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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Flying In Misery... More Seats Per Cabin Means Less Room Per Passenger

I used to look forward to airplane flights. Now I dread them and avoid airplane travel when I can. The airline companies have skimped on everything and managed to make it an ordeal rather than a pleasure. Every single aspect of airplane travel is a relative bummer-- from booking flights (not to mention trying to use their scammy frequent flier miles) to the airport experience to the security bullies to the plane configurations to the hostile service from overworked, underpaid employees. On Thanksgiving Day, with thousands of travelers stranded at airports around the country, the Washington Post published a story by Lori Aratani about uncomfortable seats and how Congress has mandated the companies to do something about it. "At a special center in Oklahoma City," she wrote, "researchers from the Federal Aviation Administration are running a series of drills that could affect the comfort and safety of millions of airplane passengers. More than 700 residents have been recruited to help determine whether the space between airplane seats or the size of the seats affects their ability to evacuate an aircraft. The drills mark the first time the FAA is examining whether the trend toward smaller seats and less personal space on today’s planes poses safety risks to those aboard in the event of an emergency."
But consumer advocates and lawmakers are worried that the results of the tests are flawed, because the people the agency recruited don’t reflect the demographics of today’s flying public.

The FAA said the pool of volunteers includes adults between 18 and 60. Lawmakers and consumer advocates note there are no children or travelers with disabilities. The pool also does not include animals, which are a growing presence in today’s cabins, said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN).

“You’ve got to have a representative sample,” Cohen said. “This is supposed to be a scientific study, but it’s flawed from the get-go.”

An FAA spokesman declined to address concerns about the demographics of the test pool.

The issue is of keen interest for Cohen, a frequent traveler. He, along with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), co-wrote the provision in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill that required the agency conduct these exercises as part of the push to set minimum standards for seat size and pitch.

There are no federal rules regarding seat size. Manufacturers, however, must demonstrate that there is enough space to allow passengers to evacuate the aircraft in 90 seconds or less.

“The testing is a research project, following standard scientific methods and principles, which requires that we minimize the number of variables to allow proper interpretation of the results,” FAA spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt said. “Inclusion of variables other than the ones critical to the topic of investigation could obscure the effect of study parameters.”

As part of the study, 60 volunteers will be seated in mock airplane cabins that simulate the layout of a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, two common single-aisle aircraft. They’ll be instructed by flight attendants to evacuate. The seats will then be reconfigured and the tests will be run again. Each group of 60 will do the test four times. The study is being conducted by the FAA’s Cabin Safety Research Team over 12 days this month. The goal is to release the results of the study by next summer, Breitenfeldt said.

John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, said the FAA can’t ignore the fact that space on airplanes is shrinking at the same time the average American is getting bigger. The shift doesn’t just affect comfort, he argues-- it also could affect safety.

Seat width on many of the major airlines has shrunk from about 18.5 inches to 17 inches. And seat pitch-- the distance from one point in a seat to the same point in a seat in front or behind it-- has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31 inches. On some airlines, the distance is now 28 inches.

At the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American man is about 30 pounds heavier-- 198 pounds-- than he was in the 1960s. The average American woman, who now weighs 170, is nearly 30 pounds heavier than she was in the 1960s. Nearly 93 million Americans, roughly 40 percent of the population, are obese, and that number is projected to reach 50 percent by 2030.

Breyault said limiting the test groups to just 60 people also doesn’t reflect the reality of air travel today. Statistics show that planes are carrying more passengers than a decade ago. Add to that other variables: Because of baggage fees, people are bringing more bags on board. More animals-- whether service dogs or comfort animals-- are also flying.

“The bottom line from our point of view is that the FAA seems determined to find any way around meaningful rulemakings that would improve evacuation safety,” Breyault said.

The National Consumers League was one of 10 consumer groups that wrote to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, raising concerns about the drills.

The FAA has long resisted calls to set minimum standards for seat size and pitch.

In 2016, the Flyers Rights Education Fund petitioned a federal appeals court to impose a moratorium that would stop airlines from reducing the size of seats. Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the request, but instructed the FAA to explain why smaller seats were not a safety hazard. The FAA responded saying it is up to the airlines to determine the appropriate seat size, noting the issue is one of comfort, not safety.

Lawmakers, however, refused to take no for an answer, which is why FAA researchers are conducting tests in Oklahoma City.

At the request of Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general launched an audit into the FAA’s evacuation procedures, which will include an examination of whether changes in seating configuration might impact passengers’ ability to evacuate a plane in an emergency. The inspector general’s report is expected next year.

Last year AirFareWatchDog published a piece, US Airlines With the Most Legroom in Economy... and the Least Your worst imaginings are true: "To increase profits, airlines are reconfiguring their cabins to cram in as many seats as possible, and that comes at the cost of your comfort (and knees). That space needs to come from somewhere, and the most common way to find it is by reducing the seat pitch throughout the airplane. For those who aren't familiar with the term, 'seat pitch' is the distance from the back of your plane seat to the seat in front of you. While reducing seat pitch has been going on for years, the recent trend of airlines moving towards Basic Economy and the low-cost carrier model has undoubtedly put a squeeze on customers."

Let's start with the 3 best:
JetBlue- 33-32 inches
Southwest- 32-31 inches
Alaska- 32-31 inches
And the 3 worst:
Sun Country- 29-30 inches
Frontier- 28-31 inches
Spirit- 28 inches
And the big three carriers:
American- 31 inches (average)
United- 30-31 inches
Delta- 30-32 inches
Oh-- and seats are about 3 inches narrower on the major airlines. I wonder which airlines of these re-regulated airlines skimp on safety and routine servicing.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Waiting to Exhale

-by Skip Kaltenheuser

I find myself in the center of a massive pit, surrounded by thousands of rigid warriors tall enough to look down on me. Posture perfect despite their years-- twenty-two centuries-- they stand in defiant battle formation. Overwhelmed, I back up to photograph a wiseacre standing behind a warrior who is missing his head. I accidentally bump against the warrior behind me. Down he goes. Then down go a hundred, like dominos. Thousands of warriors turn to face me, their expressions uniform in anger. Calvary horses paw the earth and tug at chariots. Crossbows lock and load. I leap from the pit and only quit running when I’m in Kazakhstan, refrains from Traffic’s Forty Thousand Headmen playing in my head.

They may have feet of clay, but these mystery men still intimidate my dreams. Fierce terracotta warriors have transformed an impoverished Chinese countryside-- some people still dwell in caves-- into a tourist Mecca. Beijing may have the Olympics spotlight, but it is the ancient capital, Xi’an, in central China, one of the great ancient cities, where Chinese history really built its foundations. Peasant farmers digging a well discovered the first terracotta warriors in 1974. The more archaeologists dug, the more stunned they were. Here the world awakened anew to the former splendor and mystery of China. Now encased by a world class museum, the warriors are part of a vanguard supporting the prediction that by 2020, China will be the world’s number one tourist destination.

Hard to believe the museum, still a work in progress, began in 1976, the last year of Mao’s life. Some communist somewhere was thinking tourism. Perhaps Mao-- China’s last emperor, loosely defined, and ruthless-- felt some kinship to Qin. So how did eight thousand warriors with armor and weapons, with cavalry and horses, congregate here, six thousand in the largest pit, now shielded by a protective hanger structure large enough to house an aircraft factory?

One of the most ruthless of emperors, Qin, had his successes, including launching the endless project of the Great Wall. Qin created the first feudal and centralized empire in China, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), by subjugating the various states. But it was a bloody business and many tried to assassinate Qin. He must have anticipated the need for an army to protect him in the afterlife from angry spirits lining up from the scholars he murdered, opposing armies he slaughtered, and his forced labor pool, many of the latter buried alive to maintain tomb secrets. Never mind the 3,000 barren wives and concubines – some revered, some tortured for pleasure – many entombed to keep Qin company. One could assume that he had earned his nightmares. And Qin began earning them young. Becoming king while still twelve, he started building his own tomb in a mausoleum complex spreading over two square kilometers, constructed by 720,000 workers and craftsmen who eventually labored nearly four decades at what was for most of them, the ultimate thankless task.

Embarking on such an endeavor instead of honoring Confucian customs of respecting his late father with a grand memorial brought him the disapproval of 460 Confucian scholars. And because Qin was not keen on critics, he executed them, burning many of them alive. About this time, critics began to see the brilliance in the young emperor’s plan. Qin’s as yet unopened tomb is said to have pearls in the ceiling for stars, and small rivers and lakes filled with mercury.

One distant dig, labeled pit “number five”, surrounded by an orchard, is filled with fragments of armor, like an upended Scrabble game. It is the tip of a huge pit, mostly unexcavated, and thought to contain only armor suits, perhaps tens of thousands of them. As thousands of chariot warriors, infantrymen, cavalrymen and horses were created-- as well as dancers, musicians and acrobats-- Qin’s theory was rather simple: the armor honors those fallen in battle and not properly buried, so the spirits of the dead and dismembered would be less likely to track him down for vengeance.

Today, the museum is visited by over two million people every year, nearly a quarter of them foreigners. Commerce related to the warriors already generates nearly a fifth of the province’s income, not counting what the surviving peasants who discovered them, local heroes, make autographing museum books. Warrior knockoffs of every size are available for sale everywhere, including gas stations and roadside attractions.

It’s an interesting contrast to the technical industries that have gained a presence not very far away-- China’s first satellite and first integrated chip were created in Xi’an, and there are scores of state run laboratories digesting and applying technologies absorbed from around the world. The city itself has contrasts of modernity and the old walled city within it, all of which struggles against the dust and sand blowing in from the advancing Gobi desert. Indeed, the Xi’an sky is as much a signpost of global warming as the world’s defeated glaciers or blanched coral that more often catches the public eye. The sky can be a brilliant blue, but in the morning it can be hard to tell if the dim globe is the sun rising, or the moon. The warriors’ stoic gaze that seems to underpin China’s permanence is mitigated by China firing up a new dirty coal-burning power plant each week.

The sky has the feel of an empire reaching its limits, as empires inevitably do, just as the coal polluted air assaults the terracotta flesh.

At the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeological Research, fragments are assembled in restoration laboratories by German and Chinese scientists who exchange preservation expertise. Fragile artifacts, such as a bronze goose neck and head or sword, are X-rayed and studied to determine weaknesses and original designs. Some are tenderly and meticulously labored over within a sealed glass chamber, the scientists’ arms in long rubber gloves, as if herding renegade microbes. The warriors’ fragility is underscored by the nine or so different moulds that attack the terracotta, said to originate from shifting humidity and tourist breath. Despite the economic boom the warriors generated, funding remains a tough quest. The entire process of putting a single warrior back together can take up to a year.

The Qin Dynasty didn’t last long. Five years after Qin’s burial in 210 BC, a vengeful general Xiang Yu raided the tomb, stealing the real weapons the warriors held, and set a fire in the necropolis that burned for months. Many of the warriors are as shattered as egg shells. They now inspire craftsmanship of a different sort. Today, selected tour operators provide special access for travelers, who photograph themselves with the six and a half foot figures as if they were old chums. Up close and personal, visitors study faces that convey personality, faces that, millenniums ago, would have studied theirs.

It’s the faces that most linger in this writer’s mind, knowing that each, though a notch larger than life, represents a person who walked the earth, fighting in battles that seem otherworldly. We have often seen the idealized faces of emperors across different cultures. We seldom see the faces of Everyman. Their faces speak volumes about the warrior vanities of the day-- the moustaches and goatees, the hair buns. Facial features reveal that many hailed from minority populations to the northwest, likely conscripted from conquered populations. The drama behind their searching faces is enhanced by pondering the armies of craftsmen who gave birth to the clay warriors, and the hardships endured. Perhaps it is respect for these toiling workers, not for the emperor, that the warriors most convey, as thousands of them patiently await their chance to shock and awe.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Exploring The Surreal Skeleton Coast

Photo courtesy of Edward Bohen

-by Skip Kaltenheuser

The Skeleton Coast is one of the most appropriately named stretches of land in the world, a place where many hapless sailors of centuries past have mingled their bones with whale ribs and shipwrecks.

There was at one time no margin for error for sailors rounding the Horn of Africa and heading north through rough seas past this vast expanse, which stretches along the northern third of Namibia’s coast. The region borders more vast expanses, among them the world’s oldest desert, the Namib. One wonders whether whalers and sailors who somehow made it ashore after reefs had thrashed their ships found a moment to appreciate landscapes that would have challenged even the surreal imagination of Salvador Dali.

Along the coastline are immense flat plains, broken in places by lines of small cones denoting abandoned diamond mines. The plains yield to giant, orange-yellow sand dunes. The wind etches geometric patterns on their long curves and slopes.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser

Walking across a flat plain from our vehicle-- a Land Rover with old airplane chairs strapped to the roof-- my companions and I step in each other’s footprints to minimize the impact on the tiny blades of vegetation that suck moisture from the ocean fog.

After hiking up a dune’s long backside, we slide down its steep interior slope. Suddenly, the sound of the wind is drowned out by the eerie monotone crescendo of a double bass. But there are no double bass players in sight.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser

The musicians, in fact, are us. The dunes’ uniquely shaped sand grains emit a deep roar as they grind together. Delighted, some of us take long leaps down the slope, adding staccato notes.

Struggling back up the huge half-bowl slope, the solitude of the coast hits home. Despite a huge concession set aside for the Skeleton Coast Camp-- which is where we are staying-- it is limited to 12 visitors at a time.

Photos courtesy of Ship Kaltenheuser

I keep imagining the challenges shipwrecked sailors would have faced. If I were in their shoes, would I have been able to overcome fear and march up the coast, giving my skeleton a run for its money?

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser

Yet there are those that survive in this environment. The wildlife is fascinating in how it has adapted to the desert conditions. Up on a ridge facing the ocean breeze are several gemsbok, or oryx, weighing nearly 230 kilograms each. A type of antelope, they hyperventilate in the ocean air in order to cool their body temperatures. Their horns are like scimitars, forcing the region’s desert-adapted lions to think twice. Fresh lion tracks in a river bed make me think twice when, separated from the only other vehicle, I collect flat rocks to jam under tires bogged down in dry sand. A bit inland, amid arid canyons and valleys, are ostriches, jackals, mountain zebras, baboons and foxes.

Even the bugs are amazing. I saw a beetle that satiates its thirst by using grooves in its back to build up a drop of water from condensed fog.

Photo courtesy of Namibia Ministry of Environment

Desert elephants sometimes venture to the coast and surf the dunes, creating their own symphonies. We track the elephants on foot-- they’re always just around the bend, judging by the fresh elephant dung-- but the sun reflecting off the walls of a clay canyon beat us back. Our vehicles cause us to throw in the towel as well, as an unexplored river bed that might leave a vehicle stuck becomes too forbidding near sunset. There are no tow trucks here.

Photo courtesy of

But the greatest survivors are the members of the Himba tribe, some of whom reside just outside the park. Scattered across northern Namibia, they make up less than 1 per cent of the population. They haven’t changed their nomadic lifestyle in centuries, raising cattle and living in huts of dung and sand.

The women are particularly striking, wearing only goat skin aprons and jewellery that glows red from a mixture of ochre and rancid butter, rubbed daily over every square inch.

Photos courtesy of Only Tribal

With their braided hair coated with mud and hardened like a helmet, these women work hard while the men count their cattle. The women’s true beauty is rooted in their physical strength and a meticulously tended traditional appearance that, according to anthropologists, maintains their cultural identity and protects them against the vagaries of modern life. Their refined beauty is framed by the harsher beauty around them.

Horrors such as the diamond wars farther north in Angola, the heartbreak of AIDS orphans, tribal conflicts and deprivation magnified by an envy of wealth have missed the Himba in this neck of Namibia. The elements of their neighbourhood are so tough no one hungers for their land-- it’s safety in lack of numbers.

A couple of decades ago, a drought – the term is relative here-- killed enough cattle to drive some Himba into the towns. They didn’t fare well-- alcoholism and prostitution were often the byproducts of poverty and culture shock. Much farther east, a proposed dam threatens the Himba way of life. But on the Skeleton Coast, it’s likely that in 50 years, the headman’s progeny will still be tending the holy fire, a smoldering log that is said to help departed paternal ancestors bring good fortune to the tribe.

Photos courtesy of Skip Kaltenheuser

At night, I stand watching the sky, stealing glances at the silhouette of a jackal slipping around my tent, which by Himba standards is as luxurious as the Taj Mahal. Before the morning fog, the night is moonless but bright. The stars are the brightest and most numerous I’ve seen, and shooting stars abound.

None of the hemisphere’s constellations are familiar. It’s an alien world, beautiful as long as I know a prop-driven aircraft will eventually alight on our desert runway with ample provisions.

GETTING THERE: Tour operators such as Wilderness Safaris, which operates the Skeleton Coast Camp, offer flights into the park in small bush planes from various points in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa, and Skeleton Coast Camp for a four-day, three-night safari package.

For more visitor information, visit the Namibia Ministry of Environment.

Note: Skip wrote this piece some time ago, so be sure to check up before making your travel plans.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Trepangs In China-- Yummy, Yummy


-by Reese Erlich

[Reese Erlich is on assignment in Moscow. He offers this humorous memory about a long ago visit to that famed city. His current reporting from Russia will appear in two weeks.]

I was only 19 when I visited the USSR with my parents and sister in 1966. It was quite exotic for Americans to visit Moscow in those days and nothing was more exotic than eating at the Peking Restaurant at the Peking Hotel. It was an enormous dining hall with high ceilings, representing the best of Stalinesque architecture.

We perused the menu, which was written in four languages. One item stumped us: trepangs. My father suggested I consult the French version as I was the resident expert, having recently completed two years of high school French. The French menu had the same item, trepangs, although it sounded better pronounced with a French accent.

We asked our waiter, who consulted the Russian menu, and declared that the dish was called trepanskis, or some such Russian transliteration of the mysterious dish.

We never did order trepangs, but the word took on an almost mythic character in our family lore. For years it was synonymous with any profoundly unknowable concept. For example, Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman created gripping dramas full of deep trepang.

In 1980 I made my first of many reporting trips to the People's Republic of China. In those days, workers road to work every day on bicycles, wearing unisex Mao jackets. Bicycles outnumbered cars on the streets by about 100-1. And government officials held elaborate, 15-course meals for special guests. And I was one such special guest.

"Mr. Erlich," intoned our host, who was dressed in a Mao jacket just a bit too tight around the middle. "We have a specialty dish for tonight's dinner, trepangs."

My throat went dry. My hands began to shake. Could it be that after all these years, I was about to learn the secret of the trepang?

I calmed myself and with a steady voice I replied, "Ah yes, trepangs, a dish often discussed by my family."

"I would like one or two of them," I said cautiously.

Our host brimmed with great delight. "Most westerners aren't fond of trepangs," he said. But since they are your family's favorite, you cannot order one or two. We'll have an extra plate."

I nodded reluctantly, not knowing what I was getting into. I knew enough about Chinese customs not to refuse a host's offer and feared an international incident if the food was inedible.

This far into the story, you might be expecting some culturally inappropriate description of a disgusting food eaten by the Chinese, something like the apocryphal stories about monkey brains served from live monkeys in Hong Kong.

It's worse.

The trepangs arrived. They are sea slugs, marine animals with a slippery, gelatinous texture. Trepangs are also translated as sea cucumbers, a name that gives them a certain panache. Wikileaks notes, "In some cultural contexts the sea cucumber is thought to have medicinal value. Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy."

And to tell you the truth, after 14 years of mystery, they weren't so bad. The best that can be said is that trepangs have no flavor of their own. They absorb the sauce in which they are immersed. And my Beijing hosts ordered hot, spicy trepangs. I actually enjoyed them, although I had some trouble eating the second plate.

So what did I learn from all these foreign adventures? If you want to know the name of a particular Chinese dish, ask someone who speaks Chinese.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Are The Airlines Spying On Us Yet?

At one point, a couple decades ago, some of the high-end airlines introduced a privacy feature for first class travelers: enclosed cabins. A flight attendant could stand oh his or her toes and took over the wall, but otherwise you could do whatever you wanted in privacy. Apparently, too many people did and they seem to have abolished them. Now it looks like they're introducing the opposite: tiny cameras that can watch you during the flight. Do you think that's a little intrusive? You're watching a move and "someone" is watching you-- an airline employee? a government entity?

Last month, CNN reported that Singapore admits they have embedded cameras in their newer inflight entertainment systems but claim they're deactivated. "Deactivated?" Why are they there then-- in order to be activated next week or the week after?
The fact that some aircraft seats have built-in cameras is not new knowledge. Singapore Airlines' inflight entertainment system is manufactured by Panasonic Avionics, a US-based company that supplies IFE for many of the major airlines and French company Thales. Panasonic announced a while back that it's added cameras onto seat backs.

And in 2017, Panasonic Avionics announced a partnership with Tascent-- a biometrics and identity innovation company.

"The companies will combine Tascent's biometric identity devices, software and services with Panasonic Avionic Corporation's in-flight entertainment and communications systems to provide streamlined, easy-to-use identity recognition before departure, during flight and upon arrival," read the corresponding press release.

The idea was seat-back cameras could facilitate onboard immigration, skipping lines when you land. It was also suggested that a seat-back camera could aid payment processing for onboard shopping.

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, Panasonic Avionics announced the latest incarnation of Emirates' IFE in First Class and Economy-- specifying it featured a camera, plus a microphone and speaker.

In the age of the smartphone, everyone holds a tiny cinema in their hand, so there's certainly an expectation that airlines will have exciting entertainment options-- a screen simply showing movies won't cut it anymore.

But has Emirates ever done anything with its on-board cameras?

"Some of our 777 aircraft have cameras that came pre-installed with the inflight entertainment hardware that we had purchased from the manufacturer (Panasonic)," a spokeperson for the Dubai-based airline told CNN Travel. "It was originally meant for seat-to-seat video calls, however Emirates has never activated it."

This echoes Singapore Airlines' comment on the issue.

"These cameras have been intended by the manufacturers for future developments," the airline says. "These cameras are permanently disabled on our aircraft and cannot be activated on board. We have no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras."

Meanwhile, American Airlines told CNN Travel that cameras are "a standard feature," but are not activated and the carrier has no plans to use them.

A spokesperson for Aussie carrier Qantas also told CNN Travel that IFE manufacturers include inbuilt cameras as standard-- and said the airline couldn't activate the cameras, even if they wanted to.

"The feature would require software in order to be activated, which Qantas doesn't have and doesn't plan to install."

Air New Zealand and British Airways told CNN Travel there were no cameras on board any of their aircraft.

Two images obtained by CNN Travel of an IFE system on a British Airways airplane depict what looks like a lens of some kind. BA describes it as an infrared environmental sensor rather than a camera.

But are airplane seat cameras a bad idea? Some aviation experts think they could improve the onboard, inflight experience.

Joe Leader, CEO of aviation trade body Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) think there's several handy usages for these cameras.

As well as facilitating video chat between passengers, the cameras could look out for passengers becoming unwell or monitor cabins for suspicious behavior.

The cameras could also be used to spot human trafficking or assault-- acting as an extension of the air steward's eyes.

As for the privacy concern, APEX points out the ubiquity of cameras in 21st century society.

"Today, airline passengers are typically tracked outside the aircraft dozens of times on a typical journey through stores, security, roadways, and airports by cameras without any permission," APEX says in a statement.

"In contrast, airlines only want to use cameras in the future with permission when technology has advanced to offer personalized service improvements that passengers desire."

Hacking fears, suggests APEX, are "misplaced."

"The greatest risk to airline passenger privacy breaches come from their own smartphones, tablets, cameras, computers, and smart devices used in private settings, " says APEX.

The concern for some fliers is that even if the existence of these seat-back cameras aren't a secret-- and even if they could facilitate some cool features-- it feels disingenuous that their presence isn't advertised.

When contacted by CNN Travel, Panasonic Avionics stressed that it was committed to the privacy of passengers.

"Panasonic Avionics will never activate any feature or functionality within an IFE system without explicit direction from an airline customer," the company said in a statement to CNN.

"Prior to the use of any camera on a Panasonic Avionics' system that would affect passenger privacy, Panasonic Avionics would work closely with its airline customer to educate passengers about how the system works and to certify compliance with all appropriate privacy laws and regulations, such as [The EU's data privacy regulation] GDPR."

But although Panasonic Avionics and the airlines say the cameras are currently deactivated-- they're not physically covered up and passengers remain worried about hacking.
These systems are expensive and they're not just there so they could be not used. The airlines should stop bullshitting their customers for a change. One consumer advocacy group pointed out that "Air travel is already fraught with ineffective and invasive breaches of our personal privacy. But now the airlines themselves have gone even further with cameras and microphones pointed at passengers as they watch movies, eat snacks, or just sleep. And the implications of in-flight cameras are even bigger than the discomfort of the airline watching you sleep on a red-eye. It’s still unknown to what extent the federal government could be able to acquire that data, without a warrant or probable cause, or process the camera footage through faulty facial recognition programs that misidentify women and people of color."

I'm old enough to remember when flying was a treat. That was a long, long, long time ago. Are you thinking I'm being too alarmist here? If so, take a look at this. "German Chancellor Angela Merkel has introduced a bill that would allow German spy agencies to hack into nearly any computer and conduct espionage on a wide swath of citizens and foreigners. Drawn up by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the bill greatly expands the espionage powers of Germany’s intelligence service, the bnd. Although Seehofer has been notorious for opposing the chancellor on many occasions, he seems to have persuaded her to support this latest bill. This time, opposition is coming from Merkel’s coalition ally, the Social Democratic Party (spd). The spd justice minister has expressed outrage at one clause in particular, which would allow spies to collect information on children under 14 years old. The justification for this clause rests on the 2016 case of a 12-year-old who was involved in a plot to bomb a Christmas market.
Many Germans are critical of the bill. “This amounts to a massive extension of intrusive surveillance,” said Sven Herpig, a researcher from the New Responsibility Foundation. Germany’s Left Party also condemned the bill, calling it a “catalogue of Orwellian fantasies.”

In the recent past, however, many similar “fantasies” have become reality.

In 2017, Germany proposed an “unprecedented spate of new surveillance and security laws.” Most of these were passed and are in force today, yet they are rarely discussed.

The biggest concern is currently the government’s State Trojan spyware law. This allows government spyware to be covertly installed on a target’s mobile phone. The spyware can lie dormant for a set period of time, remaining undetected for years, before being activated to collect data on the user’s calls, chats and Internet activity. And this isn’t limited to phones; the spyware can also be used to spy on people through smart devices, like speakers or fridges that can connect to the Internet, greatly infringing upon privacy rights.

Before the State Trojan law was passed, only the federal Criminal Office had the power to employ this method of espionage. Now this power is in the hands of the state itself.

The new law also grants permission for the bnd to use this spyware against foreigners. Both the Criminal Office and bnd have expressed a desire to “cooperate more effectively against ‘transnational’ threats, such as terrorism and organized crime.”

Airlines in Germany are bound to collect and retain the contact details of their passengers, means of booking, payment, and even seat choice, for up to five years. Although presented as an EU requirement, critics have said that this law goes well beyond what is required by Brussels.

Other laws passed in 2017 regulate increased video surveillance of public areas and more detailed research into the background of migrants, both of which came in the aftermath of the 2016 Christmas market terrorist attacks.
Last month, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and John Kennedy (R-LA) sent a joint letter to Delta, Southwest, Frontier, United, Spirit, American, JetBlue, and Alaska, noting their concern about a possible "serious breach of privacy."
While Americans have an expectation that they are monitored in airports as a necessary security measure, the notion that in-flight cameras may monitor passengers while they sleep, eat, or have private conversations is troubling. Further, in light of data breaches that have impacted many major airlines, we have misgivings that cameras or sensors may not employ the necessary security measures to prevent them from being targeted by cybercriminals.

For these reasons, we respectfully request that the following information be provided regarding the cameras on in-flight entertainment systems:
1- Does your airline currently use, or has ever used, cameras or sensors to monitor passengers;
2- If yes, what purpose do the cameras serve and in what circumstances may the cameras be activated;
3- If you have or currently do utilize cameras or sensors to monitor passengers, please provide details on how passengers are informed of this practice;
4- Please provide comprehensive data on the number of cameras and sensors used by your fleet, and the type of information that is collected or recorded, how it is stored, and who within your airline is responsible for the review and safekeeping of this information;
5- Further to the above, please confirm what security measures you have in place to prevent data breaches of this information, or hacking of the cameras themselves; and
6- Are the cameras used in any biometric identity capacity, and if so, under what authority?
We look forward to learning more about these practices and request a response within 30 days.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Trump And The American Tourist Industry-- A Match Made In Hell

Tourism is up all over the world-- up 8% to quantify it. But not in Trumpland. My pal Roland and I travel a lot and he wants to go to exciting, adventurous places, and that often happens to mean places with unstable and even fascist governments. He's always trying to drag me back to Israel, Egypt and Turkey, places we've enjoyed but that I don't want to go to until their political situations are in better shape. He just went to Hungary and Poland without me because I want to avoid countries with fascist governments. Looking at the growth rates of tourism this year, it appears that I'm not alone. Whilethe setoff the world's tourism has been growing-- Britain's by 17.9% for example, and Canada's by 21.2%, both the U.S. under Trump and Turkey under Erdoğan, have seen tourism drop off, Turkey by 6.7% and the U.S. by 6%. Writing yesterday for the Daily Beast, Elizabeth Drew noted that once Trump was inserted into the White House tourism to the United States from foreign countries has steadily dropped.

The U.S. Travel Association has just provided her with figures "projecting a further drop in 2018 from a share of worldwide tourism of 12.0 percent in 2017 to 11.7 percent this year. And this is after a drop in Trump’s first year in office from 12.9 percent. Though the numbers and differentials look small in percentages, they are large in terms of dollars not spent here by foreign tourists and they have serious negative implications for jobs not created... Trump’s rhetoric and new policies and rules and regulations regarding travel have combined to blot America’s long-standing image as a welcoming nation."
[Trump's] travel ban, a barely disguised version of the total ban on Muslims being allowed into this country he announced during his presidential campaign, inflamed worldwide opinion and in practical terms it barred visits by citizens of seven entire countries in the name of preventing terrorist attacks (though none have come from the countries the ban singled out).

The administration’s treatment of people attempting to flee here from violence-wracked Central American countries and Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico from the moment he entered the presidential race hasn’t encouraged Hispanics to come see our wondrous sights and enjoy our beautiful beaches. Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord hasn’t helped, nor have his rows with the leaders of friendly nations, which began almost from when he took office.  Neither has Trump’s launching of a trade war. New visa-vetting policies have also caused delays and denials that didn’t used to occur. The invasive new tightening of airport security has put off numerous travelers to this country.

Maybe all these changes have prevented would-be terrorists from entering the U.S., but they for sure have also discouraged or denied many visitors with benign intentions.

The drop in tourism in 2017 was precipitous, and its velocity can be mainly attributed to one factor, what’s come to be called in the tourism industry the Trump slump. Earlier this year, Reuters quoted the head of a German company that specializes in trips to the United States as saying, “Politics is not helping us.”  He added that since the price of the dollar was falling at that time, “we should have seen a much bigger increase in demand.” The Pew Research Center Reserve found earlier this year that a survey of ten nations showed that a favorable opinion of the US occurred in only one country: Russia. The inescapable fact is that Trump’s presidency has coincided with an unprecedented drop in travel to the United States. The US’s share in worldwide travel increased steadily until 2015. While some attribute the recent drop in tourism to the U.S. to a strong dollar, in fact, the dollar was strong in 2015, when our tourism growth was at its apex, and it was strong in 2016. Yet when it declined in 2017, which should have helped tourism, foreign tourism to the U.S. dropped steeply that year. (After starting off weak earlier this year, the dollar’s been gaining in strength robustly, and the recent tightening of credit by the Federal Reserve will likely send the dollar even higher-- which isn’t good for U.S. exports, which includes tourism.)
These are the growth rates she got from the U.S. Travel Association:
Spain +32.7%
Australia +22%
Canada +21.2%
Saudi Arabia +20.3%
U.K. +17.9%
UAE +16.5%
Thailand +13.9%
China +9.3%
Germany +8%
France +4%
Italy +2.2%
U.S. -6%
Turkey -6.7%
I wish they had included Egypt and Israel. I bet the tourism rates in Syria are way down. I wonder if it's picking up in Iraq and Afghanistan. I doubt it. The most popular U.S. travel destinations-- so the ones being hurt the most by Trump's policies in this area are New York City, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, California (San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Napa), Key West, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Arizona (Sedona and the Grand Canyon), Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, Branson, MO, Nashville, Jackson, WY, Moab, UT, Asheville, NC, Maine, Boston, and Aspen.
Our pathetic drop in tourism at the same time that it’s growing almost everywhere else in the developed world has had a striking negative impact on our economy. The USTA (which is more careful about tourism statistics than the Commerce Department) estimates that if this country had merely maintained its share of the travel market it had in 2015 it would have received 7.4 million more visitors from abroad and $32.2 billion more in spending by tourists, which would have created 100,000 more jobs. After all, since tourism is counted as an export, for a president who rants about imbalance of trade numbers and has promised to bring more jobs to the United States, his record in attracting foreign tourists—if he’s aware of it; and if he is, if he cares about it—isn’t impressive. (Just about no respectable economist expects the excellent 4.1 percent economic growth in the second quarter, often the best quarter of a year, to last very long.)

To add to this inauspicious picture of our standing in the world, fewer foreign students have been applying for graduate degrees in what have long been considered our world-class universities. As has long been well understood, the education here of foreign students helps us as well as the countries of origin, by leading to scientific discoveries that might otherwise not have been made, by spreading the idea of America and of democracy, and by raising the education level of countries we hope won’t succumb to malign forces. We can help groom future foreign leaders.)  In the academic year 2017-2018, there occurred the first drop in enrollment by foreign students in the U.S. in ten years, by 4 percent, or roughly 32,000 fewer of them. The Trump administration has taken some actions that make it more difficult for foreign students to remain here if they drop some classes, transfer schools, or accidentally overstay their visas; and it’s considering such proposals as forcing students to have to reapply for a visa each year rather than just once, at the time of their enrollment.

What does all this say about the United States? Among other things it says that a great many others do not separate our country from our president, however unpopular he may be. The cartoonish balloon of Trump in a diaper that floated over the Parliament building in London during his visit to Great Britain in July was an insult not just to Trump but to the United States. It turns out that our having elected someone whose campaign and presidential rhetoric has at the least been unfriendly to other countries-- that is, other than Russia and North Korea—turns out to have been quite expensive financially and culturally. Trump’s “America first” talk has in more ways than we may have realized limited our potential as an influential nation, not to mention as a world leader. It’s to be remembered that the abysmal drops in both foreign tourists and students all occurred before the president further isolated us by his tariffs and his increased belligerence toward countries that have been our traditional allies, not to mention his groveling to Vladimir Putin before the entire world. It doesn’t require leaps of imagination to understand why visits to the U.S. from the Middle East and Mexico dropped last year. Some Canadian columnists have urged citizens of their country to stop vacationing in the United States—in retaliation for Trump’s new tariffs and his rudeness to their leader Justin Trudeau and as a moral position against his thinly cloaked Muslim ban. As it happens, the number of people seeking asylum in Canada from below its southern border, has increased dramatically of late.

Unfortunately, at the rate our president is going, his policies and his becoming increasingly lathered up as some of his past political and personal activities are catching up with him, we probably have nowhere to go but down in important and potentially lucrative international travel. The boom in international tourism is continuing, but we’re not benefiting from it-- and it’s not to be expected that in the foreseeable future we’ll see a great many tourists from the president’s best foreign friends, North Koreans or Russians, shopping along Fifth Avenue or hiking in the Grand Tetons. Like it or not, Trump’s face to the world is our face and his voice is ours. The costly-- in several ways-- drop in tourism and the decrease in curious foreign minds at our universities are not to be taken lightly, though they’re being ignored by the Trump administration.
If you have traveled to Europe-- or almost anywhere in the world these days-- tourist sights are overrun with busloads of tourists from China. And they spend a lot. In recent years I've been to old haunts where Chinese tourists were rare and where Chinese tourists are now dominant: Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Kathmandu, Delhi... And, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, in 2016 there were nearly 3 million Chinese tourists to the U.S., generating-- wait for it-- $33 billion in tourist spending. That's a lot of money, not just for hotels, airlines, tourist attractions... but also for retail businesses. Just go to Fifth Avenue in New York and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and see who's walking out of shops with lots of bags from high end stores.

And the Chinese government, furious at Trump's foolish trade war, is starting to look at tourism as a way to strike at Trump. The Chinese government is starting gently-- warning potential Chinese tourists that the U.S. is dangerous to visit because of shootings, violence and criminal activities. The government owned Global Times warned potential tourists "If you are Chinese, take your embassy’s travel warnings very seriously before planning your next holiday or deciding where to send your kids to college, because by coming to America you risk being shot, robbed, raped, or beaten." They have specifically urged Chinese travelers to avoid Trump hotels and resorts.

Perhaps Hollywood will become an ever more popular tourist attraction when the City Council removes the Trumpanzee star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. The vote is tonight. There is always feces and urine on it and it gets vandalized all the time and has been completely destroyed twice. Their resolution (in part):

Monday, May 21, 2018

New Report Finds Risks Associated With Maintaining Airlines Outside The U.S.

Roland and I travel a lot overseas, and sometimes we wind up on funky internal airlines in places like Mali, India, Vietnam, Morocco, Hungary, Argentina, Thailand... We pray to the maintenance gods that everything was done competently and tell ourselves that it was all done under U.S. or U.K. supervision, knowing full well that it wasn't and wondering about how many corners were cut. Today I got a memo from the Transport Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO) in DC. The title is above, The subtitle is no less assuring: Ridge Global Report Says Safety and Security Concerns of Commercial Aviation Better Addressed When Repair and Maintenance is Performed in the U.S. The report itself is called Risks Associated With Foreign Repair Stations.
Airline passengers may be less safe when the plane they are flying on has been repaired or maintained in a foreign country. That is among the conclusions of a risk-based report by Ridge Global, a firm founded by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on risks associated with the use of foreign repair stations by the U.S. airline industry.

The Transport Workers of America contracted with Gov. Ridge’s firm, Ridge Global, LLC, to assess the safety and security risks associated with foreign-based repair and overhaul facilities. The Transport Workers Union represents more than 140,000 workers in the airline, rail, subway, bus, utility and service industries.

Nearly 50-percent of maintenance work done by air carriers registered in the United States, including the major airlines, is conducted outside the United States. The facilities in foreign countries where commercial aircraft are repaired and maintained, however, are not as secure as those in the United States, the report states. Protections against unauthorized access are not as strong, and employee background checks are not as thorough, as those in the United States.

“Both conditions increase risks related to situations that could be more easily exploited by terrorists or individuals with harmful intent,” the Ridge Global report states.

“The Ridge Global Report exposes significant flaws in the mechanical maintenance practices of the United States airline industry,” TWU International President John Samuelsen, said. “Major air carriers’ lust for profits has driven them to fix planes on foreign soil, which has compromised the safety and security of America’s air travelers. It’s the dangerous dirty secret of America’s airlines, and the U.S. government must act to end this danger.”

“There are obvious disparities between domestic and foreign oversight and repair of commercial airlines,” said Gov. Ridge. “While there have thankfully been few U.S. aviation incidents in recent years, even one is too many, and so it is important travelers are aware how airplanes they fly on each day are maintained. Given the absence of direct oversight by the FAA and the differences described in our report, the qualifications of those responsible for oversight and those maintaining and repairing the aircraft in foreign countries cannot be viewed as meeting the same rigorous standards of inspection and repair as required in the U.S.”

The mechanics that do this critically important work at facilities located overseas, are not subject to the same intense scrutiny by government regulators, or held to the same high standards as mechanics in America, the report states.

One of the most significant disparities in terms of regulatory oversight deals with drug and alcohol testing requirements. Testing is mandated in the U.S. Employment and privacy laws in many foreign countries prevent such testing. Another contrast involves the inspection process itself. FAA domestic inspections can be random and without notice. That approach is prohibited in foreign countries.

“Foreign repair stations present risks that domestic ones do not,” the report further states. “These risks are due in part, to how laws and regulations are applied. We concluded that the safety and security concerns of commercial aviation are better addressed when the repair and maintenance is done in the United States.”
"Republican outsourcing in the Age of Trump" would have been another possible title, I guess. A tad too provocative, maybe?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Trump Slump Is Costing The U.S. Thousands Of Jobs And Billions Of Dollars In The Tourism Industry

I started traveling out of the U.S. while I was still a kid. I was just a teenager when my girlfriend and I decided to hitchhike from Long Island to the North Pole. We only got as far as Montreal... but we loved it. The following summer my pal Bob and I hitchhiked to Mexico City. Fantastic. And when I graduated from college, it was only $100 to fly to Luxembourg if you stopped for at least a night in Iceland. My girlfriend and I met a couple of teachers on the plane who were planning a week-long excursion, driving around the island and we joined them. Then we went to Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and England. The travel bug was not sated. When Margin went back to the U.S. to finish school, I set off in my VW van across Europe, adding Austria, Hungary what was then Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal to the list of countries I had been through-- before settling down in Holland for a few years-- and taking vacations in Sweden, Finland, Greece, France and Morocco. Since then I'vebeen to over 100 countries. I still love travel. Roland and I just got back from Thailand and we brought our friend David-- his first trip there-- who got attacked by a monkey who broke his shoulder and fractured a bunch of toes. Here's the culprit:

The Thai monkey that got David

The Thais are way too polite to bring up Trump. Even the ones we revery friendly with never mentioned Señor Trumpanzee. But, Thailand is crawling with Europeans who aren't polite in that way at all. Everywhere we went Europeans asked us, "How could you?" We explained to a Danish woman on a Chao Phraya water "bus" that California's results were 8,753,788 (61.73%) to 4,483,810 (31.62%) and she couldn't stop talking about how almost 4 and a half million Californians could vote for Trump. (David, who hadn't been attacked by the monkey yet, wanted to throw her into the Chao Phraya. But, generally speaking, everyone we met who wasn't a Thai, had something negative to say about Trump. It wasn't unlike-- just more intense-- than it was when Nixon and Bush were presidents. I just read that the the negative feelings in Haiti were so intense that the U.S. was U.S. had to shut down the embassy in Port-au-Prince. Trump is in Davos-- and Swiss people are protesting and letting him know he isn't welcome. "[D]emonstrators marched through the Swiss city chanting 'Trump not welcome,' with some carrying banners and placards reading 'dump the Trump' and 'Switzerland is hosting Nazis,' an AFP reporter said, putting the turnout at over 1,000." Thousand more people marched in Zurich and Lausanne... 'Trump is the incarnation of sexism, racism, exploitation and corruption,'" said one demonstrator. So what? Trump doesn't care.

But the U.S. tourism does. Travel + Leisure reported that "The United Nations World Tourism Organization announced last week that Spain overtook the United States as the second-most visited destination in the world (France remains number one) in 2017. The U.S. welcomed 72.9 million foreign visitors last year-- down about four percent from the previous year’s 75.9 million." Katherine Lugar, CEO of American Hotel & Lodging Association, pointed out that "Fewer visitors means fewer hotel stays, fewer meals eaten in our restaurants, fewer goods purchased in our retail stores, and fewer visits to our national attractions. It also means fewer American jobs and a loss to our economy."
The Pew Research Center found that unfavorable views of the U.S. in 37 countries increased 13 percent in the six months that Trump was in office. In response to a New York Times post, Europeans “overwhelmingly cited the Trump administration and its policies as reasons for avoiding or canceling trips to the United States,” according to the paper.
The Trump Slump in American tourism has cost our country 40,000 jobs and $4.6 billion. The U.S. News and World Review reported on Tuesday that on their list of best countries the U.S. has slipped to the #8 spot and they attribute it to Trump. His first year in the White House rattled the world confidence. Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group explained recently that the most prominent causes for global insecurity stem from Trumpanzee's move away from global leadership, and China's eagerness to fill the perceived vacuum.
The United States slips in this year's U.S. News Best Countries ranking, dropping to the No. 8 spot after falling one position from its 2017 ranking. Switzerland, an island of stable prosperity in a world of turmoil, remains the Best Country, according to a global survey of more than 21,000 persons.

The reasons for America's drop-- the second straight year its ranking dipped-- are fueled by the world's perceptions of the country becoming less progressive and trustworthy, more politically unstable and a president who after just a year in office is far more unpopular than any other head of state or company CEO.

As in 2017, Canada remains the No. 2 in the survey. Germany, as it was in 2016, is perceived as the most powerful country in Europe-- surpassing the U.K. to place at No. 3 overall, while the U.K. drops to No. 4. Japan rounds out the top five, the highest finish for a nation in Asia, a region which survey respondents increasingly believe holds many of the keys to the world's future. At No. 6 is Sweden and Australia moves up to the No. 7 position, surpassing the U.S.

...The Best Countries rankings come just days after Trump celebrates his first year as U.S. president. The U.S. is still seen as the most powerful nation. In many ways, however, the results reflect 12 months of ongoing signs of the decline of America's standing in the world. In this sense, a noticeable "Trump Effect" is taking hold of the U.S.
Here's the 2018 ranked list of 20 best countries:

1- Switzerland
2- Canada
3- Germany
4- U.K.
5- Japan
6- Sweden
7- Australia
8- Trumpland
9- France

10- Netherlands
11- Denmark
12- Norway
13- New Zealand
14- Finland
15- Italy
16- Singapore
17- Austria
18- Luxembourg
19- Spain
20- China

Trump's favorite country, Russia, is #26 and at the very bottom of the list, at #80, is Algeria. By the way, I've been to every country on the list and I don't agree with the evaluation at all. I hate Switzerland and the U.S., despite Trump is still the best.