Upgraded: Our understanding of why airline food sucks
Until now, I’ve always thought the dry cabin air, high salt content, and reheated-ness would have been the primary reasons for the typically underwhelming flavor in inflght meals, but apparently we should also take into account the level of background noise. The low rumble of flight apparently dulls the senses. If true, then, we should be able to test this scientifically. Taste-test the same food with noise-canceling headphones, and then without. Or taste it at the front of an MD-80, then again in the back, right next to the jets. (Maybe this is why food seems better in first class…)

Downgraded: Amex Platinum benefits
As readers have reminded me: Starting September 2011, American Express Platinum cards will no longer give you free access to Continental President’s Club airport lounges. (I thought I had blogged about this in the past, but a quick search proves that memory was fuzzy: I hadn’t actually posted about it, just written about it briefly in the comments to a post about American Airlines Admirals Clubs launching free drinks domestically.) With Continental cutting access to Amex members, I assume this means that United won’t be scrambling to join up, either…

Downgraded: Air marshals from first class
It’s historically been easy to spot the air marshal onboard a flight: The guy with the short hair in an aisle seat in the last row of first class. Maybe not much longer. “Airlines are asking the Federal Air Marshals Service to relax its policy of often seating undercover agents in first class because they say it has become a costly disruption that isn’t justified by current security threats.” Looks like your upgrade chances might improve!

Upgraded: The love of flying
Some people love flying. Really, really love it. Love it enough to build their own airplane in their backyard, even though they never had aerospace engineering training. While I fear for the test flight, I admire this gentleman’s moxie and truly wish him the best of luck.


It’s pretty common knowledge that you don’t want to joke about bombs or weapons at the airport security checkpoint. Or that it’s a bad idea to phone in a bomb threat, because you’re running late and you want to hold the plane. (It’s happened.) But now we can add another lesson to the list: Don’t make sarcastic jokes about blowing up airports on Twitter.

A fellow named Paul Chambers was frustrated with the heavy snows that closed Doncaster Sheffield Robin Hood Airport (great name). He was getting concerned that the delays would ground his own flight one week later. So he hit Twitter with the following comment:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

Dumb? Misguided? Foolish? Clueless? Self-indulgent? All of the above?

No matter what you call it, the British police found it less than charming, and paid Mr. Chambers a visit. He was arrested for making a bomb threat. They confiscated his laptop, phone, and desktop hard drive. And now, he’s been convicted for the lesser (but still serious) charge of section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, for sending an “indecent, obscene or menacing” message. He was not only convicted, harming his career as an accounting, but he had to pay a £385 fine, a £15 “victims’ surcharge,” and another £600 in legal fees. Ouch.

A judge argued that the comment was “of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.” But now, Twitter is full of further menacing messages tagged #twitterjoketrial as a show of solidarity and protest.

I feel bad for the guy. Yes, he was being stupid, “in the context of the times in which we live,” but he wasn’t really threatening anyone. Now, having joked about blowing up an airport, he’s not only a convicted criminal, he’s probably on the no-fly list.

So, is an unfunny joke on Twitter grounds for trial? Is a lame expression of frustration reason for the security apparatus to crack down? Hit the comments!

Categorized in: security

london photographer Upgrades and Downgrades    Dangerous photos, outsourcing, hostels and hotels
An act of terrorism, caught on film.

Downgraded: Tourist photography
The UK authorities’ security obsession is as bad as the US’. Austrian tourists in London were forced to delete photos off their digital cameras because they focused on transportation — buses and a bus station. How pointless. Don’t the bobbies know that any of these landmarks are already already visible on Google Maps StreetView from the comfort of your computer?… Klaus Matzka, the harassed camera-operator, wrote a letter to the editor of the Guardian, in which he asks, “I understand the need for some sensitivity in an era of terrorism, but isn’t it naive to think terrorism can be prevented by terrorising tourists?” Amen.

Upgraded: Hostels
The NYT has a piece on European hostels, and how they’ve improved over the years, reaching out to travelers who want more privacy (e.g., a double room instead of a bunk in a dormitory) and more luxury (if an ensuite bathroom is your idea of luxury… my bar is a tad higher). Remember, though, that no matter what the appointments are and the increase in private rooms, hostels are designed to bring people together. A (good) night’s rest may be coincidental to the social mission, so if you’re not feeling social, hostels are not for you. Maybe I’m a cranky old fart, but I prefer to choose the moments when I want to be social. Subsequently, hostels are not my cup of tea.

Downgraded: Offshore outsourcing
Airline call centers have famously been outsourced to offshore call centers, but as passenger numbers (and call volume) shrink, the size of the call center operation has shrunk alongside. Delta has now announced that they will no longer send calls to India, where they’ve been routing calls since 2002. Delta will also reduce call center operations in South Africa and Jamaica. Like most people, I’ve dealt with international call centers, but my complaint hasn’t ever been about understanding the person on the other end of the line. Acoustically, I could understand them. But on more than one occasion, they couldn’t understand what I wanted to do, or they were unable to perform any but the simplest reservation tasks. I often wondered if these outsourced call centers were costing the company more money (in disgruntled customers) than they saved in salaries and benefits. It took a while, but perhaps that equation has finally tilted back toward better-trained in-house employees. (Via FlightWisdom)

Upgraded: Hotel deals in Tampa
The sharpest hotel rate declines in the US? They’re in Tampa, with a 31% decrease, year-over-year, according to Hotwire.


hi jacker Coming soon? Better recourse for innocent people on the no fly list

Such an unfortunately named device

Good news for travelers who share a name with someone on the no-fly list. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to provide better redress for passengers who mistakenly end up on one of the several terrorist watch lists.

The bill requires Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to establish a “timely and fair” appeal process and provide relief for those wrongly delayed or prevented from boarding a flight.
The bill would also spur the creation of an Office of Appeals and Redress to create a “comprehensive cleared list” of people who’ve been inappropriately added to watch lists or government databases.

The bill passed 413-3. (The three “no” votes: Representatives Broun (GA), Poe (TX), and Westmoreland (GA), all Republicans.) It still needs to go through the Senate, and on to President Obama’s desk. But thankfully, this signals that some changes to the security theater apparatus may actually be afoot.

Separately, a federal appeals court has ruled that the TSA has been collecting too much in fees, and has ordered the agencies to “recalculate the amount of fees it charges air carriers for passenger and baggage screening, a development that the airlines say could save them hundreds of millions of dollars.” Just don’t expect those savings to be passed on to you, the traveler…


Categorized in: security, TSA

man with the golden gun Upgrades and Downgrades    Air marshals, LAvion gets a lounge, Thanksgiving math, and a TP emergencyDowngraded: Air Marshals
In a series of sting operations, several air marshals who were supposed to be protecting passengers inflight were using their free pass in American airports to smuggle cocaine, drug money, and child pornography. Lovely. My favorite part of this story: One marshal called himself “the Man with the Golden Badge.” Racy! Paging Roger Moore to take this guy out! Heck, paging Hervé Villechaize!

Upgraded: L’Avion lounge
When Tyler Colman reviewed the all-business class airline L’Avion for us last year, he commented on their lack of a real lounge at Newark Liberty Airport. That deficiency has been addressed, with the opening of a real lounge in Terminal B, shared by L’Avion and Jet Airways of India.

Upgraded: Thanksgiving Status Quo
Downgraded: Math

Just like last year, 39% of Americans are expected to travel for Thanksgiving, according to a recent poll. But the conclusion that travel will “mirror” last year as a result of comparable traveler numbers? That smells of bad math. Airline capacity is down from a year ago, with fewer planes in the air. Yet the same number of travelers? Look out. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, consider revisiting these holiday travel tips and these five ways to get an edge on fellow travelers.

Downgraded: Toilet paper supplies on Qantas
Here’s a horror story: Trapped on a plane for 24 hours, passengers on board a Qantas flight (from Singapore, diverted to Canberra) had their toilet paper rationed. Four squares per person. Not a square to spare. It’s a tale of absurdity: People on the ground, but unable to deplane, at government orders. But couldn’t they restock the plane’s supplies while on the ground? Bonus points to The Age for their punny headline, “Loo paper rationed on bummer of a diversion.” (rimshot) (Thanks, Rob!)

Upgraded: Concierges on television
“A concierge is the Winnipeg equivalent of a geisha.” So says Michael Scott on last week’s episode of The Office, whose plot centered on business travel. See the full episode here, where it’s available for online viewing until January 15, 2009.

European travelers who have gotten accustomed to traveling to the US without a visa might need to pay closer attention to the negotiations between the Bush administration and the European Union:

American anti-terror chiefs are threatening to withdraw the Visa Waiver Scheme for British and European tourists unless the EU signs an agreement on the new measures before Christmas.

Under the US Homeland Security scheme, all travellers – including children – without a visa must fill out a detailed online questionnaire about their health and criminal history at least three days before departure.

Travellers are currently required to answer similar questions by filling in forms on board transatlantic flights, which are handed to immigration officials when they land.

But from January 12 next year, the Department of Homeland Security wants this information in advance to check its blacklists for terrorists or anyone considered ‘undesirable’.

The system, the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, is already operational on a voluntary basis. (Gluttons for punishment can test drive it here if you really, really want.)

Travelers who actually do use the new system now will be in for a surprise if they show up at the border without a filled-out I-94 form. As this report indicates, the US Customs and Border Service currently collects volunteers’ data, and makes it look like travelers are avoiding an additional step by participating in the online process, but in reality, they’ll still need to fill out the paper forms anyway. Delightful.

So the U.S. government is spreading confusion by offering conflicting and redundant processes for international visitors. And to what end? Have you seen the questions that the form actually asks? For the most part, they’re laughable. Take a look what our governments asks the citizens of the world:

i 94 questions American efforts to tick off international travelers continue apace

“Moral turpitude”? How very specific, and not at all relativistic.

Thankfully, this procedure keeps drug-using, diseased, terrorist Nazi ex-con kidnappers looking for work out of the United States. At least, it keeps the scrupulously honest ones, who fill out the form, out.

Why would anyone — even a guilty party — answer “yes” to any of these questions? Do these forms actually catch anyone? And if they’re genuinely threatening people, what’s more important: Keeping them out of the country, or catching them at the border?

At the end of the day, the federal government is willing to tick off thousands of international visitors (and their currency, I might add) over a stricter enforcement of these Mickey Mouse questions. And I don’t mean the Disney-organized pro-customer service PR blitz. What would the mouse think?

Categorized in: security