning session, I had said repeatedly that the Legacy was flying straight and level at 37,000 feet (I'd seen the altimeter) when the collision occurred.

The reckless charge of illegal aerial maneuvers was widely reported (even internationally by Dow Jones News Service, which subsequently issued a correction). It's in fact what initially prompted me to start blogging aggressively about the mess in Brazil, where I saw a gross miscarriage of justice starting to gather momentum.

It's important to note this, in a "media" epilogue, because that was the start of the trouble for me -- after, I mean, the trouble of being the innocent victim of a horrifying crash and being detained incommunicado in the jungle and questioned for days.

My initial story on the crash on the front page of the New York Times, written the day I got back, ignited a fury in Brazil that caught me totally off-guard. Suddenly, there were torrents of ugly denunciations of me coming from Brazil, including death threats by e-mail and by phone at my home in New Jersey. I was flabbergasted by this, and by the lies that the Brazilian media reflexively repeated, and even added to, as the media embraced the "ugly Americans" narrative.

[UPDATE: This nonsense continues to this day. For example, a Brazilian literary piss-ant by the name of Ivan Sant'anna has lugubriously "reconstructed" the accident in a book recently published in Brazil, unnoticed in the rest of the world. This self-regarding nonentity Sant'anna had previously spent three years "meticulously investigating" the vastly underreported 9/11 attacks far away in the hated America, to give you some idea of his priorities. Sant'anna's account of the Amazon crash is the usual anti-American tripe, but I was taken by his reference to me "strutting in the United States" as I was confronted with media attention after the crash. That was an amusing way to describe my own ordeal, to say the least. Oh, and piss-ant, incidentally, will be easier for Ivan to spell than Tupinikim.]

Anyway, back to 2006. Aghast at the anti-American hysteria, concerned that this emotionalism was getting in the way of an honest investigation into the causes of the crash, I began blogging my observations and my reporting about the aftermath of the disaster in Brazil, where the pilots were detained for two months till a judge ordered their release in December 2006. This created another media firestorm of anti-Americanism.

In Brazil, media had a field day fanning public emotion against the Americans. During the violently repressive military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, Brazilian media were slavishly eager to convey propaganda and otherwise remain on their knees to serve their masters, the odious coup generals. Maybe old habits die hard. In no time at all, the media narrative in Brazil became: Ugly fat-cat Americans getting away with murder; American journalist causing "dishonor" to Brazil; Americans lying to cover up their crimes.

There is no need here to get into all of the nasty details of this spectacle. I think a defamation lawsuit filed against me by a Brazilian woman whose husband had died in the crash -- a lawsuit still widely given credence today in Brazilian media -- says a lot about the degree of accuracy and honesty involved.

The jumbled, rambling and fascinating lawsuit complaint was delivered to my front door late one dark night by a shifty-eyed process server working under the aegis of a New York law firm, Grant Hermann Schwartz & Klinger, a firm working on behalf of the Brazilian plaintiff.

High up in the complaint, which had been filed against me in a Brazilian court, it states the following: [Brackets mine].

"There is a rumor that the defendant [that is, me] made the ill-fated journey with the intent of writing an article about the Amazon, intending to demonstrate that the air space belongs to no one, the reason for this [being that] he asked the pilots to turn off the device [the transponder] that would allow them to be detected in that space, and this is why he feels such a responsibility to clear the pilots of all blame for the accident."

Besides highlighting an insane rumor that I was part of a secret imperialist plot to claim Amazon airspace for some unnamed entity, and asked the pilots to turn off the transponder, causing the deaths of 154 people in the process, the lawsuit also claims that I referred to Brazil as "the most idiot of idiots" and an "archaic country" that is a "land of Tupiniquins and bananas." [Tupiniquin, I later learned, is a word, based on the name of an Amazon tribe, vaguely loosely and informally used in Brazilian Portuguese the sense of "Yank" in American English.]

I was also accused of using an old screen shot of the Keystone Kops atop a couple of blog posts in 2007 questioning the competence of the Brazilian authorities who were clearly hellbent on scapegoating the American pilots. (Well, OK, I did use that wonderful Keystone Kops screen-shot, which I have also employed from time to time to make fun of certain American official foolishness. But in America, we appreciate ridicule -- which, of course, was the basic idea of the original Keystone Kops silent-movie features in the first place!)

In Brazil, employing the Keystone Kops to illustrate the authorities' and media ineptitude was offered as further evidence that I had personally defamed the woman who brought the libel suit against me, Rosane Gutjahr, whose husband had died in the crash.

The fact that I had never heard of Gutjahr, and had never written or said a single word about her, was of no consequence to the Brazilian media, or to the Brazilian lawyers in her employ. Nor was the fact that I had never called the nation of Brazil "the most idiot of idiots," nor said or wrote any of those other strange things (none of which even sound like they came from a native English-speaker).

No. I had offended Brazil by my critical reporting (which incidentally has never once been shown to be inaccurate) and by my attitude, which was obviously disdainful of the spectacle I was witnessing in Brazil and the authorities -- and media -- behind it. And in offending the authorities in Brazil with my reporting, the lawsuit and the media argued, I had also personally offended every single one of the 190 million citizens of Brazil, including Gutjahr, who continues to press the case against the pilots and me literally to this day.

[To this day, I am amazed by the delusion of some in the Brazilian media that they are somehow protected against my seeking financial damages against them for the obvious, maliciously reckless libels they have committed against me, with no regard for the demonstrable truth, and even after they have been warned to desist. I mean, you really can't go around falsely accusing someone of perjury and homicide, even in Brazil.]

The fact that nothing I wrote, said or implied about the botched investigations in Brazil was even remotely actionable under U.S. free speech protections was also not of evident import. The Brazilian lawyers sought to have a defamation judgment imposed against me in the U.S. and, even after a Brazilian judge wisely threw out the suit, renewed their efforts to have the suit reinstated -- this time accompanied by a criminal charge.

Meanwhile, anniversary stories in Brazilian media today and this past week quote people, some being guided by lawyers, insisting that the Americans be hauled back to Brazil to be imprisoned for their "crimes."

The American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, were criminally convicted by a regional court in Brazil last May, in absentia, on charges loosely related to the malfunctioning transponder.

The judge later reduced their four-year prison sentence to community service in the U.S. -- an action that has no force of law in the United States. On the other hand, assuming the community-service sentence stands on appeal (prosecutors are seeking to have jail time reinstated), it could arguably but unfortunately be in the pilots' interest to actually serve it in the U.S. -- if only in order to remove the stigma of having defied one nation's justice, given that being in such defiance might cause liability for them in future international travel, not just to Brazil but to some other countries.

All of these things remain on appeal.

Lepore still flies for the Long Island charter company that had just bought the jet on Sept. 29, 2006, and which invited me to ride along while I was writing a freelance story (for Business Jet Traveler magazine, about Embraer at their headquarters near Sao Paulo.) Paladino now works for American Airlines.

Five low-ranking Brazilian air traffic controllers were indicted along with the two American pilots, but on lesser charges. Two controllers were convicted. [CORRECTION: This is corrected from the original "one," and thanks to Richard Pedicini in Sao Paulo]

Five years later, people ask me, has anything good come out of this horror?

My answer is, no, not really. In Brazil, 154 men, women and children are dead.

The Amazon crash in late September was followed by a protracted period of air-travel chaos in Brazil created by disruptions caused by air traffic controllers sending a message that they had better not be blamed for the disaster. Nine months after the Amazon crash, there was another horrific airplane crash at the airport in Sao Paulo. In that one, 199 died.

There have been some training improvements made at Brazilian air traffic control, including at least some acknowledgment that air space over the central Amazon has radio and radar blind spots.

On the other hand, some controllers say the system remains poorly run, with little real change since the Amazon crash. Yesterday, a former controller named Edleuzo Cavalcante said that training and woprking conditions remain poor. "We have the stage set for a new tragedy," he said in one news account on UOL News, Brazil's main Internet news service.

An active controller, Sgt. Eurípides Barsanulfo Marques, testified at a military safety board hearing in July that unqualified unqualified airmen are being used as controllers.

"As a controller and instructor of this Center, I could see the poor quality of the instructional process and especially the concession of technical controllers' licenses to people without the minimum knowledge and ability to exercise such a complex activity," he said, according to a copy of his testimony obtained by UOL.

"This very serious and is similar to another that this center experienced in 2006, whose outcome we all know," he said.

So Brazilian air traffic control is still run by the military; controllers are still inadequately trained and poorly paid; and international pilots tell me they still exercise extra caution in Brazilian skies, partly because some air traffic controllers still have poor skills in English, which is the mandated lingua Franca of international aviation.

Some Brazilian media continue to behave abysmally. Yesterday, Brazilian television reports dredged up some of the ugliest anti-American elements associated with this event, showing street protestors with signs denouncing President Obama and the two American pilots.

As they love to do, the media presented news photos of Lepore and Paladino smiling happily, surrounded by loved ones. Those pictures come from the day in December 2006 when both pilots returned home to Long Island, to the arms of their families, after being detained in Brazil for over two months following the crash.

"Why so happy!" said the protestors' signs showing the pilots broadly smiling photos. Under the photos was the message: "Punishment for Legacy Pilots: Flight 1907 Killers!"

And so it goes down the rabbit hole of the Brazilian media. A photo of a man happy to see his family again after being held for two months in a foreign country is presented as illustration that a man is laughing at the dead.

Last year, President Obama signed the SPEECH Act, a federal law that prevents U.S. courts from enforcing foreign libel or defamation judgments in cases where the alleged offending speech was clearly protected by the free speech provisions of the U.S. First Amendment. I had been a participant in the congressional efforts to draft that law. So it is at least a comfort to other Americans -- not just journalists and authors, but bloggers, reviewers, researchers, users of social media -- who find themselves unjustly sued in any foreign country, for something they said or wrote here that is fully protected speech under our First Amendment.

And in general, I suppose, the shoddy performance by Brazilian authorities and Brazilian media in the aftermath of this crash reinforced the belief, already firmly held in international aviation, that rushing to criminalize an air disaster is a grave mistake -- when what's needed is to have everyone cooperating, without fear, in an effort to get at the truth of what happened, and why.

In fatal aviation accidents that are not objectively investigated, the dead are ultimately dishonored. When emotionalism runs rampant and impedes that investigation, as it did in Brazil, the cause of aviation safety is badly served.

P.S.: I am often asked, Why aren't you writing a book about this? Well, I am. Details soon.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seoul-Searching, or: Why I Continue to Give South Korea a Skip

I decided a long time ago that Korea wasn't for me as a traveler. That apercu came in 1968 when I noticed how the South Korean troops who sometimes joined us at the mess hall in Vietnam tended to wear necklaces made of ... human ears. (Secured only from dead Viet Cong, they assured us as they commandeered the salad table wolfing down lettuce piled high on cafeteria trays.)

OK, call me an insensitive travel brute, but at that point I ruled out the idea of leisure travel to South Korea. Then as now, I felt that I required two ears to hold up my glasses.

Lately, I'd been reconsidering, partly due to the good things I hear and see about the excellent quality of Korean Air, the national carrier.

But now I look at this story just posted on the Times Web site. It seems regular South Korean citizens like to wander around taking pictures of their fellow-citizens, prowling to catch them in acts of petty infraction. Yes, they are like paparazzi, but instead they're stalking their fellow citizens to rat them out to the authorities.

"...they roam cities secretly videotaping fellow citizens breaking the law, deliver the evidence to government officials and collect the rewards," the story says.

"I’m making three times what I made as an English tutor," one of the stalkers says.

Egad! Another country remains on list of the places I probably don't actually have to visit before I die.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Southwest Airlines Morality Police Strike Again?

A TV actress, former "The L Word" star Leisha Hailey, complained in a stream of Twitter messages on Monday that she and a girlfriend were kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight in a dispute over their kissing on a plane, according to Reuters.

Reuters says that "Hailey, 40, tweeted that a flight attendant had told her that Southwest is 'a family' airline and kissing was not ok," and that she and her companion were then "escorted off the plane for getting upset about the issue."

Southwest has made a name for itself in recent years for hassling female passengers for purportedly indecent dress. Most notable was this incident in 2007, but there have been mroe recent ones.

Earlier this year, Southwest defended itself against complaints that one of its pilots, talking in the cockpit and apparently not realizing that his public address microphone was on, made ugly comments about flight attendants being "a continuous stream of gays, grannies and grandes." Here's a link to the description of that incident.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Booing Our Troops at the GOP Debate

In "Dr. Strangelove," Gen. "Buck" Turgidson and his secretary "Miss Scott" seem to have violated the Rick Santorum military-sex policies.

There was a very telling incident last night at another one of those evidently interminable Republican presidential candidate debates. This came when some in the crowd booed a YouTube video of Stephen Hill, a gay soldier in Iraq discussing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

Here's a clip of that special moment in American politics.

Some news accounts today downplay the incident, and several assert that only one idiot booed. From the clip, it's clear to me that more than one person booed.

However, what's profoundly inexcusable is that none of the candidates on the stage had the guts to immediately take a stand and simply interject that booing this man was utterly inexcusable. All it took was the teeniest, tiniest measure of guts, and not one of them had it.

Of course, Rick Santorum, who's probably the dumbest person to be considered a presidential candidate in my lifetime (and I know that's saying something, especially when Michele Bachmann is still around), had the stupidest answer to the question the soldier had posed about whether the candidates would re-impose the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Santorum has never seen any kind of military service. His military expertise is probably limited to his G.I. Joe doll collection -- oh, and the fact that both of his parents were taxpayer-paid Civil Service employees in the VA hospital bureaucracy. Anyway, Santorum began his answer (of course he'd reimpose the ridiculous policy) with this hilarious assertion:

"I would say that any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military ..."


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Survey on Airline Fees

Here's a very useful story and graphic on the fees airlines charge -- via USA Today, a newspaper often derided as "Useless Today." (Sorry guys! But that's what we sometimes call you. And I was a Gannettoid editor for one glorious year in 1979-80. And it was a glorious year, too, even though USA Today, then in its start-up phase, kept picking our pocket for resources or to buy Al Neuharth more bling, one.)

Anyway, the story has a useful chart breaking down fees not just by the base list-prices but by the actual range of prices.

Very nicely done, though I do disagree with the thrust of the sidebar in which passengers wail about fees. It's my experience that business travelers and other frequent fliers have resigned themselves to fees, and in some cases welcome them as a way to, say, buy an aisle seat up front or ensure priority boarding for $15 or so, without having to jump through all of the hoops required for annual elite status. Also, I do not mind spending $8 for a decent sandwich on a flight, with memories of the glorified gruel the airlines used to dish-up for free.

Where savvy travelers do complain is that travel managers are very unclear on which fees can be reimbursed on expense accounts. Only about a quarter of companies have clear policies on this, surveys show.

Meanwhile, air fares remain near historical lows. You can always find someone to complain about prices, but in general we still have cheap air travel in this country.

Not let's get companies on the stick about what they'll reimburse for, clearly. And then let's have some pushback from travelers.


Monday, September 19, 2011

O.K., Netflix: Now You Have Finally Pissed Me Off Too

If it ain't broke don't fix it is my motto, but I was willing to cut Netflix a lot of slack recently when they announced a big price hike and some changes in the way they deliver product

I've always been a happy customer, amazed at how Netflix can deliver just about any movie ever made to you in a few days' time. When the streaming-video option became available, that was one more good feature. Even with the price hike, we were happy to stream some stuff and, when we wanted a high-quality Blu-Ray video, to have that come in the mail.

Netflix alienated a good chunk of its customer base (and knocked its stock price to hell) with the clumsy price hikes, but we were still basically cool.

Till now. Below is the e-mail Netflix shotgunned to its customers today. And now I'm confused and pissed. What's wrong with these people? Hmm, where did I put that old Blockbuster card?

"Dear Joe,

I messed up. I owe you an explanation.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing.

For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us). So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do.

So here is what we are doing and why.

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies.

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service.

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently.

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the and websites will not be integrated.

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you.

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions.

Respectfully yours,

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments."


Booming Premium Air Traffic

I often hear people lament the "good old days" of air travel, when you went in at least a degree of comfort.

Actually, the fact is that the good old days are better than ever -- if you're flying business-class or first-class on international routes. For international travelers, in-flight comforts in the front of the plane have never been better, from seats to entertainment to food and wine and even on-ground amenities in exclusive premium airport lounges around the world.

And obviously, some people have the bucks to enjoy it. While air travel demand increased across all seat classes in July, premium-passenger numbers were 7.5 percent higher than a year earlier, the International Air transport association says today.

The strongest growth in premium air travel in July was in the developing economy markets in Asia and South America.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sleep Well Tonight ... Your Air Force Is Back On the Job After a Frightful Rumor About Some Guy Who Maybe Had a Gun

TUCSON -- Jayzus, this is the same country that won the Battle of Midway?

Local media in Tucson were characteristically complacent yesterday in breathlessly reporting a rumor that some guy who might have a gun was maybe "on the loose" at a big Air Force base in town, causing the whole base to shut down on high alert.

Eeeeek! A guy maybe with a ... gun .. on a military base. Who turns out not to be a guy with a gun at all.

Just a rumor. And another case of hysterical overreaction.

Not to worry, though. The base is back to normal today after what the local paper calls "a frightening day at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base [that] ended peacefully Friday after a daylong lockdown spurred by fears that a gunman might be on the loose inside the military installation."

The ad-fat local paper, the Arizona Daily Star, has been protecting its high profit margins by laying off staff and replacing some with unpaid interns. The paper reports today, without irony or apparent attempt at self-examination, that other media were reporting false rumors during the day yesterday. It says, "Nationwide, many news outlets, including the Arizona Daily Star, also reported erroneously that a man was barricaded on base in a standoff situation."

A point of order is called for here, Scoop. The hair-trigger cable-news national networks that reported this false "breaking-news" rumor did so because they were initially picking up inaccurate reports from the local media, who were on the scene presumably employing at least a modicum of skill in assessing rumors and information.

Local news organizations that have slashed reporting budgets to squeeze every last possible cent in profits can no longer be depended upon for basic news-gathering, sorry to say. When your reporters can't, or won't, spend the time to develop good local sources, such as good sources on that Air Force base, you have no way to evaluate rumors on the run. Then you have no one to call but the official on duty, whose job it often is to mislead you. You in turn then mislead your readers and viewers.

Meanwhile, national news organizations like Slate, who really shouldn't be joining in this breathless "breaking news" craziness that's polluted the cable-TV universe, jumped in yesterday as if a major story were occurring, reporting half-baked and unsourced rumors. From Slate yesterday: "At 3:45 p.m.: Local news stations in Arizona are reporting that Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson is on lockdown, with a possible gunman on the loose.

According to a report posted on Fox 11 News, Tucson Fire officials have said shots were fired inside the base, and there seems to be at least one patient. A crowd has gathered outside the gates, and personnel inside have tweeted that they’ve been warned to stay inside and away from windows. Air Force officials have so far refused to say why the base is on lockdown.

(I especially cringe at the William Langewiesche-worth half-assed journalism locution, " ... there seems to be ...")


Late yesterday, some officer at the base did release a statement claiming that information on the all-day standoff had been withheld so as to not tip off "the suspect." There was, of course, no "suspect."

Today the Air Force isn't releasing much more information about the embarrassing incident except to say that we all are "safe." Whew! After all, Al Qaeda might be listening, and loose lips sink ships, or mothballed C-130s, whatever! Besides the Air Force police, local SWAT teams and hostage negotiators descended on the base, which occupies a big chunk of south-central Tucson. Roads were closed in the area.

Local paper: "In the absence of concrete information, social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter exploded with rumors and false reports of gunfire and numerous casualties, striking fear in the hearts of some D-M personnel serving overseas."

No serious attempt appears to be underway to explain this bizarre incident. Security, don't you know.

Oh well, I'm off to ride a horse this morning in Saguaro National Park. Last weekend, my riding companion and I were on a quiet desert trail deep in the park when suddenly we heard and felt the thunder of two military helicopters, as of course did our terrified horses.

The choppers clattered down to about 150 feet above us to take a good look, to make sure that we weren't "terrorists," I suppose. It was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and you never know if there is some nefarious plot to blow up a giant saguaro or hold a gila monster hostage. These Al Qaeda people know their deserts, after all.

Can't be too careful these days when fear rules all.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Air Traffic Up in June

U.S. airlines carried 66.1 million domestic and international passengers in June 2011, a 1.6 percent increase from June 2010, says the transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The June 2011 passenger total was also 3.9 percent above that of two years ago in June 2009 -- but remained 2.8 percent below the level of June 2008 (Table 2).

Load factors -- the number of seats full -- declined, however, as airlines increased capacity.

U.S. airlines carried 357.8 million total system passengers during the first six months of 2011, up 2.3 percent from the same period in 2010 and the highest January-June total since 2008. Domestically, they carried 312.0 million passengers, up 2.2 percent from 2010 and the highest January-June total since 2008. Internationally, they carried 45.7 million passengers, up 3.5 percent from 2010 and also the highest January-June total since 2008.

Systemwide, domestic and international load factors declined in June 2011 from June 2010 as airlines added capacity. Year-to-year, systemwide capacity was up 2.8 percent, domestic was up 2.7 percent and international was up 3.0 percent. The declines in June followed record system and domestic load factors in May.

In June, Delta Air Lines carried more total system and international passengers than any other U.S. airline; Southwest Airlines carried the most domestic passengers (Table 10). During the first six months of 2011, American carried the most international passengers.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Really Bad Restaurant Names

Zagat rejoins the global hunt for truly bad restaurant names (most of them the result of inadvertent clumsy English but some, like "Rats," the name of a French restaurant in Jersey, an apparent reflection of a peculiar New Jersey irony). Here's a sample.

Here's the earlier list, which has on it my personal favorite, a London noodle shop called "Phat Phuc."

In the the new list, we also have "Big Dick's Halfway Inn" (which has to be intentional, and pretty savvy for the Ozarks) and B.A.D. Sushi, which probably is not, in L.A.


Airline Passenger Choice Awards 'Best Passsenger Experience' List

Here's the list of "best overall passenger experience" winners at the 2011 Airline Passenger Choice awards at the APEX Expo in Seattle.

The awards are sponsored by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), an industry group, and voted on by airline passengers. APEX says the awards are "based solely on the votes of passengers responding" to its survey, and are "completely independent of commercial influence – no airline ads or sponsorships."

Here's a look at the survey:

2011 Awards:

--Best Overall Passenger Experience (Over 50 IFE EQUIPPED IN FLEET) – Emirates

--Best Overall Passenger Experience (Up to 50 IFE EQUIPPED IN FLEET) – Virgin America

--Best in Region: Africa – South African Airways

--Best in Region: Americas – Virgin America

--Best in Region: Asia and Australasia – V Australia

--Best in Region: Europe – Virgin Atlantic

--Best in Region: Middle East – Emirates

--Best Inflight Publication – Avianca

--Best IFE User Interface – V Australia

--Best Inflight Connectivity & Communications – Oman Air

--Best Inflight Video – Virgin America

--Best Cabin Ambiance – JetBlue

--Best Food & Beverage in conjunction with IFSA – V Australia

--Best Ground Experience – Virgin America


Saturday, September 10, 2011

There Were Heroes of 9-11 -- And Then There Were These Characters ...

There were the heroes of 9-11, including the firemen who ran into the burning buildings with their colleagues who would be doomed (343 of them, including the paramedics) -- in part because Rudy Giuliani and his high-school-dropout police commissioner Bernie Kerik failed to prepare for that second, most devastating attack on the World Trade Center (the first was in 1993), even to the extent of ensuring that the Police Department and Fire Department had radios that actually worked across department boundaries.

The heroes we have read about.

But let's not forget some of the more loathsome characters of 9/11.

There was of course Giuliani, mayor of New York and putative urban hero of 9/11, who managed to cloak himself in the ashes of the catastrophe while afterward nimbly sidestepping serious charges of neglect and misfeasance. For example, even though there had been a previous terrorist bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993, Giuliani subsequently had the city's grandiose new emergency command center built at what was demonstrably a terrorist target -- yes, he had it built at the World Trade Center.

The command center was a swell set-up, too, till the 9/11 attacks rendered it totally useless in a crisis. As Wayne Barrett wrote in the Village Voice:

"Giuliani's office [in the bunker] had a humidor for cigars and mementos from City Hall, including a fire horn, police hats and fire hats, as well as monogrammed towels in his bathroom. His suite was bulletproofed and he visited it often, even on weekends, bringing his girlfriend Judi Nathan there long before the relationship surfaced. He had his own elevator."

Well, he did till the place was destroyed along with the rest of the World Trade Center on 9/11, that is.

Rudy's police commissioner, Kerik, also had a love-nest (as the tabloids say) with 9/11 connections. It was a two-bedroom apartment in the riverside Battery Park City complex, overlooking the World Trade Center ruins. The apartment had been donated for the use of exhausted police and rescue workers at the scene, but was instead requisitioned by Kerik for his personal use. As the Times put it, "Mr. Kerik and Judith Regan engaged in an extramarital affair there." Regan, of course, was the celebrity editor who had published Kerik's best-selling autobiography in 2001.

Giuliani "ran his administration as if terrorist threats simply did not exist, too distracted by pet projects and turf wars to attend to vital precautions," as Wayne Barrett and Don Collins argued in their book "Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11".

Kerik, meanwhile, later created a big mess after President Bush sent him, at Giuliani's recommendation, to war-torn Iraq in a high-level post as czar in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi police forces, where he was an utter failure. Even Senator John McCain, no stranger himself to reckless personnel choices, denounced the Giuliani-led appointment of Kerik to the crucial Iraq job as "irresponsible." Here's a link.

Kerik later had to withdraw his nomination as Bush's Homeland Security secretary (another Giuliani special) when it became clear that his claimed record for probity was, well, in some dispute.

Still, Kerik's audacity remains invincible. Here's a link, to the Special 9-11 Edition of the right-wing blog Newsmax, in which Kerik regales readers with his recollections of 9/11. Hilariously, Newsmax published this palaver without mentioning that Kerik wrote the piece from a prison cell, where he is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraud.

(Incidentally, Newsmax provides a box to opt for purchasing its commemorative edition with Kerik's thoughtful essay. "Yes, send me my 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Commemorative Set plus my free three-month subscription to Newsmax magazine for the special limited price of just $69.95. I realize this is a savings of almost $80 off the list price.")

Elsewhere, in a blog post headlined "The Years of Shame," Paul Krugman cuts through the anniversary sentimentality and notes that the calamity of 9/11 was exploited by shameless opportunists -- "fake heroes" who "raced to cash in on the horror." He cites among these "fake heroes" Giuliani (who I note was a Vietnam draft-dodger), not to overlook those other phony warriors George W. Bush (AWOL from the National Guard during Vietnam, as I can't help recalling) and Dick Cheney (a five-time Vietnam draft dodger).

Along with these titans, I'm also remembering today one of the piss-ants of 9/11 hypocrisy, a journalist called William Langewiesche.

In 2002, Langewiesche (pronounced Langa-VEE-sha) wrote a lengthy and widely acclaimed account in three installments in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, later published as a book. A much-discussed section of that dramatic account accused New York City firemen of looting blue jeans from a destroyed store during the immediate response at the World Trade Center site -- somehow finding the time to boost the jeans from a destroyed shop amid the sheer terror at the scene, with bodies falling from the sky and debris raining down even before the second tower collapsed. (The firemen accused of looting by Langewiesche all died at the scene, the Fire Department later pointed out.)

What a stunning, sensational charge, full of drama! What a story!

O.K., so the story turned out not to be true -- but still, what a swell narrative! And the narrative, as Langewiesche, his editors and his defenders in the media have argued, is what was important -- not the inconvenient details of the actual truth; not the pesky requirement that someone writing journalism needs to attend to the not-inconsequential matters of accuracy and fairness.

The Langewiesche case bears some 10th anniversary scrutiny, because the author of those calumnies has managed to avoid a reckoning while papering over his malfeasance. He's off scott-free with the passage of time, much like the repellant Al Sharpton has managed to overcome the fallout from the Tawana Brawley criminal hoax that he helped perpetuate, basically by brazening it out over the decades while his critics got weary and just faded away as those who vaguely recalled the hysteria of the case merely shrugged and said, "Well, there must have been something to the charges." (There wasn't.)

George Black, a journalist and author, was among a group of outraged critics who argued that the ugly incident of looting by firemen at the World Trade Center site that Langewiesche described in his Atlantic article, and in his book, could not have happened. Repeat: Could not have happened.

In a 2003 article, New York Times reporter David Carr wrote that Black sent his report debunking the looting incident to Langewiesche's publisher, and charged that Langewiesche had "passed off demonstrably unfounded rumor as plain fact, with a reckless disregard for both elementary procedures of verification and the likely harm his reporting would cause."

Incidentally, all of the firefighters on Ladder 4, the group Langewiesche clearly referred to in his looting charges, died that day at the site.

Carr wrote that Langewiesche "chose not to rebut Mr. Black's critique because, he said, it indicts him for assertions he believes he did not make. But Mr. Langewiesche acknowledges now, as he has since the uproar began, that he did not himself witness the scene, and instead relied on the testimony of others who said they had been present. (Italics are mine)

"'I was not writing about any particular company,' he said in the interview. 'I was writing about an incident that occurred on the pile. I purposely did not name a fire company. It is like two objects sailing past each other. He is arguing about something that I am not arguing about.'"

Langewiesche easily shifts gears, claiming that the looting incident was merely something he had heard about, neither witnessing it nor even bothering to investigate its veracity. Carr's story quotes Langewiesche: "'The people who told this to me were extremely reliable and had shown themselves to be people without any agenda,' Mr. Langewiesche said. 'These people cannot, because of the political climate over this issue, go on the record. They have seen what happened to me.'"

Ah, of course, Langewiesche was a victim.

According to Carr, Rebecca Saletan, the editorial director of North Point Press, which had published Langewiesche's book with the incident, "'American Ground," said that the passage concerning the truck and the allegedly looted jeans from a store near the site would be "amended" in the paperback version of the book.

Like other Langewiesche defenders, Saletan airily dismissed the charges. "He will both clarify his meaning in the text and discuss in the afterword some aspects of the controversy surrounding the passage," Saletan told Carr. (I would have asked her to explain why she signed off on those passages in the first place. On the other hand, Saletan did tell Mediabistro in 2005: "I'm a big champion of nonfiction, which I believe can be every bit as original and creative as fiction." Italics mine.)

Many others in the media, typically journalists who can only imagine what good street reporting must be like, took the same dismissive stance in defense of Langewiesche. For example, Bob McManus, in Rupert Murdoch’s mightily subsidized New York Post, smugly asserted that Langewiesche "writes about the dirty little secret of the firefighting trade: The tendency of material objects to go missing after the fires are out … "

McManus repeated Langewiesche's unsubstantiated assertions that at the hellish catastrophe of Ground Zero, "The looting was shadowy, widespread and unsurprising . . . it started in the shopping complex, with the innocuous filching of cigarettes and soda pop, and expanded into more ambitious acquisitions . . . Firemen were said to prefer watches from the Tourneau store [and] policemen to opt for kitchen appliances. ... (Italics mine.)

"Then came the morning that yet another crushed fire truck was recovered from the South Tower wreckage: "[When] the hulk of the fire truck appeared, rather than containing bodies . . . its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, a Trade Center store . . . It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely ..."

Now, just a minute there, Scoop, regarding that passage above that I italicized. I have worked as a reporter and editor at four major newspapers, among them the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal, and at any one of them, a reporter who tried to use the phrase "It was hard to avoid the conclusion ..." to cover for a crappy failure of solid street reporting, including failure to seek comment, would end up with a city editor's boot up his butt. (It would be hard to conclude otherwise.)

But Langewiesche got away with it, despite his ridiculous dissembling. In a 2002 interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan, he said of the charges that he had asserted as true something that he could not have known to be true:

"... It didn't bother me at all. It didn't surprise me that people in the Fire Department were doing this [looting], or the Police Department or the construction workers. I mean, everybody was - every group, not everybody -- but every group was to some degree involved in .. I mean, there were individuals in those groups. Does that reflect on those groups as a whole? No, it does not. Does it reflect on the actual effectiveness or the meaning of the response, or does it characterize what went on in the private world of the World Trade Center? No, it does not."

And he went on, "It is, again, my job to call it like it is. And I don't participate in, you know, public relations blather about, you know, heroism and such things when there's no call for it. I mean, this is a straightforward piece of writing about a straightforward subject, and so this did occur. As I say in the piece itself, I don't think it was very important. And it didn't disturb me at all, because I never bought into the sort of the heroic thing and I think very few people at the World Trade Center site did. In fact, I doubt whether many Americans actually did either. I think a lot of that's just a facade; you know, you have to say this stuff."

In November 2002, the New York fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, got nowhere by writing a letter of protest about the Langewiesche journalism to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. It's useful to review Scoppetta's letter, which said:

"... Langewiesche attempts to substantiate unfounded myths — about the Fire Department, about the rescue operation, about what “really” happened at the World Trade Center— as cold hard facts. And repeatedly, he fails.

"Most preposterous and saddening of all these attempts is his 'jeans' story, in which Langewiesche definitively 'concludes' that firefighters responding to the scene of the World Trade Center chose to loot jeans and stuff them into the cab of their truck rather than help save lives from the burning buildings. It’s an unfounded accusation that unfortunately sets the tone for Langewiesche’s unabashed — and undeserved — attack on the Fire Department.

"Did it not occur to The Atlantic to extensively check the veracity of Langewiesche’s utterly absurd 'conclusion' that jeans were stolen and placed into a fire truck before the South Tower fell, or his equally ridiculous assertion that firefighters were careless about civilian recoveries because they thought themselves 'worthier'? Did anyone at The Atlantic even think twice about printing and in turn endorsing conclusions so preposterous and entirely inconsistent with the facts? I have trouble believing that The Atlantic adequately fact-checked Langewiesche’s piece when substantial evidence and other first-hand accounts of the very same incident lead to significantly different conclusions.

"The evidence which made it 'hard to avoid the conclusion that … while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely' is questionable at best. Langewiesche cites as evidence the removal of a ladder truck from deep within the rubble of the South Tower; when 'the hulk of the truck appeared, rather than containing bodies … its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Trade Center store.' That is the evidence upon which Langewiesche bases his absurd conclusion, and yet the facts of the day point to a very different, far more logical conclusion.

"It is a fact that the men from that truck — Ladder 4 — were actually doing their jobs that day, for the bodies of Ladder 4 members were found near a South Tower elevator along with a Hurst tool that they, in their last moments of life, were using to extract the victims trapped inside. It is a fact that Ladder 4, which was parked at street level near the command center established by the South Tower, was recovered from the B5 Level of the South Tower Parking Lot, well below street level. It’s a fact that the lower floors of the South Tower were occupied by commercial space, and that the force of the building’s collapse spread debris from those commercial spaces — which included stores that sold pairs of jeans — throughout the larger pile of rubble. And it is a fact that other vehicles caught within the collapse were also found with commercial debris blown inside them from the force of the falling building.

"There are at least five eyewitnesses to the recovery of Ladder 4 that attest to the accuracy of these facts and dispute Langewiesche’s version. They include an FDNY recovery team leader, a grappler operator, a member of Local 14 working at the site, and two other FDNY members — a firefighter and a Battalion Chief — also working that night tour. Langewiesche was perhaps unaware of, or chose to disregard these facts. In this one instance of misrepresentation and inaccurate conclusion, Langewiesche clouds the credibility of his larger narrative.

"I find it equally disappointing that, in light of this evidence, The Atlantic has acknowledged neither Langewiesche’s specific errors nor the larger problem of dubious credibility that plagues all three parts of American Ground. Rather than hold up the high standards of ethical journalism, The Atlantic, too, has instead chosen to propagate unsubstantiated myths."

Meanwhile, around the same time, in another interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan, Langewiesche had said, "... I never identified anybody, in my effort not to point fingers, because, for one thing, I also am not a muckraker, you know?" Of course, any good muckraker (and Langewiesche and his media admirers don't seem to understand that muckraking is a respected tradition in journalism), knows that it's very wrong to make up facts to pipe a story line.

Oh yeah, I know about characters like Langewiesche.

How do I know? Well, I've been around the track a couple of times as a reporter, columnist, city editor and national editor. It also so happens that I have personal experience of the curious reporting methods of William Langewiesche.

Frankly, I'm fairly worn out on the subject of the Brazil mid-air collision that I and six others survived over the Amazon in September 2006. The business jet I was riding in on an assignment had inexplicably collided at 37,000 feet with a Brazilian 737, which went down in the jungle, killing all 154 aboard, while we managed an emergency landing in a badly damaged jet 25 minutes later at an airstrip.

I do know the following for a fact about Langewiesche, because he wrote about that disaster. I know for a fact that he makes things up and does not check out assertions, even when witnesses are available.

In a lengthy January 2009 article on the Brazil crash in Vanity Fair, "The Devil at 37,000 Feet," Langewiesche blithely reconstructed the scene during those 25 harrowing minutes on the damaged business jet -- without making the slightest attempt to check out its veracity with me, the only one of the seven survivors who was free to talk about the crash, and who was in fact writing openly about it.

In his fantastical narrative set on the jet after the collision, Langewiesche puts motives and thoughts in my head, and "guesses" at things I might have said on the plane, but did not. He ridicules me for allegedly planning to write a favorable review of the newly delivered business jet -- which was not part of my assignment in Brazil for Business Jet Traveler magazine. In creating this fiction, he asserts that said favorable review by me would likely play naively into the corporate strategies of the villains who sell expensive business jets to the rich and despoil our environment with their trade.

He then uses the occasion to denounce the private-aviation industry that he suggests I was a stooge for. But Langewiesche never discloses to Vanity Fair readers that he, himself, is a private-aviation pilot with his own private plane, and furthermore is the son of the late Wolfgang Langewiesche, who was a prominent figure in the history of private aviation, and a former test-pilot for Cessna. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some daddy issues might be involved. Wot! Damn, that boot hurts, chief!

Langewiesche neglects to note that the story I did write about that horrific flight appeared on the front page of the New York Times, rather than in a trade magazine, and my account is at variance in several key points to his later account. He neglects to note that he did not talk to me for this Vanity Fair wonder of creative nonfiction, and made no attempt to do so.

And oh, he found it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Business Jet Traveler -- which was, of course, represented by me in that instant, shared the "blame" for the deaths of those 154 people.

It was classic Langewiesche. In the Vanity Fair article he wrote, "Certainly blame should be assigned, some to individuals directly involved, some to cultures in aviation and beyond. You can include the Brazilian generals who insist on militarizing Air Traffic Control, and the sort of software engineers who make even digital cameras tedious to figure out. You can include the corrupted tax structures that allow airplanes as questionable as the Legacy to be built, sold, and flown. You can even include Business Jet Traveler for wanting to ride along. But assigning blame can only go so far."

Well, those italicized words probably warranted a libel suit, some knowledgeable people advised me. But I let it go. Vanity Fair, whose editors were unable to explain to me why Langeqiesche would have been allowed to make such assertions without checking them out, without indicating why he had not talked to me before making them, instead printed a letter from me objecting to Langewiesche's gross negligence.

For me, the takeaway was simple. As a journalist, it's a useful learning experience to actually be written about (not to mention to be accused of sharing blame for 154 deaths) by an unscrupulous reporter too craven to chance a confrontation. Whoa, after all these years, I can fully see what the media is capable of at its worst; how asses get covered by the worst of them, while the best lack the conviction to object.

But for the firemen, police officers, rescue workers and construction crews of 9/11 it's a different thing, because the history of those terrible days and months at the smoking, stinking ruins matters enormously to a great many people-- and Langewiesche has never been held to account for his gross disservice to that history.

For anyone seriously interested in the matter, here's a Web site,, that does what this Langewiesche character does not. It checks the facts and presents them honestly.


Thursday, September 08, 2011

Feeling Squeezed?

There's a good reason you're feeling squeezed on airplanes. They're all full.

The latest data, for August, show just how full.

United-Continental, for example, reports a domestic load factor of 88.4 percent, on a decline of 3.3 percent in passengers for August. That also is an indication of declining seat capacity as airlines mothball smaller planes, especially 50-seat regional jets. (Load factor is the number of seats filled with paying customers).

Delta reported a domestic load factor of 86.5 for August, on a 0.8 percent decline in passengers carried.

The others haven't reported yet, but they'll show similar numbers.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Media Re Airlines: A Little Perspective, Please

[Right -- Louis C.K.: "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy"]

Whenever I write anything remotely positive about the major airlines, or even not overtly condemnatory (per today), I'm always amazed at what strikes me as knee-jerk adverse reaction, even to the most simple little Labor Day column. Not from the public, mind you, but from some within the media -- and especially the contingent from the Southwest Airlines Media Marching Band and Glee Chorus.

[I specifically exclude my friend Joe Brancatelli at from this gripe, as Joe knows more about airlines than I ever will.]

Among the media reaction I'm getting to this morning's low-hanging-fruit assertion from me, comes from some people who think it's absurd to say, as I did, that fares remain near historically low levels.

But it's true. My bet is that those people travel infrequently, and have seen fare increases on specific routes. One I can think of is Newark-Los Angeles, a trip I took regularly when I used to live in New Jersey. Four years ago, I could usually book that roundtrip on Continental for about $425, and today I had reaction from people saying that trip is now around $600. That may be true here and there -- but I just checked, and a roundtrip coach flight on Continental, Newark-Los Angeles, comes up as $378 to $437 for departure next week.

The fact is, across the board, average fares are near historical lows. Statistics from the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics, for example, show that the cost of the average airfare, adjusted for inflation, actually fell 21 percent in 2010, compared with 2001. (Fares have been rising in the last six months, no doubt, but not yet enough to refute the assertion that they remain near historical lows. Not yet, anyway.)

Meanwhile, regarding Southwest. Southwest may not charge for bags, but it's also becoming known for relatively high fares compared with its competitors. I like Southwest for its convenience (and especially the easy and penalty-free procedures for changing an itinerary), but on my last three business trips, competing airlines had lower fares.

And God forbid I should board Southwest with baggy pants and upset the preternaturally vigilant Southwest fashion police, they of that splendid Dallas-Fort Worth school of social propriety and travel couture.

Overall, a little perspective is needed in the media vis a vis the airlines, for all of their manifest faults. As Louis C.K. points out in this popular Youtube clip, "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy," via the Conan O'Brien show:

"It's an amazing world wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots," Louis says. "Maybe we need to spend some time riding on a donkey with pots and pans banging on the side." As to air travel, he points out that going from New York to California takes five hours on an airplane. "It used to take like 30 years, and a lot of you would die along the way!" On a plane, "You're flying! You're sitting in a chair in the sky!"

O.K., that said, we now return to my regular programming of complaining about air service and hotels. Don't get me started on hotels, by the way.