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Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Great Russian Museum In St. Petersburg That Most Tourists Never Hear About

People go to St. Petersburg to see the Hermitage and while they're there they go see St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum, Kazan Cathedral, maybe Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. I spent two full days at the Hermitage; it's a total winner and I regret not having spent a few more days there and each of the site I just mentioned was great and totally worthwhile. But some of the things I liked most aren't on most of the "best of" lists. If you enjoy looking at contemporary art, the Erarta contemporary art museum and galleries was totally worth the trip over to Vasilievsky Island, for example.

I was lucky though because a friend with whom I share an intense interest in history had just been to Russian a couple of months before I went and he recommended one of the most wonderful off-the-beaten-track tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Political History. I guess it's not for everyone but it was certainly a highlight of my trip to Russia. The museum, which helps you understand the country's political history from the mid-1700's through today, is extremely successful in its mission and shockingly transparent, objective and unbiased. Housed in two co-joined mansions with great historical significance themselves, the museum is a treasure trove of Russian historical artifacts. This was Lenin's office and that was the balcony he inspired the revolution from. That was in an incredible 1906 art nouveau mansion originally built for prima ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya, a mistress of Nicholas II before he became tsar and a decade later seized by the Bolsheviks and made into their headquarters. The other mansion was the home of Vassily Brandt, one of the richest merchants in the country.

It was worth hiring a guide-- which cost next to nothing-- to take us through the museum and point out some of the highlights and help put them into context. I would say 90% of what she told us we would not have gotten without her.

There is a ton of information on the Soviet Union of course-- plenty of fascinating Stalin era exhibitions-- but great stuff on Catherine the Great, Rasputin, both World Wars, the tsars, the revolution as well. I would definitely go back for another day in this place.

Mathilda Kshesinskaya's mansion

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Role Of The Military In Turkish Politics Is About To Change... Drastically

There's virtually no part of Turkey I haven't visited since I was first there in 1969. I fell in love with the country, the people, the food, the history, the culture... when I was 21 and have been back over a dozen times, not just to the normal places people visit, like Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia, Izmir, Antalya and Bodrum, but also less-visited cities like Erdine, Trabzon, Sinop, Samsun, Kirikkale, Ezurum and Konya. On that very first trip, I drove in my VW van from one end of the country-- entering at the Bulgarian border-- all the way across Anatolia to Dogubayazit and on into Iran. Lately I may camp out at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet or the Ciragan Palace but back in those days I literally camped out, parking my van in front of some friendly family's home and sleeping in it while my passengers slept inside. I was very much an "on the ground" traveler, and my experiences were all the richer for it. (Funny what happened when you have no money.) I certainly got to know Turks more intimately and deeply than one usually does when staying at a Four Seasons.

These days, Roland and I have gotten so used to Istanbul that it does't seem odd at all for him to declare he wants to fly to Istanbul so he can do some shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the world's oldest or at least longest-lasting mall, built when Christopher Columbus was 4 years old. But it's not the same as when I was living for 2 weeks with a family in Kirikkale and they had a meal prepared for us every single time we would walk into the house. When a Turkish guy whistled at one of my passengers, a beautiful Danish girl, our host was so mortified and humiliated that he pulled out a knife and went after the whistler. Two years later when I drove back through Turkey from India, I brought them a whole set of hand-craved furniture.) Recently I was in Azerbaijan on a vacation and people were shocked I could speak so much of their language which is, basically, Turkish. The point of all this is that when I tell you that Turks have told me for 4 and a half decades that they expect the military to protect the country from political excesses, I didn't just read it in a book.

The attempted coup Friday was a bungled mess, from start to [quick] finish-- possibly even staged by Erdogan himself. From a Western perspective it had no legitimacy whatsoever-- couple: bad. Many Turks don't necessarily agree (although, significantly all the political parties, even the ones who loathe Erdogan the most, denounced the coup attempt). Right from the beginning, when soldiers were shutting down the Istanbul bridges, talking [air] heads on U.S. TV all got it wrong, seeing it through the prism of Western experience and mostly unaware that the role of the Turkish military to specifically protect a secular, non-tyrannical society is enshrined not just in Turkish tradition but in the country's foundational documents. The military takes very seriously their role as guardian of Kemal Atatürk's legacy. It didn't work out and most everyone is cheering. But this has enabled an authoritarian megalomaniac and would-be tyrant to move forward with his plans for subjugating his political rivals and transforming Turkish politics drastically.
[W]hile the bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader elicited widespread international opprobrium, many analysts fear that Erdogan will come away from the botched coup more emboldened than ever to impose his will on the country and ruthlessly root out his perceived enemies-- actions he already alluded to on Saturday.

“What is being perpetrated is a rebellion and a treason,” Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in the wee hours of the morning. “They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”

As of early Saturday, the number of arrested military personnel has already risen to an astonishing 2,839 people, including high-ranking officers-- and that figure is expected to keep growing. According to Turkey’s prime minister, 161 people were killed and 1,440 injured in the failed uprising. The military chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, was rescued after forces liberated him from an air base outside of Ankara. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has summoned lawmakers for an emergency meeting Saturday.

Though the exact rationale for the coup effort remains unclear, the Turkish military has long viewed itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular and moderate institutions, the touchstones of the modern Turkish republic. But over the last decade, Erdogan has chipped away at those institutions by silencing dissent, expanding his grip on the judiciary, and chiseling away at the freedom of the press. Many Turkey watchers fear that Friday’s failed coup attempt will push Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies into overdrive.

“There certainly will be blood,” Andrew Bowen, a Washington-based Middle East expert and and columnist at al Arabiya, told Foreign Policy. “Erdogan will move swiftly and ruthlessly after his perceived enemies.”

If the Turkish president views his survival as a mandate to assert greater control over the country, he’ll likely start with his long-running plan to rewrite the constitution to create an executive presidency that will give him greater power at the expense of the legislature and the prime minister.

“He could arguably make the case that it wasn’t Turkey’s democratic institutions that saved Turkey’s democracy, but him,” Bowen added. “His supporters have survived this experience and arguably have been more emboldened from this experience, giving him a stronger mandate.”

That’s troubling to a number of observers who have grimaced at the dramatic changes Erdogan has brought to Turkey in recent years.

After his bloody crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, public protest has become a heroic endeavor in and of itself. Under Erdogan’s rule, hundreds of journalists have been fired from major newspapers and magazines; several are behind bars. A 2016 report from Freedom House gave Turkey a “downward arrow” for the “intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters.”

As for Turkey’s legal system, a 2015  Human Rights Watch report warned that the government “has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey’s judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and internet censorship, and prosecute journalists.”

Although Turkey’s opposition parties took a principled stand against the coup, many of them will continue to face persecution under Erdogan, especially groups like the pro-Kurdish rights party HDP, which has opposed his pursuit of an executive presidency. Kurdish civilians have literally been caught in the crossfire, suffering curfews and worse as Erdogan has intensified his military campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist outfit.

The other question is what happens to the military. The group behind the coup called themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” a phrase coined by the founder of the country, Kemal Ataturk. After seizing television stations, the plotters quickly found themselves in a wider confrontation with crowds of loyalists and government supporters.

The bloated arrest list suggests Erdogan will oversee a significant shake-up of the army, even though he was careful to note that the attempted coup was not a reflection on the entire service.

“Turkish Armed Forces was not involved in the coup attempt in its entirety,” he said Saturday. “It was conducted by a clique within the armed forces and received a well-deserved response from our nation.”

Erdogan laid blame for the rebellion squarely on Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive Muslim cleric based in the United States whom Turkish officials routinely blame for fomenting unrest and dissent. But the government has not yet provided evidence of Gülen’s involvement, and the cleric denied any link to the uprising. In a statement, he condemned “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey.” Yet, according to the BBC, 2,745 judges have already been fired due to alleged connections to Gulen.

Still, Erdogan has long been suspicious, and by some accounts, paranoid, about the threat posed by the military. Friday’s botched coup attempt will only fan those fears.

“The coup attempt sought to turn Erdogan into a Morsi,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He’s now poised to become a Putin.”

So far all Trump has said about Turkey is that it was all Hillary's fault. If you're expecting Herr Trumpf to start singing Erdogan's praises, you might have to wait a while. He hates Trump and two weeks ago demanded the name "Trump" be removed" from Trump Towers Istanbul. In a discussion of Islamophobia, Erdogan told a Chamber of Commerce type meeting that Trump "has no tolerance for Muslims living in the US. And on top of that they used a brand in [Istanbul] with his name. The ones who put that brand on their building should immediately remove it. That was Turkish billionaire Aydın Doğan he was calling out. It's not unlike what I saw happening more organically in Baku last month where a powerful and criminal Azerbaijani billionaire screwed himself by branding his new (now-closed down) glitzy tower with Trump's toxic name.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Follow-up: NYC to D.C. and back in under 22 hours

It's like you need binoculars -- to see from one end of the Russell Senate Office Building to the other. And it's not as if the subsequently added Dirksen and Hart Senate Office Buildings are exactly petite.

by Ken

Yesterday's trip to Washington was a resounding success -- and never mind that the famous 3am train out of NYC's Penn Station left more than half an hour late, and chugged into D.C.'s Union Station a full hour and half late. "Mechanical problems" is all we were told the first time as well as the two subsequent times that the Train That Didn't Seem Like It Could went into hibernation. What me worry? After all, I had a three-hour cushion built into my schedule, even if in truth I never really imagined having half of it eaten up.

On the plus side, however, the thunderstorms that the forecasters had insisted were planned for the area were apparently called off, if not the 90-plus temps under those unexpectedly beautiful blue skies. Not a drop of rain was encountered until, on the cheap-bus trip back (at something like a third of the advance-purchase senior fare for the train trip down) at about the latitude of the Lincoln Tunnel we drove into a deluge.

There's so much I'd love to talk about, but I don't want to try readers' patience, so let me just say that with so much time to fill than I'd planned for before Francis Morrone's "Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s")walking tour for the National Civic Art Society, the reason for the trip, which turned out to be one of the best I've done with Francis, which is saying a lot -- my goodness, the seemingly effortless command of so many different kinds of riveting material! Anyway, the trip was indeed accomplished in under 22 hours door to door (heading out at 1:25am and trudging back in about 11:15pm).

With so much less time than I'd imagined for pre-tour wandering, I just headed south from Union Station, after taking in its brackets to the west (the handsome old post office that now serves as the National Postal Museum) and east (the vaguely modern Federal Judiciary Center named for one of my heroes, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall). Meaning that I got to see, up close and personal, such sights as the cluster of Senate office buildings, starting -- in my ass-backwards route -- with Hart and only later, after strolling around the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress (not just the original, resplendent Jefferson building but the across-the-streets Adams and Madison), catching up with Dirksen and (gasp!) the palatial Russell (opened in 1909 and named for slimy Georgia Sen. Richard Russell in 1972). You almost need binoculars to see from one end of it to the other. Yikes!

Even though I've ridden past a lot of official D.C. buildings, I was still taken back -- taking them in at leisure on foot -- by the sheer scale of them. No wonder people who find their way to Washington with some kind of official title go kind of nuts! Of course, as Francis Morrone would point out later on our tour of the museums built in the '30s and '40s along the Constitution Avenue side of the Mall as well as the vast complex of government buildings that began taking shape at the same time in what became known as the Federal Triangle, across Constitution Avenue, that since buildings in Washington couldn't be built tall, in order to provide any decent amount of working space you had to build big, footprint-wise.

Still, I wasn't prepared for the megatastic size of the Supreme Court digs. I was thinking, you know, so you need nine suites, each containing a decent enough office for the boss, plus room for desks and files for the clerks. In actuality, though, it looks like you could provide office space for all the judges in the Americas and still have room for amenities like a video viewing space and maybe a nice rec room with Ping-Pong tables.

Can Justice Clarence come out and play? You can't begin to imagine from this view -- from all the way up top of the Capitol dome -- just how ginormous the Supreme Court building is.

While I was outside the Supreme Court palace, once I found the entrance (imagine my surprise to discover that the grandiloquent side I encountered first on my backwards route, facing 2nd Street N.E., is the back!), I had to fight the urge to shout out something like "Can Justice Clarence come out and play?" Yes, I know that on a Saturday morning in July you wouldn't expect to find a Supreme Court justice at the office, but I was thinking that Justice Clarence can never get too early a start preparing all those questions he'll be asking in next term's oral arguments.

Friday, July 08, 2016

So I'm D.C.-bound -- all I have to do is catch my 3am train

The great John Russell Pope's National Archives Building (1931-35), one of the landmarks mentioned in Francis Morrone's description for tomorrow's "Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s" tour for the National Civic Art Society

by Ken

As long-time DWT readers may recall, Howie is my oldest friend in terms of continuous service -- dating back to the 9th grade at the James Madison HS Annex on the top floor of a public school way the hell on the other side of Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Long-time readers will also have heard more than once from both of us about our 9th-grade English teacher, Mr. Fulmer, one of the great influences on both our lives. Mr.Fulmer was wont to say pithy things like "In a thousand years we'll all be dead, and all that will matter is our record of truth and beauty," or to point out helpfully, whenever a hapless student would say unthinkingly, "I think that . . . .," that "That's not thinking."

Now you may think, especially if you're not conversant with the math that includes our ages, that 9th-grade isn't going back all that far as friendships go. Certainly not among the kids I encountered growing up, when my family seemed to move every couple of years (if not oftener), either within cities or, a couple of times, from city to city, so that every couple of years (if not oftener) I found myself standing alone on the playground of a new school among kids who'd been going to school together their whole lives.

Still, from this vantage point of antiquity, a continuous friendship dating back to the 9th grade and Mr. Fulmer counts for something. Warning: You don't want to get him started on our 10th-grade English teacher, Miss Kliegman, who still comes up fairly regularly in our conversations. And so maybe it's not entirely beside the point that you encounter us both, all these years later, in the act of shoving words around.

Our more obvious connection, which long-time readers will also have noted, is political and worldviewish. For all our differences, I am still regularly startled by how similarly we respond to Stuff That Happens Out There in the World -- the way our attention tends to be caught by the same events and our responses tend to be so similar.

Possibly factoring into the above (or possibly not) is that Howie is the only friend I've ever had who's as geography- and map-obsessed as I am. Again, our geographical, er, styles are different. He's the one who, as he has chronicled here a number of times, set out one summer for the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga. No, he didn't get there, but for a high school kid getting across our native continent was no small deal. Not to mention that you would never in a lifetime find me doing any "setting out for" of that sort.

And again, long-time readers will have glimpsed that difference in our recorded travel adventures. Howie is the one who, with his grueling health crisis still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror, planned and executed a several-weeks' expedition to Russia with a side swing to Azerbaijan. (I wish you could have heard the hair-raising stories of just the adventures in visa-hunting he and especially his friend and frequent travel companion Roland underwent for this trip.)

Whereas my traveling is done mostly via armchair -- most happily in the happy company of Michael Palin on DVD. And, of course, the urban gadding that has become my latter-years evening and weekend preoccupation -- most always in day-trip form, and almost invariably within the geographic boundaries of NYC.

Which is a prelude to explaining why I'm not tackling one of my customary "serious" blog topics (that's right, the depredations of Next Food Network Star will have to await another occasion) today, as I prepare for a journey that will respect my "day trip" boundary but not the geographic one. 'Cause I'm busting out of the Greater NYC area -- all the way to Our Nation's Capital. And I'm doing it on a 3am train out of Penn Station. (Shudder.)

True, the impetus is local-ish. Which is to say that one of my most cherished walking-tour leaders, Francis Morrone, mentioned not long ago during a Municipal Art Society tour that he was going to be doing a tour in Washington on July 9. He didn't say any more, and I didn't ask, but after letting the thing percolate in my head awhile, I finally decided to try to track it down online, and track it down I did -- to the final event in a series, "Classical Architecture, Classical Values," offered by the National Civic Art Society:
Tour V, Saturday July 9

V. Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. Classicism in the era of Modernism.

We will explore works from the 1930s and 1940s--when the Modern Movement was in the ascendant--by such architects as Arthur Brown Jr., York and Sawyer, William Adams Delano, Milton Medary, and especially John Russell Pope (National Gallery, National Archives, Jefferson Memorial), with a big tip of the hat to the relatively unsung Otto Eggers and Daniel Higgins. Along the way we'll note other things, including, for context, later works by I.M.Pei and Partners and Pei Cobb Freed. Please note that this is an outdoor tour only. We'll leave the glorious interiors en route for another day.

The tour meets at 10 AM at the intersection of Constitution Ave. NW and 6th St. NW.
Again, it took me a bit of time to process this information, and discover that I had a conflict with a Brooklyn Brainery event I'd already registered for, "Blintzes, Malaysian Peanut Pancakes, and the Many Faces of Crepes" with Jonathan Soma (half of the great Masters of Social Gastronomy team, with Sarah Lohman; they have a slew of interesting-looking events planned for July and August), part of Soma's BB Summer of Pancakes series. However, as I'm a bit embarrassed to note, I quickly recalled that Brooklyn Brainery, in addition to offering interesting programs at eye-catchingly low prices, actually allows you to cancel events, and I did just that. (I just checked, and tomorrow's class is sold out, so maybe the Brooklyn Brainery folks aren't as naive as we might think, allowing registrants to cancel with enough advance notice. I'm delighted to see that my ruthlessly abandoned slot hasn't gone to waste! And I've still got my place on the 19th for Soma's "Going All-in on American Pancakes," which I see is also sold out. I don't plan on canceling that one.)

From there the details fell into place in rapid order. I had no trouble booking my spot for Francis's tour.(I guess the D.C. folks don't know about him. In NYC, that tour would probably have been sold out within days of being announced), for a measly 15 smackers. Of course adding in carfare hiked the total trip cost a bit: $74.80 (advance-purchase senior fare) for a train down, then a mere $23 for one of those cheap-cheap Chinatown-bassd buses back in the evening. I've taken the cheap-cheap bus before, and would have done so for the trip down if there's been a bus that would enable me to get to the tour meeting point by 10am, but there wasn't -- not even close.

And even the Amtrak scheduling was tricky. There's a 6am train that's scheduled to arrive in Union Station at 9:30am, and judging by the map, that should leave me enough time to make my tour -- that is, assuming I have such faith in Amtrak's on-time performance. Not to mention the consideration that I only theoretically know how to get from my Point A to Point B, and I would spend every second of every minute today all the way through boarding and then all the way on train obsessing over the time. So I swallowed hard and instead of booking the 6am train pulled the trigger for the 3am one, due into Union Station at 6:30am. Meaning that, once I'm on the train, nothing short of a derailment (a possibility one can't ever entirely discount) should prevent me from making the rendezvous with Francis. (Who, incidentally, has no idea that I'll be there. I've done at least one MAS tour with him since I made all these plans, and thought I would find a way to drop it into conversation, but I didn't. It should at least be interesting to note his response to seeing me amidst the tour group.

So today, in addition to planning everything around the 3am train departure, I'm occupied with finishing my research and resource planning, including printing up all sorts of Google maps, including locations of local ATMs of my bank and gym branches that my membership card should get me into. (In addition to not wanting to skip a day at the gym, I'm inclined to have some possible indoor activities in my arsenal. Not at all to my surprise, thunderstorms are predicted for tomorrow.) I thought I could piggyback some serious apartment decluttering in the form of a frantic hunt for my buried D.C. street atlas and aging Time Out guide, but wouldn't you know, I found both of them almost as soon as I started looking. Of all the luck!)

So you'll see why I don't have time today to prattle on about, say, the Supreme Court, or the wide-screen version of Gilmore Girls I'm now a mere two episodes away from finishing on UP. What's more, I"ve got another crossing-state-lines day trip planned for next month, built around an event my college alumni people have planned at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, which I've heard about much of my life but have never visited. Highlighting the festivities, one of our distinguished English professors will be offering a presentation on "The Myth and Legend of Moby Dick," so part of my adventure will be finally reading Moby-Dick. (Yes, I was supposed to have read an abridged version -- in, I think, Miss Kliegman's 10th-grade English class. But there are a lot of things I was supposed to have read that I haven't.)

[For a follow-up, see below.]

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Visiting Azerbaijan-- Some Basics

See the dancing cave drawing over my head?

Two of my favorite congressmen advised me on my trip to Azerbaijan-- and one did even more than that, which I'll explain in a moment. The other congressman urged me to visit a statue in Baku of the current president's father, the former president (dictator), Heydar Aliyev. Statues of human beings are rare in Muslim-majority countries to begin with; it's something the religion proscribes, but Azerbaijan is a very secular country and there are statues of admired people all over. This particular one of Papa Aliyev depicts him sitting with one leg crossed and the sole of his shoe partially showing. Showing the sole of a shoe is generally perceived as an insult because the feet are often seen as unclean and shoes are always removed before entering a mosque or a home. My congressional friend told me he had asked his guide at the time if the statue was somewhat offensive to the Muslim population? The guide said yes, that was the point, to show that Azerbaijan's government is secular even though over 90% of the population is Muslim. Blunt-- but dictatorial oligarchs can be that way-- and often are.

Heydar Aliyev shows the soles of his shoe

The other congressman urged me to go see Gobustan (prehistoric caves, a nearby museum and, in the same region, Azerbaijan's famous mud volcanoes), the ancient Zoroastrian Atashgah Fire Temple in Surakhani, and Yanar Dag (the burning mountainside). We went to all of them and it was a much better use of time than just hanging around Baku (or Moscow).

Gobustan is about 40 miles southwest of Baku and we hired a taxi to take us there. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, primarily because of its easily-accessible caves with their rock art engravings showing life in prehistoric times, some dating back 40,000 years.

Azerbaijan has hundreds of mud volcanoes and I have a feeling the few dozen we saw might not have been the most impressive ones. They were hard to get to-- no paved roads-- and not really erupting, more like bubbling and burping out mud. Every twenty years or so one of them really explodes shooting fire and mud hundreds of feet into the air. So far, this wasn't one of those years. But we did get to climb around the hillocks and Roland dipped his hands into the bubbling mud.

The Atashgah Fire Temple is very close to Baku, a site dated as far back as 730 AD but destroyed and rebuilt several times since. What we saw was a pentagonal complex from the 17th century, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for pilgrims and monks and a fire alter structure in the middle. It's the principal Zoroastrian site of pre-Islamic Azerbaijan and the guide I hired made sure to tell me that famous Zoroastrians included Indira Gandhi, Freddie Mercury, Zubin Mehta and Meher Baba.

Yanar Dag was kind of a dud. It's a not especially impressive natural gas fire that burns eternally on the side of a hill and I was mixing it up in my mind with a similar but bigger phenomenum in Derweze, Turkmenistan, on the other side of the Caspian Sea, east of Azerbaijan, called the Gates of Hell.

Not many American tourists go to Azerbaijan. We nearly didn't ourselves. But our trip to Russia looked like we had planned on too many days in Moscow-- even with a trip to the Golden Ring towns of Vladimir and Suzdal-- so we decided on a side trip to Baku. It's not very far by plane and Azerbaijan has a good airline with new, well-maintained planes and it's relatively inexpensive-- both the plane flights and everything in the city itself. But it isn't easy to get to because of the visa situation. You have to have a visa and Azerbaijan inadvertantly-- I think inadvertently-- makes it difficult by channeling would-be tourists to Travisa, a private company/middleman that "helps" travelers get visas. Except they don't. They just charge a inordinate amount of money and get in the way, making it more difficult to get the visas. I had a nightmare experience with them once before-- when I was forced to use them for an Indian visa-- and I would never voluntarily use them.

When you want a Russian visa, you have no choice any longer except to go through one of these "helpful" contractors, Invisa Logistics Service (ILS), although scammers like Travisa are happy to charge you for sending your application on to ILS. When you apply for an Azerbaijani visa, there is a strong implication that there is a similar mandate and that you must go through Travisa, an implication that Travisa doesn't discourage. When I tried getting my Azerbaijani visa through Travisa, nothing worked and lots of time was wasted. They also kept trying to get me to give them money with the warning that if I couldn't get the visa for any reason-- which looked likely judging by their jaw-dropping incompetence-- they still kept the money. Excuses ranged from their online application doesn't work with Apple computers to I can't use their in-office computer-- after they asked me to drive to their office to do just that-- because they couldn't give me the pass code for their WiFi network because of "security." I decided to give up and go to Georgia or Armenia instead when someone who overheard my conversation with the unhelpful staffer who was guaranteeing I couldn't go to Azerbaijan, told me to just go to the Azerbaijan consulate in L.A. and that it would be faster and cheaper. And it was. And easy as pie. That's your free tip of the day. Get your visa directly from the Azerbaijan consulate and skip the Travisa horror show.

Roland, meanwhile, had his passport tied up in the regular Travisa hell-- weeks and weeks of complete nonsense and wasted time. Like, two weeks wasted on "you have to change the name of your hotel from the Leningrad Hotel to the St. Petersburg Hotel." But the name of the hotel is the Leningrad Hotel. It doesn't matter. You can't get a visa if you write you're going to a hotel named for Lenin. His application and passport went back and forth across the country three times before we realized there was no way he could get the Russian visa done in time to also get the Azerbaijani visa. That's where it's helpful to have a good congressman. For a civilian it's impossible-- in takes a minimum of 10days-- but for a congressman asking for a constituent... it takes a few hours. Roland got his visa just hours before he departed and off we went... to a country with the good sense to not patronize a glitzy, gaudy new Trump Tower that was forced to close down in less than a week due to lack of business.

There's a mosque between my hotel and the funicular

Friday, July 01, 2016

Where Not To Eat In Moscow

I never ate at New York's Taras Bulba on West Broadway in SoHo. Last year Vogue called it a "great Ukrainian restaurant" and it well may be but the one I ate in in Moscow 2 weeks ago was the worst restaurant I tried during my whole time in Russia. The chain was started in 1999 in Moscow and there are 16 restaurants there, one in Kiev and one in New York. One is down the street from the Baltschug Kempinski, where I stayed, and the concierge recommended it as a good place for hearty Russian food nearby. A stone's throw from the Kremlin, how bad could it be, I figured. Maybe I should gotten the clue when we walked in and found it empty save one table of drunk German tourists, but I didn't.

The food wasn't just supremely mediocre, the bill was triple what it should have been. When I asked why there where three times more items on the bill-- in Russian of course-- than what we ordered, they explained that when you order, say, fish and potatoes and a vegetable the way it's listed on the menu, they charge you for each component, although there's certainly no indication of that on the menu. As Roland said, "thank God they didn't charge us for the dill and the salt." So not only was it a bad dinner in a creepy atmosphere with bad service, it was extremely expensive, even though you'd never think that by looking at the menu.

This was the day I stressed out my peripheral neuropathy by walking too much

People who want to know where to eat a good meal in Moscow have to be told the truth: St. Petersburg, just a few hours by bullet train. We tried Café Pushkin and the food was good and the service perfect, but there was literally some guy walking around dressed as Pushkin trying to interact with the diners. We were also steered towards Dr. Zhivago at the Hotel National and that was also supremely mediocre in all ways. I heard that Varvary, a molecular gastronomy place, is really good but we never made it there and the whole idea of eating stopped appealing to me after a few days in Moscow.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, must have a tradition of good food and good service because there were plenty of good restaurants all over town. Palkin on Nevsky Prospect was perfect-- great Russian food, awesome service, fantastic ambience and good value. There's a great seafood restaurant called Russkaya Rybalka where, if you choose, you can catch your own dinner. I didn't but the dinner was really great, as well as inexpensive. There was a pretty good vegetarian-oriented place near St. Isaac's Cathedral called The Idiot and that neighborhood also boasts Dom, which isn't quite as good as Palkin but close enough, and a decent Italian restaurant, Percorso, in the Four Seasons hotel. But, to tell you the truth, the restaurants in St Petersburg are just plain as good as the ones in Moscow aren't.

Back to Korchma Taras Bulba for a moment. It purports to serve "authentic Ukrainian cuisine, prepared with the exact recipe that was handed down for centuries from generation to generation, and now from our grandparents to our grandchildren [with] a unique interior design that will make you feel like you were brought back a hundred years to a cozy Ukrainian home." Well, it was named for a fictional character invented by Gogol as a national Ukrainian hero in an 1835 historical novella that was judged by the tsarist censors as being too Ukrainian and anti-Russian enough to be revised in 1842. I saw it-- the revised story-- as a film starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis when I was a kid. Bulba is painted as a kind of Ukrainian George Washington freeing his country from the yoke of the Turks and then the Poles, while engaging in the Ukrainian national trait of persecuting the Jews.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

I'm Back From Russia-- With A Couple of Observations

I spent most of June in Russia and Azerbaijan, mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was my first trip to either country. St. Petersburg, was a city founded in 1703 to be Russia's window to the West, and Moscow, founded in around 1150, is less European. Over 12 million people live in Moscow; only 4.8 million live in St Pete. (By contrast, NYC has 8.5 million people and L.A. has around 4 million.) People don't smile much in Moscow and they all seem to have poker faces. St. Petersburg seems more like a European city in every way. But even in St. Pete there's an underlying anti-Western attitude. I met a 20 year old soccer player and spent some time with him. Although he aspires to live in Miami and speaks English well, he seemed offended when he asked me if I like Petersburg better than L.A. and I said no, I like L.A. better. And when I asked him if he likes American music, he immediately dismissed the very idea as absurd-- and then told me he likes rap music.

Simon Shuster offered some hints at Time Magazine about where that antipathy towards America (and the West) comes from. Russia has been encouraging, perhaps subtly, extreme violence, heavily trained and weaponized violence, around football matches in Europe. Putin denies any involvement but a member Parliament, Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian soccer foundation "urged the hooligans on Twitter to "keep it up."
The phrase they chanted during the violence-- Russkie Vperyod! (Forward, Russians!)-- happens to be emblematic of the brand of throwback patriotism that emerged from Putin's most recent run for re-election, in 2012.

Khrushchev's grave
Ahead of that vote, the Kremlin decided that the only way to galvanize a weary electorate was to play on the old fears and prejudices of the Cold War. It worked: Putin's popularity rose along with animosity toward the West. Ever since, a series of crises in Russia's relations with the West have helped the state's powerful propaganda channels [including high school curricula, I discovered] nurture a national siege mentality, portraying Russia as the victim of a bullying and treacherous West whose primary aim is to bring the country to its knees.
I'd be remiss if I didn't pass along a warning. I traveled with 2 friends, Roland and David. All 3 off us had all of our electronics hacked. David got home and found someone had withdrawn a considerable amount of money from his bank account. My e-mail list was bombarded with nonsense from the hackers and I had to change my passwords. Roland has to buy a new phone because his was so badly screwed up. So... yes Russia is wonderful to visit but, think about unplugging while you're there.

St. Petersburg is a gorgeous city, with one incredible public building after another, architecturally far more spectacular than anything in America. You can compare it to Paris, not to any American city. But just below the surface this was a different kind of dynamic-- low wages. Helsinki, capital of Finland, is very close to St Petersburg, just 242 miles-- 3.5 hours by train, 50 minutes by air. But the two cities are very different. In Finland, wages and labor standards are very high. Stuff is expensive but the standard of living is very high. Both cities have airports very close to town. It costs $15 to take a taxi to the airport in St. Pete. It's $55 in Helsinki.

Income inequality is very big in Russia and much less so in Finland. We use something called a Gini coefficient to measure income inequality. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality (where everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds with perfect inequality (where one person has all the income-- and everyone else has zero income). These are the wealth Gini coefficients comparing not just Finland and Russia, but several countries to offer some context:
Finland- 0.615
Canada- 0.688
U.K.- 0.697
Russia- 0.699
U.S.- 0.801
Zimbabwe- 0.845
So... the U.S. isn't the worst.

I went to visit the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. My grandfather left Russia in 1905 after a series of pograms had killed thousands of Jews across Russia including small villages like the one his family lived in. When he got to St Petersburg to board a ship for America, the Grand Choral Synagogue was 12 years old and the second largest synagogue in Europe. My grandfather wasn't any more religious than I am but he had never been in a grand building of any kind before. He prayed at the synagogue before leaving for America.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Guest Post From Sally Fensome: Drugs Tourism-- Is It Worth It?

Amsterdam-- not as unique as it once was in one way

Vacations are times of hedonism, when we aim to expand our minds and to enjoy ourselves. If we’re heading to somewhere where drugs are more readily available and/or legal than here, then we may decide to push our boundaries a bit by experimenting with some of the local substances. Some people even travel expressly for this purpose. But is it a good idea? Is drugs tourism just harmless fun, or can it take a nasty, dark turn? As with everything, it all depends on what you do, what you do it for, and how deep you go.

Different Rules

If you want to experiment with substances, the USA is not the best place to do so. Our notorious ‘war on drugs’ means that you could face hefty sentences for even minor misdemeanors. The legalization of cannabis in certain states does, in all fairness, mean that you can take a road trip or an internal flight to get stoned without having to get a visa, but in general we’re still pretty strict. Far easier to head somewhere where certain drugs laws are not as tight, or where substance use is less policed. In many European nations, the use of recreational marijuana is either completely legal or barely policed, and attitudes towards it are far different to those we might find here. The same applies to many other ‘soft’ drugs in many parts of the world. If you spend a lot of time in these places, and make friends with the locals, you will almost inevitably find yourself adopting their way of thinking about what back home would be considered deviant drugs. It can be surprising when you head home and speak of your experiences to find your American friends bringing all of their homegrown prejudices to bear upon your drug use while abroad. However, in some cases, they may be justified. While there’s probably little risk from the free and easy use of things like marijuana, experimenting too deeply with harder drugs could leave you with some serious problems. Just because it’s legal (or easy to get away with) doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

Benefits Of Drug Tourism

We know what we’re meant to say-- ‘DRUGS ARE BAD, KIDS!’ And they are. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t some silver linings to the (blue) cloud. Heading out on a vacation and doing some relatively harmless drugs can be a great way for kids to learn that drugs aren’t really that great. It’s a good way to get experimental urges out of one’s system without landing oneself with a criminal record. It’s also a great way to make those crucial mistakes you need to make in order to learn. When you’re on a vacation, you’re typically in a reasonably safe social environment, surrounded by friends and family who’ll look after you. What’s more, if you’re somewhere where the drugs you want to try are legal, you’re likely to be sold them in a controlled location which will have absolutely no desire to see you in danger (or they could lose their licence). So it’s a safe way in which to learn by experience the joys and the downfalls of recreational drug use. However, this assumes that you’re sensible about it, don’t purchase from dodgy vendors, and don’t go near the really hard stuff. There are other reasons why people may benefit from drugs tourism. People with medical conditions may travel to experience the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana, and those with mental health problems are increasingly travelling to South America for the purportedly curative (but controversial) powers of ayahuasca.

Dangers Of Drug Tourism

Let’s start with the obvious: travelling abroad to do drugs could get you killed. Anything which messes with your mind and body as much as some of the substances out there is really, really dangerous. Particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing, and don’t understand enough of the local language to listen to instructions. If you’re not killed, you could end up with a nasty habit. So stay away from anything which is known to have addictive or life-threatening qualities! No matter how ‘normal’ it seems to use these substances in the area you’re travelling to! Oh, and speaking of ‘life threatening’, it’s worth noting that you can be executed in many nations for drugs offences. Moving down the scale, drugs tourism could see you arrested, and subjected to some pretty nasty penal regimes. While illegal drugs may be relatively easy to come by in certain parts of the world, their usage is deeply frowned upon. Some governments try to discourage drugs tourism by imposing harsh penalties upon foreigners caught using or smuggling drugs on their shores. We already mentioned execution. If you’re found ‘trafficking’ (which can mean anything from ‘smuggling through the airport’ to ‘holding in your hand’) drugs in Malaysia, the authorities will have no hesitation in sentencing you to death. And, yes, they really can do that to a foreign citizen. It’s not just Malaysia that you need to watch out for, either. Plenty of nations will drop on you like a ton of bricks for drugs tourism. If you’re lucky, you might just end up in prison for 30 odd years.

Think Of The Locals

If you’re considering a spot of drugs tourism, it pays to be considerate of the locals. Places like Amsterdam have been forced to consider putting restrictions on foreigners consuming marijuana there, as drugs tourists often a) can’t really handle it properly, and b) don’t have any respect for the locals. Drugs tourists all too often make the mistake of treating the nation they’re in as their own personal playground, and forgetting that real humans live, work, and belong to this place. The idea that any location is a ‘party town’ for you to go wild in risks you putting some local backs up in a serious manner. Not to mention the fact that drugs tourism can be exploitative and damaging to fragile local cultures. So, if you’re going to go off an experiment with substances in a foreign land, be as respectful as you can possibly manage!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Trump Name Is Too Toxic For Azerbaijan, One Of The World's Most Corrupt Countries

I just got back from my first visit to Azerbaijan. I never expected to find such a wonderful place but it reminded me of a wealthier and more modern/Western Turkey. It's a little smaller than Maine and a little bigger than South Carolina with just over ten million inhabitants, more than New Jersey or Michigan and just about the same number as North Carolina. The rap on the country is that it's very wealthy but that all the wealth is concentrated in a few families' hands, cronies of the forever president, Ilham Aliyev, who first came to power in 2003 when his pop, Heydar Aliyev died. The elder Aliyev had been a former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, a member of the Soviet Politburo and of the KGB before deposing Azerbaijan's first Democratically-elected president Abulfaz Elchibey.

Before that unpleasantness, Azerbaijan was the world's first Muslim-majority secular state and parliamentary democracy before being overrun by the Soviets in 1920, Lenin saying he was sorry but the Soviets needed the oil. Azerbaijan lived under the Soviet yoke until it declared independence in 1991. Now it's a rich little country and Baku, the modern, bustling capital, looks-- architecturally-- like a cross between Paris and Dubai. And into this mix waddled Donald Trump a couple years ago.

One of the mainstays of the kleptocratic regime, Transportation Minister, Ziya Mammadov, who went from a lowly railway worker to a billionaire/Mafioso owns a lot of Azerbaijan. His son, Anar, is a shady character and a perfect fit for The Donald. It was only a matter of time before they found each other, which they did when Anar decided to rent Trump's name for his glitzy new hotel. He paid Trump between $2.5 and $2.8 million for the right to slap "Trump Tower" on his building and to get some consultations from Ivanka. In November, 2014, the Trump Organization announced that Trump Tower Baku was part of it's hotel empire and The Donald himself boasted that "Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku represents the unwavering standard of excellence of The Trump Organization and our involvement in only the best global development projects. When we open in 2015, visitors and residents will experience a luxurious property unlike anything else in Baku-- it will be among the finest in the world." Ivanka added that "This incredible building reflects the highest level of luxury and refinement, with extraordinary architecture inspired by the Caspian Sea and sophisticated interiors that seamlessly blend contemporary style with timeless appeal. We are looking forward to bringing our unparalleled Trump services and amenities to Azerbaijan.”

It sort of opened. Trump's partner, Anar, has been described by U.S. diplomats as "notoriously corrupt" and as working to launder money for the Iranian military. They hired a full staff and started renting rooms but never had a promised grand opening.
Trump often talks of hiring the best people and surrounding himself with people he can trust. In practice, however, he and his executives have at times appeared to overlook details about the background of people he has chosen as business partners, such as whether they had dubious associations, had been convicted of crimes, faced extradition or inflated their resumes.

...In the Azerbaijani case, Garten said the Trump Organization had performed meticulous due diligence on the company's partners, but hadn't researched the allegations against the Baku partner's father because he wasn't a party to the deal.

"I've never heard that before," Garten said, when first asked about allegations of Iranian money laundering by the partner's father, which appeared in U.S. diplomatic cables widely available since they were leaked in 2010.

Garten subsequently said he was confident the minister alleged to be laundering Iranian funds, Ziya Mammadov, had no involvement in his son's holding company, even though some of the son's major businesses regularly partnered with the transportation ministry and were founded while the son was in college overseas. Ziya Mammadov did not respond to a telephone message the AP left with his ministry in Baku or to emails to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington.

Garten told the AP that Trump's company uses a third-party investigative firm, which he did not identify, that specializes in background intelligence gathering and searches global watch lists, warrant lists and sanctions lists maintained by the United Nations, Interpol and others.

...Any American contemplating a business venture in Azerbaijan faces a risk: "endemic public corruption," as the State Department puts it. Much of that money flows from the oil and gas industries, but the State Department also considers the country to be a waypoint for terrorist financiers, Iranian sanctions-busters and Afghan drug lords.

The environment is a risky one for any business venture seeking to avoid violating U.S. penalties imposed against Iran or anti-bribery laws under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

...Garten said the Trump Organization had performed background screening on all those involved in the deal and was confident Mammadov's father played no role in the project.

Experts on Azerbaijan were mystified that Trump or anyone else could reach that conclusion.

Anar Mammadov is widely viewed by diplomats and nongovernmental organizations as a transparent stand-in for the business interests of his father. Anar's business has boomed with regular help from his father's ministry, receiving exclusive government contracts, a near monopoly on Baku's taxi business and even a free fleet of autobuses.

"These are not business people acting on their own — you're dealing with daddy," said Richard Kauzlarich, a U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s who went on to work under the Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration.

"Whatever the Trump people thought they were doing, that wasn't reality," Kauzlarich said.

Anar Mammadov, who is believed to be 35, has said in a series of interviews that he founded Garant Holdings' predecessor-- which has arms in transportation, construction, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing-- in 2000, when he would have been 19. Anar received his bachelor's degree in 2003 and a master's in business administration in 2005-- both from a university in London.

Mammadov's statement that he founded the business in 2000 appeared in a magazine produced by a research firm in partnership with the Azerbaijani government. In other forums, he has said he started the business in 2005, though several of its key subsidiaries predate that period.
Now all the employees have been laid off and everyone around Baku says they want to wait a little while for people to forget the Trump taint before they re-brand the building and re-open it as something else-- anything else. even a Motel 6 would be a better bet than something related to Trump at this moment.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Are The U.S. Frequent Flyer Programs Operating Systemic Frauds? Just The Big Ones

The member of Congress who figures out a way to actually prevent telemarketers from bothering people-- if the Do Not Call list ever functioned, that's now a distant memory-- should get a bonus... or a Senate seat or a job as Vice President or something. I guess it's not as important as figuring out how to un-rig the system to lessen income inequality and institute Medicare For All but, let's face it, conservatives will never allow any of that so let's find something everyone can agree on-- like the death penalty for telemarketers. Or more accountable frequent flyer programs. Actually one member of Congress, did take some time to try to sort out the frequent flyer morass.

Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the most well-traveled Member of Congress. He serves on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He's racked up something like ten million frequent flyer miles. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's paid attention to some of the shenanigans perpetrated by the airlines who systematically mislead consumers-- in 2011 when he started working on it, Delta was the worst-- and misrepresent their offerings to the public. That year Grayson introduced legislation to regulate the programs and keep the airlines from cheating the flying public. A crafty spokesperson for the airline industry trade organization claims that "Carriers are completely transparent regarding loyalty programs both on their websites and in direct communication with their customers." Do you know any travelers who would agree?
In the 33 years since American Airlines (AAL) launched the mileage craze with its AAdvantage program, frequent-flyer miles have become a critical revenue source for U.S. carriers. The airlines sell billions of dollars worth of miles each year to banks, retailers, and other marketers that use them to entice customers. Today, more miles are earned from credit cards and other loyalty programs than from actual flying. Millions of people who rarely fly are keenly attuned to boosting their mileage balances.

The top frustration of frequent-flyer program members is needing more miles than they expected for an award, followed by sudden rule changes, according to a survey of 1,600 miles collectors earlier this year by, a credit card comparison site.

...Grayson maintains that airline competition kept the programs relatively unchanged for mileage collectors throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with most award travel seats offered at starting rates of 25,000 miles. In recent years, especially as airlines have gone bankrupt and restructured, the carriers’ push for profitability has made the programs far less generous to consumers than they once were.

Irate members of Delta Air Lines’ (DAL) SkyMiles program began calling those miles “SkyPesos” several years ago, owing to difficult redemptions and their perceived lack of value. Delta has announced several changes for 2015, including offering more seats at lower mileage levels, to try to make SkyMiles more competitive with the programs at United Airlines (UAL) and American.

Next year, Delta and United will begin considering annual spending in their rewards calculation, not just the distances that travelers cover, so customers who spend more money will get more miles. Awards for most international business- and first-class seats on partners of the Big Three U.S. carriers have also soared within the past year. Those changes and others in recent years have caused many miles collectors to rethink the value of trying to amass miles for free airline travel.

Regardless of how much consumer irritation airline miles generate, the Transportation Department probably lacks a “leverage point” to delve too deeply into new regulations for the programs, says Tim Winship, editor of But he says the department will be able to push airlines to offer more advance notice of program changes that are negative for consumers.

Grayson says many of the recent program changes have been made with little or no warning, which often requires travelers to spend more miles for an award trip. American made such a change on June 1. “Announcing a program change today that takes effect today sticks in the craw of most consumers, and rightfully so,” Winship says. Eric Fraser, a miles collector and Phoenix attorney who specializes in federal regulatory issues, says the department is likely to be most interested in whether airlines properly notify program members of pending changes. “This is an area where the DOT sniffing around could just have an immediate benefit, even if they don’t start to write rules,” Fraser says.

Ideally, Grayson says, the airlines should be forced to give at least one year’s notice of major program changes and to offer at least one seat on every flight available at the lowest mileage level. “If you’re going to have a program like this at all, it’s got to be an honest program,” he says. “Every human being comes with a built-in cheat detector. They know when they’re being cheated; they know when they’re being deceived.”
This month the Wall Street Journal's annual best and worst frequent-flyer rewards programs for 2016 was released. They assert that "there's good news for frequent fliers: Airlines are slowly, cautiously increasing availability of hard-to-find frequent-flier award tickets."

Really? I wanted to fly to Paris. A few months ago I called the American Airlines Gold Desk and said I will fly any day, any time from any Southern California airport to any airport remotely near Paris. "Sorry, nothing is available," the operator replied. I stopped flying on American and switched my main credit card from Visa to American Express so I could accrue miles on a different airline. But even the business-friendly Journal admits there's bad news in the skies-- especially for Americans. "Much of the improvement is happening abroad and the largest frequent-flier program, from American Airlines, appears to have gotten stingier with loyalty benefits, according to an annual survey of award availability. The price of awards is going up, too.
[C]ustomers often find it difficult to use their miles at peak season and get frustrated when airlines force them into more expensive redemption levels. Delta Air Lines doesn’t even publish an award chart anymore-- prices fluctuate for awards much as ticket prices do. And even though the survey gauges availability on each airline’s busiest routes, where award seats should be easiest to find, nearly one of four queries showed no saver-level seats available.

Southwest Airlines and Air Berlin had seats available on every request. It was the fifth year Southwest has topped the survey at 100% availability. Value airlines like Southwest and JetBlue , which had seats available on 93% of booking queries, do well in the survey because they let customers earn points based on fare rather than distance. Then they let customers pay for any seat with either cash or points. The payback works out well for customers. Last year, 12% of Southwest’s passenger traffic was award travel.

American was among the stingiest of the 25 airlines surveyed, with saver-level seats available on only 56% of booking queries made. That was down from 67% in the 2015 survey, and put American ahead of only South America’s Avianca and LAN in terms of availability.

With skimpy redemption availability and award prices rising, American’s AAdvantage program is falling behind rivals in terms of value to customers, Mr. Sorensen says. “Their loyalty program needs attention,” he says.

American says AAdvantage program is keeping pace with competitors and last year the number of MileSAAver awards redeemed increased. “We made no changes to our approach to MileSAAver awards,” says Bridget Blaise-Shamai, American’s managing director of customer loyalty.

[Denial is a bad thing in the corporate world and I need to make sure I don't own any American Airline stock in my portfolio.]

At American, as at many airlines, award availability is largely controlled by the pricing department and what kind of demand for seats the airline estimates, so high demand can reduce the number of free seats available, she says.

United and Delta ended up with similar award availability in the lower half of the pack, even after a big jump this year at Delta.

Delta says it is trying to improve availability after several years near the bottom of the survey. Over the past year it had more than 10 sales on award tickets, discounting the number of miles needed, and marketed them aggressively to members via email and the airline’s website, says Karen Zachary, SkyMiles managing director. The airline has also opened up availability of saver-level seats earlier. Previously Delta held back more seats at lower redemption levels to see how fast seats were selling.

“We’re really committed to investing in the program and making it more rewarding,” she says.

Delta recently started letting members buy drinks with miles in airport clubs. A bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne costs 25,000. Beers and spirits range from 600 to 800 miles.

The number of miles redeemed at Delta in 2015 was up 5.4%, according to the company’s 10-K annual report, and the number of awards rose 6.4%. This indicates customers were taking advantage of some of the lower-priced awards Delta made available. Ms. Zachary says the pace is quickening: In the first quarter this year, Delta issued a record number of award tickets at 2.2 million, and the average redemption price was down 10%.

The survey made 7,000 booking queries in March asking for two seats for 280 trips at each airline on dates spread from June through October. The 10 busiest long routes and the 10 busiest medium-length routes for each airline were chosen, based on total seats offered for sale over a 12-month period.

As any traveler looking for tickets to Paris in July knows, availability is seasonal. Overall reward availability hit nearly 85% for trips in October, but only 63% in July. There has been some improvement since 2010, when the survey began. That year July availability was only 53%.

Mr. Sorensen says the survey found improved availability for long trips of 2,500 miles or more, often the prizes travelers most want for their miles. This year’s survey found saver-level seats on 61% of queries for long trips, up significantly from 54.5% last year and a much skimpier 43.9% in 2010. He notes that the prices of those saver awards have also increased over the past seven years, especially in the last couple of years at U.S. airlines.

At American, the number of miles issued in 2015 rose nearly 10%, according to the company’s 10-K filing. American had 853.6 billion award miles outstanding at Dec. 31, up 5.5% from a year earlier. The number of award redemptions rose, but accounted for only 6.5% of total passenger miles. By comparison, award travel, which includes upgrades, totaled 7.2% of passenger miles at Delta in 2015, 7.5% of passenger miles at United and 12% at Southwest, according to their annual 10-K filings. (A passenger mile is one customer flown one mile—the basic measure of traffic in the airline industry.)

The survey also looked at reward payback-- how much value you get for flying trips on an airline, exclusive of credit-card rewards and other ways to earn miles. For example, a $249 base fare trip on United would earn 1,247 miles in United’s MileagePlus program, which now gives nonelite program members 5 miles for every dollar spent. That means it would take 20 trips to earn a 25,000 saver-level award, so the payback for the traveler is 5%.

Elite status results in greater payback, since you earn more miles. Using miles for more expensive tickets, such as upgrades to first-class and international business-class tickets, can increase the payback. But at the basic level, Mr. Sorensen found JetBlue’s program had the richest payback at 7.9%, while American had the lowest at 3.1%. (This was based on the change American will make later this year to revenue-based mileage accrual instead of distance flown, following Delta and United.)