Wednesday, December 28, 2011

North Koreans Wailing Again

[Photos: Burying Kim Jung Il or going on a Kim family camping trip in Pyongyang? Also, Separated at Birth? Chaz Bono and Kim Jung Un?]

I would have thought the North Koreans would have a lot more to cry about than the death of Kim Jung Il, but evidently not.

Kim Jung Il, whose power included the ability to get a seat without a reservation at the only table in the only restaurant in Pyongyang, was buried yesterday. His successor is a son who resembles Chaz Bono, but without the interesting mother.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas in New York, and Visitors At All-Time High

[Top photo: Hah! The City That Never Sleeps IS Caught Sleeping, on my 5:30 a.m. bagel and coffee run from our Times Square place, on a Sunday morning. I have no idea whose these people are in the other photos, but they seem to be enjoying themselves at Rockefeller Center.]

I was in New York City last week for a few days, the second time in a month.

It's interesting to visit New York, one of my favorite places in the world, after living there for over 25 years. You still get that familiar, proprietary feeling.

And it's especially nice at Christmastime, even though the hotel rates were ... uh, bracing in November and for the first three weeks of December. This week, on the other hand, rates are way down with Christmas so close. For example, you can get the perfectly nice Hilton Garden Inn just off Times Square for a total of $348, including taxes, for tomorrow and Thursday nights. We stayed there during our earlier visit in November, when it cost a lot more. It's a good hotel, part of a good trend as the better-run mid-level brands, best known to business travelers elsewhere, are making moves into the expensive gateway cities, where they're giving much-needed competition to the bloated legacy big-city hotels.

Meanwhile, the city said today, by the way, that the city will have attracted more than 50 million out-of-town visitors this year, which is said to be a record.

"Five and half years ago, we set an ambitious goal to reach 50 million visitors by 2015, and in 2008, we accelerated that goal to be the end of 2012," the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said. "Today, we know that we will exceed this significant milestone by year’s end."

The tourist bureau, NYC & Company, forecasts the city will attract a record-breaking 10.1 million international visitors in 2011, a 4 percent increase over 2010. The UK is the top origin for overseas visitors with more than 1 million visitors expected by the end of 2011. New York City is also on track to generate $32 billion in visitor spending.

A chunk of which my wife and I contributed trip last week. You're welcome, Bloomberg.

New York City continues to hold its position as the number one port of entry for the U.S. and the number one U.S. destination for overseas travel with approximately one out of every three visitors to the U.S.

New York City now has more than 90,000 hotel rooms, a 24 percent increase since 2006.


Airline Bashing

Hey, I'm the first guy to hammer an airline for arrogance and bad service, but this silly item, which is linked to on the Web site of that sad Matt Drudge (who seems to think it's an outrage) -- is a pretty good example of kneejerk media bashing of an airline for no good reason.

Sounds a bit like it came off The Onion, but it's a breathless report on some local TV news outlet in Rochester, N.Y.

"A local family is grieving the death of their father. But what they say has made it even worse is what an airline was forcing one of their brothers to do to be here for the burial. ...," it begins. (And what a sentence that is!)

What the airline "forced" the brother to do was pay the regular change fees and, evidently, the new fares, when said brother and his girlfriend decided to switch flights so they could attend the funeral of the man's father, whose death they were evidently on hand for.Since they were on the scene, it isn't clear from the TV report why the two weren't aware of when the funeral was.

"The only thing this family was looking for was a little compassion," the TV report says.

Boo-hoo. And all I'm looking for is a little journalistic common sense and honesty, and I'll get compassion from an airline a lot sooner than I'll get common sense and honesty from whoever cooked this phony story up.

The aggrieved passenger and his girlfriend decided they were owed "compassion" by Continental Airlines (actually, it's United now) when they tried to change their plans to stay for the funeral. That is, Continental, the family decided, had no right to charge the passengers the usual change fee plus the usual difference in fares when the tickets were re-booked on short notice.

I'm sorry, I disagree. If airlines were required to waive change fees and adjust fares for everyone who claimed a family situation, they'd never be able to get the planes off the ground. And this was not a dire emergency, where someone at an airline might have reasonably cut a passenger some slack. This was a routine schedule change on a nonrefundable fare.

People get buried every day. Usually with advance notice.

Airlines do a lot of dumb things in customer service, but I don't see that in this case. What I see is a local TV station taking a cheap shot, and some customers who have an exaggerated notion of victimhood.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Sui generis.

And alas, we won't see his like again. See also this in Slate.

Also, ya gotta love a guy who cogently and correctly took down Mother Teresa as a posturing phony who used the poor and wretched as props and hung out with rich dictators.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Your 'Non-Apology Apology' Is Not Good Enough, Kayak

You may have heard about the recent flap caused when Lowe's, the big-box building-supply chain, pulled its ads from the some silly reality TV show called "All-American Muslim" after some nitwit group of bigots in Florida (where else?) criticized the show for presenting American Muslims in a positive light.

Assuming, that is, that anyone appearing on a reality TV show can be said to be presented in a positive light.

Anyway, Lowe's responded to the outcry from non-bigoted Americans with one of those "Geez, we're sorry you are silly enough to be offended" reactions. You know, you're the one with the problem, not us, but heck, we'll express our regrets that you have that problem. especially, heh-heh, since some misguided people reacted in a very silly way by boycotting our stores. ... At Christmastime, for God's sake!

Lowe's I could not care less about. I can always buy my next chain saw at Home Depot.

But the travel site Kayak, which depends on the good faith of sensible young travelers, is another matter. Kayak also pulled its ads in response to the Florida bigots. And Kayak also issued this weasel non-apology apology, rather than flatly saying, "We were craven assholes to do this; we were dead wrong, and we hereby acknowledge that and apologize for our cowardly yielding to vile bigotry, which we will never do again."

Here's Kayak's non-apology apology: "We would like to apologize to anyone who was offended by how we handled our decision not to continue advertising on All-American Muslim when it returns in January. We decided to advertise on it in the first place because we adamantly support tolerance and diversity. Our 150-person team includes people from all over the world, and from all walks of life. Our team includes people who are descended from early Europeans who came here escaping religious intolerance, and newer Americans who include many religions. We get what America is about. ..."

[No, no you don't, Kayak. You get what cheap PR is all about.]

..."Unfortunately, this decision comes across as bending to bigotry. It also appears that we did not support people who deserve support as people and as Americans. For that, I am profoundly sorry."

Again, no, Kayak. It does not "come across as bending to bigotry." It is bending to bigotry, and you need to simply admit that you did that and you were wrong.


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Analyze This: Where Do Airline Media ''Insights' Come From?

Don't mean to carp, but why in the world do so many in the airline part of the media run to stock-market "analysts" for all of their insights into the airline business?

Like this. And this. And this.

This is not to quibble with their basic financial points about the AMR corporation, though I would point out that right at this moment, the Wall Street valuation for the "parent" company of American Airlines, which has about 900 airplanes with a value in the many billions, is ... $141.3 million in market capitalization.

So why is so much reporting about airlines essentially reporting about airline companies as a stock play? Why is so little of it predicated on the idea that airlines are basic components of our transportation system? Why is this presented so often instead as just a Wall Street/stock market story?

Furthermore, who are these "analysts?" That's a question I used to ask decades ago when I was an editor at the Wall Street Journal who'd joined that paper after having been a city editor and reporter at big city newspapers.

The "analysts" much beloved by the media are mainly employees of big investment banks, stock brokers or other firms whose main business is ... peddling speculation in the stock market.

When I mentioned this misgiving at the Journal back in the second half of the 1980s, I was always blithely assured that an "analyst" employed by an investment bank or brokerage is an objective researcher, separated by an alleged "Chinese Wall" from those in the same company who toil in the main part of the business where they count the dough, enticing customers into giving them their money to speculate in stocks and other financial instruments.

Hahahah. Actually, I have been to the Great Wall of China. It ain't that hard to stroll right across it.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but who exactly ends up as an airline "analyst" at any company that speculates in Wall Street? I mean, it isn't like being the high-technology analyst, or the analyst for oil or telecommunications, is it? In the pecking order, it's kind of close to the poor soul who's the analyst for the newspaper industry.

Domestic airlines have lost, what, about $55 billion in the last decade?

So when the media present analysis based on these people's observations, I say, analyze that.


Saturday, December 03, 2011

85-Year-Old Woman Says She Was 'Strip-Searched' by TSA

[UPDATED Dec. 5 -- A second elderly woman says she was strip-searched at Kennedy, see insert below].

This looks like it will be seen as still another bone-headed outrage by some TSA agents acting like bouncers at a Guatemalan bottle club -- this time at Kennedy Airport in New York.

According to the New York Daily News, an 85-year-old Long Island woman was crudely strip-searched by TSA agents at Kennedy after she asked not to be forced to go through one of those body-scannmer machines because she uses a defibrillator.

She claims her leg was cut in the process of moving her walker.

One immediate journalistic problem arises here, incidentally, with the initial reporting and editing. The Daily News story hangs on the term "strip search," but never actually quotes the woman as saying those words.

According to the Daily News, "She says the TSA agents showed no sympathy, instead pulling down her pants and asking her to raise her arms." Again, we see a paraphrase in the reporting. What, exactly, did the woman say?

On Saturday, the TSA said that a "strip-search" was never conducted. "While we regret that the passenger feels she had an unpleasant screening experience, TSA does not include strip searches as part of our security protocols and one was not conducted in this case," the TSA statement read.

[UPDATE Dec. 4: The Daily News, in a follow-up on Sunday, went back to the woman for more specifics, I'm glad to see. She was furious that the TSA disputed her account. "They took me into a private screening room and pulled my pants down and then pulled down my underwear," she told the newspaper. "If that’s not strip-searching, I don’t know what else you’d call it."]

The TSA says it acted correctly, and questions whether the woman was actually injured.

[UPDATE Dec. 5 -- A second woman, this one 88 years old, says she was strip-searched by TSA agents at Kennedy. "I had to pull from my sweatpants and I had to pull my underwear, my underwear down," she told WCBS, the CBS affiliate in New York City. Here's the link.]

The TSA denies it "strip searches" old people. It all depends on what "strip-search" means, I suppose.

Quibbling over semantics, I submit, is not the main issue at hand. The issue appears to be the base stupidity of strip searching, or groping, or pulling down the pants of, a 110-pound, 4'11 old woman who was taken to a private room because she declined for health reasons to go through one of those whole-body imaging machines. There has to have been a better way to handle this.

Nor is the TSA response, which appears to be a knee-jerk one calling the woman a liar about being physically injured, the correct response. Lose the boilerplate. The correct response is: We're looking into this right away.

And then actually look into it, and haul those TSA agents from Kennedy into a private room, like an office, for a full explanation. And then report fully.

An 85-year-old woman's definition of a strip search may not exactly be the same as how a prison guard defines one, but that's not really the point. The woman's account is solid enough.

This story has legs, as they say. It seems to me that every time the TSA brass In Washington starts making headway in instilling better trust with the public about the TSA's intention to trim some of the obvious stupidity out of the system, along come some TSA knuckleheads at the local level who get all full of themselves and yank the agency right back into disrepute.

Every time we see TSA agents pawing over very old people -- and I see it regularly, and they're often in wheelchairs -- we become further alienated from the security regime. There has to be a better way.

Common sense, that's one way.