Airline travel has experienced a renaissance since the industry lull after 9/11. The growing pains of new security measures, the increase in air traffic, and industry consolidation seem to be sorting out after a mere fifteen years. That's my perspective as a flyer so frequent that they invented new rare materials to define my status. I think I'm at moon rock, which means I can ride shotgun if I want to.
Folks complain about the airlines, security, and other aspects of the airport experience. I'll lose readers here when I defend these professionals. These are good people in tough jobs, and while there are some things they could do better, I think the most effective way to improve air adventure is not fixing the airlines, flight attendants or TSA -- it is about fixing the flyer.
Some simple adjustments to each of our behaviors can greatly enhance the experience for all of us. Next time you are flying, think about these points, and how you can make my experience more pleasant.
Pre-demetalification. Would it be a bridge too far to clear our pockets and put away the phone and metal stuff before entering the security line? Do it after you pick up your boarding pass. Enter the line with nothing on your person, other than your ID and your boarding pass.
Liquids. We have been forced to sequester our liquids and gels into a little bag for about 15% of commercial aviation history. Why is it that at least once a month there's a person arguing with a TSA officer about why they need to bring a gallon of Simple Green, a piñata of pudding, or an economy vat of gumbo on a plane? While entertaining, it slows progress.
Penalty Phase. If TSA finds your Ginsu knife, pepper spray or pudding piñata you should have to exit the line, jettison the offending item and then get back in line. You also should have to wear a sticker that says, "No snacks for me" that you have to wear on the plane, forfeiting your bag of eight little pretzels.
On the Plane
Excess Words. Pre-boarding looks a lot like boarding. I'm not sure how I'd destroy a lavatory smoke detector without tampering with or dismantling it. I wonder if people would smoke on a plane if they didn't say we couldn't.
Stow It and Sit Down. There's one avenue into that tube of seats, and there's usually someone standing motionless in the middle of it during boarding. When entering your seat, it is not the time to stand in the aisle unloading a carry-on, looking for headphones or contemplating which book to sit with. Plan ahead. Move in like it is musical chairs and the music just stopped.
Claiming Territory. On airlines without seat assignments, some people insist on spreading their stuff out over several seats to deter others from sitting by them. That's just not right. Instead, put on a surgical mask, or an old-timey hockey goalie mask. You'll get plenty of space all to yourself.
Touch Screen, Not Punch Screen. Remember, the little screen in front of you responds well to the delicate tap of a fingertip. I'm not sure how many times I've felt the relentless pounding of a pointy digit mashing on-screen options, punching into the back of my brain.
A Plane is Not a Bar. The guy in front of me was coming unglued. Why? The flight attendant could not make him a Mai Tai. You are sitting in a chair at 35,000 feet. Don't expect a flight attendant to make you a Frozen Raspberry Margarita, a Buzzed Aldrin or damn Pink Squirrel.
Enjoy Dinner in the Airport. The gentleman next to me spoke a thick dialect I did not recognize. Once we reached cruising altitude he reached under his seat and produced what appeared to be a foil-covered football. He would unwrap it to reveal a whole cooked chicken, still warm and cured with a delightful bouquet of heavy garlic and exotic spices. The stink summoned his many children, who emerged from the seats around, all coalescing around the carcass, ripping off hunks of meat and shoving them into their mouths. The smell was pungent, and greasy little hands were repeatedly wiped clean on the fabric seats. While this band of savages was an extreme example, airport fast-food fare stinks too. The plane has a way of making McDonald's, BBQ, or anything smell just awful. Cinnabon -- delightful with diffusion, a puker upon cabin concentration.
Keep Your Shoes and Socks On. Over the last decade people have been increasingly comfortable to disrobe their feets once they hit the plane seat. The shoes and socks come off, heels rest comfortably on the creepy tweedy carpet, toes are fanned out wide and wiggled, airing off in the stale cabin breezes. More frequently I'm seeing naked dirty-bottomed feet on the cabin walls, seats, trays, and arm rests. Worse, my toenail clippers are usually confiscated at TSA, so I can't offer them to an adjacent traveler so they can snip the cliff off of El Capitan.
Let the Connectors Exit First. When the wheels touch the ground I check my connecting boarding pass only to see that I need to move from Gate D40 to A2 in ten minutes. I'm in seat 25D. If I exit the plane fast I can zip across that concourse, possibly making that connection, getting home, and saving a ton of hassle with unneeded rescheduling, hotels and Ubering.
But when the plane jerks to a stop and the arrival tone sounds, the cabin erupts with the clicking of seatbelt buckles, as the folks that shoved me out of the way to get onto the plane, now freeze in place in a race to stand between me and where I needed to be minutes ago.
So how can they make my experience better? Think about the folks that are in a hurry. If you arrive at your terminal destination, or are about to enjoy a long layover, stay in your seat until everyone else is off the plane. You're just going to stand in the aisle for five minutes, block the progress of those desperate to move, and at best you get to stand by baggage claim and have to stare at the nothing-go-round. Enjoy the comfy seat, stay on the plane, chill out with a Mai Tai. Let the folks that have to be somewhere get somewhere. If you kindly let the connectors exit, maybe everyone gets home to their families.
Precise Flight Attendant Language. Don't tell us "We'll be on the ground shortly." That opens a range of possibilities to the traveler, somewhere between smooth landing and firey disaster.
On the Concourse
Don't be an Airport Zombie. We've all bobbed with frustration behind them. The wall of humanity cruising Concourse C because they visited all of the Hudson News stands on Concourse B, they meander aimlessly in front of you while you are in a hurry to catch that last plane home. "Excuse me" does not resonate -- it fuels them to creep slower from the distraction. And there's a special place in hell for the people that decide that the middle of the concourse is a great place to stand in place, contemplating what condiment to smear on the giant pretzel.
To the Right, Except to Pass. Like any traffic way, if you want to take your time, stick to the far right-hand side of the flow (unless you are in one of those countries). Leave the middle open for motion. If you have to stand still, get to the side, out of the way. When on the stairs, people mover or escalator, get to the right -- the far right. Leave a path on the left in case someone needs to move fast.
Wait for Your Zone. As boarding time approaches, passengers clot access to the gate. Frequent flyers are asked to board first, not because they need more time in a plane, but because they know the drill. Get them in fast and seated. Meanwhile, everyone else with a boarding pass congeals around the gate area, spewing out into the concourse, serving as a barrier to those trying to enter the plane when their zone is called, as well as those moving from gate-to-gate. You have a seat reserved. Chill. As the gate attendant says, "Stay seated until your zone number is called."
In short, making the airline experience better is simple -- Passengers, be mindful of others. Limit the activities that violate the sensibilities or nostrils. Be kind to the gate agents, TSA officers and flight attendants that serve you in the process. Think about the fellow traveler, how they are seconds away from missing a plane to an important meeting, a dear friend's wedding, or they just want to get home to their dog and their own pillow. The air travel experience benefits if we all think about each other, and act with kindness and compassion for others.
You know that part of your vacation where you hold your breath and hope for the best? It used to happen just before the plane landed, in that precarious moment between heaven and earth. But lately, it’s been taking place on terra firma, when you arrive at the airport and you’re confronted by a Transportation Security Administration screening.
For good reason. A few months ago, the TSA announced that screening with a full-body scanner would no longer be optional for some passengers, meaning there’s a better chance than ever you’ll be forced through one of the machines. What the agency euphemistically calls a “random and unpredictable” security screening adds an aspect of fear and uncertainty to an already fear-inducing and uncertain process.
And then there are the long lines, which have been blamed on cutbacks related to the TSA’s PreCheck program. The agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems incorrectly predicted that more passengers would sign up for its trusted traveler program, so it cut staffing by 10 percent. The result? Record lines. The TSA says it’s taking steps to reduce the wait times.
The coping mechanisms have evolved in the past few months, so if you’re a frequent air traveler, you probably already know a lot of the following strategies, at least subconsciously. But with the summer travel season about to get underway, you may find yourself face to face with a TSA agent, unsure what to do. Travelers can avoid that fate with a little planning and a few insider strategies.
First, give yourself time. Lots of time. Josh Nathan, a professor at the Art Institute of Colorado, allows himself three hours to get through the TSA screening in Denver. That’s no typographical error. It’s advice he would pass along to anyone who’s thinking of flying this summer. “Plan for three hours, and be delighted if you make it to your airplane,” he says, adding, “If that departs on time, you feel like you won an unpublicized lottery.”
Why so long? Nathan reports that the Denver TSA, once one of the most efficient of the agency’s operations, has randomly closed checkpoints. A few weeks ago, the airport made headlines when TSA wait times exceeded one hour. To calm angry passengers, airport staff reportedly handed out bottled water, parceled out candies and brought in therapy dogs to soothe frayed nerves.
There are shortcuts, but they’ll cost you. Sonita Lontoh, a San Francisco technology executive and frequent flier, recommends paying $100 for a five-year membership in the Global Entry program, which also gives you TSA PreCheck eligibility. And the PreCheck lines, which allow you to get screened without removing the computer from your bag, taking off your shoes or passing through a full-body scanner, are significantly shorter.
“It’s much faster,” she says. For example, on a recent flight from Orlando, the difference between using the TSA PreCheck lane and the regular lane was more than an hour. How does she know? A colleague without PreCheck went through the regular line, and she didn’t see her until shortly before their flight began boarding.
There are other ways to cut the line. In Orlando, for example, you can also use Clear, a private biometric screening system. It costs about $15 a month to belong to Clear, which can be used at a number of airports in cities including San Francisco, Dallas and Baltimore (but not Washington). Neither Clear nor Global Entry are practical solutions for infrequent travelers, though.
What you wear this summer matters, says Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, a travel agent from Venice, Calif., who has advised countless clients on how to handle the TSA. With the agency beefing up security in the wake of various terrorist threats, you don’t want to wear anything that could slow down the process.
“Don’t wear shirts or pants with extraneous pockets, buttons, zippers, or anything with sequined bling on it,” she says. “These items tend to appear suspicious on the scanner, which is programmed to flag anything out of the ordinary.”
Unfortunately, it’s possible to follow all of this advice and still fall afoul of the TSA’s random and unpredictable security. Kimberly Marcus, an educational consultant from Alfred, N.Y., thought she had done everything right when she showed up for her recent flight at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tenn.
But an alarm sounded when she stepped through the scanner, and an agent ordered her to submit to an “enhanced” pat-down.
“An agent felt up my leg until she met resistance,” she says. “Several times. The agent also felt across the front of me with her fingertips. This routine is not at all routine or acceptable to me, and I found what would be sexual assault in other contexts to be very disturbing and upsetting.”
And that’s the problem with the TSA this summer. The expert advice works, but not every time. Which is to say, you can show up three hours early and still miss your plane. Trusted traveler programs don’t always send you to the front of the line, and you could still get a once-over by an agent and a possible delay. You can wear all the right clothes and still set off alarms.
Of course, nothing can prepare you for a prison-style pat-down at the hands of a TSA agent. And nothing can guarantee you’ll avoid it, either. But if you take a few precautions, you can come close. Don’t forget to breathe.
After you’ve left a comment here, let’s continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a newsletter and you’ll definitely want to order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle).
"Please be gentle."
The story is too easy to believe. At the Memphis airport, a confused, nervous teenager sets off the metal detector -- possibly because she has sequins on her shirt -- and is told she needs to come to a "sterile area." Armed guards show up to escort her. She's terrified.
This happened a year ago. The girl, then 18, is Hannah Cohen. She was flying -- at least that was the idea -- back to Chattanooga with her mother, Shirley Cohen, who had just passed through the checkpoint and was waiting for Hannah when, according to a lawsuit the family recently filed, a TSA horror story began.
One other thing: Hannah had just undergone what was to be her final treatment for a brain tumor at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. She'd been going through this treatment since she was 2 years old. The treatment -- radiation and surgery -- impaired her ability to function: "The brain tumor had left Hannah blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and partially paralyzed," according to The Guardian. When the guards grabbed her arms, the girl pulled away and tried to escape.
"Seeing the scene begin to unfold, Shirley" -- who had a broken foot -- "hobbled to a supervisor standing nearby," the Guardian continues. "'She is a St Jude's patient, and she can get confused,' (Shirley) said. 'Please be gentle. If I could just help her, it will make things easier.'"
Instead, the guards threw Hannah to the ground, smashing her face. Finally, all her mother could do was snap a photo. The girl was taken away -- to jail. Mom and daughter were separated for 24 hours. Hannah finally appeared before a judge. The charges against her were dropped.
A year later, the family filed a lawsuit.
Maybe there's more to the story than this. An airport spokesperson said as much to a local paper. Cause and effect may be more complex than the photo of Hannah's bleeding face that hit the news. But whatever the justification, or lack thereof, for the behavior of the airport security guards, what we have is one more example of Authority -- the nation's security apparatus -- reacting with brute force to a complex social situation. This does not make us safe.
What we have instead is a bureaucratic illusion of safety. James Bovard, in an op-ed column last year in USA Today, called it "security theater" -- a "routine that is far more effective at subjugating Americans than protecting them." He cited, for instance, an NBC story indicating that Transportation Security Administration agents, in June 2015, failed to detect "95 percent of the weapons and bombs smuggled past them by Inspector General testers," seeming to suggest that airport security is almost completely pointless.
I say this not to blame the security personnel. They're doing a difficult job, almost certainly without proper training. And if they're armed, the complexity of their social encounters magnifies exponentially. As I wrote last December, in the wake of a briefly newsworthy police killing:
"In Chicago, a police officer shoots a teenager walking in the middle of the street 16 times, almost as though the gun took control of the officer's consciousness. Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, interviewed recently by Democracy Now, pointed out that, because of budget cuts, only about 20 Chicago police officers have received crisis intervention training.
"My God, budget cuts! In a country that's waging perpetual war and raking in billions from the global sale of weapons. Yeah, the boy had been acting erratically. But real public safety for the city of Chicago would have included safety for Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke.
"I fear we're reversing the evolutionary process. We've surrendered to simplistic, impulsive, fear-based 'safety' and we're reaping the consequences, one broken soul at a time."
We're reaping the consequences, indeed. Security is more than a matter of guns and enemies. As we militarize the illusion of security, more and more we become our own worst enemies.
"We imagine a line between good and evil . . ."
These are the words of Philip Zimbardo, addressing an Association of Psychological Science convention some years ago. He continued: ". . . and we like to believe that it's impermeable. We are good on this side. The bad guys, the bad women, they are on that side, and the bad people never will become good, and the good never will become bad. I'll say today that's nonsense. Because that line is ... permeable."
Zimbardo is the researcher who conducted the famously horrifying Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, in which a group of psychologically healthy male college students were assigned to play the role of prison guards, while another group of college kids were the pseudo-prisoners. Given such power, the guards quickly turned into a collective of sadists. The experiment had to be shut down early. Zimbardo called the phenomenon the Lucifer Effect. Ever since, he's been sounding the warning that ordinary men and women, in a context of too much power (think, for instance, Abu Ghraib), can cross that line and turn into representatives of evil.
And consider, as Bovard pointed out, that an early TSA motto was "Dominate. Intimidate. Control."
This is the context in which I hear, all too clearly, a mom call out, "Please be gentle." And I think about a nation that has no idea how to protect itself.
- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.
More than 2.5 million Americans will head to airports this weekend dreading their encounters with a common adversary: people like Shekina Givens and the other employees of the troubled federal agency she works for, the Transportation Security Administration.
Has Paul Ryan become so disaffected with Donald Trump that he quietly changed political parties, when no one was looking? The Washington Post, in an unrelated story, ran a photo of Orrin Hatch standing next to Ryan with the caption (emphasis added):
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), (L), is flanked by House Speaker Ryan (D-WI), (R), while signing the American Manufacturing Competitiveness Act of 2016, on Capitol Hill May 18, 2016 in Washington, DC
Note that "(D-WI)" in there [the "(R)" which follows it stands for "right," and not "Republican," we should add]. The truly odd thing is that this page hasn't been corrected yet (as of this writing), and it's been up for over a full day.
So when did Paul Ryan secretly become a Democrat? Heh. OK, we know it was just a typo, but still, it's fun to think about, right?
The actual article this amusing photo caption appeared in showed plainly how closed one Republican's mind truly is. A newspaper printed a statement from Hatch that said, in part, "I recently met with Chief Judge Merrick Garland," but that the meeting didn't change his mind on obstructing him in the Senate. The only problem? The meeting hadn't even taken place yet. Orrin Hatch can see the future! Or something. What's really going to be hilarious about the whole Supreme Court nomination fight is when every single Republican who is now blathering on about how the next president deserves to fill the vacancy has to completely flip-flop in a hasty rush to confirm Garland during the lame-duck period -- to deny Hillary Clinton a Supreme Court pick. See, we can predict the future too! We foresee a swamp of hypocrisy awaiting Senate Republicans, which they will fall smack into, the day after the election.
What else? Our introduction is going to be pretty short, since so much of this week's news belongs in the awards section, we should note. Ken Starr, nemesis to Bill Clinton, got a big demotion at his cushy university job this week -- which certainly will put a smile on the face of every Democrat who remembers the 1990s.
It seems even some Republicans are getting seriously annoyed with their fellow party members using the Bible as a political bludgeon, as the House GOP deals with a growing divide within them over the subject of LGBT rights. In a closed-door meeting called by Paul Ryan, freshman Rick Allen of Georgia "read Bible versus calling for the death of homosexuals to argue that a vote in favor of an anti-discrimination amendment was akin to a sin."
Ryan called the meeting in an attempt to deal with the growing number of defections on the issue. Last week a vote was held open on a LGBT amendment so that Republicans could be coaxed into changing their votes. Seven of them still wound up voting for the bill. This week, a similar bill got a whopping 43 Republican votes. The problem for Ryan is obviously getting worse fast. This was the atmosphere for Allen's remarks, which were not exactly welcomed by some Republicans:
Another Republican lawmaker was so upset by Allen's remarks that he stormed out of the room. "A lot of members were clearly uncomfortable and upset," one Republican aide told The Hill.
"It was f---ing ridiculous," an unnamed lawmaker remarked.
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent went on record to criticize Allen's stunt.
"I thought the comments were wildly out of bounds and especially inappropriate given that this was supposed to be a prayer," Dent, who was among the 43 Republicans who voted in support of LGBT rights, told The Washington Post. "I believe it's imperative for the Republican Party to make an affirmative statement on nondiscrimination for the LGBT community and deal with religious liberty."
Now maybe they know what it feels like when a sanctimonious politician uses religion as an attack in the political arena. You could almost hear secularists saying "Welcome to the club!" in the background.
In marijuana news, Republican House member Dana Rohrabacher became the first sitting congressman in three decades to admit illegal (by the federal laws he helps legislate) marijuana usage. And, apparently, it worked wonders:
Two weeks ago, Rohrabacher said, he tried a topical wax-based marijuana treatment. That night, it was "the first time in a year and a half that I had a decent night's sleep because the arthritis pain was gone," Rohrabacher said.
To his credit, the very conservative Rohrabacher has been working across the aisle with some Democrats to -- piece by piece -- dismantle the federal War On Weed.
Speaking of the federal War On Weed, statistics show that federal trafficking convictions are way down -- starting (oddly enough) right when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use. Up to 2011, roughly six million people a year were sentenced under federal law, but this has now fallen to below four million. That's still far too many, but the trend is encouraging.
Recreational weed is also now legal within Washington D.C., which is the only explanation we can come up with for some grade-A idiocy in the Daily Caller this week. All Washington was abuzz with the rumor that Barack Obama had settled on a house to move into after he leaves office. The Daily Caller quickly took the opportunity to point out that the house was (gasp!) less than 1,100 feet from the Islamic Center of Washington. Somebody get the smelling salts, because conservatives are all a-swoon!
The Washington Post, helpfully, then turned the Daily Caller's logic on its head, by pointing out all the various (and nefarious) liberal bastions that were within 1,100 feet of the home office of the Daily Caller itself. The list is hilarious, including such gems as "Aljazeera (!!)" and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Why, the Daily Caller is in serious danger of being influenced by the NAACP, the NEA, the AFL-CIO, and the Human Rights Campaign! In fact, also in their neighborhood is (Are you sitting down, Daily Caller staffers? We wouldn't want any swooning injuries, of course...) none other than the American Islamic Congress.
Pass the smelling salts!
While the group isn't technically a Democrat, we're bending the rules for the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week, because it's such a great idea.
Billed as the successor to the Occupy Wall Street movement, a new organization was announced this week -- one that could wind up being a lot more effective than a bunch of people occupying a park ever was. The Washington Post had the full story:
Capitalizing on populist anger toward Wall Street, a coalition of more than 20 labor unions and activist groups on Tuesday launched a new campaign to reform the financial industry.
The group, Take On Wall Street, plans to combine the efforts of some of the Democratic Party's biggest traditional backers, from the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO to the Communications Workers of America. The group says it will aim to turn the public's lingering anger at the financial sector into policy initiatives that could change the way that Wall Street works.
Among its biggest targets will be doing away with a law that allows private equity managers to pay lower taxes through something known as the "carried interest loophole." These managers receive a share of profits for any gains they create for their clients, and this income is treated as long-term capital gains and taxed at a lower rate.
. . .
Unlike previous anti-Wall Street campaigns such as Occupy Wall Street, the new group hopes to organize a campaign that will span state houses and as well as the halls of Congress, potentially forecasting a big fight on financial reform in 2017.
"We are going to make this an issue in congressional races. No one will be able to run from this," said Richard L. Trumka, president of the labor union AFL-CIO. People are saying "that they are fed up with Wall Street writing the rules."
In addition to the issue of carried interest, the group expects to galvanize support for breaking up the big banks and reviving a version of the Glass-Steagall Act, which prevented the combination of commercial and investment banks. It is also expected to push for a transaction tax, which would force some Wall Street traders, particularly high-frequency traders, to pay a fee every time they buy or sell a stock or bond.
Their timing couldn't have been better, really. Because that sounds an awful lot like the platform Bernie Sanders is running on. Maybe Take On Wall Street can actually achieve some solid results that neither Occupy Wall Street nor Bernie Sanders has been able to. It certainly could be a great place for Sanders supporters to rally, once Clinton wraps up the nomination in a little over a week.
Sanders aside, though, this sounds like a serious effort to build a populist organization, and the Left has always been lacking in such support organizations to further their agenda. The Right has an infrastructure of think tanks and policy advocacy groups that reaches back decades, so it is indeed good to see someone trying to do the same thing for progressive causes. Take On Wall Street is easily our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week, and we wish them well and lots of future success.
[You can support Take On Wall Street by going to their new webpage and signing their petition.]
We certainly had a lot of candidates this week for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. The State Department released their Inspector General's report on Hillary Clinton's private email server, which didn't have any wild new information that wasn't previously known, but was notable for its scathing language. Our guess is it won't help or hurt Clinton much with voters, who have probably already largely made up their minds on what to think about Clinton's emails. The F.B.I. report might do some real damage (whenever it comes out), but the I.G. report didn't seem to have any real bombshell qualities to it.
A Transportation Security Administration top official was forced out of the job, after $90,000 in unjustified bonuses was revealed. But it's not exactly a political job, so we don't think it qualifies for the MDDOTW award. Likewise non-partisan but also very disappointing was the news that the National Park Service is now considering selling off "naming rights" to the highest corporate bidders. This is just flat-out an obscenity, folks. Don't believe me? From the story:
Superintendents could "accept" gifts of $100,000 or up to $5 million with certification, training and other conditions, the policy states. They won't be able to solicit money directly -- that's prohibited for federal employees.
But Reinbold said that "we want superintendents to get more engaged" in the fundraising process, being in the room when outside fundraising groups meet with prospective donors, for example, and acting as experts.
The Park Service is commemorating its 100th year with a $350 million fundraising campaign that for the first time allowed large banners in the parks featuring donors' corporate logos.
Thankfully, some people are fighting back. Because the idea is, once again, an obscenity and an outrage.
"You could use Old Faithful to pitch Viagra," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that's trying to rally the park community to fight the plan. "Or the Lincoln Memorial to plug hemorrhoid cream. Or Victoria's Secret to plug the Statue of Liberty."
Every park-loving citizen should immediately register their own outrage, since this is an idea which must be denounced from the mountaintops, obviously.
But back to politics. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was certainly the "Democratic Lighting Rod Of The Week" this week, as some are pushing for her ouster as Democratic Party chair, partly to smooth things over at the nominating convention. As "one unnamed pro-Clinton Democratic senator" put it: "I don't see how [Debbie Wasserman Schultz] can continue to the election. How can she open the convention? Sanders supporters would go nuts." This same anonymous source also revealed: "There have been a lot of meetings over the past 48 hours about what color plate do we deliver Debbie Wasserman Schultz's head on."
Ouch. This is in the same week that Bernie Sanders endorsed her opponent (in her House re-election primary). Just to rub salt in the wound, Wasserman Schultz received the unwanted endorsement from Karl Rove's super PAC, as well as the Tea Party Express:
Debbie Wasserman Schultz has played a critical role over the past several years in the massive Republican gains we have achieved at the state level, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in the U.S. Senate.
Yikes. All around, it's been a pretty brutal week for Wasserman Schultz.
But there are two better candidates for the MDDOTW award this week, sadly. The first isn't actually a Democratic organization, so reluctantly we've decided not to bend the rules. Even so, the US PIRG organization certainly deserves slamming this week. The group, founded by Ralph Nader to act in the public's best interest (the acronym stands for "Public Interest Research Group"), strongly came out against President Obama's new overtime rules last week. They want an exemption for non-profit groups to force their employees to work over 40 hours a week for low wages, it seems:
Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can't expect those individuals to double the amount they donate. Rather, to cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work -- all while the well-funded special interests that we're up against will simply spend more.
This is nothing more than scaremongering. Public interest groups are always going to be outspent by corporations. It is a sad excuse for overworking the staff. Here's the thing: people are free to volunteer to work for a non-profit, if they so choose. Anyone who does not -- anyone who gets paid for the work -- actually needs that money to live on. Period. So limiting their time to 40 hours a week or else paying them overtime is actually the right thing to do -- especially for an organization that prides itself (from its own mission statement) that it: "stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for our health and our well-being." The hypocrisy is pretty ugly on this one, folks.
But we've saved the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week for a man who made a monumentally stupid and insensitive comment this week. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald -- a person who was brought in because the V.A. was in crisis over waiting times, mind you -- replied in an interview: "When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important? What's important is: what's your satisfaction with the experience?"
This is beyond cringeworthy. Especially as the article also helpfully points out:
Disney, it turns out, does collect and analyze extensive waiting time data, which it considers core to its overall customer experience. The company has a system that manages the information.
Once again: the previous head of the V.A. had to step down because of the waiting time scandal. Dealing with the scandal was job one for the incoming chief. After failing to adequately do so, to be this dismissive of veterans waiting long periods to see a doctor is insulting (and that's the most polite word we could come up with).
Eric Shinseki had to step down for ignoring the wait times. But even he never insulted the people waiting in such a fashion. It's time for Robert McDonald to step down as well, because he obviously doesn't have his priorities straight.
[Contact Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on his official contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 393 (5/27/16)
This week, we're devoting all out talking points to Donald Trump. This could, in fact, become a regular occurrence for the next few months. Trump is an absolute peripatetic gold mine of things to ridicule, flitting from one to the next with the greatest of ease. Since he provides so much fodder, at times the best thing to do is just devote all the talking points to him. Which we will now proceed to do.
Going... going... gone!
"Weren't we all, right about now, supposed to be seeing conservatives boldly giving the voters another choice than Donald Trump? Remember that? It was just a few weeks ago that 'Never Trump!' was the rallying cry of establishment Republicans and conservative true-believers, who were (led by the intrepid Bill Kristol) supposed to mount a third-party bid so that conservative voters would have someone they could vote for (while also voting for all the Republicans down the ballot). A few weeks later, and Trump has wrapped up the delegates he needs for the nomination, Republican politicians are falling all over themselves to board the Trump train, and the 'Never Trump!' folks have quietly disappeared, after every single person they begged to run for president turned them down flat. These people obviously couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag -- no wonder Trump thought the Republican establishment was such a pushover!"
Rubio gets on board
Surely there's room for Little Marco?
"I see Marco Rubio suppressed his own bile and is now openly supporting Trump -- after spending months warning America that Trump was a dangerous person to be anywhere near the nuclear launch button. Rubio could even run for re-election in the Senate, now that he's dropped out of the presidential race, but he shows no interest in doing so. Because of this, he would be perfectly positioned to continue to denounce Trump in the strongest terms, since he doesn't have to be worried about what the voters think. Instead, he just stuck his head so far up Trump's rear end that he bumped into Chris Christie. It's really kind of sad to see the death of all self-respect in so many Republicans, isn't it?"
The holdouts feel the heat
Of course, not boarding the Trump train has its own blowback.
"So I guess New Mexico's governor is out of the running for Trump's veep shortlist, eh? Susana Martinez was seen by some as being the perfect demographic choice for any Republican presidential candidate, since she is a Latina woman -- precisely what the party would need to shore up their already dismal support in those two groups. But by not backing Trump (and refusing to show up at a Trump rally in her state), she got badmouthed in a big way. Trump not only said she's 'not doing the job' of governor, he half-jokingly threatened to run for New Mexico governor himself. That's got to be every Republican's nightmare, at this point."
Art imitating life imitating art. Or something.
"I never thought Fox News could be too in the tank for any Republican, but apparently they just managed to do so. They aired a charming show called 'Meet The Trumps' (boy, you just can't make this stuff up, can you?) which was so sycophantic that conservatives were ridiculing it on Twitter. One even likened it to Pravda, which is about as insulting as it gets for anyone who lived through the Cold War. Looks like Fox is totally in the tank for Trump, although even they probably should dial it back a bit if they've reached Pravda-like levels."
How can you tell Trump is lying?
Anyone with half a brain could see that this was never going to happen. That leaves a lot of the mainstream media out, obviously.
"Bernie Sanders trolled Donald Trump this week, challenging him to a one-on-one debate before California's primary. Trump immediately said he'd gladly debate Bernie. Of course, like so many off-the-cuff things Trump says, this turned out to be a big fat lie. First Trump tried to back away from his promise by holding the television networks hostage for $10 million in charity money (for "women's issues," hilariously enough), and then when a few networks actually took a bite of that apple, Trump decided he just wasn't interested in debating Bernie. It's gotten to the point where there are just too many 'Trump Tells Whopper Of A Lie' headlines -- it'd now be easier if the media instead ran the occasional 'Trump Actually Tells Truth!' stories instead."
His lips are moving, that's how!
Add this one to the list of "Things that would have destroyed any normal politician's chances of being elected, but had no effect on Trump whatsoever." Way, way down there at the end (it's a long list!).
"The last time Trump skipped a debate, he also used the 'let's raise money for charity' dodge, when he was supposed to have raised (in his own words) 'six million dollars' for veterans. The Washington Post decided to look into his claims, months later. Turns out Trump didn't raise anywhere near what he said he had (big surprise -- Trump lies about money all the time), and that Trump had never actually donated the one million dollars out of his own pocket that he promised that night. So he used and exploited veterans as political props, and then stiffed them at the end of the night. Any other presidential candidate who did something this odious would be finished, it's worth pointing out. After Trump heard the Post was digging into the story, he called up a veterans group's head late at night and quickly arranged for the million-dollar donation. How low can Trump go, one wonders. Promising but not delivering money to veterans' groups is about as low and despicable an act as can be imagined -- but there's plenty of time left before the election, so he'll most likely manage to go even lower before it's all over."
A hopeful sign
We saved this one for last, because if true it certainly could be a gigantic ray of hope for Democrats.
"There's a story making the rounds that hasn't gotten much attention outside the Beltway, but really deserves to. Donald Trump is apparently very disdainful of the 'ground troops' necessary in any presidential election. He's apparently planning on running his general election campaign much the same way he ran in the primaries -- lots of tweeting, lots of call-in interviews on cable news, but little-to-no actual 'get out the vote' efforts at all. Now, Democrats are already much, much better at this sort of thing than Republicans (see: Obama's two victories), but the news that Trump isn't even interested in attempting a get-out-the-vote ground-troops effort is delightful news indeed for Democrats everywhere. Not only should this provide a landslide for Hillary Clinton, it could mean taking control of the Senate or even -- say it softly -- the House in November, as well. So I'd like to publicly address Donald Trump, and point out to him that get-out-the-vote efforts are not manly and were dreamed up by some elitist liberal Democrat. Probably Rosie O'Donnell, in fact. Therefore, he should denounce the practice and announce he won't spend a thin dime on such wimpiness in his own campaign."
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Columnists, cranks, and "thought leaders" have long believed they know how to run airlines better than the professionals who get you home safely and reliably. In the past few weeks, we've seen a notable amount of silliness written about the TSA's inability to manage their part of the process. And rather than place responsibility squarely where it belongs, the blamers have taken aim at airlines.
The New York Times' Gail Collins is just the latest, opining that someone should "Make the airlines stop charging fees for checked baggage." Ms. Collins' column is so full of myths and errors that the best response is point by point:
1. She says carry-ons clog the security lines. Fact: Travelers have been carrying on their belongings ever since the 1970s, when airlines began replacing hat racks (folks were no longer wearing fedoras and cloches) with overhead bins and doors -- long before airlines started charging for checked bags. Whether there's a charge or no charge, people prefer to keep their stuff with them, as long as it's not their steamer trunk nor pet elephant.
2. She says bag fees began in 2008 "when the cost of fuel went through the roof." But that's only part of the reason. Older airlines were looking for ways to survive, having lost billions since 2001 and were under siege from new carriers that were never hobbled by five or six decades of intrusive and misguided Federal economic regulation.
3. She says airlines are now earning "stupendous profits." Well, no, they're actually earning the returns that investors expect of public companies. And she's forgotten about the billions in losses a decade ago. American Airlines, for example, lost more than $12 billion in the first decade of the 2000s. More fundamentally, why is it okay for Apple or Google to earn profit margins north of 25%, far greater than airlines, but not okay for American, Delta, or jetBlue? There's an unfair double standard here and in many other aspects of the airline business.
4. She calls fees for checked bags "a scam." But customers don't see it that way. For more than a decade, passengers have told airlines -- in both surveys and actual buying behavior -- that given the choice between cheaper fares plus fees or the old pricing method where everything was included (checked bag, sandwich, etc.) they prefer cheaper prices. (I know this well, because from 2001 to 2006 I led American Airlines' advertising team, and the customer research group was an important part of the group.) If you want more recent evidence, in April the industry group Airlines for America released a survey that found that 67% of respondents said they prefer the a la carte pricing approach. It's like eating in a restaurant: if you don't want dessert, you don't pay for dessert.
5. As part of her "scam" argument, she suggests that fees -- not just for checked bags, but for other services -- are not disclosed. Nope. Airlines put this information on their websites, clearly, and in other media; carriers shouldn't be blamed if people don't take to time to read. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation compels disclosure far more thorough than when consumers shop for other goods and services (another example of the double standard).
6. She says, "The airlines have maximized profits by making travel as miserable as possible." Really? Safe, reliable, fast transport is "miserable"? And in real terms (adjusted for inflation), the average ticket costs almost 40% less than in 1979, including fees. I don't think The New York Times, Ms. Collins' employer, can make that claim for subscribers or advertisers!
7. She says one of the things that makes flying "miserable" is by "squishing people into smaller and smaller spaces." Nope. Seat width has not changed in decades, and seat pitch has been reduced only modestly. Travelers' waistlines? Not so much. Moreover, airline market research consistently tells us that given the choice between lower ticket prices and legroom, customers opt for lower prices. And almost all airlines now offer the "dessert option": you can buy more legroom for 20 or 30 bucks. Just like booking a room at the Marriott: a bigger room costs more. Or like carmakers: you want more rear-seat legroom, you pay more for a bigger car. How can this be so hard to understand?
Ms. Collins did get one thing right: she titled her piece a "ranting." But when it comes to an industry that adds so much value to our economy and to our personal lives, we don't need rants. We need people to understand how the airline business really works, and to discuss realistic ways to help it run better. Helping Ms. Collins, you readers, and others understand airlines is my job as a teacher. You can look forward to more lessons in this space and elsewhere in the months ahead.
Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines (AAL.O) customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday.
A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours.
While TSA is taking steps to shorten lines such as hiring more full-time officers, it lacks the staffing to handle peak travel times this summer, Administrator Peter Neffenger said on Wednesday.
American, the world's largest airline, wants TSA to create a senior internal role focused on traveler concerns, said American Airlines Group Inc Senior Vice President for Customer Experience Kerry Philipovitch. The request comes days after Neffenger shook up TSA's management, removing the head of security operations, Kelly Hoggan.
Philipovitch also recommended that TSA consider reinstating a risk-based screening program that it canceled last year because of high-profile lapses.
In the program, officers trained to detect irregular behavior would pull unsuspicious travelers randomly into "PreCheck" lanes that can process people faster, as they do not remove their shoes and other belongings.
TSA has projected it will screen 740 million people at U.S. airports this year, some 15 percent more than in 2013 despite a 12 percent cut in its staff.
(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Meredith Mazzilli)
A passenger tried to board an airplane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with a camouflaged double-bladed knife shaped like a Batarang Batman would strap to his utility belt. Another was traveling with a prop of a dead body from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
WASHINGTON, May 23 (Reuters) - The head of security for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has been removed from his position, according to an internal TSA memo on Monday seen by Reuters, after the agency was criticized for long lines at airport security checkpoints.
Kelly Hoggan, who had served as TSA assistant administrator for security operations since May 2013, was replaced by his deputy, Darby LaJoye, who will serve on an acting basis, according to the memo from agency head Peter Neffenger.
Long security lines at U.S. airports this spring have frustrated travelers and caused thousands of passengers to miss flights. TSA has blamed the problem on a lack of security screeners and an increase in passenger volumes.
Hoggan came under fire at a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing on May 12 for receiving over $90,000 in bonuses and awards over a 13-month period in 2013-14.
Earlier this month, TSA said it would add screeners at the country's busiest airports.
About 231 million passengers will fly on U.S. airlines from June through August, up 4 percent from the same period last year, according to trade group Airlines for America.
In the memo, Neffenger said TSA is doing a better job of moving passengers through security at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after particularly long lines at the nation's second-busiest airport made national news several weeks ago.
He also said TSA has established a National Incident Command Center at agency headquarters in Washington to track daily screening operations nationwide and shift resources in advance of higher predicted passenger volumes.
A TSA spokesman said the agency does not comment on personnel matters. (Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh)
You've probably already heard horror stories about unusually long TSA security lines at airports, which may only get worse as the summer travel crush adds more travelers. Passengers have been stranded overnight at airports and thousands have missed their flights.
Homeland Security says it's trying to fix this by adding more employees and keeping the ones the TSA already has, but perhaps a better strategy is to privatize security at some airports. After all, foreign governments have long used private security screeners, and their procedures are approved by the U.S. Let's get some competition in the mix and keep private screeners to the highest standards.
Meanwhile, here are some strategies to make sure you don't miss your flight.
Making the flight begins with you
Get to the airport super early, obviously: at the very least two hours before boarding for domestic, three to four hours for international. But it depends on the airport and when you're flying; at Miami when the cruise ships come in, even two hours might not be enough. New York area airports are suggesting three hours during busy times even for domestic flights.
If you hate waiting at airports this might be a good time to splurge for an airline lounge day pass. American, for example, charges $50 for a one-day pass.
We can all help in other ways, too. Make sure you're "clean" long before you get to the security line, that the bottle of Merlot you got during your Napa tour isn't lurking in your carry on. Obey the 100 ml/three ounce liquids and gels rule or you bag will have to be re-scanned, further delaying the line. Ditch the heavy metal: shoes with shanks, belts, watches, phones. Not following the rules makes the lines go even slower.
Here's a radical thought: check your bag. Southwest Airlines allows two free checked bags, or get one of the numerous airline credit cards that entitle you and traveling companions free checked bags. Fewer bags to scan would mean faster lines.
Or maybe the airlines should waive checked bag fees during this crisis, as a couple of legislators have suggested. A sort of fuel rebate. It would help them too because they wouldn't have so many angry stranded passengers to deal with.
Another choice you can make: fly from less busy airports. If you live on Long Island, fly from Islip rather than from JFK, for example. Long Beach usually has shorter lines than LAX, and so on.
Or try to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday when airports are less busy. Some times of the day (such as midday) are slower than during the morning and evening rush, so lines should be shorter.
TSA PreCheck and Global Entry
But perhaps the best advice you already know: sign up for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. I prefer Global Entry because it includes PreCheck and it's good for five years for a $100 fee. Some premium credit cards, such as the Amex Platinum Card, reimburse the fee and Orbitz Rewards platinum members get PreCheck for free.
The TSA needs to do a better job advertising this program. The UK has a program to speed immigration lines and they hand out brochures when you arrive. Why doesn't TSA get the word out?
The only problem with PreCheck is that at some airports the special lines are only open for a few hours a day, again because of staffing shortages. But not only are the lines much shorter than regular TSA lines, you don't have to take out your laptop and liquids, and you can leave your shoes and light jacket on.
Buy your way to the front
Another hack: Buy priority access to TSA lines such as JetBlue's "even more speed," which gives you expedited lines through TSA. United has a similar program called Premier Access, which starts at $15. Delta calls it "Sky Priority" and it's available at select airports.
And although this isn't for everyone, if you really want to make your plane on time and you fly Delta, their VIP Select Service is offered at LAX, JFK, San Francisco, LaGuardia and Atlanta. For $250, on top of any Delta fare, you get escorted to the front of the TSA line and even get a transfer between flights via a private car service on the tarmac, plus other VIP perks such as Skyclub lounge access (book via Delta's VIP phone line at 855-235-9847). American has a similar program but it's only available to business- and first-class passengers.
While U.S. air travelers dealt with indignities that included infuriating airport security lines, the Transportation Security Administration was laughing all the way to the bank.
That's because in 2015 alone, hurried passengers left behind more than $700,000 -- a record -- at airport security checkpoints.
In its annual report to Congress, TSA said it collected $765,759 in unclaimed money during fiscal 2015.
The chunk of change tops 2014's total by nearly $100,000, and is roughly double the agency's 2008 haul of $383,413.
"TSA makes every effort to reunite passengers with items left at the checkpoint, however there are instances where loose change or other items are left behind and unclaimed," the agency said in a statement. “Receipts of unclaimed money are deposited into a Special Fund account so that the resources can be tracked easily and subsequently expended."
At Los Angeles International Airport, passengers left behind $55,086 -- the most of any U.S. airport. Other top grossers were Miami International Airport ($50,956), New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport ($43,716) and San Francisco International Airport ($38,771).
TSA said it will use the forgotten change collected last year to support the expansion of its Pre-Check program, which "provides trusted travelers with expedited security screening for a better travel experience."
Next time you make your way through that TSA checkpoint, give that plastic bin a second glance for runaway quarters. Traveling is too expensive not to.
We don't know if officials can deliver on promises to make airport security lines move faster, but this video taught us how to spice them up.
Some pranksters packed a dildo into their unsuspecting pal's carry-on at Ohio's Akron-Canton Airport recently, and watched the fun when a TSA agent pulled it out.
In a YouTube video posted on May 11, radio personality Will Burge wrote, "My buddy was headed to his bachelor party in New Orleans. It was his first time flying. The thing he was worried about most was airport security...with friends like his he was right to be worried!"
Thankfully, the agent had a sense of humor.
As for our duped passenger, hopefully he remembered to place the dildo back in its full upright position.
If you are familiar with air travel in the United States since 2001, you know you will go through airport security screening by the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Your flight day check list probably goes something like this:
As you approach the security line, you will be slightly ashamed for praying you don't get stuck behind any of the following:
The first time I saw "TSA PRECHK" printed on my boarding pass, I was positive I was being singled out for a strip search and special enhanced interrogation. When I approached the first TSA agent, I asked what this cryptic message meant. She motioned me over to a screening station apart from the one to which my husband was directed. (Uh oh. First enhanced interrogation technique: separation from loved ones).
As I approached the belt for the items to be x-rayed, I reflexively started to kick off my shoes, but the smiling ("smiling" is not a typo) TSA agent told me I didn't have to take off my shoes nor remove my jacket. I didn't have to display my quart size, clear plastic 3-1-1 liquids bag nor remove my computer from my carry on. I just put it on the belt and walked through the magnetometer. I was through the TSA security check in about 30 seconds. Of course, I had to wait for my husband who finally emerged some time later, wondering what had become of me. For our next four flights, we both had the blessed "TSA PRECHK" on our boarding passes and had the "almost like flying in the good old days" treatment.
So, What is TSA PreCheck?
PreCheck is a TSA initiative to provide expedited security screening to "low risk passengers", currently available at 118 U.S. airports. Passengers on the following participating airlines are currently eligible for PreCheck if they meet the other criteria: Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin America.
According to the TSA website, those eligible for TSA PreCheck eligibility include:
There is some static from people who paid $85 to be qualified for PreCheck. They are understandably annoyed that their "expedited" TSA security line is being lengthened by people (such as me) who didn't pay the $85 application fee and didn't go through the hassle of the application process, but are being sprinkled with TSA pixie dust anyway.
TSA was supposedly going to be limiting PreChk to those who applied and were approved; however, I had "TSA PRECHK" on all my boarding passes as recently as this month without going through the official vetting process.
Now for the bad news. TSA is now considerably understaffed, so many security checkpoints don't have any PreCheck lines available. Those with "TSA PreChk" on their boarding pass will get a sticker that only entitles them to wait in the regular, snaking, slow moving line without removing their shoes. Even the regular lines are staffed by insufficient personnel. There is an increasing incidence of people missing flights because of long lines at TSA checkpoints. Flights are also delayed because some of those people already checked in baggage which must be removed before the flight can leave if they don't board the plane.
If you really, really need to get somewhere, get to the airport three hours before your scheduled flight.
(A version of this article first appeared on Boomeresque.)