Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The War on Festivus and the Rest of Us

Bill O'Reilly, the only character from that institution for the emotionally disturbed called Fox News whom I find both amusing and appalling, rather than simply appalling, has been on his annual pious crusade about the so-called War on Christmas.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast invented the modern image of Santa Claus in the 1880s

Not that I watch Fox News, there being certain things I just will not do. But one does tend to get a sense of the nuggets they're pumping out of Rupert Murdoch's gold mine at any given time. O'Reilly and his War on Christmas are as much a holiday perennial as the Rockettes and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

What is this war on Christmas, exactly?

The casus belli, it seems, stems from an angry belief that Christmas, which nominally celebrates the birth of a historically dubious personage at a time in the year that even the believers concede bears a not entirely coincidental relationship to the lusty pagan Roman winter-solstice celebration of Saturnalia, is under attack by hordes of infidels. These infidels -- they are largely unnamed, but historically we know who the aggrieved faithful mainly have in mind here -- are alleged to have commercialized the sacred holiday and torn from its focal point the Little Baby Jesus, an infant-god born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem during the reign of Augustus near fields where shepherds tended their flocks and angels sang on high while three heathen kings, buddied-up on an inexplicable road trip, proceeded anon under guidance of a mysterious brilliant star in the winter sky ... yada, yada, yada.

A large number of people persist in believing this, despite the indisputable fact that none of these and other associated events described in the contradictory accounts in various sacred tracts, composed much later, were actually noted by the contemporary Romans, who controlled the territory and who were well known for paying careful attention to unusual occurrences on their watch. In much later centuries, but especially in the last two, the Christmas narrative -- traditionally a distant runner-up to the primary Christian holiday of Easter -- was more firmly imposed on the winter solstice, partly to offset riotous seasonal celebrations that may have called themselves Christmas but actually owed their origins to Saturnalia.

Hence the perennial lectures about the "true meaning of Christmas," which the believers, claiming they are persecuted, insist has been defiled by others who, for through common sense or contrary dogma, find the accepted religious narrative to be implausible -- and who, truth to tell, become uncomfortable when we hear, or in some cases are expected to join in the singing of, unctuous hymns with pious themes that were composed in 19th century parsonages or 20th Century tin pan alleys.

Back to Bill O'Reilly -- who incidentally fancies himself a historian and whose most recent book has as its central character the World War II hero General George Patton. Of course, General Patton himself would have slapped around an armchair warrior like Bill O'Reilly, who graduated from high school at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 but somehow managed to dodge the Vietnam draft and avoid service during a war he continues to vocally defend and support. (O'Reilly, along with his colleagues at Fox, Roger Ailes and Carl Rove, is ranked with the execrable Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and other warriors-sans-service on a list, well known to those who did serve, of famous Chicken-Hawks.)

As to the historical origins of Christmas, O'Reilly's said last year, "that's what the U.S.A. celebrates on Dec. 25, the birth of the baby Jesus..." It's a holiday sanctioned in 1870 by the federal government that, O'Reilly said, "acknowledges the country's Judeo-Christian tradition."

It's clever how O'Reilly worked the Jews into that one because, in this country, the religiousness of Christmas has always been a bit of a concern to others who might be tempted to join more enthusiastically in these joyous winter-holiday festivities -- if they didn't have rather long historical markers, as the Judeo portion of the tradition certainly does.

(Incidentally, there's an amusing piece in the Washington Post today on "The War on Jewish Christmas. Here.)

In 1997, under the aegis of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the so-called Festivus episode (its actual title was "The Strike") was aired on "Seinfeld," a show that was of course actually about a group of very funny New York Jews, George's Italian surname notwithstanding.  Festivus was cast as the year-end holiday for "the rest of us." The episode's conceit was that Festivus had been invented as an alternative-Christmas by George's excitable, miserable father. But the real message of Festivus -- for the rest of us -- has been enduring.

The growing numbers of us who don't believe the religious narrative still enthusiastically celebrate the winter solstice -- and what a beautiful and pagan thing a Christmas tree is! What joy there is in coming to Rockefeller Plaza on a cold December day! -- even if Saturnalia's distant descendant, the drunken office Christmas party, has also long ago faded into oblivion.

And as to that "happy holidays" palaver that the media and earnest organizations like Pew Research constantly fret over, I say the hell with it. Who says we have to ironically invoke "Festivus" or refer to this time as a generic happy "holiday," or in fact to call it anything other than what what it has been commonly called since the Council of Nicea?

And so Merry Christmas to all. Even  O'Reilly.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Independent Movie Theaters Take a Stand

Given the pitiful way the U.S. multiplex movie theater industry folded like a cardboard suitcase after North Korean threats about screening "The Interview," it's very nice to see that independent movie theaters are taking a stand. The movie will now open at independent theaters all across the U.S. on Christmas Day.
Kim Jong-un, ready for his closeup?

The independents, represented by a trade group called Art House Convergence, had petitioned Sony to release the film, which Sony had previously indicated would be shelved permanently because of grandiose, ungrammatical threats of violence issued by the North Korean hackers. You know, the people who threatened to set the White House on fire and reduce the East Coast to a pile of embers.

 Here's the petition the independent theaters signed.

The comedy, which sounds fairly weak, frankly, would have faded from public attention after a few weeks -- if the North Koreans hadn't made a marketing case for it with their criminal internet hacking of Sony. Yes, perhaps using their one working computer on the single day of the week they have electricity, the North Koreans -- who can't feed their people, even the ones who aren't locked up in concentration camps -- managed to make a grand mess at Sony Entertainment by hacking and releasing private emails at Sony's movie division, which is located in the old MGM studio complex in Culver City. At least I now know what Sony execs think of Angelina Jolie and her plans to remake "Cleopatra" (the previous version of which sank the old 20th Century Fox, incidentally). Also that Ms. Jolie thinks the way you abbreviate "et ectera" is "ect".

The Wrap, by the way, also reports -- without providing details -- that the movie will be made available for on-demand viewing.

The independent movie houses that will now show the movie starting Christmas Day include the Loft Cinema in Tucson, the Plaza in Atlanta and the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas based in Austin and dozens of others.

These are theaters that are helping to keep alive the art of cinema in all of its forms, while the corporate multiplexes grasp at straws amid declining attendance.

And now let's watch local newspapers and TV stations try to stir up hysteria about those North Korean threats to theaters playing the movie. You can bet they're working on that right now.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

State Dept. Travel Warnng: Israel, Gaza, West Bank

Here's the full text of a new State Department travel warning for Israel, Gaza and the West Bank:
"The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza due to ongoing hostilities. The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirms the longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning issued on February 3, 2014.
The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the risks of travel to these areas because of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel. The Department of State continues its longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against travel to the Gaza Strip; U.S. government employees are not allowed to conduct official or personal travel there. Please see the section below on the situation in the Gaza Strip. Because of the security situation, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and its annexes are currently operating at reduced staffing and the Consular Section of the Embassy is providing only emergency consular services. The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem is currently maintaining normal operations, including consular services.
Long-range rockets launched from Gaza since July 8, 2014 have reached many locations in Israel – including Tel Aviv, cities farther north, and throughout the south of the country. Some rockets have reached Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Hebron. While many rockets have been intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, there have been impacts that have caused damage and injury. In light of the ongoing rocket attacks, U.S. citizen visitors to and U.S. citizen residents of Israel and the West Bank should familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter or other hardened site, if available. Visitors should seek information on shelters from hotel staff or building managers. Consult city municipality websites, such as those for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for lists of public bomb shelters and other emergency preparedness information. Visitors should follow the instructions of the Home Front Command on proper procedures in the event of rocket attacks.
Travelers should avoid areas of Israel in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip due to the real risks presented by small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets, and mortars, as attacks from Gaza can come with little or no warning. Both Embassy and Consulate General personnel are currently not permitted to travel south of greater Tel Aviv without prior approval. On July 17, 2014 Israel announced the commencement of ground operations in Gaza. Visitors to these areas should remain aware of their surroundings and should take note of announcements and guidance provided by the Home Front Command.
Ben Gurion Airport is currently open and commercial flights are operating normally, although delays and cancellations can occur. Travelers should check with their airline prior to their planned travel to verify the flight schedule. U.S. citizens seeking to depart Israel or the West Bank are responsible for making their own travel arrangements.
We are not evacuating U.S. citizens out of Israel. U.S. government-facilitated evacuations occur only when no safe commercial alternatives exist. Evacuation assistance is provided on a cost-recovery basis, which means the traveler must reimburse the U.S. government for travel costs. The lack of a valid U.S. passport may hinder U.S. citizens' ability to depart the country and may slow the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General's ability to provide assistance.
U.S. citizens who do travel to or remain in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza should take into consideration the rules governing travel by U.S. government employees:
U.S. government personnel are not permitted to conduct official or personal travel to the Gaza Strip;
U.S. government personnel are restricted from conducting personal travel to most parts of the West Bank; travel for official business is done with special security arrangements coordinated by the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem;
Currently, because of the security situation, U.S. government personnel are not permitted to travel south of greater Tel Aviv without prior approval;
U.S. government personnel must notify Embassy Tel Aviv’s Regional Security Officer before traveling in the areas of the Golan Heights and are prohibited from traveling east of Rt. 98 in the Golan Heights;
U.S. government personnel are not permitted to use public buses anywhere in Israel or the West Bank due to past attacks on public transportation.
Major Metropolitan Areas in Israel
Personal safety conditions in major metropolitan areas, including Tel Aviv and Haifa and their surrounding regions, are comparable to or better than those in other major global cities. Please see below for specific information regarding Jerusalem. Visitors should observe appropriate personal security practices to reduce their vulnerability to crime, particularly late at night or in isolated or economically depressed areas, including in the countryside. Visitors are advised to avoid large gatherings or demonstrations and keep current with local news, which is available through numerous English language sources.
The Government of Israel has had a long-standing policy of issuing gas masks to its citizens and, starting in 2010, it began issuing replacement masks. It stopped this distribution process in early 2014 in response to regional events. Visitors and foreign residents in Israel are not issued masks and must individually procure them, if desired. The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General do not provide gas masks for persons who are not U.S. government employees or their dependents. For further emergency preparedness guidance, please visit the website of the Government of Israel's Home Front Command, which provides information on how to choose a secure space in a home or apartment, as well as a list of the types of protective kits (gas masks) issued by the Government of Israel to its citizens.
Gaza Vicinity
The Department of State recommends against travel to areas of Israel in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip. Travelers should be aware of the risks presented by the current military conflict between Hamas and Israel. On July 17, 2014 Israel announced the commencement of ground operations in Gaza. Travelers in the regions immediately bordering Gaza may encounter small arms fire, anti-tank weapons, rockets, and mortars launched from inside Gaza toward Israeli cities and towns. These attacks can come with little or no warning. Visitors to these areas should remain aware of their surroundings and of the location of bomb shelters and should take note of announcements and guidance provided by the Home Front Command.
Travelers should also be aware of the heightened state of alert maintained by Israeli authorities along Israel's border with Egypt. There have been cross-border incidents from Egypt, including rocket attacks and ground incursions, such as an attack that took place in August 2013 and one on January 20, 2014. Rockets were fired from Sinai in the direction of Eilat on July 15, 2014.
Northern Israel
Rocket attacks into Israel from Lebanon have occurred without warning along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Tensions have increased along portions of the Disengagement Zone with Syria in the Golan Heights as a result of the internal conflict occurring in Syria. Sporadic gunfire has occurred along the border region. There have been several incidents of mortar shells and light arms fire impacting on the Israeli-controlled side of the zone as a result of spillover from the fighting in Syria. Travelers should be aware that cross-border gunfire can occur without warning. Furthermore, there are active land mines in areas of the Golan Heights, so visitors should walk only on established roads or trails. The Syrian conflict is sporadic and unpredictable. U.S. government personnel must notify the Embassy's Regional Security Office in advance if they plan to visit the Golan Heights and are prohibited from traveling east of Rt. 98 in the Golan Heights.
U.S. citizens should be aware of the possibility of isolated street protests, particularly within the Old City and areas around Salah Ed-Din Street, Damascus Gate, Silwan, and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Travelers should exercise caution at religious sites on Fridays and on holy days, including during Ramadan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from entering the Old City on Fridays during the month of Ramadan due to congestion and security-related access restrictions.
U.S. government employees are prohibited from transiting Independence Park in central Jerusalem during the hours of darkness due to reports of criminal activity.
The Consulate General notes that recent demonstrations and clashes in several East Jerusalem areas, such as Shufat, Beit Hanina, Mt. of Olives, As Suwaneh, Abu Deis, Silwan, Shuafat Refugee Camp, inside the Old City (near Lions Gate), Issawiyeh, and Tsur Baher appear to have diminished, although the possibility exists of renewed clashes in the same areas during evenings. We note that the clashes and demonstrations have not been anti-American in nature. The Israel National Police (INP) continues to have a heavy presence in many of the neighborhoods that have had clashes and may restrict vehicular traffic to some of these neighborhoods without notice. We advise citizens not to enter any neighborhoods restricted by the INP and to avoid any locations that have active clashes ongoing.
The Shufat neighborhood of Jerusalem remains off-limits for official U.S. personnel and their families at night until further notice. The Old City of Jerusalem is also off-limits every day after dark for official U.S. personnel and their families until further notice. Official U.S. personnel are restricted from the Old City of Jerusalem at all times on Fridays during Ramadan. The Friday restriction is part of our standard policy, due to overall congestion and large crowds, and is not related to recent events.
The West Bank
The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when traveling to the West Bank. Demonstrations and violent incidents can occur without warning, and vehicles are regularly targeted by rocks, Molotov cocktails, and gunfire on West Bank roads. U.S citizens have been killed in such attacks. There have also been an increasing number of violent incidents involving Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers in the corridor stretching from Ramallah to Nablus, including attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages in which U.S. citizens have suffered injury or property damage, and attacks by Palestinians on settlements. U.S. citizens can be caught in the middle of potentially dangerous situations, and some U.S. citizens involved in political demonstrations in the West Bank have sustained serious injuries. The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens, for their own safety, avoid all demonstrations. During periods of unrest, the Israeli Government may restrict access to the West Bank, and some areas may be placed under curfew. All persons in areas under curfew should remain indoors to avoid arrest or injury. Security conditions in the West Bank may hinder the ability of consular staff to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens.
Personal travel in the West Bank by U.S. government personnel and their families is permitted to the towns of Bethlehem and Jericho and on Routes 1, 443, and 90. Personal travel is also permitted to Qumran off Route 90 by the Dead Sea, as are stops at roadside facilities along Routes 1 and 90. All other personal travel by U.S. government personnel in the West Bank is prohibited. U.S. government personnel routinely travel to the West Bank for official business, but do so with special security arrangements.
The Gaza Strip
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization. U.S. citizens in Gaza are advised to depart immediately. The security environment within Gaza, including its border with Egypt and its seacoast, is dangerous and volatile. Exchanges of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and militant groups in Gaza take place regularly, and civilians have been caught in the crossfire in the past. Although the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt normally allows for some passenger travel, prior coordination with local authorities -- which could take days or weeks to process -- is generally required, and crossing points may be closed for days or weeks. Travelers who enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing must also exit through the Rafah crossing, and those entering the Gaza Strip may not be able to depart at a time of their choosing. Many U.S. citizens have been unable to exit Gaza or faced lengthy delays in doing so. Furthermore, the schedule and requirements for exiting through the Rafah crossing are unpredictable and can involve significant expense. Because U.S. citizen employees of the U.S. government are not allowed to enter the Gaza Strip or have contact with Hamas, the ability of consular staff to offer timely assistance to U.S. citizens, including assistance departing Gaza, is extremely limited.
Entry/Exit Difficulties
Some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or who are of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank. U.S. citizens planning to travel to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza should consult the detailed information concerning entry and exit difficulties in the Country Specific Information.
Contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy for information and assistance in Israel, the Golan Heights, and ports of entry at Ben Gurion Airport, Haifa Port, the northern (Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein) and southern (Arava) border crossings connecting Israel and Jordan, and the border crossings between Israel and Egypt. An embassy officer can be contacted at (972) (3) 519-7575 from Monday through Friday during working hours. The after-hours emergency number is (972) (3) 519-7551.
Contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem for information and assistance in Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, at (972) (2) 630-4000 from Monday through Friday during working hours. The after-hours emergency number is (972) (2) 622-7250.
For More Information
The Department of State urges those U.S. citizens who live in or travel to Israel, the West Bank or Gaza to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to obtain the most current information on travel and security within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Enrollment in STEP makes it easier for the Embassy or Consulate General to contact U.S. citizens in case of emergency.
For information on "What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis," please visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Emergencies and Crisis link
For the latest security information, U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State’s Internet website where the Worldwide Caution, Country Specific Information for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found, including the current Travel Warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. You can also follow the Bureau of Consular Affairs on Twitter and on Facebook. Up-to-date information on security conditions can also be accessed athttp://israel.usembassy.gov or on the Embassy and Consulate General Facebook pages.
Up-to-date information on travel and security in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the United States and Canada, or, for callers outside of the United States and Canada, on a regular toll-line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays)."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Borat Called ...

...and he wants his wig back.

Meet the exquisitely named Igor Girkin, the military genius who commands the pro-Russian separatist rebel group in eastern Ukraine that seems to have been responsible for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Indications are that these commandos accidentally shot the Boeing 777 airliner down at 33,000 feet, thinking it was a Ukraine Air Force Antonov An-26 military transport, a lumbering twin-engine turboprop with a maximum altitude of 24,000 feet.

Commandante Girkin -- channeling Chico Marx's "Who you gonna believe? Me or your lyin' eyes?" -- is suggesting that the bodies on the ground in the horrific debris field where the Boeing 777 came down "aren't fresh," and maybe were planted there by the Kiev regime. Because look at these guys. They couldn't possibly be dumb and criminally reckless enough to have accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, could they?

Here's the story.

And just for future reference, Commandante Girkin, here's the difference between an An-26 transport and a Boeing 777:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Malaysia Air 777 Crash in Ukraine

[Updated, and see link to MSNBC falling for a Howard Stern prankster at end]


If a ground-to-air missile did indeed bring down the Malaysia Airlines 777 that crashed in Ukraine today, killing 295 on board, it would have had to have been a sophisticated military system like the Soviet-designed Buk M3 or its later models. Most ground-fired missiles can't reach an airplane at 33,000 feet, but the Buk certainly can.

Here are the some specs on the Buk.



The radar positions etc. are followed in detail on the website (it's overwhelmed right now; Flightradar24 says it is adding servers to handle the demand)

The breaking media coverage has been intense of course. The Drudge Report has the expected hysterical links in red type. The Washington Post went out with a very early breaking news report the plane had been shot down by a surface to air missile, that report based on a Ukranian official who had what struck me as an oddly detailed amount of information at that stage, including the type of missile. The Post has now backtracked a bit on that one.

The New York Times has been a lot more cautious on the "shootdown" report, not leading with that and carefully attributing the claim to the Ukranian official. Good for them, of course.

The Wall Street Journal has some excellent breaking news reporting, including some sober insight into the surface-to-air missile question. Like this: "...If a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, attackers would have had to use a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, not the shoulder-fired weapons that are more accessible and easier to use. ... Those weapons, nicknamed manpads, have been used in attacks against commercial aircraft in the past. But their range is much lower than the 30,000-feet cruising altitude."
And there's this from a reader commenting on the main New York Times story: "If the plane was over Ukraine, then it was probably not close to landing airport and flying at between 35000 and 40000 feet over ground (6 to 7 miles above ground). It is doubtful that any country has the capability to shoot down a plane at that altitude, leave alone the rebels in Ukraine."

(The Malaysia 777 was reported to have been at 33,000 feet when it crashed.)

We'll see how this sorts out. But the WSJ item looked a litte off-base by afternoon, when "U.S. officials," who were not identified in reports in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, confirmed that the plane was in fact shot down by a missile. Other reports have come clarification on the capacity of surface-to-air missiles. A shoulder-fired SAM couldn't hit a target that high, but a sophisticated military one could. Still, an air of speculation remains.

If it was in fact a shootdown, let's hope that some hysterics in the media avoid the temptation to try to "localize" this horrific disaster with pointless "what-if" speculation on a threat of surface-to-air missiles. This appears to have been a unique situation to eastern Ukraine if it was actually a shootdown by a ground missile.

There have been NOTAM directives issues in recent months about flying over Ukraine, but the relevant one seems to have been about air-traffic control issues, rather than danger from the ground. It's unclear now what the status of those was because as Twitter and other reports have it, air space in eastern Ukraine had lots of commercial airline traffic at the time of the crash.

If it was not a shootdown but rather a bomb on that airplane, stand by for a nightmare air-travel scenario this summer, with a widespread security crackdown even in the U.S. on laptops and other personal electronic devices.

Meanwhile, the Howard Stern Brigade of pranksters struck again, this time making a dope out of MSNBC anchor Krystal Ball, who aired an interview with a man identified as a soldier in "the U.S. embassy in Ukraine." Even after the prankster said clearly on air that the plane "appeared to have been shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern's ass," Ms. Ball pressed on credulously, until the prankster himself told her, "Boy, you are a dumb-ass, aren't you."

This is what happens when TV .... oh, never mind. Cable TV news is just hopeless, and we all know it.

Here's the link:


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bananas in Brazil

After a six-month hiatus, I'm back to the blog today, inspired once again by the evidently congenital emotionalism in Brazil, and wondering if Folha and the other media will find a way to assign blame to Americans for Brazil's 7-1 loss yesterday in the World Cup games. (Which many found notable mainly because 8 points were scored in a single game, rather than the usual 1 or 2).

Today's Daily Mail, the UK tabloid that has made interesting inroads in the U.S., leads its Brazil wrapup today with a screaming headline (well, to be fair, Daily Mail headlines are always screaming): "Brazil's Darkest Hour: National Mourning; Riots in the Streets ..."

Just sayin'



Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Airlines Blame Everything and Everybody

The Fall of Saigon, 1975

Given the rolling fiasco of airline cancellations in the last six days, with travelers still stranded at airports around the country, unable to book alternate flights sometimes till days later, there's a lot of public anger toward the airlines. Well, a lot more than usual, let's say.

The airlines, of course, are blaming everything and everybody except themselves for the mess, in which flight cancellations legitimately caused by horrible weather in the Northeast and Midwest have developed into huge numbers of cancellations and delays throughout the air travel system. There were 3,600 new cancellations today, for example, bringing the total to well over 25,000 since last Thursday.

One villain the airlines were quick to finger is the Department of Transportation, which in 2010 addressed the scandalous problem of airlines stranding passengers for hours and hours on idled planes on tarmacs by imposing stiff fines for excessive tarmac delays. The problem disappeared virtually overnight, but the airlines have always hated the rule,  and are widely blaming it now for the excessive number of cancellations in recent days.  After all, the airlines and their various amen-choruses argue, why risk stiff fines valiantly trying to get planes into place to depart, when weather might cause backups and passenger dissatisfaction in getting those planes onto runways within prescribed time frames?

The airlines and various elements of the media that accept that line of reasoning seem not to consider the obvious fact that a great many of the massive number of flight cancellations since last Thursday have occurred at airports where the weather was not bad, for departures to other airports where the weather was not bad. (And in many cases, involving aircraft that had originated in places where the weather was also fine). So where was the tarmac-delay fine threat in those cases?

The fact is, the current fiasco is a direct consequence of an air transport system that has been significantly shrunk by the airlines in their quite reasonable drive to maintain profitability. Routes have been cut, crews are stretched thin, backup aircraft are unavailable, customer service and reservations agent workforces have been slashed and outsourced, while planes are all flying nearly full -- meaning re-booking after a canceled flight is daunting, even if you can get an agent on the line or get the online systems to work. So because there is no slack and there is no backup in the systems, weather disruptions immediately roll out through the whole network, with one result being that some terminals have resembled the Fall of Saigon in recent days.

Yesterday, meanwhile, JetBlue Airways came up with a new excuse when it shut down its operations at the New York airports and Boston: While the weather meant delays, cancellations were greatly exacerbated, JetBlue said, by new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration that limited duty-hours of pilots as a safety measure (partly in response to that horrific accident that killed 50 when a Continental flight operated by Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo. Pilot exhaustion was one of the causes of that disaster.) Other airlines are now also invoking the FAA rule as an excuse.

Well, the nation's pilots have something to say on that. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union that represents 50,000 pilots in North America, issued this statement today (the underlining is mine):

ALPA Statement on Flight Delays and Rollout of New Pilot Flight/Duty Time Rules
Record bad weather and poor planning to comply with new regulations by a few individual airlines should not distract from the tremendous advancement in safety that has resulted from this past weekend’s implementation of the FAA’s new science-based flight- and duty-time regulations for airline pilots who fly passengers. Airline companies have had two years’ advance notice and the proactive safety culture that ALPA pilots have helped to develop at many airlines. Implementation of these long-overdue regulations has gone smoothly in all but a very few cases. These new pilot fatigue rules are a significant accomplishment in enhancing safety for the traveling public.

Where the safety achievement does fall short is that the new regulations do not apply to pilots who fly cargo. While the new rules make historic progress for pilots who fly passengers by taking into account a pilot’s work schedule, aircraft equipment, human physiology, and travel distances, the deliberate exclusion of cargo airline pilots clearly indicates there is an illogical conclusion that cargo pilots do not deserve the same protection from fatigue. For that reason, ALPA will never stop advocating for one level of safety and for Congress to pass the Safe Skies Act (H.R. 182/S. 1692), which will bring all airline pilots under these important safety regulations. When these regulations are applied to all-cargo operations, our industry will take an enormous stride toward achieving one level of safety to the benefit of all who fly.